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About the Author
He teaches creative writing at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and in the MFA in writing program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, where he served as Faculty Chair from 2005–2009 and twice received the college’s award for teaching excellence. He lives in Little Rock with his wife Judy and their dogs Toby, Phoebe, and Pip. They are proud parents of two grown children, Alison and Steve, both of whom live nearby, Alison with her two dogs and Steve with his wife Kewen and their darling grandsons Galen and Ethan.
Read an Excerpt
By David Jauss
Dzanc BooksCopyright © 1996 David Jauss
All rights reserved.
The day after his wife left him, taking their three-year-old son with her, Larry Watkins took out his circular saw, attached the metal-cutting blade, and carefully sawed his 1974 Cadillac Fleetwood in half. It was not an impulsive or crazy act, as his neighbors might have supposed. He had spent almost four hours the day before making the proper measurements, drawing the cutting line with a magic marker, and chaining one bumper to the garage wall and the other to the Chevy so the two halves wouldn't spring together when he cut the frame. And in a way, he had been planning this moment ever since 1985, when he came back to the U.S. after two years of guard duty and beer drinking for Uncle Sam in Germany. To celebrate their release from the service, he and his buddy Spence had rented a limousine for an hour and cruised around Virginia Beach, drinking Scotch from the limo's bar and looking at girls through the tinted glass. Spence was talking away about his plans: he was going to catch the next bus to Albany, marry his girl, and go to work in her father's office supply store. Larry hadn't given much thought to his future, so when Spence asked him what he was going to do when he got back to Minnesota, he said the first thing that came to his mind: "I'm gonna get me one of these limousines."
They had both laughed when he said that, but the more Larry thought about it, the more he liked the idea of owning a limousine. He remembered Arlen Behrens, an acne-faced kid he'd known in high school. Arlen hadn't had a date in his life, but after he got a red Trans Am for his birthday, he started going steady with Karla Thein, one of the homecoming princesses. Larry could only imagine what the girls in Monticello would think of a limousine. He pictured himself sipping champagne in the back seat with a pretty redhead while his chauffeur drove them down Main Street. Everybody would gawk at them, even the rich kids passing in their Corvettes and Austin-Healeys, but he'd wave or smile only at those he considered his friends. If he had a limo, everyone would see that he wasn't who they'd always thought he was; they would see that he was someone else entirely, someone mysterious and admirable.
Larry knew he could never afford a limousine, of course, but he thought he might be able to build one. So after he returned to Monticello, he started collecting articles about limos and writing to Limousine and Chauffeur magazine for information about how they were made. He had six manila envelopes full of blueprints and suggestions by the time he met Karen at ShopKo, where she worked in ladies' apparel and he worked in electronics. She was a tall, slim blonde with green eyes and a crooked smile, and he was amazed that such a beautiful woman would go out with him. He told her about his plans to build a limousine, but she only laughed and called him a dreamer. When he picked her up for a date in his Impala, she'd say, "Oh good, we're going in the limo again tonight." And on his twenty-third birthday, she gave him a blue chauffeur's cap, climbed into the back seat, and said, "Once around the park, then home, James!" She teased him, but Larry knew she was looking forward to the day when he'd build his limousine and drive her around town like a queen.
Then, a few months after he and Karen were married, he bought the Caddy from Hawker's Salvage and had it towed to his garage. He thought Karen would be pleased, but when she came home from work and saw the rusty, battered car, she demanded he take it back.
He was so surprised he couldn't say anything for a moment. Then he said, "You can't take it back. It's not like a pair of pants that don't fit or something."
"Well, you've got to sell it to somebody else then. We can't afford a second car, especially one that won't run. What did you pay for it anyway?"
"Just five hundred dollars," he said.
"Five hundred dollars! How could you do such a thing?"
"But I told you I was going to build a limo."
She fixed him with a look he had never seen before. "Well, I didn't believe it. I thought that was just you talking."
He stared at her a moment, then went over and stood beside the crumpled hood. "I know it doesn't look like much now," he said, his voice trembling a little, "but wait till I fix it up. You'll have the nicest car in town. And we'll go places. We'll go all over. It'll be as comfortable as sitting in your living room, only you'll be going somewhere."
"Fix it up?" she said. "You think you can fix that up?"
In the weeks that followed they continued to fight about the car, but Larry would never agree to sell it. Once Karen went behind his back and put an ad in the paper, but Larry found out about it and told everyone who called that the car had already been sold. After that, Karen didn't say anything to him about the Caddy, at least not in words. If he mentioned it, she'd just shake her head and look away. Even then, he didn't give in. He wanted to prove to her that he was the kind of man who made his dreams come true, the kind of man who deserved a limo. But he didn't have enough money to start working on the car yet, so he just kept on collecting articles and blueprints. At least once a week he'd take out his envelopes, spread them across the kitchen table, and spend a couple of hours going through all the information.
