“Jimmy-Jo, got, the jack up,” the boy said, out of breath, “way too slow. Time he goes to raise the car, I got all the lugs off. Saw ’em coming and jacked down fast.” He breathed. “No tires this time. Pocket full of lug nuts.”
“When you go for a car like that,” the boy’s uncle said, “5-Series, S-Class? Looks new? Don’t worry about no tires, get the car! Understand? Take it over the bridge, park it on that street I told you about. They got insurance. For them it’s an inconvenience, that’s all.”
Three children and two parents fastened their seatbelts. All five, pale and glum, looked straight ahead. No one spoke. The Broadway musical had been an expensive mistake involving water and darkness and lasers and stunningly loud sound effects. Mom put her hand on Dad’s arm. He glanced back to see that the kids were belted in. The engine turned over; she pulled out. A long series of jarring potholes confirmed her opinion that New York City was permanently, hopelessly spent. Or, to be fairer, that the effort now needed to enjoy the city at all would not only be too great to be worthwhile but far beyond their means—and they were actually doing pretty well. She’d lived here once and loved it, but it had passed in a rush, the whole mighty city; flushed in the hot acid of money, it had been cleansed of most of what had made it interesting. To her, anyway. She’d had a pixie haircut and worked in a bar.
Her husband yawned and let his seat recline. He’d be back in Manhattan in the morning, without having had enough sleep, wearing shoes that hurt his feet, trying to get his work done in spite of a new boss, Alondra, who neither understood nor appreciated what he did. His job, his position in the company, had recently begun to feel insecure—after eight years. It was like finding movement in a tooth that should not be loose.
The night was clear once they left the city. They could never agree on music, so he put a talk station on low and closed his eyes.
The children were sleepy, then asleep. Traffic on the Saw Mill wasn’t bad, but she ought to have crossed the river earlier—the Tappan Zee and I-287 would probably slow them down. They were going all the way to New Paltz. She’d be the only one awake when they got there.
“Oh, I’ve been molded into action figures,” the actress told the interviewer.
The ghost of a tractor-trailer slid through them. Patched and potholed surfaces rattled the car. Reflections fled. She sped up: she wanted to get home, get the kids in bed, and get some sleep herself. There was traffic, but less than she’d expected.
“You abuse your mystique, don’t you.” Laughter.
“Every chance I get.” Louder laughter.
A stuttering thumping sound came from under the car. Sometimes you have to hit the potholes to avoid the craters—whoops! “Bumpy ride. Sorry,” she whispered.
“Now, you also played The Slider in Mutant Force: Las Vegas. How does this role compare?”
“It was a great cast. We all got along really well—and, as you know, that isn’t always the case . . .”
“Ever wish you had those powers in real life?”
“Maybe I do have them, Deke. Maybe I took the role to hide in plain sight.”
Another section of torn-up road rattled them all in their seats, but she knew the drive well and liked going fast. A tremor in the steering wheel came and went.
She got into the right lane and slowed for the exit. Reflections of bare limbs flowed over the car. She took the curves of the familiar road with confidence, hit a bump on purpose to wake the kids, and made the usual hard right onto their street.
Loud grinding noise. With a jolting slam, the car bounced, slid, crushed the corner of a hedge, and came to rest on their next-door neighbor’s lawn.
The two left wheels continued down the road, one smoothly as if an invisible car were attached, the other bouncing and wobbling crazily. Both parents checked the back: all three kids were still asleep. In the strange quiet that comes after an accident, everyone went on breathing.
The smoothly rolling wheel continued around the curve and disappeared. The other staggered to the side of the road, performed an elaborate death scene, and was still. There was an ugly burnt smell in the air. They could see their house from the car.
The wrecker truck’s amber lights flashed among bare wet branches. That chilly view, invited into their warm, large living room by the three enormous windows in the front, made the warm house seem more than usually inviting. Only the kitchen lights were on.
The husband put a clean glass on the bright-white Corian counter. He took the vodka bottle from the freezer and poured the last of it—so cold it was syrupy—into the glass. He recorked the pleasingly frosty bottle and set it on the kitchen island near the stove—a reminder to include it when he emptied their overflowing recycling bin. He lifted the glass. Its pebble-grained finish felt good in his hand. The first sip was bracing, the vodka like pourable winter air. He breathed out; took another sip; finished the glass. Stared until the expanse of countertop, the empty bottle, the hanging rack of beautiful pans, all stainless and copper, blurred away. The clean taste lingered on his tongue.
From upstairs came the sound of his wife Clarisse putting their children to bed—she’d insisted. The kids had loved the adventure of walking home through the thin screen of trees that separated their house from the neighbor’s, cracking through the few old crusts of snow, pretending they’d survived an airplane crash and were lost in a mountain forest. He finished the last sip and called the neighbors, who were out of town. He left a message, promising to send them pictures of the damage to their hedge and lawn.
