the short story project


David Jauss | from:English


The day after his wife left him, taking their three-year-old son with her, Larry Watkins took out his circular saw, attached the metal-cutting blade, and carefully sawed his 1974 Cadillac Fleetwood in half. It was not an impulsive or crazy act, as his neighbors might have supposed. He had spent almost four hours the day before making the proper measurements, drawing the cutting line with a magic marker, and chaining one bumper to the garage wall and the other to the Chevy so the two halves wouldn’t spring together when he cut the frame. And in a way, he had been planning this moment ever since 1985, when he came back to the U.S. after two years of guard duty and beer drinking for Uncle Sam in Germany. To celebrate their release from the service, he and his buddy Spence had rented a limousine for an hour and cruised around Virginia Beach, drinking Scotch from the limo’s bar and looking at girls through the tinted glass. Spence was talking away about his plans: he was going to catch the next bus to Albany, marry his girl, and go to work in her father’s office supply store. Larry hadn’t given much thought to his future, so when Spence asked him what he was going to do when he got back to Minnesota, he said the first thing that came to his mind: “I’m gonna get me one of these limousines.”

They had both laughed when he said that, but the more Larry thought about it, the more he liked the idea of owning a limousine.

He remembered Arlen Behrens, an acne-faced kid he’d known in high school. Arlen hadn’t had a date in his life, but after he got a red Trans Am for his birthday, he started going steady with Karla Thein, one of the homecoming princesses. Larry could only imagine what the girls in Monticello would think of a limousine. He pictured himself sipping champagne in the back seat with a pretty redhead while his chauffeur drove them down Main Street. Everybody would gawk at them, even the rich kids passing in their Corvettes and Austin-Healeys, but he’d wave or smile only at those he considered his friends. If he had a limo, everyone would see that he wasn’t who they’d always thought he was; they would see that he was someone else entirely, someone mysterious and admirable.

Larry knew he could never afford a limousine, of course, but he thought he might be able to build one. So after he returned to Monticello, he started collecting articles about limos and writing to Limousine and Chauffeur magazine for information about how they were made. He had six manila envelopes full of blueprints and suggestions by the time he met Karen at Shopko, where she worked in ladies’ apparel and he worked in electronics. She was a tall, slim blonde with green eyes and a crooked smile, and he was amazed that such a beautiful woman would go out with him. He told her about his plans to build a limousine, but she only laughed and called him a dreamer. When he picked her up for a date in his Impala, she’d say, “Oh good, we’re going in the limo again tonight.” And on his twenty-third birthday, she gave him a blue chauffeur’s cap, climbed into the back seat, and said, “Once around the park, then home, James!” She teased him, but Larry knew she was looking forward to the day when he’d build his limousine and drive her around town like a queen.

Then, a few months after he and Karen were married, he bought the Caddy from Hawker’s Salvage and had it towed to his garage. He thought Karen would be pleased, but when she came home from work and saw the rusty, battered car, she demanded he take it back.

He was so surprised he couldn’t say anything for a moment. Then he said, “You can’t take it back. It’s not like a pair of pants that don’t fit or something.”

“Well, you’ve got to sell it to somebody else then. We can’t afford a second car, especially one that won’t run. What did you pay for it anyway?”

“Just five hundred dollars,” he said.

“Five hundred dollars! How could you do such a thing?”

“But I told you I was going to build a limo.”

She fixed him with a look he had never seen before. “Well, I didn’t believe it. I thought that was just you talking.”

He stared at her a moment, then went over and stood beside the crumpled hood. “I know it doesn’t look like much now,” he said, his voice trembling a little, “but wait till I fix it up. You’ll have the nicest car in town. And we’ll go places. We’ll go all over. It’ll be as comfortable as sitting in your living room, only you’ll be going somewhere.”

“Fix it up?” she said. “You think you can fix that up?”

