by Lawrence F. Farrar
Ed Means’ job in the Austin meatpacking plant didn’t last long. He said the work took too much out of him, and besides, he had to associate with all those foreigners. So, he, Lelah, and the two kids had to start living out of the car again. They’d been flat broke before, but this time, when it came to fresh ideas on how to lay hands on some cash, Ed’s brain was running on empty—or damn close to it.
Maybe they hadn’t left Minnesota; maybe they had crossed into Iowa. Anyway, they were cruising down I-35 in their rust-bucket Plymouth. They’d been humming along with some “country oldies” on a fading, static-ridden AM station. Ed was trying to manipulate the dial to capture the barely audible strains of Freddy Hart’s Easy Loving, when Lelah announced, “I’ve got to go. I just can’t wait no longer.”
So, Ed pulled into one of those roadside stations where, along with the gas, they peddled dry donuts, weak coffee, and day-old sandwiches. The clerk gave them the once-over when they came in and displayed no eagerness to give Lelah the key, but after Ed promised to buy some gas, the guy relented, and she went around back to use the restroom.
You could have predicted the clerk’s reaction. Neither Ed’s looks nor his demeanor exactly inspired trust. At thirty-five, outfitted in scruffy jeans and tee-shirt, Ed was gaunt, thin-lipped, and unshaven. His furtive gray eyes, set deep in a long face, darted constantly about, creating the impression he was up to something, which he frequently was. Although he exuded little intelligence, he had an aura of shrewdness about him. A survivor, whose moral compass had long since ceased to locate ethical North, Ed lived by a simple precept: you did what you had to do.
Ed’s stomach grumbled, and he figured a couple of Baby Ruths or maybe a bag of Doritos (he liked the nacho cheese flavored ones) would represent a better use of the few dollars he’d panhandled outside the mall than would paying for gas. Hell, the fuel gauge in that old Plymouth showed her close to half full.
The heat took it out of you, he thought, even inside that supposedly air-conditioned station. Ed lifted a bottle of Pepsi and took a long, gurgling swallow that caused his prominent Adam’s apple to rise and fall spasmodically. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and called out, “Hey there, Bobby, want to split a Pepsi with your old man?”
No answer. Seven-year-old Bobby was staring at a plaster of paris eagle, with its wings spread, perched triumphantly atop a display of souvenir items. The boy’s once crew-cut brown hair had grown shaggy; ought to get him a haircut, Ed thought. Don’t want no kid looks like a boy named Sue.
“Bobby, you want some of this Pepsi or not?”
The boy raised his head, shook it slowly from side to side, and shifted his attention to a plaque featuring a talking fish. With both lenses cracked, the glasses they’d got him at the Salvation Army didn’t work too well, so Bobby had to lean forward and squint. The boy was on the small side and thin as a hay straw, but it always agitated Lelah when Ed declared, “Bobby ain’t nothing but a runt.” When she complained, he’d give her a big gap-toothed smile and say, “Only joking you, honey. Only joking you.” But she didn’t believe that denial.
Ed drifted over to a rack near the window and casually picked up a magazine; a bikini-clad girl with a come-hither smile straddled a motorcycle on the cover. They put those covers on just to get your money. Damn, why did they have to put those plastic wrappers on? Sealed up the way they were, you couldn’t even see what was inside.
While Ed searched for a magazine with the plastic peeled back, he beckoned the boy with his hand and then pointed toward the door. "Bobby, why don’t you go out to the car and check on Karlene?” he said. “If she’s awake, bring her back if you want. Can’t figure what’s taking your mother so long.” Ed could just tell the clerk had an eye on him. Maybe they had one of those security cameras somewhere. But, if they did, he couldn’t spot it.
The boy pretended not to hear. Outside, a wall of heat shimmered up from the gravel beyond the pumps. Ed had parked the metallic green Plymouth, a tired veteran with tail fins and iffy brakes, at the end of the building, in about the only shady spot around. They’d left the little girl asleep in the back seat with the windows down.
