|Jul/Aug 2001 • Fiction|
Where the broken asphalt ended, a field of tall weeds began. The car wasn't far in but it was more or less hidden by the darkness and the scrub. For a minute they stood beside the car squinting at it. It was a dinosaur—a Catalina station wagon reliquary of the Late Chrome Age. The passenger door groaned in ferrous agony when Tyree pulled it open. When he plopped his beer-logged bulk down into seat, the car creaked on its springs.
Tyree's eyes were dull with seriousness.
"Ever killed anyone before?" he said.
Edgar's eyes panned across the dashboard. He looked through the windshield at the grimy backside of the roadhouse beyond the weeds.
Edgar took a deep breath, filling his lungs with chicken shit, old newspaper, and gasoline.
"No, but I seen it done once," he said. He tried the ignition. It stuttered and then shrieked. The flywheel clanged.
"Again," Tyree said. "It'll catch."
As they'd sat inside the bar drinking longnecks, Tyree talked about the time he assisted in the killing of another man, some slob he'd brawled with in Kentucky. He'd raked the guy's gut with a broken bottle. At the hospital the man was given penicillin and died of an allergic reaction. Tyree got a month in the county pen. Nobody from the hospital spent a day in jail, Tyree had remarked with an ease and timing obviously benefiting from repetition. Then he'd said, "Say, I got three grand for you, if you the type to work for it."
Edgar cranked again. The ignition caught, the exhaust backfired, and what sounded like a hundred broken welds began to rattle like mad. Edgar frowned patiently. He massaged the gas pedal with his foot, a light touch. The engine settled down to a fitful gurgle.
"Where to?" Edgar asked. He switched on the headlights. Only the right one came on. He tried the high-beams, and miraculously they both worked. Their light starkly bleached the roadhouse's cinderblock exterior. He switched the low-beam back, gripped the wheel tightly, and eased the car from the field into the lot.
A couple years ago Edgar had been the driver in a failed bank robbery in Orem, Utah. He'd seen a cop shoot his partner through the head, dead before he dropped. The cop just happened to be driving by when Edgar's partner ran out the bank with his pistol still in hand. It was a rookie mistake by his partner, an exceptional shot by the cop, and quite a thing for Edgar to see. As Edgar crept past in the rubbernecking traffic, he watched the stream of blood pouring out of his partner's forehead and down the well-swept curb, as though part of the poor fool were still trying to get away.
Edgar wrestled the wheel and the Catalina lurched onto the road. Then the car backfired again, this time so loud that Edgar thought he'd gotten his head blown off. His heart skipped. But his foot eased the pedal off and then back down just so, drawing life back into the engine. The car, he hoped like hell, would be his ticket out of Ohio and across the blank screen of Pennsylvania at night. He glanced at Tyree. For the moment Tyree looked as content as a farmer on a hayride. After a couple miles, the road's four lanes narrowed to two, and the lights from the town vanished into the utter darkness of the tree line.
Edgar reviewed his faculties. He'd had three beers—all but the first, which had busted him, on Tyree. Tonight Edgar would have listened to anyone buying, and he'd done just that. The big man had taken him to a booth in back and started banging down longnecks. Tyree said he had a wife who was an everliving bitch with life insurance. He said he had a plan to collect. A smart plan. He said he needed a guy to help him pull it off, an out-of-town guy who could keep his mouth shut for three grand on the spot, job done inside an hour. Edgar had looked for a clock on the wall, but there was none. He thought about the better things he could be doing, and there were none. He said nothing and Tyree went on with his spiel. It wasn't the wildest shit-talk Edgar had ever heard from a redneck. The plan had offered no surprises. It was about as simple as a simpleton could make it. They go back to Tyree's and kill her. They make it look like a break-in. Edgar drives away and Tyree gets in his bath robe and calls the cops. Tyree gives them a line of b.s. about a big nigger in a Trans Am. Edgar reaches New Jersey and never thinks twice about the whole thing.
He'd looked into the space over Tyree's shoulder until the next round arrived. He'd said, "This hypothetical or no?" and Tyree had said, "Whichever."
Finishing his last beer, Edgar had turned his attention to the car. Tyree said he'd just bought it from a senile old farmer three counties away and had hidden it in an abandoned lot near the local train yard. Only tonight had Tyree moved it to its concealment behind the roadhouse. It was as clean a car as Edgar could have hoped for under the circumstances. Tyree had said the thing didn't look like much, but it drove. Edgar favorably considered his odds of evading the local sheriff and the state bulls. Edgar could drive a blimp through a copper pipe. In a car he always knew where he was going.
