Image: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
At first glance she looked like any other Hudson Hornet coupe I had ever seen—a ground-hugging lead sled with a six-cylinder heart of pure fire. Striking two-tone paint—black top devouring the blistering Illinois sun, yellow body reflecting it back to the sky—set her apart from the cars parked around her, though not so much from others of her make. Yellow and black had been a popular color scheme on the Hornets, the painted embodiment of the stinging insect. Nevertheless, she wasn't just any old Hornet. I wasn't sure how I knew that; I thought I was experiencing some sort of automotive déjà vu.
Now I know better.
Hudson Hornets are a rare sight these days; you're not likely to run across one on a trip to the grocery store. They're far easier to find in the sunny, grassy environs of antique car shows like the Forney Festival, the largest such gathering in the upper Midwest. I go to this show annually, and I'd seen several Hornets buried within the long rows of vintage autos on display; but the black and yellow Hornet was in the sales area, tagged at a price of $25,000. I glanced at my watch: 11:45. How this Hornet had remained on sale for almost three hours at such a ridiculously low price was beyond contemplation. But what was there to contemplate? She was there, and I was in a buying mood.
I sauntered closer, filing in amongst a small group of older men, ancient asteroids orbiting a relic of their youth. First stop was the open hood, which I looked under for a study in power. I knew well the basic specifications of the '52 Hornet—308 cubic inches, 145 horsepower—legendary figures in the automotive world, for the Hudson Hornet had dominated the early years of stock car racing, a country club luxury car gone wild on the gray sands of Daytona.
Satisfied with the engine, I poked my head into the driver's side window. Her interior was mint—no rips in the seats, no sagging headliner, and no replacement gauges, only the musty hint of age all antique cars possess to some degree. And she smelled pretty nice for a car so well driven; the odometer read 88,931. Could be 188,931... I thought, though I doubted it. She was way too clean.
Right about then my brain froze, neurons rigid as it tried to register what my eyes had just taken in: a comet, arcing slightly upward with just a hint of curved trajectory, etched into the rear side window. It can't be... I thought, but then I looked through the car to the opposite rear window and saw the same etching. Everything clicked in my mind; one ringing bell turned into vespers being rung at Notre Dame. I'd never seen this Hornet before, but I knew her well from stories. She had belonged to my late grandfather.
Like I said, she wasn't just any old Hornet.
One of the old guys gathered round had also noticed the comets. "I wonder if they etched those on at the dealer?" he asked, addressing no one in particular.
I could have answered him, but I didn't bother responding. I had business to take care of. I located the owner nearby, an old man in a straw farmer's hat, overalls and a white t-shirt, sitting in a folding camp chair in the shade of an umbrella. I stood before him; he didn't look up from the newspaper he was reading, the Kane County Chronicle.
"Excuse me," I said.
His neck snapped erect. "Yeah?" he asked, jaw quivering, spectacles slipping down his nose.
"I take it that's your Hornet?"
"Price is $25,000."
"That's firm, sonny, and it's a bargain. But you probably know that already, don'tcha?" He squinted at me, mouth puckered as he dared me to try and con him.
I shrugged. "It's a good price." She was worth at least three times as much, which brought me to my next question: "Why you sellin' her?"
The answer was more direct than I'd expected. "I got a farm to bail out, and no time to deal with prissy car collectors who take months to make up their minds."
"You the original owner?" An unnecessary question, but I needed confirmation for some reason.
The man thought about it for a moment, his jaw working spasmodically. "No. I bought her in '58 from some mechanic over in Carol Stream. He was the original owner; had the paperwork to prove it."
I nodded. "Wanna start her up for me?"
He snorted. "Why, you gonna buy her?"
"You know, you aren't much of a salesman for a guy with a farm to bail out."
The farmer looked me over for what seemed like the thousandth time. Finally he nodded, then stood. "Let's go." He pulled the key from his pocket and handed it to me. "Start her up."
Not showing my elation, I opened the door and dropped down into the driver's seat behind the oversized steering wheel. I pushed the clutch in and turned the key. The starter ground slowly, but the engine came to life with barely a sputter.
"Let her warm a bit 'fore you stomp on it," the farmer warned. Silly, I thought, being 95 degrees out, but I respected his wishes and let her idle a couple of minutes as I relaxed in the seat, checking out the fittings. The dashboard was of another age—a medieval black slab of steel. The gauges were big and easy to read, and the amount of chrome covering every knob and protuberance could have been measured in square feet. I checked the windup clock against my Seiko Kinetic—right on time.
Finally I punched it. The carb opened up; the engine roared—I could feel its power through the steering wheel. Simple. It made me wonder where car making had gone, how it had degenerated into what it is today—overthought, complicated, soulless.
I left her running while I got out to look the body over. After five minutes of close, unnecessary inspection I shut her down. "Not bad," I said, trying to sound noncommittal.
The farmer merely snorted.
"Did you drive it here?" I asked.
"How the hell else would I get it here?"
Oh, I don't know, on a trailer, perhaps? I had hoped that would be the case, for then I could have simply hitched her up to my Tundra for the trip back to Wisconsin. Now I needed a flatbed.
"Looks like you keep your farm, old man," I said, producing my wallet, from which I pulled two $100 bills. "Take the sign down. I'll be back in an hour or so with a flatbed and the balance of your money."
The farmer plucked the bills from my hand, tipped the for sale sign over so its words faced the grass. He then returned to his chair and his Kane County Chronicle, no doubt thinking himself a better salesman than he actually was.
I checked my rearview mirror now and then on the way home, pleased to see there was still a Hornet following me, albeit on a flatbed. But it was her former owner who occupied my thoughts, more so than he had in a while.
Charles Ballard Sr.—Grandpa Chuck—was a man I held in reverence. I am his namesake, and he was a huge influence on my life. Where a father teaches a son the essential lessons in life—ideally, how to survive—grandfathers teach other things, the joyful and amusing pastimes helping keep us sane. Grandpa Chuck taught me how to fish, shoot pool, and work on cars. He'd done the latter for a living, going about it with a grim sense of duty making me wonder if he liked his job.
Five years ago I bought a rough-running '66 GTO, and Grandpa Chuck tuned her up for me, probably the last job he ever did before dropping dead from a stroke suffered in his small Carol Stream home. His funeral attracted many mourners, mostly old vets from the VFW, where he had been a member since the 1950's. Grandpa Chuck came home from Korea with shrapnel from a Chinese mortar round embedded in his right calf, where it would remain for the rest of his life. As a result he walked with a slight limp, which became more severe when no one was looking.
Whether he liked being a mechanic or not, Grandpa Chuck loved talking about cars, particularly ones he had owned in the distant past. The Hudson Hornet I had just purchased was his first car, and the one he spoke most fondly of. He enjoyed boasting about a race he'd won back in New Jersey, in which he dusted an old Buick Roadmaster driven by, as he put it, "a consummate asshole". He etched the comets in the Hudson's rear windows himself, the only one of his cars ever personalized in such a manner. Now the first car he ever owned was coming home with me to join the last car he ever owned, a 1987 Buick Grand National passed down to me in his will.
I turned the Tundra into my long gravel driveway, my back stiff from the three-hour drive. I live near the touristy summer town of Wisconsin Dells, a place turned tacky with the passing years, and I guess this more than anything pegs me as a true Midwestern boy who has made the grade. I can afford to live anywhere I want to; I choose to live here, and not even the most brutal of Wisconsin winters can scare me away. No reason they should, for I get most of my writing done during the short, dark days of winter.
I suppose I'm truly a self-made man, because everything I own is a product of what came out of my head. I wrote three suspense novels and over two dozen short stories before I got published. Now all of my work is in print, with endorsements on the covers from the likes of Stephen King and Peter Abrahams. My last two novels—critically acclaimed epics of historical fiction—have cracked the various top-ten bestseller lists, and my agent is working on a movie deal. Not bad for a guy who used to drive a delivery truck at night and write during the day. If I sound conceited please pardon me; I'm just telling you who I am. And I know I'm lucky. Most writers never scratch a living from their work, let alone become rich.
A storm was looming as I pulled up in front of my house, a large contemporary with a three-car garage. I was in luck; Uncle Slick's Camry was sitting out front. I couldn't wait to surprise him with the Hornet. I remotely opened the garage's third door. The flatbed driver stopped behind me, and we both got out.
"I can get her just about all the way in," the driver said.
"Cool. We'll roll her the rest of the way."
The driver backed up to the bay and quickly went to work as I watched the menacing sky. Lightning to the north, but it looked as though the full power of the storm would pass the same way. Nevertheless, we had to hurry, for I didn't want water spots marring my latest purchase.
The Hornet rolled slowly off the raised flatbed. When all four wheels came to ground the driver disconnected the cables, and we pushed her into the garage. A few drops of rain fell outside, driven along by a heady gust of wind swaying the hemlocks ringing my property.
"Nice goat," the driver said, motioning toward my gold GTO.
"Be nicer when she gets a tune-up."
"Eh, they're easy to work on." He waved a hand, probably dismissing me as some rich boy who couldn't do it himself, which I certainly would. But I would never get her purring like Grandpa Chuck had.
The towing bill was over $600. I paid with a credit card and tipped the driver $100 cash, sending him on his way. Then I went looking for Slick.
I found him in the kitchen, slowly caning his way toward the adjoining garage. Sylvester Ballard—a.k.a. Slick, a moniker he's worn since childhood—is actually my great uncle, Grandpa Chuck's younger brother. He'd moved to the Midwest with my grandfather and found a job as a brakeman on the Chicago & North Western, finally retiring four years ago at the age of seventy. Slick proved a theory about working men I had held for a long time: once they retire, their bodies literally collapse on them. With Slick it was both knees, destroyed from 50 years of hopping trains. The doctors pronounced both of his knee replacements successful; even so, he will use a cane for the rest of his life, which beats using a walker, I suppose.
I asked Slick to come live with me after his wife died. He resisted for a while, but loneliness finally got the better of him, so he gave in and sold his house on Chicago's west side. He's pensioned well with his railroad retirement package, and insists on splitting all the bills with me. He thinks of me as a son, the kind of son he always wanted, as opposed to the drug-addicted son he'd begotten, my Uncle Will, who was off in parts unknown, if he was still alive at all. His daughter, Aunt Susan, lives in California with Slick's grandchildren, whom he rarely sees.
"What's all the racket, Charlie?" Slick asked.
I smiled. "I bought a car at the show. Wait'll you see what I found."
"Yeah, that's just what you need, another car you can't tune-up. Well, let's have us a look."
Slick led the way; he refused to let me hold doors for him. He pushed his way into the garage, navigated slowly around the Grand National and stopped abruptly in front of the GTO as he got his first look at the Hornet.
"Whaddaya think?" I asked.
"Christ on a broomstick," Slick whispered, still rooted to his spot.
"Take a look at the rear windows."
"I already did."
"Pretty wild, isn't it?"
Slick said nothing. He stared at the Hornet, eyes wide with shock.
"Well?" I asked. "You gonna have a closer look, or just stand there gawking all evening?"
Slick turned to confront me. "Did you call your father about this?"
"I left a message on his voice mail, but I didn't give any specifics. Just told him to be ready for one hell of a surprise."
Slick looked stupefied by my find, but there was something else there as well. He seemed spooked, afraid to go near the car. He had yet to take a step closer since laying eyes on her. "What the hell's up with you, Slick?"
"You should take this back where you found it."
"Are you kidding? I paid 25 grand for this car, and believe me the guy I bought it from isn't about to give any refunds."
"You've gotta get rid of this car."
"What are you talking about? Why? I thought you'd be excited to see grandpa's old car."
"This is anything but exciting."
I threw up my hands in frustration. "Well then tell me why! Make some sense, old man!"
"It's an instrument of evil," he responded, barely above a whisper.
I laughed... a crazed, frustrated laugh. "It's a fucking car!"
"It's not just a car, Charlie. At one time, yes, but not anymore. Not in a very long time."
Slick can be an easy-goer when he's feeling good, but most of the time he's cool and businesslike, a product of his time on the railroad. I'd never seen him so rattled, and he had me concerned.
"Tell me," I said, after a long moment of silence.
You know I'm a writer, but what follows isn't my story. Time now for Uncle Slick to take over... .
First off, this isn't about that car in the garage. As I've told you, that car is only an instrument of evil, a deadly tool used to commit the ultimate sin.
No, this story is about two young men who hated each other. Like an Old West sheriff and an outlaw they were, and the town wasn't big enough for the two of them. Only this was in the East, back home, though I haven't thought of it as such in a damned long time.
We lived in north Jersey back then, in a little town with the funny name of Mont Clayton. I have no idea what it looks like today, but Mont Clayton in the early '50's was a typical American town: Woolworth's, a war memorial, a stainless steel diner. Norman Rockwell could have moved there and painted pictures until the day he died and never run out of subjects. Most everyone was happy, because people in Mont Clayton were well-off for the most part.