“Here. Give her this Pepsi. There’s a couple of swigs left. Your mama’s going to take her to the toilet after she’s done—whenever that’s going to be.”
Bobby shuffled toward the door, kicking with his beat-up tennis shoes at a candy wrapper someone had dropped. Ed had found new shoes for him at the Goodwill, but he kept them in the car trunk. He figured people would be more likely to part with a dollar or two if they felt sorry for the kid. The same went for the tattered jeans with holes in the knees—good for a bigger handout.
Bobby pushed open the glass door and stepped outside, intent on fetching his five-year-old sister. Just emerging from the restroom, his mother called out, “You going for Karlene?” Distracted and momentarily blinded by the dazzling midday sun, Bobby was oblivious to the maroon Buick Riviera rolling to a stop at the pumps.
“Look out, kid,” the clerk shouted. But the window glass muted his warning. Ed jerked his head up from a skin mag.
They couldn’t tell from inside whether the car knocked Bobby down or he fell trying to get out of the way. But down he’d gone. Ed and the clerk rushed pell-mell out the door.
Bobby’s bloodied hand and elbow had plowed through a patch of gravel. The abrasions superficial, Ed nonetheless declared the boy to be, bleeding like a wounded cougar. Lifting the terrified boy by his elbows, Ed brought Bobby to his feet.
“Why the hell don’t you look where you’re going?” Ed directed his venomous blast at the Buick’s elderly driver and wife, not at the boy.
“We just didn’t see, we . . .” the man said as he came around from the driver’s side.
“Could have killed my boy. As it is, he’s probably hurt bad. Look at the blood.”
“Are you all right, son?” the elderly man asked. His voice shook. His worried wife stood beside him; a hand-drawn up to her mouth.
Bobby snuffled; tears traced wet streams down his tan cheeks. His mother dabbed at his wounds with a paper towel from the stack she had earlier appropriated in the restroom.
“You look too old,” Lelah said, her voice laden with invective. “You probably shouldn’t even be driving.”
Still in her mid-twenties, Lelah had been a mother at sixteen, and anger came easily. A reedy woman lost in a patterned house dress with all the fashion appeal of a gunny sack, she struggled with flip-flops that kept slipping off her feet. Hollow cheeked and slope-shouldered, with disheveled hair not recently disturbed by a comb, she was a woman who’d entered life through the backdoor and never gone any further. Fifth daughter of an unemployed miner, she had met Ed at the county fair where he operated the tilt-o-whirl. It seemed they’d been traveling around ever since.
“I’m truly sorry; he just came out of nowhere,” the driver said. “Maybe you should take him inside.”
“Listen, mister, this boy probably needs to see a doctor.”
The white-haired driver produced a small card from his billfold. “My name’s Hughes. Benjamin Hughes. We have insurance. Don’t worry.” He looked hopefully at the clerk. “Maybe there’s a hospital close by?”
“Thirty miles. Hospital over in Mason City. There’s a doctor off the interstate in Orton. Twenty minutes or so.”
The product of near-instant gestation, an idea lodged in Ed’s brain and stuck there like a burr on a dog’s back. “You got a phone I can use?” he said to the clerk. “Where do you figure I can find a lawyer?”
“Oh, surely that’s not necessary,” Mrs. Hughes said. The prospect of a lawsuit sliced into her mind like a piece of shrapnel; her husband had barely passed the eye exam when he renewed his license only two weeks before.
“Oh, it ain’t that serious, Ed. Just a couple of cuts and . . .” Lelah started to say.
Ed sent her a withering look that signaled, shut up. “Could be hurt inside,” he said. “Maybe it’s his neck. Your neck hurt, Bobby?” Before the boy could reply, Ed said, “See, he’s favoring his neck.”
The old couple, Lelah, and the clerk all fixed a gaze on the boy, trying to measure the extent of his injuries.
“Surely there’s no need to call a lawyer,” Mr. Hughes said. He again retrieved his billfold. This time he withdrew some bills. “I’m truly sorry. Would a hundred dollars do? Call it square?”
