Never Again (A short story)

lonely road

11,500 words, one hour and 25 min.

By Jerry A. Boggs

 April 2017

The best lessons are sometimes learned from the worst mistakes.

PARKED in front of Beth Chapman’s house, 23-year-old Eric Bishop gripped the steering wheel until a sharp pain stabbed through his palms. He’d already tapped his horn twice, ten tortuous minutes apart. He wondered if he should just say to hell with it.

 

But leaving would guarantee he wouldn’t see his girlfriend at all tonight — and maybe not see her again until next Saturday night. Another whole week of his heart in a vice!

Yet if he continued to sit here, he still might not see her and could wind up feeling like a humiliated, boneheaded loser when at long last he realized Beth would be a no-show.

Unblinking, he stared straight ahead into the night. Barely catching his attention, a couple half a block away sauntered hand in hand across the intersection under the street light. She tugged his arm and gave him a fast squeeze. A thickness gathered in Eric’s throat. His left hand grappled the door handle. Beth had told him to always wait in the car. Would defying her ruin the night for sure?

The loud bang of her screen door whipping open against the house startled him even through the closed car windows. Eighteen-year-old Beth bounded off the porch and down the walk toward him. Her shoulder-length hair, russet-red in good light, bounced in the cool March night air. Her white cardigan sweater might have slipped from her shoulders had it not been fastened at her neck.

She piled into the car, slammed the door, and plopped her small white purse onto her lap. With two quick tugs she straightened her sky-blue, scoop-neck cotton print dress, then sat there, stony motionless except for her heavy breathing and her thumbs picking at each other.

Eric opened his mouth to say Hi and to compliment her on her nice fragrance already filling the car – alternate whiffs of Ivory soap and Chanel No. 5 – but the words froze in his throat.

He started the car. In the soft green glow of the dashboard lights, her eyes glared straight ahead. She might as well have been a statue, a boiling cauldron inside.

His jaw muscles clenched as he pulled his ’55 Ford Fairlane away from her folks’ pale-yellow frame home on Rossville’s far west edge. The Ford thrust down the densely treed street toward the movie theater two miles away on the opposite side of town. His eyes checked the clock on the dash.

“Gonna miss the beginning. After nine already.” He kept his voice low and even, not wanting to set her off or anything. Never mind that he believed he had a right to vent at his girlfriend of four months for being late and trying to turn his car door into a pile of nuts and bolts.

None of that would matter much had she not been keeping his stomach churning in another way. She had become moody a lot lately. Too many times, he caught her staring right through him, and he’d have to repeat things to get any kind of response, which was short and flat, like “I reckon,” or just a grunt and a quick shrug.

It knotted up his insides that she often appeared to be straining just to be alongside him. Her rare smiles came as if weights were tied to the corners of her mouth.

Worse, she wanted to date less, just on Saturday nights, no longer a night or two during the week. Wednesday night she had declined his invitation to go bowling out at Buffy’s. The last time they were together she had made a vague reference to – eyes averting his  – her not feeling well lately. Luckily, when he called her on the phone two days ago just after getting off work, she had said OK for tonight. She had even sounded half-way eager for a change.

Was the real reason for her frequent disinterest that her parents tried to keep her on a short leash? More than once she had quipped something along the line of, “A couple of Hitlers. Stifle the heck out of me. Make me feel like I can’t get excited about anything.”

She puffed strands of hair off her forehead. “Had another big one with Mama and Daddy,” she said.

“What this ti–?”

“Can’t believe it! They’ve changed their mind about letting me spend a weekend with Joyce and her folks in Memphis. Won’t even let me go to Atlanta to see my cousin Ginny. So trusting! I declare they won’t let me do anything. Fought me like cats and dogs about going out with you tonight.”

He shifted in his seat. For this night to turn out middling decent, he’d better somehow get things on a better track.

He switched on the radio. He listened to a short report on President Eisenhower teeing off today on the greens at Augusta, where unusually warm weather had brought golfers out as early as January.

He punched buttons in search of music. He paused at “The Great Pretender” by the Platters, then zipped past it.

A thought he’d been avoiding put a knot in his stomach: Isn’t that what he’d been doing around Beth, pretending, from the moment they’d met? Pretending to be somebody he wasn’t and probably never going to be? “Hell, by the time I’m 30,” he’d told her the first time they met, a couple of Budweisers having disengaged his brain, “I’ll be running that damned joint I work at.” He’d emphasized that point with a wide, loose grin. He’d not looked at her as he blurted this, but had squinted through the haze of smoke at the whirling storm of jitterbugs on the floor where the annual county dance carried on, led by a red-jacketed, three-piece band and a reed-thin, long-sideburned crooner doing an all-around rotten take on Elvis songs.

There, at the dance, Eric had met Beth. He bumped the back of her chair on his way back to his table after flinging someone else around on the dance floor. A hand landed on his forearm. “Hey!” she’d said. “You bump me, you gotta sit with me.”

Truth was, he had no intention of staying at Woodson and Sons, a bunch of fast-talking, slave-driving Northerners who had brought their auto-parts manufacturing business down here from New York to escape a union and grab a tax break to boot. But after Woodson and Sons, it was anybody’s guess as to his direction in life. He’d been considering going back into the Air Force, picking up where he’d left off, and just sort of existing until some direction, some focus, took hold of him and told him what to do.

A focus had finally come into his life — in the form of one teal-eyed Beth Chapman.

He hit another button on the radio and caught little Frankie Lymon shout-singing his lively “Why Do Fools Fall In Love.”

The song boomed in on WLS, a far-north station that reached this far south only at night. WLS was some 800 miles away, in the big city of Chicago, “the Windy City.” He’d never been there but lately found himself giving thought to it. Just the other day he had spread a U.S. map out on the kitchen table at home, one hand holding it down, the other smoothing it out. He had run his eyes down Lake Michigan and located the city right away. He had tapped his finger three quick times on the shaded area representing Chicago to fix its exact location firmly in his mind.

Chicago entered his mind often because Beth had said more than a few times, lips pressed together in a way that dispelled all doubt, that she intended to move there one day, come hell or high water.

“It excites me right down to the bone,” she had told him as they strolled around her block one late afternoon about a month after they’d met. Her eyes had been distant, trance-like. “I want to move to Chicago and work right up on the top floor of one of those big, tall skyscraper buildings, with windows all around me. I want to ride up and down an elevator everyday, pop out on those busy streets with a bunch of people walking in every direction, and go shopping in those big fancy department stores I’ve seen on TV. Now that’s living, I want you to know.” She paused to give Eric an oblique glance. “The fellow I marry has to want to go live there.”

Frankie Lymon gave way to Elvis’ even livelier “Blue Suede Shoes.” Eric tweaked the volume a bit. His thumb tapped the steering wheel in rhythm. He reached over and cupped his hand over hers. Could he transfer some of the good mood Elvis had exploded in him? He put on a devilish grin, but kept his watch on the road.

“So your folks won’t let you do anything? I’ll let you do something.”

She pulled her hand away and plucked at the bottom of her dress. Both hands returned to rest on her purse, her thumbnails picking at each other again.

