Art: American Graffiti
The man who unfurled his legs from an old green pickup with Michigan license plates was tall and he walked with a pronounced limp. He was in his seventies, and his once black hair, now tied into a ponytail, had turned as white as a snowdrift. It looked to Nils Dagerman, seated on a wicker chair in his screened porch, that his friend of some sixty years had let his beard grow out more. The man ducked under a ragged arbor and walked up the crumbling concrete path to the house.
“I’d say it looked like Santa Claus himself was coming to see me if you weren’t so damned skinny, Eddie,” said Nils. His voice abraded the evening air.
Eddie Simczak opened the screen door, which cried on its hinges. “Squeak’s gotten worse,” he said as he sat on a scuffed cedar swing hanging from the porch ceiling. He rocked back and forth. “They got oil for things like that.”
“You had something on, today, didn’t you?” asked Nils, after a few minutes of silence. The two friends often did this—sat for a quarter hour, maybe longer, saying nothing, watching people go by on the sidewalk or drive on Church Street, which was cobblestoned and narrow and lined with ancient Dutch elms that had somehow escaped the disease that led other cities to chop them down. The two men had been friends as long as the trees had been there. They weren’t exactly like an old married couple—completing each other’s sentences or speaking in meaning-laden silences—but almost.
“Yep,” said Eddie.
“And?” said Nils, who pulled a pack of cigarettes from the breast pocket of his faded blue corduroy shirt. He lit up with a chromed lighter bearing the words Zippo, the name in flame in a black ellipse. He extended the pack to Eddie.
“You know I quit years ago,” said Eddie, irritated.
“Just testing you.”
“You test me every time I see you.”
“Got to keep you on your toes.”
“Meantime, you kill yourself with…what? You backed off of two packs a day yet, like you said you would?”
Nils coughed, and Eddie couldn’t tell if it was genuine or if Nils wanted to make him even more irritated than he already was. If the latter, then he was doing a damned good job of it.
“I’ve cut down,” said Nils, drawing deeply on his Marlboro and exhaling a languid rivulet of smoke.
“So what did you have going today?” asked Nils, watching smoke rise. There were ancient water stains in the ceiling, stains Nils had repainted many times, only to have them return after a year or two. He’d given up on them now, and the ceiling was a paisley of brown and rust-colored teardrops.
“A funeral. Norbert Husting, you remember him.”
Nils shook his head No. It annoyed him Eddie always assumed that he, Nils, knew all his coworkers. They’d worked in different jobs their entire adult lives, Eddie on the line at Allied Can, Nils as a tool and die man at Warnke Metals. Yet Eddie spoke about his acquaintances as if Nils had worked on the same line and done the same job day after day, month after month, year after endless year.
“Oh,” said Eddie looking surprised. “He worked with me for, I don’t know, must have been thirty years. He was out fishing on Round Lake with his grandson and just kinda’ fell asleep in the boat, according to how they tell it. His grandson tried to wake him, said ‘hey, grandpa, get up.’ But he didn’t wake up.”
“A nice way to go,” said Nils thoughtfully. “With his grandson and all. Peaceful.”
“Upsetting for the boy, though, I hear.”
“Sure, I can see that.”
“Nice funeral it was. All his kids—he had three boys, three girls—and they’ve all got families, so there were lots of grandkids, from the oldest, the twelve-year-old in the boat, down to several toddlers. I looked around and thought how it was like Norby had sent all these messengers out into the world, and now they’ve created their own messengers, who go out into the world. An endless chain of messengers and messages.”
Nils stubbed out his Marlboro. “You’re poetic tonight, Eddie. How ‘bout a beer? A drink or two gets words flowing right. I bought a six-pack today. We could polish it off in no time.”
“No thanks, I was just going to stay for a few minutes anyway.”
“You got plans for the evening, Eddie? Hot date?”
“You know better than that,” snapped Eddie.
“Whoa, pal,” said Nils, raising his hands. “You got a short fuse tonight.”
Eddie bit his lower lip and took a long breath. “Seeing the man’s family and all got me to thinking about Charlene and Dahlia. And even Genevieve, though kids with her would’ve been like rolling Satan’s dice. But with the other two, well, maybe.”
“Everyone gets divorced these days. It’s the new national pastime. Replaced baseball, I hear.”
