In The Garden Of The North American Martyrs (10 page)

BOOK: In The Garden Of The North American Martyrs
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The voices came from the lifeboat hanging across the stern. Speroni leaned forward, trembling slightly, his arms rigid at his sides, his eyes fixed on the darkness above the boat. Howard
reached out and took him by the elbow. Speroni turned to him, his mouth twitching, and Howard felt him yield. He walked Speroni around the bow to the other side of the boat. Under the lights Speroni's cheeks shone like wet pavement. Howard looked out over the water.

“She didn't fall overboard,” Speroni said. “She's safe. That's the main thing.”

Howard nodded.

“Don't get the wrong idea. Stella's very moral, really.”

“I'm sure she is.”

“You ought to see her with kids.”

“I was thinking,” Howard said, “maybe this is a stage she's going through.”

“Maybe.” Speroni rubbed at his eyes with the back of his sleeve. “I'm cold. Coming down?”

“Later. You go on ahead.”

Speroni took a couple of steps, then turned. “You really think this is a stage she's going through?”

“Could be.”

“That's what I think, too. I just wouldn't want you to get the wrong impression. Stella's a beautiful person. Very spiritual.”

The mist was lifting. A few stars began to appear, blinking remotely. Howard wondered what Aries looked like. He heard voices and footsteps and Stella's laugh and looked up. “Hello, Stella. Mr. Tweed.”

Tweed looked up and down the deck. “Evening, Dad. Stargazing, are you? We're never too old for dreams.” He held his watch up to his face. “It's late,” he said. “I'll wish you goodnight.”

“Hi, Howard.” Stella leaned on the railing. “Bill's a real card but a little bit of him goes a long way, if you know what I mean. So what brings you up here at this hour?”

“Just getting some fresh air.”

“Look—the stars are out. Don't you wish you could reach out and pick them like flowers?”

“I hadn't thought of it.”

“Life. That's the way life is to me, Howard. You keep picking things until you get the one thing that really matters. Tell me about your great love.”

“My great love?”

“How did you meet her?” Stella did a pirouette, one hand held aloft. “Was it at a dance? What was she wearing?”

“Me and Nora were friends since we were kids.”

“Not Nora, Howard. She's your wife.”

“That's what I'm saying.”

“Come on, Howard. Anyone can see she's not your great love. What did she look like, Howard?”

Howard glanced at Stella, then stared back over the railing. “Nora's been good to me. Marrying Nora was the smartest thing I ever did.”

“What did she call you, Howard?”

“It don't last, the other thing. You can't trust it.”

“What did she call you?”

Howard scratched his wrist. “Sunshine.”

“Sunshine. That's beautiful, Howard. That's really beautiful. I'll bet that's what you were, too. Just for her.”

“You can't trust it.”

“So what? What else is there?”

“There's a lot else. A lot.”

“But what?”

“Don't you think you ought to be with Ron instead of tearing around up here? There's certain considerations, you know, like people's feelings.”

“Considerations? No thanks, Howard. That's what they make cages out of.” Stella stepped back and gave Howard's arm a friendly squeeze. “Don't you go and get stuffy on me, now. I know you.”

 

Howard went to the costume party as a buccaneer. A sort of gentleman pirate. Actually the costume was that of an eighteenth century squire—ruffled shirt front, brocade jacket, and knee
pants with buckled shoes—but Nora had made him an eyepatch and Tweed lent him the captain's ceremonial sword. Nora came as Venus. She wore a flowing toga and Tweed gave her some plastic leaves to weave into her hair. He said they gave the costume a Greek accent.

They had their own table. The Speronis sat across the room, Stella wearing her tiara and below it a low-cut peasant girl's smock with billowing sleeves. Ron had on a Confederate officer's uniform from the Civil War. He looked unhappy.

After dinner the room went dark. A few moments later red shafts of light shot out from the corners and began moving over the dance floor. Someone played a long mounting roll on a snare drum. A white spotlight blazed out on the middle of the floor and Tweed stepped into it.

“Friends, before we go any further I just wonder if we couldn't all take a moment and think about why we're here. I'm not talking about old Sol up there, who was kind enough to come out and give us a big smile today. I'm not even talking about our excellent cuisine, painstakingly prepared for us courtesy of Monsieur and Madame Grimes.”

The spotlight moved over to the door of the kitchen. The cooks waved and smiled and the spotlight raced back to Tweed, who held up his arms for silence. The spotlight jerked to the right and Tweed sidestepped back into focus. “I'm talking about what really brings us here—I'm talking about love. That's right, love. A word you don't hear much these days but I for one am not ashamed to say it——and to say it again—LOVE! And I'll bet you're not either. L-O-V-E—LOVE!”

A few people joined in. “Love,” they said.

