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Authors: Howard Owen

Turn Signal (9 page)

BOOK: Turn Signal
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It's all so clear now. It's like somebody handed me a script
.

I've pretty much got my corner all to myself now. It's too warm, and I see a couple of people who are actually nodding off with their newspapers in their laps, even though the train from Newport News probably will be here any minute, any second
.

Me, I'm wide awake
.

Ready for my big adventure
.

New York, New York
.

CHAPTER NINE

It has been almost four weeks since Jack took his five pounds of paper, two years of nights and weekends, to Copy Right's, then mailed the original to Gerald Prince of Gerald Prince Books, Mayfair Publishing, in New York City, certified mail, return receipt requested. He still has not shown the manuscript to Gina. He told her he wanted to hear what Gerald Prince had to say first.

And for the past three weeks, he's been in a state of uneasy, gut-churning expectancy, sure it's going to happen but wondering when. He makes a run by the house at 2 every day, to see if there's a letter from New York. He checks for phone messages every time he comes in and there's no one else in the house, even if he's only been gone 15 minutes.

Gerald told him it might take awhile, but still, he can't help himself.

He's sure of what he's done. The story of Lovelady and Pettigrew has grown, taking turns and twists that he never would have imagined when he added his first words to what the old man had written. He feels the way he did when someone brought a Ouija board to one of their first boy-girl parties, and he half-followed and was half-led to an answer that seemed preordained. He believes, but he believes he has to believe, too. He's sure that, if he just doesn't look down, he can make everything work, the way it could have worked a long time ago.

Maybe if he had had a Oiuja board that night with Bobby and Posey, things would have taken a different turn.

Bobby Witt had come late to the group. He had moved there the summer before his fourth-grade year, when his father became minister of Green Springs Presbyterian Church.

He was a tall, dark-haired, good-natured boy, a little heavy-legged but otherwise a natural athlete and scholar, a born leader. He had just enough of the perverse preacher's kid in him to be considered mischievous, “all boy” in the vernacular of Speakeasy. Soon, it seemed to Jack Stone, Milo, Cully, Mack and the rest that he had always been one of them.

By high school, he would become a two-way end for the Gladiators and the top scorer on the basketball team, a solid six-foot-three. Where Jack got above-average grades by dint of hard work, Bobby Witt seemed to just know things. He never appeared to study very hard, just took good notes in class and came away with all A's.

Even under the watchful eye of a father Bobby himself referred to, only half-jokingly, as the Angel of Death, he never seemed to sweat anything.

He would take what the rest of them thought were outrageous chances, pulling Posey Atkinson into temporarily abandoned classrooms for what was, at the least, heavy petting. It was part of Bobby's charm, his cool, that he himself would never talk about such things. He didn't have to. He would do imitations of teachers and other adults, without making it seem mean-spirited, without ever making an enemy. He had a natural talent for homing in on some mannerism or turn of phrase that no one realized, until Bobby Witt pointed it out, was pants-wetting funny.

By February of 1970, Bobby had already been admitted to Princeton. He and Jerry Prince were neck-and-neck for class valedictorian.

The night before was a Friday. They had played Cane Creek, their nemesis, and Bobby had his best game ever. He scored 29 points, and Gladden won by two. When Bobby told Jack and Mack later, in their bespoken booth at the diner, that on two or three occasions he'd had trouble deciding, in midair, whether to shoot a bank shot or just swish it cleanly, they knew he wasn't bragging. He was good enough to have options.

Jack Stone was a plugger in basketball, as likely to foul out as score in double figures. He was, everyone knew, a football player trying to stay in shape. While Bobby Witt sweated his freshman year at Princeton, maybe playing a little basketball just for the hell of it, Jack would be about the serious business of taking his game to the next level at some lesser university.

All seven of them, the keepers of the code, did things more or less together, floating in and out of each other's worlds according to seasons and girlfriends and fluctuating interests. Already, they were accepting the fact that they would not always be on the same team.

Puffer Sensibaugh was beginning to drift away, and Jack, Bobby, Mack and Cully were headed for different colleges come fall. Ray Bain and Milo were starting to confront the possibility that they might be carrying live ammunition in a foreign country before another Christmas—although both would join the National Guard and come no closer to Vietnam than Fort Jackson, South Carolina.

