The knife missed Willie’s head by two feet. It bounced off the fake wood paneling and clattered to the floor. Willie watched the As-Seen-On-TV Ginsu spin slowly to a stop. Then he bent and retrieved the plastic handled blade. “You can't do nothing right,” he said.
Willie staggered slightly and pointed the knife at Joyce. He closed one eye to bring her dual images together and advanced across the tiny, linoleum kitchen floor. “You can't even fight.” He backhanded Joyce across the face. She tried to scream, but the only sound that emerged was a wet gurgling slurp from the gash Willie had made across her throat. Her eyes bulged and pleaded. Willie's left hand clenched Joyce's blonde hair, his right was covered with blood from his wife's throat. Willie remembered the smells of death from Vietnam: sweat, the almost metallic scent of blood, and the overwhelming stench of human excrement. Every person he'd ever stabbed, garroted, or shot at close range always emptied their bowels immediately. Joyce sputtered as Willie twisted the knife deeper; until it scraped bone. She snorted blood from her nose. She shivered and convulsed. Willie yanked the knife from her splayed throat and dropped her to the floor. She curled immediately into a comma: a punctuation mark in the middle of a widening puddle of blood, urine, and as Willie had smelled earlier, feces.
Willie nudged the corpse with the toe of his boot. “The only thing you ever did right was die.”
He tossed the knife into the sink and turned on the water with his left hand. He let the water warm up and then inserted his right hand into the stream, watching the swirls of reddish brown water disappear down the sink. With his left hand he opened the refrigerator and removed a beer. He popped it open expertly with one hand and drained it. He dropped the can into the sink; it clanked against the knife. He groped in the cabinet above the refrigerator—he could reach anything in the trailer’s kitchen from the sink—and pulled out a pint of gin.
He opened the pint and sipped as the water gurgling down the drain turned pink, then ran clear. He stared at Joyce; her blood had started congealing on the faded yellow floor. Willie's only thoughts were how to stay the fuck out of jail. He'd rather die than do more time. He sucked at the gin and thought. He coughed, placed the gin on the counter and stepped outside into a typical Oregon September afternoon. Scattered showers, mottled sunshine, an intermittent drizzle just heavy enough to get everything wet, without cleaning anything off. On the far side of the trailer, behind a two-cord stack of split firewood, was the dogrun. Willie's two dogs, Grunt and Nimrod pawed the dirt and barked at his approach. Willie kicked the dogrun’s door open. Nimrod and Grunt tumbled out, roiling around Willie's legs. “Don't be humping my legs, you faggot Rottweilers.” He bent over and picked up their empty food-dish and said, “Now ain't that just perfect.” Willie tossed the dish away, “You two can drink out of a toilet, can't you?” Grunt rolled around in the dirt and gnawed at angry patch of ringworm on his front paw. Nimrod stared at Willie, striking a pose like the RCA puppy. “C’mon.”
Willie kicked and cajoled the dogs around to the front of the trailer. Grunt clambered up the three steps. Nimrod hesitated, sniffed and raised his leg on the bottom step. Willie grabbed him by the collar and dragged him inside. He walked to the bathroom and lifted the lid to the toilet. The mildewed seat kept falling down so Willie ripped it from its plastic anchors and dropped the oval into the tiny bathtub. Willie walked down the hall, the shoulders of his leather jacket nearly touching each side of the narrow corridor. He entered the kitchen, stepped over his murdered wife and blew out the pilot lights on the stove burners. Grunt and Nimrod were sniffing at Joyce's stiffening body. Grunt licked tentatively at the brown halo of blood around Joyce’s head. The dogs retreated from the corpse and scratched at the cabinet below the sink, begging for dry dog food. “No Kennel Ration, boys,” Willie laughed. “Tomorrow her fat ass will seem like Sizzler's. All-you-can-eat.” He kicked Grunt in the ribs and patted Nimrod's head. “I’m gonna miss you guys.”