His face felt hot as he veered the car onto Main Street’s business section, a row of small store-fronts in hunch-shouldered buildings. He headed east, the rushing lights and shadows alternately filling the car. At the other end of Main was the Rossville Theater. “A Street Car Named Desire,” starring Marlon Brando, Beth’s favorite actor, was making a return showing. It had started three minutes ago, so no time to grab the popcorn or snack he could ill afford. Who said being late was always a bad thing?

He picked up speed, leveling out at five above the speed limit. Fast, but apparently not fast enough to inspire Police Officer Otis Moran, whom Eric spotted gazing – glaring? – out at the street from inside the Halfway Diner, to abandon his cup of coffee and give chase.

Eric had heard Moran liked weekend night duty. “That’s when the action is,” the officer was rumored to have said. He could bust more scofflaws, more drunken rabble-rousers — his catnip.

At the diner a month ago, two young men, both bounced from their jobs, had been peaceful and minding their own business. But they’d erred bringing in their unfinished bottle of Hiram Walker to wash down their troubles in between swallowing chunks of  pancakes. They’d been too drunk and harrowed to notice Moran facing them two booths away. He’d watched like a vampire studying his victims, letting their bottle get emptier. Finally, he collared the two harmless and helpless saps and pushed them out onto the parking lot. He’d been seen billy-clubbing one and using his foot to help him into the back seat of his patrol car. Then the other as he chanted, “Second verse same as the first.”

Assured that Moran would stay put, Eric breathed out, relaxed, and looked at Beth. Her head turned his way, her eyes meeting his. Had her mood changed? Did he sense a softening? He tested: “Beth, we aren’t gonna make it in time. What say we just forget the movie, go somewhere and park. Nice night….”

She looked away, watching darkened store-fronts slide by – Mitchell’s Cleaners, Western Electric, Rossville Hardware. “I don’t know, Eric.”

After a long moment of silence, she blew out air. “Just a bit upset right now’s all. Feeling… Oh, I don’t know what I’m feeling. I just know I wouldn’t be very good.”

“You’d be good unconscious.”

She snorted. Then to his surprise, she slid across the seat and took his hand. But as she rubbed the back of his wrist — a little hard — he thought he sensed her becoming more tense, not less.

“Eric…I’m real antsy lately.” She gave a dry laugh. “As if you hadn’t noticed. It’s like…you know, life’s just steamrolling along and passing me right by. I mean, I never get to do anything.”

“You can ‘do’ me tonight if you want to.” Her silence made his stab at loosening things up feel like he’d told an off-color joke during church prayer.

She yanked on his arm. “Eric, be serious for two seconds. Look, the world doesn’t particularly thrill me right now.”

He faced her in time to see her give him a thin smile.

“Except for you, I mean. I know I’m only eighteen, but I never do anything exciting. I ought be getting something out of this thing called life.”

Eric searched her face for a moment, then looked back at the road, at the theater’s marquee appearing in the distance. He felt his forehead knit. “What exactly do you consider ‘exciting’?”

Despite all of Beth’s faults, he felt pretty sure he loved her. He’d even thought of asking her to marry him, maybe a month or so after she’d graduated from Rossville High in May. Marriage would at least get her away from her parents. He figured that alone might prompt her to say yes. And maybe the marriage-pressure thing burned inside her — two of her friends had tied the knot last summer.

The idea of popping the marriage question to Beth had occurred to him last Thursday as he left work. He had driven out along Highway 47 before heading home. After putting a mile or so behind him, he pulled over onto the shoulder. Through the passenger window, he eyed a home he’d noticed two weeks before while out on a Sunday afternoon cruise.

On the lawn stood a white sign whose green words read: “For Sale By Fisher Realty Company.” The home was a freshly painted, white bungalow maybe 40 years old. In the golden light of the late afternoon sun, it blazed bright and clean as a banker’s shirt. It sat a hundred feet back from the road, smack in the middle of a well-cared-for, deep-green lawn bordered on one side by a row of pine trees and on the other by neatly blocked, thigh-high shrubbery. The gravel driveway led to a carport. In back stood a small white shed next to a large rectangle of turned earth, a vegetable garden big enough to keep a body busy evenings and weekends. The owners, he’d heard, were moving to Arizona to be near their son and grandchildren.

A smile cracked his face, his heart beating fast. The house would make the perfect place for Beth and him to start their lives together, to live in for a few years before moving on to Chicago, if by that time she still held on to that dream. He’d bring her out here to the house on the pretense of taking a pleasure drive. He’d pull off the road suddenly, acting like he’d never noticed the for-sale sign before. Then, after she’d drunk in the sight of the attractive, well-kept little home for a minute and fell in love, he’d propose: “Like it? How’d you like to live here? No, really.”

“Something…something exciting’s all I can say.” Beth’s words shattered his dreamy state like glass. She raked tresses behind her ear.

His hand tightened on the steering wheel. In the last three or four years, in and out of the Air Force, he’d had nothing but short, disappointing relationships, one after the other. He was tired of that. Already 23, he wanted to settle down. And Beth, just the sight of her triggered a tingling warmth, set his heart racing. Damned if he’d let her slip through his fingers. Would turning her heart around be so hard?

Two blocks from the theater, he whipped down a side street. An impulsive, aimless act. The movie could wait. The Ford slid past small frame homes and treed yards and no sidewalks. Neither he nor Beth spoke.

“Beth,” he said after a silence that had him rubbing his upper arm, “what’s bugging you? I’d like to talk about–“

“Why don’t we drive down to Talbotton,” she said not looking at him. “Check into a motel and raise a little hell? If they got a TV in the room, we can listen to ‘Your Hit Parade’ while we– ”

He chuckled, a bit giddy at her 180. “That’s great, but with what money? Remember what I told you a few days ago? Got a short check this week because the plant shut down for a couple of days for inventory. My next car payment is due on the tenth, and I’ll be making it late. Which I really hate doing.”

She sat staring straight ahead. She took his hand and pushed the tips of her fingers back and forth near his knuckles, again too hard. Her words came as low as the sound of leaves soughing in a breeze.

“We can get the money.”

“Oh yeah? Where? Your mama and daddy? You got a piggy bank stashed under your bed?”

She levered herself closer and laid her head on his shoulder. The wash of her Chanel No. 5 sent a wave of heat through him. She had worn the perfume the last time they made love, on his birthday four weeks earlier. Now, her hand on his chest, a light-headedness overtook him. He was melting.

“I just thought of something exciting,” she said. “Something really wild. I mean, something besides, you know, the motel, which’ll be later if….”

He craned his neck to see her in the rear-view mirror. He saw one eye peering up at him. “Like what?” He should have cleared his throat first.

She scooted away and plopped her back against the door. He didn’t look at her but he pictured her studying him, her eyes now and then blinking fast.

“Beth, are you about to ask me a life-or-death ques–?”

“There’s a Texaco gas station in Talbotton on the corner of Dubois and Franklin. Just the owner there this late. He closes up at ten, so we have to get there by then. A guy a little long in the tooth. Maybe 60. Fat. Probably couldn’t knock out a kitten.” She reached over and gave Eric’s bicep a couple of squeezes. “Bet you could’ve stomped Rocky Marciano before he retired last year–”

“Damn!” He slammed on the brakes. He’d run a stop sign. He whipped the car to the side to avoid smashing into a 1953 green and white Buick Skylark that had bounced into the intersection. The car, vaguely familiar to Eric, careened around the front of them. The split-second flash of the female driver’s face in his headlights gave him just enough time to recognize her. An angry horn blared into the night as the Skylark rambled down the street.

