Never Again (A short story)

lonely-road

12,855 words, one hour and 30 min, depending on reading speed

By Jerry A. Boggs

© June 2018

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 across his palms. He’d already tapped his horn twice, ten tortuous minutes apart. Maybe he should say to hell with it. But leaving meant he wouldn’t see his girlfriend at all tonight — and maybe not 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. 

He stared unblinking straight ahead. Half a block away, a man and a woman sauntered hand in hand across the intersection under the street light. She tugged him in close and gave him a fast squeeze.

A thickness gathered in Eric’s throat. His 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 whacking the house startled him even through the closed car windows. Eighteen-year-old Beth bounded off the porch and half-trotted along the walk toward him. Her shoulder-length hair — russet-red in daylight — bounced in the cool March night air. Her white cardigan sweater might have slipped off her shoulders had it not been fastened at her neck. He pictured her blue-green eyes fiery and narrowed.

She piled into the car, slammed the door, and plopped her small black purse onto her lap. She gave two quick tugs to straighten her sky-blue, scoop-neck cotton print dress, and sat there, stony motionless except for her heavy breathing and oxblood thumbnails 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 got stuck.

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 with a boiling cauldron inside.

His jaw muscles clenched as he pulled his two-year-old ’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 on the opposite end 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 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 insides churning in another way. She’d 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, such as “I reckon,” or just a grunt and a quick shrug.

It knotted him up that she often appeared to be straining while with him. Her rare smiles formed as if weights were tied to the corners of her mouth.

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

 “Had another big one with Mama and Daddy.” She puffed strands of hair off her forehead. “A pair of Hitlers. Stifle the heck out of me. Make me feel like I can’t get excited about anything.”

“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.”

Was that it? Was she distancing herself from him to accommodate her parents?

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, pausing at “The Great Pretender” by the Platters. He zipped past it.

Something he’d been avoiding put a knot in his stomach: Isn’t that what he’d been doing — pretending from the moment he first laid eyes on Beth? Pretending to be somebody he wasn’t and was probably never going to be?

“Hell, by the time I’m 30,” he’d told her when they met, three Budweisers having disengaged his brain, “I’ll be running that damned joint I work at.” Instead of looking her in the eye, he’d been watching the whirling storm of jitterbugs through the haze of cigarette and cigar smoke. It was the annual dance at Brennan Beer Hall, where your age didn’t matter if you looked like an adult. The jitterbugs were animated by a red-jacketed, three-piece band and a reed-thin, long-sideburned crooner doing a painful slaughter of Elvis songs.

There, at the dance, Beth had grabbed his attention. He bumped her chair on his way to his table after flinging someone else around on the dance floor. Her hand landed on his forearm.

“Hey!” she’d said. “You bump me, you gotta sit with me.” She’d flung a thumb in the direction of the girl sitting next to her. “Ginny says you look like a good catch.”

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

A focus had finally arrived in the form of one teal-eyed Beth Chapman.

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

The song boomed in on WLS, a station that reached this far south only at night. WLS was some 800 miles north, in the big city of Chicago, “the Windy City.” He’d never been there but lately found himself thinking about the city often. The other day he’d spread out a U.S. map, one hand pinning it to the kitchen table, the other smoothing it out. He’d scanned the bottom of Lake Michigan and located the city right off the bat. He’d tapped his finger three quick times on the shaded area representing Chicago to fix its exact location in his memory.

Thoughts of Chicago floated into his mind often lately. 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 deep into the bone,” she’d told him as they strolled around her block one early evening a few days after they met. “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 in a fancy elevator every day like they do in the picture shows. I want to pop out on those busy streets with a bunch of people walking in every direction and go shopping in those big fancy department stores. Now that’s living, I tell you. Adventure.” She gave Eric an oblique glance. “The fellow I marry has to want to go live there.”

Frankie Lymon yielded to Elvis’ even livelier “Blue Suede Shoes.” Eric tweaked the volume. The left thumb tapped the steering wheel in rhythm. He cupped his other 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 reclaimed her hand and plucked at the bottom of her dress. Both hands returned to rest on her purse, her thumbnails fighting each other again.

His cheeks burned. 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. “Rebel Without a Cause,” starring James Dean, Beth’s favorite actor, was making a return showing. It had begun three minutes ago. 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 off at five above the speed limit. Fast, but diner2apparently not fast enough for Police Officer Otis Moran, gazing out Eric’s way from inside the Halfway Diner, to abandon his coffee and donuts 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, having lost their jobs that day, 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 realize Moran was in the corner facing them. The officer had watched like a vampire studying his victims, letting their bottle get emptier and 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 rear seat of his patrol car. He kicked in the other as he cackled, “Second verse, same as the first.”

Assured Moran was going to stay put, Eric breathed out, relaxed. He looked at Beth. Her head turned his way, her eyes meeting his. 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 off and watched darkened store-fronts slide by – Mitchell’s Cleaners, Western Electric, Rossville Hardware. “I don’t know, Eric. So.”

An awkward silence. She blew out air. “Just a bit upset right now’s all. Feeling… Oh, I don’t know what I’m feeling. Just know I wouldn’t be very good.”

