Unsafe at Any Speed
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
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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.
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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.
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“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
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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.
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“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.”
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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,
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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
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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
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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.
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