We belonged to the lesser part. We never missed meals or panhandled in the streets, but we wore shoes till they got holes in the soles, clothes were mended over and over, and we were rationing meat long after the Japs surrendered. All of our financial problems rested on my father's shoulders, and he couldn't have given a shit less. He was a mechanic—a damned good one, much as I hate to admit it—and he was paid well enough to support a family of four. Problem was, most of our family budget was devoted to buying alcohol—shots and beers at the Viceroy Tavern down on Main, and the bottles of rotgut whiskey the old man kept around the house. There wasn't enough booze in the world to satisfy him, though I think he would have tried to buy it all if it hadn't been for us. Most drunks would have left their family behind to devote all of their cash to booze, but my father couldn't make that choice; Mont Clayton was all he knew. He didn't want to leave town and he didn't want to be ostracized by leaving his family to fend for itself. So he hung around, and beat the shit out of us on a regular basis just to show how much he enjoyed our company. Everyone knew about it, but in those days people turned their heads and minded their own. Now and then a cop or a teacher would tell me to tough it out, that it wouldn't last forever. Mom echoed that sentiment, and believe it or not it kept me going.
Turns out they were right. The old man died in '49, burned severely at work when an ash from his cigar fell in a solvent sink while he was cleaning a part. He lived for a couple of days after, and might have pulled through if the docs had given him a drink. Many joked afterward that he died of dehydration.
Our financial woes got worse after the old man died. Chuck had just finished his junior year of high school, and he wanted to end his schooling there so he could support the family. Mom wouldn't hear of it. She'd worked as a bookkeeper at Rutledge Sheet Metal during the war, and she went back to bookkeeping at another company to pay the bills. She not only insisted Chuck stay in school, but that he keep playing football as well so he might get a college scholarship. He wouldn't be available to work after school in the fall due to football practice, so I took over his position stocking shelves at the A&P.
I don't think I've ever respected anyone more than I did my brother in those days, and that feeling carried over to damn near everyone in town as they watched a kid from the most dismal background imaginable become a star in his senior year of high school. As captain of the football team, Chuck quarterbacked Mont Clayton High to a seven-and-three record, and he was elected homecoming king. Chuck excelled in every category of high-school stardom but one—academics. He wasn't stupid, but he wasn't a genius either. His brain was geared toward mechanics and trade skills, which was where he was obviously headed. No shame in being blue-collar, not in those days.
A few college scouts courted Chuck for their football squads, but his prowess on the grid wasn't enough to outweigh his poor performance in the classroom. There would be no scholarship, only a job at Moe Sterett's Texaco on Main St., the same station where our father had worked, where, in spite of his mechanical aptitude, Chuck spent most of his time pumping gas and cleaning windshields. Moe had put up with our father only because he'd been his top mechanic; he put up with Chuck because he was sober, and Moe needed a reliable attendant. But Chuck could never work hard enough to please Moe. To him, Chuck was nothing but the son of a drunken ghost.
Chuck's draft notice came shortly after graduation, around July of 1950 I believe. Marine Corps—he was going to Korea. He left that fall for Parris Island, and from there he shipped straight to the Far East. He wrote us letters from time to time, mostly about how cold and bored he was. But he was doing okay, at least for a while, until that Chinese mortar round landed a few feet from him, forever altering the way he would walk.
Chuck came home around Thanksgiving of 1951. At first his limp seemed only slight, but he couldn't hide the fact that it was a bit worse than that, not when you saw him all the time. People honored his patriotic sacrifice... for roughly a week or so. After that his deeds were rapidly forgotten, which was fine with Chuck because he didn't want to talk about it.
Chuck went back to working for Moe Sterett, but only after the local chapter of the American Legion forced Moe to rehire him. Chuck went from merely disliking his job to hating it, mostly because he was embarrassed at having to limp around in pain while serving customers. But he didn't dare leave Moe's, for early in 1952 Mom lost her job when the tool and die company she worked for went under. Try as she did, the only other job Mom could find was cashier at the A&P, which didn't pay shit compared to the bookkeeping job.
By May of 1952 I was ready to graduate high school, a pretty smart kid who didn't have any money to go on to college. Between me and Mom at the A&P and Chuck at the gas station we were getting by, but not exactly in fine style. It was around this time when Chuck really began to worry Mom and me. He became more morose with each passing day, often spending his off time in his room, sleeping or staring at the walls. The job he hated, along with his injury and the pressure of being the primary breadwinner in the household, had turned him into a recluse. We thought that was the extent of his problems, so we simply worried and hoped he would get better in time.
Turned out we had no idea what was really bugging him, though we found out soon enough.
I don't know when Chuck first saw Skip Rutledge back in town, but I know when I did—around dinnertime on a perfect Saturday evening in late May. Chuck worked every Saturday from one to nine, when the Texaco closed. This shift seemed to bug him more than any other during the week, probably because every kid in town was out cruising around, and just about all of them got started with a tank of gas from Moe's Texaco. I was one of them that night, though I wasn't there to buy gas, just dropping off Chuck's dinner before I headed out to pick up my buddy Fred Collins. Our evening would mirror that of many other kids in town—a cruise to the Moon Ridge Drive-In out on Route 11, where we'd try to pick up some girls and probably fail. Simple enough.
Two years and a war separated Chuck from high school, yet somehow he could still relate to adolescents, probably because those years had been the best he'd ever known. Other than the occasional jibe, the high-school kids were all right with Chuck. It was the older kids who bothered him, and in late May they were returning to Mont Clayton like birds to a summer nesting place. Not many of them, mind you—in those days only the wealthy and the bright went to college—but enough to make their presence known. I paid them no mind, for they tended to stick together at the drive-in, trying in vain to relive their youth in the same groups they'd once belonged to, groups getting smaller every summer.
Chuck was dropping the hood on a '48 Mercury sedan when I pulled up in our own sedan, a '46 blue Ford slowly rusting out from the bottom up. As the Merc cruised off I walked up and handed Chuck his dinner, fried chicken if I recall right. Chuck thanked me and put the bag on top of the pump, apparently not hungry at the moment. He grabbed a bottle of glass cleaner and began polishing the meter on the high-test pump. We made small talk as he cleaned. Chuck remained constantly in motion at work, for Moe was always watching him, waiting for him to get lazy or to screw up. I remember looking back toward the station as we talked and seeing Moe staring at us from behind the service counter. What a prick, I thought, turning back to Chuck once more. He moved to the regular pump and started polishing the glass there. Time for me to move on... .
A car pulled into the station, a cherry 1948 Buick Roadmaster with the ragtop down. Four smiling, laughing faces occupied the seats, two guys in front and two girls in the back. Oh, Christ... was the first thought in my mind. Everyone knew that car, just as everyone knew who drove it.
Stanley Rutledge—self-titled Skip somewhere in his youth—was sort of like a prince in Mont Clayton. His father Richard Rutledge owned Rutledge Sheet Metal Fabricators, one of the principle employers in town. The Rutledges, along with a handful of other rich families, were the ruling class of Mont Clayton; their patriarchs owned real estate and businesses, and were politically connected to the highest levels of state government.
A certain attitude comes with money, and it isn't always a bad one. I hold nothing against a man who became rich from his own labor—it's their sons who are usually the problem. Skip was all that with a cherry on top.
And he hated my brother, who likewise hated him.
I'm not sure when their rivalry started, but it blossomed in high school, where Skip and Chuck waged a constant war for supremacy. I don't need to tell you high school does not mirror the real world, which was good news for my brother, for it allowed the son of a poor alcoholic to not only compete with the richest kid in town but beat him in damned near every high-school discipline. Chuck was the quarterback and the homecoming king, and screwed the best-looking girls in school. Skip had to settle for playing flanker and safety, and while he got his share of girls and basked in his share of popularity, it nevertheless infuriated him that a poor kid like Chuck could get the better of him. Skip scored a victory in academics—he was valedictorian—but that wasn't even a contest as my brother never took the field. He also had the Roadmaster, a 16th-birthday gift from his father. It was a gorgeous car, the fastest in town; comparing it to our '46 Ford was like putting a Thoroughbred up against a jackass. I don't know if the two of them ever raced, but if they did the outcome is certain. Yet in the duel for backseat dominance the winner was obvious; the '46 Ford saw a lot more action than the Roadmaster, much to Skip's dismay.
But high school glory is fleeting, as millions of former jocks can tell you. The real world lets you know in a hurry just who you really are, especially when you're poor. In short, Skip flew off to college—Princeton, no less—while my brother crash-landed at Moe's Texaco. In the end all their battles meant nothing; Skip had clearly won the war, and it showed in his gleaming smile and radiant fitness, a stark contrast to my brother's three-day beard, greasy uniform, and ever-present limp.
"Hey, Hopscotch!" Skip called as he pulled up.
Hopscotch? I thought. Oh, man, this guy's gonna get it.
But Chuck didn't bat an eye. He kept polishing the glass dial on the pump, so Skip hit the horn. "How about a little service here, Chuckie?"
"Whaddaya want, Stanley?" Chuck never called him Skip; neither did I.
"That's no way to talk to an old friend, Chuckie." Some laughs came from the car, particularly from Skip's official shadow, Stu Hardy, who occupied the passenger seat. "Oh, hey, Greasy," Skip said to me, acknowledging my presence with a wink.
"Whaddaya want, Stanley?" Chuck said, a little more edge in his voice.
"Fill her up with high-test, Hopscotch. After that you can check the oil and clean the windshield."
Chuck went to the back of the Buick and pulled the gas nozzle from the pump, never looking at Skip and Stu in the front seat nor at the girls in back. I heard Stu whisper something to Skip, who snorted back some laughter and said, "Oh, and Chuckie, there's a big spot of bird shit on my hood. Maybe you could spritz that up for me, hmm?"
Chuck shot him a glance to make a cobra jealous. He'd clearly had enough, even though he knew messing with Skip might cost him his job. It was time for me to take over.
"What about the pile o' dog shit in the driver's seat?" I said, loud enough for everyone to hear. "No spritzin' that up."
"Whoa!" Stu said with an exaggerated laugh.
"Hey, that's witty, Greasy," Skip said, sounding amused. "But I don't see a comedy career in your future. You should stick to bagging groceries." He jerked a thumb at Chuck. "The alternative isn't nearly as pretty."
"Shut your fuckin' yap, Stanley," Chuck said.
"Whoa, wait a minute. I know you didn't say that, Hopscotch."
"Call me Hopscotch again and I'll fill you up with gas." Chuck moved closer, brought the gas nozzle to the side of the car, about a foot from Skip's face. I hoped he had the sense not to pull the trigger, or worse. Stu Hardy's father was the borough magistrate, and Skip kept Stu around for just that reason.
"Leave him alone, Skip," said the girl sitting behind him, a redhead with a stacked body. "He's a veteran for God's sake." Amazingly enough, she sounded sincere.
I heard footsteps and turned, saw Moe striding briskly across the asphalt.
"What's the problem here?" Moe asked, looking at Chuck.
It was Skip who answered. "Your attendant has a very smart attitude, Moe. Downright nasty if you ask me."
"Bull-shit," I said.
"Get outta here, kid, before I put a boot in your ass!" Moe said, though it was all bluff. He was an old fat man who would have needed a motorcycle to catch me. I didn't move, and it didn't matter, because Moe immediately forgot about me and turned on Chuck, jabbing a pointed finger into his chest. "One more complaint, Ballard, and I'll toss you outta here myself." More posturing, delivered with a scrunched-up tough guy face. "Now get to work!"
My brother let out a breath, nodded slowly. He moved again toward the back of the car, but not before giving me a jerk of the head, the sign to beat it.
Which I did, though to this day I can't tell you how I felt about it. Part of me wanted to stay and support my brother, even though that was impossible. But another part of me couldn't wait to get the hell out of there, couldn't bear to see my brother humiliated in such a manner. I know Chuck didn't want me to see it, so I jumped in the Ford and headed off, suddenly not in the mood to hit the drive-in.
Life ground on after that, just as it always does. I don't know if Chuck ran into Skip again at work, and he wasn't about to tell me. Why would he? In his mind he was a beaten man, his soul occupied by Skip's conquering forces. Add to that the spirit-squelching experience of working for Moe Sterett and you can see why things weren't getting better.
Though Chuck's mood remained black, I noticed he wasn't around the house as much in his spare time. I caught him leaving one day all dressed up in a shirt and tie, a dead giveaway something strange was afoot. It didn't take much pressuring to find out what was going on: Chuck was looking for another job as a real mechanic in some of the neighboring towns, and he'd applied for a couple of truck driving positions as well. It was proactive step on his part, for his days at Moe's seemed numbered. No use in postponing the inevitable.
As it turned out, he needn't have worried about finding a new job.
Miracles are rare in this world, and it is truly amazing how one event on one day can change the rest of your life. At that time the only miracle I'd known was my father's death, a true miracle in the biblical sense because it had delivered his family from evil. I figured that was probably the biggest break I was ever going to get, but I couldn't have asked for anything more.
But what happened to us in the summer of '52 was only dressed as a miracle, though we were certainly fooled at the time.
I got home from work around four, brought in the mail, saw none of it was for me—it never was, as I had yet to be burdened by bills—and set it on the kitchen table for Mom. I then went in the living room and turned on the radio. It was Belmont Stakes day, and the race was a couple of hours away. I flipped through the dial between races on the undercard, listening to music or catching bits of a show. Mom came in the back door a few minutes before post time, and immediately turned to opening the mail as I concentrated on the broadcast.