Willie exited the trailer, locking the door behind himself. He walked through the mist to the propane tank beneath the trailer’s kitchen window. He backed off the copper nut holding the gas line to the propane tank. With extreme caution Willie wriggled three blue-headed kitchen matches into the flexible gasline. With the fixed concentration of a surgeon he delicately spun the copper nut back into place. “There,” said Willie, “nice and dry in there.” He checked the date on his digital watch and made a quick calculation. In six days, a propane tanker would be parked where he was standing and a clean-shaven Propane-Transport-Specialist clad in white overalls with his name—Bill?--Chuck?- Jose?—would quickly spin off the copper nut. The friction would ignite the kitchen matches. Willie's half empty propane tank would detonate, frying Bill--Chuck--Jose and setting off the trailer, which would, by then, be full of gas from the leaking pilot lights. Grunt and Nimrod would be dead; asphyxiated. And Joyce would be a mass of half-eaten, half-rotten flesh. Willie’s Ginsu would still be in the sink. The bed where Joyce and Willie's final fight started will be unmade and rumpled. But none of that would matter because the exploding trailer will detonate the propane truck and blow a five-foot crater in the ground.
Willie climbed into his ten-year-old Ford Bronco and rattled two miles down the rutted two track to US 199. He emerged from the almost black fir forest and stopped at the edge of the wet asphalt anaconda. The rain had thickened, blackening the sky. Heavy drops rattled off the rusted roof of Willie's Bronco. Willie set the E-brake and rummaged in the glove compartment. He found a joint and a Tom Waits tape. He rewound the tape as he smoked the joint, holding the sweet smoke of the polio-weed deep in his lungs. He finished the joint and ate the roach, mesmerized by the syncopated wipers. A semi powered by, rocking the Bronco. Willie released the brake and pulled onto the two lane highway that weaved through the forest. “Sonuvabitch,” he said.
He'd left the pint of gin in the trailer.
Willie drove slowly, almost cautiously in the gathering darkness. Several cars passing him had flicked their lights on and off. On and off. On and off. Trying to signal him that his headlights weren’t on. The Bronco sluiced through the increasing rain. Willie didn't know where he was headed; he didn't care. As every car passed in the opposite direction, he white-knuckled the steering wheel, resisting the urge to veer into the oncoming traffic and end it all.
Suicide is painless.
When it grew too dark for even his sense of safety, Willie swore and flicked on his headlights. He was afraid of getting pulled over by a cop, because his headlights were stuck on highbeams. He extracted his last joint from the glove box. He fired it up and started the cassette player. Willie smiled as Tom Waits growled:
Ain't got no spare, ain't got no jack,
Don't give a shit because I ain't coming back.
* * *
“I told you that we should have stopped for the night at Grants Pass,” said Lynne.
“I'm an architect, not a weatherman,” said Bill. “How the hell was I supposed to know it would rain?” He stared through the half-moons the wipers cut through the Winnebago's windshield.
“You could read the weather page. That's the section between sports and finance. Dear.”
“And we are in Oregon, not sunny California. It's rained the last eight days, why should today differ?” Lynne huddled against the door, arms and legs crossed.
“You look like a praying mantis,” said Bill.
“Don't change the subject.”
“I haven't. The female mantis devours her mate,” said Bill.
Lynne whispered, so their daughter, reading in the back of the motorhome wouldn’t hear, “Yes. She does. But only after sex; so I’d have fucking died of starvation.”
“Sorry. I apologize. It was my fault for taking the family to Oregon. My fault. I apologize for thinking it might be fun or relaxing. I am truly sorry that I make enough money to rent a motorhome or pay for a vacation.” Bill switched his headlights on and adjusted his side view mirror. “But you can smile now, honey. The fun is over and we’re on our way home to Sunny California. If we drive through the night you'll be schlepping real estate by noon tomorrow.” Bill looked at his wife and wondered when trim had turned to gaunt; attentive had turned to nagging; and independent woman had turned to selfish bitch.
“I had fun, dad.”
Bill glanced in the rearview mirror to see his daughter's gap-toothed smile. Her head was haloed in the headlights of the car that trailed the Winnebago. One of Anne-Marie's pigtails had come undone and was plastered across her cheek. She clutched a book to her chest.
“Anne-Marie,” said Bill, “what you reading?”
“Calvin and Hobbes,” said Anne-Marie. “Here's the funniest one.” Anne-Marie thrust the book into her father's face. Bill hit the brakes and the motorhome skittered slightly sideways. A horn sounded and the car following them swooped around, the driver extending a middle finger while passing.
“Bill,” said Lynne, “what the hell are you doing?”
He had snatched the Calvin and Hobbes away from Anne-Marie. He eased back up to speed, then tossed the book at Lynne; a little harder than necessary. “We’ve got a long night of driving. Go tuck her in.”
Lynne handed the book to her daughter.
