Un­safe at Any Speed

New England Review - - Explorations - Laura Lee Smith

The day af­ter his forty-eighth birth­day was the same day Theo Bit­ner's seventy-five-year-old mother friended him on Face­book. It was also the same day his wife told him he needed to see a doc­tor. Or a ther­a­pist. “It's your mood,” she said. “It sucks.” Count­ing his mother, Theo now had eight Face­book friends. Sher­rill, his wife, had 609. It was just past dawn, in the per­fid­i­ous part of the day that im­plied any­thing was pos­si­ble when, re­ally, noth­ing was very likely. He re­garded his Face­book pro­file, the face­less blue bust of a man star­ing from the mar­gin of the screen where he should, by now, have up­loaded a photo of him­self. “Theo Bit­ner is new to Face­book,” the cap­tion read. “Sug­gest a friend for Theo!” Sher­rill fin­ished dress­ing and left the room, and Theo leaned back in his chair. He stared at the ceil­ing in the cor­ner of the bed­room, where he'd propped his com­puter, a hulk­ing di­nosaur of a tower, on a tiny ta­ble made of press­board. By con­trast, Sher­rill had a Mac lap­top the size of a place mat. She car­ried it around in a zip­pered rhine­stone bag and took it with her to Star­bucks and Crispers.

The es­tro­gen lev­els at the house, a small­ish Tus­can num­ber in an unin­spired neigh­bor­hood south of St. Augustine, were through the roof, in Theo's opin­ion. With his daugh­ter Ash­ley, un­em­ployed and fresh from FSU with a de­gree in Women's Stud­ies (what the hell?), en­sconced back in her child­hood bed­room, with his mother Bette now liv­ing in the spare room he'd once fan­cied his of­fice (the “bonus room,” Sher­rill called it), and with Sher­rill her­self gen­er­ally hold­ing court over the rest of the house, Theo had be­gun to feel in­creas­ingly scut­tled, shunted, re­duced. There was a con­spir­acy, he reck­oned. He didn't like it.

He turned off the com­puter and picked up the Craigslist ad he'd printed out. “Cor­vair!” the ad read. “$5,000. Two mod­els. Call for de­tails.” The photo showed a pris­tine er­mine-white Cor­vair coupe, '66 he was guess­ing, just sharp as Je­sus it was, shot against a lush green back­drop of pal­met­tos. He stud­ied the photo and men­tally ran down the specs: 95 hp in a rear-en­gine de­sign, volup­tuous Coke-bot­tle styling, and a se­duc­tive glimpse of red uphol­stery. The car looked like sal­va­tion. Be­neath the photo was the ad­dress for a car auc­tion in Lake­land.

He took a shower and got dressed. He chose a yel­low but­ton-down shirt and a pair of dark blue chi­nos. No tie. In­de­pen­dent sales rep­re­sen­ta­tives for den­tal equip­ment did not wear ties. He'd learned this. He picked up the Cor­vair ad and put it in his pocket. In the kitchen, Sher­rill and Ash­ley were eat­ing bagels, and they stopped talk­ing when he en­tered the room. Sher­rill looked at Ash­ley

know­ingly and raised her eye­brows. “Good morn­ing,” he said. “Tell him,” Sher­rill said. Ash­ley sighed. “Tell him,” Sher­rill said. “It's the only way he'll learn.” “Tell me what?” Theo said. Ash­ley put her bagel down on her plate and turned to re­gard him. Her eyes were rimmed with a pasty blue sparkly sub­stance, and Theo looked at her, blink­ing, hav­ing lost sight many years ago of the plump, pli­ant lit­tle girl who liked to sit on his foot as he clomped around the house, her arms wrapped tightly around his calf.

“My laun­dry,” Ash­ley said. She looked at him sadly, enun­ci­ated her words clearly, as if he had a hear­ing im­pair­ment. “My laun­dry is in a sep­a­rate bas­ket. It's not to be touched.” “Did I touch it?” he said. “Yes, you touched it,” she said. “You mixed it in with all the other laun­dry— the tow­els? The sheets? Your un­der­wear? I mean, gross.” “Well,” he said. “She doesn't want you to touch her laun­dry,” Sher­rill said. She gave him a smile that was not re­ally a smile at all. “I don't think that's too much to ask.”

“Well, maybe I just won't do any laun­dry at all,” he said. “That way there won't be any con­fu­sion.”

“Of course,” Sher­rill said. “He's de­fen­sive. Didn't I tell you?” She looked at Ash­ley, rolled her eyes. “Didn't I tell you he would freak out?”

“I'm not freak­ing out,” he said. He poured a cup of cof­fee, then stood back and looked at them. “You're freak­ing,” Sher­rill said. “You're al­ways freak­ing.” Bette en­tered the kitchen and plod­ded to­ward the re­frig­er­a­tor. “I sent you a friend re­quest,” she said. “I saw that,” he said. “You didn't ac­cept it?” “I didn't have time.” “Didn't have time? How long does it take to click ‘ac­cept'?” She leaned in to pull the but­ter dish from the re­frig­er­a­tor, and a tiny muf­fled fart flapped through her dress. “You don't want me in your se­cret Face­book life, is that it?” She stood up and looked at him. Her face was pow­dery. Tiny white hairs stood up along her fore­arms. “Oof.” He shrugged. “I got no se­crets,” he said. “What's that sup­posed to mean?” Sher­rill said. “Look,” Ash­ley said. “All I'm say­ing is don't touch my stuff. You can't af­ford to re­place it.”

Theo took his cof­fee out to the back pa­tio, where he squat­ted on a resin footstool and read the pa­per. Then he sat still for a few min­utes, watch­ing a frog that had got­ten caught in the re­turn at the edge of the swimming pool. The

Laura Lee Smith

frog was pale, ex­hausted. It flexed its legs and butted its head up against the wall again, again, again, look­ing for an es­cape. It had prob­a­bly been there all night. “Hooo, buddy,” Theo said. “Sucks, don't it?” He put the cof­fee down on the pool deck and cupped his hands un­der the frog to flip it out onto the con­crete. The frog crouched, frozen, as­ton­ished.

“Go on,” Theo said. “You're back in the game.” He smiled. “Con­grat­u­la­tions, lit­tle man.”

He found the check­book in Sher­rill's purse, which was hang­ing on a hook in the laun­dry room. The wash­ing ma­chine chugged. Two plas­tic bas­kets sat on the floor, one marked with a black Sharpie along the rim. “DO. NOT. TOUCH,” it said. He left the house with­out another word. He climbed into his mini­van, a late model Dodge Car­a­van, and swat­ted an­grily at the felt head­liner dan­gling across the top of his head. At the of­fice, Ernie was al­ready wait­ing for him.