“But three times, Nils? Three strikeouts?”
Nils shrugged. “At least you played the game, buddy. Hell, I sat on the bench my whole life, and I guess I wanted it that way anyway. If you don’t play, you don’t risk losing.”
They sat in silence for a few more minutes, Nils looking out at Church Street from his wicker chair, Eddie rocking back and forth, back and forth, in the swing. “I had something I wanted to show you,” said Eddie after a while. “Just wanted to come around and show you something.”
“Sure, Eddie, show away.” Nils coughed again, but this time his coughs rose into a crescendo of jagged, phlegmy explosions that made his whole body writhe. After the onslaught, he took several wrenching gasps of air, pulled a stained blue handkerchief from the pocket of his khakis, and blew his nose in a series of sharp bursts that made his fine gray hair bounce on his long head. He then pulled the Marlboros from his pocket, used his trembling left hand to shake a cigarette free of the pack, and lit up again. “Gotta cut down sooner or later,” he said. “When the health club membership kicks in.”
Eddie looked at his friend and shook his head in disgust. “I’ve been thinking about what roads you and I might have taken.”
“Sounds like you been doin’ a lot of thinking.”
“And how neither one of us is going to send any messengers into the world.”
Nils dragged on his cigarette. The silence was glutinous. He looked at Eddie, who appeared to be daydreaming. Or he was lost in the way an old man gets lost in a forest of events and people lining the twisted path of his memory. “That kind of thinking will get you nowhere, Eddie. You’re feeling gnarly because you went to the funeral of a buddy. Someone your age. Our age. It’s bound to get a man thinking. And get ready for more of it. We’re all going to be kicking the bucket before too long. The funerals will be coming hot and heavy. You and I are racing to the finish, and my guess is I’ll beat you there. Hell, I’ll be the winner in the race of life. Or death, I guess. Don’t know if I’ll be happy about that, but at least I’ll be a winner. At something.”
Eddie pulled a long strip of thick paper from the pocket of his denim jacket and laid it next to him on the swing. It was over seven inches in length and a little more than two inches wide. Through a smoky haze, Nils squinted as he looked at the strip of paper. It was a bookmark bearing a stylized black-white-red sketch of a salmon in the manner of Pacific Northwest Native American art.
“Now why’d you bring that thing around, Eddie?” asked Nils, his voice rasping like a coarsely grained file on metal.
Auburn-haired Sophie Chambliss’s toes skipped along the floor as she supported herself on the shoulders of two boys, who walked along the hallway on their last day of high school. “First, to the left, guys, we need to stop by my locker.”
“No stopping,” said Nils, the short, wiry one with coppery blond hair. “We’re out the door.”
“Off we go,” shouted Eddie, taller by three inches than Nils and with thick hair so black that in a certain light it had a blue iridescence, like a grackle’s head.
“I have to pick up my geography text from my locker and drop it off in Mr. Calvin’s office. I forgot to bring it to class yesterday,” said Sophie.
“Calvin can wait! Geography can wait. The earth can wait!” shouted Nils, as they headed to the double glass doors of Laurentide High School. Over the doors hung a green and gold banner: Congratulations Class of ‘58!
In a moment they were in the sunshine and on their way to the parking lot. “Now we head for Loudon Quarry,” said Nils.
“Oh no!” groaned Sophie.
“You promised,” said Eddie.
“Let’s talk about this a little,” said Sophie laughing. They piled into Eddie’s black DeSoto with baby moon hubcaps, the only shiny things anywhere on the old car. Sophie sat on the passenger side, Nils in back.
“I’ll do the dipping part, but not the skinny part,” said Sophie.
“That wasn’t the bargain,” said Nils, who leaned forward and rested his elbows on the bench seat in front. “A year ago to the day we dared you, and you said, no, not now, but when we graduate. When we graduate, you said, we go skinny-dipping at Loudon Quarry. We even shook on it!”
“I wrote the words in my diary, just to have a record,” said Eddie.
Sophie snorted. “A diary? Eddie Simczak keeps a diary? Since when?”
“Since you told me it was a good thing to do,” said Eddie, his limpid hazel eyes dancing.
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” said Sophie.