In the weeks that followed they continued to fight about the car, but Larry would never agree to sell it. Once Karen went behind his back and put an ad in the paper, but Larry found out about it and told everyone who called that the car had already been sold. After that, Karen didn’t say anything to him about the Caddy, at least not in words. If he mentioned it, she’d just shake her head and look away. Even then, he didn’t give in. He wanted to prove to her that he was the kind of man who made his dreams come true, the kind of man who deserved a limo. But he didn’t have enough money to start working on the car yet, so he just kept on collecting articles and blueprints. At least once a week he’d take out his envelopes, spread them across the kitchen table, and spend a couple of hours going through all the information.

The summer their son turned two, Larry talked Karen into taking a trip to Disney World. “Randy would love it,” he said, and though Karen worried he was too young to appreciate Disney World, she finally agreed. They packed up the Chevy and left Monticello just after dawn that Saturday. It took them two long days to drive to Florida, but they managed to make the trip fun, playing License Plate Poker and I Spy and singing songs from Disney movies. But when they finally reached Orlando and Larry mentioned there was a limousine factory nearby that he wouldn’t mind touring, the fun stopped. No matter how hard he tried to convince Karen that he hadn’t planned the trip just to see the factory, she wouldn’t believe him. While they were eating dinner at McDonald’s, he asked her to listen to reason, and that made her so angry she went into the restroom and stayed there for almost half an hour. When she finally came out, her eyes were red and puffy, but there were no tears in her voice: “Take us to the airport,” she said. “Now.” Two hours later, she and Randy were on a flight to Minneapolis, where her parents lived. She was planning to get a lawyer and file for divorce as soon as she got there.

Larry checked into a Motel 6 near the airport and stayed up late drinking Jim Beam from a pint bottle. The more he drank, the crazier it all seemed to him: he’d actually let a car, a junk heap, come between him and his family. What was wrong with him? There was only one thing to do: sell the damned car and toss out his box full of blueprints and articles. And that’s exactly what he’d do, the minute he got home. As soon as he made that decision, he felt as if a terrible burden had been lifted from him, and he lay back on the bed and closed his eyes.

The next morning, Larry started back to Minnesota. He hadn’t intended to stop at the limousine factory, but his route took him near it and since he’d already decided to sell the Caddy, he figured it wouldn’t hurt anything to take a look. Once he was there, he had such a good time watching the workmen convert ordinary Cadillacs into customized stretch limos that he decided to go through the tour again, this time taking notes. He hadn’t changed his mind about selling the car; he just wanted to compare the factory’s methods with those recommended by Limousine and Chauffeur magazine. After he did that, he’d throw the notes out along with everything else. So he took the tour again, and when he came back out to the parking lot, he stood there for a long moment, looking at the Chevy’s rusted fenders and torn vinyl seats, before he unlocked the door and got in.

Two nights later, back in Monticello, he sat down at his kitchen table and dialed the number of Karen’s parents. By then, he had decided not to say anything about the Caddy unless he had to. He’d just ask Karen to come home, and if she said yes, he wouldn’t even bring the car up. But if she said no, he’d promise to sell it and never mention a limo again. It was all up to her. He listened to the phone ring, then she answered, her hello cool, preoccupied. But when she heard his voice, she started to cry, and he knew he wouldn’t have to sell the car. “I’ll drive up to get you and Randy in the morning,” he said, after she finally stopped crying.

That was over a year ago. They’d had many fights after that, and every one ended with her crying and forgiving him. But after a while—he didn’t know exactly when or why—they stopped fighting. They spoke politely to each other and never even mentioned the limo, yet somehow Larry felt worse, as if they were arguing in a deeper, more dangerous way than before. And then, yesterday morning, Karen looked at him across the breakfast table and said she was leaving, and he knew this time she would not come back.

Now Larry stood in his garage, sweating in the intense July heat, the saw whining in his hand, and looked at the two halves of his Cadillac. He had been preparing for this moment for six years, and for the life of him he couldn’t remember what he was supposed to do next.

