Authors: Peter Leonard
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #General
About the Author
Kate was standing at the island counter, eyes swollen from crying, makeup smeared across one of her cheeks, staring at the food: platters of cold cuts and bowls of potato salad, plates of cookies, assorted cheeses and fresh fruit. Owen’s obituary, half a page in the
Detroit Free Press
, was folded open next to the sink. A line under his photograph said, “Owen McCall, age 49, October 11, 2006.”
Everybody had paid their respects and taken off, and now she felt exhausted, drained. She poured a glass of chardonnay and lit a cigarette. She was numb, her mind a blur, still trying to come to grips with what had happened.
Luke entered the kitchen, walked past her, detached, expressionless, the same zombie trance he’d been in since the accident. He opened the refrigerator and grabbed a Gatorade, purple liquid in a plastic bottle called Riptide Rush.
Kate said, “Come here.” She took a couple steps
and wrapped her arms around him. “I know you’re hurting. I am, too.” She could feel Luke, rigid in her embrace.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
She could see tears in his eyes before he looked down, staring at the floor.
“You can’t blame yourself. It was an accident.”
Luke pushed away from her. “I don’t want to talk about it.” He moved across the kitchen into the breakfast room and disappeared.
It was dark when she went upstairs, leaning against the banister, right hand on the smooth polished oak as she scaled the winding staircase. A light in the foyer was on, but she was too tired to go down and turn it off.
At the top of the stairs, she went left to Luke’s room. The door was closed, she knocked and opened it and saw him on his bed staring up at the ceiling. She said good night.
He didn’t move, didn’t look at her. Leon, their chocolate lab, was lying next to Luke. He got up, shook his tail and yelped.
Luke said, “Chill, Leon.”
The dog sat down.
Kate closed the door and went to her room, walked through into the bathroom and stared at
herself in the mirror hanging over the sink. She looked tired. She pulled her hair back behind her ears and turned the faucet on. Cupped water in her hands and washed her face. She glanced over, saw Owen’s blue terry cloth robe hanging on the back of the door, went over and lifted it off the hook and hugged it. Now she sat on the side of the tub and wept, letting go.
Kate walked into the bedroom, pulled the spread down and stretched out on the king-size bed—Owen’s side—and smelled his pillow, with its hint of Old Spice.
There were family photographs on the night table in gold and silver frames. She picked up a sepia-tone picture of Owen with short hair, age seven, wearing a white shirt and a bow tie, a smile on his little face, proud because he’d just made his First Communion. She put it back and picked up another, this one shot on their wedding day, Kate thinking it was one of the few pictures in sixteen years that showed Owen with his eyes open. She held it and remembered the day they met. Ran into him coming around a corner at Farmer Jack’s, the store at Lahser and Maple. Their carts hitting head-on with impact and it was so unexpected, it was funny.
He said, “You okay?”
“I think so,” Kate said, “except for the whiplash.”
He held her in his gaze, maybe wondering if she was serious. “I’m Owen,” he said. “And you?”
“Kate,” she said, offering her hand.
He took it in his, looked her in the eye and said, “Kate, you doing anything tonight?”
“What do you mean?”
“Can I take you out to dinner? Make up for your injury.”
“Is this how you get dates?” Kate said. “Run into someone with your grocery cart?”
He grinned. He had a grocery list in his hand, a five-by-seven-inch lined yellow sheet and his cart was filled with cans of soup and tuna fish. He obviously wasn’t much of a cook.
Kate said, “I don’t even know you.”
Owen said, “We just met, didn’t we?”
Kate said, “You could be a rapist.”
“I could even be a Republican.” He grinned.
“That was going to be my next question.”
They went to a little place called Oliverio’s that night—a dark, loud Italian restaurant with white tablecloths and waiters in black suits—had veal chops with cognac cream sauce, drank Brunello and told their life stories to each other.
Owen was a stock car driver.
“I knew I wanted to race from the time I was about eight years old,” he said. “I’d go with my dad to his Chevy dealership in Dearborn and help the mechanics. All I wanted to do was work on cars. And when I turned sixteen, all I wanted to do was race them. My dad, on the other hand, wanted me at the store. His plan was to teach me the business, sell me the dealership and retire.”