In a half hour the DeSoto was parked some two hundred yards from an abandoned quarry hidden from the road by thick stands of oak, maple, birch, and black walnut. County officials had blocked off the large quarry for safety reasons, but the three friends always ignored the signs, considering it a kind of private beach for their use. The path to the quarry was lined with ferns, jack-in-the-pulpits, and red sumac. As they walked the path, they heard a silvery chorus of birch leaves rustled by June breezes.
On the ledge near the shallowest part of the quarry the three friends deposited their clothing. Nils and Eddie left trousers, shirts, underwear, shoes, and socks in a jumble while Sophie folded her things in a separate pile some thirty feet away and behind a giant yew. Before Nils and Eddie were fully undressed, Sophie had made a dash for the water, leaving a blur of flesh in her wake.
The friends laughed and shouted and swam until their arms ached. Sophie had been a star athlete on Laurentide High School’s state championship swim team, and she could literally swim circles around Nils and Eddie. Her arms and shoulders were muscular and her upper thighs reflected hours of training. Whenever she thought the boys had edged too close to her, she swam away with powerful strokes that took her into the deeper part of the quarry. Only once did Eddie pass within a few inches of her as he swam under water, and he accidentally brushed her breast with his arm. He would remember that touch for a very long time.
After nearly an hour in the water, Sophie said, “now you two have to turn your backs while I get dressed.”
“But we have to lie in the sun and dry off,” said Nils innocently.
Sophie laughed. “No way, José. I’ll drip dry in my clothes, thank you very much.”
Groaning, Nils and Eddie turned away as Sophie pulled herself out of the water and wriggled into her clothes. “Now you two can come out,” she said as she turned away from them.
“Come on, we’ve already seen each other,” said Eddie in a pleading tone.
“That was different,” said Sophie. “That was in the water.”
“OK, Prudence,” sighed Nils. “Have it your way.”
Relaxed and sunburned, the three were quiet in the car on the way back to town. The only notable occurrence was that Sophie smoked one of Nils’s cigarettes, the first time either boy had seen her smoke. “Consider it the start of my end-of-school celebration,” she said in response to their surprised smiles. “And the official end to my swimming career. I’ve had enough of all that.”
Sophie was the first to be dropped off at home. “So don’t be late for my party,” she said.
“Eight on Saturday,” said Nils. “Right after the ceremony.”
Eddie frowned. “But are you sure your parents want to see us there?”
Sophie shrugged. “I’ve told you what the deal is. I get to have the friends I want. In return I do what they’ve asked me to—grades, sports, then college. It’s an unspoken pact I’ve had with them. At least that’s how I see it.”
“We’re not exactly corporate material like your old man. And you pick up bad habits from us,” said Nils. “We’re corrupting the daughter of Benton Corporation’s future CEO.”
“My dad’s not that bad. He’s actually quite open-minded—about some things. His problem is he’s filthy rich, but in the long run he has the same worries as everyone else.”
Nils laughed. “Yeah, we both have money problems. He worries about what to do with all his money, and folks like us worry what to do without it.”
“Be there, you two,” she said, blowing each of them a kiss. “Don’t sweat the rest.”
“What in God’s name possessed you to bring that damned thing here? What good does it do?” asked Nils, his hoarse voice now calmer, as he stared at the bookmark.
“You remember it then,” said Eddie. He had stopped rocking in the swing and the silence felt oppressive, like the all-day pounding of a stamping machine at Allied Can. He resumed his gentle swinging and felt better hearing the chain’s mournful squeak-squeak-squeak. He couldn’t remember a time when the swing hadn’t squeaked. The house had belonged to Nils’s parents, and when they passed away within several months of each other fifteen years ago, they’d willed it to Nils, who moved from a bachelor’s apartment he’d rented for decades into the house where he was born.
“Of course I remember the bookmark. How couldn’t I? But again, why bring it around? Some things are best left buried. Jesus, Eddie.”
“But this was never really buried, for me at least. I mean, I’d forgotten where it was, but then after the funeral today, something made me go up to the attic and start poking around. I found all the high school yearbooks, and inside one of them—it wasn’t even the one from senior year—there was this. I looked at it as if it were something that had been sitting out on my kitchen counter all these years. It wasn’t like it was strange or shocking at all. There it was, as familiar as anything, like water from the tap. Turn it on, there it is.”
