The Big Yellow Pick-Up
For so many working people, the dream job is one that they can leave behind them when they go home at the end of the day. Isn’t odd then, that so many people identify themselves at the workplace with elements of their personal lives?
The staff at TC Insurance was full of avid proponents of just such behavior.
Doris Eaves, the office manager, belonged to a very formidable bowling team. Her office was jammed with trophies. Her ever working on a Saturday was out of the question, and she used up her vacation days on various Fridays and Mondays throughout the year, traveling to tournaments around the country. Among the sales staff, Don Branch’s office was a barrage of colors and textures furnished by his own crocheted afghans, throw pillows, and wall hangings. He claimed that they increased his sales, and his client list would actually bear that out. Bobby Conley’s office was peppered with golfing regalia. Every winter, he took the same two weeks off to fly down to Palm Springs to play. He always returned with at least a couple hefty policies.
Kevin Darling’s thing was movies. He had a big, original poster of the silent film, “Wings,” hanging behind his desk, as well as some framed lobby cards of Hollywood classics and black-and-white 8x10s of stars and character actors. He had bought a few of them with autographs, and like Don’s crochet decor, the memorabilia was often a conversation starter, which would turn a potential client into a solid sale.
For six years, Kevin had been married to Lisa, a young woman of a cinematically like-mind, and she was no pretender. Between the husband and wife, there were challenges of knowledge of film. Who directed “The Bride of Frankenstein”? Who was the author of the play, which became the movie, “Key Largo”?
Thursday nights were their dinner-in-with-movie nights.
This Thursday, Kevin hurried out of the stolid, squat office building, past Harmon, their pivoting secretary, to his car. Thursday nights were not only movie rental nights; they were also nights of Chinese take-out and a bottle of... how many even know where to find a bottle of plum wine below the Mason-Dixon Line? It was a special stop. In fact, so were all three.
Kevin got his plum wine, Szechuan chicken, double sauteed pork, shrimp fried rice, wonton soup, “Kentucky Fried Movie,” and “Ruggles of Red Gap.” His day, and sharing the rest of it with his wife, would be complete. The Chinese food steamed on the passenger seat. He had tossed the movies into the back, just in case some of the wonton soup spilled. He’d put the plum wine bottle down by the spare tire, for the highly unlikely event that he’d get pulled over, and then, as he pulled out onto the Interstate for the couple miles to his exit, came the friggin’ jerk in the canary yellow pick-up truck.
The truck blasted past, its Glass-Pak mufflers muffling nothing in the evening, homecoming traffic. Kevin saw the driver’s head and shoulders. The man in the yellow pick-up was a balding man of bright red, showing through pale, milky, freckled skin.
Kevin put his foot on the gas.
“Jackass,” he thought.
Kevin was accustomed to the Interstate traffic of a Thursday evening. It would be backed up about three hundred yards before his exit, everybody pulling up to get off. The dick in the yellow pick-up was alongside Kevin’s car, and Kevin made damned sure that the guy in the truck couldn’t squeeze into the exit lane, as he surely wanted to do. The man in the truck was in a useless hurry, and Kevin would give no quarter. He jockeyed his car so that there was no room between him and the other cars, fast approaching the stalled line of traffic at the exit. The man in the yellow pick-up truck made defensive eye contact with Kevin, shot his glance down the forward few hundred yards, and sped off to the next exit, loudly, angrily.
Kevin had succeeded in not letting him in.
And then there was “movie night,” and plum wine and Chinese food, and a soft, comfy wife on the couch.
And then there was the television news.
A man had been killed on the Interstate. The video news presented footage of his overturned, canary yellow, souped-up truck. The other man in the Freightliner semi was shaken but uninjured, sober. The yellow pick-up had whipped in ahead of the semi on the Interstate, one exit past Kevin’s, and had clipped its rear bumper with the laden Freightliner’s front end. The big yellow pick-up had flipped over at least four times, landing on its crushed roof.
Through the pleasure of languid rest beside his wife’s warm, dozing body, “movie night,” Chinese food, and plum wine, Kevin jolted awake.
He knew, “I sent that man down that road.”
Starting to shake, he muttered, “Twice a dick.”
Kevin did not wake Lisa as he gaped in awe at the short, television news clip, then he moved Lisa and himself to the bedroom, and was only able to sleep several hours later, privately, fitfully.
At 7am, as usual, he awoke; he pretended to awaken. He jostled his wife’s shoulder, and together they did their morning routine. Kevin got into the car he had driven the night before and drove to the insurance office, conscientiously pushing the movies through the “return” slot at the rental place on his way there. Somehow, he thought it would add an element of secure normalcy to his morning and prepare him to face the last people he had seen before his new, morbid secret.
As it was each day, there were three copies of the local paper on Harmon’s desk. Everyone in the office wanted either yesterday’s sports or stock market quotes, today’s crossword and comics, or tomorrow’s weather.
Of course, in plain black and white, there was a four-inch by four-inch photo of an overturned pick-up truck on the front page. The headline read: “Larry Bell, High School Basketball Coach, in Highway Death.”
As Kevin’s mouth opened, lifting a copy of the paper, and his eyes widened, Harmon looked up at him, and pleaded, “Isn’t it just horrible? He’s in my congregation. He was going to be Billy’s coach next year... my Billy.”