The next day, when Larry didn’t report for work, his boss called him and asked if he was sick. Larry told him about Karen, and he said Larry should feel free to take the day off. Mondays were always slow, and they could get by short-handed for a day. But they’d need him back tomorrow. Larry said no problem, he’d be there. But he didn’t report to work the rest of the week, and though the phone rang every morning shortly after the store opened, he did not answer it. The next Monday, he received a registered letter notifying him that he’d been terminated. He sat at the kitchen table strewn with breakfast, lunch, and dinner dishes and looked at that word: terminated. It had a finality that he liked. He said it aloud and listened to it in the quiet house.

Although he had only a few hundred dollars in savings, Larry was glad he’d been fired. Now he would finally have the time he needed to work on the limousine. But it was too hot to work outside just then, so he spent the next few days sitting in front of a fan, watching TV. He watched everything, but he liked the nature shows on the Discovery Channel best, especially the ones about survival in the wild. Though these shows were full of conflict and danger, there was something comforting about the simplicity of the animals’ concerns—food, shelter, a quiet moment in which to lick their wounds. Sometimes he’d tape a show and watch it several times.

Larry didn’t do any work on the Cadillac, but almost every day he went out to the garage to look at it and plan his course of action. One morning, about two weeks after Karen and Randy had left him, he was surprised to find someone sitting in the back of the severed car. It was Elizabeth, the retarded woman who lived across the street with her elderly mother. She was a big, heavy-breasted woman with red bristly hair and splayed feet, and she was always talking to herself. The words didn’t make any sense. They sounded foreign, even alien, and Larry always wondered if her mother could understand her. He remembered how Karen had been able to understand Randy’s babble when he was a baby. He had been jealous of that ability; it had made him feel like an outsider in his own family.

Larry leaned over and looked in at Elizabeth. She was wearing a loose-fitting flowered dress—the kind Karen called a muumuu— and holding a red purse the size of a small suitcase on her lap. Her mouth was moving continuously, chewing words as if they were gum.

He cleared his throat and said, “Can I help you?” It was what he’d said to his customers at Shopko, and he felt strange for having said it now.

Elizabeth turned her moon face to him and abruptly, for the first time in his presence, went silent. But then she immediately started talking again. She was looking at him, but somehow he could tell she was still talking to herself.

“What’s wrong?” he asked. But that, too, was a stupid question: she was smiling and every now and then a giggle broke into her babble. He stood watching her for a moment, not knowing what to do. Then he opened the door and said, “I’m sorry, but you’ll have to leave.” But she didn’t move. She just opened her purse a crack, put her eye right down to the opening, and half giggled, half jabbered some strange phrase over and over. Then she suddenly snapped the purse shut and looked at him as if she thought he were trying to peek.

Larry didn’t know what to say. “If you want to go somewhere,” he finally said, “you picked the wrong car. This one doesn’t even run.”

Just then, Elizabeth’s mother came huffing up the driveway in her housecoat. “Oh Mr. Watkins, you found her!” she said, trying to catch her breath. “I was so worried. I was just about to call the police.” She came up beside Larry and looked in at Elizabeth. “You naughty girl!” she said. “You know you aren’t supposed to go outside by yourself.” Her scolding didn’t seem to bother Elizabeth; she just sat there, chattering away happily and peeking every now and then in her purse.

The old woman turned back to Larry and, wiping her sweaty face with a handkerchief, said, “I don’t know what’s gotten into her, Mr. Watkins. I’ve been up and down the block looking for her, but I never thought to look in your”—she paused, as if she wasn’t sure what to call it—“your car.”

She went on talking, but Larry was only half listening to her. He was watching Elizabeth bounce up and down on the back seat like an excited child. “You know something,” he interrupted the old woman. “I think she thinks she’s going somewhere.”