“It hardly looks like it’s been used,” said Nils, still staring blankly at the strip of paper, the edges still crisp.
The two elderly men watched a car go by slowly on Church Street. Nils commented. “That’s one of those hybrids, isn’t it? A far cry from that old DeSoto of yours. The one with the baby moons.”
Eddie shrugged. “You still have yours?”
“What?” asked Nils, his eyes still following the car.
At eight sharp Nils and Eddie pulled up to the Chambliss home, a stately affair, red brick, surrounded by neat gardens and mature trees. There was a circular drive in front of the house, and at the front door, two crouching concrete lions guarded the entry. To the left there was a small bubbling fountain with a cast stone Cupid peeing into the basin. The driveway was packed with cars, so Nils parked his DeSoto on the street several houses down. They’d already had a couple of beers apiece and planned to have much more, but they didn’t want to overdo it before the party. They were determined to put up a presentable front for Sophie’s parents. Even though they’d been best friends with Sophie since their sophomore year, they’d never met Mr. and Mrs. Chambliss. Sophie had always been out the door before they came around to pick her up in the DeSoto.
“Will you look at the steel in the driveway,” said Nils as they approached the house. “A Caddy, a Lincoln. Even a Mercedes.”
“The Mercedes, that’s the old man’s,” said Eddie. “A bigwig at Benton Corporation has to drive a Mercedes, nothing less. Ray Collini said he saw him driving around in it the other day.”
“My dad tried to get a job at Benton once,” said Nils. “They rejected him because he hadn’t finished high school.” He dragged on his cigarette and flicked the butt into the grass.
“Now don’t be doing that,” said Eddie. “Look at these grounds. You think you can just throw your butts anywhere, like on the highway?”
Nils hurriedly retrieved the cigarette and walked over to the fountain, where he demonstratively held the still lit butt in the Cupid’s stream of water. He removed the soaked butt and stuffed it in his trouser pocket. “Satisfied?” he said, frowning.
Eddie shook his head in mock exasperation. “Show some class.”
“I am,” said Nils with a smirk. “Working class.”
They walked around to the back of the house, where a large blue and white striped tent had been erected in the middle of a big backyard with a cushiony lawn. Nils scanned the lawn. “Not a dandelion in the place,” he muttered. “What?” asked Eddie distantly, as he looked beyond the tent, where Lake Michigan shimmered in twilight. Before they could survey the crowd, which was already large, Sophie intercepted them, linking her arms in theirs.
“Well, boys, has the gravity of graduation sunk in yet? More to the point, how does it feel to be adults?”
“About the same as when we were seniors,” laughed Nils. “I felt like I was going to pass out in that cap and gown. Too damned hot. And I really needed a smoke.”
Sophie was wearing a polka dot sundress, white on green, and it set off her auburn hair to good effect. Eddie thought she was about the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen. Although they were friends, his feelings toward her had changed in past weeks. He’d begun to think more about what she said, whether it meant she was showing more favor toward him than Nils. He was watching her out of the corner of his eye more often, the way she moved, how she brushed hair from her forehead, the curve of her ample hips when she wore jeans. Her voice stayed with him longer than it had in the past. Sometimes he imagined he could hear her wherever he was, as if her laugh and ironic way of saying “You’ve got to be kidding” echoed in his ear. Since swimming at the quarry, every waking moment danced with images of her face and body.
He was worried about what Nils would think. Without saying a word, they had agreed Sophie was a friend, nothing more. She’d dated several guys, and neither Nils nor Eddie commented to each other or to Sophie. Friends thought about friends as friends, not girlfriends, not lovers. Never once did they discuss Sophie’s looks or mannerisms beyond what friends would discuss about such things. In thought, words, and actions, Sophie was off limits, except in the realm of friendship, where the bond between them was unbreakable. Would Eddie’s thoughts corrode that bond if they turned into action? What if Nils had the same thoughts?
“My, but you both look handsome,” said Sophie, her green eyes sparkling.
Nils smiled but Eddie did not. He wondered what Sophie had meant. Whether she was saying it just to be friendly, or if she really meant it; whether she really did think he was handsome. And if they were both handsome in her eyes, then did she have equal feelings of affection toward both? Damn it, he thought. It’s as Nils once said: “When you start thinking about girls in a certain way, the world goes to hell in a hand-basket.”