Kevin averted his eyes from Harmon. He averted his eyes from the newspaper, dropping it to his side.
“Any calls?” he asked.
“Mind if I take this with me to my office?”
“That’s why we get three, so everybody can see it.”
Harmon’s eyes met Kevin’s. He was perspiring. It might have been last night’s plum wine.
“Mr. Darling?” she asked, “I don’t really know how to put this.”
How could she know?
“Would you please put one of these in the men’s room? I usually get here a little earlier... and Mr. Branch usually gets here at about five-after, and he... likes to...”
“Well, of course I can.”
Kevin quickly opened the men’s room door, and carelessly tossed the other copy of the paper into the john, while still reading the story of the man killed in the canary yellow pick-up. Entering his office, he had to turn to page 9, not only to continue the saga of the Interstate, but to read another article specifically of Larry Bell’s civic achievements. At the end of that piece, there was a referral to page twenty-three, where was Larry Bell’s third photo of the same edition of that Friday’s paper (four, if you count the one of the belly-up truck), accompanied by his proper obituary.
Kevin tried to take in so much information.
Of the life of a man.
Larry was the father to three children. They were two daughters, ages fifteen and seventeen, and a son, age ten. All were the children of the same mother, the only wife of Larry’s forty-three years. Larry’s own mother and father had distinguished themselves through anonymous hard work, and Larry was their only child. He had attended a community college, and there, met his wife, Marianna. He had studied physical education; she got a degree in “Home Economics.” Upon graduation, they married in and remained in their hometown.
Larry was hired as the basketball coach at the third-ranking high school in his hometown. There were but three high schools, and Larry had brought his team up to Number 2. Larry had also taught United States history and spent a few hours a week as a guidance councilor. His wife practiced her “home economics” at home with their three children.
“And with all that going for him,” thought Kevin, “what made him such a hot head?”
There was soft a knock on Kevin’s door, and Bobby Conley, the golfer, peeked in.
“Hey Kev, I was wondering if you got that response from Lassiter.”
He glanced at Kevin’s desk toward the newspaper and let himself all the way in.
“Gosh, y’know, I knew that guy. What a shame, huh?”
Kevin caught his composure enough to pretend not to have been absorbed with the photo and headline.
“Oh, this guy. Really? You knew him?”
“Yeah,” sighed Bobby, “Kinda. PTA and a couple rounds on the links. It’s a shame. He had a family... students, his team.”
Kevin pulled one out of his hat to seem detached, “Did we cover him?”
Bobby perked up, “You know, I don’t know. I’ll ask Harmon.” He thought again, “Oh, yeah, that Lassiter thing...”
Kevin relaxed. “Uh-huh. He called yesterday and had that kid fax it over. We sign by Monday, max.”
Bobby threw back his shoulders and grinned.
“Well, maybe I’ll get those new Pings by Easter. Coffee?”
“Sure, Harmon has it done?” Kevin said, thinking of tossing that God-damned newspaper back on her desk.
“Mmmm,” he said, over his coffee mug, as he did.
Kevin was eaten up for the rest of the day, but he closed three auto policies, one large and one small term-life, and he had an estate settlement with a greedy daughter and her attorney to resolve, so that all eased his guilty consumption. He’d had no stomach for lunch with the guys. At the end of the day, he left the offices and got into his car. He drove, he thought, like an old lady, down the Interstate to his jammed-up, Friday rush-hour exit ramp.
At home, Lisa had brought Caprese salad and spaghetti and meatballs from their favorite Italian place, along with a bottle of inexpensive California Chianti. Who wants to cook on a Friday? There were a couple of movies on TV during dinner, and Kevin was considerably more clingy with Lisa than usual. The television news had more to report, this evening, more of a sympathetic memorial piece, about Larry Bell, beloved local basketball coach, now somewhere, to Kevin, about five times more a dick than the anonymous one who had ripped past him on the road. Larry Bell had gone from a temporary resentment to a haunting.
“Let’s go to bed.”
Lisa blinked, “Okay. It’s a little a little early. Is everything alright?”
Lisa cocked her head and searched.
Saturday morning was warm and clear. Kevin put on a pot of coffee, as Lisa got dressed for her long jog. After she left, Kevin quickly dressed and drove out to buy the newspaper. On an impulse, he picked up a bottle of Christian Brothers brandy.
Once home, he poured some brandy into a cup of coffee, reread Larry Bell’s obituary, all that was left in the paper as a record of the man’s death. There would be a wake on Monday and Tuesday. Kevin began to ruminate. It was not a police matter; Kevin’s role was simply an incident. The fatal accident itself had happened almost three miles from where the two had encountered each other. It hadn’t even been road rage; it had been more like road irritation. If anyone had been enraged, it was Larry Bell, speeding off down the highway and angrily, Kevin speculated, swerving in front of the Freightliner. A light went on in Kevin’s mind, as he thought, “And ruining the truck driver’s life too!”
He poured himself another coffee and brandy.