“All together! Come on now, let them hear you all the way back home. L-O-V-E—”

“LOVE!” everyone shouted.

“Now your hearts are talking. That's it—love, the artillery of heaven. We here on the
Friedman
like to believe that love still
calls the shots in this battered and bruised old world of ours. And we think we can prove it. Because if two individuals can stack up a century of love between them, well, as far as I personally am concerned the smartalecks will just have to go home and think of something else to try and make us give up on. Because we're sure as heck not going to give up on love. You know who I'm talking about. Let's hear it for Mom and Dad Lewis. Let's hear it for a hundred years of love!”

The sound of clapping filled the room. Howard covered his unpatched eye as it filled with hot silver light. Someone was tugging at his arm.

“Stand up!” Nora hissed.

Howard stood up. Nora was smiling and bowing, the green plastic leaves in her hair bobbing up and down. Howard groped behind him for his chair but Nora clamped down even harder on his arm.

The spotlight returned to Tweed. “Maybe we can persuade these two fine individuals to say a word to us. How about it, Mom and Dad? How did you do it?”

Howard shrank back but Nora pulled him along. He let her lead him to the middle of the room, unsettled by her forcefulness.

Nora took the microphone. She smiled, her spectacles glittering in the spotlight: “Girls, don't ever let yourselves get run down and go to pieces. A little exercise every day. Don't ever let the sun set on a quarrel.” She chuckled and looked at Howard. “And don't be afraid to stand up and give your man what for every once in a while.” She ducked her head at the applause.

Howard took the microphone. He stared at it as if it were something he was being asked to eat. “Nothing to it,” he said. “You just go from day to day and before you know it fifty years are up.” He tried to think of something else to say but he couldn't. That was all there was. He frowned at the microphone, the silence building as it dropped slowly to his side.

Tweed started another round of clapping. “Thank you,” he said, retrieving the microphone. He nodded in the direction of the bandstand. A single clarinet began to play “The Anniversary Waltz.” The spotlight mellowed.

Howard understood that he was expected to dance with Nora. As he took her hand the boat plunged into a swell and the deck pitched. Nora stumbled but caught herself. Howard thought they should probably be talking to each other.

“You're getting your sea legs,” he said.

Nora moved close to him, pressed her cheek to his. The plastic leaves crinkled against his forehead. His unpatched eye ached. Howard turned slowly around to escape Stella's grin, and above it, the winking of her tiara in the moving red light.

D
avis and his dinner partner were waiting for a taxi one night when she saw a pinball arcade across the street. She insisted they play a few games before going home and when Davis reminded her that it was getting late she said, “Oh, don't be such an old fuddy-duddy.” Though he did not see the woman again, that remark bothered him.

Not long afterwards he was looking at secondhand cars and saw, in the back of the lot, a powerful automobile just like one his best friend had owned when they were boys; the same make, even the same year. The salesman admired it with Davis for a moment, then tried to interest him in a newer car, an ugly gray sedan with lots of trunk room. Suddenly Davis felt angry. He went back to the first car, worked the gears for a while, then bought it and drove it home.

That Saturday Davis took the car out to Long Island. On the highway he passed a similar model, a few years older, and he and the other driver honked at each other.

The next morning Davis decided to show the car to some peo
ple he knew from back home. He had been an usher at their wedding, and when he first came to town he had stayed with them for a few months while he was looking for a place of his own.

There was a peep-hole in the door and after Davis rang the bell he smiled at it. He heard whispers. “I wish you'd call,” the husband said as he opened the door.

The apartment smelled sour, and dirty ashtrays were stacked on the end tables next to half-empty glasses with limp slices of lemon floating in them. The husband was mute, the wife nervously chatty. Davis wondered why they had not invited him to the party. Then he thought of something he had forgotten: when the wife's father died two years earlier they'd left for Shreveport without saying good-bye.

“I bought a car,” Davis said.

“You're kidding,” the wife said. “I didn't even know you could drive.”

“It's right outside,” Davis said.

They laughed when they saw it. The husband stood on the sidewalk with his arms folded, smiling and shaking his head. “Hot dog!” said the wife. “If anybody else told me this baby belonged to you I would never believe them. Not in a million years.”

Before long Davis began to wish he hadn't bought the car. It was not in good condition. Patches of rust showed through the paint, and the engine was filthy and out of phase. Gasoline went through it like pork through a duck. Richie, the boy across the street, offered to fix it up but Davis thought that he had already carried things far enough. “I'll think about it,” he said, really intending to drive the car the way it was until it fell apart.

 

Soon after he bought the car Davis collided with a Japanese compact. He had been moving forward and the compact had been backing up. The cars came together with an awful grinding
sound. Davis had seen few women as tall as the one who emerged from the compact, and as she uncoiled from her seat he had the sense of watching a biological process.