He brought the car to a rough halt on the other side of the dark intersection, above the center of which hung a burned-out light bulb. He rammed the gear-stick into park, took a breath. “You all right?”

She sat up straight. “I’m fine.”

“Was that–?”

“Elaine Peters.” Her tone bristled. “Going home from work. Miss Goody Two-Shoes Beauty Queen. Thinks the sun comes up just to shine on her.”

“Sounds like somebody’s got a pokey little bee in her underpants.”

Elaine had been two years behind him in high school. A real looker, all right, and not stuck on herself at all. Though he’d had a long-time major crush on her, he’d pretty much kept her out of his mind. Out of my league, he’d always thought.

Until one day at school. She breezed up to him in the hallway in a gingham red and white checkered blouse and a pleated, white skirt, clutching her dark-green algebra textbook to her chest. Her flowing russet hair, her smile, and her radiant, cornflower-blue eyes choked his breath off, melted his legs.

She fingered her opal pendant necklace. Her smile faded and ridges formed on her forehead. Placing a hand on his upper arm, she said just above a whisper, “You’re such a cutie. Just wanted to say goodbye.”

The corners of her mouth turned down. Her hand slid down his arm as she moved past him toward her classroom, her faint, pleasant fragrance lingering. “And too bad.”

He headed to his Future Farmers of America class to see how he’d done on his final exam. Walking into the room, he drew a few curious looks as he fought against smarting tears, probably for the first time since he was ten years old. All he could think of was Elaine.

And this: All the joy of her that could have been his, would never be his.

That had happened two days before he finished high school and a week after he’d signed up to enter the Air Force upon graduation.

The idea of writing to her while he was in the Air Force had twisted his insides into knots. Suppose she replied, “Dear Eric, thanks for writing to me, but I’m actually not interested in anything other than a friendship.” Wasn’t that possibly all she’d meant to imply in the hall that day? On his few trips home on leave, the same fear paralyzed him.

Beth leaned over to him, and his painful memory shattered like window glass, leaving him feeling tight and off-guard, as though he were emerging from of a dream.

“Quit thinking about Elaine.” She kissed him on the cheek. “You did some real driving there, by the way.”

The deliciousness of the unexpected kiss drained away fast. He searched the faint glow of her face for a moment. As he turned his head back to stare through the windshield at nothing, his insides roiled. What was happening? This was not good, but no answers came to him. Should he drive her home and forget everything?

He felt her eyes burning into him. He imagined his life minus her. It was as though a sack had again been yanked over his head.

The sack had suffocated him soon after he returned from the Air Force. His handful of high-school buddies had scattered, and Elaine, the only girl he’d had feelings for throughout high school, was in a “serious relationship and maybe thinking about marrying the guy.” Spotting her in town from time to time, he’d bitten down on his lower lip and turned away, a painful tightness in his throat.

At work he spent most of his hours in solitude loading boxes of auto parts into the trucks that would haul them to Atlanta 80 miles away.

Both of his parents, killed in a car accident two years ago, had had no brothers or sisters. Eric had no uncles or aunts or cousins. His only sibling, 28-year-old George, had never married. Eric had no nieces or nephews, either.

He lived with George — as near to living alone as you could get. George behaved like an occasionally mobile piece of furniture. He minimized talk. His near-daily, after-work injections of Kentucky Straight saw to that, often hog-tying his mind so he couldn’t string together more than a handful of useful words. At work, though, George stayed sober as a brick. He was a bill collector at the Colonial Bank on Main Street. On Eric’s first visit to the bank to see his brother, the manager told him George was “the best damned skip tracer on this side of the Mason-Dixon Line, and maybe on the other side, too. He could find a mouse buried on the moon.”

He sat sideways, the armrest soon annoying his lower back. On the radio, The Five Satins warbled, “In the still of the night, I held you, held you tight, ’cause I love, love you so. Promise I’ll never let you go.

“Got your drift. Don’t need a barn board up side the head. Don’t you think this ‘wild thing’ you’re talking about is a little too–?”

“How are you gonna make it in this world, if you don’t take a chance once in a coon’s age?” Her fingers caressed the arm he’d laid along the top of the seat. “You know, we could really have a great time in that mo–”

“Hold on, hold on.” He sat up straight, looked at her. “I’m not so sure about this at all.”

“Let me just scooch over here,” she said sliding closer. She reached and turned up the radio. Pat Boone crooned his favorite song, “Friendly Persuasion.” Weeks earlier it had filled his ears — and his heart — on a late chilly night as they intertwined on the back seat of his car, losing more and more of their sensibilities, more and more of their clothes…. That song… “Thee I love, more than the meadow so green and still….”

His cheek feeling the warmth of Beth’s face, he thought again of the long, wrenching periods between his few brief relationships before Beth, and something clutched at his insides again. Beth moved still closer.

“That was some night, huh, Sugar?” she said, her voice low and breathy.

Her lips crushed his and her tongue plunged into his mouth. A minute into their kissing, he heard Sanford Clark’s “The Fool”: “Too late he found out he loves her so much he wants to die…. But drink to a fool, a crazy fool who told his baby, goodbye….”

AS ERIC turned his car south onto dark Highway 41, the headlights swept over the faded, rusty sign that canted like a weary elder. It read: “Talbotton Fifteen Miles.”

“Dubois Street’s just before the city limits,” Beth said in a low voice, as though the darkness demanded respect paid with quietness. In the glow of the lights from the dash, her pale face appeared taut. “You’ll turn right. Franklin’s maybe six blocks down. The Texaco station’s on the corner.”

“Only one guy? Old guy?”

She rubbed his arm, no doubt a gesture to reassure him.

He said nothing for a long moment. “How did you come to know so much about this gas sta–?”

“Daddy gets his car fixed there.”

“You got a plan? I mean, just exactly what am I — we — supposed to do?”

In a near-whisper, she relayed to him her plan as the car glided over the black, gently rolling road, never above the speed limit, the headlights plowing away the darkness in front of them.

A few minutes later they reached Dubois Street and turned. On the northern edge of Talbotton, the road connected two highways and saw a lot of traffic, at least during the day. Sparse streetlights created alternating light and dark areas. Catching Eric’s eye were neatly hedged and treed lawns and fashionable brick homes, less abundant in the smaller Rossville.

Somewhere a dog barked, fell silent. As he approached the intersection with Franklin, he drove at a speed that would not attract attention, yet slowly enough to permit a good once-over of the station as he passed it in a test drive-by.

The towering Texaco sign bathed the modern, attractive station in brightness as if standing guard over it. He glimpsed someone inside, a man in overalls and a red and black plaid shirt, and portly, at least 55 years old.

Eric crossed the intersection and drove along a residential street. Few porch lights burned. He stopped out of sight of the station, trees blocking its brightness. He slued the car around and parked on the other side of the street, facing the gas station, the driver’s door at the curb. He was midway between two widely spaced, dim streetlights, in front of a darkened house and next to the blackness of a large, pyramidal evergreen whose top-to-ground rangy limbs, like outstretched arms, bounced in the gentle breeze.