“Looks like his glasses got broke too.” Ed piled it on.
Mrs. Hughes opened the car door and dug through her purse. “I’ve got another forty, Ben.”
Ed closed a fist around the offered money and stuffed it into his jeans pocket. “We better get going,” he said. “Find that doctor.”
Taking Bobby solicitously by the hand, Ed led his wife and son around the building to their car.
“Let’s go,” he said.
“But, Karlene ain’t been to the bathroom . . .” Lelah said. “And she’s all sweaty.”
“I said, let’s go.”
The Plymouth’s bald tires kicked up a spray of gravel as Ed ripped out onto the highway. In the rearview mirror, he glimpsed the old couple still standing next to their car. Ed picked up speed, and Bobby, who had long since stopped crying, immersed himself in one of the super-hero comic books Ed had lifted when the clerk wasn’t looking.
Ed reached inside his shirt with one hand. “Anybody want some chips? Cheesy kind.”
Hot damn. Almost a hundred and fifty dollars.
The highway slipped behind them for a week, and they stopped at another gas station, this time in Nebraska. They went around back to use the facilities, Lelah and Karlene to the ladies' room, Ed and Bobby into the men’s room. Aiming the nozzle downward, Bobby repeatedly activated the hand dryer, giggling each time the rush of air struck his head. Meanwhile, Ed postured in front of the mirror. Like a teenage lothario at a school dance, he brushed back his dark hair with both hands; that done, he inspected first one side of his face and then the other. You never knew when you might run into one of those lady truck drivers.
“Look, Bobby,” Ed said while he preened. “It’s kind of a game. We see if we can fool people and . . .”
“If they lose, they give us money?” Bobby said. But he knew it was no game.
“Yeah. That’s it. All you have to do is pretend you’re bumped and fall down by the car.”
“What if the car hurts me?”
“No way you can get hurt. Them cars are almost stopped dead at the pump when you play the game.” As Ed figured it, there was no possibility Bobby could actually be injured. “Let’s go outside and wait for the girls,” he said. “Looks like rain coming.”
“I want a drink,” Karlene announced when she and her mother emerged from the restroom. Big for her age, with close-cropped blond hair and bib overalls they’d picked up in an untended laundromat, she looked more like Bobby’s little brother than his little sister.
“Me too,” Bobby said.
“Okay. Okay,” Ed said. “Just remember, Bobby, when we play the game, you can’t tell folks it’s a game. If you tell, we won’t win that prize. You have to pretend real good. Understand?”
Young as he was, Bobby understood all too well—he’d served as a shill in more than one of the schemes Ed concocted to separate good-hearted people from their money.
While they lingered in the parking area deciding what to do next, Lelah said, “I sort of wonder if it’s such a good idea, Ed.”
“I explained all that. No reason them that has can’t share a little with them that don’t. No way anything will happen to the kid.”
Most of the time, he showed roughhewn affection for the boy, but Lelah knew Ed doubted he was really Bobby’s father. The questioning usually bubbled to the surface when Ed managed to get hold of a bottle of Old Crow—or any other booze, for that matter. Damn little bastard doesn’t even look like me. Not smart enough, either. Did his doubt make him more careless of Bobby’s well-being? Most of the time, Ed came across as sweet to the boy—real sweet—still, she wondered what he truly felt toward him.
The air was sticky wet, and leaden clouds rolled in from the west. Drops of rain splattered on the asphalt parking area, leaving splotches big as half dollars. Not so far away, lightning capered across the blackening sky, complemented by a deep-throated chorus of insistent thunder. It began to pour, and the four of them piled into the station.
“Looks like you just made it out of the storm,” a middle-aged woman behind the counter said. “They predicted these storms on the farm report this morning.”
“That right?” Ed said.
“Nice looking children. Where you folks heading?”
Ed engrossed himself surveying the area adjacent to the pumps. Almost always the same setup, he thought. Only a few steps from the entrance.
When he realized the attendant had spoken to him, he said, “West. Going to California. Got a new job out in San Diego.” It seemed as good an answer as any.