“Bro,” Ernie said. “Where you been, bro?” Ernie was fif­teen years younger than Theo, though he'd out­paced him long ago in terms of in­come and am­bi­tion. Ernie owned a dis­trib­u­tor­ship for den­tal equip­ment, drove a BMW, wore a Rolex. His eye­lashes were blacker and longer than any Theo had ever seen on a man. His chest was thick be­neath a golfy turtle­neck. Theo hated al­most ev­ery­thing about him, ex­cept for the car.

The fact that Theo worked for Ernie, and not the other way around, was sick­en­ing, some­times, when he let him­self think about it. He con­soled him­self with the idea that he was still an “in­de­pen­dent” rep, cling­ing to the con­cept of au­ton­omy and free­dom that the word promised and turn­ing a blind eye to the re­al­ity of the re­la­tion­ship, which meant that Theo was free to help line Ernie's pock­ets with sales with­out the com­pli­ca­tions of health ben­e­fits or a profit shar­ing plan. But the ter­ri­tory—the ter­ri­tory was primo, ac­cord­ing to Ernie. The top half of the state, west to Pen­sacola and south all the way to Tampa. “The sky's the limit on com­mis­sions, bro,” Ernie said regularly. “Get out there and sell that shit. You whore it, you score it.”

This morn­ing Theo set­tled him­self into a me­tal chair across from Ernie's desk, wish­ing he'd had more cof­fee. He flipped through a stack of leads and looked for­lornly at his latest com­mis­sion check.

“Don't get comfy there,” Ernie said. “What's on deck to­day? You got that en­dodon­tist in Lake­land? Kelso?” “Yeah,” Theo said. “Kelso. Maybe get him to close on the exam chairs.” “The Pre­miers?” “The Ba­sics.” “Shit, Theo,” Ernie said. “Up­sell that son of a bitch. He needs the Pre­miers.” “He wants the Ba­sics.” “Up­sell him.”

Ernie un­clipped his cell phone from a belt at­tach­ment and peered at the screen. He started tex­ting a mes­sage, still talk­ing to Theo. “You gotta get some balls, man. What's the mat­ter with you? Your sales are crap. You gotta up­sell this shit. These are den­tists, man. They're not busi­ness­men. This isn't Steve Jobs. This isn't god­damn Jack Welch.” “I don't even know who Jack Welch is,” Theo said. Ernie stopped tex­ting and stared at him. “And that right there is the prob­lem,” he said. Theo looked away. “Up­sell this shit, man,” Ernie said. “Right,” Theo said, but his tone was un­con­vinc­ing, even to him­self. He jig­gled his knee, looked at his watch.

“All right, now lis­ten,” Ernie said. “Be­fore you go to Lake­land I got this new guy I want you to see. Wain­wright. He's got a prac­tice in Palatka.” Ernie wrote an ad­dress on a piece of pa­per and slid it across the desk. “Je­sus, Palatka?” Theo said. “It's on your way,” Ernie said. “Sort of. And you need the sales.” He raised one eye­brow and looked at Theo point­edly.

Theo pic­tured the route—palatka was at least an hour's de­tour from the bee­line he'd been plan­ning to make to Lake­land. And what kind of den­tist could be in Palatka, any­way? Theo sighed and picked up the pa­per from Ernie's desk. “That all?” he said. “You tell me, bro.” Theo walked out of Ernie's of­fice and looked across the park­ing lot to where the Car­a­van sat broil­ing in the sun. The light was white and fuzzy, and ev­ery­thing was damp with hu­mid­ity. He did a few quick cal­cu­la­tions. It was only nine o'clock. He could make it to Palatka in un­der an hour, see Wain­wright, then be back on the road and make it to Lake­land by early af­ter­noon. If he rushed the sec­ond sales call, he could still leave plenty of time to get to the car auc­tion. He slipped his hand into his pocket to make sure the ad was still there.

He pulled into traf­fic and made for Mcdon­ald's, where he or­dered a large cof­fee and a Mcgrid­dle to go. He headed south on us-1 and cranked up the van's air con­di­tion­ing, but the air from the vents was damp and warm. Dead com­pres­sor, he thought. Fab­u­lous. He low­ered the win­dows and let the morn­ing's hot air rush in.

This god­damned van. This god­damned Car­a­van. Why did it have to be a Car­a­van? Sher­rill's castoff relic, be­stowed upon Theo against his wishes when she bought her­self a Volvo three years ago. A Car­a­van. She'd in­sisted on it ten years ago, when Ash­ley was a pre­teen and Sher­rill had been driv­ing kids all over town and mak­ing eyes at that im­be­cile PTA pres­i­dent. But now Ash­ley her­self drove a Bee­tle, and Sher­rill had the Volvo, and Theo was stuck driv­ing all over Florida in this fat porker of a van. Putty beige ex­te­rior and a gray velour in­te­rior. Crap-tastic in­stru­ment panel. The whole thing smelled like old socks. Oh, god, the ve­hi­cle wrung al­most all the joy out of driv­ing. Al­most all.

Laura Lee Smith

He took a deep breath and willed him­self to re­lax. The traf­fic was sparse, and the road opened up past Moul­trie, so he inched up the speed and felt the wind in­crease. Af­ter a few min­utes, he un­buck­led his seat belt and steered with his knees while he re­moved his shirt and draped it over the pas­sen­ger seat. Stripped down to a T-shirt, he felt lib­er­ated, younger some­how. The Mcgrid­dle went down easy, and he chased it with the cof­fee.

His phone buzzed and he looked at it and saw a text from Sher­rill. “You have ckbk?” it said. He dropped the phone into the cup holder and turned on the ra­dio, but it was all static, so he clicked it off and lis­tened to the wind. He fol­lowed us-1 south for a stretch, then cut over and pushed through Hast­ings and Spuds, imag­in­ing the aquifer un­der the black­top, all these roads cut­ting through Florida like veins. Like veins in a penis, it oc­curred to him, and he smiled at the thought of it, the bawdi­ness, the state of Florida noth­ing but a big penis hang­ing down off the bot­tom of the coun­try, point­ing out across the Keys and into the south At­lantic. He laughed out loud. He'd been driv­ing all over the state for years, but he'd never thought of that be­fore to­day. In Palatka, Wain­wright was a bust. Wouldn't see him. The re­cep­tion­ist slid open a frosted glass win­dow and shook her head when he told her his name.

“He's got pa­tients,” she said. “He said maybe to­mor­row.” She looked up at Theo, and his first sen­sa­tion was one of pity. The girl was not pretty; she had coarse black hair cut in a chunky ar­range­ment of bangs that fell heav­ily across her face. Her lips were over­large, her glasses were smudged with an oily film. She'd clearly been cry­ing re­cently; her eyes were puffy and her nos­trils were raw, damp.

“He told my boss we could meet for ten min­utes,” Theo said. “I just drove all the way down from St. Aug­gie.”

