THESE are the war years or the postwar years or the interwar years or the intrawar years or the antiwar years or the nonwar years, depending on what you read, what you watch, what you listen to, where you live, who you know, who you knew. This is Kaliyuga. The Iron Age. The eternal war is here.
IN proud-pied April, the principal threw a changeup, calling J.’s uncle into his office instead of J. He returned to the diner frothing over J.’s grades, truancy, and alleged larceny in the third degree of certain athletics department equipment. (Skip as much as J. did and you could’ve found worse ways to occupy yourself than — let’s say hypothetically, in deference to the State of Connecticut’s statute of limitations — popping a couple hundred fly balls into the lake.)
What gave J.’s uncle the fantods? The damn Yankees, hospitals, the town selectman, cell phones, and his nephew dropping out of school (following, he feared, in his footsteps). Still, he was not a stupid man; he knew the futility — even as he attempted it — of a frontal assault. After the brief skirmish above that concluded with J. beating a strategic retreat, his uncle opened a second front by conscripting J.’s one ally to the cause (asking Blue to come over that evening to tutor J.). Classic Sun Tzu, or at least J. assumed, having never read him.
The hard part should have been convincing J., but he agreed so readily to the proposal that his uncle was startled into a long, silent squint in lieu of delivering some prepared remarks on the Importance of Education. A Potemkin study hall built of textbooks and notepads in the middle of the diner (the perfect spot to learn) would hopefully assuage his uncle’s carking cares and clear him out of J.’s airspace. If the particular choice of tutor mattered one way or the other to J., let daws go hungry, he wore nothing on his sleeve.
Her mother’s daughter, a trooper through and through, Blue attempted to assay J.’s knowledge of the Marshall Plan (Truman’s $12 billion crowbar to prize open post-WWII markets for Uncle Sam) and Othello (Shakespeare’s race-baiting rip-off of Cinthio’s “Un Capitano Moro”). J., adolescens imprimis gravis et doctus, responded with a pop quiz of his own:
Q: “Shot down on the pavement/Waiting in death row/His game was survivin’/As in heaven, as in hell” are lyrics from which Clash song?
a. “Brand New Cadillac”
b. “Spanish Bombs”
c. “The Right Profile”
d. “Guns of Brixton”
J. whistled “Conjunction Junction” and practiced his overhand shuffles, injogs, undercuts. Come delusion, come confusion, pick a card, any card.
Blue saw straight through him. Did she want him to change? Would time change him? He wouldn’t let her down (oh yes, he would).
Where was Tallboy all the while? Blustering about the City of the Big Shoulders on a trip to grandma’s house. Parked outside the diner, J. spotted the pumpkin Blue rolled in on, rebuilt by her beau as a gift, a ’61 glacier-hued four-door Dodge Lancer, expression of his love, testament to his will. Did Tallboy know the difference? Did he know there was a difference?
The son of an absconded hot rod angel, J. imagined cars and rode them in his dreams, roaring off nightblack cliffs unafraid into a nuclear dawn.
“I’ve got an idea,” J. said. “Let’s go outside.”
A Cooperation Act was negotiated between Blue and J. as follows: The two Parties would exit the diner jointly for the purpose of procurement of ice cream as a result of the deficiency of the resource of cones in the diner: Provided, That said ice cream be consumed in cones and not bowls to the extent such vessels were available at market rates, the procurement and consumption of such dessert determined to be essential for the stated purpose of the evening, i.e., studying, by alleviating conditions of hunger as it related to ice cream, cones. Approved, Eve of May, 20__.
They drove away under the wartime blue floodlight of the moon, him at the wheel, her seated shotgun, an unwieldy paperback collection of the Swan of Avon cradled in the crook of her arm. Two of fortune’s fools about to pay their dues. As J. started the car, he spotted from the corner of his eye James Dean, Stetsoned and vested in black and white, sitting on a bench outside the diner. “Take it easy driving,” he mumbled around the Chesterfield dangling from his lips, “the life you might save might be mine.”
They copped coned ice cream from a stand in Woodbridge and returned home. Vanilla rivulets dribbled down their fingers in the spring air as they circled the square in Blue’s Flying Dutchman and spoke of their futures as sureties. She saw herself a foreign correspondent, career selected and ratified a dozen years prior watching Christiane Amanpour on the ground in the Middle East reporting what no one yet knew would have to be retroactively ordinaled as the First U.S. Gulf War. He planned to get out of that town. God laughed. As you wish.
CAR crashes are common as clouds — just ask an actuary. A dull slap of buckling metal, whistle of steam singing from a flute of punctured radiator hose, drip of oil tapping out of cracked crankcase. Objects in motion, friction, objects at rest.
CONNECTICUT Uniform Police Accident Report
Weather Condition: No Adverse Condition
Road Surface Condition: Dry
Light Condition: Dark — Lighted
Accident Occurred On: Main Roadway
No. of Vehicles Involved: 1
Vehicle Type: Automobile
Collision Type: Fixed Object
Object(s) Struck: Curbing, Bench, Utility Pole
Involved Person(s): 2 (Occ. Vehicle)
Injury Classification: Not Injured
Seating Position: Front Seat Left
Injury Classification: Possible Injury (Claim of Non-evident Injury)
Seating Position: Front Seat Right
Vehicle Maneuver Prefix: Vehicle Avoiding
Vehicle Maneuver Suffix: Animal in Road
THE EMT palpated Blue’s arm.
“I never meant to cause you trouble,” J. said.
Blue winced. J. winced.
“Does that hurt?” the EMT asked.
“I’ll meet you there,” J. said as they loaded Blue into the ambulance.
“I’m going to have to call my mom.”
“She’ll put me in the hospital when she finds me anyways. I might as well save her the trouble.”
“I’ll be fine. Don’t worry.”
“Do I look worried?”
“It’s not polite to tell people how they look.”
“It wasn’t your fault. It wasn’t anybody’s fault. Melville would have chalked it up to the invisible police officer of the Fates, part of the grand program of Providence drawn up long ago, a brief interlude in the bill between more extensive performances:
‘Israeli Army Raids Largest City in West Bank
‘Fender Bender in Town Square
‘CREATOR OF BARBIE DIES AT 85’”
J. shook his head. “Quoting Melville at a time like this.”
“Name me a better time, I dare you.”
CIVIL night, sober suited, all in black, stood guard over J. as he dangled his legs off the bridge, skimming the lake’s still surface. A water-logged Rawlings bobbed by under his bootsoles. Behind his eyelids, the accident played over and over and over, Möbius spliced. Had part of him, some Little Bastard, wanted to wreck the car, poised at the first excuse — like a small skittering something leaping across the street — to crumple Tallboy’s tribute against the nearest immovable object? And Blue, her wrist — J. rubbed his own — collateral damage? He turned himself on that rack and chain-smoked a whole pack before his uncle finally found him, not clamorous for pardon, but grateful for punishment. Instead, he sat down next to J., hands clasped in supplication, shrouded in silence, denying J. even that small easement.
He looked calmer than J. could ever remember, an intense copper calm, the peaceable slant of his expression often spotted on the faces of cynics welcoming the cauterizing arrival of a worst possible outcome.
How long did they sit there before his uncle finally spoke? Time out o’ mind. “What do you want to do?” he asked J., quietly, kindly.
Pick a card. Si me voy va a haber peligro. Any card. Si me quedo sera el doble. No, J. was his father’s son. Cut the applause and dim the light. One more trick. How to disappear completely: a duffel bag, a bus ticket, a runagate. Crown his head with laurel, return him to the city.