The lights are out. No. Not out. Just no light. Man, my head hurts! I want to rub it. Can't. My hands are behind me. Tied. No. Taped. I can feel duct tape pulling at my skin. What the hell? I'm cold. So cold. Where'd my clothes go? Nothing but my boxers. Damn my legs are sore. I need to stretch them out. Wait. Can’t. Not enough room. Son of a bitch. I knew I shouldn't have gone out tonight. Always have to piss someone off, don’t I? I knew it was a bad idea, leaving Susanna alone at home all pregnant and whatnot while I’m out looking for some new tail. If she knew what I got myself into, she’d kill me.
Okay. I've just got to retrace my thoughts. Figure out how I got here. Maybe then I can talk my way out of this shit. Talking. I’m good at that. But, who? Shit, half this town would pay to beat my ass or worse. But, I don’t remember pissing anyone off tonight. None of this makes sense. Last thing I remember I was talking to that pretty little thing at Johan's club. That suave, Mexican bastard always brings in the cuties, along with my paychecks. What happened after that? Blank. How long have I been here? An hour? A day? A week?
I've got to go back further. Something happened. It had to. Think. Think. Why the hell would I be taped up in the dark with a head throbbing like the time that guy hit me in the head with a bar stool at O'Brian's Pub?
Wait. I saw Johan traveling with his entourage at the club. That cutie I was talking to came in with him. Wait. Was she…? Fuck, my head hurts. Yes. She was with him. Oh no. She wasn't just with Johan. She was with Johan. What the hell was I thinking? This is bad. Real bad. Last guy to screw with one of Johan's girls ended up in a ditch. That funeral was closed casket. Shit. That'll be me.
What did I do, though? I mean…she and I made out a little. I might've grabbed her ass or something, but nothing too far. My wife wouldn't be happy about that, especially with the baby on the way. But I thought Johan was cool about that shit. It was a party, after all. Just a bit of fun.
Oh god! A car trunk! Really? What is this, a freaking mob movie? I didn't think they actually did this. Thought gangsters were more sophisticated in the way they kill idiots like me.…It’s okay. I'll just tell Johan that I'm sorry and maybe he'll only take a few fingers instead of killing me. I can give up a few fingers. Right?
Oh, who am I kidding? I'm so screwed! "Let me out! Let me out!" I can't scream any louder. No one's coming. No one's going to save me. I’ve dug my own grave for the last time.
It'll be okay. Deep breaths. In. Out. In. Out. Got to savor it while I can. Johan will put a stop to me breathing soon enough. Oh god! What the hell did I get myself into? Think. Think! I can talk my way out of this. I’ve gotten myself out of much worse. Kidnappings. Ransoms. All over some fine Mexican black tar. I'll be okay. Just relax. I'll be okay. Just got to relax.
God damn it! Did they have to hit the brakes so hard? My brain’s already pretty scattered. Hitting my head on whatever is in this freaking trunk doesn't help. Engine's still purring, but we're not moving. What the –
Trunk’s open. Ah! Light. A flashlight in the eyes. I can't see. That doesn't mean I can't talk. "Johan! I can explain!"
"I don't think you can."
That voice. Feminine. Not Johan. Who? I know that voice! God, my head hurts! Think. Think! My eyes are adjusting. That silhouette. Hair down to her shoulders. A baby bump. No way. "Susanna."
"You really thought I'd let you step out on me like that while I'm at home pregnant with your kid?"
"Wait...what the...how did you...Baby, I can explain—"
"Save it. You shouldn't have done that to me, my love. I trusted you, and you made the mistake of trusting me. Did you forget who introduced you to that scumbag, drug smuggling Johan? Did you think I wouldn't find out about your nights on the town? You've hurt me, darling. Now, it's time for me to return the favor."
She shut the trunk again. Oh shit! Come on. Got to get out of here before that crazy bitch does something really stupid.
I can't kick any harder. There's no release in this shitty old car either. Damn it.
Holy shit we're going fast. I think I'm going to be sick. Oh God. What the hell is the matter with this chick?
Fuck! That hurt! God damn it! What did we hit? Sinking. We're sinking!
"Good bye, darling."
That voice. It’s her. Susanna! Not too far off, but not from the car. I can hear her. What the hell? It’s getting wet in here. Cold. Water? Water! Son of a bitch! Got to get out! Oh God! Someone help me. Please, God, someone help me! I have to get my hands free. Have to get loose. "Someone help! Please!" What’s the point of screaming? Daughter of a mob boss would know better than to let me be heard. No one's coming. Trunk’s almost filled. Oh please, God. Save me. Please! Almost full. One last breath.