“You’d be good unconscious.”

She snorted. Then to his surprise, she slid closer and gathered his hand into both of hers across her legs. Rubbing his wrist — a little hard — she seemed 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.” One more try.

Her icy quiet made him feel as though he’d whispered 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 several seconds, a vague queasiness stirring in his belly. He faced forward again. The theater’s marquee cropped up, small in the distance. “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 graduated Rossville High in May. Marriage would at least let her escape her parents. Wouldn’t that alone 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’d driven out on Highway 47 before heading home. After putting a mile or so behind him, he veered onto the shoulder. Through the passenger window, he eyed a home he’d taken note of two weeks earlier while out on a Sunday drive.

On the lawn stood a blue sign. Its light-yellow words read: “For Sale By Fisher Realty Company.”

The home was a freshly painted, white bungalow built maybe in the ’20s. In the golden light of the late afternoon sun, it blazed bright and clean as a banker’s shirt. It sat a hundred feet from the road, smack in the middle of a well-cared-for, deep-green lawn. Bordering the lawn on one side were small pines, and on the other, neatly rounded, hip-high boxwoods. Visible in the rear was the edge of a patch of bare earth, a garden to keep a body busy on warm 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 might 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 as if he’d never noticed the for-sale sign before. After she’d drunk in the sight of the attractive, well-kept little home for a minute and fell in love, he’d say, “Well, how does it grab you? Think you could 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. For the last three or four years he’d had nothing but short, disappointing relationships. Already 23, he was ready to give up the single life. And Beth — the sight of her triggered a tingling warmth and set his heart racing — was the one to do it with. Damned if he’d let her slip from his fingers. Could turning her heart around be so hard?

The theater was two blocks away. He whipped the car off Main Street onto Third Avenue. James Dean could wait. The Ford slid past small frame homes and treed yards. Neither he nor Beth spoke.

Beth,” he said following the silence that put a worm in his gut, “what’s bugging you? What say we 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 I told you a few days ago I got a short check this week ’cause the plant closed for two days for inventory? My next car payment is due on the tenth, and I’ll be making it late. Which I really hate doing.”

Her gaze was straight ahead. His hand felt the heat of hers. She 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’d worn the perfume the last time they made love, on his birthday four weeks earlier. Her hand rubbed his chest. He felt light-headed.

“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 out his phlegm. 

She scooted toward the door and propped against it facing him. He looked ahead but pictured her studying him.

“You about to ask me a life-or-death ques–?”

“There’s a Texaco gas station in Talbotton,” she said, “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 gave Eric’s bicep two fast tweaks. “Bet you could’ve stomped Rocky Marciano before he retired last–”

“Damn!” He slammed on the brakes. He’d run a stop sign. He swerved the car to the side to avoid marrying his car to a ’53 maroon Buick Skylark. The car, vaguely familiar, careened around the front of them. The split-second flash of the female driver’s face in his headlights was enough time for him to recognize her. An angry horn blared into the night as the Skylark rambled off.

He maneuvered the car to a rough halt a few yards past the dark intersection, above the center of which hung a burned-out light bulb. He rammed the gear-stick into park, grabbed a breath. “You all right?”

She sat up straight. “I’m fine.”

“Was that–?”

“Elaine Peters,” she said, her voice grating. “Going home from work in her daddy’s car. Miss Goody Two-Shoes Beauty Queen. Thinks the sun comes up just to shine on her.”

“Somebody got fire ants 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. The girl who’d stolen his heart breezed up to him at his locker in a belted, pink and aqua floral wiggle dress, clutching her dark-green algebra textbook to her bosom. Her flowing ash-blonde hair, her smile, and her radiant, cornflower-blue eyes — her closeness — choked his breath off, turned his legs into mush.

 She fingered her opal pendant necklace. The corners of her mouth turned down. Placing a hand on his forearm, she said in a low voice, “You’re such a cutie. Just wanted to say goodbye.”

As she moved by him, brushing his arm, she squeezed his hand hanging at his side. “And,” she said without looking back, “to say ‘too bad.'” Her faint, pleasant fragrance lingered.

He couldn’t turn away from her until she disappeared into her algebra class after glancing back at him.

Had she smiled?

He hurried 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 stares as he fought back smarting tears for the first time since he was probably ten years old. All he could think of was that Elaine was gone. All the joy of her that could have been his if he’d known before how she felt, would never be his.

That had happened two days before he completed 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 sweated his hands. 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 likely 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 against him. His painful memory floated off, leaving him feeling tight and off-guard, as though he were emerging from a nightmare. 

“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 fast. He searched the faint glow of her face for a moment, then stared ahead at nothing. His insides roiled. What was happening? This was not good, but answers evaded 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 left the Air Force. His handful of high-school buddies had scattered. Elaine was the only girl he’d had feelings for in high school. According to a rumor he’d heard at work, she was in a serious relationship and maybe thinking about marrying the guy. Spotting her in town on occasion, he’d bitten his lip and moved on.

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

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.