When Tyree had finished his proposition and it was Edgar's turn to talk, he had only said, "This car runs, no shit?" A lump had risen in his throat, but he'd swallowed it.
The car. Edgar reached for a window knob that wasn't there. He saw that the speedometer slumbered at zero, the temperature gauge showed cold dead. He tried the brakes and got no reassurance there. Yet the ungainly hulk of the Catalina was becoming a comfort to him. Though worn and torn, the old beast was still willing. It knocked, it rattled, it hesitated and drifted, but Edgar knew how to make it go. The car was a known quantity, the only one so far in this deal.
Edgar was about to breathe somewhat easier when Tyree bent over and fetched a pistol from his boot. The big man hunched over it, catching peeks of it in the glow of a light pole they were passing at the moment.
"You check that thing before?" Edgar said. He fished in his shirt pocket for a cigarette that wasn't there.
"What do you think?"
"Then let it be. We're in traffic here."
A car whizzed past in the other lane. The traffic was gone.
Tyree scowled and shifted his hound's gaze to Edgar's slight frame. Edgar felt the man's doubt. The doubt of a mouth-breather, as subtle as a good clubbing. Edgar winced behind his best poker face.
Edgar had left Chico, California, three days before with a gang of teenage hoods on his heels. He had taken their money, promising a large cache of drugs. They very nearly caught him at the shelter where he was staying. They fanned out with cop-like arrogance through the rows of cots, yanking guns from their flannel shirts, tipping cots at random to see who rolled out. He'd hidden the rest of that day and half the night in a tipped-over Porta-Potty deep inside a nearby strawberry field. When it got good and chilly, he popped the hatch and scrambled out. He ran through some woods and up to a county highway, and three days later he got tossed from a Peterbilt at a truck stop just outside Bumfuck, Ohio, all the more chagrined at the state of the world. These days a trucker was more likely to try and convert you to Jesus than buy your speed. A changed world, indeed. Edgar had lived to see the day when a trucker wouldn't touch a pill unless you said it was a vitamin. He'd been dragged through the dirt by life, and then he'd been left in the dust.
But for the time being, at least, he was in the driver's seat. He knew the road with his eyes closed though he'd never been within two hundred miles of it before. A straight streak of asphalt between cornfield and cornfield, treeline and treeline. Heading south. There was a pinkish glow in the sky ahead. Lights over a supply yard. They drove past and the lights faded.
Tyree directed Edgar to pull off the road. Edgar cut the engine and they waited for half an hour in the interests of Tyree's alibi. He would have needed this time to have gotten home and gone to bed.
After several silent minutes, Tyree blew a sigh all over the windshield. His lips flapped but otherwise he didn't move a hair.
"So," Tyree said, "what are you gonna do after this here?"
"Don't know," Edgar said.
He'd had about ten minutes now to think about the money, ten fast minutes since Tyree had unzipped the well-stuffed fanny pack and let him peek inside. Edgar had gotten a shorter look at it than he'd have liked. It looked like a tight bunch of new bills. Now the fanny pack was in the glove box. Waiting. Not yet his. Things had to happen before the future unfolded and the money became his. As Edgar pulled back onto the road, he kept his thoughts on the money, not on what he had to do to get it or what he'd do with it once he got it. His sister lived in Paramus, New Jersey. Ten, maybe twelve hours of evasive driving through darkness and dawn and the haze of morning. Cigarettes, gas and coffee.
"Turn right here," Tyree said as they approached a crossroads.
"Turn right," Tyree said again, a sober edge on his voice.
"After they take her away, I'm gonna sit down and have me a beer. Then I'm gonna book a flight to Vegas if I feel like it, and pay for it with the first insurance check. Then—first, before the beer—I'm gonna kick that yappy damn dog of hers through the roof."
"A dog? You never said you had a dog!"
"Relax, man, it's a schnauzer. It's about yea high." He held his thick hand a few inches above the seat.
"You should of told me you had a dog, Tyree."
"What's a matter, you fraid of a schnauzer? Left up there, on County Line."
"It's a factor, that's all—the dog is a factor." Edgar's voice trailed off like water under the bridge. He turned left.
It had been four days since he'd been involved in a scheme this crummy. The acid taste of inevitability began to rise in his throat. Yet this time all Edgar had to do was stand there and not blow his cool while watching Tyree shoot his wife. Get her attention at the door, make her open it for a stranger. That's what the scene would look like. Exactly what it would look like. They'd quickly ransack the place. After giving Edgar time to clear out, Tyree would call the sheriff's office and say something like, "My wife's been shot. I think she's dead. We been robbed again. Oh Dear Lord send somebody quick!" And he, Edgar, would exit with three grand in the Catalina. There were about a million things that could go wrong. The back of Edgar's mind was crawling with doubts, but the front of his mind was doing the driving.
