There is something I should say. The house on television is dirty white.
Dark wood shutters frame the windows. Steps lead from a side door
to a driveway. A middle-aged man in a checked sportcoat and a young
woman in a brown leather jacket that flares at her hips are descending
those steps. Hurriedly. They are running from something, or they
are running to something. They reach the driveway, look toward the street,
run in that direction. The pavement is an undistinguished gray, a
gray like any other neglected neighborhood street. Its cracks have
been patched with long black strips of asphalt that extend into the distance.
An old sportscar is zooming down the street, away from the house.
The man and woman reach the street, take a moment to peer with grim determination
at the fleeing vehicle, and return to the house. Presumably to use
the telephone, presumably to call the police, to call for help.
I should say this.
I had been working, with papers, as I often do evenings at home.
I looked up, and on the soundless television were that house, those people,
that speeding car. Something, I thought, something is afoot at that house.
Driving toward the grocery store, my windows closed despite the heat,
I saw two people with cameras, one a woman in a sundress and the other
a man in a polo shirt and khakis. The woman was standing on the sidewalk,
and the man standing in the street, so traffic had to veer around him.
As I myself veered I saw two policemen, both in bulletproof vests, one
standing near the man with the camera, next to a parked car, a 20-year-old
Buick, leaning a hand on its roof, and the other, on one knee, looking
under the car.
I could lie and say my mind
was full of possibilities: bad accident, car bomb,end of a high-speed chase,
drugs and spies and skullduggery. But I only registered the images
and was in fact more moved by finding a parking space close to the front
door in the normally crowded grocery-store parking lot.
Inside I bought exactly
what I'd intended, what I needed to pass this evening--bread, pork chops,
carrots, dishsoap--which was silly because I knew I would have to return
the next day.
Back in my car, pulling
out of the lot, I saw the same two photographers and two policemen and
parked car. The photographers were aiming their lenses at the car,
and I wondered whether they worked for the police department, they
appeared so serious about their task. Then I saw the hole.
The pavement had opened, four, maybe six feet in diameter,who knows how
deep--I could not see the bottom. The left rear tire of the car was
square in the center of this hole, the rest of the car tilted as a result,
and the right rear tire was splayed, like my ex-wife's splayed feet.
I made some attempt to be
delighted by this hole and I marked it as a firm item I could tell my new
wife that evening at dinner, but at home I forgot, although I did feel
vaguely perplexed between dinner and bedtime.
The former wife of a former star football running back has been murdered,
along with a friend. The two were stabbed repeatedly, their throats
"cut to their spines," according to news reports.
Suspicions mounted, until
a few days after the murder, the former star football running back, a coolly
handsome man in his early forties, was charged with the murders. At the
time appointed for the player to surrender to police, his attorney and
friends discovered he had disappeared, slipped out of his house with his
best friend, also a former football player, although not a star.
Driving home one evening,
I was suddenly aware of an oppressive silence and turned on the radio.
I pushed the buttons for each of the stations my wife had programmed into
our radio. The first four had advertisements or unappealing music,
but the fifth had a voice speaking.
The accused former football
player had been located. He was being driven by his former football
player friend in a white Ford Bronco down a Los Angeles freeway.
The accused football player had a gun to his head. The white Ford
Bronco was not alone, but was leading a
procession of police cars. Apparently, this was not a chase. The police
cars did not attempt to stop the white Ford Bronco. They simply followed.
The Bronco was now turning into the driveway of the former football star's
opulent home. The former football star wanted to speak to his mother.
I listened to this information
as I drove. The voice reporting this information belonged to a popular
radio personality in this city--a former child television star who, shortly
before getting this radio job, had been arrested for beating up a transvestite
Back home, I parked and
hurried inside to watch the completion of the stand-off on television.
Sometime before the former
football star surrendered to the police I recalled that his car, which
had been confiscated by investigators and apparently had bloodstains inside
and out, was also a white Ford Bronco. Just like his friend's car, the
car that led the procession.
Why, I asked my wife, would
his friend have a car just like his? Our friends don't have the same
car we do. Was it an automobile fashion trend I wasn't aware of?
Was it a symbol of hero worship on the part of the less-successful friend?