Gurplop, gurplop, gurpl--
Desperation and the desire to subdue emotion makes the first sign giving directions to the interstate the most welcome sight on the road. There is a slight delay when I stomp my foot, then the V8 responds. Burbling, gurgling, popping; a roar of automobile aggression. The seat gives, just a little, the headrest accepts the touch of my still thick hair, I speed forward.
‘It’s always been about you! The moves, the houses, that ridiculous mid-life crisis of a car. This is about me being worth more than just your ‘pretty thing’ at home.’
A semi grinds its way up the incline, fumes pouring out of the high stack as the aged rig screws its way up the hill. The V8 growls as the gear drops. With the smallest of wiggles from the back end I pull across the line, and leave the trucker hauling on his horn and flashing a wave. Two solo road warriors carrying our separate battles onto the hardtop.
‘So, yes. I’m leaving. Leaving to make my life happy. Taking out the regret I’ve stewed for twenty-two years. It’s time I thought of myself. Like you’ve always done.’
A biker thinks it’s a challenge, and picks up a wheelie beside me as we leave an intersection. The Japanese bike looks customized, shiny chrome and bold decals. Eventually I ease off, sliding down the speedo; one-ten, one hundred, ninety, eighty, seventy. The single tail-light dwindles into the distance. The local rock station is hammering out Iggy Pop and I bang the steering wheel in sympathy with the raw energy of a track older than I am. The speed comes down further when Lou Reed starts crooning about the kind of day he’s had. The police cruiser tucked behind the billboard ignores me.
‘I don’t know if we ever loved each other, not really. We were kids, just kids. I didn’t even know what I wanted. But I wanted more than this!’
The cloverleaf is an invitation to crank the power upwards again, a graded curve from local nowhere to interstate anywhere. From here I can get to Vegas or LA, or catch a loop and go East, back to where the whole thing started four hundred years ago. Drive over the ancient boundaries, feel the native bones ground beneath my wheels.
'You broke me before I knew I was whole. Everything was about you. Never me. Not what I needed, not how I felt, never. Not once. Even the children were all about you.’
The fuel gauge weeps towards zero, uncaring of the pain stopping could cause. Overhead gantries have been warning of a rest stop and I follow the advice, pulling to the inside lane and letting the holiday makers in their SUV’s and Winnebagos smooch past with gawping faces. Flags flap idly in a soft breeze, parents shout at children who shout back and scream, tinny music plays out of poor speakers while I pump gallons of gas.
‘How can you be so damned, passive? Say something, mean something! Forget it, just forget it. I’m gone, do what the hell you like.’
Three hours and over two hundred miles. The sky is bleeding red as the sun heads for the hills, an orb of subdued anger climbing into bed and giving up on a day it regrets birthing. Stars begin to appear, eager to announce the night. The strongest ones pierce the last crimson splash on the horizon. My head-lights cast a halo on the highway. Lights flash by on the opposite carriageways, or drop backwards in my rear-view mirror.
I wonder if she watched me in the rear-view mirror of the Prius, saw me dwindling into nothingness, as he drove her away.
In Hinsdale, Massachusetts, March 1804 came in like a lion and went out like one, angry that the lamb never showed up. Even on less frigid, blustery days, postman Israel Bissell liked to interrupt his daily battle with “rain, sleet, and dark of night” with a quick stop at the Bull Moose Tavern.
He’d defended his stops by saying it didn’t hurt to deliver letters in person to someone as important as Big Sam Pierce, the tavern’s proprietor. The problem was most of Sam’s friends and associates couldn’t write too well, so he rarelyreceived letters. Israel often had to pretend a letter was Sam’s when he knew it wasn’t. On this day it wasn’t necessary.
“Are you sure this is mine?” Big Sam asked, looking suspiciously at the envelope. Over his wide shoulder from the wall peered the blank-eyed head of a moose. “It’s not for Sam Percy or Stan Pierce?”
“This one’s the real McCoy,” Israel said, climbing onto a stool and unwrapping his scarf. Next to him sat John McKenzie, a farmer who would have spent more time in the tavern during the winter months if he wasn’t so poor. “It’s cold out there.”
“It ain’t that warm in here,” John complained. “Don’t you think that fireplace of yourn could use another log, Sam?”
“Maybe I’d consider it if you’d stop nursing that gin and drink like a man,” Sam said, putting a glass of whiskey in front of Israel. What little light the day offered was filtered to almost nothing through the tavern’s tiny windows.
The flickering lanterns made reading letters a challenge.
“So who’s the letter from, Sam?” Israel gasped, after downing a gulp of his drink.
“Now don’t tell me you didn’t look at the return address 27 times before you got here.”
“All right, I’m caught. What’s Ann got to say?”
