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Jack slapped his gloves on the table and stomped over to the refrigerator. He needed to shuck his driving uniform, get under a cool shower and scrape the grime off his sweaty body. But first he needed a drink. A twoand-a-half-hour, four-hundred-mile race left him as dehydrated as a prune. He grabbed a lime-flavored sports drink, twisted off the cap and drank so greedily some of the green liquid dribbled down the sides of his mouth. At the moment he didn't care.
He'd gone into this last race of the season with high hopes after winning the number three position in the qualification round on Friday afternoon. His car, Number 424, had been running in top form. Everything seemed set for Victory Lane and the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Championship, and he needed a win badly. His last two seasons hadn't gone especially well, to the point where pundits were beginning to wonder if Jack Dolman, three-time NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Champion, might be getting ready to hang it up. At fifty he was an old-timer in a sport that saw most of its players in their twenties and thirties.
No, dammit, he wasn't ready to call it quits, not yet.
He'd been racing cars of one sort or another for forty years. As far as he was concerned, they'd have to pry him out from the driver's seat and probably bury him with the steering wheel still clutched in his cold, dead fingers. But simply being an "also ran" wasn't good enough. It never had been. He had to win. That was why he raced.
He heard footsteps coming down the aisle of the 18-wheeler between the tool bins toward the lounge. Haulers were off-limits to reporters, but occasionally one, usually an eager novice, would violate the rules and have to be asked to leave. Jackpeeked around the corner. Cal. That was all right.
Caleb Farnsworth had been his crew chief for more than two decades. Ten years Jack's senior, he'd been something of a father figure in the early days, but the relationship had evolved over time so they were more like brothers now. There wasn't much one didn't know about the other.
"Rough break," Cal said, as he entered the cramped lounge. He went to the refrigerator, got out a small can of tomato juice, pulled the soft silver tab off the opening and took a long sip.
"Barney all right?" Jack asked.
"Fine. His car's history, but the medics gave him a clean bill. A small abrasion on his cheek. Nothing that won't take care of itself in a few days."
The pileup that resulted when Barney Constantine lost a wheel, slid up against the outside rail and bounced back into the pack behind him was nothing short of spectacular. He'd then been rammed by two other cars and bulldozed into the infield where he rolled four times before finally coming to a halt upside down. The media would no doubt be showing the video many times over the next few weeks and months. Fortunately the safety features built into NASCAR stock cars were such that it wasn't uncommon nowadays for drivers to walk away from even more scary crashes.
Cal sat on one of the gray vinyl-covered couches, threw an arm across the back and balanced one ankle on the other knee.
"You happen to look at the bottom of page three?" Jack knew what he was referring to and had been expecting the question since he scanned the Greensboro newspaper in his motor home that morning over his first cup of coffee.
"I saw it." He took another long glug of his drink.
Cal didn't seem shocked by the answer or its terseness. "Why not?"
"Why should I? It's not like we were friends."
Cal examined the tomato juice can in his hand, took another sip and gazed up at this friend.
"She was the only wife you ever had, Jack. But she isn't really the point, is she? Funerals aren't for the dead. They're for the living, and the living in this case is your son, the son you haven't seen in twenty-five years."
"And whose fault is that?"
"A little late for the blame game, don't you think? Lillah's dead, Jack. It's a hackneyed phrase, but she can't hurt you anymore."
He was tempted to say she would never stop hurting him, but why bother? He'd lost that argument a quarter of a century ago when she left him, taking their son, his son, with her.
"The service is Tuesday."
Jack shrugged. The truth was he was sorry she was dead, not because he had any feelings for her, no positive ones, at least, but because even after all these years he still wanted her to tell him why. What had he done to make her toss him aside like so much road debris?What offense had he committed to warrant having his son torn from his life?
He also wondered if she would have told him she had no regrets, that she'd done the right thing. How could it have been right to take a child from his father, a father who loved and cherished him, then give him to another man?
But he knew it was all futile. Unless Lillah had changed dramatically over the past two and a half decades, which he seriously doubted, she wouldn't have given him a completely honest answer anyway.
In truth it had never been about the boy, never been about Jack. It had been about Lillah. Everything had always been about Lillah.
"I'll go with you, if you like," Cal offered, because he was a friend, and because he knew how painful it would be for Jack to face the son he hadn't seen since the boy was four years old.
"I said I'm not going." Jack tossed the empty plastic jug into the recycle bin and headed for the door.
He entered his motor home and immediately began stripping off his smelly uniform. Yes, he'd seen the article. The paper was still sitting on the kitchen island folded with the notice centered. It wasn't long. It wasn't elaborate, just a formal statement that a funeral service would be conducted at Faith Chapel on the outskirts of Greensboro for Lillah Rendisi, née Neace, widow of the late European Formula 1 race car driver, Antonio Rendisi. Mrs. Rendisi, the article said, passed away two weeks ago at her villa outside Florence where she had been living for many years, but she had requested interment in the Neace family plot with her parents. It noted that she was survived by her son, Johnny Rendisibut didn't mention Johnny's birth father was Jack Dolman, three-time NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Champion.