He lived with George in his trailer. It was 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. They often hog-tied 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 south of the Mason-Dixon Line, and maybe north of it, too. He could find a mouse on the Moon. A buried mouse.”

Eric sat sideways, the armrest soon annoying his lower spine. 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–?”

“Your spirit of adventure — where is it? How 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-back. “Y’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 boosted the radio volume. 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 rear 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 felt the warmth radiating off Beth’s face. He thought again of the lengthy, wrenching periods between his few brief, pre-Beth relationships, and something clutched at his insides again. Beth pressed 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 directed his car south onto the dark highway, his headlights swept across the faded, rusty sign that canted like someone near death. 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 dashboard’s glow of the lights, her pale face appeared taut. “You’ll turn right. Franklin’s maybe six blocks. The Texaco station’s on the corner.”

“Only one guy? Old guy?”

“Ed Farlin.” She rubbed his arm. 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. The car glided over the black, gently rolling road, never above the speed limit. The yellow-white of the headlights tunneled through the blackness ahead of them.

A few minutes later they arrived at Dubois Street and turned. On the northern edge of Talbotton, the street 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. Approaching the intersection with Franklin, he drove at a speed slow enough to allow a perusal of the station as he passed by in a dry run.

The towering Texaco sign stood guard, bathing the modern, attractive station in brightness. Eric glimpsed someone inside, a man in overalls and a red and black plaid shirt. He was portly, at least 55 years old.

Eric crossed the intersection and drove along another residential street. Few porch lights burned. He continued on until they were at the bottom of a rise that blocked the Texaco sign’s brightness. He slued the car around and parked on the opposite side of the street, facing toward the station, the driver’s door at the curb. He was midway between two widely spaced, dim streetlights. The car was in front of a darkened house and next to a large, nearly invisible, pyramidal evergreen. The tree’s top-to-ground rangy limbs, like outstretched arms, bounced in the gentle breeze.

He killed the headlights and the engine. If Beth had not worn perfume and her skin been a tiny shade darker, he would’ve felt alone. He closed his eyes and told her to give him a minute. After sucking in a calming breath, he removed the dome light’s cover and unscrewed the bulb. “Sit tight. Be back in just a few. I hope.”

He levered himself out and stood between the door and the car. The cool breeze chilled him. Over the roof of his Ford, he put eye and ear on his surroundings. At the back of his lower legs, the evergreen’s limbs scratched. An iciness crawled up his spine. Did the tree want to grab him, stop him?

It was too dark to see anything in the immediate area. Which meant he couldn’t be seen, either. His red and black Ford might go unnoticed by pedestrians if they didn’t know it was there. The quiet reassured him. He two-handed the door to a silent shut.

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. He stilled himself, no easy task — his thundering heart and roiling stomach threatened to buckle his knees.

Shadows within shadows, a man and a dog paused straight across the street. Eric could make out the small white dog as it careened to a tree and jerked a leg up.

Hey!” the man said, his voice ripping like cannon fire.

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

“Get over here, Dumb-ass! Don’t you ever take off on 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.

Go on!” Beth’s voice, muffled by the glass, had a rasp that jolted him as much as the man’s angry shout. “You my James Dean or not?”

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

But how much trouble could one man that old be? This whole thing would be finished in a second. He and Beth would be out of here and in a motel before they knew it.

Nearing the station, he slowed to give himself time to play out his plan in his mind.

TexacoNewOn 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 must have been 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 scraped on the pavement in front of the station, startling him. Were sounds amplified by nerves on edge?

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

Howdy, young fella. Ed Farlin.  Just fixing to close ‘er up. Can I help you with something real quick?

He was indeed heavy. And old. Black smudges festooned his forehead and jaws. Grey hair lay tangled above wispy, salt-and-pepper eyebrows. The smell of gas, oil, grease, and Lord knows what else — from the man, the premises, or both — assaulted Eric’s nostrils.

He steeled himself, sweat cooling his forehead.

“Sorry to bother you, sir, but do you – do you have a tire iron I could use for maybe 20 minutes?” He coughed. “Got a flat. Got a jack but don’t have a 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 from the door. A convenient place for hurrying back change to customers at the pumps, but also convenient for a “customer” like him.

 He snickered. “Leave it to me to be just half prepared.” To his own ear, his voice croaked.

Farlin’s eyes fastened on 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, as if on a stage. His muscles twitched and his mouth felt dry. 

The station owner scuffed backward, his eyes never off Eric. He finally turned turned his back, giving Eric a lingering sidelong glance. He reached behind the opened glass and metal-framed door that led into the mechanic’s bay.

“Got one right here.” He straightened and squared off in front of Eric. Instead of handing over the tire iron Eric intended to threated the man with, the station owner drew it  head-high in a tight fist. His eyes narrowed, full of fire and suspicion.

“How come your face’s sweating like it was the middle of July? 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 — you just turn around and head back where you came from. Won’t be any trouble between us.”

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

He put a foot behind him and half-pivoted. No! If he went back empty-handed, wouldn’t Beth blast him for being inept, a can’t-do-anything-right loser? Not her James Dean?