How much of that is on me, he wondered? He had been prejudiced from the start, the loud flashy truck, the aggressive driving style, the red, impatient face to which he had taken an instant dislike. What if it had been some old man in a Mercury, or further, some attractive young woman in the same yellow pick-up truck, driving just as aggressively? Honestly, Kevin allowed that he would have let either one into the exit lane ahead of him. He frowned into his coffee cup and waded waist-deep into a pool of guilt. He was, he thought, partly responsible for the death of Larry Bell and for screwing up the lives of Larry’s family, students and team, as well as that of the trucker. Not to mention his own. The math was unimpeachable; if he took himself out of the equation, none of this would have happened.
Lisa bumped through the side door into the kitchen, puffing, smiling, and Kevin snapped from his reverie. She saw the bottle on the table and said, “You’re starting early, huh?”
Before Kevin could respond, she kissed him on the lips and muttered, “Yum,” at the sweet taste of brandy. She pulled the sweatband off through her hair her as she walked toward the bedroom. “I’m going to take a shower. Fix me one of those, will you?”
Kevin began to compile a short list of diversions that might help him through the rest of the weekend, aside from getting drunk. Although that was high up on the list, it was not his style, and it was not an answer. Movies would have to be chosen carefully – light fare, nothing about guilt – some home-cooked meals (Kevin was a very good cook.), maybe some yard work, make love to Lisa a few times... That should distract him until he could immerse himself in work on Monday.
Still, as Kevin brought Lisa’s spiked coffee into the bedroom and nuzzled her naked shoulder, she breathed in a low tone, “Are you sure you’re alright, honey?”
“Yeah, I guess I’m a little tense. It’s just work stuff.”
Trouper that she was, Lisa let the matter go, and they enjoyed their weekend of pleasant distractions. Late Sunday afternoon, as Lisa sank back into the pillows, smiling, glowing, she turned to Kevin and sighed through half-lidded eyes, “You seem a little far away.”
Kevin gently pulled her closer and whispered into her neck, “That lasagna has to come out in about ten minutes,” and that was that.
On Monday morning, as Kevin passed reception, he noticed that Harmon was not in her usual “office casual” attire. She was wearing a conservative white blouse with a blue silk scarf, which matched a knee-length skirt and black panty hose. Her hair was done up in a bun, and her make-up suggested that she could be on her way out on a date to a good restaurant.
Kevin feigned impressed surprise. “Well, well, Ms. Harmon, shall I ask who is the young man?”
Harmon had been divorced for about three years, and, because of her son, Billy, didn’t get out too often.
She lowered her eyes and blushed and said, “No, Mr. Darling, after work tonight I’m going to the wake for Larry Bell, you know, the man who died last Thursday.”
“Oh, that’s right. You said he was in your congregation. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean anything by what I said about you having a date.”
“Oh no, I’m flattered that you noticed,” she said, and as Kevin turned to leave, “Mr. Darling?”
She held out a newspaper, and Kevin nearly winced.
“Could you put this in the men’s room, please?”
In his office, Kevin made a few phone calls and got his laptop and some literature and blank policies together for a meeting with a pharmacist about theft insurance. The woman had three stores, and with the escalating robberies and burglaries of Oxycontin and other man-made opiates, this would mean a juicy commission. She was already a client, so her signature was a shoo-in. Also, she was only about a half-mile away, so Kevin figured he’d walk.
On his way, he turned over in his mind the wisdom versus the folly of maybe accompanying Harmon to the wake that evening. Was it a dumb idea? He was very curious to see the wife, Marianna, and her children, to see the friends and associates of Larry Bell, to assess, to access somehow, the dead man’s life. Or was it a vain attempt to absolve himself of the guilt that he felt? Or was it a morbid desire to throw himself into Larry Bell’s familiar circle as some sort of penance?
He made his sale, and, walking back to the office, stopped at the diner and picked up a cheeseburger, a BLT, and a couple of iced teas. At the office, he gave the BLT and an iced tea to Harmon, who was just putting her things away, getting ready for lunch.
She looked in the paper bag and beamed, “Wow, thank you Mr. Darling! What are you, a mind reader? This is exactly what I was going to get.”
If Harmon did not pack her own lunch, that is exactly what she always got.
“Don’t worry about it." He turned toward his office, and pretended something had just occurred to him and turned back. “Hey, I was wondering, if you’re going to Larry Bell’s wake by yourself, maybe you’d like me to go along with you.”
Harmon looked perplexed. “I didn’t think you knew him.”
“Well, I didn’t, but the whole thing has got me, I don’t know, intrigued. All the people he knew, what he meant to the community, and I was thinking about going, but I didn’t want to seem like a gawker. I think I’d feel more comfortable if I was there with someone who knew him, and I thought maybe you’d feel better not having to go there alone.”
It struck Kevin how lame that last part sounded, but Harmon came to his rescue.
“Well, I’ll know plenty of people there, Mr. Darling, but sure, why don’t you come along as a... as a sympathetic member of the community. How’s that? I’m sure Larry knew lots of people that everybody else didn’t really know about.”
“Thanks Harmon. What time?”
“I’m going right after work.”
Kevin called Lisa and told her he’d be a little late. He kept a blazer and tie in his office for occasions after work that might suddenly arise, and he put them on and was ready to leave at 5:30 sharp. He followed Harmon in his car through some of the prettier streets in town, and in about fifteen minutes, they arrived at Rutherford Funeral Home. The parking lot was full, and they had to park a few hundred yards away, for all the overflow that lined both sides of the street in either direction. As the two walked toward the funeral home, they passed knots of people loitering on the sidewalk, and Harmon said “hello” to a few of them. There were many people gathered in the parking lot, politely waiting to enter the crowded anteroom. Harmon walked up to a small group and introduced Kevin around. They were part of her church. Being only two and not wanting to stay for too long, Harmon and Kevin went on ahead into the vestibule, where Harmon signed the register. They made their way into the viewing room.
