Authors: Elizabeth Strout
The bartender was back in front of Jack, making the couple’s drinks. Jack said, “And you? Did you grow up around here?”
“Nah,” the fellow said, “I grew up right outside of Boston. I’m here ’cause of my girlfriend. She lives here.” He tossed his head a bit, getting his dark hair out of his eyes.
Jack nodded, drank his whiskey. “For years my wife and I lived in Cambridge,” Jack said, “and then we came up here.”
He could have sworn he saw something on the bartender’s face, a smirk, before the fellow turned away and went to place the drinks before the couple.
When the fellow returned, he said to Jack, “A Harvard man? So you were a Harvard man.” He pulled a rack of clean glasses from below him, and began to put them—hanging them upside down—in the rack above him.
“I cleaned toilets there,” Jack said. And the idiot guy looked at him quickly, as though to see if he was joking. “No, I did not clean toilets. I taught there.”
“Great. You wanted to retire up here?”
Jack had never wanted to retire. “How much do I owe you?” he asked.
Driving back, he thought of Schroeder, what a goddamn ass that man was, what a shit of a dean. When Elaine filed the lawsuit, when she actually did that, citing sexual harassment as the reason she did not get tenure, Schroeder became a terrible man. He was outlandish, would not even let Jack speak to him. It’s in the hands of the lawyers, he said. And Jack was put on research leave. Three years it took for that thing to settle, for Elaine to get her significant chunk of change, and by that time Jack and Betsy had moved to Maine; Jack had retired. They came to Maine because Betsy wanted to—she wanted to get far away, and boy they did. Crosby was a pretty coastal town she had researched online, and it was about as far away as a person could get, even though it was just a few hours up the East Coast. They moved to the town without knowing one person there. But Betsy made friends; it was her nature to do so.
Pull your car over.
These words were said a few times before Jack paid attention to them; they were said through a bullhorn loudspeaker, and the different sound of them, different from just the tires rumbling over the pavement, puzzled Jack, and then he was amazed when he saw the lights flashing blue and the police car right on his tail.
Pull your car over.
“Jesus,” Jack said aloud, and he pulled his car over to the side of the highway. He turned the engine off and glanced down to the floor of the passenger seat at the plastic bag that had his whiskey in it, bought at a grocery store outside of Portland. He watched the young policeman who was walking over—what a puffed-up piece of crap the guy was, wearing his sunglasses—and Jack said, politely, “How may I help you?”
“Sir, your driver’s license and registration.”
Jack opened the glove compartment, finally found the registration, then pulled his license from his wallet and handed them to the policeman.
“Were you aware that you were going seventy in a fifty-five-mile zone?” The policeman asked him this rudely, Jack felt.
“Well, no, sir, I was not aware of that. And I’m very sorry.” Sarcasm was his weak point, Betsy had always said, but this policeman was beyond hearing that.
“Were you aware that your car is uninspected?”
“It was due for inspection in March.”
“Huh.” Jack looked around the front seat. “Well. Here’s what happened. Now that I think of it. My wife died, you see. She died.” Jack peered up at the police officer. “Dead.” Jack said this pointedly.
“Take your sunglasses off, sir.”
“I said, take your sunglasses off, sir. Now.”
Jack removed his sunglasses and smiled in an exaggerated way at the policeman. “Now you take yours off,” Jack said. “Show me yours, and I’ll show you mine.” He grinned up at the fellow.
After holding up Jack’s license and then looking at Jack, the policeman said, “Wait here while I run these.” And the policeman went back to his car, which still had the flashing blue lights zinging around. He spoke into his radio as he walked. Within moments another police car came driving up, also with blue lights flashing.
“You called for backup?” Jack yelled this after him. “Am I that dangerous?”
The second policeman got out of his car and walked up to Jack. This man was huge, and not young. He’d seen stuff, is what his walk said, what his eyes—expressionless, no sunglasses for him—said. “What’s that in the bag on the floor?” the huge man asked with his big voice.
“It’s liquor. Whiskey. Would you like to see?”
“Step out of the car.”
Jack peered up at him.
The huge man stepped back. “Step out of the car now.”
Jack got out of the car—slowly, because he felt winded. The huge man said, “Put your hands on the top of the car,” and this made Jack laugh. He said, “There is no top. See? This is called a convertible and there is no top to the car at the moment.”
The policeman said, “Put your hands on the top of the car now.”
“Like this?” Jack put his hands on the window frame.
“Stay there.” The man walked back to the car that had pulled Jack over and spoke to the other police officer, sitting in the front seat.
It came to Jack then how these days everything was videotaped from a policeman’s car—he had read this somewhere—and he suddenly gave the finger to the two cars behind him. Then he put his hand back on the window frame. “Horseshit,” he said.
Now the first policeman got out of his car and strode up to Jack, his holster strapped against his thigh. Jack, with his big belly hanging out and his hands ridiculously placed on the window frame, looked over at the guy and said, “Hey, you’re packed.”
“What did you say?” The policeman was pissed.
“I said nothing.”
“You want to be placed under arrest?” the policeman asked. “Would you like that?”
Jack started to laugh, then bit his lip. He shook his head, looking down at the ground. And what he saw were many ants. They had been interrupted by his car tracks, and he stared down at the tiny little ants who were making their way through a crack in the pavement, piece of sand by piece of sand from the place where his tire had crushed so many of them, to— Where? A new spot?