Everything would fall apart between them. She’ll leave me for sure.

“Sick of this crap,” Farlin said. “Had to chase off another shifty-eyed fella just two months ago. You ain’t getting my money.”

His neck was thick and veiny. “Gave you a chance.” He charged. The metal rod arced toward Eric’s head.

There was no time to back up. Eric’s forearm flew up to absorb the blow. It exploded in pain. The palm of his other hand rammed into the man’s sternum.

Farlin staggered backward, too fast for his feet to manage. He toppled, collapsing like a heavy sack of potatoes. The tire iron clanged on the concrete floor. The man’s head whip-lashed against the edge of the bay door’s metal frame at the lower hinge. It wound up propped against the door at a grotesque angle. Farlin’s eyes, open and unblinking, stared beyond Eric’s shoulder at nothing. His chest was as still as the trunk of an oak tree.

A gasp erupted from Eric’s throat. 

He knelt beside the man and grabbed his wrist. His trembling fingers sought a pulse. None. He slapped his face, pounded his chest. Ed Farlin was dead, pure and simple

Eric’s legs shoved him up. He stepped toward the phone on the wall. No. Someone might spot him. It was too late, anyway.

He bolted toward the door, then halted. The cash register. Beth might still want to go to a motel even after all this. He hit the release and ripped bills from the tray and under it. Folding and squeezing the wad into his hand, he strolled out.

Inside the car, he fumbled for Beth’s hand, rolled the money into it. Her fingers snapped around it. She made a lot of noise stuffing 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. 

“You just gonna sit there? The old guy’s probably called the cops. Let’s get out of– Wait.” Her eyes, in the faint light, steadied on him. The outline of her shoulders sunk. “Okay, what the hell happened?”

He told her the gas-station owner wasn’t breathing and didn’t have a pulse. She emitted a guttural sound and slumped sideways against the door.

He scanned 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, when he thought about it, though the motel might have been a good place for him to get his wits back, talk things over with Beth.

“Get your Daddy’s car tomorrow morning and bring that money to the trailer, eleven o’clock. We gotta send it back. I’d take it back right now, but I’d be seen sure as–

“Look, I’ll mail it myself. And I’ll come over at eleven anyway. We’ll need to go somewhere and talk. Let’s get out of here.” 

His arm throbbed and his hand shook as he brought the car to life. 

HE dropped her off at her home and headed toward the trailer. But should he go home? He might wake George, who’d read his turmoil and ask questions. He needed to relax, 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 on his patrol. Good thing. Moran would put a flashlight on his face and spot trouble on it in an instant.

Drowsiness weighed on him but sleep’s blessedness only teased. The constant replays of last night’s gut-wrenching horror were live wires lashing him.

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

In the trailer George was no doubt sleeping off his regular Saturday night affair with Kentucky Straight.

Eric tip-toed across the cluttered living room, over the thin orange carpeting covering the creaky flooring. In the small kitchen he reheated George’s coffee and carried a steaming cup of it to the two-chair table at the window. As he sipped the bitter liquid, he hasped the cup with both hands to still his trembling fingers. He gazed out the window at the trees but did not see them.

Some twenty minutes and two cups of coffee later, a sourness and hunger rankled his stomach. He made himself oatmeal, toast, and jelly and poured a glass of milk. After eating, he sat unmoving at the table, unable to barricade his mind against the images of last night.

At ten past nine, George still softly buzzed. Eric went outside. A cool snap of air splashed on his face. He squinted up at the sky, bright azure and cloudless in all directions. Some of the trees — a few sugarberries — sported buds. Spring was in the making, life beginning anew. And his life? Was it ending?

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

Inside his car, he combed the radio stations — the usual Sunday-morning church sermons. On the half hour, 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. 

Unable to resist closing his eyes, he slumped down in the seat. When was guilt going to break him and tear a confession out of him? A week from now? A month?

But how could he disappoint Beth and 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 when Farlin failed to show up by, say, midnight. Suspecting he’d fallen, she may have called for an ambulance. Wasn’t it possible she’d been too upset to think of checking the cash register?

He choked. Maybe he’d left the drawer open.

Farlin’s wife would’ve called the police.

 But all of that could have taken hours. 

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

He cranked the car and headed to Highway 41.

Several cars were parked in the driveway. A family get-together before church?

Or prospective buyers touring the house? No!

He pulled over, his heart racing. He got out and hurried up the driveway. On the small railed 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 ran across Eric. He dropped his head and shook it, his lips compressed into a thin line.

“Jim. 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 Arizona. He was set to retire just next week.”

He turned and faced toward the road.

Eric followed his gaze out across the highway to the field of tall, swaying grass that had been 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.

The man exhaled, put his hands into his gray trouser pockets, and gave Eric a brief look before staring down at the porch.

“Well, all that’s changed now.” He gave a peek into the house and said low, “You 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 took Eric by the arm and shuffled to the porch railing, his forehead scrunched.

“It’s horrible, young fella,” he whispered. “Happened last night. You see, somebody…robbed him. Two months ago there was an attempt but Ed ran the bum off. Looks like the booger came back last night. Took every bit of Ed’s money for the day.”