Outside, splashing rain pounded down. You could hardly make out the cars and trucks, nothing more than a column of blurry white lights creeping cautiously through the storm. The rain, Ed thought, would be his friend.
Karlene in tow, Lelah browsed the shelves of Twinkies, Oreos, and Planters Peanuts like a junk food connoisseur. The air inside the place came loaded with whiffs of cooking hot dogs, and Bobby stood before the roller grill, intoxicated by the aroma.
“Come here, Bobby. Just look at that rain, will you? It’s like in one of them jungle movies on some island.”
Bobby had no idea what Ed meant, but he came and stood with him next to the door.
“Time to play the game,” Ed said in a low voice. A van, its wipers sweeping frantically against the rain, had swung off the road and was about to pull into the station.
Bobby looked up and nodded, pushed open the door, and ran out. “Where you going?” Ed said loudly, in mock surprise.
Outside, Bobby arrived just in time to tumble down next to the van. Ed ran out the door shouting and pointing. He knelt beside Bobby on the wet asphalt.
A young woman, with two small children in the back of her vehicle, slumped over the wheel. She lowered the window and said, “The windshield was all steamed up. I just didn’t see him.” She climbed out and added, “I’m so glad he isn’t badly hurt.”
“Well, that remains to be seen, don’t it?” Ed said. Like a chiropractor practicing his craft, he made a show of examining every joint of the boy’s body.
Lelah came out of the station, tugging Karlene behind her. “What happened? Oh, Lord, what happened?”
“This lady here ran into Bobby. That’s what happened.”
“Why was he . . .?” the driver asked.
“Wanted to get some toy out of our car. Isn’t that right, Bobby?”
Bobby looked down at the asphalt. “Sorry,” he said, his voice sucked up and lost in the sound of the falling rain.
“We’re going to have to get him checked out. You got your insurance papers?” Ed said to the woman while her children wailed in their car seats.
She leaned in and pawed through the glove box. Increasingly agitated, she said, “I’m sure they were here.”
“How you doing, Bobby?”
“I feel sick, Daddy. My tummy hurts.”
“Sure it’s not your back?”
“Yeah. My back hurts.”
“Look, lady, I don’t think he’s hurt bad,” Ed said. “But, if you don’t have no insurance, I guess we better make a police report.”
Like a homeowner accosted by a door-to-door huckster, the woman’s eyes radiated suspicion; but she was running late, she needed to gas up, it was pouring, and her children were howling. “Would twenty dollars help? I don’t carry much cash.”
Ed sent her a look as if he’d been struck by one of the still crackling lightning bolts. Was that all? Then, leaning down, he retrieved Bobby’s glasses. “Just look at these here glasses.”
"Okay,” the woman said. “But, twenty is all I have.”
“There’s one of them money machines right inside,” Ed said. He knew he was reaching.
The woman took out her cell phone. “I’m calling my husband,” she said. Ed nodded toward their car, and Lelah and the children began to edge away.
“Damn. He’s not there,” she said. “Just a minute. I’ll give you twenty more, and that’s it.”
Soon after, Ed Means and family sailed down the highway while the clouds flew off to the east. Fresh and washed clean by the rain, the sky had never seemed bluer. A close call. Yeah. But what the hell? Forty bucks was forty bucks.
How did I do, Daddy? Was I a good player?”
“You did good. Real good.”
Not so sure, Lelah stared out the window.
Summer moved on, and, with a few days of yard work, a few days of house painting, and a few days of picking up roadside trash, so did they. Refining his injured boy routine, Ed had latched on to a new way to pull in money that beat their homeless family ploy hands down. They’d tried the new routine a couple of times in supermarket parking lots. But the cars moved unpredictably, and they only managed a single twenty dollar hit. It was gas stations—preferably ones far from a town—that became the venues of choice for Ed’s new game.