“He's got pa­tients,” she re­peated. She sniffed, then of­fered him a star mint from a bowl on the counter. “Those good for peo­ple's teeth?” he said. She shrugged. “Try to­mor­row,” she said. She left the mints on the counter and slid the frosted win­dow closed again, but he could see her shape be­hind the glass, and he watched her roll her chair across a vinyl mat and start tap­ping at a key­board. He took three star mints from the bowl and put them in his pocket. He looked around the wait­ing room, where only one old man slouched, sleep­ing, in an un­com­fort­able-look­ing chair.

He tapped on the glass again, and the girl rolled across the floor, slid the win­dow open, and looked at him over the top of her glasses. “You sure he won't see me?” he said. “I mean, I to­tally de­toured to come here. I'm try­ing to get to Lake­land. I could have got­ten there a lot faster if I hadn't come here first.”

She pursed her lips then and re­garded him care­fully, hold­ing his gaze a beat longer than he would have ex­pected. The old man in the wait­ing room gur­gled sud­denly, wak­ing him­self with a small snore, and then nod­ded off again. Theo

glanced at him, but then looked back at the girl, who still re­garded him in that odd, un­af­fected man­ner. “Is ev­ery­thing okay?” he asked qui­etly. She blinked. “What do you mean?” she said. He hes­i­tated. “I mean, I know it's none of my busi­ness, but you seem up­set,” he said. His phone buzzed in his pocket, and he ig­nored it. What was he do­ing? He had no idea why he was in­sert­ing him­self into this young woman's drama, what­ever it was. He was, gen­er­ally speak­ing, not that sort of per­son. In times of public strife—a hus­band and wife ar­gu­ing in a res­tau­rant, a mother spank­ing her child in a gro­cery store, a cus­tomer bawl­ing out a cashier—he gen­er­ally looked away. It was just how he was wired.

But now—she blinked again. “I'm fine,” she said stiffly. “It's boyfriend stuff.” Boyfriend stuff! He could not imag­ine. She pushed her bangs back off her fore­head and he felt an un­ex­pected stir­ring in his groin. She was young, prob­a­bly in her late twen­ties, he guessed, and her body was smooth un­der her rayon blouse. He could see the small bulge at the top of her bra where her breasts over­flowed.

She saw him look­ing at her, and he caught a flicker in her eyes, a sud­den light. She wiped at her nose with a tis­sue.

“Well, I'm sorry to hear that,” he said, and he al­most said more, al­most said, “Well, his loss!” but he stopped him­self, bit his lip. A flicker of a smile crossed her lips.

“Maybe to­mor­row,” he said fi­nally. “Thank you, any­way.” He walked out of Wain­wright's of­fice feel­ing jolted, some­how, more awake. He heard the frosted glass slid­ing shut be­hind him as he passed through the front door.

Out­side, the heat was ridicu­lous. He got into the Car­a­van and took his shirt off again, drap­ing it over the pas­sen­ger seat. Then he started the van and checked the time—10:35. He cal­cu­lated his route: county roads for the next hour to back­track to i-95, then he could head south to Day­tona, pick up i-4, and cover the two hours left to Lake­land. Shit! Wain­wright! This lit­tle de­tour to Palatka had just cost him most of the morn­ing. He fished his cell phone out of his pocket and called the num­ber on the Craigslist ad. He reached a recorded mes­sage say­ing the car auc­tion closed at five. All right then. He'd make it, though it would be tight, depend­ing on how long the Lake­land call took. He could blow off the call, he thought, and he paused for a mo­ment, en­ter­tain­ing the no­tion. Kelso? What would Kelso care? And Ernie would be none the wiser, but the proof would be in the empty com­mis­sion sheet at the end of the month. He sighed. Fine. Kelso. Up­sell to the Pre­miers. What­ever. But he'd make it quick, still get to the auc­tion be­fore it closed.

As he put the Car­a­van into re­verse, a quick move­ment caught his eye, and he looked to­ward Wain­wright's of­fice to see the dark-haired re­cep­tion­ist walk­ing to­ward him, an enor­mous black purse hang­ing from the crook of her el­bow. He paused. Her heels were too high, and she had to put her weight on the balls of her feet in or­der to move quickly. She short-stepped up to the Car­a­van's open pas­sen­ger win­dow.

Laura Lee Smith

“Mr. Bit­ner,” she said. “Can you give me a ride?” With­out wait­ing for an an­swer she pulled the door open and dropped into the seat be­side him. “Well,” he said. “Please,” she said. “Just a lit­tle ways. I've got a fam­ily emer­gency.” She was breath­ing hard, and her chest heaved up­ward with each breath. Her skirt had caught un­der her thighs when she sat down, and he felt a flicker of elec­tric­ity in his veins. She closed the door.

“Please,” she said again. She turned and looked straight at him, mouth open slightly, eyes wide. The Car­a­van's en­gine hic­cupped, then re­grouped.

“Okay,” he said fi­nally. He pulled his shirt out from be­hind her and leaned over to lay it on the back seat. “Sure. Where do you need to go?”

“Take a right here,” she said. As he pulled out of the park­ing lot and turned right, she twisted around in her seat and looked out the back win­dow at the re­ced­ing of­fice build­ing.

“Oh, my god,” she said. Then she looked at him again and all traces of her ear­lier tears were gone, re­placed with such ela­tion that he was, once again, as­tounded. “What?” he said. “I just walked out on my job.” “Oh, my,” he said. He slowed down. “Don't stop,” she said. “Keep go­ing.” “Was that a good idea?” he said. “I mean, to quit your job just like that?” She started to laugh, a short gig­gle at first, then swelling into a guf­faw. “I just quit my damn job!” She put her fists out in front of her, dragged them in a rhyth­mic, side­ways square, bounced in her seat. Her skirt rode up higher on her thighs. He stared at her, then jerked his eyes back to the road. “All right, there, you're mak­ing me a bit ner­vous,” he said. “Are you sure you're okay?”

“Mr. Bit­ner,” she said. “I'm fan­tas­tic.” He looked over again, and she smiled at him, a huge, dan­ger­ous smile. She was not pretty, he thought again, but there was some­thing. Some­thing. He turned away. “I'm Stacey,” she said. “Where do I turn?” he said. “Any­where you want to,” she said. “It's to­tally up to you, Mr. Bit­ner.” He hes­i­tated, then ac­cel­er­ated slightly, and the wind rushed through the win­dows, hot and damp.

“It's Theo,” he said. He didn't know what to do with her. She was eva­sive, con­fus­ing in her di­rec­tions, telling him to turn here, not turn there, go straight, go right, go left, just keep go­ing, and he gath­ered, even­tu­ally, that she had no par­tic­u­lar des­ti­na­tion at all.

She clutched her purse on her lap and jit­tered crazily in her seat, fuss­ing with the ra­dio, rolling the win­dow up, then, re­al­iz­ing the air con­di­tioner didn't work, back down again.