Inside, it was like most wakes. People spoke in whispers at about the same volume as the piped-in, moribund organ music. Many people sat in the pews, and those standing, stood in groups, and it was quite easy to speculate which were family and which were friends. In the front pew were Marianna, Larry’s widow, and her three children. Marianna, stoic, fit, and attractive, was friendly to the mourners who approached her for an embrace and to offer their condolences. She smiled a sad smile, and her eyes were red from on-and-off weeping. Her daughters were in a constant state of tears. The young boy tried to stand tall and every so often wiped his eyes on the forearm of his suit coat, in between firm pats on the shoulder by solemn men.
Kevin accompanied Harmon about halfway down the aisle, as she walked down to kneel at the open casket to say a prayer. Kevin looked at the corpse’s face. The mortician had muted its natural redness, and even from where Kevin stood, he could see a galaxy of freckles on Larry’s forehead. There was no more anger in repose, and that peacefulness made Kevin uncomfortable, as he had had, up to that moment, only the one image of Larry Bell. Harmon stood up and walked back toward him, not a moment too soon. She whispered, “Let’s go.”
She said “good night” to a few people still waiting in the parking lot, and Kevin walked her to her car, where he thanked her and saw her off. Kevin drove home, lost in thought.
When he got home, Lisa was just pulling a dinner of roast beef, mashed potatoes, and string beans out of the oven. She had bought the meal from the hot bar at the supermarket on her way home from work, and the food looked pretty good. He kissed her, and she stood back and looked at his torso, the blazer and tie.
“Aren’t we sharp,” she remarked. “Meeting after work?”
It flashed across Kevin’s mind to simply agree that that’s what it had been, but he felt instantly how ridiculous that notion was. On principle, he never lied to her unless it was for a surprise for her. Also, she was a tax attorney, and although she was not a prosecutor by trade, she still had the lawyer instinct, and in the eight years that they had known each other, he had seen her snake out the truth from many a would-be deceiver.
“No, actually I went with Harmon to a wake after work for that high school coach who died in the car crash last week. She knew him from church, and I went along to give her some moral support.”
“Well, Sir Gallahad, aren’t you sweet,” she said, meaning it. “Okay, I bought, so you set the table, and open up a bottle of that Bordeaux.”
They ate dinner, and Lisa, mercifully, did most of the talking. They watched TV until bedtime and turned in.
The next day at work passed fairly uneventfully, and Kevin was able to put Larry Bell and family out of his mind for at least twenty percent of the time. Near the end of the day, Bobby Conley rapped on the doorframe to Kevin’s glass office and came in.
“Hey, Harmon and I are going to Larry Bell’s funeral tomorrow, and she said I ought to ask you if you wanted to come along. I didn’t think you knew him.”
Kevin tried to look intent and sincere. “I didn’t, but I went with her to the wake last night, just because I was kind of interested, and she was going there by herself. I think I might like to go with you guys tomorrow though. What time are you going?”
“It’s at 10:30, so we’re going to leave here at ten. Then there’s a reception at the Rotary Club afterwards with food and an open bar, so we’ll take the rest of the day off. I figured I’d just check my messages and make some calls in the morning, before we go. I already told Doris that Harmon and I were going, and maybe you, and she said it was fine, so are you in?”
“Yeah, I think I will go.”
“Alright, see you tomorrow.”
At home that night, knowing that in the morning, he would have to explain to Lisa why he was putting on a suit and tie, Kevin decided to tell her of his plans. He tried to sound casual, but his voice was tight and high pitched.
“What’s your preoccupation with this guy?” she wanted to know. “I’ll grant you, a funeral would be a good place to pick up a couple life insurance policies, but I know you better than that. That would just be unscrupulous and ghoulish.”
“I’m not preoccupied with him. It’s just that... Well, maybe I am... I...”
Kevin couldn’t hold it in any longer. He had to tell someone, and who better than the person with whom he shared everything, his constant voice of loving female reason, for better or for worse? So he told Lisa the story of the big yellow pick-up truck and of his feelings of guilt and anxiety as to his role in the death of a devoted family man and community figurehead.
When he was through, Lisa absorbed what she had just heard, with her attorney’s mind, less than with the mind of a wife.
“Honey, I think you’re worrying yourself needlessly. You aren’t guilty of anything except what you’re putting on yourself. We’re all involved in the interrelation of events at some time or another that have consequences that we’re never even aware of.”
She took a long pause and then continued, “Suppose you bought one of your buddies a circular saw for Christmas, and a couple months later, he had a few beers while he was doing a project with it, and he cut one of his fingers off. Would you feel responsible for his reckless behavior?”
“No, but in this case, I acted aggressively and selfishly and with prejudice, and that elevated the situation into what resulted in a man’s death,” Kevin argued.