A couple of minutes later she came in the living room. My mother was like a lot of overworked poor women—testy at times, but usually happy and relieved when she came home from work. Whatever the case, I had never seen her wear such a look before—blank, stunned, like she was in a trance, her face drained of color.
"Hey, Mom," I said. "Somethin' the matter?"
"Sylvester, please read this letter to me."
"What, you forget how?" I asked, smiling, trying to lighten her up.
"Sylvester, please... ."
I nodded, took the letter from her hand. It was on heavy stationery with a bold letterhead: Cohen, Klein & Wheeler, Attorneys at Law, followed by a Morristown address.
"They sound familiar," I said.
"They're the ones handling Aunt Margot's estate."
Neither Chuck nor I had ever met my mother's Aunt Margot. Mom didn't even remember her that well; she'd been a young girl when Margot married her way out of poverty and left her family behind. I remembered Mom receiving a letter over a year before stating she had been left something in Aunt Margot's will, the exact amount to be determined when the estate settled. That was great news and all, but we hadn't been expecting much, maybe $200 or so. And since we had no idea when the money would show up we'd basically forgotten about it. So after two paragraphs of legalese garbage I was shocked when I saw the amount of money bequeathed to my mother: $9500.00, check enclosed.
I think I said what every man who has ever struck gold must have said: "We're rich!" I thought about it a moment. "No, you're rich. This is a hell of a lotta money!"
Mom just nodded in dumbstruck disbelief, not even bothering to scold me for using bad language. Some lifelong poor folks would have been hopping around like idiots at such a windfall, like I almost did. But not Mom. She'd seen it all and dreamed it all, and none of it had ever come true. It was easy to understand her disbelief in good fortune. But she began believing soon enough, and as we talked it over while she made dinner she became excited at the prospects, though she tried not to show it. She couldn't wait to tell Chuck...
... Who actually did jump for joy and hop around like an idiot, hooting all the while in his glee. Amazing how a few thousand dollars can cure someone's blues.
And $9500.00 was, as I'd said, a hell of a lot of money. The three of us combined didn't earn $4,000 a year; it was more like $3,000 and change. That we'd split the money in some manner was a foregone conclusion; Mom would never have stiffed us like that. But after the dishes were cleared and we sat down around the dinner table in a more subdued manner I knew conditions would be imposed, because my mother, even though she'd never been rich, was far from stupid. She wasn't about to unleash two young men into the world with that kind of cash.
"This money is a blessing," Mom began, "and it needs to be managed carefully."
"Amen," Chuck said, smiling.
Mom shot him an annoyed look. "We need to get our priorities in line. You two have already figured out 100 ways at least to throw this money away. That can't happen. We need to put it to good use, and the first thing we should do is send you to college."
Mom was staring at me. I didn't know what to say; college hadn't been an option until then.
"I don't think that's a good idea, Mom," Chuck said. "At least not now."
"Why?" she asked. I could tell she was pissed at Chuck's disagreeing.
"Because we need that money to work for us, that's why."
"But Sylvester can be somebody... he's a smart kid."
"Just hear me out, okay?" Mom had stood up, and she stayed that way. Her silence told Chuck he could continue. "I spent a couple o' days in Korea in a bunker with a zero, a second lieutenant, just the two of us. He was a rich kid just outta college, maybe a jerk if you met him here but not a bad guy under those circumstances. Anyhow, we got to talkin' about life, where we came from, all that kinda stuff, and he laid it on me: the rich stay rich not because they work hard, but because they take what they have and make it work for them. They buy stocks and bonds, or they open businesses. That's how they keep themselves flush. We should do the same thing, and Slick can go to college on the profits here in a couple o' years."
Mom didn't say anything; I could tell she was seriously considering what Chuck had said. I didn't say anything either. Stocks, bonds, businesses? I didn't know shit about any of that, so there was nothing for me to say.
Chuck continued: "I mean, look at old man Rutledge. He makes more in a day than we do in a month between his fabrication business and his investments. Now we've got some cash to invest in something, and we should damn well do it."
"What are you thinking of?" Mom asked.
Chuck thought a moment. "A business of our own. That's the place to start. And we have a leg up on it, Mom. You can be the bookkeeper. You know all about taxes and everything."
"True enough... .How about a service station? Lord knows you're a great mechanic."
"No. I don't wanna run a gas station. That was pop's dream—not that he ever really tried—and I ain't him. Besides, I don't think we have enough money to start something like that."
"So what can we do?"
Chuck rubbed his chin. "I dunno yet. But I'm thinkin' something small we can run ourselves. Maybe a sundry store, sellin' candy, pop, cigarettes... little stuff that really moves in volume. And we could set it up for a song. There's a couple o' vacant stores downtown for rent, and inventory to start up won't cost us much at all, maybe a couple, three thousand tops."
Mom nodded. "It's not a bad idea, Chuck. But I want Sylvester to get an education while he's still young."
"We can do that, Mom... and a lot more, I think."
"You may be right."
"Trust me, this is the way to go." He paused, then continued when no one said anything. "I'm also thinkin' we should buy a new car."
"A car?" Mom asked. "We have a car. A perfectly good car."
"It's rusting out, Mom. It's only got a couple more winters at the most."
"Oh, it is not."
No, it really was rusting out, only not at the rate Chuck claimed it was. It probably had another four years or so left in the body, but Mom didn't need to know that. The '46 Ford was reliable, but it was all function and no form. The prospect of a new car excited me.
"Mom, trust me, I've been workin' around cars all my life," Chuck said. "Two years, max. Besides, you have money now; you shouldn't be drivin' around in an old heap like that. We can afford better."
"How much better?"
"I've got something in mind... .It's a great family car."
Mom shook her head. "Why don't I believe you? You wanna go out and buy some hot rod."
Chuck held up his right hand as if swearing to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. "No way, Mom, it ain't like that at all. You're gonna fall in love with this car soon as you see it."
"What're you gonna buy? Why don't you just tell me?"
"It's a surprise." Chuck grew somber. "You know, pop could have given you the world, but he was too busy drinking. You deserve better than what you got, and I want you to have a nice car, instead of an old Ford pop bought used because it was all he could spare from his drinkin' money."
Mom was silent; whether she was moved or not I have no idea. "I'm just not sure about this," she finally said.
"Come on, Mom," I said, "a new car would be swell. There's some really nice ones out there these days."
Mom sighed. "I'm aware of that, Sylvester. I've seen them on the streets."
Chuck snorted, then laughed, and I joined him. Mom didn't, but she did smile, which was a good sign.
"I have a feeling I'm going to regret this," Mom said, "but all right, we can get a new car. But I'm warning you, Charles Owen Ballard, you bring home a hot car and you'll be takin' it right back."
Chuck smiled. "I wouldn't do that to you, Mom. Besides, I'll take Slick along to keep me honest."
Mom laughed. "That isn't very reassuring."
Mom went to work Monday morning. Chuck and I went to the bank. At 10:01 we stood before the teller with the inheritance check and a deposit slip signed by Mom, but filled out by Chuck. We walked out with four thousand dollars in cash.
"Jesus Christ," I said as we were leaving. "What are we buyin', a Rolls Royce?"
"Almost as nice," Chuck responded, smiling. "And a hell of a lot faster."
I shook my head. Mom's threat had been very specific; I hoped Chuck knew what he was doing.
We drove down to Route 46 and headed east, following the signs for Paterson and the George Washington Bridge. As it turned out we didn't reach either; instead, Chuck took a quick turn into an auto dealership in Little Falls.
"Hudson?" I asked, slightly surprised, though I really shouldn't have been. Hudson was a country club make, very popular with the tea-and-crumpets set; nevertheless, certain models were designed for performance. Most folks up North had never heard of NASCAR; they didn't know the Hudson Hornet ruled the sport of stock car racing. I only knew because of Chuck, who had spoken often of their exploits on those dirt ovals down South. He'd also explained to me how a skilled mechanic could take a Hornet from the dealer and tune it to replicate racetrack performance.
We parked the Ford near the showroom. A poster on one of the plate-glass windows invited potential customers to, "Step Down... Into a Hudson." Seeing that, then looking around, it struck me for the first time how low and aerodynamic they were, from the big Commodore sedans down to the smaller Wasps. The '46 Ford literally towered over the Hudsons parked nearby.
Chuck decided to skip the showroom. We headed off into the lot, where we meandered around for a few minutes, window peaking. I chattered a lot; I was pretty excited. But Chuck said little, no doubt apprehensive for the first time about purchasing a new car.
A salesman collared us soon enough, a rugged guy in a sharkskin suit with perfect blond hair and a movie-star face. "Can I help you boys with something?" he asked us, all business.
"Yeah," Chuck said. "We need a car."
The salesman nodded. "Very well. Perhaps you'd be interested in our economical Wasp club coupe."
"I was thinking a Hornet, actually."
The salesman frowned, apparently not amused by the two turds dogpaddling in his punchbowl. "Look, son, let's not waste each other's time. Hornets start at $27,500 and go up from there. Do you have that kind of money to spend?"
Chuck matched his tone, stern to stern. "And then some. And I'm here to buy. So maybe you'd like to show us some cars... if you can spare the time."
That salesman was no fool. He'd read us wrong to begin with, but he wasted no time making up for it. "By all means, sir!" He smiled and extended his hand. "Jeff Backstrom. I'm head of sales here at Passaic Hudson."
Oh, hoity-fucking-toity, I thought, ever so grateful Jeff Backstrom had descended from his ivory tower to wait on the likes of us.
Chuck made our introductions, which included the words, "Pleased to meet you, Jeff."
Jeff's eyes narrowed a bit, then returned to normal. In those days you didn't address your elders by their first names, and Jeff had about 15 years on Chuck. But Jeff wasn't going to get angry about it; he had a nice fat commission coming his way, no matter how Chuck addressed him.
"So... " Backstrom said, clapping his hands and rubbing them together, "I take it you'll want some options. We have Hornets with Hydramatic transmission—the finest automatic in the industry, and the preferred choice of our customers."
"Actually, I'd prefer the three-speed standard," Chuck said. "With optional overdrive."
"Yes, sir! Right this way."
We followed Backstrom down the line of Hornets to where the coupes were parked. Chuck hadn't asked for a coupe, but Backstrom was a mind reader now.
"I have these three," Backstrom said, motioning. I don't remember what color the other two Hornets were, and I don't think Chuck much cared. He headed straight for the two-tone black and yellow.
"This one," Chuck said.
"It's open," Backstrom said. "Hop in and get comfortable. I'll go get the key so you can start her." He headed back to the showroom at a very fast clip, almost a jog.
"Yeah, double-time it, Jeff," Chuck muttered. We stepped down into the Hornet. The new-car smell flooded my nostrils, and it was so much sweeter back then—new cloth and polished chrome as opposed to the plastic scent of modern cars. The bench seat was firm yet giving, allowing my ass to sink in without hitting the floor. There was about a mile of legroom; I could have easily stretched out and taken a nap right there.
Backstrom soon returned and gave Chuck the key. He turned her over, listened to her idle, revved her up, listened some more.
"Know any good mechanics, Chuck?" Backstrom asked.
"Yeah, there's a guy I know does all my repairs." I covered up my smile with my hand. "Why do you ask?"
"Because this engine can be performance tuned by a guy who knows what he's doing. You could get 100 miles per hour out of her."
"Is that right?"
Backstrom nodded. "Yes, indeed. Just figured a guy like you might be interested in getting a little more out of his car."
"I'll keep that in mind." Chuck turned the key and shut her down. "And I'll take her, on one condition... ."
Chuck jerked his thumb toward the Ford. "Don't beat me up on the trade."
Now Backstrom really forced his smile. "I'm sure we can work something out."
Chuck and I cruised home in the Hudson like a couple of kings on sabbatical—radio blasting, smoking fat cigars as the Hornet sped along, slicing through curves and floating over bumps.
We got off 46 onto Route 11, and after a couple of miles came to a straight stretch of level road running along Pelamunk Creek. The one-mile straightaway was a popular place to drop the right foot and see what your car really had, and Chuck did exactly that at the apex of the bend leading to the strip. The front seat swallowed me as he accelerated, quickly maxing out third and shifting to overdrive. The creek passed in a blur on my side, and I stole a glance at the speedometer: 75, with about a quarter mile to go. We passed 80, but a turn was coming up fast. Chuck pumped the brakes and rammed her down into third. The engine revved in protest, the tires squealed, and I pictured us going through the guardrail into the creek. But Chuck pulled us out in time, and continued driving as if nothing had happened.
"Eighty-two," he said, staring ahead. "I'll have to work on that."
We continued on, soon arriving in Mont Clayton. It was two o'clock, and normally Chuck would have been at work for an hour already. But Chuck no longer worked for Moe Sterett, only he hadn't bothered to tell Moe he'd quit. Of course, Moe had probably fired him already for not showing up, but he hadn't seen the last of my brother. Chuck needed to stop by the Texaco and pick up his tools from the garage.
You're not old yet, so I have to tell you it's amazing how many details you might recall from a single day over fifty years before. For example, I clearly remember the song playing on the radio—"Hawk's Boogie," by Erskine Hawkins and His Orchestra—when we pulled into Moe's Texaco, stopping at the high-test pump even though we had no intention of buying gas. Moe—in the other lane cleaning the windshield on a black Caddy—had spotted the Hornet, only he didn't know we were its passengers. We got out of the car. Chuck closed his door and leaned against the Hornet.