That night, Larry called Karen for the first time since she left. “Oh, it’s you,” she said.

“What’s the matter?” he said. “Can’t I call?”

“Yes, you can call. Just don’t think you’ll change my mind.”

“I’m not calling about that,” he said.

“Then what are you calling about?”

For a moment, he didn’t answer. He was listening to Karen’s mother, in the background, talking to Randy. She was using the high, sing-song voice grown-ups put on to talk to children. Larry strained to hear what she was saying, but all he could make out was “grow up big and strong.” Then he realized Karen was on the phone in her parents’ kitchen, and for a second he was standing where Karen was, looking across the room at the kitchen table, where her mother was sitting beside Randy’s highchair, poking a spoonful of something at him. He felt a sudden ache, like hunger, in his stomach, and he gripped the telephone.

“You remember that retarded woman across the street?” he finally said.

“Of course I do. How long do you think I’ve been gone? Forty years?”

He gritted his teeth a moment, then went on. “Well, this morning she was sitting out in the Caddy,” he said. “Her mother was looking everywhere for her. She was about to file a missing person report. And here she was, just sitting there in the back seat, smiling and jabbering like nothing in the world was wrong.”

“If this is about that stupid car . . .”

“No. Really, I just wanted to call. I thought you’d want to hear what happened.”

“Now why would I want to hear about that woman sitting in your worthless car?”

“I don’t know,” Larry said. And now that he thought about it, he didn’t know why he’d wanted to call and tell her. It all seemed so stupid now. Of course she wouldn’t care. And why should he care?

In the background he heard his son say “Grandma” and suddenly he had to sit down. The last words Randy had said to him before he and Karen got on the bus were, “Grandma’s gonna take me to the zoo.”

Larry sat there, staring across the kitchen table at the sink where Karen used to give Randy a bath when he was a baby. He felt very tired all of a sudden. He wanted to put his head down on the table and go to sleep.

Then Karen said, “Are you still there?”

“Yes,” he answered. “How’s Randy?”

“He’s fine. He’s made friends with the neighbor’s little four- year-old, and he’s been playing with him all day in his sandbox.”

“Tell him I’ll build him a sandbox in the backyard if he wants.”

“I told you, Larry. I’m not changing my mind.”

“I know,” he said. “I was just thinking about when he comes to visit. You know, on weekends or whatever.”

“All right,” she said. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know what you meant. Listen, do you want to talk with him for a minute?”

Larry was quiet. Then he said, “No, I guess not.”

“Are you all right?” Karen asked.

Larry stood and looked out the window at the garage. Then he said, “I’ve been working on the car. You should see it. It’s looking pretty good. I hung the new drive shaft and split the door posts the weekend you left, then last week I finished bending the new side panels and installed the window frames.”

“Larry,” she said.

“It took me forever to run the wires from front to back,” he went on. “Over fifty wires in all. But everything’s electric now: the locks, the windows, you name it. And I just finished installing the extensions on the gas lines, brake lines, and exhaust. It’s been a lot of work, but it’s been worth it. I’m just about ready for the paint job. I’ve decided on a royal blue Corvette finish. I tell you, it’s gonna be beautiful, Karen, really beautiful.”

“Larry, I’m not going to listen to this.”

“I’ll take you for a ride in it when it’s finished,” he went on. “You’ll be the first one in it, you and Randy.”

“Larry, I mean it.”

“Okay,” he said. “Okay. I’m sorry.” Then they were silent for a long moment.

Finally, Karen said, “When will you understand? Even if you had done all of that, it wouldn’t mean anything to me. I don’t know why it’s so important to you. Why can’t you just let it go?”

“What do you mean, if I had done it?”

“You know what I mean.”

“No, I don’t,” he said, his voice rising. “Why don’t you tell me.”

Karen sighed. “I don’t want to sit here and fight with you, Larry. Randy’s right here, and so’s my mom.”