“Exactly,” Lisa countered, “You only elevated a situation which already existed. This guy, as you said, pushed you, and you responded by pushing back, and ultimately, he paid for his own aggression. Really, I know you’re all worked up over this, but you’ve got to work through it in your mind and start to forgive yourself. Try using softer reason, and if that doesn’t work, why not say a prayer? If you know that God forgives you, then maybe you can start to forgive yourself.”
It was times like these that his love for Lisa re-grew and pierced his heart. He felt a lump in his throat, and he was unashamed. She was right, and yet the nagging inside was not going away.
“Mmm,” he said, in half-hearted agreement.
“Let’s go get a big fat pizza and some Italian red and eat in the living room,” she said.
They left hand-in-hand to go get it, and she drove.
In the morning, after a long, hot, pensive shower, Kevin put on his best suit and shoes, and he sadly fantasized that he was instead taking Lisa out to the fancy French restaurant on the plaza and was going to give her a sapphire necklace. She had made a pot of coffee and was sitting at the kitchen table in her pajamas, looking over some paperwork. He poured a cup of coffee, and they sat in comfortable silence. Kevin finished his coffee and stood to leave. Lisa looked up from her work.
“You look very handsome,” she said with conviction, as though he were her son on his way to the prom.
She stood and gave him an all-encompassing embrace. She kissed him long and tenderly, held him back by the shoulders and locked eyes with his.
“Now don’t you worry, kid. If it brings you too far down, just imagine that I’m there with you.”
She leaned in and kissed him again on one tiptoe, her other leg kicked back. My God, he thought, how she does me.
Harmon and Bobby and Kevin went to the funeral mass and then to the cemetery, and it was all very solemn and all very artless and friendly, with many brave faces and much open weeping. There were loads of high school students, who had been given the day off for the services. Most were just learning how to grieve, and Kevin tried to imagine what various ones would grow up to be like, based upon their behavior that morning.
Harmon and Bobby had ridden together in Harmon’s car, so that, Kevin guessed, Bobby could drink freely at the reception. The three left the cemetery and met up again at the Rotary Hall. It was the time of every funeral when the hard part is over, there is a metaphorical sigh of a job done, the voices are no longer hushed, and myriad emotions slosh forth. Kevin and Bobby headed straight for the crowded bar, and Harmon made the rounds of the many members of her congregation.
Kevin and Bobby stayed near the bar and had a few rounds, as Bobby introduced Kevin to what must have been a Who’s Who of his golfing buddies and other country club luminaries, and, while it was at least diverting, and often quite entertaining, a notion began to fester in Kevin’s mind.
He immediately dismissed the notion as ludicrous, but it stuck to his psyche like a burr. He had another drink, and then another, and the notion didn’t seem any saner, but it presented itself as much more likely -- that Kevin should go and introduce himself to Marianna Bell and offer his condolences.
But why? It was the same sort of feeling he had had about going to the wake. Was he masochistically daring himself to be placed directly in front of the wrong he had caused? Would it prove to him some sort of bravery? Was there some intangible that he might discover that would make things all right? He got a fresh drink and excused himself to Bobby, who was in a conversation with an obviously wealthy, drunken couple and who, Kevin figured, must have thought he was headed to the men’s room.
He took about five steps in Marianna’s direction, when Thierry Levesque, one of Kevin’s customers, smilingly blocked his path. He wanted to schedule an appointment for putting his twin son and daughter on his car insurance policy, and he was thinking about buying a Jet Ski, and how was Lisa? He may need a tax attorney, but it’s nothing really serious, you know?
Kevin was politely trying to extricate himself from this encounter, looking over Thierry’s shoulder, when a woman with a dour expression walked boldly up to Marianna. Marianna’s face clouded, and the dour woman leaned into her with a mean expression. The two started to have words, and then more animatedly and then more loudly. Those nearest the two women stopped talking and stared. The dour woman began yelling, and more people stopped talking and turned in their direction. Although the dour woman was yelling quite loudly now, Kevin could only make out the words, “love him,” repeated about three times in the diatribe. Two men, one an usher from the funeral, hurried over, got between the two women, and began escorting the dour woman toward the exit, as she continued shouting and pointing a rigid finger back at Marianna.
“Wow, I wonder what that was all about,” Thierry said. “So, Friday lunchtime?”
Kevin said “okay,” and went to find Bobby.
“Did you see that?” Kevin asked, over what he wanted to be his last drink. “Do you know who she is?”
“Hell if I know, but it sure got ugly.”
Much of the crowd took the argument and ejection as their cue to begin filing out. There were several people gathered around Marianna, gesturing, and her children were speaking to her with frightened, imploring expressions.
Kevin called Lisa and asked her to please take a taxi to the Rotary Hall, so she could drive him home. She said she had figured on that one and had had the foresight to take the bus to work instead of her car. While they were driving home, Kevin told her about the scene at the reception, neglecting to mention that he had been on his way to speak to the widow at the time. They speculated that it must have been a relative on Larry Bell’s side of the family who had never approved of the marriage, got drunk, and crossed the lines of tact and decency.
In spite of being tipsy, Kevin felt no fatigue, so they stayed up late and watched “Holiday,” with Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn for about the seventh time, and it soothed him.
When Kevin arrived at work the next morning, Bobby Conley was sitting on the edge of Harmon’s desk, and they were embroiled in wide-eyed conversation. They both looked up when Kevin came in, and Bobby asked excitedly, “Have you heard?”
