On a long hill just outside of Corsicana, Ben first noticed that he was losing power. Stepping on the accelerator felt like stepping on air. His speed dropped from sixty-five to fifty-five and then to fifty. Two pickups and a small Accord with an A&M sticker in the rear window zoomed past him. Once he got to the top of the rise, everything kicked in again; there wasn't a trace of a problem.
The moon shone over empty winter pastures and the drained swampland along the Trinity River. Katy and both children were asleep. He'd hoped to get back to Austin early enough to at least look over his lecture notes for the next day, but saying good-bye to Katy's family after a long vacation was not a simple thing.
For years they'd been spending Christmases on Katy's family's farm in Mississippi. There was no place in the world where Katy felt freer. The kids took care of themselves, roaming with their cousins, riding horses, going on long Jeep rides over the fields.
The family all gathered for the holidaybrothers, sisters, relatives from Boston and Chicago. Contrary to the nearly universally held opinion of Mississippi as a bastion of the unenlightened, these gatherings were as cosmopolitan as any Ben had ever experienced; there were folklorists and screenwriters, Harvard cardiologists and painters from Venice Beach. Sometimes it seemed as if meals for twenty were being prepared nonstop, but Katy loved it, working in the kitchen with her mother, organizing a piñata party in the garage for all the kids, black and white, who lived along the road, taking long walks through the pastures with her sister.
Their life in Austin seemed so small in comparison. On the long ride through Louisiana and East Texas, a quietness would settle over Katy, and Ben always felt an unacknowledged reproach in that quietness.
He heard someone stir. Glancing in the rearview mirror, he saw Matt shift under his quilt and throw his arm across his eyes, trying to go back to sleep. The headlights flashed across a shack with a hand-painted sign for barbecue tacked above the door; the place looked as if it had been closed for years. The van's tires hummed on the asphalt. He reached down into the sack next to his seat and fished out a couple of stale gingersnaps. He turned on the radio and flipped through the evangelists and the oldies stations, trying to keep himself alert.
Then, on a long incline ten miles east of Mount Calm, it happened again: the accelerator suddenly going soft as a beanbag chair, the van slowing downsixty, fifty, fortyand this time the motor began to backfire. Katy woke up and turned sleepily to him.
"Is everything okay?"
"Everything's fine," he said. Ben was a man who kept his worries to himself.
As soon as they hit the top of the hill all difficulties vanished; once again the van was running like a top. Katy was asleep in another minute, but Ben was utterly awake.
This was all they needed. Maybe it was something small, a dirty carburetor filter, but when was it ever small? The van had 105,000 miles on it and they couldn't afford a new one, but the truth was, they couldn't afford a three-hundred-dollar repair bill either.
Every time something like this happened, it seemed to push them to the brink. In his twenties and thirties, Ben had never thought about moneymore or less what you'd expect from a scholar whose specialty was the transcendentalistsbut now, in his forties, trying to raise two children on a thirty-thousand-dollar-a-year salary, it was all he thought about.
There wasn't an ounce of trouble the rest of the way. In the blackest of moods, Ben sped up the ramp onto I-35 at Waco, merging fearlessly with the thundering trucks and the shiny-bright sedans of returning college students.
They pulled up in front of their yellow two-story house in South Austin a little after ten and roused the sleeping children. As he shoved open the front door, Ben heard the slither of two weeks' mail piled inside. He carried the two heaviest suitcases into the bedroom and checked the phone messages. There were a couple of invitations to New Year's parties they'd missed and a half dozen calls from the kids' friends, but it was always less than you'd hoped for.
The kids handled coming back better than he and Katy did. After a couple of trips to the car to help carry things in, Abby was soon ensconced on her bed reading Sassy magazine and Matt was settled at his computer, installing the newest version of Wing Commander, which his uncle had given him for Christmas.
When Ben came into the kitchen with the soggy sackful of snacks and half-eaten apples, Katy was already on the phone with her mother, letting her know they'd arrived safely. Ben put the boxed fruit juices in the refrigerator, unlocked the back door, and stepped outside.
It was cold, and a wind had come up; the weatherman had said they could expect a freeze. The moon, shining through the gnarled branches of the live oaks, cast ghostly shadows on the brick patio.
He retrieved the sack of cat food from the toolshed and poured some of it into Dusty's metal dish. He gave a low whistle, rattling the bowl. When there was no response he called out three or four times. Still there was nothing. He unlocked the patio gate and went around the side of the house, calling as he went. Dusty had a habit of disappearing over Christmas vacation. It was her way of punishing them for abandoning her.
He left the dish of cat food on the back steps and went inside. Katy was still on the phone with her mother, so he went into the bedroom to use the other line. He called Alice, the ten-year-old down the block they paid a dollar a day to feed Dusty while they were away.
Alice hadn't seen the cat in three days, and she sounded as if she was near tears about it. "I put food out every day, just like you told me, and petted her," she said. "I don't know what could have happened . . ."
"But, Alice, when you came over in the morning, was the food gone?"
"No. Not for the last couple of days." Ben's silence only set her off again. "I'm really sorry, Mr. Lindberg. My dad and I went out looking for her yesterday . . ."