“Look, Stacey,” he said fi­nally. “I need to let you out some­where. I'm try­ing to get to Lake­land.” “What for?” “I have a sales call,” he said. And then, “and I'm buy­ing a car there.” It was the first time he'd said it out loud. “Re­ally? What kind of car?” “A Cor­vair. An an­tique.” “A Corvette?” she said. “Cool.” “Not a Corvette. A Cor­vair,” he said. “Dif­fer­ent.” “Bet­ter?” “Well, no,” he ad­mit­ted. He thought of the check­book in his pocket. “I only have five thou­sand dol­lars. Corvettes are a lot more.” “Too bad,” she said. He pulled into a park­ing lot at a dry clean­ers. “Don't stop,” she said. “I gotta stop,” he said. “I need to know where to take you.” She looked at him. “Take me to Lake­land with you,” she said. “Stacey.” “No, re­ally, Mr. Bit­ner. Theo . . . please. Truth is I re­ally need to get to Tampa, but if you get me to Lake­land that's al­most there. My mother lives in Tampa. She could come to Lake­land to pick me up.” He hes­i­tated. “It's only a few hours, right?” she said. “Please, Theo. I'm des­per­ate. I don't have a job. And my boyfriend is an ass­hole. I don't want to go back. Please? I'll give you some gas money.”

“You don't even know me,” he said. “How do you know I'm not a rapist? A mur­derer?” She laughed. “Oh, I can tell,” she said. “Well, I could be,” he said, stub­born. She clasped her hands un­der her chin, looked up at him from un­der her glasses, pursed her lips. “Please?” she said. “Please, please, please?”

It was too hot to idle in the dry clean­ers. The air was stag­nant in the van. A bead of sweat ap­peared on her up­per lip, and he stared at her for a mo­ment, then pulled out of the dry clean­ers and headed south. When the phone buzzed in his pocket and he saw the mes­sage was from Ernie, he turned the damn thing off and put it in the glove box. They made it back to i-95 in record time and merged with the south­bound traf­fic. On the in­ter­state, he took the van up to seventy and felt the sweat cool­ing

Laura Lee Smith

on his neck. She raised her voice over the rush­ing wind and told him about her boyfriend.

“He's a lot older than me,” she said. Her hair was blow­ing crazily around the front seat. “Prob­a­bly your age.” “Thanks.” “I'm just say­ing.” “But he's a waste,” she said. “I hate him.” “Then why are you with him?” “That's what I've been ask­ing my­self, Theo.” She rolled her eyes. She rum­maged in her purse, found a hair tie, and pulled her hair into a raff­ish bun atop her head. Then she swapped out her glasses for an enor­mous pair of sun­glasses, and the re­sult was, sur­pris­ingly, quite fetch­ing. “He's a day trader, right? So he spends all day on the com­puter, look­ing at the stocks, mak­ing de­ci­sions. Or so he says. But I look at his Google history. I know what he's do­ing.”

A semi-truck passed on the right at an alarm­ing speed, and Theo swerved slightly. “He's look­ing at porn. It's dis­gust­ing,” she said. “Well, I'm sorry,” Theo said. He wasn't sure how else he should re­spond. “Why do men look at porn, Theo?” she said. He glanced over, and she was look­ing at him ac­cus­ingly over the top of the sun­glasses. “I don't know,” he said, feel­ing guilty. “Not all men do.” “You do,” she said. “Don't you?” He shrugged, de­feated. “I thought so,” she said. She sighed. “Well, what about you and this car, then? It's, like, old?” she said. “1966,” he said. “And it's a Corv-what?” “Cor­vair,” he said. “It's a beau­ti­ful car.” He paused, then changed lanes to ma­neu­ver around a slug­gish Civic. “It got a bad safety rap once, though,” he said. Ralph Nader, God bless him. Theo of­ten thought that if it hadn't been for Nader, he'd never be able to af­ford the Cor­vair, which had been evis­cer­ated in the media in 1965 af­ter Nader penned a damn­ing ac­count of the car's rearengine in­sta­bil­ity and wonky sus­pen­sion. “Un­safe at any speed,” Nader had pro­claimed. Gen­eral Mo­tors protested might­ily and launched an ag­gres­sive re­design and ac­com­pa­ny­ing PR cam­paign, but the dam­age was done, and by 1967 the Cor­vair was out of pro­duc­tion. “Wow. So you're buy­ing a dan­ger­ous car,” Stacey said. “Nah,” he replied. “It's fine. They fixed the prob­lem in the later mod­els. It was just those early years that were bad.” He shifted po­si­tion to reach into his pocket and pull out the ad, which he un­folded and handed to Stacey. He caught a glimpse of the photo as he handed her the pa­per, and his heart caught slightly when he re­al­ized that ev­ery mile on the road was a mile closer to the lit­tle car, its power, its grace, its te­na­cious, ballsy, ban­tam pres­ence. Cor­vair! The name made him want to shout.

“Well,” she said. She took her sun­glasses off and squinted at the photo, then put the glasses back on and sighed. “Safety's not all it's cracked up to be, any­way,” she said. She folded the pa­per and slid it back into Theo's pocket, let­ting her fin­gers linger be­neath the fab­ric for a beat, it seemed.

He stared at her un­til she pointed back to the road, and then he jerked his eyes back to the front. “You are one hun­dred per­cent cor­rect about that,” he said.

She flipped open the cen­ter con­sole and started flip­ping through CDS, and he was em­bar­rassed by the se­lec­tion. “Su­san Boyle?” she said. “Oh, Theo, re­ally?” “It's my wife's,” he said. She raised an eye­brow. She was a talker, it turned out. She took off her shoes and propped her bare feet up on the Car­a­van's dash­board and chat­tered on about all num­ber of top­ics: Lady Gaga, Ex­treme Home Makeover, even NASCAR when they passed the Speed­way in Day­tona, and Theo was im­pressed with her range. “That Dale Jr. is some­thing else,” she said. “I'd fry chicken for him any night of the week.”

“Would you, now,” he said. He glanced over at her, tried to imag­ine what this meant, ex­actly. But then she caught sight of a “wanted” bill­board fea­tur­ing a row of con­victs, and she sat up straight.

“Look at them, there,” she said. “Bad guys. On the loose.” She pointed at the bill­board and squinted at it un­til they went past. “They'll never catch those sons of bitches. They're to hell and gone.” “How do you know that?” he said. “I watch Nancy Grace,” she said. “It's only those high pro­file types that they re­ally go af­ter. The ones that make a good story. The Casey An­tho­nys and what have you. Those scrappy old no­bod­ies like up there?” she ges­tured back at the bill­board, now fad­ing into the dis­tance. “No­body cares.” She stud­ied Theo. “And you know what else I've learned from Nancy Grace?” she de­manded. “Here's the thing: you want to com­mit a crime, you best com­mit it alone. It's al­ways the ac­com­plice that gets these peo­ple in trou­ble. Go solo, that's what I say.”