“Do you want some punch?” asked Sophie, leading them over to a spot where plastic cups lined a long table under the tent. They took drinks and walked toward the edge of a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan. “Let me show you the view,” said Sophie.
To the north they could see Laurentide’s small marina, where cabin cruisers and sailboats were docked. Beyond the marina, the old lighthouse, with its foghorn and long pier jutting into deep water like a concrete spike. In the opposite direction, a white, sandy beach spread out along the shoreline until thick green forest took over. Somewhere in that forest was Loudon Quarry. “If you look west and a little south, on clear nights, you can see Chicago from here. About sixty miles that way,” she said pointing. Nils and Eddie nodded. They’d seen the dim lights of Chicago on clear nights many times from the pier, but usually their vision was filtered through a haze of beer or cheap red wine. The pier was a popular place to drink for local teenagers in the summer and sometimes into October and November as well, but then there was a danger of being swept away by angry, frigid waves.
“I don’t want to stay long,” said Sophie after they gazed at the scene for a while.
“But it’s your party,” said Nils.
“I’ve already discussed it with my parents. They’re not happy about it, but they understand. I’m to make the rounds, taking special care to chat with relatives and close family friends, but then they said I could go. It is graduation night, after all. And of course they want to meet you two.”
Eddie gave Sophie a weak smile.
“Just be yourself,” she said, reading his thoughts.
After taking in the view a while longer, she led Nils and Eddie toward the front of the tent, and in a few moments Sophie’s parents were shaking hands with them. Eddie cursed himself under his breath; his palms were sweating bucketsful of nervousness.
Sophie’s father, Andrew Chambliss, was tall, tanned, and athletic looking. Eddie had anticipated an older man, but Chambliss looked to be in his late thirties. He was casually dressed in gray slacks and a short-sleeved shirt. “I’ve heard such wonderful things from Sophie about both of you,” he said amiably. They chatted, and then Chambliss asked, “and what do you two plan on doing now that you’ve graduated?”
Eddie looked at Nils, who returned his concerned gaze. Someone had to say something. But who had plans? They’d both put off having plans as long as they could. “Oh, I’ll work for a while longer at Schnecks’ grocery,” said Nils, taking the plunge. “I’ve bagged there since I’ve been fifteen. Then I’ll see what comes up.”
“I see,” said Chambliss, appearing genuinely interested. “Any long-term prospects? Colleges you’re looking at?”
Nils was caught off guard. He’d never thought of college as a serious possibility. His grades had been adequate, and a high school counselor once advised him to apply to the state college, but he’d never regarded it as part of his future. His father was a subassembly worker in a local machine shop and his mother a checker at the grocery store where Nils worked. The idea of going to college was as foreign to his family as orbiting the earth in Sputnik. He shrugged and decided to say what was on his mind.
“I like to read,” he said. “A lot. Without ideas and thinking, without reading about the world, a person doesn’t exist.”
He noticed Sophie out of the corner of his eye, who smiled proudly.
“And what do you read?” asked Chambliss, eyeing Nils intently.
“Oh, fiction. I like all kinds of fiction, Hemingway, Steinbeck and Boris Pasternak, too. And action-adventure. Mysteries. Spy stories, I love spy stories.”
Chambliss beamed. “You’re a man after my own taste, Nils. For Whom the Bell Tolls is one of my favorites. I’ve probably read it three times.”
Nils blushed and looked down at his black dress shoes. They were his father’s, and he’d borrowed them for graduation. They were a size too small, and Nils’s feet had already sprouted blisters. The burning now seemed to consume not only his feet but his legs and torso as well.
Chambliss turned to Eddie, who was fidgeting with a button on his shirt cuff. It was loose, and he’d forgot to tighten it up before coming to the party. “Eddie, what are your plans?”
Eddie gulped and said, “oh, probably work on the line someplace.” Chambliss nodded expectantly. “Like my dad,” added Eddie.
“Andrew, weren’t there a couple openings in the warehouse? I overhead Robert Bellington talking about it a few minutes ago.” It was Sophie’s mother, Anita, who had been listening to the conversation. She was tall and stately looking, as stately as her house and gardens, and it was obvious that Sophie’s auburn hair and high cheekbones had come from her.
