Leo DeBree stabbed the cigarette, smoked down to its filter, into a glass ashtray on his desktop.
"My advice to you is this: drop out. Join the army. Your grades are abysmal, you don't participate in any clubs or activities. What are you doing here other than taking up space? Just quit now and enlist. You can learn a trade in the army, your room and board taken care of, plus a few bucks spending loot in your pocket. And in the army, you get free cigs." Leo paused, smiled wanly, and continued, "Go on! Whatcha waitin' for? Dames love a guy in uniform, even a lousy private." He cleared his throat and lied, "I had the broads tossing themselves at my feet when I was in boot camp."
Richard Doolittle, hands folded, elbows on knees, stared at the linoleum tiles, weighed this verdict for a long minute. He scratched the back of his neck, careful not to muss his blond ducktail, and decided to follow the advice. Mr. DeBree was the guidance counselor. He wouldn't steer anyone wrong. He's a professional.
Richard sighed and said, "Okay." To fight tears, he focused on swooning gals and free smokes.
Leo DeBree opened a drawer and handed the teen form-papers for enlistment. He kept a stack handy.
After Doolittle left, Leo closed his office door, sat, propped his feet on the windowsill, leaned back, took in a view of the parking lot, lit a fresh L&M. He smoked about half of it, crushed it out and immediately lit another. He looked at the wall clock ticking loudly in the silent room. Still another damn hour to quitting time. "I'll sneak out early, grab a drink at Jimmy's before heading home. Friday. Who's to notice?"
He slunk out a side door, trotted to the faculty parking lot, to his tan Falcon. He feigned a serious expression, just in case someone should question him about ditching. He even had a line ready. "Family matter! My sister!"
He drove to Main Street. It irked him that he was driving a crummy six-cylinder compact with a lousy single-barrel carb when some students tooled around in sports cars. Once, unlocking his car door, he heard an adenoidal voice holler, "Charlie Brown car! Loser!" He looked around, but it was impossible to spot the heckler in the crowd. What was worse, he knew that's what all the kids thought. Bastards! But the kids he really detested were the poor kids, like Doolittle. Farm kid, not too bright—not a problem kid, but always with the hangdog expression, no friends. There's a war going on; best to get him in uniform, good fodder for the cannon. The world is better off without the Doolittles gumming up the works.
Leo chuckled to himself. That bit about women falling for a man in uniform usually caught their interest, but the bait they really couldn't resist was the promise of free cigs. And he thought back to being stationed in West Berlin. Sheesh. The frauleins were pretty darn snooty. He had to settle for pro-girls. He even fell in love, a little, with one. Lisa, a bottle blonde, hair teased to a beehive. He was one of her regulars. After doing their business, he'd share a smoke with her, and confide.
Leo brought her presents on occasion, a carton of Luckies, her brand. Or a bottle of peppermint schnapps, a transistor radio. For one dopey moment he considered saving her, marrying her, sweeping away from the brothel, making her a proper lady, then came to his senses. "She's a whore, for cryin' out loud..."
At the first light, Leo punched in the cigarette lighter, drummed a mindless beat on the steering wheel with his fingertips, waited for the lighter. His car had no radio, bare bones. As the light turned to green, the Cadillac behind him honked just as the lighter popped. "Dammit!" Leo lurched ahead, fumbled getting his cig lit, slammed on the brakes just as the next light turned red.
The Caddy screeched, almost plowed into the Falcon's rear, and honked, long and hard this time. Leo was sorely tempted to hop out and give the driver a mindful. But it's a Cadillac. Leo knew his place.
At Jimmy's, Leo sat at the bar, ordered his usual, a Scotch, neat. He lit a cig, and helped himself to salty peanuts. Jimmy wiped the bar, made some chit-chat with Leo while someone dropped a coin in the jukebox and punched the code for a Motown hit. A couple of beefy guys wandered in and Jimmy hustled over to take their orders. Leo stared straight ahead, into the mirror behind the bar, and assessed himself. What he saw was a young man in a Robert Hall sport coat, a drip-dry white shirt, a narrow clip-on tie, with a swarthy complexion, and a thatch of dark hair Brylcreemed into place. And he saw a lonely slob who'd once been a happily married fella. He still wore his wedding ring. As far as he was concerned, he’d always be married to Delores. Even death couldn't do them part. Unconsciously he began to grind his molars, caught himself and stopped. With a great deal of control he put his tumbler down, gently. He waved to Jimmy who knew what to do.
