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They said it was going to be as good as ever, but it wasn't. You could see that by the end of the first week of practice. They'd stuck it back on, all right, and it looked like a leg, but something was gone. McGilvray, who's probably the best T-formation quarterback that ever lived, was handing the ball off a half stride ahead of me. We'd played together two years in college and five in the pros, so he knew where I was supposed to be. I did too, but I wasn't getting there. About the tenth time they unpiled the beef off us after the fumble he spat out some topsoil and said, "We're just a little rusty yet, Harlan. Maybe I'm leading you too much."
"It could be, dear," I said. I knew better.
The next time he handed the ball off to me where I was, instead of where I was supposed to be, and two rookies smeared me back of the line. Not the Cleveland Browns; just rookies trying out. It went on that way. When they ran off the pictures looking for the missed blocking assignments, you could see it wasn't that at all. They open it up for you, but they don't guarantee to keep it dredged out all summer like a ship channel. When you're a half stride slow in the National Football League you're an old lady trying to walk up Niagara Falls with a crutch; they run down your throat faster than you can spit out your teeth. The old man gave me every chance in the world, and even tried me out in a defensive spot before he let me go, but it was no use. I couldn't pivot and swing fast enough to go with the play even when I saw it coming, and they ran through me like B-girls through a sailor's bankroll. I'd racked up a lot of yardage for him in five seasons and he didn't like it any better than I did, but in the pros when you haven't got it any more you're out of anything to sell. He came in when I was cleaning out my locker the last afternoon and even became emotional to the extent of lighting the cold cigar they said he'd had in his mouth since the flying wedge went out of style.
"Rough," he said. "Like a cob."
"Yeah," I said: "But cheer up. That colored boy can carry it for you. He runs pretty good."
"In three years he'll run pretty good. And then maybe some goddam drunk'll knock his leg off. But I meant you. You got any plans?"
"No," I said.
"Ever think of coaching?"
"I've already got a crock leg," I said. "What do I want with ulcers?"
"You'd have had five more years. At least."
"Yes," I said. "At fifteen thousand a year."
He grunted. "Maybe." He took the cigar out of his mouth and threw it fifteen feet across the room where it hit the wall and bounced into the urinal. "Drunks," he said.
I went back to the hotel to pack and check out. Four or five sports writers were hanging around the lobby. They slapped me on the back and told me how I'd be back next season and the leg would be fine and I'd rack up a six-yard average. I said, "Sure, sure," and after a while I got away from them and went up to the room. I undressed for a shower, and looked at it. It had knitted all right; I didn't even limp. It didn't feel awkward or look any different from the other one except for some scar tissue. It was just great, except that it wasn't worth a damn any more. The only thing I'd ever owned in my life was a mechanism that ran like something bathed in oil and now it had been smashed and when they put it back together something was gone. Maybe there isn't any name for it, actually. The medics will give you a song and dance about co-ordination and instantaneous response and frammis on the updike, but I don't think they know either. The nearest you can come to it is that it's a smooth surge of power from dead standstill to full speed in about three strides, and you either have it or you don't. If you have it, you can sell it—or at least you can until you get past thirty or thirty-two and it begins to slow down on you. I'd taken a short cut. A drunk sideswiped me and knocked me off the highway and when I quit rolling I was sitting in a ditch holding a Buick convertible in my lap. I thought of five more years and sixty to seventy thousand dollars doing the only thing I had ever liked or was any good at, and my hands knotted. I swung my fist at the leg and knocked it off the luggage stand where it was propped. The big lump of muscle on the calf ridged up and hurt as I walked into the shower. I stared bleakly at the white tile wall while the water poured over me. The dirty, sad, drunken, son—There wasn't even any use cursing him. He was dead. He'd been killed in the same wreck.
I checked out before the squad came in from practice, caught a bus into Los Angeles, and sat around the airport until I could get on a plane going east. I didn't really know where I was going, and didn't care. I got off in New Orleans and for one of the few times in my life I went on a binge myself. It was a honey and lasted a week; when I began to come out of it I was in a motel somewhere on U.S. 90 out toward the Mississippi line with a girl named Frances. I never did know her last name and couldn't figure out where she'd come from or how we'd got away out there unless they'd put us off a bus, but it didn't seem to matter. She knew nothing about football and cared less, and had never heard of me, which was fine, but she drank like somebody trying to finish a highball while a cab was waiting outside with the meter running. She seemed to think something terrible was going to happen to her if she ever sobered up. The third morning I got up while she was still asleep and caught a bus back to town. I didn't know what the answer was yet, but drinking wasn't it. I went over to Galveston and swam in the surf and lay in the sun on the beach until I'd cooked the booze out of my system. The fourth day I was there Purvis caught up with me.
