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Authors: David Jauss

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BOOK: Black Maps
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Although he had only a few hundred dollars in savings, Larry was glad he'd been fired. Now he would finally have the time he needed to work on the limousine. But it was too hot to work outside just then, so he spent the next few days sitting in front of a fan, watching TV. He watched everything, but he liked the nature shows on the Discovery Channel best, especially the ones about survival in the wild. Though these shows were full of conflict and danger, there was something comforting about the simplicity of the animals' concerns—food, shelter, a quiet moment in which to lick their wounds. Sometimes he'd tape a show and watch it several times.

Larry didn't do any work on the Cadillac, but almost every day he went out to the garage to look at it and plan his course of action. One morning, about two weeks after Karen and Randy had left him, he was surprised to find someone sitting in the back of the severed car. It was Elizabeth, the retarded woman who lived across the street with her elderly mother. She was a big, heavy-breasted woman with red bristly hair and splayed feet, and she was always talking to herself. The words didn't make any sense. They sounded foreign, even alien, and Larry always wondered if her mother could understand her. He remembered how Karen had been able to understand Randy's babble when he was a baby. He had been jealous of that ability; it had made him feel like an outsider in his own family.

Larry leaned over and looked in at Elizabeth. She was wearing a loose-fitting flowered dress—the kind Karen called a muumuu—and holding a red purse the size of a small suitcase on her lap. Her mouth was moving continuously, chewing words as if they were gum.

He cleared his throat and said, “Can I help you?” It was what he'd said to his customers at ShopKo, and he felt strange for having said it now.

Elizabeth turned her moon face to him and abruptly, for the first time in his presence, went silent. But then she immediately started talking again. She was looking at him, but somehow he could tell she was still talking to herself.

“What's wrong?” he asked. But that, too, was a stupid question: she was smiling and every now and then a giggle broke into her babble. He stood watching her for a moment, not knowing what to do. Then he opened the door and said, “I'm sorry, but you'll have to leave.” But she didn't move. She just opened her purse a crack, put her eye right down to the opening, and half giggled, half jabbered some strange phrase over and over. Then she suddenly snapped the purse shut and looked at him as if she thought he were trying to peek.

Larry didn't know what to say. “If you want to go somewhere,” he finally said, “you picked the wrong car. This one doesn't even run.”

Just then, Elizabeth's mother came huffing up the driveway in her housecoat. “Oh Mr. Watkins, you found her!” she said, trying to catch her breath. “I was so worried. I was just about to call the police.” She came up beside Larry and looked in at Elizabeth. “You naughty girl!” she said. “You know you aren't supposed to go outside by yourself.” Her scolding didn't seem to bother Elizabeth; she just sat there, chattering away happily and peeking every now and then in her purse.

The old woman turned back to Larry and, wiping her sweaty face with a handkerchief, said, “I don't know what's gotten into her, Mr. Watkins. I've been up and down the block looking for her, but I never thought to look in your”—she paused, as if she wasn't sure what to call it—“your car.”

She went on talking, but Larry was only half listening to her. He was watching Elizabeth bounce up and down on the back seat like an excited child. “You know something,” he interrupted the old woman. “I think she thinks she's going somewhere.”

That night, Larry called Karen for the first time since she left. “Oh, it's you,” she said.

“What's the matter?” he said. “Can't I call?”

“Yes, you can call. Just don't think you'll change my mind.”

“I'm not calling about that,” he said.

“Then what are you calling about?”

For a moment, he didn't answer. He was listening to Karen's mother, in the background, talking to Randy. She was using the high, sing-song voice grown-ups put on to talk to children. Larry strained to hear what she was saying, but all he could make out was “grow up big and strong.” Then he realized Karen was on the phone in her parents' kitchen, and for a second he was standing where Karen was, looking across the room at the kitchen table, where her mother was sitting beside Randy's highchair, poking a spoonful of something at him. He felt a sudden ache, like hunger, in his stomach, and he gripped the telephone.

“You remember that retarded woman across the street?” he finally said.