“Right, of course you wouldn’t have. You remember that big to-do yesterday at the reception?”
“How could I not? I guess you found something out.”
“You bet we did,” Bobby said, glancing at Harmon. “It turns out that that woman was Sarah Greeley. She was married to Don Greeley, who owned the Beaver Dam Sawmill and about five thousand acres of prime timberland up in the mountains.”
“He died a few years back, right?”
“Yup, and she got everything. Now, for about the last ten years, she’s been running a charity for poor kids, and she helped a bunch of them get into high school, and more than a few made it onto Larry Bell’s basketball team. A couple of them were some of his biggest stars. This kid DaVonn Roberts is the starting center for Louisville. Maybe you’ve heard of him.”
“Yeah, I have, so what’s the rest?”
“So come to find out, Sarah and Larry have been having an affair for the last five years. She gets drunk and spills the beans about the affair yesterday and says that Larry was going to leave Marianna for her, and that he was on his way home from her house to tell Marianna, when he got into the accident.”
“Oh wow,” Kevin replied. If they only knew.
“Of course, Marianna and the kids are devastated, and by now, everybody who was there yesterday, and half the town knows all about it.”
“It’s such a tragedy,” Harmon added. “Such a shame. He was such a good man.”
Kevin looked at the floor, shook his head and said nothing as he walked slowly to his office.
“Oh, Mr. Darling,” Harmon called after him. “Mr. Levesque called and asked if tomorrow, 12:30 would be okay.”
“Yeah, sure,” he droned, and shut his office door behind him.
He sank down at his desk and held his head in his hands. What else, he wondered? How much more unrevealed damage had he caused in one selfish, egotistical moment? Now, all of Larry’s friends and relatives had learned of his infidelity. He was stripped of his good name. Instead of the honor that would have come from having lived an exemplary life, he would be disgraced for his deceit. All because Kevin hadn’t liked his looks and his attitude. Kevin spread some papers on his desk and pretended to work, in case anyone walked past his office door, but he could focus on nothing but his guilt. His thought process was moving through mud. He envisioned a huge auditorium filled with all the people he had harmed. The crowd sat mutely; men, women, adolescents, children. They all looked through him.
At lunchtime, he told Harmon that he had some stuff to do outside the office, and that he wouldn’t be back. Technically, it wasn’t a lie, but she was listless and didn’t seem to even notice. She said she’d see him tomorrow.
Once in his car, Kevin decided he'd go visit Larry Bell’s grave. Maybe he had already decided that was what he was going to do. He drove to the cemetery and walked to the fresh plot. There was loose soil strewn over the newly laid sod. There was a temporary marker awaiting a permanent headstone. It was the day after the interment, and Kevin was the only person anywhere to be seen. As he stared down at the grave, he thought of all the irrevocable events that Larry Bell had missed over the past few days, the turmoil versus the repose. The thought confused and saddened Kevin. He made a brief, silent prayer for peace of mind and forgiveness and ambled back to his car. So much for “movie night.”
At home, he lit a candle and put it on the kitchen table, poured himself some of the remaining Christian Brothers and sat down. He was on his second glass, when Lisa got home from work. He poured her out the rest and told her what he had found out that morning. Lisa was a bit more sympathetic than when Kevin had told her the first part of the story, but she was steadfast in her conviction that all of this was not Kevin’s fault, and that he should find some way to ease his own guilt. Also, she said, she would do anything she could to help him. He was not on his own.
“Let’s go bowling and have cheeseburgers and beer,” she surmised, and they did. It was lively, loud and divertingly destructive. They laughed often. When they got home, they made passionate love for a long time, and, drifting off to sleep, Kevin felt truly grateful for what he had in life.
Friday morning, Kevin did what he could to keep busy until his meeting with Thierry Levesque. He called a few clients, did some research on upcoming changes in medical coverage, and studied a little for an online test to get points toward keeping his license current. He also made some lengthy small talk with Harmon, as it seemed their relationship had deepened somewhat through the past days’ events. He noted that that was at least one positive thing to come out of this whole affair. He bought two books of Billy’s raffle tickets for a trip to a Biloxi casino.
Thierry arrived on time, in a jovial mood, with a bottle of expensive bourbon for Kevin. They settled quickly, and Kevin gave him a rate which he would usually have reserved for family members. It was partly in secret appreciation for Thierry’s upbeat mood, and partly because of Kevin’s underlying defeatist malaise. On his way out, Thierry did make mention of the extramarital affair which had caused the scene that they had both witnessed, and he asked if Kevin knew about the memorial basketball game at the high school, scheduled for Saturday night. Larry Bell was to be honored with a plaque. Kevin said he might try to go, and they bid each other good afternoon.
As soon as Thierry left, Kevin called Lisa at work.
“Hey, you know we missed ‘movie night’ last night,” he cooed. “Let’s just make it a postponement to tonight.”
“I don’t think I have any plans. The usual time and place?” He could hear the smile in her voice.
“Chinese?” he offered.
He next dialed Chez Etienne, the restaurant on the plaza, and made reservations for 9pm, Saturday.