My wife agreed this was
an odd feature of the case. Then, disturbed by the violence, we turned
off the television and went to bed.
For the next four nights
I dreamed that I had killed four different faceless women.
The mother is crying, the kind of unhinged weeping that is one step
beyond screaming. She is holding the baby, who has stopped breathing,
and she is crying and crying. They are in the front seat of a car.
The father is driving. In the back seat are two boys--four and six
years old. The four-year-old is not sure where they are going.
The world outside the car window is indistinct to him. It seems a
wash of gray, as if the car is driving inside a concrete dome.
Earlier, he heard his mother
crying for several minutes before his father told him to get into the car.
The four-year-old said, "Why?" Not
challenging, just wanting to know. In an even tone his father
told him again to get into the car.
From this tone the four-year-old
suddenly understood the idea of emergency. Emergency meant focus
on the simple. Emergency meant be reasonable and polite.
Emergency meant do not compound your problems.
Now, the car is approaching
a rounded driveway. The father slows in preparation for the turn.
The mother, however, does not wait for the car to stop. Her door
swings open, and she jumps out, now uttering a kind of hiccuping shriek.
She runs awkwardly, the baby in her arms preventing full stride.
To the boy, his mother's shrieks grow softer as she runs down the sidewalk
that borders the driveway, toward the set of gray steel doors in the distance.
It used to be that I'd drop
this scene into just about any story I was writing. Then teachers,
and later friends and later still editors, would suggest politely that
it did not quite fit, and I would take it out. I'm sure they all
thought it was an important memory from my childhood. Perhaps they believed
it was a "powerful" memory for me, one I felt compelled to record, to "work
But they were wrong.
The scene was a memory, but I had no emotional investment in it.
It just seemed an obvious scene to put in a story. It was my portable
scene. Now it has followed me around for thirty years and is as dry
as a piece of old plywood, and I just don't care anymore, and this is the
last time it gets dropped in anywhere.
One recent development, a pleasant development, is that I've made a
new friend. He is the husband of a coworker. She and I share
a cubicle wall,and I would sometimes hear her on the telephone with him,
and once he met her at work, and the three of us struck up a conversation
about train travel and ended up going to dinner, and then a few days later
he called me at work--it was odd that now he was talking to the person
on the other side of that cubicle wall-- and we had lunch the next day,
and have seen each other five or six times since then.
You can, perhaps, see that
I am excited by this new friendship. There is just one problem.
I am not sure that I know his name.
When Marsha, my coworker,
had previously mentioned her husband, I had for some reason never taken
careful note of his name, and when he and I were first introduced, I did
not get hold of the name. That is often the case; I am usually so
nervous about an introduction that I cannot focus on the name. Also,
I did not know we would strike up this friendship, so I did not know his
name would have a place in my future.
When I speak to him, or
speak about him to his wife, I try to avoid using his name, but at times
I must. And the name I use may be correct. However, when Marsha talks
about her husband, and she mentions his name, and it is the name that I
use, I sense an ironic twist to her tone, a subtle rolling of the eyes.
He, too, seems to stumble a bit when he calls me on the telephone and says,
"Hi, it's ______."
When I need to visit Marsha
in her cubicle on business, I let my eyes stray, looking for his name in
there, somewhere, perhaps under a picture,on a health insurance policy,
on a note. So far, no luck.
I have, in the past, called
people by the wrong names. I called my fifth-grade teacher Mrs. Sherwood
instead of Mrs. Shernoff for half a year. And once, when I was teaching
a class in actuary science at a local community college, I called a
student by the wrong name for an entire semester. She bore it
bravely until the last day. I called her "Pat" one last time and
she looked me in the eye and said, "My name...is Nancy."
It is too late to ask my
friend and my coworker for confirmation on this name. I will just
have to go on with the name I am using. And I will have to live with
the notion that they may be laughing at me, or embarrassed for me, or annoyed
But sometimes, late at night,
I try out a different notion. Perhaps the husband is quite willing
to be called by this other name. Perhaps his wife is amenable to
the change as well. Perhaps he will even change his name legally
to the one I am calling him. And perhaps the reason for their willingness
to use, to embrace, this new name is their love for me.
Potentially, might be ...