Like a Little League coach bringing along a neophyte player, Ed worked hard at sharpening Bobby’s moves. Well into August, they had come to roost at a shaded picnic table in a rest area, trying to beat the Kansas heat. “Remember, hit the car hard with your hand when you go down—so they hear a big noise. Now, what is it you’re going to say when everybody runs over?”
Bobby didn’t respond. Instead, he stared longingly at a black Lab puppy romping with two boys in the pet area.
“What are you going to say?”
Bobby hesitated, his eyes trailing the dog back to its owner’s car. “Daddy, I don’t want to play the game anymore.”
“You’ll do what I tell you. Now, I asked you a question. What are you going to say?”
Bobby monitored the erratic course of a fly that pranced about on his bare knee. Finally, he said, “Oh, my back. Oh, my neck.” Bobby looked up at Ed through his cracked lenses, his brown eyes seeking approval.
“And put your hand up by your neck, kind of moaning.” Like an ersatz stage director, Ed showed him how.
“I wish we had a house,” Bobby said.
“Hey, what’s wrong with that motel we stayed in last week? Had a TV and shower and I don’t know what all . . .”
“It had bugs. And the water was brown.”
Ed scowled. “Now, once more. What is it you’re gonna say?”
Lelah tried to talk Ed out of using the boy. She worried Bobby could get hurt, but she didn’t rely on that possibility as an argument. Instead, appealing to Ed’s self-interest, she tried to deter him by saying they might get in trouble. What if somebody reported them?
“Ain’t nobody gonna report us. Hell, they’re all afraid we’ll sue ‘em.” Ed’s own conniving nature governed his perception of reality. People only cared about saving their skins. All of them crooks, they generally deserved what they got.
When their stricken family tableaux and cardboard Homeless Veteran, God Bless sign failed to produce more than a pittance over the next few days, Ed decided the time had arrived to put Bobby back in the game. Karlene had a cough, they needed gas money, and they hadn’t been eating too regular, so, despite her misgivings, Lelah went along with it.
Initially, things didn’t work out as smoothly as Ed hoped. When a man in an SUV hit Bobby, the vehicle’s passenger declared the boy had not been touched at all. And when Ed said they’d better call the police, the driver said he’d be happy to call them first. Ed winked at Bobby, a prearranged signal for the boy to say, “I was just trying to scare you, Daddy. I’m okay.” The men in the SUV looked unconvinced, but they had other things to do.
“You better watch it, kid,” one of them said and sauntered into the station while his buddy pumped gas.
A day later, Bobby went down beside a pickup truck. As the concerned Ed rushed over, the driver took one look and sped off. Ed shook his fist and shouted, “Hit and run!” Then, as the pickup raced toward the highway, he muttered, “Crooked son of a bitch.”
But, on their third try, they found, as Ed put it later, the right pigeon. They had again driven into a rest area, the sort of place they frequented, not only to stretch their legs and let the kids run around but to use the toilets and sinks in the visitor center. Moreover, often as not, their searching fingers came across uncollected change in the vending machines just waiting there to be scooped up.
Ed remained determined to try again, this time with a variation on the now-familiar ploy. As she began to back out of her parking slot, the driver of a silver BMW with Florida plates spotted Ed frantically waving and shouting, “My boy! My boy!” The driver, an older woman Ed had zeroed in on in the welcome center, stopped and came quickly out of her car.
Bobby lay sprawled on the asphalt, arms and legs akimbo like Raggedy Andy. “My back hurts. Oh, my back hurts.”
A couple in shorts and wearing matching red and white aloha shirts started to approach, then thought better of it and hurried on to their Winnebago. “Something fishy there. Best not to get involved, though,” the husband said.
“Would you like me to call a doctor? An ambulance?” the driver of the BMW said.
Ed made a quick assessment. Well dressed and well put together, she seemed too composed, too savvy, to intimidate. So Ed opted for a more straightforward approach. “I don’t think he’s really hurt, lady—just scared. Ain’t that right, Bobby?”
The woman removed her dark glasses and looked at Bobby who was now on his feet. “Well, young man,” she said, in a not unfriendly way, “you certainly gave us all a fright. You really should look where you are running.” She started to get back in the car.