"You gonna make me check my own oil, Sterett?" Chuck asked.
Moe turned around, his look surprised, then incredulous, then enraged. "You!" He pointed at Chuck. "Where the hell have you been? You're a goddamned hour late!"
"For what, exactly?"
"What the hell do you think!"
"Why, do I still have a job?"
Chuck shrugged. "Then what difference does it make?"
Moe fumed, turned purple, looked as if his head might burst open. "You get outta here right now, Ballard, or so help me, I'll—"
"What? Throw me off your property? Put a boot in my ass? Whatever, you fat, miserable prick. I'll be off your premises soon enough. Just here to get my tools."
"No, my tools!" Moe said, jabbing his finger into his own chest. "They're on my property."
"Oh, don't make me do it, old man."
Moe backhanded Chuck across the face. "You smart-aleck punk! Get outta here now!"
"Ow," Chuck said, rubbing his jaw. He smiled and looked at me. "Moe just slapped me."
"He sure did," said another voice. I hadn't noticed the man in the Cadillac, who had gotten out of his car and was now leaning on the fender. He was a huge man—tall, fat, powerful—with a dark, weathered face. "Shouldn't take that lyin' down, kid."
Chuck kept smiling. "You know, you're right, mister." Chuck made a fist and smacked it into his palm.
"Now wait a minute!" Moe said, backing off a step.
"I didn't see nothin'," the big man said.
Chuck paused for a moment, seeming to think it over, then said, "Come here, you old buzzard!" Chuck's hand shot out, grabbed the back of Moe's head and brought it forward. He reached up with his other hand and pinched Moe's nose between his middle and index fingers, giving it a little twist. Moe let out an anguished grunt, tried to kick Chuck in the balls, but this proved impossible. Chuck had height and strength enough to keep Moe in check all day.
"Whaddaya think, Slick?" Chuck asked over Moe's grunts. "His name's Moe, after all."
"Hell yeah! Do it!"
With that, Chuck smacked his own hand off of Moe's nose, Three Stooges style. I laughed, and so did the big man. Moe bent over and turned to the side, growling in pain and clutching his nose. Chuck kicked him in the ass, hard, and sent him tumbling into the bucket of washer fluid on the service island. Our laughter and shouts of encouragement continued, the big man even clapping his hands. Chuck advanced to stand over his former boss, cracking his knuckles, his look now deadly serious. "Had enough, Sterett?"
To Moe's credit, he showed some pluck and tried to stand up, but he slipped in the solution of washer fluid and oil covering the tarmac, falling back on his ass. More laughter, but he tried to stand once more. So Chuck kicked him again, this time catching him square in the balls. Moe howled in pain, drowning out the applause. As a cherry on top, Chuck hawked up a big gob of snot and spat it at Moe, hitting him in the temple. I finger whistled and clapped; the big man smiled and moved forward.
Moe looked up from the ground, pathetic. "Callin' the police," he gasped.
"I am the police, you fuckin' skinflint," said the big man. I took note of the gold PBA badge on his dashboard. "But you already know dat. Maybe next time you'll gimme a police discount." He reached into the breast pocket of his white shirt and produced a PBA card, which he handed to Chuck. "This asshole calls the cops you give 'em dis card. But I know he won't do dat"—he looked down at Moe—" 'cause it never happened. Now go get your tools and get the fuck outta here."
Chuck nodded and thanked him. "It ain't nothin'," the cop said with a dismissive wave. He got in his Caddy and drove off.
Chuck went to grab his toolbox. Moe began to stir. I walked over and planted my size ten on his chest. "Where do you think you're goin'?" I asked. Moe mumbled barely intelligible threats in response.
We didn't have to use that PBA card, given to us by a detective with the Jersey City P.D. I don't remember his name... .
Now, let's not forget the Hornet was for Mom. We presented it to her when she came home from work. She was speechless at first, and nearly moved to tears. After that she said, "It's just gorgeous... but you didn't have to buy something this nice. You could have saved a lot of—"
"You been skimped on enough, Mom," Chuck said. "You deserve this car."
Mom thanked him, though she didn't comment on whether she deserved the car. But she did take it for a spin around town—Chuck in the shotgun seat explaining the car's features; me in the back wondering when I'd have a chance to drive it. It wouldn't be that afternoon, for the Hornet went into our garage as soon as we got back. Chuck gathered his tools and spread out everything he needed within easy reach, an automotive surgeon ready to operate. He worked through dinner and into the night. I hung around the garage for a while, handing tools to Chuck when he needed them, but I grew bored eventually and headed inside.
Mom insisted I give two-weeks' notice to the A&P, just as she was doing. We got up early the next morning to be at work by eight. Mom said I could drive the Hornet to work, and I was looking forward to it, even though the A&P was less than a mile away. But when we opened the garage we found the Hornet with her hood open, still in the process of being tuned. How long does it take? I thought, shaking my head.
"She should be done this morning, Mom," Chuck said from behind us, startling us both. He was dressed in his coveralls again, ready to finish what we thought was already done.
"All right, Chuck. We can just walk to work." We would be late—not that it mattered—but that wasn't the point.
As we humped off to work Mom called back to Chuck, "Oh, and don't forget to file those business licensure papers at city hall when you're done."
"Sure thing, Mom," Chuck said from under the hood.
The Hornet was still in the garage when we came home from work. Chuck had turned her around and dropped the hood, apparently done with the tune-up. Now he was busy at one of the rear side windows. From afar I had no idea what he was doing; looking closer I could see he was stenciling something on the glass. We greeted Chuck, and then I asked the question on both of our minds: "What are you doing?"
"Oh, just adding a personal touch to the windows, Mom. You're gonna love it; you'll have the most unique car in town."
"I see," Mom said. "Well, I'm glad you took the liberty of decorating your car for me. Did everything go all right at city hall?"
"Well, I didn't really get a chance—"
"Well, you'd better get your ass down there tomorrow and get it done." Mom didn't raise her voice; she didn't have to. "I didn't fill out those papers so you could leave them sit on the table."
"It'll get done, Mom," Chuck responded, properly cowed.
"Damn right it will. We've got a lotta stuff to do and you're the one with the time to do it. This whole business thing was your idea, so don't expect me to do all the dirty work while you fart around with your car all day. We have to sign the lease agreement after work on Thursday, and you'll have to meet with the salesmen from the distributors all next week. This store is your new job, and I suggest you get serious about it."
"Okay," Chuck said, looking genuinely embarrassed.
Mom went inside to make dinner. Curious, I took a closer look at Chuck's work, saw the basic layout of what would soon be the comets.
We didn't know at the time just how good of an idea Chuck's business model was. We were preparing to open one of the first convenience stores in America, long before anyone knew what a convenience store was. The space we were going to lease had been the old candy store on the corner of Main and Pohatcong Streets. Mom had decided what the name would be: Candy Too, a play on words Chuck and I thought silly, though we had to admit it had a certain ring to it. If all went well—if Chuck filed all the necessary forms in addition to performing his other duties—we would be in business within a week of ending our careers at A&P.
Chuck proved himself worthy, completing all of the necessary startup chores each day. At night, on his own time, he continued to work on the glass etchings. The comets were finished by Friday. On Saturday we all went to work in the store—scraping, spackling and painting the walls. Sunday promised more of the same, but Saturday night came first.
The Moon Ridge Drive-In wasn't a movie drive-in, but rather the kind serving greasy food and milkshakes delivered to your car by pretty young carhops, who had yet to be put on roller skates. The mood around the drive-in was enthusiastic that Saturday night, full of life and young people excited by the promise of a dawning summer. I, however, didn't share in the mood. I remember being beat from a day of hard labor in the store, and looking forward to a fat cheeseburger and a vanilla Coke, which was why I thought we'd come to the drive-in—to eat. I should have known better.
The place was pretty busy, but there were a few parking spots open around the circular drive-in, right next to the building. Most of the kids were high schoolers—boys packed into cars looking for girls; the more domesticated kids out on dates with their steadies. The recent graduates were there as well, all of whom I knew on sight.
And then there were the collegians, three or four cars of them clustered together and separated from their juniors by a few empty parking spaces. At the head of their lineup, Skip Rutledge held court from the hood of his '48 Buick Roadmaster.
Chuck angled the Hornet toward the empty space next to the Roadmaster.
"Oh, come on, Chuck," I said, probably in a whining tone. "Let's just eat, okay?"
Ignoring me, Chuck pulled into the space next to Skip, immediately stealing his spotlight. He revved the Hornet once—menacing to say the least; he'd really tuned the shit out of her—then shut her down. "Good evening, Stanley," he said.
Skip squinted a little, probably in disbelief, but he quickly recovered. "Hey hey, Hopscotch! Some nice wheels you got there. Your customers know you're out cruisin' around in their cars?"
"Customers? I'm not sure I follow."
"You know, the folks who bring their cars to Moe's? The place where you work pumping gas?"
Stu Hardy muttered something to Skip. Chuck said, "Seems you're behind the times, Stanley. I don't work for Moe any longer."
"Yeah? Well where'd you find the money to buy a Hornet? You win a sweepstakes or something?"
Stu muttered again to Skip. "I told you he... " was all I could hear of it.
"Seems you should listen to Stu," Chuck said. "He's a bit more informed than you are."
Skip nodded. "So you're moving up in the world."
"Actually, I've stepped down."
"Oh, that's rich. But you won't be for long. In fact, it'll be interesting to see how quickly you blow through your money, buying shit you really can't afford, like that car you're sitting in."
Chuck smiled. "But I just had to buy it, Stanley, poor boy that I am. And you must admit it's quite sharp, while your Roadmistress is so... yesterday."
It was like somebody sucked the air out of the air. A moment of dead silence followed, then Skip's followers took over with a chorus of ohhs, whoas and oohs.
"Get lost, you crippled upstart," Skip said.
Chuck laughed. "My foot hits the gas just fine, Stanley. What about yours?"
"Oh, you wanna race, do you?"
"Sure... unless you're too chicken shit to race a crippled man."
Skip's face said it all: he didn't want any part of racing my brother. But he didn't have a choice. If he backed down he was finished; he'd have to wear a paper bag over his head whenever he came home. "Let's go," he finally said.
"To the Slab?" Chuck asked.
"Where else?" Skip said, clearing off the hood. He jumped into the Roadmaster and fired her up. Her Fireball straight-eight sounded tough as ever, but something told me her bragging days were over.
Stu got in with Skip; their two girlfriends jumped in the back. "Start us off," Skip said to some guy nearby. He squealed the tires just backing up; then he swung the Buick around and waited for Chuck, who appeared to be in no hurry, as if pulling out to take a pleasure cruise. Skip continued to gun the Roadmaster, trying to intimidate Chuck as he brought the Hornet to the start.
"Better get the jump on him," I said.
"Don't sweat it. He ain't got a chance."
The starter dropped his arms. We took off—or rather blasted off—smoothly, our tires emitting only a tiny squeak. We pulled onto Route 11 without looking, already doing about 30 and accelerating hard. I heard an air horn and a squalling of tires. I looked back, expecting to find a truck in our back seat, but the horn wasn't for us. Skip, riding a few feet off our bumper, had pulled out right in front of a box truck, which was in the process of swapping ends.
"Fuck!!!" I cried like some choirboy. The truck smashed through the guardrail, rolled onto its side and came to rest in a ditch. Skip plowed on, getting closer on the slight downgrade, but the fact that he was behind would probably decide the race. That portion of 11 was two lanes with gentle curves, but the profile was a killer, long hills up and down, three or four of them. At the bottom of the first hill Skip was pulling off our bumper, ready to pass. Then we hit the grade. The Hornet had stamina; Chuck was able to hold her above 65 for most of the way up, and Skip fell behind by several car lengths. Skip regained some of the ground on the downgrade, but he would never come within passing range again.
Distance to the Slab—a flat rock outcropping overlooking a narrow valley—was about four miles, three on 11 and one on a dirt road. We pulled in first, Chuck announcing his arrival by executing a bootlegger reverse, kicking up dust and startling the couples making out in the two cars parked there.
"Who you racin'?" called some guy in one of the cars.
"Rutledge," Chuck said. "He's beat."
I consulted my Timex and awaited Skip's arrival. He pulled in about 40 seconds later, and opened one of the strangest scenes I remember from early life. Slowly, the Buick Roadmaster circled the Hornet, Skip staring at Chuck, Chuck staring back, Stu and the girls looking at the stars, the valley, each other, but not at Skip. I guess they thought if they didn't acknowledge the beating then it probably never occurred. But Skip knew he'd been beat, and all the anger he could muster wouldn't change the outcome. The Roadmaster came around to my side, and Skip continued to stare at Chuck, straight through me. No one said anything all the while. It was really weird.
After completing his circle, Skip floored the Roadmaster, dirt kicking up from her rear end. Oddly enough he left us, the victors, behind in a cloud of dust.
Chuck smiled. "Didn't somebody famous once say there's nothing like feasting on the flesh of your enemies?"
"Hell if I know," I said. "Can we go eat now?"
Candy Too opened for business on the Saturday of Fourth of July weekend. A lot of folks were away on vacation, but enough people remained in Mont Clayton to make our opening day a success. It was hot, of course, and we sold a hell of a lot of soda and about a ton of ice cream novelties.