He killed both the headlights and the engine. Had Beth not worn perfume, and had her skin been a tiny shade darker, it would have been as though he were alone. He closed his eyes and told her to give him a minute. He took a calming breath. He reached up, removed the dome light’s cover, and unscrewed the bulb. “Sit tight. Be back in just a few. I hope.”

He levered himself out, facing out over the top of the car, the cool breeze chilling him. He two-handed the door to a silent shut. The evergreen’s limbs scratched at the backs of his lower legs. A chill crawled up his spine. Did the tree want to grab him, stop him?

He peered around. It was too dark to see anything in the immediate area. Which meant no one could see him, either. His red and black Ford might go unnoticed if you didn’t know it was there. The quiet reassured him.

A dog barked again, nearer this time, on the other side of the street between him and the gas station. From the same direction came the sound of shoes pummeling the sidewalk. Somebody running after his dog, likely.

Eric eased his head lower and stilled himself, no easy task — his racing heart and roiling stomach threatened to buckle his knees.

Shadows within shadows, a man and a dog paused directly across from him. Eric could make out the small white dog as it careened to a tree and jerked a leg up. What if the man noticed him? Wouldn’t Eric arouse suspicion just standing here?

“Hey!” the man called out, the voice ripping like cannon fire.

Eric stifled a gasp. His hand fumbled for the door handle.

“Get back over here, Dumb-ass! Don’t you ever take off from me like that again. Beat you half to death. Let’s go!” The man’s footfalls receded up the street the way they’d come.

Eric relaxed in stages as the cursing man and his dog moved farther along into the blackness until Eric could no longer hear him swearing at the poor animal.

“Go on!” Beth’s voice, muffled by the glass, had a rasp that jolted him as much as the man’s angry shout had.

He hurried across the street, certain his stride suggested more confidence than he felt.

But how much trouble could a man that old be? This whole thing would be over in an instant. He and Beth would be out of here, in a motel, in no time.

Nearing the station, he slowed to give himself time to collect his thoughts, think over what he would do.

On the far side of the lot were several cars, either repaired or in line to be. Judging by that and the station’s well-appointed appearance, business had to be good. Near the road stood a small red and white sign in a metal frame. It read “Why Texaco Fire Chief is the finest…Simple as 1-2-3.” Wouldn’t executing Beth’s plan be as simple as 1-2-3?

His footsteps, scraping on the pavement in front of the station, were louder than he’d expected. Or did his tight edginess amplify the sound?

In the large front window, the man in dark overalls moved about. He turned and appeared at the door.

“Howdy, young fella. What can I do ya fer? My help’s gone. Just fixing to close ‘er up.”

He was indeed overweight. And old. Black smudges festooned his face. White hair lay in disarray above bushy brows. Eric couldn’t tell whether the smell that attacked his nostrils — maybe the blended smell of gas, oil, grease, and Lord knows what else — came mostly from the man or from the premises.

He steeled himself, his forehead cooling with sweat.

“Sorry to bother you, sir, but do you – do you have a tire iron I could use for a few minutes?” He had to clear his throat. “Got a flat down the street here. Got a jack but no tire iron.”

Nearing the door, he raked his eyes from side to side. There. The cash register sat in plain sight atop a tall narrow table less than a yard away from the door. A convenient place for hurrying change back to customers at the pumps, but also convenient for a “customer” like him.

His gave a self-deprecating chuckle. “Leave it to me to be just half prepared.” To his own ear, his voice quivered.

“Yep, sure do, son.” The man’s eyes canvassed him.

Eric cursed himself silently. Of course you have a tire iron. Every damn gas station in the country has a tire iron.

He entered the station and hesitated inches past the doorway. The bright interior made him feel exposed, on a stage. His muscles twitched and his mouth felt dry.

The station owner scuffed backward, his eyes never off Eric. He finally turned his back to Eric, giving him a lingering sidelong glance, a brow arched. He reached behind the door that was opened to the mechanic’s bay.

“Got one right here.” He straightened and squared off in front of Eric. His hand gripped the tire iron Eric had intended to threaten him with. But instead of handing it to Eric, the man drew it back head-high in a tight fist. His eyes narrowed, full of fire.

The back of his free hand wiped at his soiled cheek. “How come your face’s sweating like that on a chilly night? You look a mite bit too fidgety and shifty-eyed to really be wantin’ a tire iron.” He bobbed his chin at the night beyond Eric. “Tell you what — why don’t you just turn around and head back where you came from. Won’t be any trouble between us.”

Eric froze. How stupidof him to sweep his eyes around the place before the old guy had turned his back.

He put one foot back. No! What would Beth think of him if he returned empty-handed? Would she call him inept, a can’t-do-anything-right loser? Everything would fall apart between them. She’ll leave me for sure.

“Sick of this crap,” the man said. “Had to chase off another shifty-eyed fella just two months ago. You ain’t getting my money.” Teeth bared, he said, “Gave you a chance.” He charged, the metal rod arcing down.

Eric had no time to back up. His forearm deflected the tire iron and exploded in pain. He used the palm of his other hand to shove the owner away from him. The man staggered backward, too fast for his feet to manage. He toppled. The released tire iron clanged on the concrete floor. The back of his head whip-lashed against the edge of the bay door’s metal frame. He collapsed like a heavy sack of potatoes, his head winding up propped against the door at a grotesque angle that loosed a gasp from Eric. His eyes remained open. They stared past Eric at nothing. There was no movement in his chest.

“Oh my god!” The hoarse whisper tore from his throat. “What’ve I done?” He knelt beside the man and grabbed his wrist. His trembling fingers sought a pulse. None. The man was dead, pure and simple. Eric swiveled toward the door, started to bolt out, then pulled up. The cash register was too close to ignore. He hit the release and ripped bills from inside the tray and, lifting the tray, from under it. Folding and squeezing the wad into his hand, he hurried out.

Inside the car, he fumbled for Beth’s hand, rolled the money into it. Her fingers snapped over it. She jammed it into her purse.

His mind raced as he checked the rear-view mirror, then the side-view, then the rear again. Both hands gripped the wheel as if it were a life preserver. He spoke in between hard breaths. “Look – be sure you get your Daddy’s car tomorrow morning and bring the money over to my place, ‘bout eleven. Just as planned. We’ll talk about how–”

“I remember all that. You gonna sit there? The old guy’s probably following you. Let’s get out of– Wait.” Her eyes sparkled in the faint light as they darted over his face. She sighed, the outline of her shoulders sinking. “Okay, what the hell happened?”

He told her the gas-station owner wasn’t breathing and had no pulse. She emitted a throaty sound and slumped against the door like a rag doll.

He swerved his head back to scan the area where he’d walked. “But I’m pretty sure nobody saw me.” He hated himself for even having such a thought. He deserved to be seen.

“Eric…” Her voice was strained. “This is terrible. I’m real sorry. I don’t think I could handle a motel tonight.”

Nor could he, the sharp throbbing in his arm being the least of his distractions. His hand shaking, he brought the car to life and got them back on the highway. Miles away, his headlights plowing back the lonely road’s darkness, he rubbed his forehead and told Beth, “I’m real scared.”

HE dropped her off at her home and headed back toward the trailer. But should he go home? He might wake George, who’d read his turmoil and ask questions. He needed to calm down, maybe get a little sleep before going home. He rolled the car into the dark parking lot behind the Coca Cola bottling plant on the edge of town. Here he’d likely go unseen by Officer Otis Moran, who would shine flashlight in his face and easily read the trouble on it.