“If you don’t think I’ve been working on that car, you’re wrong,” he said. “Dead wrong.”

“Okay. Okay. You’ve been working on it.”

“Not just working on it, I’m damn near finished with it.”

“I said okay. Don’t get mad.”

“I’m not mad. Who said I was mad?”

“Okay, you’re not mad. You’re not mad, and the limo’s almost done. And I’ve changed my silly little mind and I’m not going to file for divorce after all.”

“Don’t talk to me that way.”

“Why not? That’s how you talk to me.”

“You know what?” he said, pacing beside the table now. “You think you know everything. You think you’re so smart. Well, you don’t know shit. You understand? Not even shit.”

“Larry, listen to yourself. You sound like—”

“You listen to yourself!” he shouted, then hung up the phone so hard it rang.

He stood there a moment, trembling, then went to the refrigerator and opened it. He stared inside for several minutes, not seeing anything, before he finally closed the door and went out to the garage. It was dark outside, and it’d be hard to work, even with utility lights, but he had to get busy. He had wasted too much time already. It was still terribly hot, and the weathermen were saying the heat might not break for another week, but he couldn’t wait any longer. He took off his shirt, gripped the rear bumper, and pulled the back half of the Cadillac about six feet away from the front half. Then he began to align the frame, pausing every now and then to towel the sweat from his face and arms.

When he finished aligning the frame, he took an imprint of the end of the frame section, then stood and stretched his aching back. There was nothing else he could do now. He’d take the imprint to Hawker’s the first thing in the morning, so they could begin building the frame extensions he needed. On his way back from Hawker’s, he’d stop at Eriksen’s Welding Supply and buy welding rods—about twenty pounds should do it—then swing by Vern’s Sheet Metal to see about renting their break to bend the side panels. Hawker should have the extensions for him by the end of the week, so if he worked steadily he could be done welding the frame by the weekend. Then the next step would be installing the drive shaft. That was the trickiest part, according to the tour guide at the limousine factory, because the longer the drive shaft was, the greater the amount of torque it had to bear. Larry was planning to add at least one more hanger bearing, but still he was worried that the shaft would vibrate or even twist out of its supports. Several times he had imagined driving down the highway with Karen and Randy, the three of them talking and laughing as if nothing had ever been wrong between them, when all of a sudden the shaft would lurch out of the hanger bearings with a sound like the end of the world. Whenever this thought had come to him, he had forced himself to think of something else. But now he stood there between the two halves of the Cadillac and watched the shaft drag beneath the swerving car, spewing sparks. The next morning, Larry was too exhausted to take the imprint down to Hawker’s. He didn’t even have the energy to watch TV, so he just lay on the couch and stared out the window. Birds flew by, lighting on the branches of the sycamore, and squirrels chattered and chased each other in the yard. He watched all this for a while, but he wasn’t really seeing it. He was wondering what would have happened if he hadn’t been born. Who would be living in this house, looking out the window? Who would Karen have married? And what would her son be like? The more he thought, the more he felt insubstantial, as if he had only been dreaming all these years that he existed. He looked around the room, and everything seemed simultaneously familiar and strange. He remembered how once, when he was a child, he had lain on the floor of his bedroom and imagined that the ceiling was the floor of an upside-down house and he was somehow stuck on the ceiling. Nothing was different—there was the same light fixture, the same posters on the walls, the same bed and carpet— but everything had changed.

Now he lay on the couch, watching the dust swirling in the light slanting through the window. It looked like snow. He watched it fall for a long time, wondering if it would ever stop. It didn’t. It kept falling, but as it fell out of the light, it disappeared.

Then he held his hand up to the light and turned it back and forth. I’m here, he thought. I’m alive and I’m here.

Later that morning, the doorbell rang. It was Elizabeth’s mother, her face a knot of worry. “I’m afraid she’s in your car again, Mr. Watkins, and I can’t get her out.”