Business only got better from there. Our hours were six to six on weekdays, eight to two on Saturdays, closed Sundays. We kept it simple, just as planned, carrying few groceries—bread, milk and butter, and not much else—while concentrating on high volume items: soda, candy, cigarettes, snack food. Mornings became busy as men on their way to work stopped in for coffee and a newspaper. Mom partnered with the bakery in town, selling their morning donuts in our store for a slight markup.
But the baker was about the only local businessman happy to see the opening of Candy Too. To other stores we were competition of the worst kind. Business at the drug store soda fountain suffered, as did their tobacco sales. We competed with the local café for morning business, and the ice cream parlor took a hit when people opted for cheaper novelties over buying by the scoop. But that's business for you, and it wasn't like we drove anyone out of business. We'd simply taken our share of the market, and other stores had to deal with it.
Just about everyone in town stopped by Candy Too during our first couple of weeks in business. Some were just curious, but most bought something, and returned in the following days to become regular customers. Everyone knew our story, what we'd dealt with under my father, and most wished us well in our endeavor, even our competitors. Old man Rutledge—a pompous prick in his own right, though more subdued than his son—even went so far as to order a box of cigars through his old bookkeeper.
I didn't expect Skip to order anything when he stopped by, around noon on a weekday. Dressed in a charcoal suit, he was on lunch break from his job at Rutledge Sheet Metal, where he lackeyed for his old man eight hours a day. Mom and Chuck were working the counter at the time; I was in an aisle stocking shelves.
"Hello, Skip," Mom said, cordially enough.
"Hi, Mrs. Ballard... Chuckie." He nodded and smiled.
"Can I help you find something?" Mom asked.
Chuck cut off Skip's response. "Out steppin' 'n fetchin' for your old man?"
Skip laughed. "Ah, I see you've yet to learn the first rule of business."
Chuck snorted. "And what might that be?"
"That my money's worth just as much as anyone else's."
"But only if you spend it," Chuck responded.
"Well, perhaps you could give him a chance?" Mom said. "Now, can I help you find something, Skip?"
"The door perhaps?" Chuck asked.
Skip's smile decreased a bit. "Why, Hopscotch, you're way out of line."
"All right, that's it," Mom said. She pointed at Skip. "I'll not have you mocking my son's service injuries. I think it's time you went back to work."
"Yeah, get outta here, Stanley," Chuck said, "before I stick my hop-along foot up your Ivy League ass."
Mom turned on Chuck. "You wanna join him?" A moment of tense silence followed. "High school's over, kids. Why don't you put it behind you and man up?"
Chuck was duly embarrassed. Skip lowered his head a little, so maybe he was as well. Both kept their mouths shut, but the shock of mortification quickly passed. Skip smirked, head still down, and walked out of the store.
By the end of July it had become apparent the volume of business at Candy Too was more than the three of us could reasonably handle. We needed to hire some help.
Our first hire was a fat junior-high kid named Alvin Booth. He lasted roughly a week, eating his weight in stolen candy bars between brief stints of stocking shelves. Mom caught him, fired him, then opted for a little frontier justice: she called Alvin's mom and told her to come get him. Mrs. Booth dragged Alvin out of the store by his ear, uttering those immortal words, "Just wait'll your father gets home!"
Mom was reluctant to hire another helper after being robbed by Alvin, but she had no choice. The help wanted sign went back in the window. A couple of kids inquired within, and Mom wound up hiring a girl named Marcy Burns. She was dark-haired, cute and 16, and man did I have a crush on her. She'd really grown up over the summer, if you get my meaning. She worked the counter mostly, and got along well with the customers.
Mom soon noticed Chuck and I were both interested in Marcy. "She's jailbait," Mom said. "So don't even think about it."
Mom ruled me, the house and the store, so I was obliged to obey. But Chuck had other ideas, and he wasn't the only one. Marcy seemed to have a crush on Chuck, and the flirting went in both directions. I was jealous; I started to get short with Marcy, not that she cared. She was too busy concentrating on Chuck.
We gave Mom a break on Saturdays, which were short and generally slow, a good day to stock shelves and prepare for the week ahead. But I ended up doing most of the stocking, while Chuck and Marcy flirted at the counter. Chuck grabbed her inappropriately more than once—not surprising—and Marcy's responses were typical—Chuck's hand pushed away, a playful slap, a "Stop it, Chuck!" every now and then. But she didn't sound very annoyed; seemed to relish the attention, actually. I was pissed, so I threw myself into my work, doing my best to ignore them.
We closed up at two and headed out the back door. I noticed Marcy angling toward the Hornet. "Shouldn't you ask Slick?" Marcy asked Chuck.
"Oh, right. Hey, Slick, me 'n Marcy are gonna go swimmin' up at Waconda Lake. You wanna tag along?"
I felt like telling them both to fuck off, but I kept it together. "Nah, you two go ahead. Have a blast." I walked off toward home. Chuck didn't even offer me a ride. He and Marcy jumped in the Hornet and took off for the lake.
I was rudely awakened early Monday morning—my day off—by the phone ringing. It wouldn't stop, so I got up and answered it. It was Mom.
"Sylvester, Marcy was scheduled to work this morning and she hasn't shown up."
I assumed she wanted me to fill in. "All right, Mom. I'll be right down."
"I'd like you to stop by Marcy's first and see what's happened to her. I've called twice and no one's answered. I hope nothing's wrong... this is so unlike her."
"Okay. I'll see what's up."
I hung up, got dressed, and walked over to Marcy's. Her father was a suit-and-tie guy, and she lived in a nice white house like the one on Leave It To Beaver. I saw someone moving around in the living room behind the sheer curtain. I rang the doorbell. Mrs. Burns—a full-figured brunette who was no Mrs. Cleaver—answered the door.
"Was Marcy supposed to work today?" Mrs. Burns asked after the customary pleasantries.
"Yes, ma'am," I said. "My mother just wanted me to see if she was all right."
"Oh, I'm sorry, I guess I should have answered the phone. It's so early and all... ." Mrs. Burns called up the stairs for Marcy, eventually receiving a muffled answer. "Come down here, please. Make sure you're decent." She turned back to me. "I have to run out, but she'll be down in a minute. Drag her to work if you have to! Have a good day, Slick."
"You too, ma'am."
Marcy came down a few minutes later, dressed in a white robe. She looked weary and disheveled; twitchy and nervous. "What?" she asked me, the word just a whisper.
"You were supposed to work this morning. Mom was wondering if you were okay."
"Oh." I noticed scratches on Marcy's neck, near the collarbone, not quite concealed by the robe. She saw me looking and covered up. "I can't come to work."
"Are you sick?"
"Yeah... I mean, I'm not coming to work. Not anymore."
"Tell your mom I'm sorry. I just can't." Tears welled up in her eyes. She stepped back and closed the door.
This is going to sound silly, but I didn't make the connection. My only excuse is I was young and unworldly. Looking back, it's pretty obvious what happened, yet it was unthinkable at the time. As any old man will tell you, it was a different world back then.
Only not as different as we like to think.
Though I was blind to Marcy's plight, it was impossible not to notice how Chuck had changed over the past month. He'd left his pathetic, crippled shadow behind at Moe's Texaco, and his old confidence was back. Bold, self-assured, he dealt with other men like a man, and a dominant one at that. He was the quarterback once again, cool and in control against the forces of everyday life.
While the money and status of owning a business had something to do with Chuck's rejuvenated confidence, their influence paled next to the Hornet. She was Chuck's car—Mom had lost her title long ago—and as a gunfighter would never leave home without his revolver, Chuck only left home in her driver's seat, where he spent nearly all of his off-duty hours taking long drives to nowhere, or ogling girls as he slowly cruised the streets of Mont Clayton.
Quite a few girls responded favorably to Chuck's advances, and they began to cause problems around the store and the house. The phone rang constantly, always for Chuck, and it drove me and my mother absolutely apeshit. Girls came by the store looking for him, many of them clearly underage, but Mom refused to let them loiter—if they weren't buying something they were gone, simple as that. Chuck had work to do, and the place wasn't a bus station, as Mom had been fond of saying.
And then things got nasty. Neither Mom nor Chuck ever gave me the exact details of what happened, but from what I gathered a woman complained to Mom of Chuck's overt advances. And not just any woman, but a thirty-something with a young son in tow at the time of the incident. We didn't know her; she was new to Mont Clayton, but that didn't matter. Mom was appalled. Chuck was relegated to stocking, barred from working the counter. In hindsight, revoking his Hornet privileges would have been a better punishment.
Things calmed down a bit after that. Chuck limited his womanizing to his spare time, and the phone calls to the house practically ceased. Mom was relieved, thinking Chuck had finally given up his profligate ways. But the peace was deceiving. The pussy war raged on, albeit covertly, and the general had opted for a change in tactics... .
It was a Saturday, hot, the kind of day where only the flies are active, though they were buzzing a little slower than usual. I was behind the counter, standing in front of the fan and relishing what little relief it provided. The door opened, bells clanged, and in walked a vision only summer could bring.
In spite of his many flaws, Skip Rutledge had one thing going for him: his girlfriend was an absolute knockout. Her name was Sally Draper, we'd come to learn, and she lived nearby in a private community called Oberon Lakes. Like your women stacked? Well, Sally was loaded—not very tall, but big-boobed and curvy as hell. She tanned really nice for a redhead, too, and she wasn't above showing it off. The yellow sundress she wore wouldn't be considered very suggestive nowadays, but it was really pushing the envelope for the time.
"Hi," she said, offering a smile—lips together, friendly and alluring.
"Hi," I said, a sudden chill running through me. "What can I get for you?"
"Pack of Parliaments, please."
"Sure thing." I grabbed the cigarettes and rang them in. They cost something like 23 cents.
"Thanks," she said.
Then she asked if Chuck was around.
The question caught me off guard. "Yeah, he's in the back. Want me to go get him?"
"That's okay. Through that door over there?" She pointed toward the back of the store.
"Yeah, right through there."
She thanked me again, then headed to the open stockroom door, where she knocked on the jamb. Chuck greeted her like an old friend, and she responded in kind, disappearing into the back.
"What the fuck?" I said to myself in disbelief. I turned off the fan so I might hear them, but I couldn't perceive much of anything other than typical small talk, which wound down a couple minutes later. Sally exited the stockroom, smoking one of her Parliaments. Chuck leaned against the jamb, told her he'd see her later on. She headed for the front door, smiling at me on her way out. Still stunned, I looked over at Chuck, who shot me wink.
"How do you like that?" he asked.
"Skip's girlfriend? What are you tryin' to do, get yourself killed?"
"Stanley is hardly a threat."
No, but his trigger finger might be, I thought. The chances of that happening were slim, I knew, but certainly not impossible. Many men had killed over lesser women than Sally.
"Besides," Chuck continued, "he's on vacation for the next three weeks, gone off to Cape Cod with his mommy, leaving poor little Sally all by herself."
I nodded. "So you guys are goin' out later on?"
"Yeah, to the city. Some restaurant called Tavern on the Green."
I'd never heard of Tavern on the Green. "Better wear a suit," I advised.
Chuck and I didn't hang out much that summer; his reborn confidence and depraved escapades left little time for the likes of me. But I remember us being brothers again for a short time on a humid August evening as we fished for bass in a flooded clay pit. The idea had come to us that morning while working in the store, and Chuck ran out during lunch and bought us a couple of new rods and reels, replacing the cane poles and twine of our impoverished youth. Yet we still fished like poor boys, standing barefoot and calf-deep in the water, our trousers rolled up past the knees. Thunder boomed in the cloudy skies overhead.
"Think it'll rain?" Chuck asked, staring upward.
"Nah, it's all talk," I said, casting out a live shiner, putting it right over a weed bed.
"Let's hope so." Surprisingly enough, Chuck seemed to be enjoying himself, suspending for an evening the underlying motives that drove him. I hadn't seen him so relaxed in a long time.
We fished for a while in silence. I pulled another bass off the weed bed, strung him up with the other fish, then came back and fished some more. Finally, Chuck said, "I tagged her, Slick."
"Yeah?" I said, acting surprised.
"Yep, twice in just the last week."
"Must be nice." I was still a virgin, a mere second baseman with nothing much to swing at.
"Oh yeah. She's the best I've ever had; the best there is. And she's all mine."
"What about Skip? She break up with him?"
"He isn't back yet. But don't worry, she's going to."
Now I hadn't dropped off the social scene completely; I still hung around with my friends from high school when I could. News travels fast in such small circles, and while the college kids weren't really their concern, Sally Draper was nevertheless on the minds of many young men. Yet I'd heard no gossip regarding Chuck and Sally, and had likewise created none, not wishing to stir up trouble between Chuck and Skip.
"Sure about that?" I asked, not paying attention to my float.
Chuck's tone changed. "Whaddaya mean?"
"Doesn't it seem kinda odd you two have gone to the shore and the city together, but never once to the drive-in or the lake?"
"What's so odd about that?"
"I dunno... it's kinda like she doesn't wanna be seen with you."
"Well, no shit, Dick Tracy. She hasn't broken up with Skip officially. I mean the guy's an asshole and all, but she's too classy to break him like that. She'll tell him to his face."