By now, Lelah and Karlene stood with Ed and Bobby at the side of the car. Ed took Bobby’s hand. “Lady, we been on the road quite a long time. Headed for California. My cousin’s got a job for me out there in Oakland. What I mean to say is we’re down on our luck. The little ones been missing meals, and I’d sure like the boy here to see a doctor—you know, just check him over. Anyhow, I was wondering if you might . . .”
“You need some money; is that it?” the driver said. Her eyes swept the little group. They looked like extras just off the set of The Grapes of Wrath.
“I don’t normally do this sort of thing. But perhaps I should have been more careful backing out. If I give you something, you won’t spend it on drink . . . or drugs . . . will you?”
“Oh, no ma'am.” Eyes lowered, Ed performed at his humble best. The children looked pathetic—they were—and Lelah exhausted—she was.
“What is your name?” the woman asked, noblesse oblige come to life.
“Means. Ed Means. And this here is Lelah, Bobby, and Karlene.”
They all stared at her as the woman produced a wallet from under the seat of her car. “Fortunately for you, Mr. Means, I have some cash with me. I hope $500 will help you on your way to California.” She handed Ed three one hundred dollar bills and a small stack of crisp twenties. “Or wherever it is you’re going,” she said under her breath. “Now, children, please stand clear. Bye-bye.”
“Wasn’t that something?” Lelah said as the BMW zipped out onto the interstate.
“Did we fool her?” Bobby said.
“No. I expect she kinda fooled us,” Lelah said. “Not what we expected.”
Although the clerk asked for payment in advance and suggested they use a back entrance, that night they stayed in a Holiday Inn. Any notion of nurturing their newfound treasure trove nowhere in his mind, Ed was riding high. He looked around the motel room, then bounced on one of the beds while the kids bounced on the other. “Mighty classy. Mighty classy,” Ed said. Bobby added his endorsement: “I wish we could live here.”
They took turns luxuriating in the bath and shower. “It’s just like heaven,” Lelah called out while water cascaded over her body. “And they got all these free lotions and shampoo.” Later, the foursome trooped over to a nearby Pizza Hut and, like a happy band of gluttons, guzzled colas and gorged themselves on pizzas with all the toppings they could cram on.
While they ate, Ed held forth about finding work in Colorado—said he’d met a fellow in the county workhouse who, he’d been told, now had a farm of some kind in Grand Junction. Be a good place for the kids. Lots of clean air. Lelah smiled hopefully, but she’d heard it all before.
Later that night, over Lelah’s protests, Ed drove off to a roadhouse they had passed earlier in the day. “Man deserves a little relaxation once in a while,” he explained. Lelah let him back in when she heard him fumbling with the lock at 5 o’clock. He stumbled into the room and flopped face down on the bed.
“Where’s the money?” she asked. “Ed, where’s the money?” He snored. She ransacked his pockets. The money had evaporated. Lelah stared out the window past her sleeping children, and in the early morning light, watched a gardener sprinkling a bed of mums. No tears came, just a pain that made itself at home—deep inside—and gave no sign of leaving soon.
The blown $500 inspired no contrition on Ed’s part. It simply confirmed for him that there was money out there, like fruit on a tree, waiting to be plucked. The main thing, he said, you had to choose the right target; old couples seemed best—they could be scared into paying up, and the wife would want the husband to settle things without a fuss. Besides, they wouldn’t be around long, anyway, and couldn’t take it with them. Also, you had to have a way out if people started asking too many questions or wanted to call the cops or some insurance adjuster.
Again, Lelah tried to dissuade him from using Bobby, and again—in the end—she went along with it. She wished she had more gumption when it came to Ed’s shenanigans, but she just couldn’t stand up to him. Nothing more to it than that; she just couldn’t.
A few days later, their night at the Holiday Inn a memory gone like a melted shadow, Ed spotted a towering GAS sign on a road they passed over on the interstate, and he doubled back. He took it all in at a glance—gas pumps directly in front of a small convenience shop and restrooms inside. Three o’clock in the afternoon, quiet, no customers when they drove in. As usual, Ed parked at the end of the building, ready to move quickly away.
