A Pause in the Motion of Wheels
Last week, his wife’s cousin Buster painted a stripe along the bottom of the Jeep, a wicked neon black – at least that’s what Buster called the color, “neon” – and gave Vawn a really nice discount. Buster does what he wants as far as setting prices; he’s smart enough to own his own business, an auto detailing place over on Fair Oaks Avenue in the heart of the black business community. So Vawn should be happy even though the driveway has been turned into a surreal collage of his kids' scattered toys. He’s told Alex and Tomeka a hundred times to put their stuff away or he’ll run over it on purpose one day to teach them a lesson.
Already today, Vawn’s been sitting in the Jeep for over three hours.
Good thing the house is empty, Patricia and the kids gone out, otherwise she’d be asking him a thousand questions he hasn’t been able to answer: Why are you just sitting in the car? Why don’t you come in the house? How long are you going to sit there? Why are you scaring Tomeka and Alex like this? What’s wrong? What’s wrong? And so on, until he can’t take it anymore and reluctantly leaves the interior of the Jeep, which encloses him like a tomb of silence filled with his dead thoughts when the windows are rolled up: muffled peace, quasi-death if he closes his eyes and lets go. But as soon as he leaves the Jeep it starts to happen: palms haunted by ghosts of moisture, clammy veil before his eyes, heart crumbling apart in his chest.
So what’s wrong? He bought the Jeep in January, 2001, and here it is only May and he feels nothing. He’d expected that after driving it off the lot, he would feel like celebrating and drinking champagne for months, but instead it’s just tumbleweeds rolling through the flat, lifeless prairie his emotions have suddenly become. Well, actually, he was in a celebratory mood until the mangled body two days ago. He’d been in an excellent mood despite the fact that he and Patricia had fought constantly about buying the damned Jeep. Her point was that they couldn’t afford it, but that was always her point about everything. On the salary he made as assistant manager at Radio Shack, it took over a year just to save a down payment. The salary’s his fault, no one told him not to go to college. In fact, Moms and Pops tried to tell him that it wasn’t a good idea to enter the job market straight from high school. He’d thought for a couple of years he would work full time and then go back to college, but that never happened.
They’re right: he starts working, gets married, has kids. Gets a Visa and charges everything, bills avalanche. Before he knows it, debt’s his middle name, college out the window. He’ll never go now, doesn’t have the stamina. And don’t forget the three thousand dollars he paid his brother’s lawyer, that's on the Visa too, and for what, his brother Rick still went to prison.
Rick’s twenty-five, has never held a real job in his life and still scamming like he’s sixteen with that thug friend of his, what’s his name, Dumbo or Drumbo or Gumbo – every time Rick mentions the guy to Vawn, Vawn thinks of shrimp or crab; since he thinks of seafood, the name must be Gumbo. These two pathetic excuses for black men get a stack of those religious newspapers, Watchtower it’s called or it’s maybe Lighthouse, then go around knocking on doors early in the morning, claiming they’re Jehovah’s Witnesses. The people they target are elderly, trusting or senile, naive or just lonely. Vawn knows what happens after they knock, because a few years ago when he was sixteen, he was right there with Rick, only it was just for kicks – sure, wrong, but basically small-time, almost harmless mischief, compared to what his brother and Gumbo did.
So Vawn knows what happens: Rick knocks on the door, he’s articulate, knows how to use charm, same charm he’s always used on women with great success, how to smile, how to listen as though he’s really interested, talking away to the victim with the other guy, Gumbo, standing behind him. Rick says “This is my fellow Jehovah’s Witness, Ray” – using the name Ray no doubt instead of Gumbo – “Do you think we could come inside for a moment and talk to you about a matter of grave importance concerning our youth of today and unemployment, which as you can see is the cover story on the Watchtower”–or is it Lighthouse?–“this month?”
So, elderly woman invites them in, leans her massive weight on a cane as she walks, loose liquid bounce of weight as she moves. She’s buoyant at the prospect of company, never has any, just the two or three cats stretched out as though warmly melting on furniture, taffy-relaxed, one of the cats closing and opening an eye so slowly that it can’t even be called a blink. Poor woman offers them some lemonade. “We don’t want to be a bother,” is the answer, but she goes and gets it anyway. While Rick’s all the time talking the other asks to use the bathroom, so she tells him it’s down the hall, says something like, “Excuse all my mess on the floor in there, I mean them towels and things, it’s kind of hard for a old lady like me to bend down most of the time.” Pathetic, almost don’t want to do it. But of course do it, so in the bathroom for a second, sort of slam the door to give the impression it’s occupied, then sneak back out, furtive ooze down the hallway to the bedroom, think shadow and slide along the wall, bam, there’s the purse on the bedside table, plenty of plastic and three-hundred dollars.