Depositing his soiled clothes in the hamper in his marble-tiled bathroom, Jack stepped into the shower and turned on all the jets. The initial blast of tepid water on his sweat-stained skin always felt like a reward after a race. He gradually raised the water temperature as he lathered up.
He'd met Lillah when they were both still in high school. He was racing street cars back then, souped-up jalopies that didn't look like much and had more exposed bondo than paint. Some of them were literally held together with baling wire. Their power trains frequently weren't much better. As for tires they weren't really slicks; they were just bald.
Jack poured shampoo into his hair and massaged it in. Crazy daysand dangerousbut there was an excitement about them that couldn't be surpassed. Each driver had built his own car with money he'd begged, borrowed and worked his butt off for, sacking groceries or delivering newspapers, mowing lawnswhatever it took to buy a new part, a carburetor rebuilding kit or a new set of spark plugs. A driver knew his car, every flaw and quality it possessed, because he had built it himself, installed each of the parts, tuned it by sound and instinct, tested it on back roads and improvised dirt tracks.
When If he won a race, he was as surprised as the people who stood by and cheered, and for the next week or until the next race, whichever came first, he was "The Champ."
Nobody kept scores or records. There were no write-ups in the local papers, no radio or TV interviews, no sponsors. There weren't any trophies, either, just the satisfaction of knowing he'd beat the other guys.
Lillah had gone to all the drag races, wearing her skimpy, tight halter tops and low-slung, clinging jeans. Every teenage male who saw herand she was hard to missdeveloped hormonal problems that plagued him for the rest of the day. Jack wasn't immune, but he already had a girl, a girl who happened to be Lillah's best friend. Then Margaret decided she liked dating a musician better than a race car driver, and Jack suddenly found himself free and brokenhearted. Lillah offered consolation. Well, what was a guy to do?
He was beginning to win more consistently by then and earning a reputation as a formidable contender. Word was spreading, as well, that he was on his way to the big time. Even before he graduated from high school, Charlie Hanks, who owned the biggest truck stop in the county, had offered to sponsor him in a couple of American Short Track Racing Association-sanctioned competitions. He didn't come in first, but he made a good enough showing that Charlie had been willing to stick by him. Eventually he won a few races, more doors began to open, and he was able to advance to the NASCAR Busch Series.
He wasn't an instant winner there, either, but he did all right. People with deeper pockets started bankrolling him. He still wasn't making a whole lot of money, but the prospect seemed closer that someday he could.
Then Lillah announced she was pregnant.
He was nineteen. So was she. Her mother prayed; her father got drunk. His parents insisted they were too young and too immature to be parents. They were right, of course, but as far as he was concerned, there was only one honorable thing to do. He married her.
The marriage was rocky from the start. She blamed him for the spot she was inas if she'd had nothing to do with it. She complained about the ugliness and discomfort of being fat and pregnant. The pain of childbirth. The horror of having to change diapers. He saw only that he had a son.
If it hadn't been for Johnny, Jack would have asked for a divorce, but for Johnny's sake, Jack toughed it out. Things would settle down, he told himself, and for a while they seemed to. He was spending more time in Victory Lane, and Lillah was receiving more attention as the wife of a winner and the mother of his adorable child. Jack wasn't earning enough for them to live luxuriously yet, but their circumstances were improving.
The last thing Jack had expected was competition from another race car driver, and an open-wheel driver at that.
He and Lillah met Formula 1 champion, Antonio Rendisi, at Indianapolis. The Italian heartthrob was in the States on a tour, checking outAmerica's version of Grand Prix racing. Lillah insisted on getting his autograph.
Standing amid a throng of mostly women admirers the tall, twenty-four-year-old bachelor gazed down at Lillah, took her hand and kissed it. He said "bellissima" and called her "cara," then told her in his smooth, elegantly accented English she was one of the most beautiful women he had ever met. Lillah left, reluctantly, in a daze.
The three of them met again at Daytona the following week. What Jack didn't know was after that his wife kept meeting the Italian playboy privately when Jack was off preparing for races and trying to attract more and bigger sponsors. Four months later, his American tour complete, Rendisi returned to Italy. A month after that, while Jack was in Texas winning his third race in a row, Lillah and four-year-old Johnny were on an international flight to Rome.
Turning off the shower, Jack opened the stall door, grabbed a fluffy towel from the heated bar rack and dried himself off. Tomorrow he'd go to the gym and work outhard. Maybe get Tony to give him a muscle-pounding massage to help relieve the tension.
He didn't hate Lillah anymore, he decided as he dressed, at least not to the depth he had back then. What was the point of hating the dead? But if she were alive he wouldn't go to see her, not after twenty-five years, so why attend her funeral service?
Except, dammit, Cal was righthis son would be there. The son he had loved. The son he still loved. The son who, for all he knew, had completely forgotten him.
But how would Jack know if he didn't meet the boythe mannow? And when he did, what would he say? "Hi, you probably don't remember me, but I'm your father."