Sleep would not come. The image of last night’s gut-wrenching horror kept lashing him like a live wire.

Drained, his forehead sweaty, he pulled himself up straight, his bruised arm smarting. He turned the ignition key and checked the time: 5:30. He started the car and drove out of the parking lot. His heart thundered.

He eased into the trailer hoping not to wake George, no doubt sleeping off his regular Saturday night affair with Kentucky Straight. He light-footed it through the cluttered living room, over the worn carpeting that covered the thin, creaky flooring. In the tiny kitchen he made coffee. He took a cup of the steaming liquid to the small table at the window. As he sipped, he grasped the cup with both hands, trying to keep his fingers from shaking. His eyes fixed on nothing in particular out the window. Some twenty minutes and two cups of coffee later, his stomach felt like it could hold food. He made himself a breakfast of oatmeal, milk, toast, and jelly. After eating, he sat unmoving at the table.

At shortly after nine, George’s soft buzzing could still be heard. Eric went outside. The air was cooler than last night, a light breeze chilling his face. He squinted up at the sky, bright blue and cloudless in every direction. Some of the trees — a few sugarberries — sported buds. He smelled spring on the breeze. Life was beginning anew. And his life? Was it ending?

He crossed the yard of grass and grey-white gravel that aproned his brother’s trailer, leveled on columns of cinder blocks.

Inside his car, he turned on the radio. He combed back and forth through the stations. Except for the usual early-Sunday morning church sermons, he heard nothing. On the half hour, the drawling voice of the newscaster at Rossville’s only station spoke of 39-year-old Sen. John Kennedy, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee and “a fast-rising member” of the Senate. A weather forecast ended the news: sunny, high in the low to mid 50s. No mention of an incident in Talbotton.

Unable to resist closing his eyes, he slumped back, his head on the seatback. How long before guilt broke him down and tore a confession out of him? A week? A month?

But he couldn’t do that, couldn’t let Beth down, couldn’t undermine their future.

He had to get a grip — that much he knew. What were the possibilities? A family member — the man’s wife, likely — may have driven to the gas station after Farlin failed to show up by, say, midnight. Suspecting he fell and hit his head, she may have called for an ambulance to transport him to the hospital to be examined. Eric hoped she’d been too upset to notice the empty cash register.

He choked. Maybe she did and called the police.

All of that could have taken hours. So no news on the radio yet.

He seized the steering wheel, levered himself up. The smeared bugs on the windshield caught little of his attention. Beth’s face floated in front of him. He thought of the two of them together, of their future.

He cranked the car and headed down the bumpy unpaved drive that meandered to the highway. Sunshine flickered like a maddening strobe light through the leafless trees.

HIS heart started racing as he rounded the bend on Highway 41 and the house came into view. Several cars were in the driveway. A family get-together before church? Or prospective buyers touring the house? No!

He pulled over to the side of the road and hurried up the driveway alongside the parked cars. Once on the small wood porch, he could smell its new coat of gray paint. A man exiting the house almost bumped the screen door against him.

“Are you the owner of the house, sir?” Eric asked. Low voices murmured from inside.

The man, in his early 60s, closed the door behind him. His weathered, lined face was drawn, his pale blue eyes squinting at Eric. He lowered his head and shook it, his lips compressed into a thin line. “His brother. Just fixing to go pluck that for-sale sign.”

“You mean the house is sold? That’s why I’m here. I’m very interested—“

He gave a dismissive wave of his hand. “Mary took it off the market.”

The man might as well have thrust a knife into his heart.  “How–”

“They were gonna sell both the house and the business and move to North Carolina. He was set to retire just next week.”

Eric followed the man’s gaze out across the highway to the field of tall, swaying grass rendered a faded olive-green by winter’s cloak. The field ran in slight dips and swells and ended in the distance at a line of brownish, barren trees. A cool breeze washed in. The man exhaled, put his hands into his gray trouser pockets, and turned back to Eric.

“Well, all that’s changed now.” After a peek back through the door, he lowered his voice again. “See, Ed died last night. My baby brother, I always called him. I myself think it was his ticker that did it, but I reckon the autopsy will show which. Heart wasn’t the best, everybody knew. Shame, I’m telling you.”

Eric struggled to speak. “You said ‘which’ – ‘the autopsy would show which.’ Did he have other problems?”

He did a hasty head-scratching. “Oh dear Lord, I’m sorry. I’m babbling. Left out the worst part. Reckon I don’t want to think about it.”

Slightly bent as though in pain, he shuffled farther away from the door, taking Eric by the arm. “It’s horrible. Happened last night.” His voice was a harsh whisper, his forehead scrunched. “It’s crazy. You see, somebody…robbed him. Two months ago there was an attempt but Ed ran the bum off. Looks like the thief came back last night. Took all of Ed’s money for the day.”

Eric’s chest tightened. “Where– where did this happen?”

“In Talbotton.” He furrowed his forehead and regarded Eric as though taking him in for the first time. “Son, you all right? You look a right bit sick. Did you know Ed?”

BACK at the trailer, Eric, his eyes gritty and dry from lack of sleep, heated up the left-over coffee. George wheezed and snuffled softly from his bedroom. He’d be waking soon. How would Eric break the tragic news to him? He took a few slow breaths. He trusted George to respond like the loving brother he’d always been.

He sipped coffee at the table, his mind turning to the Farlin house. In time he’d get over losing it and find another, a better one. Maybe today.

His heart pounded. Yes. Today he would tell Beth he wanted to marry her. Then the two of them would go scouting for a home together.

It was well past eleven and Beth hadn’t arrived yet. Maybe she and her parents were arguing about her using the car. They were so restricting, so untrusting. Or maybe guilt, as crushing as his, had smashed down on her like a huge sack of cinder blocks, and she was too sickened by the whole mess, needing more time to recover and think through all the possibilities, as he had done.

George, why don’t we have a phone!

He went into the bathroom and opened the window an inch. A quick shower would suit him well. The hot water should last long enough, since the tank had had all night to heat the water and no dishes or clothes had been washed this morning. The cramped shower stall offered little maneuvering room, but the hot, steaming water felt exhilarating on his face, his eyes, his head. If only it could cleanse his thoughts of last night, help him feel reborn.

Drying off, he heard George thumping into the kitchen. No doubt the water humming and bumping the pipes had rousted him. A pan clanked, silverware rattled in the drawer.

Eric was almost finished dressing when another sound surged through the window: tires crunching on the gravel. Beth! Finally! A smile found its way to his face. A lightness burst loose inside him, driving away his tension. He couldn’t wait to see her pretty freckled face, her fiery, glittering eyes, bordered by a little too much of that aubergine eyeshadow, she called it. A car door slammed. A heavy knock on the door. The commotion launched a few blue jays shrieking their raucous protest. Why had she banged so hard? Nerves, no doubt. Still upset and worried.

He heard his brother open the door and mumble.

“Somebody here to see ya, Eric.” George’s voice sounded tight and cheerless. Understandable. George had never taken a liking to Beth.

“Tell her I’ll be there in a minute.” He massaged his scalp with Vitalis and briskly combed his hair. He couldn’t wait to watch her face as he popped the big question to her.

“A him. Wants to see you. Now.”