Larry was dizzy from standing suddenly after lying down so long, and he hung onto the doorjamb. In the bright sunlight, the old lady’s wrinkled face looked as if it had been burned, and it occurred to him that that’s what aging was: a gradual kind of fire that ate your flesh. He shivered, even though the air coming through the screen door was oppressively hot.

“I’m sorry to bother you,” she said, and took a step back down the stairs. “If this isn’t a good time . . .”

Then Larry realized he had been staring at her for some time without speaking. “Excuse me,” he apologized. “I just woke up, and I’m a little groggy. I’ll be happy to help you.”

He slipped on his tennis shoes and followed the old woman out to the garage where, as before, Elizabeth was sitting in the back seat with her purse on her lap. But this time she wasn’t just jabbering; she was singing. Larry couldn’t recognize the song, if it was a song. He remembered how Randy would make up nonsense songs, and it occurred to him that children—and maybe retarded people, too— didn’t know that words existed. Maybe they thought words were only sounds, meaningless noises people made back and forth, to pass the day. Or maybe it was the other way around and they thought every sound was a word. And maybe they were right, maybe every sound was a word, and they weren’t speaking nonsense after all.

Elizabeth’s mother said, “I’ve tried everything, but I can’t get her to budge. She can be very stubborn, you know.”

Larry opened the door and said, “Elizabeth. It’s time for you to go home.” She stopped singing for a second and looked at him, then opened her purse a crack and peeked in. Then she smiled and started singing again.

Her mother shook her head. “Who knows what all she’s got in that purse this time. Yesterday I found my missing bottle of perfume in there, and her toothbrush, and a pair of socks. I’d been looking for that perfume for a week.”

Larry turned to her. “When was the last time you took her somewhere? You know, on a trip.”

“Oh, once in a while I take her with me to the grocery store. And every other Sunday we go to church. But otherwise—well, you can see how much trouble she can be, and I’m not strong enough to make her behave.”

“Yes,” Larry said, “I can see that.” Then he looked in at Elizabeth and said, “Where’re you headed today?” Elizabeth babbled excitedly and clapped her hands. “No kidding?” Larry said. “Me, too.” Then he climbed into the front seat and took the wheel in his hands.

“Mr. Watkins?” the old lady said, clasping the collar of her dress with a bony hand.

“Don’t worry,” he answered. “I’ll have her back before lunchtime.”

Every morning after that, Elizabeth spent a few hours in the car, and each day her purse got a little fuller until finally she couldn’t close it anymore. Eventually, Larry began to get up before she did, and he’d be waiting in the limo when she crossed the street, chattering and waggling her arms. She’d sit in the back and he’d sit behind the wheel, watching her in the rearview mirror as she bounced up and down on the seat and pointed out the window at the world passing by. For hours at a time, he didn’t think about Karen or Randy or the threatening letters from the bank and the electric company. He was not happy, but he was not unhappy either. He was Elizabeth’s chauffeur, nothing more, and he just sat there, his mind empty. And it wasn’t until after they’d finished their drive and he’d helped her across the street to her house that he would come back to who and where he was. When that happened, he’d stand there a minute, in her yard or in the street or on his steps, before he could bear to enter his empty house.

Toward the middle of August, a man came to serve divorce papers on Larry. He started up the walk, then heard strange noises coming from the garage. Crossing the yard to the driveway, he saw the rear end of a car sticking out of the garage. As he reached the door, he saw that the car had been sawn in half and there were two people sitting in it. “What the hell?” he said. Then he called out Larry’s name, but Larry didn’t seem to notice; he just kept looking out the windshield at the garage wall. He was silent, but the woman in the back seat was jabbering in some strange language the process server couldn’t understand. But Larry seemed to understand. He nodded as she spoke, said something back to her, then turned the wheel carefully to the left, as if rounding a dangerous curve.



*Licensed from Press53, LLC. Copyright 2018 by Glossolalia by David Jauss


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