Her bare foot twitched on the dash­board. She took her sun­glasses off and cleaned them on the hem of her skirt, and when she put them back on she was quiet for a few mo­ments. “You have kids?” she said sud­denly. “A daugh­ter,” he said. He didn't of­fer Ash­ley's age. “And my mother lives with us,” he added. “I got a lot of women in my house.” “Well, maybe that ex­plains it,” she said. “Ex­plains what?” “You're very kind,” she said, “giv­ing a girl a ride.” He shrugged.

Laura Lee Smith

“Does your wife know you're buy­ing the Cor­vair?” she said. He hes­i­tated. “Now why would you ask that?” he said. “Just won­der­ing,” she said. She re­ar­ranged the bun on top of her head and squirmed a bit in the seat, like a child. Then she dug in her hand­bag for lip­stick and painted her lips a bright or­ange.

“Let me buy you lunch,” she said abruptly. “I'm starv­ing.” He glanced at her, and her gaze was so openly sex­ual he al­most swerved. “Aren't you?” she said. He hes­i­tated. “I'm on a timeline,” he said. “Well, that's no fun,” she said. She pouted, looked up at him un­der hooded eyes. “But I could eat,” he said. They found a TGI Fri­day's north of Or­lando. The in­side was forcedly cheer­ful and smelled like bleach and onions. The wait­ress showed them to a two-top in the cor­ner, un­der a fake Tif­fany pen­dant lamp, and they were so grate­ful for the cool dark­ness that for a mo­ment nei­ther of them spoke.

“Or­der up,” Stacey said fi­nally. “My treat. The chicken fin­gers are di­vine. And they got them ap­ple­ti­nis here. You've got to try one. They taste just like Jolly Ranch­ers.”

He tried two. She tried three. Half­way through the sec­ond drink he had an out-of-body ex­pe­ri­ence, where he saw him­self at the edge of an enor­mous cav­ern, a steep precipice be­fore him, beck­on­ing, of­fer­ing a cool­ness and a respite he'd never known pos­si­ble. He tipped his head back and let him­self fall.

He wouldn't let her pay for lunch. There was a Ra­mada Inn next door to the TGI Fri­day's. He paid for the room, too. When they first got started at it he found him­self apol­o­giz­ing quite a bit, but even­tu­ally he stopped that and just sur­ren­dered to the pure grotty plea­sure of it all, the jig­gling sticky aban­don. With Sher­rill sex was al­ways so con­trolled, pro­ce­dural. He felt some­times they could have used a check­list. But this busi­ness with Stacey. My god! She was ravenous, greedy, down­right ri­otous. He had no idea such be­hav­ior even ex­isted, and he was both ap­palled and awestruck. He felt a deep re­cal­i­bra­tion of val­ues.

They reached an in­ter­mis­sion of sorts and he got up to use the bath­room. He brought his phone in with him and checked the dam­age while stand­ing in front of the toi­let. A text from Ernie (“kelso a go, bro?”) and, from Sher­rill, two missed calls and a voice mail.

He stared at the phone for a long mo­ment. The light in the bath­room was over-bright, and a web of mildew snaked up the wall be­hind the toi­let. He'd been mar­ried to Sher­rill for twenty-six years. He'd never been un­faith­ful to her, not even af­ter she'd con­fessed her own af­fair with that thug from the PTA, that snarky sin­gle dad work­ing the mid­dle school par­ents' scene like it was a night­club. Still—he'd never cheated on her, had never even wanted to. How on

earth had this hap­pened? He looked up and saw him­self in the bath­room mir­ror, naked, pale and paunchy. He heard Stacey flick on the TV in the bed­room. He wasn't sure what any of this meant.

A toi­let flushed on the other side of the wall. It was the mid­dle of the af­ter­noon! My god, this Ra­mada was do­ing some busi­ness. He took another long look at him­self in the mir­ror and shook his head. All right. He'd get dressed. He'd call Sher­rill. He'd text Ernie. He'd get his god­damned act to­gether, get this girl de­liv­ered to Lake­land, get back on the road. He'd for­get the Cor­vair—a penance to Sher­rill. He shifted po­si­tion to flush the toi­let, and as he did, his el­bow knocked the ce­ramic towel holder and he watched in slow mo­tion as his phone was jolted from his hand and jumped into a beau­ti­ful clear arc to­ward the toi­let bowl, where it plunged into the wa­ter and urine in one sin­gle, hor­ri­fy­ing blip.

Theo stood naked, star­ing at the phone in the toi­let. Then he flushed the toi­let once, twice, three times. The phone was lodged in the bot­tom of the bowl, stub­born. “You okay, Theo?” Stacey called from the bed­room. He fished the phone from the bowl; it now fea­tured a strangely beau­ti­ful sil­ver bloom across the screen. He punched the on/off but­ton but noth­ing hap­pened. He wrapped the phone in a towel and threw it in the waste­bas­ket. Then he washed up and walked out of the bath­room and back to the bed. She turned the TV off and opened her arms.

Things were dif­fer­ent now. Ev­ery­thing was dif­fer­ent. They took showers and dressed, but the re­fresh­ment of the cool ho­tel and the hot shower was short lived when they stepped out of the room into the white hot light of af­ter­noon again. Theo looked at his watch: 3:15. Could it be only 3:15? He felt as though a life­time had elapsed in the space of this one day.

“Hold on,” he said to Stacey. He walked thirty yards to the front of­fice, en­tered, and dropped the room cards on the re­cep­tion counter, avoid­ing the clerk's gaze. When he ar­rived back at the van and ap­proached the driver's door he re­al­ized Stacey was bent over near the rear hatch. She straight­ened as he ap­proached. “Ev­ery­thing okay?” he said. “Peachy,” she said. They climbed in the van and headed back to the high­way. “Here,” she said. She fished in her bag and pulled out two bot­tles of wa­ter she'd pinched from the room and a packet of ibupro­fen. “I think we might need some of this. You front-load, see, and then the hang­over is not so bad when the vodka wears off.” “I'm learn­ing all kinds of things from you, Stacey.” “That's right,” she said. “And I bet you thought I was just a dumb girl.”

Laura Lee Smith

He swal­lowed an ibupro­fen and turned on the ra­dio, punch­ing the but­tons and then set­tling on a rock sta­tion. AC/DC promised dirty deeds done dirt cheap. God, he'd for­got­ten about these guys. His heart swelled with love for An­gus Young. Stacey tapped her foot on the dash, keep­ing time. Theo pulled out of the ho­tel lot and into traf­fic. He sped for­ward to stay ahead of the crush, and then he merged cleanly onto the in­ter­state and headed south. All right, so he'd bag the sales call with Kelso. That was a no-brainer at this point. The loss of the phone had ren­dered him un­teth­ered from re­al­ity, it seemed. Plus, he was still a lit­tle drunk from the ap­ple­ti­nis and the sex, and the re­sult was a welcome bon­homie that was keep­ing all im­pend­ing con­se­quences nicely at bay, at least for the mo­ment. He tapped his fin­gers on the steer­ing wheel and cal­cu­lated dis­tances again. Take the i-4 south through Or­lando, pray they'd beat rush hour, head straight into Lake­land. Straight to the Cor­vair. Hour and a half, tops, if all went well. He glanced to his right. Stacey had put her hair back up, but she was sweat­ing again. “I'm sorry there's no air con­di­tion­ing,” he said. “Air con­di­tion­ing is over­rated,” she said. “I like the heat.” They drove for nearly an hour, and she fell asleep for a while and then woke and an­nounced she needed a bath­room. “We're al­most to Lake­land,” he said, glanc­ing at his watch. “You can't wait?” “Theo,” she said. “My back teeth are float­ing.” He pulled over at a Citgo just off the high­way. “Doesn't look too clean,” he said. “You want me to find some­thing bet­ter?” “Well, aren't you the gen­tle­man,” she said. She bounced up and down on the seat and gri­maced. “I gotta pee. I don't care what it looks like.”