The bell rang. The tow truck driver was at the door. He carried a flashlight.
“Come on in. It’s getting cold out there.”
“Thank you. Sir—I took a look. There were no lug nuts on any of your wheels. None.”
“Really?” He leaned forward and focused. “None at all? How is that—”
The driver nodded, grim. “All gone. All four wheels.”
“How is that even possible?”
The driver shook his head. “Probably somebody tried to lift your tires, got interrupted. They like the new ones; yours are Michelins. Your wife said you drove back from the city?”
“She drove.” He felt his face go slack: three kids in the back seat. “Wait. Nothing holding the wheels on at all, the whole way up from the city?”
“Gravity. It can take a while for them to work their way off.”
“So we could have lost a wheel on the parkway, the bridge . . .”
They shared a solemn look. “Anyway, thing is, I don’t have enough lug nuts on the truck, I gotta wait till my partner gets here before I tow. I can wait outside . . .”
“No, please—wait in here. Would you like coffee? A beer?”
“Sure, thank you. A beer. My shift’s done after this.”
Daniel opened two brown bottles and handed one to Miguel. The two men stood at the kitchen counter, not talking.
Miguel took his watch cap off. Gets hot when you come inside and leave it on, but he’d timed it just right. His hair was cut short, he had to be careful not to catch a chill.
Daniel looked out through the windows. He kept perfectly still.
Slowly, careful not to make noise, Miguel took a sip. His daughter Alma, his only child, would be starting college in the fall: all her applications were in. She played the piccolo. She’d be starting if she got real financial aid: he would not permit his child to begin her life as a young adult carrying heavy debts. He took another sip. Alma had only gotten her braces off last year.
“Good beer,” Miguel said. “Thanks.”
“Oh, you’re more than welcome. Can you excuse me for a sec?” Daniel went upstairs.
Miguel looked up: even the kitchen had a high ceiling, with slanting skylights. Beautifully made pots and pans of every kind hung from a rack above the island. So shiny they looked like they hadn’t ever been used. Big new stove. The whole place was extremely clean, as if not much happened there, but when it did someone came in right away to wipe everything down. It felt more like a museum than a lively place where children live and people cook and argue and laugh and play music. Even the fridge had the bright, oiled look of an unused tool. Cute kids, though. Their school pictures were held up by magnets shaped like baskets of fruit, each a little different. There was a picnic basket, a tiny cornucopia, a woven oval spilling berries like pinpoints and bead-sized oranges. Nice. The background the school photographer had used, kind of a swarmy mist, hadn’t changed since his father had posed for class pictures. Things like that become traditions for no reason at all.
He sipped the beer and stood still, too aware of himself to be at ease. His clothes felt tight. Liberal people, but probably the kind who never talk to a man like him unless something in their house gets broken. He shook his head. His daughter thought he was too political.
Upstairs in the little home office he shared with his wife, Daniel reviewed an old printout of his insurance policy to be sure they were covered. He cursed. The deductible was sky high, and then anything he got back would be a reimbursement. He’d chosen the policy to meet the requirement; details that had seemed benign at the time, or merely realistic, were apparently part of a scheme to cheat as many policyholders as possible. He opened his laptop to check the balances of their likeliest credit card: no good. Spent a few minutes figuring out how to pay, told his children night-night, collected kisses from the two who were young enough to give them, shared a look with Clarisse that told her he wanted to talk, whispered “It won’t be a big deal. We’ve got insurance,” and went back downstairs.
The driver, Miguel, was standing in the same spot.
Daniel picked up his beer and had a sip. The refrigerator grumbled and dropped ice. Ice-maker sounds, frightening in the night! Sometimes their youngest boy would hear a rumble and thunk from the dark downstairs and come running to Mom and Dad’s bed.
“I’m just amazed the wheels stayed on so long,” Daniel said. “I had to hunt for one. It took off down the road! Found it half a mile away, leaning against a fence.”
“Wheel separation accident? Main thing is, nobody got hurt.” You could find yourself upside down on the wrong side of the road, hanging from your seatbelt, cars coming at you fast. This family had lucked out: they’d almost made it back to their own driveway.
“That’s right.” Daniel took another sip. “You must have seen some bad ones.”
Miguel nodded slowly. “I have.” Too bad to talk about. Better think of the people you can help. One minute they’re rolling along, safe in their little world; next minute they’re on the side of the road, happy to be alive. They’re so glad to see you, it’s like you rescued them from the sea.
Miguel finished his beer. An old frost map hung in the kitchen, labeled AVERAGE DATES OF LAST KILLING FROST IN SPRING. When this was farmland, people used to depend on charts like these. Decoration now—in this house, anyway.
Daniel filled the kettle and turned on the gas. Clarisse would need a cup of herbal tea, something calming.