"If you say so... ."
"I know so. I've never been so sure of anything in my life." He paused. "Sally's the end-all-be-all, Slick. Skip's done. I've taken his woman; you can't emasculate a man any further than that."
I didn't want to start a fight, so I said nothing. But my thoughts ran wild. Chuck would never say he was in love with Sally, but it didn't take a genius to figure it out. He'd sworn off everything else in a skirt, and the fact that he'd put his trust in a woman who slept around on her boyfriend was proof he was mesmerized. I hoped he would succeed in taking Sally from Skip, because I dreaded the other possibility—of how emasculated Chuck would be if she was only toying with him.
I didn't see Skip again that summer; he left for Princeton a couple of days after returning from his vacation. Sally went back to the New Jersey College for Women in New Brunswick, and I was pleased to see her go. Chuck, however, became depressed at her departure, only he didn't mope around like he had before; instead he became surly in his dealings with Mom and me. I caught him writing a letter to Sally one day in the stockroom, a shocking discovery because Chuck wasn't the type to write letters to anyone, Mom being the sole exception during his time in Korea. Chuck's mood brightened somewhat for a weekend or two during the early fall, corresponding with Sally's visits home; but they continued to date on the sly, meaning she hadn't officially dumped Skip. My opinion on the affair was obviously unwelcome, so I kept my comments to myself.
During the last week of October Chuck received a rare letter from Sally; she would be home for the weekend. By Friday he was moving around the store like a whirlwind, tearing through boxes of stock, rapidly replenishing items on the shelves. He even swept and mopped the floor without an order from Mom, who went home early to start dinner.
Chuck and I locked up promptly at 6:00; we were out by 6:15. Night was falling fast, the air crisp and chilly as we walked to the Hornet, parked out front on Main Street. I started mumbling something about warming up the car next time, but my mouth seized up in mid-sentence. Leaning against a car parked behind the Hornet was Skip, smoking a cigarette, dressed in a hound's tooth jacket over shirt and tie.
"Hello, boys," Skip said with a smile. He flicked his cigarette butt, bouncing it off the store's plate-glass window.
" 'The fuck do you want?" Chuck asked. He seemed amused, though I could tell he was annoyed.
"Oh, nothing, merely a social call. Just figured I'd drop by and say hi."
"Yeah, hi," Chuck said, reaching for the Hornet's door handle. "Let's go, Slick."
"But you haven't seen my new car yet," Skip said, dejected. "I figured you might be interested, Chuckie, being such an enthusiast and all."
Chuck stopped, hand on the door handle. He turned to look at Skip's new car—a '53 Packard Mayfair coupe, white with a red hardtop. Skip's choice in cars wasn't surprising. Packard was America's premier maker of luxury automobiles, offering the ultimate in style for the discriminating few who could afford them. Hudsons were country club, but Packards were Harvard Club, and thus the perfect choice for a young Ivy Leaguer like Skip.
We stepped closer, came around the back end of the Hudson to stand before the Packard's chrome grill. The hood ornament—a graceful swan with downturned head—gleamed in the last light of day. I looked over the hood, through the windshield.
Sally Draper sat in the passenger seat.
"So, whaddaya think?" Skip asked.
Chuck remained silent for several seconds, staring not at the Packard, but at Sally. I saw her mouth a silent, "I'm sorry," in his direction. I became sick in the gut with hate; had she been within arms' reach I would have strangled her.
Regaining his composure somewhat, Chuck said, "So daddy bought you a new car."
"Yeah," Skip said. "Who does yours belong to?"
"I oughtta feed you your teeth."
"I wouldn't recommend that, Hopscotch." I saw why—Stu Hardy and his girlfriend occupied the back seat.
Chuck nodded. "You still can't beat me on the road."
"Oh, you're probably right, Hopscotch. But speed isn't everything. There's also something to be said for prestige and style. Sure, you've got a nice car... a fast car. But you don't have this car. Nor will you be buying one on your meager candy-baron salary." He smiled even wider. "And my copilot is one hell of a lot prettier than yours."
What happened next befuddles me to this day. Instead of telling Skip how it was, that he'd been laying his "copilot" for most of the summer into the fall, Chuck said nothing regarding Sally. In hindsight, I should have said it for him. Skip would have called me a liar, but his egotistical mind would have immediately questioned Sally's fidelity. I suppose Chuck gave her a pass because he loved her, and couldn't bear to see her reputation sullied in such a manner, even though she deserved every bit of it. Fucking whore.
"Well, I suppose we're through here," Skip said, reaching for his door handle. "Ta ta, Hopscotch. Keep the candy flowing!"
Chuck just stood there as Skip maneuvered the Packard back onto Main, Skip and Stu waving farewell as they passed. I heard loud laughter shortly thereafter, from a ways down the block. Skip and Stu, of course, but I detected a female ring to it as well.
Chuck was devastated. He skipped supper and spent Friday night alone in his room. Mom could tell something was wrong, and when she asked me I told her it was girl trouble.
"Is somebody pregnant?" she asked, alarmed.
"No, Mom," I answered.
"Then he'll get over it."
I figured I'd have to drag Chuck to work Saturday morning, yet oddly enough he wound up waiting for me. He worked quietly and methodically all day long, never mentioning the previous night's incident. I knew it would take time for him to recover, but he seemed to be doing his best to put Sally—and his rivalry with Skip, hopefully—behind him.
We locked up at two, and by two-thirty I'd counted the drawer and gotten the weekly deposit together for the night drop at the bank. It had been a pretty good week; we were banking about $260.00.
"Ready to go?" I asked Chuck.
"Nah, you go ahead. I'm gonna stay behind and field day." I'd heard the Marine Corps term before, which meant he was going to clean. He started pulling stock off the shelves, preparing to dust.
Now I desperately wanted to get the hell out of there, but I didn't leave. Instead I joined Chuck, and together we cleaned all the shelves, which weren't all that dirty, as well as the dairy case, which was pretty nasty.
We left the store around four-thirty. Chuck had parked the Hornet around back, an unconscious preventive measure, as if what happened yesterday might happen again if he parked out front. We pulled out onto Pohatcong and headed up to Main. A car cruised through the intersection ahead—a white Packard Mayfair with a red top. Skip and Sally were on board; the back seat appeared empty.
Chuck saw the Packard too, but he said nothing. When we came to the stop sign he turned right onto Main.
"Bank's that way," I said, jerking a thumb over my shoulder.
"I'm aware of that." Chuck's eyes were glued to the Packard, running about two blocks ahead. "The night drop is always open."
I leaned back and stared at the headliner, unable to believe this foolishness was about to continue... unless I said something, maybe. "Goddammit, can't you just forget about that two-timing bitch?"
Chuck didn't answer.
"Okay, whatever," I continued. "Follow her around like some kinda fuckin' zombie, then. Maybe you'll learn somethin' next time she stomps on your crank."
Chuck remained silent. We left Mont Clayton, headed north on Route 11. I hoped Skip would pull into the Moon Ridge Drive-In so our pursuit might end, but he didn't. Nor did he take the dirt road to the Slab for a make-out session. No, Skip and Sally were out for a cruise on a beautiful fall evening. And we were along for the ride, only they didn't know it because Chuck stayed well off the Packard's stern, at times even allowing other cars to come between him and his quarry. But Chuck's eyes never left the Packard, and when Skip turned off Route 11 onto a county road we turned along with him.
We passed through a couple of little towns—Indian Lakes, Holstein—and then out into the country, driving for miles up and down the rocky hills. Chuck remained far behind Skip, who took a left at a fork in the road and headed up a steep grade. We followed. The sign read Knapp Mountain Road.
"Where the fuck are we?" I asked.
"Passaic County. The same place we started."
Chuck was smiling like a kid who'd put one over on the school principal, while I seethed in the shotgun seat. We came over the top of the hill, barren at the summit but for a few shrubs, and then descended into another valley.
"Why are you doing this?" I finally asked.
Chuck shrugged. "Because I find it amusing."
"Yeah? Well I'm not having any fun, Chuck. This is downright fuckin' boring if you ask me."
Chuck nodded. "Then let's make it interesting." He dropped his right foot as we came to the bottom of the grade, squealing the tires as we rounded a curve. I saw a large sign by the roadside: Knapp Creek Reservoir it read; beneath that: City of Newark Water Authority. The road continued across the top of a small dam, and Chuck used the straightaway to gain ground on Skip. We were within a couple of car lengths by the time we reached the other side. The road curved right, up a gentle slope along the edge of the reservoir. Another sign came into view, an orange diamond: Roadwork Ahead Use Caution. The pavement morphed into freshly laid asphalt, and the center line turned a brilliant shade of yellow.
Chuck dropped into second and got on Skip's bumper, so close I was sure we were going to bump him, which we almost did when Skip hit his brakes, not hard, but enough to send us a message, which Chuck received loud and clear. He got off Skip's bumper, then floored it and pulled alongside him.
"Knock it off, Chuck," I said.
"Shut your pie hole." He pulled even with Skip. "Roll down your window."
"Do it! Then we can go home."
I was hesitant, but I did as he asked, all the while keeping my eyes on the road ahead. We were riding in the left lane, after all.
Wind blasting through the open window combined with the two straining engines to make hearing difficult, but there was no silencing Skip. "Fuckin' asshole!" he said, leaning out his window. Chuck drifted ever so slightly into Skip's lane, and then pulled back, laughing all the while. Skip slowed down; so did we.
"Get over!" I yelled, seeing a blind left-hand curve ahead. I had yet to see any other cars on Knapp Mountain Road, but I didn't want to run across one the hard way. Reluctantly, Chuck backed off and fell into line behind Skip, who accelerated wildly at the apex of the curve, the Packard's tires scrabbling for purchase. He nearly went into the guardrail, a network of steel I-beam posts strung together with two strands of cable—not enough to stop either of our cars from plunging into the lake below.
We kept up with Skip around the curve, and then around a gentle right-hand bend leading to a downhill straightaway. Both drivers floored it; Chuck moved into the left lane again. The Packard performed well on the downgrade, and the Hornet was unable to get completely abreast of her. I heard swearing again over the engines. "Get the fuck outta here!" Skip said. He thrust his arm out the window, his hand wrapped around the narrow neck of a Coke bottle, which he flung at the Hornet. It exploded on my side of the windshield, leaving behind a large spider web crack in the glass.
"All right, that does it," Chuck said. He backed off Skip, falling in behind him; then he punched the accelerator at the bottom of the grade. The Hornet shot forward, ramming the Packard's rear end. My teeth clacked together from the jarring impact. The Packard shimmied left a little before Skip regained control. He tried to accelerate away from us, but it wasn't happening. Chuck rammed him again, propelling Skip perilously forward while slowing us down a bit on the upgrade. But Skip maintained control, forcing Chuck to downshift in order to regain ground on him.
Two work trucks were parked on the narrow shoulder of the road ahead. Hitched to the back of one truck was a trailer carrying two massive spools of cable; the other truck was a flatbed piled high with I-beam guardrail posts. The guardrail proper disappeared behind the trucks; beyond them it ceased to exist.
Chuck was back up to speed, and he pulled alongside Skip. Not quite fully abreast of the Packard, he wrenched the steering wheel to the right, smashing the Hornet into the side of Skip's car. Skip headed hard for the shoulder, going into the gravel, yet he somehow recovered.
"Listen to her scream!" Chuck said, giddy as a little boy. He wasn't referring to engines or tires screaming, but rather to Sally, who could be heard over both.
"Are you fuckin' nuts?" It was the dumbest question I've ever asked. "We're outta guardrail, asshole!" Below the road was a steep drop through sparse pines to the lake.
Skip struck back, solidly broadsiding the Hornet. My head snapped left, and my body tried to follow it; I would have been flung across the car had I not been wearing the lap belt. Chuck—further proving his insanity by not wearing his lap belt—crashed into his own door. We careened toward the sheer rock face on the uphill side of the road, but Chuck managed to bring the Hornet back on keel without a scrape.
"You motherfucker!" Chuck growled. He dropped gears again and gained on Skip. The terrain changed as we came to the top of the hill. It was still a steep descent to the lake on my side, but the pines had been replaced by a barren surface of solid gray rock.
A sharp left-hand bend was coming up. Chuck rammed Skip once more, our right-front bumper crashing into the Packard's left-rear end. Skip's car skidded, then swapped ends when his front wheels hit the gravel shoulder. Chuck swerved wildly to the left, plowing deep into the curve to avoid another collision with the Packard, which spun to the right and went trunk-first over the shoulder and onto the rocky slope. The front end kicked up, and the Packard began rolling side-over-side, bouncing down the incline toward the black surface of the lake.
Chuck slammed on the brakes, squealing to a stop on the curve. He backed up to the shoulder where Skip had gone over. I didn't see the Packard. The slope went down about 80 feet before getting even steeper, perhaps becoming a cliff. I got out, started quickly down the incline, slipped and almost fell, then proceeded more cautiously. Coming to the bottom of the slope, I saw there was indeed a thirty-foot drop straight to the water. I grabbed a scrubby pine rooted to the edge of the cliff, and leaned over for a look.