The summer their son turned two, Larry talked Karen into taking a trip to Disney World. "Randy would love it," he said, and though Karen worried he was too young to appreciate Disney World, she finally agreed. They packed up the Chevy and left Monticello just after dawn that Saturday. It took them two long days to drive to Florida, but they managed to make the trip fun, playing License Plate Poker and I Spy and singing songs from Disney movies. But when they finally reached Orlando and Larry mentioned there was a limousine factory nearby that he wouldn't mind touring, the fun stopped. No matter how hard he tried to convince Karen that he hadn't planned the trip just to see the factory, she wouldn't believe him. While they were eating dinner at McDonald's, he asked her to listen to reason, and that made her so angry she went into the restroom and stayed there for almost half an hour. When she finally came out, her eyes were red and puffy, but there were no tears in her voice: "Take us to the airport," she said. "Now." Two hours later, she and Randy were on a flight to Minneapolis, where her parents lived. She was planning to get a lawyer and file for divorce as soon as she got there.
Larry checked into a Motel 6 near the airport and stayed up late drinking Jim Beam from a pint bottle. The more he drank, the crazier it all seemed to him: he'd actually let a car, a junk heap, come between him and his family. What was wrong with him? There was only one thing to do: sell the damned car and toss out his box full of blueprints and articles. And that's exactly what he'd do, the minute he got home. As soon as he made that decision, he felt as if a terrible burden had been lifted from him, and he lay back on the bed and closed his eyes.
The next morning, Larry started back to Minnesota. He hadn't intended to stop at the limousine factory, but his route took him near it and since he'd already decided to sell the Caddy, he figured it wouldn't hurt anything to take a look. Once he was there, he had such a good time watching the workmen convert ordinary Cadillacs into customized stretch limos that he decided to go through the tour again, this time taking notes. He hadn't changed his mind about selling the car; he just wanted to compare the factory's methods with those recommended by Limousine and Chauffeur magazine. After he did that, he'd throw the notes out along with everything else. So he took the tour again, and when he came back out to the parking lot, he stood there for a long moment, looking at the Chevy's rusted fenders and torn vinyl seats, before he unlocked the door and got in.
Two nights later, back in Monticello, he sat down at his kitchen table and dialed the number of Karen's parents. By then, he had decided not to say anything about the Caddy unless he had to. He'd just ask Karen to come home, and if she said yes, he wouldn't even bring the car up. But if she said no, he'd promise to sell it and never mention a limo again. It was all up to her. He listened to the phone ring, then she answered, her hello cool, preoccupied. But when she heard his voice, she started to cry, and he knew he wouldn't have to sell the car. "I'll drive up to get you and Randy in the morning," he said, after she finally stopped crying.
That was over a year ago. They'd had many fights after that, and every one ended with her crying and forgiving him. But after a while—he didn't know exactly when or why—they stopped fighting. They spoke politely to each other and never even mentioned the limo, yet somehow Larry felt worse, as if they were arguing in a deeper, more dangerous way than before. And then, yesterday morning, Karen looked at him across the breakfast table and said she was leaving, and he knew this time she would not come back.
Now Larry stood in his garage, sweating in the intense July heat, the saw whining in his hand, and looked at the two halves of his Cadillac. He had been preparing for this moment for six years, and for the life of him he couldn't remember what he was supposed to do next.
The next day, when Larry didn't report for work, his boss called him and asked if he was sick. Larry told him about Karen, and he said Larry should feel free to take the day off. Mondays were always slow, and they could get by short-handed for a day. But they'd need him back tomorrow. Larry said no problem, he'd be there. But he didn't report to work the rest of the week, and though the phone rang every morning shortly after the store opened, he did not answer it. The next Monday, he received a registered letter notifying him that he'd been terminated. He sat at the kitchen table strewn with breakfast, lunch, and dinner dishes and looked at that word: terminated. It had a finality that he liked. He said it aloud and listened to it in the quiet house.
Although he had only a few hundred dollars in savings, Larry was glad he'd been fired. Now he would finally have the time he needed to work on the limousine. But it was too hot to work outside just then, so he spent the next few days sitting in front of a fan, watching TV. He watched everything, but he liked the nature shows on the Discovery Channel best, especially the ones about survival in the wild. Though these shows were full of conflict and danger, there was something comforting about the simplicity of the animals' concerns—food, shelter, a quiet moment in which to lick their wounds. Sometimes he'd tape a show and watch it several times.
Larry didn't do any work on the Cadillac, but almost every day he went out to the garage to look at it and plan his course of action. One morning, about two weeks after Karen and Randy had left him, he was surprised to find someone sitting in the back of the severed car. It was Elizabeth, the retarded woman who lived across the street with her elderly mother. She was a big, heavy-breasted woman with red bristly hair and splayed feet, and she was always talking to herself. The words didn't make any sense. They sounded foreign, even alien, and Larry always wondered if her mother could understand her. He remembered how Karen had been able to understand Randy's babble when he was a baby. He had been jealous of that ability; it had made him feel like an outsider in his own family.