I was staying at one of the beach hotels and was just coming in through the lobby in swim trunks and a terry cloth robe late in the afternoon when a man reading a paper in one of the chairs got up and came toward me. He caught me just as I stepped into the elevator.
"John Harlan?" he asked.
"That's right," I said. "What can I do for you?"
"Purvis," he said. "Old Colony Insurance."
"Save yourself a trip," I cut him off. "I don't need any." But the elevator boy had already closed the door and we were going up.
Purvis shook his head. "I don't sell it. I'd just like to talk to you a few minutes, if you don't mind."
I shrugged. "You an adjuster?" I couldn't see why they'd be pawing through it now. The whole thing had been settled five months ago.
"Investigator," he said.
I looked at him then, for the first time, and knew I'd seen him somewhere before. He was about five-ten, and slender, with a built-in slouch, and appeared to be around forty although the hair showing under the beat-up old felt hat was completely gray. His clothes looked as if he dressed by jumping into them from the top of a stepladder. You wouldn't have given him a second glance, unless the first one had been at his face. It was thin and gray and a little tired, but there was a deadly efficiency about it you couldn't miss even if you were half asleep. The eyes were gray too, and as impersonal as outer space. I remembered then where I'd seen him before.
"You came to the hospital," I said.
The elevator stopped and the doors opened. I led the way down the corridor, unlocked the door, and stood back for him to go in. The room was on the south side, with a window looking out over the Gulf, but there was little breeze and it was breathless and hot. It was just at sunset and the piled masses of cloud to seaward were fired with red and orange, some of which was reflected back into the room to give it a strange, wine-colored light. He sat down in the armchair near the door, took off his hat and dropped it on the carpet, and fished a pack of cigarettes from the side pocket of his coat. I tossed the robe over the bed and when I turned he was watching me. I walked over to the dresser beyond the foot of the bed and picked up my own cigarettes. As I lit one and dropped the match in a tray I caught sight of him again, in the mirror, and he was still staring at me. It was obvious and deliberate, and he didn't seem to care at all. I felt like a girl on a runway, and began to get hacked.
He blew out smoke and leaned back in the chair. "Stacked," he said. "Walk back here again."
"You that way?" I said. "Beat it."
He shook his head indifferently. "I'm not trying to make you. Just want to see how you walk."
"Why?" I asked.
I came back and sat down on the bed with the cigarette. He watched me utterly without expression, and then he shook his head again. "You're a screwed duck."
"That's news?" I asked.
"No jury in the world would give you a nickel, even if you hadn't already signed a waiver. Take a look at yourself. You got any idea how far you'd get trying to look smashed-up and pathetic to twelve average Joes with pots and fallen arches? They'd laugh like it was the Berle show."
"You just came over to cheer me up, is that it?" I said. "I know all that. And I have signed the release, or waiver, or whatever you call it—"
"What did they give you?"
"Five thousand," I said. "And the hospital bills."
"You took the short end, pal."
"In another year or two I might have figured that out myself. Look. The leg had healed perfectly. I was up and walking. Not even a limp. The medics said it was as good as ever—"
"And when you reported for practice, it wasn't? You'd slowed down?"
"It's not measurable," I said. "The only way you can tell it is by trying to run through eleven pros who haven't slowed down. You can figure it out then while they're walking around on your face five yards back of where you should have been. It's nothing you could prove to anybody. X-rays wouldn't show it."
He nodded, and moved his hands. "Motion is a thousand signals, and a thousand movements, linked. One square corner anywhere, and you break it up and the flow is gone. You're not a professional athlete any more; you're just another taxpayer with two arms and legs. There's no shortage."
"So why keep kicking it around?" I asked. "The whole thing was settled months ago." Then I thought of something. "What's the name of your outfit again?"
"Old Colony Life."
"Hell, that wasn't the company—"
"No. Of course not. I thought you understood that. We didn't have anything to do with the liability he carried on the car. That was some California company."
"Then what's the angle? How'd you get in the act?"
"Life insurance. About a hundred thousand worth."
I stared at him, puzzled. "I don't get it."
He sighed. "Cannon was insured with Old Colony—"
"I read you," I said. "That far. But what about it? He was insured. He's dead. You pick up the tab. Looks cut and dried to me. I figure he cost me fifty to seventy-five thousand, depending on when and if I might have got hurt in the natural course of events, playing. And now he's cost you a hundred grand. That's a pretty good night's work for one souse, but I don't see what either of us can do about it how unless maybe we send out for a box of Kleenex and have a good cry."