Owen looked down at his plate and cut into his veal chop and took a bite.
“This is good isn’t it? I started racing for real right after high school. Teamed up with a friend, big easygoing guy named Charley Degener. He was a few years older and had been an over-the-wall tire changer for a single car team, but his real specialty was horsepower.”
He picked up his wineglass and took a gulp, drank it like a soft drink.
“In the early days it was just me and Charley. He built the motors. I did the cars. We started on the dirt tracks, but our goal from day one was Winston Cup. We weren’t going to settle for anything less. We pulled the racecar behind a converted bread truck. You looked close, you could see the faint outline of Wonder Bread on the side. It was loaded with tools, parts and tires. Charley and I even slept in it on
occasion. The deal was, we had to make enough on the track to come back the next week.”
Kate said, “Did you win?”
“You want to know about my checkered past, huh?” He grinned big.
He was corny but appealing, had a nice easy way about him—big hands and shoulders and a good face, handsome in a rugged way.
“First year we made ten races, including one pole, three top fives, and five top tens. But to answer your question, no checkered flags.”
“How about since then?”
“We’ve done okay.”
He was the master of understatement, Kate discovered when she got to know him better. He never boasted or lost his cool, played everything low-key.
“When you see it on TV, it looks like they’re really moving,” Kate said. “How fast do you go?”
“Two hundred and change, flat-footing it down the straights.”
“I went a hundred and ten one time in my father’s Audi and it felt like warp speed.”
“Once you get used to it, it’s like driving on the freeway—you almost feel like you’re in slow motion—only there are twenty-five cars trying to blow your doors off.”
Kate cut a piece of veal, dipped it in the sauce, and took a bite.
“You look as far ahead as you can and rely on peripheral vision,” Owen said. He took a big gulp of wine. “And always be aware of where everyone is. That’s basically it. After awhile, you do it without thinking.”
“If it’s that easy,” Kate said, “maybe I should sign up. I’m looking for a new career.”
“My dad took pity on us, I guess, and donated fifteen grand a year in sponsorship money. The rub was, I had to spend time at the dealership, learn the business. That was the tradeoff.”
“It looks dangerous,” Kate said. “My dad took me to a NASCAR race at Michigan International Speedway and there were three crashes.”
“I had her buried down one of the straights at Martinsville, passed a slower car on the right, nicked the wall, spun off and flipped three times. It felt like it happened in slo-mo. I remember being airborne, seeing sky. I came down, blew out all the glass. Amazing thing was, the car was totaled— every panel damaged—and I walked away without a scratch. Watched a forklift pick the car up and put it on a flatbed and decided right then to break up with this girl I was living with. All of a sudden it hit me,
I didn’t love her and we were talking about getting married.”
The waiter came and cleared their plates and came back, and they ordered espresso and Sambuca.
Kate said, “Do you like tiramisu? We could split one.”
“Sounds good,” Owen said. “But I want to hear about you.”
Kate told him how she’d grown up in Birmingham, an only child in a neighborhood full of big Irish families. The Youngs had seven, the Ivorys, eight, the O’Clairs, ten and the Callaghans, eighteen.
“Eighteen,” Owen said. “Must’ve been something in the water.”
“Rhythm method gone wild,” Kate said. “I went to Marian, an all-girls Catholic high school and played tennis, number one singles. I was ranked second in the state, eighteen and under, and I got a scholarship to Michigan, a full ride.”
“You look like a tennis player,” Owen said. “How tall are you?”
“Yeah, that’s perfect.”
Dessert was served. Owen picked up his Sambuca and Kate picked up hers and they clinked glasses. He said, “Salut.”
Kate sipped the warm licorice liqueur, put her glass down and took a bite of tiramisu. “You have to try this.”
Owen reached his spoon over, scooped some up, and put it in his mouth. He nodded and said, “That is something, isn’t it?”
Kate said, “I played two years and only lost four matches. I was All–Big Ten and honorable mention, All-American, and then I blew out my right knee, my ACL. It was the beginning of my junior year and that was it for collegiate tennis.”
Owen opened a bag of sugar and poured some into his espresso and stirred it with a spoon.