She left her hand­bag on the seat and ran in­side. He started to reach for his phone to check mes­sages, then re­mem­bered. A shadow fell across the in­te­rior of the van and he glanced up to see the begin­nings of a thun­der­head build­ing in the dis­tant sky. His gaze drifted around the car and fell on the hand­bag on the seat next to him, where a thick en­ve­lope pro­truded from the open zipper. He glanced up at the Citgo and then slipped the en­ve­lope out of the purse and opened it. In­side were sev­eral fat bricks of cash, stacks of hun­dreds in rub­ber­banded piles two inches thick. He stared at the money, tried a quick cal­cu­la­tion. Thou­sands? At least thou­sands. Tens of thou­sands?

The pas­sen­ger door of the Car­a­van was yanked open, and Stacey plopped down in the seat and snatched her hand­bag out of his hands. “Mind your own,” she said. A note of fear had crept into her voice. “How much money is that?” he said. She hes­i­tated a mo­ment, then turned and looked at him. “Seventy thou­sand,” she said. “It took me eight years.”

She held his gaze for a long mo­ment, then pulled at the rearview mir­ror and

leaned for­ward to ap­ply her or­ange lip­stick. Her hand shook. “We go­ing?” she said. “You're scar­ing the shit out of me, Stacey,” he said. He started the van. “I'm scar­ing the shit out of my­self, too,” she said. As he merged back onto the high­way she told him how she did it.

“When the pa­tients pay cash, that's easy,” she said. “But other times you can record it as a no-charge, or you can give them a dis­count and pocket the dif­fer­ence. You have to be cre­ative. Not ev­ery case is the same.” “And Wain­wright had no idea?” he said. “Pfftt,” she said. “He doesn't know his ass­hole from his el­bow.” She paused, squinted at the road. “Although now that I'm gone,” she said, thought­fully, “he'll prob­a­bly catch on.”

Theo felt a cool­ness run through his veins, and he pro­cessed the im­pli­ca­tions of the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion. So far to­day, he'd ini­ti­ated (though ad­mit­tedly had not yet ex­e­cuted) an un­ap­proved ex­pen­di­ture of five thou­sand dol­lars from the joint check­ing ac­count he shared with Sher­rill; he'd very likely lost his big­gest com­mis­sion of the month, if not his en­tire job, by blow­ing off the sales call with Kelso; and he'd com­mit­ted tawdry and out­ra­geously ath­letic adul­tery with a woman half his age. And now, it seemed, he'd also aided and abet­ted a con­fessed em­bez­zler. He watched the road. He felt in his pocket again for his phone. He gripped the steer­ing wheel un­til his knuck­les turned white. “You're wanted,” he said. She rolled her eyes. “Well, how nice of you to say, Theo,” she said. “I guess there's a first time for ev­ery­thing.”

He ad­justed the rearview mir­ror and drove on. It was nearly four thirty. The heat had been di­aled back a smidge and Theo watched the thunderheads build in earnest now to the west, the light­ning lac­ing like fin­gers through the dis­tant clouds. It was hard to tell if they'd drive into the storm or not, but he ap­pre­ci­ated the gray cast the sky had taken on and the damp air, merely tepid now, rush­ing into the Car­a­van.

He won­dered about Sher­rill's voice mails, unchecked on the ru­ined phone, which was prob­a­bly still sit­ting on the bot­tom of the waste pail at the Ra­mada Inn, steeped in urine. It wasn't like Sher­rill to leave voice mails. She was more of a texter. A vague feel­ing of nau­sea crept into his ab­domen, and he felt the first twinge of re­gret for the ap­ple­ti­nis, for the af­fair, for the en­tire af­ter­noon. A fat love­bug hit the wind­shield and burst, leav­ing a creamy blob of en­trails just at eye level. He turned on the wind­shield washer, but it was out of fluid, so the wipers sim­ply smeared the bug into an opaque rain­bow of whites and yel­lows,

Laura Lee Smith

and he had to slouch in his seat in or­der to see be­low it. The move­ment strained his back, and he straight­ened out and then hunched over the steer­ing wheel. He glanced side­long at Stacey and tried to muster a bit of the arousal that had so con­sumed him just a cou­ple of hours ago, but got noth­ing. Ah, god! Had he ru­ined ev­ery­thing? He had a vi­sion of him­self be­hav­ing this way for the rest of his days: a bent, beaten old man, neutered by re­morse, driv­ing to­ward dis­as­ter, un­able to see.

“No,” Stacey said. He looked over at her. “No, no, no, no, no.” Her eyes were wide and her gaze was fixed, fright­ened, on the wing mir­ror out­side her win­dow. He looked in the rearview and saw the blue flash­ing lights, and his stom­ach clenched. He glanced at the speedome­ter and saw he'd inched above eighty. “Shit,” he said. “Holy hell.” “Don't stop, Theo,” she said. He took his foot off the ac­cel­er­a­tor and scanned the road's shoul­der for a place to pull over. “Don't stop,” she said again. Her voice was pan­icked, des­per­ate. “I have to stop,” he said. “No, you don't,” she said. “Keep go­ing.” She reached over and put her hand on the steer­ing wheel, try­ing to keep the Car­a­van straight in the lane. “I have to stop. Are you crazy? It's a cop! I have to stop.” She was wig­gling over the cen­ter con­sole now, try­ing to put her own foot on the ac­cel­er­a­tor, try­ing to keep the steer­ing wheel straight. Her weight tipped over the con­sole and she fell into him; the Car­a­van swerved crazily into the next lane. He shoved her roughly back into her own seat and started to pull to the side of the road. A quar­ter mile ahead, an exit ramp yawned down a nar­row slope. Stacey clutched at his arm and started to cry, and when he looked at her, her eyes wide and ter­ri­fied, her lips pulled back in a gri­mace so fraught it was al­most beau­ti­ful, some­thing shifted. He'd never seen any­one so alive. “Oh, Je­sus,” he said. “Oh, Je­sus, help me now.” He pulled the Car­a­van back into the lane, stead­ied the wheel, and stomped on the ac­cel­er­a­tor. He pushed it up to ninety, then bul­leted down the exit ramp. The cop ev­i­dently had a de­layed re­ac­tion to the pur­suit, and Theo imag­ined him star­tled, fum­bling with the ra­dio, call­ing for help. But then he ob­vi­ously floored it and Theo watched in the rearview as the gap dwin­dled and the po­lice car fol­lowed them down the ramp. The light was red at the bot­tom, and a solid line of traf­fic rushed across the road per­pen­dic­u­lar to the exit. He glanced at the speedome­ter. They were ap­proach­ing the in­ter­sec­tion and still do­ing fifty. In the rearview, the re­flec­tion of the cop's blue lights ric­o­cheted against the black wall of thunderheads. “Do it,” Stacey said. At the cross­roads, he took his foot off the ac­cel­er­a­tor for only the barest in­stant, tap­ping the brakes just long enough to dodge a semi, and then another. The two trucks closed be­hind the Car­a­van like cur­tains and the truck driv­ers