After the latter part of an underproductive afternoon, Kevin left for the weekend, got their plum wine, spare ribs, Happy Family, scallion pancakes, “Mother Jugs and Speed,” and “Car Wash.” At home, he and Lisa made out on the couch for about ten minutes, something they did fairly often, to keep a youthful enthusiasm in their romance.
Later, as Kevin put in the disk for the second movie, he said matter-of-factly over his shoulder, “They’re having a memorial basketball game tomorrow night at the high school for Larry Bell. I was thinking we could go, and then head over to Chez Etienne for a treat. It’s been a while.”
Only then did he turn to see her reaction.
Her head was slightly tilted, and she wore a lawyerly, bemused look that made her eyes sparkle.
“Get over here and sit down.”
He did, and she took his hands.
She patiently, earnestly continued, “Don’t you think you’re taking this a little bit too far, getting more involved than you need to be? I would think the more you distance yourself from the whole thing, the less responsibility you’re going to feel for it. And don’t try to tell me you don’t still feel guilty, because the basketball game comes with a bribe.
“What if I said no to the game, honey? Would you cancel dinner?”
“No, of course not. I just thought this might offer some closure, and the dinner, I thought, would be a nice distraction afterwards.”
He could hear the shallowness in his voice, and he knew she could hear it too. Was he trying to convince himself that he meant it? Why not try? Why not at least grab at some straws?
Maybe Lisa shared his sentiment, because she said, “Listen, we’ll go to the game together. There’s just one thing.”
“What am I going to wear that’s appropriate for a basketball game and a three hundred dollar dinner? Put on the movie, will you?”
She kissed his hands and released them.
When Kevin awoke Saturday morning, Lisa was already on her long jog. She had made coffee, and he had some as he got dressed. He went out and got a baguette and ingredients for a big pot of his famous butter bean soup to occupy his afternoon. Back at home, Lisa had already showered and was on her way out to get her hair done and be otherwise pampered.
Kevin drifted through the early afternoon, going through the motions of making his soup. To begin, it took him fifteen minutes to find the ham hock he had just bought, and he cut his index finger chopping celery. While the soup was finally simmering, he had a beer and watched Warner Bros. cartoons, and afterwards could not recall a single one. When Lisa arrived, they had their soup and got ready to go. Lisa had solved her wardrobe issue. She wore a black cocktail dress with Kevin’s too-big wool college jacket over it. With her hair done up, she looked hopelessly sexy. She sure knew how to create a diversion.
“I can’t wait to get you in the back seat after the game, Susie,” he rasped.
“Nuh-uh. You promised me dinner... then we’ll see. And not too late, you know my dad.”
She smelled delectable.
Entering the gym they – or she – turned many heads, adolescent and adult alike. It wasn’t hard to find a spot in the bleachers, as the gym was only about half full. Kevin looked around and did not see Marianna and the Bell family. Before tip-off, two of Larry Bell’s players wheeled a table, draped in the school’s colors, out to center court. There was what was obviously the plaque, covered with maroon velour in the middle of the table. A well-dressed teenage girl followed with a microphone and introduced herself as Karen-something, senior class president.
She announced that, as we all knew, this game was being held to honor the life and achievements of Mr. Larry Bell. A bunch of kids sitting together in athletic jackets and some students around the gym stood up and hooted and clapped. There was a smattering of polite applause from the rest of the attendees.
Karen went on to say that it was unfortunate that the Bell family was unable to attend, so the basketball team’s co-captains would accept this honor, and she unveiled the plaque, commemorating Mr. Larry Bell’s years of unselfish devotion to the school and its students. The audience response repeated itself from the first time, and the table was wheeled away.
Kevin and Lisa left at halftime, the home team up by nine points.
“That was harsh,” she remarked, and that was all that was said of the event.
Too early for their dinner reservation, they dropped the college jacket in the car and strolled around Monument Square and the tree-lined plaza, laughing heartily, while recalling every private detail of their awkward first date.
Sunday morning, Kevin suggested that Lisa wear his college jacket, and nothing else, back to bed. He was earnestly trying to put himself “in the moment” and alleviate at least the surface of his lingering guilt. The rest of the day, they lounged around the house, without bothering to get dressed. Their conversation was sparse and shallow, but it might have been that way on any other Sunday. Ever the knowledgeable activity coordinator, Lisa herded him to a diner for cheeseburgers and malts, still wearing his college jacket. They then went to the art movie house downtown and saw “Bread and Chocolate.” They sat in the back row and didn’t see much of the movie. Although he felt inside that Lisa was working toward an end, one of the many qualities that Kevin admired about her was that she was effortless in almost all her endeavors. She worked with soul. She made everything look and feel easy, and it was infectious. When he was with her, it was foolish, almost embarrassing, to struggle with anything.
The problem was that she could not be with him all day, every day, to transmit that ease.
When he got to work, Kevin said “good morning” to Harmon, who had already made coffee. He poured himself a cup and lingered, mentioning that he and Lisa hadn’t seen her at the basketball game Saturday night. Had they missed her, or didn’t she go? She said she had been at a banquet for Billy’s civic group. She had, however, seen Marianna and the kids at church on Sunday. They had been all dressed up, and Marianna had worn a very distant and prideful air, had sat way up by the front of the church, and had avoided any real conversation with the few congregants who had tenuously approached her in the shame that she obviously felt.