Kate said, “I partied after that—drinking and smoking—something I’d never done much of before, and at the end of my junior year, decided I’d had enough of college, and sixteen credits shy of graduating, I joined the Peace Corps.”
Owen stirred his coffee and took a sip and placed it back on the saucer. “You were so close. Why didn’t you finish?”
“My knee healed, but I knew I’d never be able to play the way I had. I was bored, tired of going to parties and sitting around smoking weed. I wanted to travel, do something interesting. I knew a girl who’d joined the Peace Corps, lived in India for two
years. She said it was the most incredible experience of her life, trekking through Nepal and going to base camp on Mount Everest, eighteen thousand feet above sea level. I looked around and thought, what did I have to lose?”
Owen said, “When I hear Peace Corps, I think of a bunch of happy, clean-cut kids sitting around in a circle, singing folk songs. Is that what it was like?”
Kate took a sip of Sambuca and said, “Imagine leaving here and flying to Miami and then to Guatemala City, the largest town in Central America—a million and a half people—and taking a two-hour ride on a chicken bus to San Pedro.”
Owen said, “Where in the hell’s that?”
“Eastern Guatemala,” Kate said.
“What do they speak?”
,” Kate said, “a local Mayan dialect, and also Spanish. The point I’m trying to make, I arrived in this little town and didn’t know a soul and I had to find a place to live.”
“Peace Corps didn’t help you?”
“No,” Kate said. “And people stared at me everywhere I went. Women would come up to me and run their fingers through my hair because they’d never seen a blond before.”
“Or blue eyes, I’ll bet,” Owen said. “Why’d you pick eastern Guatemala?
“That’s where they needed help. I signed on to teach English—second grade. Had fifty little Mayan girls who called me Seño Kate, short for Señorita. I’d walk in the classroom and they’d surround me, hang on my arms and waist and not let go, giggling. I’d have to pry them off.”
“You liked it though, I can tell.”
“I loved it,” Kate said. “The kids wanted to learn. I’d tell them stories and we’d sing songs and play games. It was fun.”
“Wish I’d had a teacher like you,” Owen said. He reached over the table and touched her hand. “You’re better-looking than Sister Mary Andrews who I had in second grade. Nicer, too.” Owen sipped his Sambuca.
Kate said, “Do you eat the coffee beans?”
“I don’t,” Owen said, “but you can.”
“When I got to San Pedro, I went around to the shops, asking if they knew anyone who was renting. There weren’t a lot of options in this town at the end of the bus route. It wasn’t a tourist destination. People didn’t go there for its deluxe accommodations or four-star dining.” She could see he was interested, sipping the liqueur, giving her his full
attention. “I spent the first night in the school where I’d be teaching, slept on a bench in the principal’s office, and the next day, I found a little house with a patio in back.”
“How much was the rent?”
“A hundred eighty quetzales a month,” Kate said. “Twenty-eight bucks for a four-room house with running water. Not bad, eh?”
“What did they pay you?” Owen said.
“Nothing,” Kate said. “It’s volunteer. I got $150 a month for expenses. And they give you six thousand when you leave, when your tour is over.”
“Were you afraid, living alone in a strange country?”
“My windows had bars on them and the doors were steel and the patio was surrounded by a cinder-block wall that was seven feet high, topped with chicken wire.”
“Sounds like you were a prisoner.”
“Most of the houses in the village were like that,” Kate said. She took a bite of tiramisu, savoring it. “It was my first house and I loved it. I painted the walls bright colors and bought furniture and plants at the market. I’d never lived alone before. It was exciting, but also weird because it’s a male-dominated, third-world culture where women have to ask permission
to leave the house. You think they thought I was a little odd?”
She told him about having water only two or three hours every other day and getting up at five-thirty in the morning to fill plastic buckets. And about the water, during the rainy season, coming out like mud. She’d have to boil and strain it to get anything.
She told him about learning how to kill a chicken, snapping its neck and plucking the feathers and cooking it Mayan style.
She told him about her neighbor, a little old lady who sold moonshine from her kitchen, and about the drunks who would fall asleep on the grass in front of her house, Kate finally getting the nerve to tell them to find somewhere else to sleep, and they never bothered her again.