“Why, I think that’s true,” said Chambliss, smiling. He looked at Nils and Eddie. “Do you two have any interest in applying? It might be a good place to start. And once you have your foot in the door at Benton Corporation, we always look at our employees first when better positions open up. A number of our warehouse men have graduated to manufacturing jobs.”
Eddie and Nils shrugged. Why not? Chambliss gave both of them a phone number to call about the warehouse jobs. Then there was more small talk and handshakes all around before parting.
Eddie let out a sigh of relief as the three friends walked toward the front of the house.
“Now, it wasn’t so bad, was it?” said Sophie. “They didn’t bite your heads off, and you might even be getting a job out of meeting them.”
“They’re nice,” said Nils. “Not snobbish like their daughter.” Sophie responded with a slap on his arm.
“I have something I want to give both of you,” said Sophie brightly. “Stay right here. I have to go up to my room to fetch it.” She hurried off, and Eddie noticed how her sundress swam around her strong legs as she bounced up the back stairway of the house.
Sophie returned with two small strips of paper. “It’s nothing much,” she said, “so don’t get too excited. I wanted you to have something to remember graduation. They’re bookmarks I got in Seattle over spring break when we visited my grandparents. Hand-made by a Native American woman who does nothing but make beautiful bookmarks in traditional designs. No two are the same—she draws each one herself—so even when it’s a similar design, like this salmon, there’s variation. The salmon’s back is arched to form a circle, which was a symbol of renewal and reliability. So it’s a sign of my hope our friendship will always be renewed, and we three can count on each other.”
She handed one to Nils, who beamed. “This is for you, Nils, because you like to read so much. My hope is it will find its way into many books.”
She turned to Eddie. “And this is for you, so you’ll be encouraged to realize your true potential. You really do need to expand your mind, Eddie Simczak,” she said, wagging a finger and giving her best impression of a scolding schoolmarm. Eddie held the bookmark as if it were a World Series ticket.
She gave both of them a peck on the cheek, and in a few minutes the three friends left the party. Nils lit a cigarette before they reached the end of the driveway.
They made the rounds to several parties, and by midnight they were on their way in the DeSoto to a beach north of town where they’d been invited to a small get-together. Nils and Eddie had drank much more than Sophie, Eddie particularly, and he was slurring words by the time they’d parked in a lot above the dunes and started slogging through the sand. Here they’d anticipated a small bonfire and plenty of booze, and they weren’t disappointed on either count. There was beer, wine, and several bottles of cheap rum that someone’s older brother had bought. Someone had a guitar and they danced and sang around the fire.
By two, most of the partygoers had gone, but there were some diehards, mostly couples, who sat around the waning fire and necked. Eddie was leaning his head on Sophie’s shoulder as Nils used a stick to roust what was left of red-hot embers.
“We better get you sobered up before you go back home, Eddie,” said Sophie, but she didn’t know if Eddie heard. It sounded like he was either breathing very heavily or lightly snoring.
“Let’s walk him around a bit,” said Sophie to Nils.
Nils felt tipsy, but he’d always been able to hold his liquor better than Eddie, so he was in much better shape than his friend. He hoisted Eddie up onto his feet with Sophie’s help, hooked Eddie’s arm around his shoulders as Sophie did the same on her side, and soon the three friends were walking on the beach. They were a six-legged creature, with four outside legs relatively sure and two inside legs rubbery.
The night was clear, the stars brilliant pinpricks in the dark sky. On the horizon, a faint white glow like a massive ghost hovering over the water. “Chicago,” said Sophie quietly as they walked. “That’s where I want to end up after college. I’ll work in Chicago.”
“Then we can come see you,” said Nils. “When you’re successful lawyer or a professor. And you’ll have a big house, and a family, and a huge guest room, where Eddie and I can camp out. You’ll have to marry someone who doesn’t mind hanging with the proletariat.”
“We’ll shake on it, then,” said Sophie, laughing. “Once we get this proletarian lump of bones walking on his own.”
Soon Eddie began to talk. It was the first thing either friend had heard from him for at least an hour. He was a quiet drunk, and so it was often difficult to tell if he was inebriated or if he’d simply withdrawn into himself. “Marry me, Sophie,” he blurted out. Then again, very loudly, so that his words resonated across the calm water, “Marry me, and have my children!”