"Now, you sure she'll answer the door?" Edgar said. "You want her right there in the doorway. It's the surest, I guess. The fastest."
"She'll come to the damn door, now that she has her little popgun," Tyree said. "And remember, you gotta grab her if you can. Make my shot easy as possible."
"What kind of popgun you talking bout here?" Edgar's voice was an octave high.
"Oh, she went and bought it after we got broken into and she lost all her stuff. Jewelry and her stamps and shit. I told her she don't need no gun of her own."
"OK, but what type gun you talking about?"
"Here's the kicker—I was the one broke into the damn trailer. When she was at the mall with her mom? Got damn near four grand for all of it just down the freeway at this swap meet they got. And this here, too." He raised his pistol and shook his head. "How bout that?"
"Hey, Tyree. What kind of gun does she have? You understand what I'm asking you?"
"Saturday Night Special."
"She said my shotgun was too heavy."
Edgar began counting Mississippis until the red cleared from his vision.
"I see. Well, then, can she use either gun?"
"I sure as hell hope not."
The road had become a narrow country lane. They crawled through the darkness at twenty miles an hour, the one cockeyed headlight only adding to Edgar's feeling of lopsidedness. He was thinking of a way to back out, but it was too late. Tyree couldn't let Edgar just walk away now that he knew what he knew. Now, Edgar figured, it was either him or the wife.
Tyree pointed to a shortcut. They pulled off the side of the road and headed down a path of well-worn tire ruts. They rustled into the treebreak and jounced across a dry creek bed. In a few seconds they poked out of the woods. They were at the back end of a trailer park. Immediately ahead was a turnaround where the gravel driveway ended. The place was dark. Only one light shone atop a pole in the distance of the front entrance. Edgar cut the headlight and waited for his eyes to adjust. The trailers sat far apart on either side of the meandering gravel drive. Most of them were half-hidden behind wild grass. They looked like buffalo looming, their forms darker than the night sky.
"Don't worry about anyone noticing the car," Tyree said. "They'll think we's kids coming here to hump."
Tyree told Edgar to stop the car about halfway down the gravel drive. He pointed to the trailer across the way. Unlike some others in the park, it had no built-on porch.
They crept self-consciously from the car to the trailer like a pair of movie burglars until they reached the three steps leading up to the door. Edgar was in front. Tyree followed, breathing hotly down his neck.
"Bang on it hard, two, three times," Tyree whispered.
Edgar banged immediately. No noise inside. Edgar tightened, coiled, bracing for some eventuality that stood no real chance of being good. Tyree hadn't considered how he'd say he got home from the bar. It could sink him. He hadn't wanted to let Edgar out of his sight after he'd laid out the plan, and he'd left his pickup truck at the bar. He could have driven his truck home and shot her himself and done everything the same, the call to the police, everything, without Edgar's even having to be involved.
After a few seconds there was still no noise from inside the trailer. Edgar shook his head. The wife was probably out at another roadhouse talking to another luckless drifter about shooting Tyree.
Tyree said, "Again."
Edgar pounded on the door three more times.
"Who is it?" Her voice was husky, a big woman's voice. "Where's your key, you son of a bitch?"
Tyree put a hand up—Wait. Edgar waited. He heard the chain sliding out of its latch.
Tyree lunged forward and kicked the door. His big boot went straight through it and got stuck. The chain held. Enraged, Tyree rammed his knee through the door. Then he wailed the rest of his body through. Most of the door was now a hole, but what remained hung around him like a broken picture frame. He dragged the whole apparatus into the trailer and started blasting away.
Edgar hadn't moved since sidestepping Tyree's boot. He was inches from the door when it burst apart and only a couple feet from the flashing of the guns when they started popping. Then he landed in the gravel crumpled on his side, bleeding all over himself. He heard shouting, shrieking and a raspy barking dog, and he fainted.
"He ain't dead," the woman said. "What we goin' a do now?"
Edgar opened his eyes.
His body rolled itself onto its back. A bolt of pain shot up his side, and his head fell back into the gravel. He saw the steam of his breath exhausting from his mouth. Tears squeezed down the sides of his face, into his hair. He tried not to piss himself.
"We need to call the cops," she said from nearby, somewhere beyond his toes.
"We can't do that." Tyree's voice, coming from behind Edgar's head, was thin and strained.
"And why the hell not, Tyree? This is one of 'em, ain't it?"