im­me­di­ately slowed from the shock of the near miss, ef­fec­tively block­ing both the cop's tra­jec­tory and his vi­sion for a good ten sec­onds, at least. And then—my god! They were still alive, and Theo was pi­lot­ing the shak­ing, rat­tling Car­a­van straight back up the next ramp to reen­ter the in­ter­state. He was Burt stink­ing Reynolds now, and he let out a yelp when he re­al­ized they were go­ing to make it. In a Car­a­van! He pounded the ac­cel­er­a­tor and pulled straight up the ramp, reen­ter­ing the same stretch of high­way they'd just ex­ited and leav­ing the dumb cop in the dis­tance sniff­ing around the exit ramp like a geri­atric blood­hound.

He ac­cel­er­ated to a sen­si­ble sixty and then hung there, pant­ing. He edged into in a clump of traf­fic, along­side a sil­ver Toy­ota mini­van, and they hawked the rearview, silent and sober, but the cop was gone. Stacey clapped her hands, glee­ful. “You did it!” she said. “You lost him!” The adren­a­line drained as quickly as it had ar­rived. Theo felt like he was go­ing to be sick. The first fat drops of rain spat­tered the wind­shield. “He's go­ing to have ev­ery cop in Lake­land look­ing for my tag,” he said. She laughed and reached down for her hand­bag, and then she pulled out the Car­a­van's li­cense tag. “You mean this old thing?” she said.

They pulled off at the next exit, and she sat in the van in the pour­ing rain while he stole a li­cense tag off a Honda Odyssey parked at a Waf­fle House. They moved to park be­hind a BP, where he bolted the stolen tag onto the Car­a­van. For once, he was glad it was a Car­a­van, a mil­lion oth­ers just like it be­tween here and Lake­land. Then he climbed into the van, wiped the wa­ter off his face with an old pa­per towel he found in the back seat, and got back on the road. With the win­dows up in the rain, the in­side of the van was steamy and dank. He put the vents on full blast. They gasped hot air into the front seat. Stacey clutched her hand­bag to her chest and held his hand while he drove. Theo felt her trem­bling slow, then stop.

In Lake­land, they ex­ited the in­ter­state and headed north on a county road slick with rain, the steam ris­ing like ghosts in the dis­tance. The Cor­vair wasn't at the auc­tion. It was parked in a chain-link yard be­hind a garage two blocks away. “The Kar Kor­ral,” the sign over the garage said, and the man in­side ex­plained: “This here is di­rect sales. These cars won't sell at auc­tion,” he said. He was ter­ri­bly thin, can­cer-thin, with sunken eyes and yel­lowed fin­gers. He sucked on a cig­a­rette. His name, Rick, was stitched above his pocket. “They're not com­pet­i­tive enough,” he said. “Auc­tion is for the cars ev­ery­body wants. Not like these here.”

He ges­tured to the lot, and Theo ap­proached the fence. The rain had stopped and the sun was back, bru­tal, heat­ing the pud­dles into va­por. Stacey fol­lowed him to the yard, where not one but two Cor­vairs sat swel­ter­ing among a crowd of de­crepit, rust-eaten Mus­tangs and Ca­maros. Rick un­locked the gate

Laura Lee Smith

and they walked into the yard. Theo pulled the crum­pled ad out of his pocket and showed it to Rick.

“Right here,” Rick said. He led them to one of the cars. It was a 1963 Cor­vair, blue, and it was one of the most de­press­ing things Theo had ever seen. It was a con­vert­ible, and the rag top was tat­tered be­yond re­pair. The in­te­rior was a catas­tro­phe—a cheap velour redo now dirty and damp-look­ing, with burnt or­ange foam bulging out from be­tween ripped seams. The dash­board was cracked, the floor­boards were rusted, and a hefty dent across two quar­ter pan­els kept the pas­sen­ger door from even open­ing. The whole car smelled like cat. “Oh, gawd,” Stacey said. “I don't know, Theo. This is it?” “No,” Theo said. “That's not the one.” He turned to the white Cor­vair be­hind him. “This one here.”

“That's a good 'un,” Rick said. “Bet­ter car, all around. Af­ter the re­design, you know. This here '66 is a sweet lit­tle car.” Theo nod­ded. In­deed it was. Neat as a pin, a clean dry hard­top with a beau­ti­ful creamy fin­ish and a red in­te­rior. It was the car from the photo. It was even bet­ter in per­son. Stacey opened the pas­sen­ger door and climbed in, smiled up at him.

Theo stared at the ad in his hand, which was writ­ten, he now saw, as am­bigu­ously as pos­si­ble. “Cor­vair!” it said. “Two mod­els. $5,000. Call for de­tails.”

“So which one is five thou­sand dol­lars?” he asked, feel­ing his heart sink, al­ready know­ing the an­swer.

Rick laughed, a wet jagged chuckle. “The rag­top I can let you have for five,” he said. “This lit­tle coupe here is al­most fully re­stored. She goes for nine.”

“Christ,” Theo said. He showed Rick the ad again. “This here is bait and switch.”

Rick gazed at him lev­elly. “You say­ing I don't have a Cor­vair here for five thou­sand dol­lars?” Stacey got out of the car. “It's for your daugh­ter here?” Rick said. “Maybe we can ne­go­ti­ate a lit­tle bit. She looks pretty as a pic­ture in that coupe.”