This was a question with a bit of history behind it. Ann and Sam had been sweethearts when the two were in school together, but Sam had joined the navy during the Revolutionary War. Ann opted for the stability of being a blacksmith’s wife in Boston. In disappointment, Sam moved to the western part of the state. But that was over a quarter century ago. Death had made them widow and widower. Sam’s Mary had died of tuberculosis two years after they’d wed, while Ann’s husband was fatally kicked in the head by a horse five years ago. Since then Sam wrote her a letter each year, heavy on his business, the townspeople, and the weather, and bereft of his real purpose: to entice her to move out west with him. Pride and her short responses had restrained his customary straightforwardness.
Sam ripped open the envelope and read the letter. It didn’t take long. He slammed it onto his counter.
“Still no, huh?” Israel asked.
Sam picked up the letter and read.
“‘Dear Sam, Best spring wishes. Ann.’”
He placed it back on the counter. “Hardly worth the postage.”
“At least she took the time to write,” Israel said.
“Yes, yes. She used to be a schoolteacher. That must have taken her all of five seconds. Can’t you bring better letters than that?”
Israel shook his head. “That’s out of my control. It does seem the ones people choose to share with me are always about the most mundane things, however. I risk my health out there to deliver messages not worth the paper they’re printed on.”
“It’s a job, ain’t it?” John interjected.
“Of course, and I suppose walking miles to deliver the equivalent of ‘Hi, how are you?’ is preferable to trying to coax plants to grow in this rocky Massachusetts soil.” John glared at him. “But there are times when I get philosophical.”
“Oh Lord,” John moaned.
“One is defined by what one does. If I spend my days delivering messages, then my life is only as meaningful as their contents. Did I ever tell you about the time I had a message worth delivering?”
“Many times,” John said. “It’s one of the reasons I began drinking.”
But the whiskey had loosened Israel’s tongue. “It was April 19, 1775, the day after Paul Revere and William Dawes warned that the British were invading. They just rode a few miles though. Colonel Palmer told me to ride to Connecticut and tell everyone. The British needed weapons and were after Sam Adams and John Hancock. I was in Watertown at the time and rode all the way to Philadelphia. It was 325 miles and I did it in six days.”
“Israel, no man alive could do that,” John said, tipping his glass toward his mouth.
Sam lightly cuffed him on the head. “In my tavern, everyone can tell their stories.”
“All right,” Israel said. “I went as far Hartford, but that was the one time in my life I felt I had a message worth delivering. People listened to me,” Israel said.
“Unlike now,” John said.
“It stopped them in their tracks. They were hoeing the gardens, counting their eggs, living their lives, and suddenly because of what I said, everyone had a direction. Especially me. I didn’t want to ever stop. “And now, I deliver happy spring greetings.”
Sam wiped his counter with a damp cloth. “You’re too hard on yourself, Israel. This woman drives me crazy. It’s not easy for my unschooled hand to fill a piece of paper and mail it, but I do, and I get a five-word response. But she always writes back eventually, so I ask myself, why? Maybe a part of her is interested, that doesn’t want to let go of the chance that we might someday get together again. That gives me hope, and I don’t know what I’d do without it.” He put his hand on his friend’s shoulder. “And I have it because of you.”
“That’s nice of you to say, Sam,” Israel replied.
“Right. So you’ve got me thinking. Boston’s only about 120 miles from here. Why don’t you hop on your horse, ride out there, and ask her if she’ll marry me. It’d be like the old days.”
Israel chuckled. “Except it would be the much older me.
What makes you think she’ll respond any differently?”
He sighed. “I’ve been bandying words for five years, hoping she’d get my meaning. It’s hard to believe, but maybe she has just as much pride as I do.” He walked to the rear of the counter, pulled out an old diamond ring, and handed it to Israel. “Give her this. Twenty dollars for you if you do it.”
Israel looked into the dead serious eyes of the proprietor.
The thought of breaking out of the postal route he traced every day, of challenging himself to ride to his physical limits, was dizzying. But what if he fell on his face, another nostalgic fool trying and failing to recapture his lost youth, smashing forever a pivotal, cherished memory? Didn’t middle age demand practicality?
“My boss would not be happy if I missed those days,” Israel said.
“I have some influence with him,” Sam said.
Israel looked at Sam’s ring, which he guessed the tavern owner had first put on when he married his departed wife. It, like Israel’s ride, teemed with memories. What was the best way to honor those memories?
“As a farmer, I can tell you this,” John interjected. “You never know if a crop will come up, but the only ones you can hope for are those you plant.”
Israel finished his drink and put the ring in his pocket, his decision made.
“This is a message worth delivering.”