Who the heck could that be? Maybe a guy from work. Skinny Joe had dropped by maybe two weeks ago ago to tell him their hours would be cut for a week.

Eric crammed his red corduroy shirt into his pants and cinched up his belt. He exited the bathroom and in a near-trot headed down the short, dim hallway to the kitchen.

He stopped dead in his tracks, nearly losing his balance. A tan uniform! Filling it – and filling up the doorway — was a tall, paunchy, low-eared, gum-chewing man. He had thin, cold lips and the hardest blue eyes Eric had ever seen glaring at him. A meaty hand rested on the butt of a holstered service revolver. Officer Otis Moran of the Rossville Police Department. The vertical cockroach. Moran the Monster.

Moran’s fierce glare flitted up and down Eric, a visual frisking. “Eric Bishop.” His voice cracked like a pistol going off. “I guess I can pee on the fire and call in the dogs.”

Eric blinked, his mouth dry. His head did a shaky nod as though Moran had asked a question. In the big cop’s intimidating stare, he felt like a small child.

He swung his eyes to George, wanting him to come to his rescue as he had done a few times before. At age 13, Eric had gone into the basement shower room at the Y after a game of tennis. Two over-sized 20-year-old school dropouts, smoking cigarettes, pushed off the walls and started shoving him around demanding money. George, 18 and already 6-foot-four, was the state’s high-school boxing champ, had followed them in. He caught the two bullies in the act. Under ten seconds, his rust-red rage and big, stone-hard fists had left them groaning on the floor, one piled across the other.

But since Eric got out of the Air Force, George had stood back from the world.

He stood back from this. He drooped against the wall at the end of the worn, faded leather settee, head lowered, lips pressed together, and arms crossed high on his chest as if he were trying not to be seen. His sleep-creased face glinted in the meager light glowing through the window curtains. Over his forehead hung strands of uncombed mahogany hair. He looked like a dog beaten with a stick — until Eric saw what was in his eyes: a blazing fury as he glared at Moran.

Officer Moran spoke in a guttural growl, the way Eric imagined a grizzly bear would talk. “Got a call from Talbotton police, ’bout one this morning. Came by here at 1:15. Didn’t see your car. Good thing, ‘cause I was mad enough to…. Well, let’s just say you were lucky, boy. Got ol’ George here out of bed, asked him about you. Claimed he didn’t know diddly-squat. I forgive his evil eye on me, him being a Korean War vet and all, even if a drunk one.”

He rocked on his heels. “Hid out down the road a piece last night waiting for you. Then I did some prowling, driving all over the place town looking for you. ‘Bout an hour and a half later, figured you’d skipped out. Decided to come back here one more time just to be sure. My lucky day. For a time, thought you were gonna be a hard possum to tree.”

He jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “Your Ford out there. Seen you in it two-three times. Saw you last night, ’bout nine. Almost took off after you for speeding down Main.”

He looked at George, then back at Eric. There was a tightness in his eyes. “Wish I had.” He chewed his gum. “Might not have to be here now on this business.”

The palm of his beefy hand gave his gun handle a waggle. “Your car was spotted in Talbotton a little after ten. Your tag number was reported, so we know it was your car. And somebody fitting your exact description was seen getting into it right after hurrying out of that Texaco station on the corner of Dubois and Franklin.”

He planted his legs wide apart. “You were seen giving Ed Farlin a shove. You killed that good man, then cleaned out the cash register, I’m told. A little over $200 according to the receipts. Two offenses.”

He rolled his tongue behind his lower lip as he eyed Eric, resumed chewing his gum. “All right, you little piss ant, turn around real slow.”

Eric glanced at George again. His brother’s eyes glared hard at Moran. Had something awaken in him?

As the cold cuffs snapped over his wrists, his turmoil gave way to something that didn’t totally surprise him: a release of tension that surged through him like a tidal wave. He deserved his punishment. He needed it. He wanted it. It was over.

INSIDE the small, stuffy courtroom after his bench trial, Eric waited for his sentence from Judge Thomas Parker, a thin bespectacled man in his late 60s. He rubbed his forehead with his fingertips to keep his head from swaying with dizziness.

How did the myriad interactions since he was born – the bumps and thumps in life’s Great Pin-ball Machine – lead him to this? You think the world is one thing, then it turns out to be another, a world breaking apart under your feet.

His cheek bore a slow-healing, inch-long laceration surrounded by a dusky-red bruise that could be discerned from a hundred feet. It would strum his face for a long time, a sharp reminder.

“Tried to run and resist.” Officer Moran had spat the words at the brows raised at Eric’s appearance. But Eric had learned the truth behind Moran’s special wrath for him. According to his lawyer, Ed Farlin had been repairing the police officer’s personal cars free of charge, and Farlin’s canceled home-sale agreement had been with Fisher Realty, owned by Moran’s cousin.

In the witness chair less than ten feet from Eric’s defense table, John Appleby had sat, muscular, tough-looking, maybe 28 years old. He’d shown up a few minutes after Beth in a slightly soiled white T-shirt, a pack of Camels cigarettes rolled into its sleeve at the shoulder. A light-green gabardine jacket lay rumpled in his lap. Across his forehead dangled strands of shoe-polish-black hair that his hand had raked back so many times it had tightened Eric’s jaw.

After identifying Eric as the person he saw committing the offense, Appleby never set his eyes on Eric again. He seemed too busy sliding them over Beth every couple of seconds.

He told the judge he’d been walking his dog that night and had seen Eric enter the gas station. Eric shoved Mr. Farlin, he said, then ran out the door, crossed the intersection, and headed east on Dubois Street. “I tied Dumb-ass — my terrier — to a sign post and followed Bishop.” Hiding behind a bush, he obtained a description of Eric’s Ford Fairlane and the tag number as the car passed beneath a street light after turning around.

Beth had not visited him once in all the long, weary weeks he sat in jail awaiting his bench trial.

He stared at her sitting in the witness chair. Her hair was in a pony-tail. He’d never seen it that way. Gone was her aubergine eyeshadow, which she wore every time he saw her to make herself look “like I’m 21.” Now she had the scrubbed appearance of a 15-year-old.

The words spilling out of her mouth had torn him in half.

Clutching a handkerchief in her fist, she inhaled and said, “Eric told me he wanted to drive up to Talbotton just for the heck of it. When we got there, he said he wanted to get a co-cola at a gas station we passed. I don’t know why he parked so far away. Said he needed the exercise, I think.”

She closed her eyes and sighed. “He told the court he gave me the money from the cash register. I don’t know what he’s talking about. I never saw any money. And this stuff about it all being my idea….”

She sniffed and dabbed at her eyes with the handkerchief. “Why, that’s just plain crazy. I don’t know why in heavens he would say that. I reckon I just didn’t know him very well. Not very well at all.”

Throughout her whole testimony, she never looked at him.

Still sobbing, she returned to her seat on the opposite side of the courtroom from Appleby.

Eric gripped the arms of his chair, teetering on the narrow precipice of a cloud-high cliff.

His attorney, middle-aged, bald, mustachioed, had acted as though he had better things to do. He’d questioned both Beth or Appleby, but only briefly. He had declined to subpoena her parents, claiming they would refuse to testify as to Beth’s character.