An icy insect crawled up Eric’s spine. His hand found the railing. “Where — where did this happen?”

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

At the trailer, Eric, his sleep-deprived eyes gritty and dry, warmed up the left-over coffee. George wheezed and snuffled softly in his bedroom. He’d be awake soon. How would Eric break the tragic news to him? He drew in a slow breath. He trusted George to respond like the loving if emotionally absent brother he’d been since Eric came home from the Air Force.

He sipped coffee at the table, the Farlin house returning to his thoughts. In time he’d shake off losing it and find another, a better one. Maybe today.

His heart pounded. Yes, today he’d ask Beth to marry him. Later in the week maybe, they’d go scouting for a home.

It was already past eleven. Where was Beth? Arguing with her parents about using the car? They were so restricting, so distrustful. Or maybe her guilt, as crushing as his, had smashed her with the force of a dozen cinder blocks, and she was too sickened by the whole mess. Maybe she needed more time to recover and contemplate all the possibilities, as he’d done.

George, why don’t we have a phone!

He went into the bathroom and hiked up the window an inch. A quick shower would suit him well. In the cramped shower stall, the hot, steaming water felt exhilarating on his face, his eyes, his head.

If only it could cleanse him of his thoughts of last night.

Drying off, he heard George thumping into the kitchen. The water humming and bumping the pipes must have 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? Still upset and worried.

He heard his brother open the door.

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

 He scrubbed Vitalis into his scalp and combed his hair. Watching her face light up when he popped the big question to her would make him tingle all over. 

“Tell her I’ll be there in a minute.”

A him. Wants to see you. Now.”

Who the heck could that be? Maybe a guy at his company. Skinny Joe had dropped by two weeks before to tell him their hours would be cut for inventory.

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

He stopped dead in his tracks. A tan uniform! Filling it – and filling up the doorway — was the tall, paunchy, gum-chewing Otis Moran of the Rossville Police Department. Moran the Monster. The vertical cockroach. 

A meaty hand held a menacing grip on the butt of his holstered service revolver. Fierce eyes canvassed Eric’s body, 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’s mouth went 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’d 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 20-year-old school dropouts, smoking cigarettes, pushed off the walls. They began shoving him around, demanding money.

George, 18 and already 6-foot-four, was the state’s high-school boxing champ. He’d been watching Eric play tennis and had followed him in 30 seconds later. 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 seemed less engaged than before, had uncoupled from the world.

He uncoupled from this. He drooped against the wall at the end of the worn, faded leather settee. His chin was pulled in, his lips pressed together. He crossed his arms high on his chest as if trying not to be seen. His sleep-creased face glinted in the meager light glowing through the frail window curtains. On his forehead hung strands of uncombed mahogany hair. He looked like a dog beaten with a stick — except that his eyes, leveled at Moran, blazed in fury as they had done at the two thugs in the Y shower room.

Officer Moran spoke in a growl, the way Eric imagined a grizzly talking.

“Chief let me stay on your case. 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 drove around all over the place looking for you. ‘Bout an hour and a half later, figured you’d skipped. Decided to pay one more visit here 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 on Main.”

His gaze flicked to 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 ’bout 10:15. 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 more’n two-hundred bucks according to the receipts. Two offenses, one not nearly as bad as the other.”

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

Eric glanced at George again. His brother’s eyes were still trained on Moran. Had something awoken in him?

As the cold handcuffs snapped around Eric’s wrists, the thousand cinder blocks crushing him lifted. The tension racking his body evaporated. 

He deserved his punishment. He needed it. He wanted it.

It was over.

 

INSIDE Judge Leonard Parker’s stuffy courtroom, the ceiling fans, in the late-June heat, did nothing to make Eric feel comfortable.

His forehead wet, he sat at a table ten feet from the judge’s desk. At his side was Walter Argroves, his balding, mustachioed, court-appointed attorney. Behind him in the spectator seats sat a handful of Ed Farlin’s friends and family members of Ed Farlin, the subpoenaed witnesses, and a newspaper reporter. Toward the rear was George and his police officer friend Charlie. 

He rubbed his forehead with his fingertips to staunch the sensation of falling. 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, and it turns out to be another, a world breaking apart under your feet.

His cheek throbbed and burned from a slow-healing, inch-wide laceration surrounded by a dusky-red bruise that could be discerned at a hundred feet. It would strum his face for some time, a sharp reminder.

Tried to run and resist.” Officer Moran had flung the words at the brows raised at Eric’s swelled, bleeding cheek. That was how he’d explained it, according to George.

But Eric had learned the real reasons for Moran’s special wrath for him. His attorney had told him Ed Farlin had been repairing the police officer’s personal cars free of charge, and Farlin’s canceled home-sale agreement had been drawn up at Fisher Realty, owned by Moran’s cousin.

The black-robed, bespectacled Judge Parker, rumored to be retiring soon, was in his early 80s. Despite his age and sparse chalky hair, he somehow conveyed a boyish look. 

He’d met with Eric and his attorney in his chambers. He accepted and thanked Eric for his letter that admitted guilt, expressed deep regret, and gave his version of the incident.