Larry leaned over and looked in at Elizabeth. She was wearing a loose-fitting flowered dress—the kind Karen called a muumuu—and holding a red purse the size of a small suitcase on her lap. Her mouth was moving continuously, chewing words as if they were gum.
He cleared his throat and said, "Can I help you?" It was what he'd said to his customers at ShopKo, and he felt strange for having said it now.
Elizabeth turned her moon face to him and abruptly, for the first time in his presence, went silent. But then she immediately started talking again. She was looking at him, but somehow he could tell she was still talking to herself.
"What's wrong?" he asked. But that, too, was a stupid question: she was smiling and every now and then a giggle broke into her babble. He stood watching her for a moment, not knowing what to do. Then he opened the door and said, "I'm sorry, but you'll have to leave." But she didn't move. She just opened her purse a crack, put her eye right down to the opening, and half giggled, half jabbered some strange phrase over and over. Then she suddenly snapped the purse shut and looked at him as if she thought he were trying to peek.
Larry didn't know what to say. "If you want to go somewhere," he finally said, "you picked the wrong car. This one doesn't even run."
Just then, Elizabeth's mother came huffing up the driveway in her housecoat. "Oh Mr. Watkins, you found her!" she said, trying to catch her breath. "I was so worried. I was just about to call the police." She came up beside Larry and looked in at Elizabeth. "You naughty girl!" she said. "You know you aren't supposed to go outside by yourself." Her scolding didn't seem to bother Elizabeth; she just sat there, chattering away happily and peeking every now and then in her purse.
The old woman turned back to Larry and, wiping her sweaty face with a handkerchief, said, "I don't know what's gotten into her, Mr. Watkins. I've been up and down the block looking for her, but I never thought to look in your"—she paused, as if she wasn't sure what to call it—"your car."
She went on talking, but Larry was only half listening to her. He was watching Elizabeth bounce up and down on the back seat like an excited child. "You know something," he interrupted the old woman. "I think she thinks she's going somewhere."
That night, Larry called Karen for the first time since she left. "Oh, it's you," she said.
"What's the matter?" he said. "Can't I call?"
"Yes, you can call. Just don't think you'll change my mind."
"I'm not calling about that," he said.
"Then what are you calling about?"
For a moment, he didn't answer. He was listening to Karen's mother, in the background, talking to Randy. She was using the high, sing-song voice grown-ups put on to talk to children. Larry strained to hear what she was saying, but all he could make out was "grow up big and strong." Then he realized Karen was on the phone in her parents' kitchen, and for a second he was standing where Karen was, looking across the room at the kitchen table, where her mother was sitting beside Randy's highchair, poking a spoonful of something at him. He felt a sudden ache, like hunger, in his stomach, and he gripped the telephone.
"You remember that retarded woman across the street?" he finally said.
"Of course I do. How long do you think I've been gone? Forty years?"
He gritted his teeth a moment, then went on. "Well, this morning she was sitting out in the Caddy," he said. "Her mother was looking everywhere for her. She was about to file a missing person report. And here she was, just sitting there in the back seat, smiling and jabbering like nothing in the world was wrong."
"If this is about that stupid car ..."
"No. Really, I just wanted to call. I thought you'd want to hear what happened."
"Now why would I want to hear about that woman sitting in your worthless car?"
"I don't know," Larry said. And now that he thought about it, he didn't know why he'd wanted to call and tell her. It all seemed so stupid now. Of course she wouldn't care. And why should he care?
In the background he heard his son say "Grandma" and suddenly he had to sit down. The last words Randy had said to him before he and Karen got on the bus were, "Grandma's gonna take me to the zoo."
Larry sat there, staring across the kitchen table at the sink where Karen used to give Randy a bath when he was a baby. He felt very tired all of a sudden. He wanted to put his head down on the table and go to sleep.
Then Karen said, "Are you still there?"
"Yes," he answered. "How's Randy?"
"He's fine. He's made friends with the neighbor's little four-year-old, and he's been playing with him all day in his sandbox."
"Tell him I'll build him a sandbox in the backyard if he wants."
"I told you, Larry. I'm not changing my mind."
"I know," he said. "I was just thinking about when he comes to visit. You know, on weekends or whatever."
"All right," she said. "I'm sorry. I didn't know what you meant. Listen, do you want to talk with him for a minute?"
Larry was quiet. Then he said, "No, I guess not."
"Are you all right?" Karen asked.
Larry stood and looked out the window at the garage. Then he said, "I've been working on the car. You should see it. It's looking pretty good. I hung the new drive shaft and split the door posts the weekend you left, then last week I finished bending the new side panels and installed the window frames."
Excerpted from Black Maps by David Jauss. Copyright © 1996 David Jauss. Excerpted by permission of Dzanc Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
The Late Man,
What People are Saying About This
These powerful stories are about conditions of exile and the many contemporary varieties of American violence and American shame. Written with clarity and compassion and an ability to see several sides of life simultaneously, Black Maps is a moving, impressive, deeply rewarding collection from a very talented writer.