But something goes wrong, before Gumbo finishes, the old lady’s coming down the hallway to get her purse so that she can pay for the paper, sees Vawn, no, it’s Gumbo this time, “Ray,” sees him with the purse in his hand. There’s a “struggle” and the old lady falls and hits her head on some sharp edge. This stuff really happens then, guess it’s not just on TV. Ear to her chest and no heartbeat. She’s dead. Jesus. Get out of the place fast but something else happens, cops stop them because there’s no current tags on their plates, the purse is on the back seat, one thing leads to another and they’re busted. Murder charge. Damn.
Guess Rick deserves it for killing that poor old lady, somebody’s mother, sister, aunt, cousin, but here’s the thing Vawn can’t understand--this desire to try to get his brother off as though there aren’t any consequences in life, or as though consequences don’t matter, when they certainly do. There’s always payback for everything you do, whether you believe it or not, and that’s the way it should be. Why should Rick escape payback? It’s a revelation to Vawn to realize that’s what love is, forgiveness when none is deserved or even humanly possible, that’s the meaning of family. And thinking of this, how it’s wrong to want someone who’s done something terrible to escape the consequences, and also thinking of a photo of Rick taken when he was just in kindergarten, Vawn started weeping, right in the middle of an HBO movie he had been watching with Patricia.
“What is it?” she’d asked in an alarmed voice. “Why are you crying?
“Because Moms is dying and that bastard Rick’s in prison, and she worries about him all the time, and that’s got to be speeding up her death. And...”
“And what?” she said, still alarmed, panic punching through her voice.
But he’d been unable to explain about the dead guy on the freeway.
See, he was coming home from work and traffic’s really horrible, even the radio doesn’t help, he’s shifting back and forth in his seat because he can’t get comfortable, no, he’s comfortable, just impatient, suddenly sees an image of a coworker named Maria in his mind, short skirt, long legs, Cuban, complexion like the deepest, darkest quarter of a starless sky on an August night, that and other things flashing through his mind, when he looks over to the side and sees cop cars, an ambulance, hiccup of emphatic red lights, sky-blue Toyota looking like an aneurysm must look, stuff exploded everywhere, hysterical metal.
Slows down even more, sees a guy on the ground in a position resembling a question mark, the way his legs are gathered together and bent at the knees. He’s dead, certainly deader than anybody Vawn’s ever seen, and there’s plenty of blood to go with it. Vawn thinks: here’s a guy gets up in the morning, showers unless he did it the night before, has his bm, shaves, eats breakfast or if maybe he doesn’t have the stomach for breakfast, skips it, says good-bye to whoever’s in his house, wife, maybe kids, thinks of the Visa bill he has to pay down because he bought that ring for Maria, has to remember to hide the bill when it comes, beautiful girl that he wishes he was married to but doesn’t have the guts or whatever to tell his wife he wants a divorce. She, Maria, likes sex instead of trying to avoid it, but then again he only likes sex sometimes and maybe she, Maria, likes it more than he.
Anyway, Vawn’s cruising along, hates his job so he’s thinking of how he’s going to avoid working when he gets there. Now that’s a hell of a thing, to spend eight hours faking work. Problems with the boss too, hate to say the boss is racist, Kerry Hall’s his name, doesn’t like black people and has been heard to also make sly, derogatory remarks about Jews . . . . Vawn doesn’t want to make excuses and knows most white people believe that’s exactly what it is, excuses, blacks blaming the system for their own failure – in fact, he suspects that most white people don’t even really think discrimination’s a reality anymore. But, hell, maybe Vawn would feel that way to if he were white?
Anyway, he’s thinking of his life, and bam, somewhere up ahead a car swerves in front of a truck, there’s a detonation, body thrown, no, body not thrown but metal all around the guy caves in and guy probably just rolls out the door, guy’s lungs and liver and bones collapse, probably like a building in an earthquake, too fast to really hurt, death rushes in to fill the vacuum that his mind becomes, he’s dead. Spirit or soul leaves the body, spirit or soul is confused, whether to recycle back to earth or stay where it is.
And it turns out that Vawn knows the guy. Well, doesn’t know him personally, but knows of him, knows the guy worked across the street from Radio Shack, at McDonald’s. Vawn went through the drive-in a couple of times to get breakfast, maybe the dead guy is the guy that took his order over the intercom, gave him his egg McMuffin.
This freeway death was three days ago.
Of course Vawn knows that he’s not going to live forever, but the death of the guy he vaguely knows shocks him, takes something out of him. So he thinks: if that’s how it goes, what is the one thing I’m supposed to do? If that’s how it goes, what’s the one thing . . . ?