“Turn around and put your hands up,” the policeman directed, and so Jack, holding his hands up, turned around, and he was aware of the cars going by on the turnpike. What if someone recognized him? There was Jack Kennison holding his hands up like a criminal with two police cars and their flashing blue lights. “You listen to me,” the policeman said. He raised his sunglasses to rub one eye, and in that brief moment Jack saw the man’s eyes, and they were strange, like the eyes of a fish. The policeman pointed a finger at Jack. He kept pointing the finger but not saying anything, as though he couldn’t remember what he’d been going to say.
Jack cocked his head. “Listening,” he said. “All ears.” He said this with as much sarcasm as he could.
Fish-Eyes walked around to the other side of Jack’s car, opened the door, and brought out the bottle of whiskey in its plastic bag. “What’s this?” he asked, walking back toward Jack.
Jack put his arms down and said, “I told your friend, it’s whiskey. Come on, you can see that. For the love of Christ.”
Fish-Eyes stepped close to Jack then, and Jack backed away, except there was nowhere to go, his car was right there. “Now you tell me again what you just said,” Fish-Eyes directed.
it’s whiskey, and you can see that. And then I said something about Christ. Something about Christ and love.”
“You’ve been drinking,” Fish-Eyes said. “You have been drinking, sir.” And his voice held something so ugly that Jack was sobered. Fish-Eyes dropped the bag with the whiskey onto the driver’s seat of Jack’s car.
“I have,” Jack said. “I had a drink at the Regency bar in Portland.”
From his back pocket Fish-Eyes brought something forward; it was small enough to be held in one hand, yet square-looking and gray, and Jack said, “Jesus, are you going to taser me?”
Fish-Eyes smiled, he smiled! He stepped toward Jack holding out the thing, and Jack said, “Please, come on.” He held his arms against his chest; he was really frightened.
“Breathe in this,” said Fish-Eyes, and a little hose appeared from the thing he was holding.
Jack put his mouth on the little hose and breathed.
“Again,” said Fish-Eyes, moving closer to Jack.
Jack took another breath, then took his mouth off the hose. Fish-Eyes looked at the thing closely and said, “Well, well, you are just under the legal limit.” He put the hose gadget back into his pocket and said to Jack, “He’s writing you up a ticket, and after he gives it to you, I suggest you get in your car and drive straight to a place that gets this car inspected, do you understand me, sir?”
Jack said, “Yes.” Then he said, “May I get back in my car now?”
Fish-Eyes leaned toward him. “Yes, you can get back in your car now.”
So Jack sat himself in the driver’s seat, which was low to the ground since it was a sports car, and put the whiskey onto the seat next to him, and waited for the huge man to bring him a ticket, but Fish-Eyes stood right there as though Jack might bolt.
And then—from the corner of his eye—Jack saw something he would never be sure about and would never forget. The policeman’s crotch was right at Jack’s eye level, and Jack thought—he
but looked away quickly—that the guy might be getting a boner. There was a bulge there bigger than— Jack glanced up at the man’s face, and the guy was staring down at Jack with his sunglasses on.
The huge man came over and gave Jack the ticket, and Jack said, “Thank you very much, fellows. I’ll be off now.” And he drove slowly away. But Fish-Eyes followed him all the way down the turnpike until Jack came to the exit for Crosby, and when Jack took that exit the guy did not follow him but headed on straight up the turnpike. Jack let out a yell: “Get yourself some tighty-whities, like every other man in this state!”
Jack took a deep breath and said, “Okay. It’s okay. It’s over.” He drove the eight miles into Crosby, and on the way he said, “Betsy. Betsy! Wait until I tell you what happened to me. You’re not going to believe this one, Betts.” He allowed himself this, the conversation with her about what had just happened to him. “Thanks, Betsy,” he said, and what he meant was thanks for being so nice about the prostate surgery. Which she had been; there was no doubt about that. All his life Jack had been an undershorts man. Never for him those tighty-whities, but in Crosby, Maine, you couldn’t buy any undershorts. This had amazed him. And Betsy had gone to Freeport for him, and bought his undershorts there. Then his prostate surgery, almost one year ago, forced him to give up the undershorts. He needed a place to put the stupid pad. How he hated it! And right now, as though on cue, he felt a squirt—not a dribble—come from him. “Oh, for Christ’s sake,” he said out loud. The whole state, it seemed, wore tighty-whities; just recently Jack had gone to the Walmart on the outskirts of town to buy one more package of them, and he had noticed there were no undershorts there either. Just a slab of tighty-whities sized all the way to XXX-Large for all those poor fat men, huge men, in this state. But Betsy had gone to Freeport and found him undershorts there. Oh, Betsy! Betsy!
Home, Jack had trouble believing what had happened during the day, it all seemed ridiculous and somehow—almost—incidental. He sat for a long time in his big chair, looking at the living room; it was a spacious room with a low blue couch on metal legs that stretched along a few feet from the wall facing the television, then went at a right angle along the other area of the room, with a metal-legged glass coffee table in front. Then Jack turned in his chair and stared through the windows at the field of grass and the trees beyond, their leaves bright green. He and Betsy had agreed that they liked the view of this field more than any view of the water, and as he remembered this a warmth trembled through him. Finally he rose, poured himself some whiskey, and boiled four hot dogs on the stove. He kept shaking his head while he opened a can of baked beans. “Betsy,” he said out loud a few times. When he was through eating and had rinsed the dishes—he did not put them in the dishwasher, that seemed too much trouble—he had one more glass of whiskey and got to thinking of Betsy being so in love with that Tom Groger fellow. Oh, what a strange thing a life was—