Miguel turned to the windows. The car from his garage should have been here by now. The road was empty. Through the bare limbs, a few stars. When he got home tonight—A gunshot rang off metal.
Miguel found himself on the floor, crouched at the base of the kitchen island. Silence, except for the soft clang of the cookware suspended above.
Daniel’s voice was sleepy, unconcerned: “Sorry, that was . . .” He stood at the stove. He’d hardly moved. “Stopper shot out of the vodka bottle. See? I keep it in the freezer—the air inside must’ve heated up. Sorry about that.”
Miguel got to his feet, brushed off his pants, stood as before. This guy Dan doesn’t react at all? Must be on something pretty strong.
The kettle whistled. It was a fancy thing with rivets along the bottom and a bird-shaped stopper that did the whistling. Miguel let out a breath.
Daniel took tea upstairs to his wife and came back down. Without asking, he opened a second beer for each of them. They drank without speaking, standing in the kitchen.
The kids were asleep or just quiet. Clarisse came downstairs and made another cup. By habit, she turned on the little white TV by the microwave: a familiar crime drama was underway.
Daniel stood nearby. He wanted to talk with his wife, but she’d been at the wheel when it happened; she needed to relax. Two detectives got out of a car. The woman wore a thin leather jacket. The man wore a suit and tie. He didn’t think he’d seen this one before, but to him the shows were as alike as bricks.
Clarisse stared at the screen and tried her tea: still too hot. She was enjoying the show, or trying to. She’d been spending too much on credit—so much that she felt uneasy when she thought of the talk she was going to have to have with Dan. She’d left her job two years ago to freelance and spend time with the family, but the start date for a promised project had been extended again and again—and, when she’d finally called her contact at the agency, it turned out the project had been cancelled weeks before. They hadn’t even bothered to let her know.
Clarisse held her cup in both hands and sipped. Now all her time seemed to be taken up with the kids and the house. A friend whose parents had visited from out of town had talked up that ridiculous musical, Dan had found discount tickets, and here they were. More money wasted, more inane chores to do. It was as if there could be no place to rest, even without a full-time job. Some simple errand would go wrong and beget two chores, and one of the chores would involve another errand that would end in an unexpected expense; and then the school would call, or the doctor’s office or the accountant—or, if she happened to have the house to herself for a moment, she’d sit down with her tea and feel a drip drop drip from one of the skylights. A day of looking for work would somehow become a day of unscheduled phone calls, and then it would be time to pick the kids up from school. (How would she drive them to school tomorrow? Maybe a friend would help out in the morning; by late afternoon she could have a loaner or a rental. So, goodbye tomorrow, too.) She sipped her tea. And there she’d been, whipping around curves like everything was fine, nothing holding the wheels on but luck.
Everything was bluish in the squad room. The leather-jacketed detective was questioning a suspect, who tossed her sleek hair and smirked. To judge from the look the detectives exchanged, that suspect wasn’t quite as smart as she thought.
A soft knock came at the door: the lug nuts. Miguel excused himself.
Over the TV sounds they heard the car being lifted, the quick little bursts of a power tool. Daniel went to the door to sign the paperwork, and that was that. They’d get a better idea of the damage in the morning.
The detective in the suit sat on the corner of a desk. Someone had just passed him an envelope: inside, the evidence they needed to crack the case. He toyed with the envelope, asking unexpected questions, probing the suspect’s story for flaws. He signaled his partner, who asked the tricky question they’d been holding back, the one the suspect couldn’t answer without giving herself away.
The tow truck pulled out. The light bar on its roof flashed white and amber beams across the living room and up the kitchen island into the tangle of pans.
Two uniformed cops led the suspect away. Clarisse leaned her head against Daniel’s shoulder. She wasn’t sure she understood what had been in the envelope, but it didn’t matter now. The woman was going to jail.
The Captain stood at the detectives’ desks, delivering his usual congratulatory critique. The detective in the leather jacket wondered what grim things lay ahead for the suspect—not to mention her victims.
“Might be a little bleak,” the Captain agreed.
“Maybe . . .” the detective in the suit mused “. . . maybe all of them just need to grow up.”
His partner nodded thoughtfully.
“Adulthood?” the Captain said. “It’s a country you can only enter alone. At the border they shred all your stuffed animals.”
Tired faces around the squad room looked up and grinned as the camera pulled back. Someone reached for a phone. As the night’s work went on, the producer’s name came up; the credits rolled.
Clarisse turned off the TV and went up to bed.
The empty kitchen was quiet. It was cold and windy outside, but tiny digital engines monitored all the rooms, turning heat on and off as needed, reporting doors and windows as locked, confirming the absence of fire. Deep in the night, the refrigerator grumbled and dropped ice, but no one heard. Everyone was asleep.