“Of course I do. How long do you think I've been gone? Forty years?”

He gritted his teeth a moment, then went on. “Well, this morning she was sitting out in the Caddy,” he said. “Her mother was looking everywhere for her. She was about to file a missing person report. And here she was, just sitting there in the back seat, smiling and jabbering like nothing in the world was wrong.”

“If this is about that stupid car…”

“No. Really, I just wanted to call. I thought you'd want to hear what happened.”

“Now why would I want to hear about that woman sitting in your worthless car?”

“I don't know,” Larry said. And now that he thought about it, he didn't know why he'd wanted to call and tell her. It all seemed so stupid now. Of course she wouldn't care. And why should
he
care?

In the background he heard his son say “Grandma” and suddenly he had to sit down. The last words Randy had said to him before he and Karen got on the bus were, “Grandma's gonna take me to the zoo.”

Larry sat there, staring across the kitchen table at the sink where Karen used to give Randy a bath when he was a baby. He felt very tired all of a sudden. He wanted to put his head down on the table and go to sleep.

Then Karen said, “Are you still there?”

“Yes,” he answered. “How's Randy?”

“He's fine. He's made friends with the neighbor's little four-year-old, and he's been playing with him all day in his sandbox.”

“Tell him I'll build him a sandbox in the backyard if he wants.”

“I told you, Larry. I'm not changing my mind.”

“I know,” he said. “I was just thinking about when he comes to visit. You know, on weekends or whatever.”

“All right,” she said. “I'm sorry. I didn't know what you meant. Listen, do you want to talk with him for a minute?”

Larry was quiet. Then he said, “No, I guess not.”

“Are you all right?” Karen asked.

Larry stood and looked out the window at the garage. Then he said, “I've been working on the car. You should see it. It's looking pretty good. I hung the new drive shaft and split the door posts the weekend you left, then last week I finished bending the new side panels and installed the window frames.”

“Larry,” she said.

“It took me forever to run the wires from front to back,” he went on. “Over fifty wires in all. But everything's electric now: the locks, the windows, you name it. And I just finished installing the extensions on the gas lines, brake lines, and exhaust. It's been a lot of work, but it's been worth it. I'm just about ready for the paint job. I've decided on a royal blue Corvette finish. I tell you, it's gonna be beautiful, Karen, really beautiful.”

“Larry, I'm not going to listen to this.”

“I'll take you for a ride in it when it's finished,” he went on. “You'll be the first one in it, you and Randy.”

“Larry, I mean it.”

“Okay,” he said. “Okay. I'm sorry.” Then they were silent for a long moment.

Finally, Karen said, “When will you understand? Even if you had done all of that, it wouldn't mean anything to me. I don't know why it's so important to you. Why can't you just let it go?”

“What do you mean,
if
I had done it?”

“You know what I mean.”

“No, I don't,” he said, his voice rising. “Why don't you tell me.”

Karen sighed. “I don't want to sit here and fight with you, Larry. Randy's right here, and so's my mom.”

“If you don't think I've been working on that car, you're wrong,” he said. “Dead wrong.”

“Okay. Okay. You've been working on it.”

“Not just working on it, I'm damn near finished with it.”

“I said okay. Don't get mad.”

“I'm not mad. Who said I was mad?”

“Okay, you're not mad. You're not mad, and the limo's almost done. And I've changed my silly little mind and I'm not going to file for divorce after all.”

“Don't talk to me that way.”

“Why not? That's how you talk to me.”

“You know what?” he said, pacing beside the table now. “You think you know everything. You think you're so smart. Well, you don't know shit. You understand? Not even
shit
.”

“Larry, listen to yourself. You sound like—”

“You listen to yourself!” he shouted, then hung up the phone so hard it rang.