In the courtroom, the judge said he was set to determine and announce the terms of Eric’s sentence. But first, to Eric’s shock, he read Eric’s letter to the court. Parker did things his own way, according to Argroves, and no one dared question him.

 Was Beth grateful he confessed the truth? Did she feel the same relief he’d felt? He threw a glance at her. No sign of relief or gratefulness, only smoldering, dark eyes boring into him.

His teeth clenched until his jaws hurt. What was she thinking? She’d be smart to confess. The judge might go easy on both of them.

Judge Parker directed the bailiff to call the first of the subpoenaed witnesses, whom Eric’s attorney would be allowed to question.

First up in the witness chair was Officer Otis Moran in civilian clothes. He gave his testimony, presenting the facts “as I know them.” He was brief, emotionless, and gave no opinions. It worked. Eric’s attorney passed on questioning him. With Judge Parker’s permission, Moran left the courtroom to report for evening duty, his fun time.

Eric seethed a little less. 

The bailiff called John Appleby. Muscular, tough-looking, maybe 28 years old, Appleby eased himself into the chair, smiling big. He’d shown up a few minutes after Beth. He wore a white, slightly soiled t-shirt, a pack of cigarettes rolled into its sleeve at the shoulder. Across his forehead dangled strands of shoe-polish-black hair that he raked back so many times it tightened Eric’s jaws.

When asked to identify the defendant Eric Bishop, Appleby grinned and pointed at Eric.

What’s so funny?” Judge Parker asked. “Start talking, tell what you know.”

He’d been walking his dog that night, Appleby said, and had seen Eric enter the gas station. “Bishop shoved Mr. Farlin, then ran out the door, crossed the intersection, and headed east on Dubois Street.”

He raked his hair. “I tied Dumb-ass – that’s my dog’s name, Dumb-ass.” He grinned, eyes casting around. “Tied him to a sign post and followed Bishop.”

He’d hidden behind a bush and obtained a description of Eric’s Ford Fairlane and the tag number as the car rolled beneath a street light.

When Appleby ended his testimony, the judge asked Eric’s attorney if he wanted to cross-examine. The attorney waved a No.

Judge Parker observed Argroves for a few seconds, frowned, and faced the witness.

“What I want to know, Mr. Appleby, is why you didn’t run to Mr. Farlin to see if he was okay, instead of playing detective.”

A deer-caught-in-headlights look flashed on Appleby’s face for a second.

“Uh, Your Honor, I – just a stupid mistake’s all. Bad snap decision, I know. I feel really bad about it, but I was so pissed-off–”

“Why didn’t you call the police for help?”

“Ah, sir, to be honest, my record ain’t all that clean. I was accused of stealing a couple years ago – falsely accused, want you to know. Got real scared. Thought I’d be blamed for–“

“You’re dismissed.”

Appleby, grinning, his chin high, strode to his seat across the aisle from Beth.

The bailiff called her to the witness chair.

Eric stared at her. Her hair was in a pony-tail. He’d never seen it that way before. Gone was her aubergine eyeshadow, which she wore all the time to make herself look “like I’m 21.” Now she radiated the scrubbed youthfulness of a 15-year-old.

A hotness flared in Eric’s face. What was she doing? And why hadn’t she visited him once in all the weary weeks he’d rotted in jail awaiting his bench trial?

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 he took out of the cash register. I don’t know what he’s talking about. I never saw any money. And all this stuff about it all being my idea….”

Her words tore Eric’s insides in half. She was lost forever from his life.

She sniffed and dabbed at her eyes with the handkerchief. “Why, that’s just plain crazy. I don’t know why in heavens he’d say that. I love Eric – did love him. I wanted him to ask me to marry him. But now I can see why he didn’t ask. He doesn’t love me. Never did. I reckon I was too young and blinded by my feelings.”

During her whole testimony, she never once looked at Eric. 

Still sobbing, she returned to her seat. She kept her eyes to the floor.

Eric gripped the arms of his chair as though he were on the edge of a steep cliff. 

In the quiet courtroom, the judge scribbled and handed a note to the court recorder.

Seconds — or was it minutes? — went by. Eric’s thoughts drifted to Elaine Peters. The pain in his throat sharpened. In school on that day years ago, suppose it hadn’t been friendly regret she’d shown. Suppose she’d shown real caring feelings – loving feelings.

He sighed, staring at his hands on the table. It no longer mattered. Gone forever was the joy of Elaine that for years he’d hoped against hope might someday be his. 

The judge nodded at the bailiff, who told the witnesses they could leave. 

Beth rose and hurried to the exit along the aisle between the rows of seats. She never gave so much as a sideways glance at him.

Appleby fussed with a shoelace for a moment. 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 was it sneers this time? — at each of the handful of spectators. Everyone acknowledged him, except George and Officer Charlie.

Through a side window Eric caught sight of Beth in the partially shaded, treed parking lot less than 70 feet from the building. She got into the passenger side of a turquoise ’54 Chevy Bel Air facing Eric’s way. 