He planted a sloppy kiss on Sophie’s cheek, but she merely laughed and said, “Down, boy.”
As quickly as Eddie had blurted out the words, he retreated into his drunken silence. He seemed to have gotten heavier. Chicago still glimmered in the distance as waves rolled on the nighttime shore.
“He’s in no shape to drive,” said Sophie after a few more minutes. “He shouldn’t have been driving when we got here.”
“We should take him up to the car. I’ll drive, and maybe with the windows open, the rush of air will revive him. This doesn’t seem to be helping much.”
“I should drive. I’ve had less than you,” said Sophie.
“I’m okay. I’ll drive,” insisted Nils. “I’m as familiar with his car as he is. And if we get stopped, better me behind the wheel than you.”
Nils got up to go inside the house. His legs felt as stiff as two-by-fours and his back ached, as it always did later in the day. “Sure you don’t want that beer?” he asked over his shoulder.
“If you’re going to force me.”
On the way into his kitchen, Nils stopped in the living room and stood before a floor to ceiling bookshelf extending across an entire wall. The bookshelf was his pride. In a modest older home that he maintained with less and less care and enthusiasm, his wall of books was the only place in the house he felt had distinction.
He surveyed a section of fiction, the one with classics like Dumas, Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, Hemingway, and Jack London. He had a shelf of poetry as well, with Philip Levine’s many volumes taking pride of place. He turned to look at his collection of espionage novels. Over the years he’d become a great fan of John Le Carré. He pulled out The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and extracted a piece of thick paper; he’d known precisely where to look. Then he went to the kitchen, got two beers from the fridge, and returned to the porch, where Eddie still squeaked back and forth on the swing.
“Your beer, sir,” he said, placing it on the end table. Next to the beer he plunked down the strip of paper.
“So you do have yours,” said Eddie as he reached for his beer. Nils shrugged.
Eddie picked up the paper, turned it over. He held both bookmarks together, appraising them in the fading light. “Looks as new as mine,” he said. “Surprising, you being a reader and all.”
Nils tilted his head, and Eddie knew from long experience it was a sure sign of his friend’s slowly escalating anger.
It was three in the morning by the time they made it back to the car. Eddie had become boisterous, laughing or singing one moment, blabbering the next, hugging first Sophie then Nils, and trying to break free of their grip. Nils struggled to get him into the car—he’d hooked his hands, claw-like, on the top of the door frame, and had to be pried loose before the rest of his lanky body could be rolled in—but once deposited into the DeSoto’s canyon of a backseat, Eddie fell asleep.
“It would be good if we could get him to sit up by the open window,” said Nils. “That always helps someone sober up.”
“I’ll sit back there with him and try to keep him upright,” said Sophie. “I can prop him against the door.” After a bit of effort, she had him sitting by the open window. In the dark, he looked like a disheveled crash test dummy.
With his two friends in the backseat, Nils pulled out of the parking lot. “Shit,” he said.
“That left front headlight is still out. I didn’t notice that on the way here. Eddie said he was going to fix it, but he didn’t. Damn it! That’s all we need, calling attention to ourselves if some cop comes driving along.”
“Take the back roads,” said Sophie.
Nils nodded, and instead of heading toward the Interstate, turned right down a gravel road. He drove for about five minutes as tiny stones jangled the DeSoto’s underbelly, then pulled onto a two-lane blacktop that wound its way through thick stands of pine and oak. An occasional small cottage or a scenic turnout punctuated the black wall of trees.
“How’s he doing?” asked Nils after several minutes of silence from the backseat.
“He’s restless, but at least he’s not talking nonsense,” said Sophie, laughing nervously. “And his hands are a bit too active for my taste.”
Nils drove slowly and felt lucky they’d encountered only one car after a quarter hour. They had all the windows open and the rush of night air came with pine and lake scents. Nils wondered if Eddie would sober up enough to go back home before the sun came up, or if they’d have to spend the rest of the night driving him around.
Then Nils heard an ugly gurgling sound from the backseat. “Oh, Jesus,” said Sophie.
“He puked. All over me. All over the back seat. Damn it, Eddie Simczak!”