“Dad, I’ll just bend the page over so you can read it tomorrow,” and Anne-Marie. “It's so funny.”
Lynne glared at Bill, unbuckled her seatbelt and wriggled into the living quarters of the rented motorhome. “Come on Anne-Marie,” said Lynne.
“Wait,” said Anne-Marie. She bent around the kissed her father on the cheek. “Will we be back in Fran Sancisco tomorrow?”
Bill returned her kiss and frowned. “Yes.”
“Good,” and Anne-Marie. “I miss my friends from school. I had fun, but school time is a stupid time for vacations.”
“So I hear,” said Bill. “Goodnight, Anne-Marie.”
“Goodnight,” and Anne-Marie.
Bill fiddled with the radio while Lynne tucked her daughter into bed. He found static. More static. Then a country-western station.
He listened to the static.
Noise with no content; no response necessary or expected. He smiled and lost himself in the swat of the windshield wipers and the somnolent curves of US 199. It wound southwest from Grants Pass through the Jedidiah Smith National Forest. Few cars passed in either direction. When they did, they were in clusters of four or five, as if there were safety traveling in numbers; like the settlers who forged through to the Pacific on the same route, more than130 years earlier.
The last week in September is not the prime tourist season in southwestern Oregon, but for Bill it was perfect. There were few other tourists, no waiting in line or jostling to savor the splendor of Crater Lake or the ghostly and imposing beauty of the Oregon Caves.
But Bill wanted more than sightseeing on this trip. He wanted a family vacation like the ones he had as a kid. His folks would argue occasionally about where to stop and what to see, but the constant barrage of bickering put up by Lynne reminded him of an old World War II movie, he was the lone American bomber. She was the German anti-aircraft batteries.
He diddled with the radio again. He found a Spanish station that played music. Between songs he heard Lynne tickling Anne-Marie. His daughter's high-pitched screams made him smile: “Stop-O-Mommy— Stop-O-Mommy— Stop-O-Mommy—”
Another song began. Even with his rudimentary Spanish, Bill understood the lyrics to the love duet that streamed from the speakers: “Somos Mucho Mas Que Dos” the voices trilled to each other repeatedly. Bill slowed as a big rig rattled by in the other direction.
Bill switched off the radio. He stared into the beams of light that the Winnebago thrust into the rainstorm. Each beam captured and encapsulated a million drops; each visible and indivisible—then gone—only to be instantly replaced by another million. Which were, in turn, immediately replaced. Bill felt the warmth and safety of the Winnebago; the proximity of his wife and daughter.
And Bill decided.
Bill resolved, in this clarity of thought and feeling, that his wife and daughter were his only reasons for living. He would sell his architectural firm and work freelance, part-time, out of his house. Something Lynne had been nagging him to do for years. Career was important, crucial to Lynne. She needed to wear that baby-vomit-yellow jacket and have her name and picture on houses she’d listed.
For Bill a job was just work. He'd worked a variety of jobs to get through college. He humped vacuums door to door, janitored and delivered pizza. He'd worked nights as a draftsman for another firm until his own business was established.
It was lucrative, but he’d give it all up to keep his family together. He’d even go back to bartending. He smiled and listened again to the giggles from the back.
Lynne eased back into the passenger seat, her perfume lingering momentarily on Bill’s side of the cabin. She fumbled with her seatbelt. Bill caressed her left hand and sang softly, “Somos mucho mas que dos.”
“You can't sing.” She yanked her hand away and buckled her seatbelt.
“Maybe not with my voice, with my heart.”
“What's that mean?”
“We are so much more than two.”
“Not the lyrics,” said Lynne. “That stupid heart and voice thing.”
“Bill,” she said, holding her hand to her throat. She strained to speak, digging her nails in the soft flesh of her neck. “I want a divorce.”
Bill took his foot from the gas and switched to lowbeams as another semi passed. He accelerated and punched back to highbeams before he spoke. “I've also made a decision. I'm selling my business. Two career people can't run a family properly. And I know how much your brokerage means to you.”
“More bullshit,” said Lynne. “I've heard all this before.”
“We decided to take this vacation to get away and think things over. I've thought. And I'm quitting. Giving it up for you and Marie.”
Lynne clapped slowly, sarcastically. “It's the same line of bullshit , Bill. You're so anal impulsive, you can't give up the control. You need to be the big bad boss.”
“Decide to grow up, Bill. A divorce. Two lives. Two careers.” She motioned to the back of the Winnebago. “One child; joint custody. It could be worse.”