It was early November. The day overcast, windy, but oddly warm, equidistant raw and balmy. Jimmy had the front door propped open. Leo savored the mix of stale smoky barroom air mixed with fresh breezes from the street. It brought out his poetic side. He groped for the right word for his mood. "Melancholic, that's it. Not sad, exactly. But not happy. Maybe wistful is the proper term..."
It'd only been a few years since Delores was hit by a car, killed on impact, or so the doctor told Leo. Leo wondered if that was true or if the doc was trying to spare Leo agony. Leo hoped it was true. The driver had been stinking drunk, some bum from another state, just passing through, a fifth, half empty, on the seat next to him, dead soldier in the back. The judge only gave him a year in jail, suspended, and parole. It stunk to high heaven, but what can you do? Leo lit another L&M, drained his glass and waved to Jimmy.
It was dark when Leo left Jimmy's. Leo unlocked the Falcon's door and fell behind the wheel. He wiped his face with his palm and took a deep breath, held it, shook his head, exhaled loudly, and gunned the budget Ford to life. Streetlights and neon signs glared, carnival-like in his blurry state.
Leo was driving through a development of raised ranches and split-levels, thinking of the weekend ahead, maybe rake the leaves and burn 'em. He liked that, a little chore. And the aroma of the burning leaves would sweep him back to when he was a kid, with his dad after they'd raked all afternoon, the shadows lengthening. Again, he felt wistful, eyes misty.
He didn't think anything of it at first. He noticed the whump, but it took a moment for it to register, to cut through his haze. He was about a half-block away when he noticed the swarm of children in his rearview mirror. Then he realized he'd hit a child; it was lying in the road, other kids had gathered around. In a panic Leo doused his lights and hightailed it, tires squealing. A quick right, then a left before he turned his lights back on. His hand was shaking as he pushed in the lighter and fumbled for his pack. He drove as rapidly as he could without drawing attention to himself. It was a relief to pull into his driveway, get out and open the garage door. He ground the gears getting into first, something he rarely did. The car in, he brought the door down, but not before scanning the street. He half expected cruisers racing up to his house, sirens screaming, lights flashing.
In the kitchen, he heated milk in a sauce pan, mixed in a generous tablespoon Nestle's Quik, used that to wash down a Seconal. He sat on the sofa, his cup of hot cocoa in trembling hands. He picked up a newsweekly, thumbed through it aimlessly, came to a Schweppe's ad and tossed the mag across the room, and muttered, "That ess oh bee," regarding Captain Whitehead. "That fruitcake! So damn smug!"
Leo got up, flicked on the console TV, but couldn't focus on whatever the program was. "If that kid's dead, what am I gonna do!" He tugged at his upper lip and prayed the little bastard would live, be okay, and hey, maybe have learned a good life lesson: Don't play in the street, ya little moron!
The pill hit him like a tropical sea wave, like love: warm, liquid and comforting, his knees suddenly weak. On the couch, oblivious to the TV playing, he tumbled into a numb slumber and dreamt. In his dream he was in his car, it had no pedals, no gas, no brake, but it was barreling ahead at a good clip across an endless desert under a blistering sun. Everywhere he looked, there were kids roaming about. He swerved this way and that to avoid hitting them, but he hit some; if he missed one, he hit another. He woke abruptly, in a cold sweat. It was light out. The clock read 10:10.
"Ten-ten," he repeated to himself. "Ten-ten, ten-ten..."
He made a cup of instant, then another. On his third he lit a cig and, still dressed from yesterday, sauntered out to get the paper in its official Plainville Press box next to the mailbox. He snapped it open and read the headline, almost vomited.
"The kid is dead. The kid is actually... dead."