Together they circled the cars. His, tanklike, had bellied up on her trunk, folding it like an accordion. She had punched out his headlight and crumpled his right fender. “I should have stayed home today,” the woman said, “and I would have, too, if it wasn't for my business.” She was wearing yellow designer sunglasses and her hair was covered with a yellow scarf. She had bony wrists and her knees, fully exposed beneath the hem of her blue dress, were also bony. As she spoke she chipped away methodically at a ridge of paint on the trunk of the compact, using her fingernails like tools. “I'll probably get all the blame,” she said. “You know how they always talk about women drivers.”

“Don't worry,” Davis said, “it wasn't all your fault. I should have been paying closer attention.”

“Oh, but they'll claim it's my fault in the end,” she said bitterly.

Davis thought that one of them should call the police; perhaps they could make some assignment of guilt. He called from a grocery store, watching the woman as he talked. She sat in his car, crying. When he joined her again Davis tried to comfort her by pointing out that though her car was damaged she herself was not. “That's the important thing,” he said.

“Not to my husband.” She looked at her watch. “I can't wait any longer.”

“The police should be here soon.”

“But I have a business meeting. I mustn't be late. I
can't
be late.”

“We really should be here when the police come,” Davis said. Then, thinking her business meeting a fabrication, he added: “There's nothing to be afraid of.”

“My husband beats me,” she said, “when I don't make enough money.” She insisted that it was not necessary for both of them
to wait for the police, that they had only to report the accident to their insurance companies. Finally Davis agreed, and they exchanged names and license numbers. Before the woman left she gave Davis a brochure with her card attached. He backed his machine off hers and she drove away, tires squealing under the pressure of collapsed metal. Davis glanced through the brochure while he waited for the police. “Clara!” it said on the cover: “Concepts For Spacious Living.” There was a picture of a woman, not Clara, sitting in a chrome chair on an Oriental rug in the middle of an otherwise empty barn.

 

The claims adjuster wore a silver whistle around his neck. When he noticed Davis staring at it he explained that it was for muggers. “Last month alone,” he said, “there were three robberies on my street. Incidents is what the police call them, but you lose your money just the same. I don't know, maybe it's all this busing—the you-know-whats are taking over. But here I am telling you, a Southerner. You have personally seen all this yourself.”

Davis did not take to the suggestion that he had anything in common with this man, or to the implication that by virtue of being from the South he was bound to extend hospitality to other people's hatreds. “I wouldn't know,” he said. “I've been here a long time.”

“Far be it from me to cast racial slurs,” the adjuster said. “You don't have to tell me where that leads to. Not a day goes by that I don't say ‘Live and let live!' But these people will take your wallet and shoot you in the head.” The adjuster leaned forward. “I see that I am offending you. Forgive me. But when I walk in the street at night I hear noises where there aren't any. That's why I said those things. Fear. I admit it, I'm afraid.”

Davis recited the facts of the accident and the adjuster took them down on a form, writing in long, rhythmic strokes. Davis read the cartoons under the glass desk top while he waited for the adjuster to catch up. In one cartoon the judge was questioning a woman with her arm in a sling. “How far,” the judge asked,
“have you been able to raise your arm since the accident?” Frowning with pain, the woman raised her hand shoulder-high. “And how far could you raise it
before
the accident?” Brightly she held her hand above her head. Another cartoon showed three gypsies leaning together and shedding tears while the one in the middle sawed at a violin. “Oh,
do
tell us your story!” the caption said.

“This is good,” the adjuster said when Davis had finished. “This is very good. If they get funny we will eat them alive.” He pushed a card across the desk. “Here is our doctor. The sooner you see him the better.”

“I have my own doctor. Anyway I feel fine. We didn't really crash, just sort of bumped.”

“Today you feel fine, okay. But what about next year? I have seen a lot of cervical sprain in my time and I can tell you it is no laughing matter.”

“You mean whiplash?”

“Cervical sprain is I believe what they say in the medical business.”

Davis would never be able to claim that he had whiplash. It was too public. People made jokes about it. “I feel fine,” he said again, and pushed the card back. The adjuster put it away with a shrug and gave Davis the report to sign. Davis read it through, shaking his head. “You've completely twisted my words around,” he said. “You make it seem like a hit-and-run.”

“Show me where I said hit-and-run. I did not say any such thing. You told me she left the scene of the accident and that is what I said, no more.”

“But I told her she could leave.”

“You told her she could leave. Oh boy. I don't care what you told her, she should not have left the scene of the accident and that is the whole point.”

“I know what you want,” Davis said. “You want to throw the blame on her so the other company has to pay everything.”

“No!” the adjuster said. “I am only trying to protect you.
Maybe she will try to make money out of this—it happens every day.”