The judge nodded at the bailiff, who told the witnesses they could leave. Beth rose and hurried along the aisle between the rows of seats. As Eric watched, she never gave so much as a sideways glance back at him.

Appleby fussed for a long moment over a shoe lace. He brought himself upright and scanned the room like a peacock. As though he had all the time in the world, he ambled toward the exit. He nodded and grinned — or did he sneer? — at each of the handful of spectators he passed. Everyone nodded back, everyone except George and the officer sitting next to him in the rear.

Through a side window Eric caught sight of Beth in the partially shaded parking lot less than 75 feet from the building. She got into the passenger side of a turquoise and white ’54 Chevy Bel Air facing Eric. The driver got in: John Appleby. A small white dog jumped up and down in the back seat, its barking faint. Appleby arced his arm back and smacked it. Beth tilted and kissed Appleby on the cheek, her lips lingering for a full five seconds.

The Bel Air murmured. It reeled backward, bucked to a stop, then ripped away. Did Appleby figure no cops patrolled near the courthouse?

His eyes stung and the pain in his chest sharpened. He wanted to scream out. His body rigid as ice, he twisted and glared toward the rear of the courtroom at George and the police officer. They were busy whispering to each other.

Judge Parker, corrugations in his forehead, appeared to be studying Eric’s file. He squinted over the top of his horn-rimmed glasses. He cleared his throat, paused, and in an old-age rasp, he announced his determination.

“Eric Bishop, I have taken into consideration that this is your first offense.” He lifted the end of the opened file, let it drop. “And I see here you served our country well for four years in the Air Force as a Cold War warrior. It was a job that requires a Top Secret clearance. To get that, you had to pass a rigorous scrutiny of your character. That speaks well of you. You were also a responsible employee in your job. Your record is exemplary. Until now.”

His fingers tapped the file.

“There is no evidence linking you to a January attempted robbery brought to this court’s attention by the deceased’s wife Mary Farlin. I am therefore giving you only twelve months for the robbery I had to find you guilty of.”

He removed his glasses and laid them aside. No sternness showed in his eyes as he peered at Eric.

“I believe your account that Mr. Farlin’s death was unintentional and accidental. But I find you guilty of the offense of causing a homicide in the commission of a crime. I am going to take a chance with you and decree a sentence of five years for that offense. I will allow your sentences to be served concurrently, however. I’m not going to fine you, but I will award your car to Mrs. Farlin, who has agreed to pay off your loan and accept the car as restitution for the robbery.”

Eric hardly heard him. Well before the bailiff cuffed him and led him away, everything jolted into clarity.

Every time he dated Beth in their last month, the coldness in her eyes had chilled him. His loneliness, his desperation, had swept it away. “Mama and Daddy won’t let me do anything,” she’d said. Of course not. She was not to be trusted. She had probably destroyed her parents’ trust in her a thousand times in as many days.

Her parents must have known she was seeing two guys at the same time. And maybe they’d sensed she’d been playing one for the fool.

He should’ve recognized all that, too. Beth had claimed to be sick on so many nights, especially Saturday nights, when he’d wanted to see her most.

On her “sick” nights she and John Appleby had gone out. He probably lived near the gas station. That would explain how she knew so much about it and the owner.

And there was little doubt in Eric’s mind that it was Appleby who had tried to rob Ed Farlin in January.

Eric understood, too, why on their last dates Beth had wanted only to see a movie. That’s how she minimized conversation and intimacy enough that he wouldn’t discover the straining, uninterested Beth and break off before she and Appleby hatched their plan. She had danced a fine line between driving him away and stoking the embers.

ON his seventh day in the state prison located 50 miles from Rossville, Eric greeted his brother in the gray-walled visiting area, sunlight pouring through the sparse windows. They sat across from each other at one of the long tables populated here and there by other prisoners and their families and friends.

George asked how he was doing. Eric gave a small shrug and scrunched his face. “You know, swallowing my medicine. Trying to do the same with my regrets.”

“Well,” George said, “experience is a great teacher. Sometimes the best lessons are learned from the worst mistakes.”

George leaned in his elbows. “Got your letter. Got John Appleby’s full identification including his sosh – Social Security number – his address, previous addresses, etc. etc. On him like white on rice.”

He shot a glance at the wall clock. He wore a wristwatch, so Eric suspected George was registering in his peripheral vision that the armed guard at the door was out of earshot.

“Charlie — Charlie Greggs, a decent cop, the one sitting next to me at your trial? We’ve been buddies since high school. His mama and daddy were friends of our mama and daddy. He’s been real helpful. Was trying to keep an eye on Beth and Appleby. Wanted to see if he could document they have a relationship that started before the…the robbery. Her parents won’t talk, won’t get involved one way or the other.”

George’s face contorted in apparent disgust. He seemed not to know which way to look.

“Charlie said Beth and Appleby headed north two weeks ago, right after that lying little crap Beth graduated. I’m sure they went to Chicago, like you suspected they’d do. That’s backed up by Appleby quitting his job at Talbotton Lumber a week ago, and by the credit report I ordered on him. It showed an April inquiry by Lionel Lumber ten miles south of Chicago. The inquiry was part of an employment qualifications review.”

Eric frowned and looked off to the side. “The money I took — it paid for their move. I don’t imagine her mama and daddy are overly broken up about seeing her leave.”

George drew his eyebrows down. “After Mama and Daddy died and you got home from the Air Force, I didn’t do real well as a big brother. I’ve let you down a bunch of times by my drinking and all. Never in the right frame of mind so we could talk things over. Things like Beth. Real quick I figured she wasn’t right for you, judging by your sour moods half the time when you came home from being with her. She played you like you were Howdy Doody. Shoulda put the muscle on you to break it off.” He blew air, shook his head. “I’ve let you down for the last time. Me and Kentucky Straight? We’ve said our goodbyes.”

George’s eyes bounced off Eric, then back. “My stint in the Korean War? Never told you much about it, but I signed up for the Army’s brand-new Special Forces. Trained long and hard in infiltration, search-and-destroy. And hand-to-hand combat. Our trainers, they’d attack us in the middle of the night when we were sound asleep, drag us out of bed, and beat the hell out of us so we’d learn to fight in real situations in real fear. Big difference. Brutal, but it toughened me up. I was able to put away a lot of commie bastards quick and easy, with just these hands.”

Eric leaned away. “I — My God. I never knew.”

George’s lips thinned. “Had to do some real horrible things over there, to get the commies to cough up info, I mean. Lots of nightmares after I got out. Talk about regrets. Ol’ Kentucky Straight helped keep it all down and away.”

Every negative thought Eric had harbored about his brother in the last year drained away. He smiled and nodded.

George took lazy glances here and there as though they were discussing nothing important. He chewed the inside of his cheek.

“There’s something I wish I’d done before Beth and her bastard beau moved away. But I needed to get back into shape. Functioning at work, but a mess. The day after I chucked my booze, I started jogging, running hard. Worked my way up to sprinting three miles a day. Then I thought: why don’t I become the guy I used to be in the Special Forces. That’s when I started hitting the weights and the bags at the Y.”

He looked Eric in the eye. “What I’m walking the long way round the field to say is, after I got my butt in shape, I got an idea. I’m taking a few days off, going to Chicago. Leaving tomorrow. Got their address lickety-split. Called the electric company up there and pretended ‘the nice couple’ had applied for a loan at my bank here in Chicago. Told the sweet old lady I really wanted to approve the nice young couple, but I took down their address wrong — I’m so careless! —  and they don’t have a phone number yet.”