The Packard had already sunk; I could just make out the rear end a couple of feet below the surface, the metal crinkled and smashed, the twisted chrome bumper winking a reflection in the fading sunlight. After that, only a boiling of bubbles at the surface remained to mark the watery grave, though I hoped it wasn't so. Chuck had no right to exact such terrible revenge against Skip and Sally, rotten as they were. Correction: had been. I watched for a couple of minutes and saw no sign of them in the water.
Chuck joined me atop the cliff. "Any sign of them?" he asked somberly.
A pause. "Good."
"Good? They're dead, Chuck. How... how could you do this?"
"It's not the first time."
"Yeah, but that was war."
"So was this."
In that moment my relationship with Chuck changed forever. I would never again look on him as I had before—as my big brother, my hero, the guy who'd had some bad breaks but was trying his best to put them behind him. He was still my brother, of course, but only in the genetic sense. Our link had snapped; he'd become a blood-bound stranger.
I heard Chuck's scraping, out-of-rhythm footsteps as he made his way up the slope. I took one last look at the lake. Only a few bubbles rose to the surface. Soon nothing would remain to mark the tomb of Skip and Sally... .
Or so I thought. A little ways up the slope Chuck bent over, picked something up, examined it. "Shit!" he said.
"What?" I asked.
He held up a piece of chrome that had fallen off the Packard during its bumpy roll down the incline. "We can't leave this shit behind." He threw it over the cliff, into the lake. I looked around, saw a large shard of window glass. Beyond that, yards down the incline, I noticed a hubcap.
"There's pieces all over this cliff," I said, pointing to the hubcap.
"We gotta get this shit picked up!" Chuck immediately set to work. I watched him for a few seconds, yet I did nothing. Chuck paused his search. "Not gonna help me, Slick?"
I didn't respond.
Chuck nodded. "Okay. But just remember your ass'll be joining me in the longbar hotel if the cops find any of this shit."
I remained motionless for another second or two; then I nodded and began scouring the slope for debris. And there was a good bit of it. We threw glass and metal over the cliff; plastic went into our pockets. The sun was dropping fast all the while, and we searched in increasing shadows for as long as we could. Only one car passed by on the road above us, and fortunately its driver didn't bother to stop.
In the last light of day I came across something as I trudged up the slope toward the Hornet. At first it looked like a piece of a plastic comb, but then I realized it was tortoiseshell, a broken piece of a woman's barrette. And it was sticky, tacky with Sally's blood, drying on my fingers. I felt sickened.
"Got somethin' there?" Chuck asked.
"Yeah," I said. "Plastic."
I went through the motion, but I couldn't bring myself to pocket such a thing. I tossed it away when Chuck wasn't looking.
We got back in the Hornet and kept going, forward, as opposed to the way we'd come. The orange sign hadn't been lying; there was indeed roadwork ahead. A couple of miles up the road we passed a bulldozer, a steamroller, and a massive pile of gravel. The pavement ended abruptly a few yards later, but the road continued on. Chuck slowed to an appropriate speed and followed.
After about a dozen miles the dirt road dumped us off onto Route 94. Chuck turned right, north, headed for the New York line. Not a word had been spoken the entire length of the dirt road. Now, back on pavement and with some idea of where we were, Chuck and I discussed our next moves. I hated the scheming, but I must admit I quickly became a willing conspirator. It was the only option, for I couldn't turn Chuck in, and I'd be damned if I went to jail over his stupid fit of rage.
Skip and Sally would certainly be missed by next morning. The police would investigate, and suspect foul play when they were unable to track them down. This would bring them to our house, for the enmity between Skip and Chuck wasn't exactly a secret in Mont Clayton. If the cops saw what condition the Hornet was in—complete with the white streaks of Packard paint where the two cars had collided—we were done. Thus our first priority was to fix the Hornet, still roadworthy but a real mess. It needed to look perfect when we returned, as if nothing had ever happened. We needed a body shop, a good one, but it couldn't be local for obvious reasons. We had some scratch—the deposit money—but when I asked Chuck if it would be enough he shook his head and muttered, "I doubt it."
Skip and Sally weren't the only ones who would be missed. We stopped for gas in Warwick, New York, where Chuck placed a call to Mom while the attendant filled the Hornet. I stood there and listened as Chuck spun her a yarn about heading down to the Carolinas on an impromptu fishing trip. Yeah, I thought, so impromptu we forgot to bring our clothes, our toothbrushes... our fishing rods. Mom wasn't fooled for a second, but we'd decided there was nothing else we could tell her. She couldn't know, not just because she would beg us to turn ourselves in, but because she would then have something to hide if the police questioned her. Kept ignorant of the situation, there was no way she could lie.
But it wasn't going well. Mom was pressing Chuck, demanding to know what was really going on. Chuck had to bite back. "Look, Mom, if anybody asks you just tell 'em we're in the Carolinas. That's all, that's it!" Only silence from the receiver; then Mom said something. Chuck handed me the phone and whispered, "Stick to the story!"
"Hi, Mom," I said.
"Sylvester, what's going on?"
"Nothing, Mom. It's just like Chuck told you."
"I don't believe you." She paused; it sounded like she was crying. "What kind of trouble are you in?"
Chuck stared at me, wide-eyed. "There's no trouble, Mom. Just do what Chuck told you and there'll be no trouble at all."
Mom was definitely crying now. "You've gotta go!" Chuck whispered. "You'll call her back later this week."
I nodded, and fought to get the words in over Mom's sobbing. I told her I loved her.
Then I hung up on her.
We drove through most of the night, stopping late to sleep in the parking lot of a train station in the middle of nowhere. Then we woke up and drove some more. The route numbers changed; so did the states. We crossed into Connecticut, and by afternoon we were in Massachusetts. We began looking for a body shop, and found one in a little town called Warrington. Ace Auto Body, their sign read, #1 In Collision Repair. It was Sunday; they were closed. We found a motel about a mile down the road and checked in, Chuck registering under the alias Bert Slater.
We were back at Ace Auto Body first thing next morning. We checked in at the counter with a dirty fat guy in paint-streaked coveralls, with greasy hair worn long for that time, who walked outside with us to give an estimate. "New Jersey, huh?" he asked.
"Yeah," Chuck said.
"Vineland," Chuck said, naming a town about as far from Mont Clayton as you could get.
"Whatcha doin' 'round here?"
"Got sideswiped in Worcester on our way back from Boston. Cop said bring it here, you guys do the best work."
"We're known far and wide." The man smiled and adjusted his cap. "This an insurance job?"
" 'Fraid not."
"Too bad. This ain't gonna be cheap."
The man examined the Hornet, scrawling figures on a notepad all the while. He finished in a couple of minutes; then we went inside, where he got on the phone with the Hudson dealer in Springfield. After hanging up, he gave us an itemized estimate. The good news was the quarter panels and the door could be pounded out and repainted in the shop, which was a lot cheaper than ordering new ones from the Hudson dealer... where the new bumper, grill chrome and chrome side moldings had to be purchased. Chuck knew the bill had already dwarfed our bankroll, so he stopped the man at the cost of a new windshield. This made sense, for a cracked windshield by itself would prove nothing once the rest of the car had been fixed.
"Total's gonna come to about $450," he said. "Plus tax."
The words were like a punch, right in the heart.
"Okay," Chuck said optimistically. "When will it be ready?"
"Thursday... but we'll need a deposit before any work gets done—25 percent down, non refundable, the balance due upon pickup. No outta state checks. You got 30 days to pay... you default, the car is ours."
Chuck smiled. "Fair enough."
The man smiled back, pushed a carbon paper form across the counter. "Sign here."
Chuck and I spent the next three days loitering about town and in our motel room, trying to think of some way to come up with the cash we needed. Having Mom wire us the money was out of the question—money transfers were recorded, and such a transaction would provide a trail to blow our story. We likewise discarded the idea of working for the money; we didn't have enough time to earn such a sum. With no legal options available, our schemes were limited to committing some sort of ruthless crime: robbing a store, or perhaps mugging some prominent citizen. Chuck was capable of either act, I figured, after murdering two people just the other day. Yet despite all of our insane plotting, we did nothing. I still didn't consider myself capable of committing crimes, and Chuck seemed to have reached his quota of evil deeds for the month. In the meantime, our cash supply was dwindling due to the costs of food and lodging. We were down to about $100, with not a penny to spare.
Wednesday night rolled around. We went to bed late, not bothering to finish the gin game we'd started. Sometime in the night I awoke with a start, which wasn't unusual; I'd slept poorly the whole time we'd been on the road. I heard a noise, which cut out after a few seconds. Then I heard it again—a grinding ignition struggling to start a car in the cold night. I got out of bed and went to the window, where I pulled back the curtain to peer outside.
The ignition ground once more, this time starting the car, which sputtered and knocked. The driver revved the engine to keep it from stalling, then dropped it to an idle, where it began to warm up. The inside light flicked on, illuminating the driver—thin and clean cut, in his thirties I figured, wearing a fedora and overcoat, the latter of which he took off and threw in the back seat. I watched as he sat in his car—some kind of sedan, a DeSoto maybe, but I really can't remember—reading a map.
I heard a voice, loud and female, speaking a foreign language I assumed to be French. She spoke—or rather yelled—again, and this time the guy took notice. He got out of the car and shouted something back, also in French. A lively yet brief exchange took place, the man and the woman both calling loudly, inconsiderate of the fact it was 4:30 in the morning and people were trying to sleep.
The guy finally shook his head, the universal expression of a husband fed up with his wife, yet at the same time ready to bow to her wishes. He walked away, leaving his idling car behind.
Opportunity moved me. I opened the door and glanced down the walkway. Seeing no sign of the Frenchman, I scurried outside to his car and dropped to my knees in its shadow. I opened the rear door and found the man's coat, began rifling through the pockets, quickly finding his billfold.
A door closed, not quite a slam. He was coming back. I gently closed the car door and dropped to the asphalt, where I rolled under the car in the next space. I hadn't bothered to get dressed before I came out; I lay there shivering on the freezing pavement wearing only my boxer shorts.
I saw the Frenchman's shoes as he got back in his car. He closed the door and waited what seemed like an eternity for his wife to appear. I heard a woman's heels on the pavement, saw them as she climbed in the passenger side. Their argument continued the moment she opened the door, and muffled suddenly as she closed it. The Frenchman revved the engine, slammed his car in reverse and pulled out. I stayed hidden until I heard him leave the parking lot, squealing his tires slightly in his hurry to be where he wanted to be.
I felt rotten, guilty—but the deed was done. I went back in the room and warmed up before the electric heater in the bathroom, where I counted the spoils: $380.00. I shook my head, but I smiled. Luck was an understatement; I'd stepped in one king-sized pile of shit. The guilt was still there; that guy and his wife were probably on a vacation, which would be ruined at the first diner or filling station they stopped at. But our asses were saved. I felt like thanking God, but I didn't. He had nothing to do with it. God doesn't truck with murderers and thieves.
I put the money on the nightstand and went back to bed, though not back to sleep. Chuck woke up around seven.
"Jesus, you up already?" Chuck asked, rubbing his eyes.
"Good morning, sweetheart," I said, pointing at the money.
Chuck's eyes bugged; his jaw dropped. "Where the hell did that come from?"
"The Bank of Montreal."
I swung my legs out of bed. "Don't concern yourself. Now let's get outta here."
Ace Auto Body did a bang-up job banging the dents out of the Hornet. Her aerodynamic body sliced through the wind once more as we put Massachusetts behind us and hightailed for New Jersey.
Neither of us felt like talking on the way home, and I don't think a word was said until we entered Connecticut. Chuck was the speaker; I'd been enjoying the scenery.
"It's gonna be truth or consequences back in Jersey. A real fucking inquisition."
"More like liars' poker, I'd think."
"Yeah, well whatever the game we don't wanna play until we have to."
"You think we got a choice?"
"Actually, yeah, we do."
This was news to me. I tuned in, giving Chuck my undivided attention.
"I was friends with this kid back in Korea. Private from Chicago, father was a cop. I don't know how the subject came up, but we started talkin' about police shit one day. He was really into it, musta rambled on for an hour or so until he was pretty much talkin' to himself. But a couple o' things stuck with me, a little friendly advice, if you will. He said something like, ‘Give most crooks a chance and they'll lock themselves up. Just let 'em talk. Most are stupid enough to think they can dupe a detective—a professional interrogator, same kinda guy we use to get dope outta the gooks when we capture 'em. It's fuckin' laughable. A lot of 'em don't even know they got a right to a lawyer, and the innocent guys don't think they need one... till they trip the trap they built with their own words. It ain't like Sam Spade; most dicks aren't gonna dig deep for the truth. There's no question in their mind who done it.' "
I took a few moments to digest the private's words, which were very enlightening. Remember, cops didn't read people their rights in those days, not on the radio and sure as hell not in reality. And we liked it that way. But things looked different from the wrong side of the fence.
"You get all that, Slick?"
"Yeah, I got it."
"So tell me."
"We get arrested, we clam up and demand a lawyer."
"Right. And don't let 'em talk you out of it, either."
"Okay... but what happens when the lawyer gets there? We gotta answer questions then, don't we?"
"Sure, but the lawyer'll make sure we don't incriminate ourselves. But we still gotta get our story straight, every detail, and stick with it no matter what."
I snorted. "So what's our story?"
"I'm not sure yet. But we got three states to figure it out."