In fact, two days ago, that’s exactly what he asked Patricia when she demanded to know why the hell he was sitting in the car instead of coming into the house. It was an hour after the accident.
“Let me get this straight. You’re asking me what is the one thing above all things you’re supposed to do? Is that what are you asking me?”
“Take it seriously, Patty.”
“I am. You’re saying what, how do you know what’s important and what isn’t? Like a ‘you have one day left to live, how do you spend it’ scenario?”
Vawn shrugged weakly.
“Shit, I ask myself that question or a question similar to that every day of my natural life. Do I put the sugar solution in the hummingbird feeder now ‘cause it’s empty and the birds are hungry, or should I stop and say a prayer for Rick, or both at the same time, or neither . . . .”
“And?” he asked.
“It’s not like there’s an answer to questions like that.”
“For you, I mean. For you, what’s important?”
“For me? Don’t laugh. To love. Not that that makes anything easier.”
That’s what she’d said that day – to love.
He’s sitting in the Jeep now. Okay, think things over once more.
He loves Maria, his wife, his kids, his brother and mother and so on. Well, not really, he doesn’t actually love Maria. Maybe he does. But today, today he can’t get out of the car, the car is protection, it’s armor, in here he’s safe, nothing about his brother can hurt him here, unless just thinking about someone hurts. And nothing about his mother can hurt him here, he won’t think of how the cancer’s gnawing her down to skeletal structure and it’s like she’s in permanent jet lag, weary and confused all the time. And every time she sees Vawn, she talks about Rick, goes on and on about where she might have gone wrong as a mother, then blames Pops for not being around the house often enough to provide Rick and Vawn with a strong black male role model, authority figure.
Maria, that doesn’t hurt either because he’s going to tell her nothing is possible between them, other than what’s already happened. No future for them exists. And Patricia won’t see his face in here, won’t be able to see his eyes, because if she sees his eyes she’ll know, she’ll start in with questions and eventually he’ll have to tell the truth, no, not that he’ll have to, but will want to, and then it’ll be as if a door is suddenly flung open and everything, everything will finish falling apart. Yes, his eyes, eloquent with guilt and regret, defocused from staring, for long glazed minutes at a time, at the poster of Maria that’s pinned to the crumbling wall of his brain. Guilt for what he does with Maria that evening when he tells Patricia he has to work late, regret because who says the heart can’t hold love enough for two people? Because, after all, what he feels, felt, for Maria has nothing to do with what he feels for Patricia.
Best if he just spends the night in here.
The moment he decides this, Patricia comes home, comes from across the street where she’s been at a neighbor’s house with the kids, and she’s wearing these red shorts with little blue and white flowers on them, and she’s smiling, well no, look closer, half-frown, half-smile actually, more like a smile conjured to hide the concern. She walks right up to the car, tells the kids, go, in the house, and by her tone of voice, the push in it, they know she means it.
“Baby, not again. I’m trying to flow with this thing you’re goin’ through, but . . . you got some sort of plan?”
“I’m just gonna spend the night in here, if you can call that a plan.”
“I call it one if you do. But you need to call your mom. And isn’t this the day you’re supposed to check in with whats-his-name, Rick’s lawyer? And whatever else. Things need to be done, V.”
”Listen, what it is, is.” There’s a pause filled with his weighing of all the possible directions his explanation could take. “There was this guy on the freeway got in an accident. When I saw him, he was laid out dead. Question mark dead.”
As always, when she’s puzzled, when she doesn’t get it, her right eyebrow lifts.
Forget explaining the question mark, just go on. “I sort of knew the guy. He had a wife, a kid, I think – was the kid blind? Blind or deaf, something like that.” A sense of urgency makes him grip the steering wheel tighter. “Everything you do counts. Jesus, Patricia, I never knew that. How do I tell Alex and Tomeka some shit like that? Everything you do counts.”
”I won’t try to argue with that. But, baby,” and she’s speaking softly now, leaning in the window on the driver’s side, “sitting in this damn thing won’t solve anything.” She’s squinting her eyes now, peering at him closely.
He turns his head slowly and looks straight at her, indicates “what?” by shrugging his shoulders slightly.
”Your eyes have a look like you want to tell me something else.” Now she walks around to the passenger side. She puts her hand on the door handle and just leaves it there for a moment, looking at him, as if waiting for his permission to do what has to be done.
He pauses, must pause to breathe, breathe deep to keep a quavering grief out of his voice, breathe deeper, then breathe again simply because there’s always the next breath, and the next, and the next that must be taken. “Get in,” he says.
He feels his eyes closing. He feels the door swing wide open.