“I could stay married to you.”
“We've had eight years together. We should face it; we are two decent, intelligent people who never should have married. Each other. Let's cut our losses and get on with life.”
“You consider Anne-Marie a loss?”
“No,” said Lynne. “She’s the casualty.” She turned her back on Bill. “Good night. I’ll drive when we get to Eureka. You can sleep then.”
Bill reached over and touched his wife's back. Lynne bristled, as if she'd been pawed by a pocked, venereal sexual predator. Her husband returned both hands to the steering wheel.
Bill drove on. The hiss of wet tires on the pavement drowned out the engine. He could hear Anne-Marie's intermittent, nasal snoring. After a long corkscrewed stretch of road, US 199 straightened out for about 10 miles. There were gentle, sweeping curves, but Bill could see a string of headlights in the distance: obscured, like nebulae through a telescope. The headlights grew dimmer, but it wasn't just the rain.
Bill had been crying.
His family had been destroyed. Anne-Marie would be raised by Single Parents. Bill laughed through his tears at that thought. Knowing that the forty-five year-old body he considered gaunt was slender and sexy to most men his age. Lynne would soon have a lover.
If she didn't already.
And after a lover or two, a boyfriend. Then a husband, who would be a new father to Anne-Marie.
Bill lowered his highbeams for a passing car, then flicked them high again. The last vehicle in the approaching group of three had lights that stabbed starkly through the night. Bill wiped his face dry and squinted. “What the hell is that? Some kind of truck?”
His only answer was the click-swish of wipers and Anne-Marie's restless snoring. The lights of the first two cars were dimmed and almost obscured by the blaze of the vehicle that followed.
The first two cars skeetered by. Bill lowered his visor, still squinting, then tilted his head to the right, trying to see anything but the stark glare. He punched his highbeams: on-off, then on-off again. “You bastard,” said Bill. On-off. On-off. He pounded the steering wheel. “Lose those highbeams.”
“What?” said Lynne, waking.
“That sucker is blinding me.”
Lynne sat up. “Flick your lights.”
On-off. On-off. On-off. “I have been. No good. He must be in a 4x4 with those extra lights up front.”
“God, they’re flame throwers.”
“Screw it,” said Bill, “and screw you, buddy.” He slapped his highbeams on and wrapped both hands around the steering wheel.
“Bill, he won't be able to see.”
“I can't see.”
“He swerving all over the road.”
“Screw him, the pig.”
Lynne reached across to dim the lights. Bill knocked her hand away. “I'm driving.”
“Anne-Marie is in the back.”
Bill glanced quickly into Lynne’s green eyes. They glittered in the highbeams of the oncoming 4x4. He returned his eyes to the road. The wet section of US 199 illuminated by two sets of headlights was brighter than day; moist and surreal. Again, Bill was mesmerized, idly fascinated by the raindrops that seem to be held aloft by the lights.
Then the ten-year-old Bronco with the rusted roof veered directly into the Winnebago's path. Bill looked for the last time into Lynne's eyes.
But they were shut, anticipating the impact.
Bill tried to think about pain and death and possible redemption. About the mess he'd made of his marriage and his life. But he could only think of Anne-Marie.
All four passengers in the two-car collision were killed instantly. The youngest one in her sleep. The wreckage, mechanical and human, was strewn across both lanes for a quarter-mile in each direction.
The Oregon State Trooper who arrived on the scene, radioed for help, then threw up, repeatedly, into the wet Loganberry bushes that lined both sides the highway. The trooper stayed on the scene, handling traffic and supervising the removal of the wreckage. At dawn, in a puddle not far from his cruiser he found a Calvin and Hobbes book. He opened the sodden book to a page that had been folded back.
He read the comic balloons:
Mom, will you drive me into town?
Why should I drive you, Calvin? It's a perfect day outside! What do you think people have feet for?
To work the gas pedal, Mom.
The trooper tossed the Calvin and Hobbes book into a mound of twisted metal the wreckers had piled onto the shoulder of the road. He felt the sun warming the back of his neck and the pavement; burning away the rain clouds. The forest gleamed lush and pristine; washed and rejuvenated by over a week of rain.
It was a perfect day outside.
Rob Loughran’s latest novel, Beautiful Lies, will be published by Bubba Caxton Books on April 1, 2013.
His first novel, High Steaks, won the 2002 New Mystery Award.