They paraded into the shop where a South Asian man greeted them from behind the cash register. “Can I help you?” he said.
“Just going to pick up some snacks,” Ed replied. Why were there so many foreigners in these gas stations anyway? Just like the meatpacking plant. Got all the good jobs.
With Bobby tagging along, Ed strolled back and forth, pausing in front of a case with donuts.
“Looks like you sold all the glazed ones,” Ed said to the clerk.
“Yes. Sorry. They were all gone this morning. Something else, perhaps?”
“Nah. We just eat the glazed ones. Right, Bobby?” Bobby nodded. But hunger knotted the little boy’s stomach. He would have eaten any kind of donut—or anything else.
“Why don’t you wait outside, Bobby. I’ll be right along,” Ed said loudly enough for the clerk to hear. Then he whispered, “If a car comes you know what to do.”
“Can I have a donut, Daddy?”
“Sure, Bobby. I’ll bring one with me.”
Bobby went outside and perched on a little wall that fronted the shop window. He’d been there for two or three minutes when a red Mustang cruised in, headed for Pump Number One. Well-coached in his game, Bobby hopped down, and as the car slowed, he stepped forward, swatted the side of the vehicle, and staged his fall. But, as he did so, his shoe skidded in a patch of oil, propelling him, like a runner sliding into base, directly into the path of the right front wheel. Almost simultaneously, the car surged forward; the driver had decided to move up to Pump Number Two.
Looking out the window, Karlene said, “Bobby fell down.”
Ever ready to play his part as the aggrieved father, Ed sprang into action and charged out the door. But the game had ended. Game over.
They buried Bobby in a weedy municipal cemetery, not far off the highway. A prosperous local car dealer—Ed considered anyone in a suit to be prosperous—led the collection drive to pay for the plot and the funeral.
“Thank you kindly for all you done,” Ed said to the dealer as they walked away from the graveside. “It was real nice.”
“Well, I felt like I had some responsibility—never should have let that young fellow test that Mustang. It’s the least we could do.” The car dealer turned to Lelah. “I’m terribly sorry about your loss, Mrs.” Then he opened his briefcase, extracted a battered manila envelope, and spoke to Ed again. “There was more collected than we needed for the expenses. Over $800 here in this envelope. Hope it’ll help you get settled in Oregon, Mr. Means. Maybe you can move the boy once you’re out there—so you’ll be closer to him”
Tears lingered like rivulets on Lelah’s face as Ed maneuvered the Plymouth along the rutted drive out of the cemetery and on to the hardtop. She stared back over her shoulder, her lip quivering. “You done it, Ed. You didn’t mean to . . . but you done it.”
Wrapped in a leaden cloak of guilt and hurt, Ed looked straight ahead and did not reply.
“All he wanted was a place. You know, his own place. Maybe an ol’ dog. Was that asking too much, Ed?”
His eyes glistening, after a long silence Ed said, “Lelah, I’m heading this car for Grand Junction right now. Going to get a job and find a place for us and Karlene—and a resting place for Bobby too. This time I mean it. Really do.”
Lelah dried her eyes with a paper napkin she’d scrounged up somewhere. Did he really mean it? After all, she’d heard it before.
Following another long silence, Ed said, “Now don’t get all riled up, honey. But I was just thinking that before we get to Grand Junction—of course we’d have to be real careful—but maybe once or twice Karlene could . . . ”
“No, Ed. No.”
Ed stared at the road ahead. She’d come around. Always had. You did what you had to do.
"A Good Player" previously appeared in New Plains Review, 2011.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lawrence F. Farrar is a former Foreign Service officer, with multiple postings in Japan, Europe, and Washington, DC. His stories have appeared seventy times or so in literary magazines. Farrar's work often involves a protagonist encountering the norms and customs of a foreign society. He and his wife, Keiko, now live in Minnesota.
Share this Post