This was a lie, of course. Stacey was wet, bedrag­gled, and road-worn, and she looked worse than she had when she'd slid open the frosted glass win­dow at Wain­wright's ear­lier this morn­ing. All of it was a lie, and Theo was sick and dis­gusted, sud­denly, with ev­ery­thing. He didn't have nine thou­sand dol­lars to spend on the white Cor­vair. He didn't even have five thou­sand for the blue one, come to think of it; he'd deb­ited ninety-five dol­lars for the room at the Ra­mada and seventy-nine dol­lars for chicken fin­gers and ap­ple­ti­nis at TGI Fri­days. He'd have to do some ne­go­ti­at­ing just to win the '63, which was a wanked-out propo­si­tion to be­gin with, the damn thing not even driv­able, no way to get it home with­out a tow. A le­mon. A '63—the year be­fore the re­design. The idiot year. What a bust. What a god­damned bust. He turned and strode back to the Car­a­van. “You want to take my card, think it over?” Rick said, but Theo didn't turn around. “I'm stay­ing open late. I'm here till six, you change your mind,” Rick

called. Theo barely waited for Stacey to get back into the van be­fore he lurched into re­verse and turned around in the gravel park­ing lot. He pulled out onto the high­way again, drove north into down­town Lake­land, with no par­tic­u­lar des­ti­na­tion in mind.

“I'm sorry, Theo,” she said, af­ter a minute. She bit her lip. “You want me to help you make up the dif­fer­ence?” He shook his head. “I'm not buy­ing a car with stolen money,” he said. He stopped at a red light and looked at her hard. “Now where the hell do I let you out?”

She turned away, blink­ing. He'd stung her. He didn't care. Be­tween the ap­ple­ti­nis and the heat and the leftover adren­a­line, he was be­gin­ning to think he might re­ally be sick, so when he saw a Books-a-mil­lion hulk­ing on the cor­ner of a busy in­ter­sec­tion, he pulled in. “We gotta cool off,” he said. They walked into the book­store, but the café area was too crowded, so they moved to the back of the store and sat on low benches in the chil­dren's depart­ment. A young fa­ther was parked on one of the benches across from them, su­per­vis­ing three tiny kids, all out­fit­ted in some sort of denim cam­ou­flage. He was read­ing the lit­tle girl a book, and his voice had the read­ing mono­tone of a sec­ond grader. He stopped when the two lit­tle boys started wrestling over an over­sized book shaped like a truck.

“Put that book back,” the man said. “And don't get you no more.” He looked at Theo and Stacey and grinned. Theo took Stacey's el­bow and scooted her fur­ther down the bench. “Lis­ten, I've got to go home,” he said. “I've got a three-hour drive.” Stacey clutched her hand­bag to her chest and watched the lit­tle boys, who had turned their at­ten­tion to a wooden train set spread out on a low ta­ble. “How am I go­ing to get to Tampa?” she said. He snorted. “You're filthy rich,” he said. “I think you'll fig­ure it out.” She started to cry, a silent ugly weep­ing that made him feel small and em­bar­rassed. The cam­ou­flaged fam­ily looked at them. The young fa­ther raised his eye­brows at Theo. “I'm scared, Theo,” Stacey said. “What's go­ing to hap­pen to me?” He pat­ted her damp shoul­der and smiled grimly at the young fa­ther. Then he took a deep breath. “I'll get you a cof­fee, okay?” he said. “Just sit tight.” He left her hunched over her purse on the lit­tle wooden bench. He walked to­ward the café, and his pace quick­ened as he moved, un­til he walked out the front door of the book­store and over to the Car­a­van. He started the en­gine, rolled down the win­dows, and headed for i-4. North­bound. The traf­fic on the in­ter­state was heavy, but he'd driven through worse. He glanced at his watch. Five thirty. The af­ter­noon's thun­der­storm was just a

Laura Lee Smith

lin­ger­ing damp­ness now, and he knew that by the time he ap­proached Or­lando the usual rush hour should have dis­si­pated. He'd prob­a­bly be home be­fore nine.

He hun­kered down be­hind a US Mail semi, stead­ied his speed at fifty-five, and tried to re­lax. He pushed the play but­ton the CD player. And be­fore Su­san Boyle had even reached the cho­rus of “Wild Horses,” he was back down the exit ramp, re­trac­ing his route and pulling into the still-damp park­ing lot of the Books-a-mil­lion, where she stood like a statue on a park­ing is­land, clutch­ing the hand­bag.

“I'm sorry,” he said to her. He leaned over the seat and opened the pas­sen­ger door. “I pan­icked.”

“It's okay,” she said. “I'm pan­ick­ing all the time.” They struck a deal. A thirty-five mile ride to Tampa for $3,174.00. They left Books-a-mil­lion and made it back to the Kar Kor­ral just as Rick was lock­ing up the chain-link fence. He gave them a salute and ush­ered them into his sales of­fice. They signed over the Car­a­van for a thou­sand bucks and Stacey fished the tag out of her purse. Rick raised an eye­brow but of­fered no com­ment. When they pulled out of the park­ing lot in the white Cor­vair, Theo felt as though he'd been reborn. The af­ter­noon sky was a deeper blue. The trees were a crisper green. In the seat next to him, Stacey was ra­di­ant, and he felt blood rush­ing ev­ery­where in his body. Ev­ery­where. “You are so sexy in this car,” he said. She smiled. “You're full of shit,” she said. “Doesn't this thing go any faster?” He drove her south to Tampa, and the sun drifted slowly lower un­til the road was dim, and then dusk. She was quiet, and he rested his hand on her thigh for a lit­tle while and then re­turned it to the steer­ing wheel. In Tampa, he fol­lowed her di­rec­tions and pulled up in front of a neat lit­tle cin­derblock mo­tel on the south side of the city.

“My mother is stay­ing here,” she said. “But we're leav­ing tonight. She's got a car. We're go­ing back to Texas, where we're from.” She sighed, then smiled. “Some girls run away with Prince Charm­ing,” she said. “I'm run­ning away with my momma.” “You go­ing to be okay?” Theo said. He touched her face. “Hell, yes,” she said. “Peachy.” She got out of the Cor­vair and leaned in to look at him through the pas­sen­ger win­dow. “The car is beau­ti­ful,” she said. “And you're a good man, Theo.” He stared at her and had no idea what to say. She laughed. “Now what?” he said. “Here's where you go home, Theo. And here's where I just walk away,” she said. “Walk away?” “Yes,” she said. “Walk. Away.” And she did. He watched her funny gait,

short-step­ping on the high heels, the way her back­side pro­truded and her skirt stretched tighter than could pos­si­bly be com­fort­able as she walked up to one of the mo­tel rooms and knocked on the door. A tiny woman an­swered the door and Stacey turned around, waved to him, and then dis­ap­peared into the room.

He pulled a U-turn in the park­ing lot and felt the Cor­vair's en­gine rum­bling be­hind him, and though he knew it was a flat-6, it felt like a lo­co­mo­tive. He flicked on the ra­dio and found another rock sta­tion. Zep­pelin. Gor­geous. The sky was full dark now, and the air had cooled. He could smell the thick, tangy air of the Gulf off to the west, and he pointed the Cor­vair north­east, headed back to­ward the At­lantic, only the thick float­ing penin­sula of La Florida left to cross. He thought about pulling over at a pay phone to call Sher­rill, then de­cided against it. There would be hell to pay when he got home. But the devil was in the back seat, keep­ing time to the mu­sic, and hell was a long way up the road.

Laura Lee Smith

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