Authors: Paul Auster
He spent several minutes wiping down the surfaces of the truck: the dashboard, the seat, the windows, the inside and outside door handles, everything he could think of. As soon as he was finished, he did it again, and then he did it once more for good measure. After collecting the bat from the ground, he opened the door of the stranger’s car, saw that the key was still in the ignition, and climbed in behind the wheel. The engine kicked over on the first try. There were going to be tread marks, of course, and those marks would remove any doubt that a third man had been there, but Sachs was too frightened to leave on foot. That’s what would have made the most sense: to walk away, to go home, to forget the whole nasty business. But his heart was pounding too fast for that, his thoughts were charging out of control, and deliberate actions of that sort were no longer possible. He craved speed. He craved the speed and noise of the car, and now that he was ready, all he wanted was to be gone, to be sitting in the car and driving as fast as he could. Only that
would be able to match the tumult inside him. Only that would allow him to silence the roar of terror in his head.
He drove north on the interstate for two and a half hours, following the Connecticut River until he reached the latitude of Barre. That was where hunger finally got the better of him. He was afraid he’d have trouble holding the food down, but he hadn’t eaten in over twenty-four hours, and he knew he had to give it a try. He pulled off the interstate at the next exit, drove along a two-lane road for fifteen or twenty minutes, and then stopped for lunch in a small town whose name he couldn’t remember. Taking no chances, he ordered soft-boiled eggs and toast. After he was done, he went into the men’s room and cleaned himself up, soaking his head in a sinkful of warm water and removing the twigs and dirt stains from his clothes. It made him feel much better. By the time he paid his bill and walked out of the restaurant, he understood that the next step was to turn around and go to New York. It wasn’t going to be possible to keep the story to himself. That much was clear now, and once he realized he had to talk to someone, he knew that person had to be Fanny. In spite of everything that had happened in the past year, he suddenly ached to see her again.
As he walked toward the dead man’s car, Sachs noticed that it had California license plates. He wasn’t sure what to make of this discovery, but it surprised him just the same. How many other details had he missed? he wondered. Before returning to the interstate and heading south, he turned off the main road and parked at the edge of what appeared to be a large forest preserve. It was a secluded spot, with no signs of anyone for miles around. Sachs opened all four doors of the car, got down on his hands and knees, and systematically combed the interior. Thorough as he was, the results of this search
were disappointing. He found a few coins wedged under the front seat, some wadded-up balls of paper strewn about the floor (fast-food wrappers, ticket stubs, crumpled cigarette packs), but nothing with a name on it, nothing that told him a single fact about the man he had killed. The glove compartment was similarly blank, containing nothing but the Toyota owner’s manual, a box of thirty-eight-caliber bullets, and an unopened carton of Camel filters. That left the trunk, and when Sachs finally got around to opening it, the trunk proved to be a different matter.
There were three bags inside it. The largest one was filled with clothes, shaving equipment, and maps. At the very bottom, tucked away in a small white envelope, there was a passport. When he looked at the photograph on the first page, Sachs recognized the man from that morning—the same man minus the beard. The name given was Reed Dimaggio, middle initial N. Date of birth: November 12, 1950. Place of birth: Newark, New Jersey. The passport had been issued in San Francisco the previous July, and the back pages were empty, with no visa stamps or customs markings. Sachs wondered if it hadn’t been forged. Given what had taken place in the woods that morning, it seemed almost certain that Dwight wasn’t the first person Dimaggio had killed. And if he was a professional thug, there was a chance that he had been traveling with false documents. Still, the name was somehow too singular, too odd not to have been real. It must have belonged to someone, and for want of any other clues concerning the man’s identity, Sachs decided to accept that someone as the man he had killed. Reed Dimaggio. Until something better came along, that was the name he would give him.
The next article was a steel suitcase, one of those shiny silver boxes that photographers sometimes carry their equipment in. The first bag had opened without a key, but this one was locked, and Sachs spent half an hour struggling to pry the hinges loose from their
bolts. He hammered away at them with the jack and tire iron, and every time the box moved, he heard metallic objects rattling around inside it. He assumed they were weapons: knives, guns, and bullets, the tools of Dimaggio’s trade. When the box finally relented, however, it yielded up a baffling collection of bric-a-brac, not at all what Sachs had been expecting. He found spools of electric wire, alarm clocks, screwdrivers, micro chips, string, putty, and several rolls of black duct tape. One by one, he picked up each item and studied it, groping to fathom its purpose, but even after he had sifted through the entire contents of the box, he still couldn’t guess what these things signified. It was only later that it hit him—long after he was back on the road. Driving down to New York that night, he suddenly understood that these were the materials for constructing a bomb.
The third piece of luggage was a bowling bag. There was nothing remarkable about it (a small leather pouch with red, white, and blue panels, a zipper, and a white plastic handle), but it frightened Sachs more than the other two, and he had instinctively saved it for last. Anything could have been hidden in there, he realized. Considering that it belonged to a madman, to a homicidal maniac, that
became more and more monstrous for him to contemplate. By the time he had finished with the other two bags, Sachs had nearly lost the courage to open it. Rather than confront what his imagination had put in there, he had nearly talked himself into throwing it away. But he didn’t. Just when he was on the point of lifting it out of the trunk and tossing it into the woods, he closed his eyes, hesitated, and then, with a single frantic tug, undid the zipper.