The noxious smell made Nils queasy. He looked in the back seat. Eddie’s head rested on Sophie’s lap. There was a dark stain on her sundress around his head. Nils could barely make out Sophie’s face. She had one hand on Eddie’s forehead while the other, coated in a disgusting slurry, was held up in front of her as if on display in some cabinet of horrors. Just then, as Nils looked forward again, a car approached around a curve, the DeSoto’s left front tire edged over the center line, Nils jerked the steering wheel, but not in time, and the night filled with a sound of metal on metal, sudden, violent, alien. The DeSoto spun twice, then slammed into the thick trunk of an ancient oak. Nils remembered the few seconds before impact as a slow-motion twirl, absurd and frightening, something he could stop if only he could lift his hands from the steering wheel and reach out to the night.
“You know how many times over the years I’ve tried to see her?” said Nils, stubbing out his second cigarette and taking a long gulp of beer. He looked at the empty bottle. The beer had tasted cool and clean and it reminded him of nights out on the pier drinking and talking trash with Eddie. But now there was an ugly aftertaste in his mouth, stale and unclean. He pulled another Marlboro from the pack and lit it.
“Hell, I was in the same hospital with her,” said Eddie, “and they wouldn’t let me get near her. For an entire month, going through hell while they sewed me back together. A dozen times I asked.”
Nils shook his head. “It’s that old man of hers—bastard’s in his mid-nineties, going strong.”
“Still, if I’d been her dad, I wouldn’t have let me or you see her either. I don’t think I could have. Not after what we did.”
“Remember the first anniversary after it happened? I camped out on their front doorstep? Said I wouldn’t leave until I could see Sophie?” Nils’s hand, the one holding the cigarette, shook, causing smoke to rise in quavering waves. “And Andrew Chambliss called the cops. They charged me with harassment. I could understand the old man still feeling bitter about it a year after, even two or three. But a whole lifetime?”
Eddie nodded wearily—he knew all the details—but Nils wasn’t done. “That fucker denied us our right to apologize to his daughter. Apologize for the whole thing. For her condition. For the fact I looked into the backseat. I wrote her letters, Dear Sophie, I am so sorry, I don’t know how to put it into words. Eddie and I will do you anything for you. Again and again, I wrote that letter, and all the letters came back unopened. It wasn’t a matter of asking for forgiveness. No one’s gonna forgive us.” Nils looked away and stared at Church Street, which was silent. Not even the sound of a radio or TV or a child’s laughter. He looked back at Eddie and clenched his jaw. “Why are we even talking about this again?”
“It was my fault. I was the drunken fool. I wrote her too…”
Nils wanted to get up, he needed to pace around, but he was sutured to the wicker chair. His knees bounced madly. “Why’d you bring up those goddamned bookmarks, Eddie? Haven’t you had enough?”
“Why’d you keep your bookmark?” snarled Eddie. After a moment his face softened. “We’ll just wait out Chambliss, like we always said we would. He can’t live forever.”
Nils shook his head. “Gullible Eddie. Still hoping after all these years. Do you think she’d even recognize us any more? She has no feeling from her neck down. Maybe no memory. Maybe she doesn’t want to see us. Hell, maybe he put it in his will never to let us see her.”
Nils’s jugular vein stood out like a thick rope. He pulled out the Zippo lighter and picked up his bookmark. “Here, Eddie. Once and for all, here’s what I think of salmon and the bookmarks and your crazy idea of waiting out old man Chambliss.” He lit one end and watched the yellow flame plume upward. He saw the bookmark change color, blue, then orange and yellow, until black ash formed and fell away. After a few moments he dropped the thing into the ashtray. The smell of burning paper, acrid and sickening, singed the evening air in the porch. Nils’s face looked acidic. He grabbed the second bookmark and looked at Eddie defiantly, challenging him to speak. He heard the faint, persistent scraping of a rake on a neighbor’s lawn. The sound weighed on him—a merciless grating and clawing, the churn of memory.
He flicked open his lighter.
Eddie edged forward on the swing. It looked as if his every movement caused bone-on-bone pain. “Don’t,” he said.
Rudy Koshar is a Pushcart Prize Nominee whose short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in numerous magazines including Riptide(forthcoming), Prick of the Spindle, Guernica, Montreal Review, Revolution House, Eclectica, and Black Heart Magazine. A recipient of Guggenheim and other fellowships, he teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and blogs at rudykoshar.net and Huffington Post.