The driver got in. John Appleby. Beth canted closer and kissed his cheek, her lips lingering for a full five seconds.

Was he Beth’s James Dean?

A small white dog jumped around in the rear seat, its barking faint. Appleby arced his arm behind the seat and smacked the animal. The dog’s yelping cries seared Eric’s insides.

The Bel Air murmured. It reeled backward, bucked to a stop, and ripped out of the lot. Did Appleby figure cops didn’t patrol near the courthouse?

Eric’s eyes stung and the pain in his chest nearly made him fold. He wanted to scream out. His body rigid, he twisted and glared toward the rear of the courtroom. George and Charlie were busy whispering to each other.

Judge Parker, corrugations in his forehead, appeared to labor over Eric’s file. He removed his horn-rimmed glasses and cleared his throat. In an old-age rasp, he announced there was no need to delay for deliberation. 

Eric Bishop, I have taken into consideration that this is your first offense.” He lifted the corner 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 as he regarded Eric.

“I accept 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 felony. I’m going to take a chance with you and decree a sentence of five years for that offense. I’ll 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.”

The judge’s words barely registered. As the bailiff led Eric to the prisoner access door, clarity burst through his mind with the force of a sword.  

Each time he dated Beth in their last month or so, the coldness in her eyes had chilled him. But his loneliness, his desperation, had always minimized it. “Mama and Daddy won’t let me do anything,” she’d said. Of course not. She was not to be trusted. She’d probably destroyed her parents’ trust in her a thousand times.

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 likely gone out. Appleby probably lived near the Texaco station. That, rather than her daddy getting his car repaired there, would account for how she knew so much about the station and the owner.

There was little doubt it was Appleby who’d tried to rob Ed Farlin in January. And no wonder he hadn’t tried to help Farlin and hadn’t called the the police. He couldn’t have known Farlin was dead. He’d feared the gas station owner would recognize him. 

On their last handful of dates, Beth had wanted only to go to the picture show. This way, she minimized talk and intimacy while showing just enough interest to keep his embers stoked — a fine line walked to keep him reeled in until she and Appleby hatched their plan. 

ON July 10, his fifth day in the state penitentiary 50 miles from Rossville, Eric greeted his brother in the gray-walled visiting area. Sunlight poured through some of the sparse, high windows, making the room hotter. They sat across from each other at one of the 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.”

George half-nodded and leaned in on his elbows.

“A lot to talk about. Got your letter. You didn’t have to ask for help. Was already putting things in motion. Got John Appleby’s full identification including his sosh – Social Security number – his address, previous addresses, etc. etc. On those two bastards like fleas on a dog.”

He shot a glance at the wall clock. He wore a wristwatch, so Eric figured 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? My buddy 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 had a relationship before the…the robbery. He tried to talk to her parents, but they won’t get involved one way or the other.”

George’s head tilted back. “Oh. You remember at your trial when Appleby said he was falsely accused of stealing before? Charlie looked into that. Turns out Appleby’s own parents accused him of taking $500 out of a cigar box they kept in their bedroom. They filed a police report but declined to pursue it because of their ‘old age and poor health.’ My gut tells me he threatened them.”

“What in hell did Beth see in–?”

“Birds of a feather. Not a nickel’s worth of difference between them. Looks like they went to Chicago like you suspected. Ten days ago, Charlie said. They would’ve left right after Beth graduated, but Argroves subpoenaed them pretty quick — one good thing he did.”

As he talked, George gazed around, mostly at the guard.

“Appleby quit his job at Talbotton Lumber two days after your trial. The credit report I ordered on him showed a recent inquiry by Lionel Lumber ten miles south of Chicago. The inquiry was part of an employment qualifications review. Appleby’s lucky his parents retracted their report. Can you see an employer wanting to hire somebody that rips off their own mama and daddy?”

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

Trenches dug into George’s forehead. “After Mama and Daddy died and you got out of the Air Force, I didn’t do a real good job being a big brother. Disappointed you a bunch of times by my drinking and all, I know that. 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 Howdy Doody. Shoulda put the muscle on you to break it off.”

He blew air. “I’ve let you down for the last time. Me and Kentucky Straight? We 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 living 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 whomp a lot of commie bastards quick and easy, with just these hands.”

Eric shifted in his chair. “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.”

All the negative thoughts Eric had harbored about his brother in the last year evaporated. He felt his chest expand. 

George made lazy glances here and there. He chewed at the inside of his cheek. 

“There’s something I wish I’d done before Beth and her bastard beau hauled-ass north. But I needed to get back into shape. Functioning at work, but a mess. The day after I chucked my booze, I got a routine going. 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 made a new friendship with 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 ‘here at my bank here in Chicago.’ Told the sweet old lady I really wanted to approve them, but I took down their address wrong — I’m so careless! —  and they don’t have a phone yet.”

His jaw shifted. “One sure thing, it’s gonna be payday for those two, for what they did to you. I’ll tell them, ‘Look, you have a choice — sign a confession and come with me real peaceful-like and nicely tied up, or stay where you are, hog-tied and gagged in a changed physical condition in the room farthest from your front door, the circulation in your arms and legs slowly being cut off.'”