“You even make it sound as if the accident were her fault.”

“You were driving at a lawful rate of speed and she backed into you is what I have there. Legally speaking she is at fault.”

“All I want,” Davis said, “is for you to write down what happened the way I tell it to you. I was there and you weren't.”

The adjuster shook his head and sighed as he made up the new form. “Terrible,” he said. “This leaves you with no protection.”

Davis signed it and handed it back. “That's all right. It's the truth.”

“Maybe, but I know a mistake when I see one. So be it. We will need two estimates.”

Davis was going into a drugstore a block from the insurance company when he heard someone calling him. It was the adjuster. He had been running. His face was streaming and the whistle bounced on his chest. He looked like a coach. “Listen,” he said, “I've been thinking maybe I insulted you.”

“You didn't insult me.”

“Then let me buy you a cup of coffee. Or a Coke, whatever.”

Davis was not due at work for another half hour, and simply did not have the energy to lie to the man. So he sat at the counter and sipped an iced tea and listened to the adjuster tell about the Southern friends he had had in the Marine Corps. It surprised Davis to hear that he had been a Marine, and he probably wouldn't have believed it if the adjuster had not taken from his wallet several photographs and spread them across the counter-top.

“This is Johnny Lee,” the adjuster said, stabbing his finger at one of the soldiers in a group picture. “Related to the great general, Robert E. Lee. Every night we would sit up, the two of us, and talk about life. We had different philosophies but we were like brothers.” He put the photographs away, looking hard at each one as he did so.

Davis's tea was empty but he pulled on the straw, making a commotion so the adjuster would know he was ready to leave.

“What happened in the office today,” the adjuster said, “I was doing my job, I was trying to help.”

“I understand that,” Davis said, standing up. Together they walked outside.

“It wasn't lies,” the adjuster said, “not the way you thought. That is how we make out an accident report—for protection. But I know you don't see it like that. You are a Southern gentleman.”

“I was brought up in the South.”

“Down there you have all that tradition. Honor. Up here—” he swept his hand around—“all they know is grab. I tell you, it is hard to be a good man. Well,” the adjuster stepped back, “I won't detain you.” He said this in a formal way and gave a slight bow which he evidently thought to be courtly. Davis attributed the gesture to some movie the adjuster had seen with belles and gallants and pillared houses.

 

A man who worked with Davis recommended Leo the Lion so he took the car there for an estimate. Leo the Lion was a perfectly made, very small man. His mechanic's overalls were tailored to nip in at the waist and flare at the legs. His top two buttons were undone. He paid no attention to Davis when Davis told him that all he wanted was the dents pounded out and the headlight replaced. Instead he made Davis get down and look at the underside of the fender. It was crusted and black. There were wires everywhere. Davis tugged at his trousers, trying to keep the cuffs off the floor.

“See?” Leo the Lion said. “The metal's just about rusted through. We start banging on that and it'll fall apart.” He turned and walked toward his office. Davis got to his feet and followed. There was a lion painted in velvet over the desk. A large stuffed lion was seated on one of the chairs and another peered out from behind the dusty leaves of a philodendron.

Leo the Lion took several manuals down from the shelves and made calculations. He showed them to Davis.

“Nine hundred dollars,” Davis said. “That seems very high. Why do you have to repaint the whole car?”

“Because when we find another fender it's going to be a different color. We can't match the color you've got, they don't make it any more. That's why.” He put the manuals away. Then he explained to Davis that he might not be able to do the job at all. Cars like that were rare and it wouldn't be easy to locate a fender for it. But he had access to a computer which was plugged in to salvage yards all over the country, so if anybody could do it he could.

“Nine hundred dollars,” Davis said.

“You can probably get it done cheaper if you look around,” Leo the Lion said. “I wouldn't vouch for the work, though. That car's cherry except for the fender. It's a classic. People are investing in classics these days. They put them on blocks and run the engine once a week, then take them to rallies.”

Davis folded the estimate sheet and said that he would be in touch, thinking that no way was he going to spend nine hundred dollars getting a fender fixed. As he drove away he saw another shop up the street and took the car in there. The mechanic told him it wasn't worth the trouble and offered to take it off his hands for three hundred dollars.

“It's worth more than that,” Davis said. “How much to fix it?”

“Twelve hundred dollars.”

“That's a lot of money.”

The mechanic laughed. He monkeyed around with the figures and brought the total down to a thousand. He explained the difficulties he would have repairing the car. “Oh, all right,” he said suddenly, as though Davis had been trying to beat him down, and made up another estimate for seven hundred dollars. “That's my absolute bottom price,” he said. “I can't do it for less and come out ahead.”

BOOK: In The Garden Of The North American Martyrs
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