"I'd just like to ask you a few questions. If you don't mind."
I shrugged. "Go ahead. But I don't see how there can be much room for doubt he's dead. He was buried while I was there in the hospital."
"I know. Just say we're still a little curious as to how he died."
I stared at him. "Don't you read the papers?"
"Only the funnies. And today's horoscope."
"Everybody knows how he died. He was killed in the wreck when he sideswiped me and knocked me off the road."
"Sure. I know. I read the Highway Patrol report. I talked to the officers. I talked to the doctor. I talked to the other witnesses that were there when they untangled him from the wreck. I talked to you in the hospital. Now I'm talking to you again. It's a living."
"You don't believe he was killed in the wreck?"
"I didn't say that, did I?"
"Routine, Harlan. Any time a policy-holder dies violently, without witnesses right at the scene—"
"Bat sweat," I said. "Five months after it happened, and you're still poking around in it. Why?"
"We never close a case until we're sure."
"Well, look. He must have been alive when he passed me. I never heard of a corpse driving a car, even the way he was driving it. And when they took him out of it he was dead, with his head caved in. What else do you want?"
"I don't know," he said. "Suppose you tell me the whole thing again, the way you did at the hospital?"
"Sure," I said. "You figure maybe I walked over and knocked his roof in while I was pinned down with a crushed leg under a four-thousand-pound convertible? I'll admit I was a little put out about it—"
He shook his head. "The whole thing, as nearly as you can remember it."
I sighed and lit another cigarette. "All right. It was just after dark. I was coming into town from that fishing cabin where I was camping, to see a movie. A mile or so after I got out on the pavement, from the dirt road coming out of the swamp, a car came up behind me, going very fast. I was doing fifty, so he must have been clipping it off around sixty-five. There was no other traffic on the road, nobody in sight at all, so he had all the room in the world to pass me and then pull back into the right-hand lane, but instead he cut right in across my left front fender and knocked me off into the ditch. The car rolled a couple of times with me on the floorboards, but on the last one I fell out—the top was down—and then it teetered on two wheels and fell back on top of me. He crashed, too. Just as I was going up and over the first time—while I was diving for the bottom—I saw his headlights swing in a big circle like somebody waving a flashlight around with his arm. Not that I was particularly interested in what happened to the sad bastard at the moment, but it's just one of those things that register on your mind in the middle of everything, for some reason. I don't know how long it was before they got there with the wrecker and pulled the car off me, but it seemed like about two average lifetimes. I was out cold, at least part of the time."
"But not all of it?"
"And his car had come to rest against a culvert about a hundred yards ahead of you?"
"So they told me later."
"Did you hear anything during the time you were conscious?"
"Such as what, for instance?"
"Cars going by, people talking, anybody moving—"
"No. Believe me, pal. I was never lonelier in my life."
"Nothing at all? You didn't hear anything?"
"Just night sounds. You know—frogs, things like that. And something dripping. I remember hoping it wasn't gasoline."
I could see the disappointment in his face. "That's all?"
"That's all I remem—No. Wait. Once I thought I heard him moaning or trying to call for help, from the other car."
He made a little gesture with his hand, and something in his eyes told me that was what he'd been fishing for all the time. "You said the same thing before. You really think you heard him moan, or cry out?"
"I think so."
"You can't be any more positive than that?"
"You ever been knocked out?" I asked.
"Then you know how it is. It's all fuzzy afterward, especially if you were in and out several times. You don't know how much of it you might have dreamed."
He nodded. "But there is a chance you did hear him? Remember, you've told me twice, just the same way."
"Sure," I said. "But what of it? What difference does it make if he did groan or something?"
"You see the pictures of his head?"
"I didn't want to see any pictures of his head. I had pictures of my own."
"I thought not," he said. "I saw them. He didn't make any noise, believe me."
"Then I must have imagined it."
He grunted. "Maybe."
I got it then, but before I could say anything he abruptly changed the subject. "You ever meet his wife? Widow, I mean."
"She never did come to see you in the hospital?"
"No. Her lawyer, and the insurance joker. That's all."
He looked thoughtful. "Did that ever strike you as a little odd? I mean, her husband crashes into you and lays you up in the hospital for weeks and she doesn't even bring you a bunch of violets. They established the fact the wreck was entirely Cannon's fault, she didn't know but what you might sue the estate for steen million dollars, and still she wouldn't waste half an hour going out to the hospital to butter you up a little."
"As I said, her lawyer did."
Excerpted from The Big Bite by Charles Williams. Copyright © 1956 Charles Williams. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted April 10, 2013