“That was the real shame,” Harmon said. “We’re supposed to be Christians, and everybody was either so nervous or standoffish or haughty, and it just made me really sad.”
“Maybe they’re so distant and fearful, because it reminds them of their own faults,” said Kevin, surprising himself.
Harmon’s eyes widened with discovery, and she said nothing as he took his coffee into his office.
All the rest of the workday and on Tuesday and Wednesday, Kevin stumbled along, imagining Marianna’s pain and shame and loneliness and self-imposed alienation, and her indignation at it all. He compared himself to the churchgoers, vainly trying to mask his own feelings of guilt. Nights, he let himself fall under Lisa’s care and yet continued to foolishly struggle, in spite of himself.
As soon as he had spoken to Harmon on Monday morning, he had an itch and suppressed it. He knew what it was. Within a half hour, that itch became, again, “the burr.” Would he confront Marianna Bell and confess?
Yes, no, yes, no.
For three days, he did not even trouble himself with the logic or illogic, the absolution or the damage. It was blindly yes or no. He was unaware of what he would do or say if he did, and his own emotional future was a blank if he didn’t. Either consequence didn’t matter at all. Simply, would he, or wouldn’t he?
He found the Bells’ address in the White Pages... just in case.
He dully entered the reception area on Thursday morning and greeted Harmon as he passed.
“Oh, Mr. Darling,” she called.
He turned, and she held out a Post-It sheet with some numbers on it.
“It’s the winning raffle numbers from last weekend. I keep forgetting to give them to you. You should check your tickets, because no one’s won the grand prize yet.”
“Oh yeah, thanks,” and he absentmindedly stuck the paper in his pocket.
Yes, no, yes, no, all morning. At lunchtime, he got in his car to get a chicken Caesar salad from the Italian place and honestly had no recollection of how he ended up in front of Marianna Bell’s house. Nor of going up the walk and the front steps, until his thumb was on the doorbell.
He heard a vacuum cleaner turn off, and the widow opened the front door. She was trim and athletic in jeans and a white blouse. She wore a guarded, inquisitive expression and said nothing.
“Hello, Mrs. Bell, my name is Kevin Darling.”
Her eyes narrowed, “Yes?”
Kevin used his best sales voice; this was like a cold call, “I have something important that I want to talk to you about. Do you mind if I come in?”
She looked him up and down, fully opened the door, and walked a few steps ahead of him into the hallway, where she stopped and turned to face him, coldly.
“What do you want?”
“Mrs. Bell, I’ve been wanting to speak with you for quite a while. I think maybe we ought to sit down.”
“I don’t. What is it that you want?”
“Mrs. Bell,” he began, “The night your husband died, I was driving home from work on the Interstate, and your husband pulled up next to me and wanted to get into the exit lane. He was driving very aggressively, and I boxed him out of the lane, so he had to go up to the next exit. If I hadn’t done that, he never would have gotten into the accident. He’d still be alive.”
Marianna’s eyes got large and mean.
“Is that it?” she demanded incredulously. “How dare you come here and butt into my life!”
She paused to collect her anger.
“How could you be so selfish? How dare you enter my house with your petty, guilty conscience! What do you want me to do, forgive you?
“My husband was a lout, a cheating, abusive lout, and I knew it, and I had to live with it for the last seven years. And you come here with your whiny, picayune story about some insignificant macho contest on the highway. Well, for your information, I hated that truck, his toy.
“Larry used to scare the hell out of me and the kids whenever we got in the car with him, and I had to live with that too, and shut up about it for years and years. Do you think my children didn’t suffer all that shit?
“Why don’t you open your eyes for five friggin’ seconds and think about what I’M going through? What I’ve BEEN through!”
She punched him hard in the chest.
“Now get out of my house, you weakling! You... egotist!”
She pushed him out of the house and slammed the door. He backed uncertainly down the front steps, and slowly emerged from a daze, and realized where he was, waking from a dream. He got into the car and caught his breath, still rising up into a new clarity. His eyesight grew keener, his mind sharper. He drove back to work.
That afternoon, he returned six calls for term life and homeowners’ policies, all from members of Harmon’s congregation. He set the six appointments for Friday, Monday, and Tuesday, and they were all going to be sure things. He ordered flowers for Harmon, to be delivered in the morning. And it was “movie night.”
On his way to the Chinese restaurant, Kevin passed the cemetery where Larry Bell was buried, but in his mind, it was nothing but a nondescript, empty place, which held no spirits. It had no life of its own, like an empty ballpark would, or an empty campground would. The only spirits he had in mind were two bottles of plum wine.
He got snow peas with oyster sauce, spicy string beans, roast pork mai fun, and rented “Grand Hotel” and “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” two all-star casts in movies about weird relationships between strangers. He wondered if Lisa would get the connection.
She was not home when he arrived, so he emptied his pockets on the kitchen table and got into a hot shower. Lisa was home when he got out. He wrapped himself in a towel and met her in the kitchen. He gave her a long kiss, and she could sense the newfound relaxation in his core. She stepped back and looked at him, and he knew that she knew.
She held up the rumpled Post-It sheet.
“Are these the numbers for Billy’s raffle?” she wanted to know.
“Yeah, nobody’s won the grand prize yet.”
“Well,” she smiled, “It looks like we’re going to Biloxi.”