"It's not your fault, Alice," he said. "Please. It's just something Dusty does."
When Ben went back into the kitchen, Matt was hunched over a bowl of cereal and Katy stood at the stove making a grilled cheese sandwich for Abby. They wanted to know whom he'd been talking to, and when he told them the story, Abby was vociferous. He had to go out and look for Dusty. What if the Doberman that lived across the street had gotten hold of her? Their poor cat could be dying under some woodpile. Ben tried to argue that Dusty would probably show up in a day or two like she always did, but it was hopeless arguing. He was outvoted three to one.
Flashlight in hand, he jogged down the front steps and out across the yard. At ten-thirty, most of the houses were already dark.
They lived in a strange nonneighborhood cut up by too many church parking lots. Their house was the nicest one on the block, a two-story Victorian, but they, like their neighbors, were renters. The man next door was a carpenter who seemed to split his time between working on his boat in his driveway and smoking dope with the musician who lived on the other side of him. Across the street was the woman with the Doberman. As he passed under her windows, Ben could hear her arguing with her boyfriend; at least once or twice a month the police would come by.
He and Katy had found the house on a whirlwind three-day trip to Austin four years ago, right after he heard that he'd been hired. They took the house because it had lovely porches, the rent was cheap, and it let them take their time looking for a place to buy. Four years later they were still here, caught in the financial no-man's-land between an academic salary and a booming Austin real estate market.
As he moved along the street, he fanned the flashlight under the cars, along the gravel driveways, calling the cat's name. In the parking lot of the Baptist church a couple sat in a dark car talking.
When he got to Congress Avenue, he stopped for a moment and stared down the long hill at the state capitol, all lit up a mile away. The wind blew a loose sheet of newspaper against the wall of the abandoned feedstore across the street. There was no one else out. It was too cold even for the streetwalkers who used the motels a few blocks down.
It was the third of January, the week for ponderous editorials and special "The Year in Pictures" editions of all the slick periodicals; it was the time for taking stock. Ben was by nature an optimist, someone with both the knack and the inclination to cheer people up, but if someone had forced him to speak the truth, the truth was that things were not good.
Katy was finishing her teaching certification, but even with a second teacher's salary they still weren't going to be able to touch the kinds of houses Katy had her heart set on. It went beyond money; somewhere along the line some essential hope had been dimmed, if not extinguished. They were losing ground in more ways than one, and they both knew it.
Turning to head home, he caught a bit of motion from the corner of his eye. On the far side of Congress Avenue a low-slung gray cat slipped silently over the curb.
"Dusty?" he called out.
The cat stopped for a moment, head raised, and then ran, squeezing under the abandoned feedstore. Ben hesitated. It probably wasn't Dustyall gray cats looked alike anywaybut he had promised the children, and it was a cold night. He didn't want to be responsible for the animal freezing to death.
He crossed the street, trotting ahead of a city bus wheezing up the hill. The two or three passengers looked, in the fluorescent light, like children of the damned. The feedstore had been closed for more than nine months. A for sale sign still hung in the window. It was amazing that the store had stayed open for as long as it had. Thirty years ago this had been the edge of town. People had pastured their horses where St. Edward's University now stood, but Austin had exploded since then and the store had been reduced to an anachronism, a curious relic.
He had taken the kids inside once or twice before it closed; it was a wonderful place, with chicks and rabbits for sale, screwworm medicine and liniment on the shelves, a big brass cash register, and barrels full of everything under the sun.
He moved around the outside of the long stone building, whistling, calling the cat's name. He knelt at a place in the wall where the stonework had broken away and shone the light into a shallow washed-out burrow, but there was nothing there. He stood up and shone the flashlight in through one of the dirty windowpanes. He was about to give up when he heard a long, distressed moan.
The sound had come from under the building and it sounded as if the cat was trapped. He called Dusty's name again and there was an answering cry but this time it sounded fainter, farther away. A dog barked somewhere down the block.
He went around to the back of the building. A chain was wrapped through the handles of a set of battered double doors, but the lock intended to secure it was broken. It took Ben only a few seconds to unravel the chain.
He slid one door partway open and stepped inside the old store. The place still smelled of sweet feed, and there were still incubators and animal cages piled up against the wall. As he moved across the worn floorboards, he heard scurrying in the raftersprobably rats. Car lights flared for a second at the front windows and then faded away.
The cat meowed loudly, clearly in distress; it sounded like it was right under his feet. "Dusty? Hey, girl . . . hey, girl . . ."
The trick was how to get under there. He shone the light across the floor, into the dark corners. Then he saw the answer. Along the south wall, where they used to keep the bins of feed, was a knotted tuft of rope jutting from a slightly raised section of the floor. There was a trapdoor.
He got down on one knee. It took three hard yanks to get the trapdoor to budge; on the fourth he had it open. He laid the heavy sledlike rectangle of wood against the wall and retrieved his flashlight.
He shone the light down into what looked like a root cellar, waving the beam over packed walls of dirt. The space was maybe eight feet deep at the center, but it tapered quickly at either end. A smoky, burned-out lightbulb hung from a frayed cord and there was a ladder with a couple of missing rungs.