We didn't call Mom to tell her we were coming home—we just showed up late Thursday night. Mom threw herself at us, kissed us, and thanked God that we were okay. Chuck and I sat down in the kitchen, and Mom started cooking us a very late dinner.
The affectionate small talk died shortly thereafter, murdered by a single question: "Have fun fishing, boys?"
"Oh, yeah!" Chuck said.
"Yeah, it was great," I added. "Caught some real nice bass."
Mom nodded, stirring the soup. "Skip Rutledge went missing the day after you left, along with a girl named Sally Draper. No one knows what happened to them."
Silence, but for the bubbling of the soup.
"The police were by for you, Chuck. Wanted to ask you a few questions."
Chuck shrugged, held out his hands. "I don't know what about... ."
Mom ladled out the soup, put it on the table, and went somewhere else in the house.
I skipped dinner, went straight to my room instead, where I lay awake in bed for some time thinking about what Mom had said. The cops stopping by was a given, something we were prepared for. I was also prepared to lose my freedom, a very real possibility. I'd already accepted losing Chuck, along with everything else I'd lost in the previous five days. But I wasn't ready to part with my mother. I got out of bed and headed downstairs.
I found Mom in the kitchen, warming up some milk on the stove. She turned and looked at me, then went back to stirring the milk.
"You got a minute, Mom?" I asked, pulling out a chair.
"Why, do you have something to tell me?"
"Yeah. I've got some stuff I need to tell you."
"I don't even wanna know, Sylvester."
I didn't sit down; I simply froze.
"It's better that way, right? Isn't that what you and Chuck decided?"
I didn't say anything, just nodded and gulped down the lump in my throat. I went back upstairs to bed.
The cops found the three of us in the shop the next day. Detective Pinelli of the Mont Clayton Police—short, fat, with a scrunched-up face and a big drooping nose—led two uniformed flatfoots through the front door, along with an unknown older man wearing a gray fedora and matching raincoat.
" 'Morning, boys... Missus Ballard," Pinelli said, removing his porkpie hat.
I nodded. Chuck asked, "What can we do for you, Detective?"
Pinelli smiled, angelic. "Oh, I think you know what you can do for us, Chuck." He looked over his shoulder for an instant. "Oh, so sorry. This is Detective Grable with the state police. Specializes in missing persons." Grable eyeballed Chuck as a hawk would a mouse. "You do know Skip Rutledge and Sally Draper went missing last weekend? Right about the time you boys went fishing?"
"Yeah, I heard about that," Chuck said. "But I'm sure they're all right. Maybe they eloped or something."
"What happened to your car, Ballard?" Detective Grable asked. He sounded a hell of a lot like Humphrey Bogart, probably on purpose.
"Wha... whaddaya mean?"
"Truck kicked up a rock," Chuck said, sounding relieved.
Pinelli said, "Tell you what, Ballard, why don'tcha come on down the station, answer a few questions so we can clear this thing up?"
"But I don't know anything about it."
"I think you do. Now, are we gonna do this the easy way or the hard way?" One of the cops reached around his back, produced a pair of handcuffs.
"I won't be questioned without a lawyer present," Chuck said.
"Oh yeah, smart guy?" Pinelli asked, voice raised a notch. "Afraid to answer a coupla tough questions?"
"You got somethin' to hide, Ballard?" Grable added.
"No, sir! But I'm not gonna let you two railroad me over something I know nothing about!"
Chuck should have gotten an Oscar for that line... or a ham, perhaps. Whatever the case, he managed to sound quite righteously indignant.
Pinelli pointed at Chuck, said, "I got goods on you, Ballard, so you can call your lawyer from the station, 'cause I'm takin' you in. Him, too." He pointed at me. The flatfoots advanced; we made no move to escape. I could only wonder what "goods" Pinelli had on Chuck, if he had anything at all... .
"Call a lawyer, Mom," Chuck said as a cop whirled him around and cuffed him behind his back. The other one wasn't so rough with me, but the outcome was the same. Mom looked ready to cry, but did not, at least in front of us.
I've lived through a lot of hard days in my life, mostly out on the railroad; but that day in the Mont Clayton police station was the longest and hardest I've ever endured. They cuffed me to a metal stanchion in a block-walled room. Then the questions came—from Pinelli, from Grable, from both at once. They cajoled; they threatened; they sympathized and they promised clemency... if only I would come clean.
But I refused to talk without a lawyer present, and the detectives finally left me alone—no water, no food, no toilet. They returned several hours later accompanied by another man—tall, paunchy, dapper, dressed in a chalk-stripe suit. He introduced himself as Mr. Klein Jr., of Cohen, Klein and Wheeler.
"A moment alone with my client, please," Klein said. It was not a request. After the detectives left the room he asked me, "You don't know anything about your brother having intimate relations with Sally Draper, do you?" He smiled.
I took the hint. "No, sir."
"Of course you don't."
My mind raced. Had they found the letters between Chuck and Sally? If so, it was a hole in our story that had probably caught Chuck by surprise.
First the detectives questioned me about the trip: where we went, where we stayed, where we fished. Did we buy licenses? Did we have any receipts to prove our whereabouts? Mr. Klein jumped on that last one: "Produce your own paperwork. It's not up to my client to prove his innocence." But it was a dead line of questioning anyway. Chuck and I had decided, when grilled about the trip, I would play a stupid, geographically challenged 18-year-old kid. We'd been in the Carolinas somewhere... North Carolina I thought, but I really wasn't sure... .
The interrogation abruptly shifted to Chuck and Sally, with Grable asking all of the questions. He hammered me fast and furious, and I said what I'd been told to. Letters? Dates? Intimate relations? I didn't know a goddamned thing. She was just like any other customer in to buy smokes or a newspaper.
I knew the interrogation was winding down by the pauses between questions, and by Mr. Klein's more frequent interjections. Finally he sighed and said to Grable, "Your case is based entirely on speculation. You have no physical evidence and you'll receive no confessions, for my clients are innocent."
"I'll decide when the questioning's done, Esquire," Grable said.
"Well, I suggest you start asking some relevant questions, Detective, if you wish to take this any further. Otherwise I'll be forced to contact Magistrate Hardy."
"Think I'm afraid of a hack local judge?"
"Probably not. But the Attorney General and I go way back... .So please, continue." He smiled.
The questioning ended a couple of minutes later. Grable left the room, fuming. "Get this little punk outta here," he said to the uniformed officer guarding the door.
News travels fast in a small town, and within a day or two everyone knew we'd been hauled in for questioning regarding the disappearance of Skip and Sally. It didn't matter if we'd been found innocent without even being charged—the court of public opinion brought us in guilty. Chuck and I were ostracized; the citizens of Mont Clayton dealt with us curtly, and only when they had to. Mom wasn't so abrupt in her dealings with us, but she would never wholly trust us again. It hurt. 'Nuff said.
Mom didn't have the heart to fire Chuck and me, even though our presence was killing business. So we did the honorable thing and quit. Mom hired part-timers to take our place, and business predictably increased. The store made enough to support all of us, which was a good thing since Chuck couldn't find a job and I had to search far to get one, at a lumber yard down in Butler. It paid shit, but at least I was working. Chuck offered me the Hornet for use in commuting, but I never drove it. I preferred to take the bus.
We all knew we were in a situation that couldn't last forever. In the spring Chuck and I announced we were leaving town, relocating to find better jobs and to relieve Mom of our onerous presence. Mom was sad, but she didn't beg us to stay. She was a wise woman, my mother. She always knew what was best for us.
We got in the Hornet and drove west looking for work. Chuck found a job at a garage in Wheaton, Illinois; he would own his own garage in Carol Stream within a few years. I lucked out and got a job on the North Western. A couple of years later I got married.
Chuck found a girl damn near right away—Joanna Swainson—and they married after only a few months. They stayed together until she died, though I don't think Chuck ever truly loved her. It might not have been possible for him to love again; he'd wasted all of his affection on Sally.
I went back to Mont Clayton yearly on my railroad passes, and in 1960 I brought Mom her granddaughter. When we left from the station Mom cried, wept openly, something I hadn't seen her do since the last time my old man beat her up. She died of a stroke two months later while minding the counter at the store. I saw Mont Clayton for the last time when I went back for her funeral. Chuck didn't go. He'd left Mont Clayton behind, never to return, the day we departed back in '53.
Skip and Sally were never found. They're still entombed at the bottom of Knapp Creek Reservoir.
And the Hornet? Well, as you know, Chuck unloaded her on that farmer in the late '50's. His new car—a hideous '58 Chevy Impala—was sitting in the driveway one day when we came over to visit. I was glad to see it; I'd always hated seeing little Chuck Jr. riding in the Hornet.
After dinner Chuck and I went outside for a couple of Cokes. Looking at the Impala I said to him, "I guess she finally got to you."
"Yeah, Joanna thought it was time for something new."
"I didn't mean Joanna."
Chuck looked puzzled. "Who do you mean, then?"
I didn't bother to answer.
And that's the story, folks, as dictated by Uncle Slick and transcribed by yours truly. Pretty fucked up, huh? As a writer, I might be able to express to you exactly how I felt upon finding out my beloved grandfather was an unrepentant murderer.
But do I really need to do that?
Slick hobbled up to bed after telling his story. Whether he slept well, his conscience relieved of the burdensome tale, or poorly from reliving those awful events, I have no way of knowing.
But I knew what to do with the Hornet. She had to go, no question about it. Atonement was necessary, but the Hornet could only account for half of it. Another act needed to be performed as well, if Slick was up to the task... .
Normally an early riser, Slick slept late the next morning. He looked more his years than ever before as he sat down for coffee. I told him what I had in mind for the Hornet, and he agreed it was the proper course of action. Then I told him what I felt he needed to do. He nodded and said, "I'll do it."
Rain had moved in, pouring down as Slick and I drove away from the house, him leading in his Camry while I followed in the Hornet. At age 56 she was still a dream ride, had become more so with each of those passing years. Her smooth ride, reactive handling and rumbling power were timeless, the same package Grandpa Chuck hadn't been able to resist, and probably, in his remorseless indifference, the reason he'd kept her so long. I looked over, thought of Slick as an 18-year-old kid strapped in the shotgun seat as the Hornet careened down the wrong lane of a remote road. Pale evening sunlight dappled through the spider web crack in the windshield as Skip raced defiantly alongside in his Packard. I could almost feel the impact that came next. Snapping back to the modern world, I could still sense the frenzied excitement, could smell it even—the rancid stench of adrenaline-fueled sweat permeating the car—which made me all the more eager to complete my task.
We parked in the lot of a small shopping center on Route 12 in Lake Delton. I followed Slick through the rain to a payphone, a roll of quarters in my hand. Slick dialed the operator. "I'd like to be connected to the New Jersey State Police, please," he said. "Barracks? I don't know, name a few... yeah, Totowa is fine." He hung on the line, then said to me, "$3.75." I loaded the phone with quarters.
After a moment I heard a tinny voice in New Jersey say something. Slick began talking: "Is this call being recorded?... Good, 'cause I'm only gonna say this once. In October of 1952 a man named Stanley Rutledge and a woman named Sally Draper were reported missing and were never found. You'll find their remains in his car at the bottom of Knapp Creek Reservoir, beneath the bluffs before the road curves away over the mountain. You got that?" The tinny voice responded, then said something else, probably wanting to know who he was.
"Good," Slick said. He hung up the phone.
Which brings us back to the Hornet. I'm pleased to say she is now truly a piece of automotive history—the kind you can only read about. Last I saw of her she'd been reduced to a dense cube of mangled chrome and crumpled yellow steel. An electromagnet had hold of her, and was slowly crawling its way across the salvage yard to a waiting string of railroad scrap gondolas, where the Hornet cube would join the other automotive cubes for the ride to Gary, or Pittsburgh, or wherever they take the cubes to be melted back into raw steel.
Scrapping the Hornet was quite an ordeal, but I'm not going to bore you with too many details as they really aren't important. Suffice to say, the first salvager I took her to refused to crush her. He would have happily given me $10,000 for her... but scrap her? No way. I don't blame the guy; he's a car lover, neither stupid nor crazy, unlike Slick and I, who are out of our fucking minds (according to the salvager).
Fortunately for us, not all salvage men are nostalgic. We got the Hornet smashed at a Mexican outfit down near Madison. They told us to just leave it, as that was the usual procedure when junking a car. Had we done so the Hornet would still be intact somewhere in the world, in someone's car collection, or perhaps serving as some Third World dictator's limousine. So we stayed there all day—they made us wait—until the job was completed, the Hornet cubed and ticketed for a one-way trip to the furnace.
Slick didn't have anything to say as I drove him home in the Camry. He didn't need to speak, because I knew what he was thinking, that physically we had done all we could to make up for Grandpa Chuck's long-ago fit of rage. I also knew for Slick it would never be enough. He had bared his memories; now he could only hope to bury them.
My memories of Grandpa Chuck would be forever tainted. I could do nothing about that. I could, however, disown him. His Grand National was an amazing car, one of Detroit's last true muscle machines; yet to me it had become a befouled relic, incapable of being purified. I advertised it on the internet the next day; it sold later in the week for $15,000.
After that, I tuned up the GTO. It runs better—cleaner—than it ever has before.