He stood there a moment, trembling, then went to the refrigerator and opened it. He stared inside for several minutes, not seeing anything, before he finally closed the door and went out to the garage. It was dark outside, and it'd be hard to work, even with utility lights, but he had to get busy. He had wasted too much time already. It was still terribly hot, and the weathermen were saying the heat might not break for another week, but he couldn't wait any longer. He took off his shirt, gripped the rear bumper, and pulled the back half of the Cadillac about six feet away from the front half. Then he began to align the frame, pausing every now and then to towel the sweat from his face and arms.

When he finished aligning the frame, he took an imprint of the end of the frame section, then stood and stretched his aching back. There was nothing else he could do now. He'd take the imprint to Hawker's the first thing in the morning, so they could begin building the frame extensions he needed. On his way back from Hawker's, he'd stop at Eriksen's Welding Supply and buy welding rods—about twenty pounds should do it—then swing by Vern's Sheet Metal to see about renting their break to bend the side panels. Hawker should have the extensions for him by the end of the week, so if he worked steadily he could be done welding the frame by the weekend. Then the next step would be installing the drive shaft. That was the trickiest part, according to the tour guide at the limousine factory, because the longer the drive shaft was, the greater the amount of torque it had to bear. Larry was planning to add at least one more hanger bearing, but still he was worried that the shaft would vibrate or even twist out of its supports. Several times he had imagined driving down the highway with Karen and Randy, the three of them talking and laughing as if nothing had ever been wrong between them, when all of a sudden the shaft would lurch out of the hanger bearings with a sound like the end of the world. Whenever this thought had come to him, he had forced himself to think of something else. But now he stood there between the two halves of the Cadillac and watched the shaft drag beneath the swerving car, spewing sparks.

The next morning, Larry was too exhausted to take the imprint down to Hawker's. He didn't even have the energy to watch TV, so he just lay on the couch and stared out the window. Birds flew by, lighting on the branches of the sycamore, and squirrels chattered and chased each other in the yard. He watched all this for a while, but he wasn't really seeing it. He was wondering what would have happened if he hadn't been born. Who would be living in this house, looking out the window? Who would Karen have married? And what would her son be like? The more he thought, the more he felt insubstantial, as if he had only been dreaming all these years that he existed. He looked around the room, and everything seemed simultaneously familiar and strange. He remembered how once, when he was a child, he had lain on the floor of his bedroom and imagined that the ceiling was the floor of an upside-down house and he was somehow stuck on the ceiling. Nothing was different—there was the same light fixture, the same posters on the walls, the same bed and carpet—but everything had changed.

Now he lay on the couch, watching the dust swirling in the light slanting through the window. It looked like snow. He watched it fall for a long time, wondering if it would ever stop. It didn't. It kept falling, but as it fell out of the light, it disappeared.

Then he held his hand up to the light and turned it back and forth.
I'm here
, he thought.
I'm alive and I'm here
.

Later that morning, the doorbell rang. It was Elizabeth's mother, her face a knot of worry. “I'm afraid she's in your car again, Mr. Watkins, and I can't get her out.”

Larry was dizzy from standing suddenly after lying down so long, and he hung onto the doorjamb. In the bright sunlight, the old lady's wrinkled face looked as if it had been burned, and it occurred to him that that's what aging was: a gradual kind of fire that ate your flesh. He shivered, even though the air coming through the screen door was oppressively hot.

“I'm sorry to bother you,” she said, and took a step back down the stairs. “If this isn't a good time…”

Then Larry realized he had been staring at her for some time without speaking. “Excuse me,” he apologized. “I just woke up, and I'm a little groggy. I'll be happy to help you.”

He slipped on his tennis shoes and followed the old woman out to the garage where, as before, Elizabeth was sitting in the back seat with her purse on her lap. But this time she wasn't just jabbering; she was singing. Larry couldn't recognize the song, if it was a song. He remembered how Randy would make up nonsense songs, and it occurred to him that children—and maybe retarded people, too—didn't know that words existed. Maybe they thought words were only sounds, meaningless noises people made back and forth, to pass the day. Or maybe it was the other way around and they thought every sound was a word. And maybe they were right, maybe every sound
was
a word, and they weren't speaking nonsense after all.

BOOK: Black Maps
6.07Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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