There was no head in the bag. There were no severed ears, no lopped-off fingers, no private parts. What there was was money. And not just a little money, but lots of it, more money than Sachs had ever seen in one place before. The bag was packed solid with it: thick bundles of one-hundred-dollar bills fastened with rubber bands, each
bundle representing three, four, or five thousand dollars. When Sachs had finished counting them, he was reasonably sure that the total fell somewhere between one hundred sixty and one hundred sixty-five thousand. His first response on discovering the cash was relief, gratitude that his fears had come to naught. Then, as he added it up for the first time, a sense of shock and giddiness. The next time he counted the bills, however, he found himself getting used to them. That was the strangest part of it, he told me: how quickly he digested the whole improbable occurrence. By the time he counted the money again, he had already begun to think of it as his own.
He kept the cigarettes, the softball bat, the passport, and the money. Everything else he threw away, scattering the contents of the suitcase and the metal strongbox deep inside the woods. A few minutes after that, he deposited the empty luggage in a dumpster at the edge of town. It was past four o’clock by then, and he had a long drive ahead of him. He stopped for another meal in Springfield, Massachusetts, smoking Dimaggio’s Camels as he filled himself with extra coffee, and then made it down to Brooklyn a little after one in the morning. That was where he abandoned the car, leaving it on one of the cobbled streets near the Gowanus Canal, a no-man’s-land of empty warehouses and packs of thin, roving dogs. He was careful to scrub the surfaces clean of fingerprints, but that was just an added precaution. The doors were unlocked, the key was in the ignition, and the car was sure to be stolen before the night was out.
He traveled the rest of the way on foot, carrying the bowling bag in one hand and the softball bat and cigarettes in the other. At the corner of Fifth Avenue and President Street, he slid the bat into a crowded trash receptacle, angling it in among the heaped-up newspapers and cracked melon rinds. That was the last piece of business he had to think about. There was still another mile to go, but in spite of his exhaustion, he trudged on toward his apartment with a
growing sense of calm. Fanny would be there for him, he thought, and once he saw her, the worst of it would be finished.
That explains the confusion that followed. Not only was Sachs caught off balance when he entered the apartment, but he was in no condition to absorb the least new fact about anything. His brain was already overcharged, and he had gone home to Fanny precisely because he assumed there would be no surprises there, because it was the one place where he could count on being taken care of. Hence his bewilderment, his stunned reaction when he saw her rolling around naked on the bed with Charles. His certainty had dissolved into humiliation, and it was all he could do to mutter a few words of apology before rushing out of the apartment. Everything had happened at once, and while he managed to regain enough composure to shout his blessings from the street, that was no more than a bluff, a feeble, last-minute effort to save face. In point of fact, he felt as if the sky had fallen on his head. He felt as if his heart had been ripped out of him.
He ran down the block, running only to be gone, with no thought of what to do next. At the corner of Third Street and Seventh Avenue, he spotted a pay phone, and that gave him the idea to call me and ask for a place to spend the night. When he dialed my number, however, the line was busy. I must have been talking to Fanny at that moment (she called immediately after Sachs dashed away), but Sachs interpreted the busy signal to mean that Iris and I had taken our phone off the hook. That was a sensible conclusion, since it wasn’t likely that either one of us would be talking to someone at two o’clock in the morning. Therefore, he didn’t bother to try us again. When his quarter came back to him, he used it to call Maria instead. The ringing pulled her out of a deep sleep, but once she heard the desperation in his voice, she told him to come right over.
Subways were scarce at that hour, and by the time he caught the train at Grand Army Plaza and traveled to her loft in Manhattan, she was already dressed and wide awake, sitting at the kitchen table and drinking her third cup of coffee.
It was the logical place for him to go. Even after his removal to the country, Sachs had stayed in touch with Maria, and when I finally talked to her about these things last fall, she showed me more than a dozen letters and postcards he had sent her from Vermont. There had been a number of phone conversations as well, she said, and in the six months he was out of town, she didn’t think more than ten days had gone by without news from him of one sort or another. The point was that Sachs trusted her, and with Fanny suddenly gone from his life (and with my phone ostensibly off the hook), it was a natural step for him to turn to Maria. Since his accident the previous July, she was the only person he had unburdened himself to, the only person he had allowed into the inner sanctum of his thoughts. When all was said and done, she was probably closer to him at that moment than anyone else.
Still, it turned out to be a terrible mistake. Not because Maria wasn’t willing to help him, not because she wasn’t prepared to drop everything to see him through the crisis, but because she was in possession of the one fact powerful enough to turn an ugly misfortune into a full-scale tragedy. If Sachs hadn’t gone to her, I’m certain that things would have been resolved rather quickly. He would have calmed down after a night’s rest, and after that he would have contacted the police and told them the truth. With the help of a good lawyer, he would have walked away a free man. But a new element was added to the already unstable mixture of the past twenty-four hours, and it wound up producing a deadly compound, a beakerful of acid that hissed forth its dangers in a billowing profusion of smoke.