"Don't call," Edgar said. He moved his legs, dragging his feet through the mud and weeds and scattered gravel. He didn't feel the bullet hole. His whole left side was numb and warm and wet. Everything else was getting cold. He could feel the blood running down between his ribs.
"Don't call," he said again.
"Shut up!" Tyree said.
"How long? How long I been out?" Edgar said. "Tyree?"
With that the big man kicked him hard, right on his hip bone. Edgar flipped like a fish out of water.
"Shut up!" Tyree screamed again. "How'd you know my name?"
"What in the hell is going on, Tyree?" the woman said. "Do you know this guy?"
"How the hell do I know what's going on?" Tyree bellowed.
His big feet pounded up the porch steps. The barking got louder as he stomped into the trailer. To watch him Edgar had to raise his head all the way up and look down his stomach and through the V of his legs. He couldn't do it. Back fell his head.
Then the woman ran up the steps, leaving Edgar outside in the dark, in the cold, in the gravel. He couldn't believe it.
Inside they started screaming at each other. She kept threatening to pick up the phone, he kept bellowing that she'd better not. Edgar could see the trailer rocking back and forth in front of the stars. He could hear them stomping circles around the floor inside. He could hear the whole trailer creaking. It sounded like every last stick and panel board was popping loose from every last staple and daub of glue. It was a symphony of material stress, and Edgar could hear it very clearly, even through the screaming and the raspy barking of a little dog.
He moved his right arm, dragging his hand through the gravel. He thought he might be able to sit or stand if he held his breath. Something inside him was making him breathe faster and faster. He could taste blood in his throat. He tried not to cough it up. He exhaled slowly and deliberately, but had to breathe in again before he was empty. He was getting down in the count.
He tried to yell. "Ty-" sounded alright but "-reeeeeee!" shrieked out like the cry of a little lost girl. The argument inside the trailer stopped. The barking kept on.
Edgar spun and spun inside his heavy head. When he settled down, Tyree was crouched beside him and whispering in his ear.
"Man, you said my name."
With that Tyree pressed a hand into Edgar's face, crushing it into the ground. The warm muzzle of Tyree's gun pressed Edgar's temple.
"Oh, Lord, don't you do this to me, Tyree! We had a deal."
Tyree said, "I'm all out, anyway. Six times I missed that fat bitch from a foot away."
"Well somebody sure didn't miss me!"
"Listen. She—I had to make up another story. I said I caught you breaking in. I ain't explained half of it yet, and you saying my name don't make it no easier. I mean, I know I shouldn't of missed her in the first place. But where was you, man? You was supposed to grab her."
"Tyree, let's just focus on the present. I'm about half-dead here."
Tyree set his gun casually on Edgar's chest. He said, "Hell, you ain't hardly shot. It's just a scratch-like."
In another moment she was bent over him also. She was every bit as ugly as Tyree. She pulled up Edgar's shirt and poked at the wound.
Then she tugged something out, and Edgar made a strange noise he'd never heard before.
"What is that?" Tyree said. She was holding what she'd plucked from Edgar under Tyree's nose. He gave it the same cross-eyed sniff he'd given the pistol in the car. Then he started giggling.
"A splinter!" he bellowed.
"It's a little piece of our house," the woman said and flicked it into the yard.
Edgar clamped his eyes shut and did not open them until Tyree scooped him up by his armpits. When he dumped Edgar into the Catalina, Tyree said, "That woman has always been a jinx. You don't know how much I wish she was laying there dead. But since she ain't . . ."
He opened the glovebox and removed the fanny pack.
"You'd a never touched it anyway. I was gonna kill you, too. Make it look more convincing, tie up my loose ends, you know." He paused, almost reflectively, and spat on the ground. "But now I'm letting you go. How 'bout that?"
Edgar just coughed. He couldn't look at the man.
"You a lucky son of a gun," Tyree said.
A small wad of greasy bills dropped into Edgar's lap. He didn't haggle. He just sparked the ignition and pulled away.
The Catalina was the only car on the road. It straddled the faded center line, and beneath the car's grille, endless yellow dashes were sucked into oblivion. At one point flashers appeared on the horizon. He pulled into his lane, slowed down slightly, and watched two cop cars fly past him. When Edgar regained the main road, he mashed the pedal. The wagon surged forward without complaint, but the schnauzer lost its footing and fell back into the seat, its yipping eclipsing even the furious rattle of the glove compartment door. Edgar stepped on the high-beams. In their light the future was somewhat easier to picture as it whisked by. The road widened and the sleeping town lay ahead. He passed the cinderblock roadhouse. He saw a fast food sign lit up in the distance, beyond the freeway and the truckstop. He hit the drive-thru. He ordered and asked for extra napkins.