Eric gripped the table edge. “George, there are five-thousand different kinds of snakes in this state, and I imagine Appleby being meaner than the meanest. What if you beat them up and they charge you with assault, claiming you’re a crazy man out for revenge?”

“I’ll answer with a question: If given the same choices, would you want to be left in extreme agony for hours on end, maybe days, because nobody could hear your muffled groans, lying there in your soiled clothes, desperate for a drink of water, your body numb and swollen? Trading a few days of torture for a few years’ loss of freedom can sometimes be a good deal, right? Anyway, to charge me with a crime? Good way to get themselves implicated in your crime in front of Judge Parker again.”

“But what if he pulls a knife? Or a gun, for God’s–?”

George gave a grunt. “‘Spect he will. That gun or knife’ll be in my hand and he’ll be on the floor before he knows what happened, curled up tight as a tick. Appleby going down hard would convince them to take my first offer before things got a lot worse.”

Eric pulled his chin in 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, somebody who’s learned a good lesson from a bad experience. Charlie also feels your genuine, heart-felt expression of regret over Ed Farlin’s death impressed the judge the most. It convinced him to believe your testimony, he thinks. A retrial might get you resentenced to just a couple of years, then probation.”

“George, I don’t know what to say.”

“Be happy Appleby’s gonna take up residence here soon and you’ll have a lot of chances to express your love.”

The guard stepped through the door and he and another guard chatted.

George corralled his shoulders forward.

“I talked over something with Charlie. He despises Otis Moran as much as anybody else. Says the man is plumb crazy, a complete stranger to human decency. He believes your version of what happened between you and Beth one-hundred percent. He’s a real good guy and hates how Otis gives a black eye to the whole damn police department. And I tell you, he’s as pissed off as I am about Otis busting you up.”

He wobbled a finger. “Now, me and Charlie,” he said, notching his voice down, “we’re fixing to do something, arrange something just serious enough to send Otis a real strong message. Charlie got hold of a gang via 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 semi-conscious, write a warning on his forehead: ‘Nobody better get a hair bent ever again 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 splash liquor on him, then call the police department and tell them where to find him.”

 George spread his big scarred hands flat on the table. “According to Charlie, the chief has been frustrated about 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 sucked in a breath. He wanted to savor the moment — the guilty pleasure — and remember it forever. He nodded his gratitude. 

“Dollars to doughnuts,” George said, “Moran will get the axe. The chief might figure he got drunk and started a brawl. Could be the last straw. If that happens, Moran’s mine.”

 He slouched back and folded his arms across his chest, a huge Cheshire cat’s 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 all, even asked a few questions and gave a few opinions. Was in high school with you. Turns out, the 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 when they were young George used to tease him but only on the days that end with the letter “y.” “Elaine Peters. Pretty as a princess with a sweet personality to match. 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 blinked hard, his heart racing.

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

George’s expression was half chuckle, half grimace as he gave a knowing nod. “Charlie says she’s ticked off that you were set up and dealt a bad card. She never liked Beth one bit, thinks razorbacks make better company. Charlie told her you might be interested in somebody like her. So guess what? She’s got a new job that frees up her weekends. 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 eyed the noisy kids at the farthest table. “I’ll be back from Chicago late Friday night. Charlie’ll meet me at the police department and I’ll hand over my tied-up cargo of conspirators.” 

His curved forefinger arced down. “I’ll be back here Saturday after I grab some sleep. No later than six. I’ll be out of your hair before Elaine gets here at seven. Will let you know how it went. And I’m gonna 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 out his chair and stood straighter than Eric had seen his brother’s muscular, six-foot-four frame in years. “Okay then. By the way, you do know, don’t you, some inmates get married in prison? Uh-huh, tease you not.”

He flipped a two-fingered salute at Eric. When Eric returned the gesture, his brother’s powerful, intimidating figure lumbered off, past the guard, who gave him a respectful nod, and through the visitors’ exit. He was like somebody who knew his mission in life. 

Eric’s twinge of sorrow for Beth and Appleby vanished in a flash.

The guard escorted him to his cell. When he left, Eric sat down on his cot.

It was true, he’d been a love-struck fool. Emphasis on fool. He squinted against the pain of admitting he’d never really loved Beth. She’d been a means to an end. He’d been a starving man grateful to eat out of a garbage can.

He looked over at the facing 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 he knew deep down 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.

He lay back and permitted himself a full-fledged grin. It had been months since his last one. He couldn’t have tamed it if he’d tried.

Eric’s “date” with Elaine was four days off. Waiting to see her might drive him mad. He’d get a kick out of telling 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 was now. They’d have a good laugh when he “chided” her for her expert driving.

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

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

He was now convinced he’d seen in her eyes the same loving feeling she’d surely seen in his. And each had seen in the other the true sadness of a broken heart.

From a few cells away drifted his favorite song, “The Twelfth of Never,” by Johnny Mathis. His eyes began stinging. He leaned up, stifling sobs as he held in his mind the image of Elaine.

It hit him. He had been wrong.

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

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