He dropped the smile he’d held. “It’s gonna be payday for those two, for what they did to you. They’ll have a choice — come back with me real peaceful-like to confess the truth to the judge, or stay where they are in a changed physical condition.”

Eric gripped the table edge. He felt like pushing back and leaving. “George, there are five-thousand different kinds of snakes in this state and I imagine Appleby being the meanest. I can picture him pulling a knife. Or a gun, for God’s sake.”

George wagged his head from side to side. “Concern noted. You still don’t seem to realize what your brother is. I’m banking on him doing just that. I’ll stick close to him the whole time. That gun or knife’ll be in my hand and he’ll be on the floor before he knows what happened. A quick, light thrust to the throat would curl him up for a few minutes but leave him able to testify.”

He pushed his lips up and shrugged. “If I miscalculate, hey, there’s Beth. Appleby going down hard would convince them to take the first offer before things got a lot worse.”

Eric lowered his head and tried to stifle a laugh. “My brother….”

“Charlie thinks their confession about the robbery — and the attempted robbery in January — might persuade Judge Parker to do you better if you appeal. The judge might see you as the love-struck fool you were, one who’s learned a lesson the hard way. Charlie also believes it was your genuine, heart-felt expression of regret over Ed Farlin’s death that impressed the judge, convinced him to believe your testimony. A retrial might get you resentenced to just a couple of years, then probation.”

The guard ambled to the door where he and another guard chatted, gestured, and chuckled.

Elbows on the table, George corralled his shoulders forward. “I talked over a plan with Charlie. I knew he despises Otis Moran as much as anybody else. Says the man is plumb crazy, a complete stranger to human decency. When I told him the real story about what happened between you and Beth, he believed it one-hundred percent. He’s a real decent man and hates how Otis gives a black eye to the whole damn police department. And he’s as pissed off as I am about Otis busting you up.”

He took his voice down another notch and wobbled a finger. “Now, me and Charlie, we’re fixing to do something, arrange something just serious enough to send Otis a strong message. Charlie got hold of a gang through a contact over in Silver City. Some boys who’re gonna give Moran a good hard whuppin’. They’ll enjoy the double pleasure of thrashing a cop and getting a few bucks for it. They’ll leave Otis half conscious, write a warning on his forehead: ‘Nobody had better get a hair bent ever again while in your custody.’ And get this: Charlie asked them if they’d be kind enough to decorate his cheek with an extra special bruise just like the one he gave you. They’ll douse him with liquor, then call the police department and tell them where to find him.”

He spread his big scarred hands flat on the table. “According to Charlie, the chief has been frustrated over Otis. He’d look the other way if a good lesson were taught. It troubles Charlie something awful to be part of such a thing, but he’ll do this one bad sin for one good kid.”

Eric pulled in a breath. He wanted to savor the moment — the guilty pleasure — and remember it forever. He nodded his gratitude.

“Good thing is,” George said, “dollars to doughnuts Moran will get the axe. The chief might figure he got drunk and started a brawl. Could be the last straw.”

He slouched back and folded his arms across his chest, a grin creeping up on his face.

“Saved the best for last. Charlie was at a family reunion couple of weeks ago. He just happened to quietly mention to his daddy how you were railroaded. A cousin of his was there, overheard it. Was in high school with you. Turns out, this cousin wants to visit you real–”

“Wait wait. Who? What kind of guy is– What’s his name?”

The grin crawled wider across George’s face. “Her name,” he said, reminding Eric that George used to tease him just on the days that end with the letter “y.” “Elaine Peters. Pretty as a princess with a sweet personality to go along. Had a thing for you for the longest. Still does, to hear Charlie tell it, and she just broke off with her boyfriend.”

Eric collapsed back and squeezed his eyes shut, his heart racing.

“My– my senior year, I remember wanting like heck to ask her out. Didn’t think she might have any real interest in me until it was too late. Always figured she’d tell me to do the long walk on a short peer.”

George’s expression was half chuckle, half grimace. “Charlie says she’s ticked off that you were set up and dealt a bad card. Never liked Beth one bit. Charlie figured you might be interested in somebody like Elaine, and he told her that. So guess what? She’s driving up here Saturday evening to see you. Around seven o’clock. If it’s okay with you — how couldn’t it be? — she’ll come up every Saturday evening until you get out. Which I hope is sooner than you think. I’ll get to cracking on an appeal Monday. Judge Parker ain’t getting any younger. My boss has a lawyer friend who could handle it. I’ll ante up for it. Pay me back when you’re rich and famous.”

He twisted his head toward the clock again to take in the guard, who peered at the farthest table. “I’ll be back from Chicago late Friday night. I’ll meet up with Charlie at the police department and hand over my tied-up cargo of conspirators.”

His index finger arced down. “I’ll be back here Saturday after I grab some sleep. I’ll be gone before Elaine gets here at seven. Just want to drop off three hamburgers from that new MacDonald’s restaurant on Main Street. Tell Elaine the burgers mean the three-you-know-who’s goose is cooked.”

He pushed his chair back and stood straighter than Eric had seen his muscular, six-foot-four frame in years. “You do know, don’t you, some inmates get married in prison?” He pushed his eyebrows up. “Huh-uh. No tease.”

He tipped a salute at Eric. After Eric returned the gesture, his brother’s powerful, intimidating figure lumbered away, past the guard, and through the visitors’ exit. He was like somebody who knew his mission in life. Eric felt a twinge of sorrow for Beth and Appleby.

The guard escorted Eric back to his cell, where he sat down on his cot.

It was true, he’d been a love-struck fool. Emphasis on fool. He compressed his lips and squinted against the pain of finally admitting to himself that he’d never really loved Beth. She’d merely been a means to an end. He’d hated her, almost from the beginning. He’d been a starving man grateful to eat out of a garbage can.

He looked over at the opposite wall. On a piece of notebook paper that he’d taped up were large words he’d written and underlined, his resolve slow and steady:

NEVER AGAIN

Never again would he compromise himself and let loneliness drive him to do something his mind knew was stupid. It was better to have nobody than to have somebody only half there, or who didn’t want to be there in the first place.

Growing sleepy, he lay back. He permitted himself his first full-fledged grin in months, one that could not have been tamed if he had tried. Saturday was just four days away. He couldn’t wait to see Elaine on their first “date.” He’d tell her he’d been the reckless driver who’d almost plowed into her on that fateful night, and that if he had hit her, he wouldn’t be where he is now. A good laugh would be had when he “chided” her for her expert driving.

She’d be another reason those cold hamburgers would be the best-tasting things Eric had ever eaten

His breathing quickened, routing his drowsiness. He remembered again the last time he and Elaine spoke to each other. It was five years ago at school.

He now knew for sure what he had seen in her eyes as she said goodbye on that day. He had seen in them what she had surely seen in his: the true sadness of a broken heart.

From a few cells away drifted his favorite song, “The Twelfth of Never,” by Johnny Mathis. As he listened, stinging tears welled in his eyes. He leaned up, stifling sobs as he held in his mind the image of Elaine from that day.

He realized what would be his.

All the joy of her that for years he had been certain would never be his, would be his.

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