The Plainview Press reported that the children said the car was light-blue and possibly a Chevrolet. "Knuckleheads! Well, that gives me cover, at least. I might be off the hook."
Leo's neighbor across the street tossed his rake aside, trotted over and bellied up to Leo. Frank said, "Can you believe this! Just a few blocks away! I see the father at the Knights of Columbus. I don't know him well, but he always struck me as a regular guy! That's who this stuff happens to! The good folk! Boy, give me just five minutes alone with the punk what did this! Just five lousy minutes, boy!" He punched his fist into his palm, three times, inhaled deeply, slowly exhaled, shook his head and continued, "There's nothing lower than a hit and run driver! Filth! Pure filth!"
"I, uh, hope they catch the guy..."
"Guy? Don't you mean animal! This animal killed a kid! Nine-years-old! Killed him! Dead! Like what happened to... Well, you know." Frank walked away, head down, fists clenched.
Cruisers prowled the neighborhood, hoping to find who knows what. Maybe just to appear on-the-job.
Leo went to the garage. With the door down, he flipped on the fluorescent overheads, assessed the car's right front fender. There didn't seem to be any real damage, but there was blood. And some blonde hair on the chrome bumper. With that sight, the kid's hair, Leo went to the backyard to dry heave.
Back in the garage, weak and washed out, he rolled up his sleeves, filled a bucket with sudsy water, grabbed a sponge. After cleaning the fender, he poured the water down the toilet and flushed the toilet three times. Then he used bleach on the pail, and poured that down the toilet and flushed three times. Then he did the entire routine over again, hoping to scour any possible evidence of the child, careful not to spill a drop anywhere. For safe measure, Leo drove a few towns over, went through Jiffy Kar Wash. "That should do it. Without any sort of trace, they don't have no case." He smiled at his little rhyme. "Man, oh man, oh Manischewitz, what a day. But I gotta buck up. I can't allow my entire life to be ruined because of some dumb kid." He stopped at a McDonald's and ordered one hamburger, a small fries and a small Coke. Parked in the back, he ate his little meal as the sun lowered. He drove home and showered in hot water for half an hour.
Leo stared blindly at TV shows until dark, realized he hadn't eaten dinner. He heated a frank in the frying pan, rolled it around in browning butter, but the aroma made him nauseous. He tossed it in the backyard. He considered throwing it over the fence into the neighbor's yard, for their dog to eat, but decided, no, that mutt's too fat and pampered. Let the ants have it.
Leo sat in the dark, on the living room couch. The TV grated on his nerves, so he turned if off. But he then felt at sea, then as if he were fading to vapor. He got up and turned it back on, basked in its blue glow. "Rich bastards have color. I'm still stuck with B&W."
Leo stewed. Leo steamed. A wave of raw indignation rose in him. "What the hell! Is my entire life supposed to just go up in smoke because some stupid kid plays in the damn street!" He slammed his fist on the coffee table, truly hard, but didn't notice the pain of a small fracturing.
Rising, he went to the bedroom flipped on the light, blinked, went to the dresser. From his underwear drawer, he removed a .38 revolver and placed a single bullet in the chamber. Back in the living room, he sat on the sofa and gave the pistol's well-oiled chamber a spin. Whrrr. The sharp scent of the gun oil was upsetting to his stomach. He aimed at the TV, pulled the trigger. Click!
He gave the chamber another spin. Whrrr. He pointed the gun at his picture window. Click! Then he picked up his pack of smokes and found the pack was empty. "Dammit! Dammit all to hell!" He crumpled the L&M pack, winced at sharp unexpected pain. "Dammit! Did I bust my hand?" With great fury, he tossed the pack with all his might towards the wall, but it didn't reach the wall, it just fell, impotently, to the wall-to-wall, ramping his frustration and attendant anger up acutely. He gave the chamber another spin. Whrrr. Suddenly, a sickening undertow of depression engulfed him, as if he were bobbing in the ocean and some giant's hand grabbed him by the ankles and pulled him down, down, down. Then he thought of the joke, "How many letters are in the alphabet? Nope! Only 24! L&M got kicked out for smoking!" He gave the chamber one final spin. Whrrr.