"Hey, girl, come on! Come on!"
It would be like Dusty to play hard to get. He thought he heard a quick rustling, but he couldn't see her. What he did see was a fifty-dollar bill half buried in the dust and rat droppings at the base of the ladder.
His first thought was that the bill couldn't be real, that it must be toy money. He sat there on his haunches, staring down at it. Two or three times in his life he'd found cash in the street, but never anything bigger than a ten. It had always made him feel lucky and guilty, in equal measure. Despite an easygoing demeanor, Ben was one of those people who always waited until the light said Walk; he was as law-abiding as they come, someone whose entry in the Soap Box Derby of Life had been packed with an extra load of superego.
He tested the top rung of the ladder with a foot. When he was sure it would hold, he moved down carefully, one hand still gripping the floor above him. His heart pounded.
He picked up the fifty-dollar bill and brushed off the dust. It was an old bill and as smooth as velvet. It looked real enough.
He thought, Katy isn't going to believe this. He jammed the bill into his pocket, but as he turned to grab hold of the ladder, he saw something else. Tucked back in the farthest recesses of the cellar was a milky-white sheet of plastic draped around a casket-size mass. He held the flashlight steady for several seconds, the light reflecting off the rippled plastic, winking back at him.
He stepped forward, put a knee against the sharp dirt incline, and tugged at the sheet. It crumpled to one side. Eight red Igloo coolers were lined up in two rows.
He caught hold of the handle of one of the coolers and pulled it toward him. It was heavier than he expected. He dragged it to the foot of the ladder.
The lid was taped shut, but the tape was old and dry. He sliced through it quickly with a fingernail. Pickles, he thought, it's probably nothing but old jam jars. But his hands were trembling as if he were an eleven-year-old boy.
He opened the lid. The cooler was filled to the top with stacks of fifty-dollar bills. He took a quick involuntary breath. The bills were in two rows, eight stacks per row, and the cooler itself was maybe a foot high. Each stack was wrapped in its own individual wrapper and taped shut.
He grabbed the corner of a second cooler, spun it toward himself, then slid it down the rough dirt slope. His eyes stung from the mold and the dust. He opened the second cooler. It too was filled with fifties.
He knew it had to be dirty money. Either that or it was counterfeit; he wasn't an idiot. He knew he should leave, but he couldn't. It was the most extraordinary moment of his life and he wanted to savor it.
He bent down finally and undid the tape on one of the stacks. Each stack was divided into smaller, more manageable packets and secured by paper straps. Ben broke one of the paper straps and lifted out three bills, crisp and new. He fingered them as if they were some sort of Japanese delicacy. The flashlight lay at his feet. It was starting to dim, the beam flickering along the dirt walls of the root cellar. He took out his wallet and put in all four of the fifties.
There was a loud thump above him, somewhere in the store. He didn't move for almost a minute. There was nothing more. He decided it must have been the door or a shutter banging in the wind, but it was enough to spook him.
He slipped his wallet back in his pocket. Screw the cat, he was getting out of here. He retaped the stack of bills and shoved the coolers back into their original positions. He crawled up into the narrowest part of the cellar to retrieve the milky-white plastic. He tried to drape the sheet over the coolers so that everything would look just the way he had found it, but it was tricky working in such a tight, airless space. He did the best he could.
He batted the dirt from his trousers and picked up his flashlight. He climbed the rickety ladder and lowered the trapdoor softly back into place. Somewhere a siren rose and fell.
Stepping outside the building, he quickly wrapped the chain around the handles of the double doors. Across the street a light shone from a bathroom window, but there was no sign of anybody moving around inside. Directly behind the feedstore was a small auto repair placea dozen cars, some up on blocks, others with their hoods up, behind a high chain-link fence.
When he got home the cat was there, crouched over a pan of warm milk in the kitchen. She had come up to the porch maybe five minutes after Ben had gone out looking for her.
"I'm sorry," Katy said.
"That's okay," he said. He set the flashlight on the table and unzipped his jacket. Abby was kneeling beside the cat, stroking it as it lapped hungrily at the milk. It looked as if it hadn't eaten in months.
"Are you all right?" Katy said.
"I'm fine. Why?"
"I don't know. You look upset."
"No, I'm fine. I wanted to say, when we were driving in, the van was acting up some. We should probably take it in tomorrow."
He saw the worry come over her face. "What do you think it is?"
"It's probably something small. But I think we need to be sure."
"I guess I can take it in after I take the kids to school."
"That would be great," Ben said.
He went in to take a bath. The smell of sweet feed was still on him. He leaned over the tub, testing the temperature of the water with his hand. He hadn't checked the other coolers, but if they were like the first two . . . There had to be several hundred thousand dollars in every one.
He took off his clothes. The bathroom filled with steam. He dug his wallet out of his trousers and opened it, riffling through the bills just to be sure he hadn't hallucinated the whole thing. He had two hundred extra dollars in his pocket; all he had to do now was call the police and tell them what he had found and he would be fine, it would be over. He heard his son singing in his bedroom. He set his wallet back on the sink. So Merry Christmas, he thought, Merry Christmas.