That winter, because Jack was dating Posey Atkinson's cousin, a setup arranged by Bobby and Posey, he and Bobby spent a lot of time together.

Posey's cousin lived south of Richmond, and the couples' double-dates were quite an undertaking. Bobby, Posey and Jack would drive down from Speakeasy, pick up the cousin, a tall blonde who wanted to be a model or an actress, and who Jack felt was well worth the trip. Then, they would go back into Richmond for a show or a concert, or even return to Speakeasy for a party at the house of parents careless enough to leave their teen-age son or daughter home alone for the weekend. Afterward, they would have to take the cousin back.

They had it all worked out: Jack would drive to the cousin's house, with the other couple in the back seat. Then, Jack and the cousin would get in the back seat and Bobby and Posey would move to the front. Going home, Jack and the cousin got the back seat until they arrived at her home, at which time Jack would zip up, tuck in his shirttail and walk her to her front door while Bobby and Posey claimed the back seat for the long return trip to Speakeasy. They joked about switching partners some night, like the adults did in the movie they saw that winter, and it might have come to that if they'd all lived long enough.

That Saturday night, they had taken Bobby's car, which had a larger backseat. They made the long trip to Dinwiddie and then returned to Speakeasy. Milo's parents had left him and his 10-year-old brother for a week while they visited relatives in Florida. They assumed that the presence of his little brother would keep Milo from throwing a party. They were, of course, wrong.

By the time the foursome got there, half the senior class has descended on the Wainwrights' modest brick rancher, along with a sprinkling of juniors, some sophomore girls and a few recent graduates. Milo's brother was in charge of opening the beers, and would drink enough to pass out by 10 o'clock.

It's strange to Jack Stone now, thinking back on it, but none of them really drank much until after the football season their senior year. For all their status as big men on campus, the seven of them probably hadn't drunk a case of beer among them before December of 1969. At other people's parties, they usually would beg off, and they were allowed to.

By February, though, alcohol was king. It seemed to Jack that suddenly everyone was drinking, and smoking a fair amount of dope, too. He thinks there is some truth in Milo's assertion that the Sixties got to Speakeasy just in time for the Seventies.

Jack would testify later that he had only had two beers at the party, and that was fairly close to the truth. Bobby and Posey drank a little more, while the cousin, intent on watching her weight, was mostly smoking marijuana in a back room. She would undo her early good intentions by eating half a bag of Frito's and a tin of bean dip by herself, sitting lotus-position in front of Milo's parents' half-open refrigerator.

Jack and the cousin did not actually go all the way until that night in Bobby Witt's car, on the way back to Dinwiddie. He was fairly certain the cousin had done it before, however, from the amount of whispered instruction. As he reached for the rubber he'd been carrying in his wallet for months, she told him not to bother, that she was on the pill. At her request, they did it sitting up, her straddling him in the middle of the back seat, the two of them locked in a kiss as well. He came twice, the second time as Bobby was starting to gear down, half a mile from her house.

“Can you go a little slower?” The cousin managed to get out.

“Are you talking to me or him?” Bobby replied, and that broke everybody up.

They pulled over long enough for Jack and the cousin to make themselves presentable. Then, just as they were getting out of the car, the cousin said, “Oh, shit!” and pulled from her purse a pint bottle of apricot brandy.

“I sneaked this out of Daddy's liquor cabinet, and then I forgot all about it. We were going to drink it tonight.”

“Not too late,” Bobby said.

“It is for me. Here.” She opened the bottle, the cap falling on the floor, and took a swig, then handed it to Jack. “You all take it. Drink some for me.”

Jack put the bottle in his back right pocket and walked her to the door. She told him he was great, and he told her he loved her, to which she responded by kissing him hard, her breath a melange of bean dip, marijuana smoke and apricots, before slipping inside.

As he got into the driver's seat, with Bobby and Posey already in the back, already horizontal, Jack took out the bottle. He smelled the brandy, and it reminded him of the cousin—the kiss and all the rest.

He took a swig, and it burned, but not unbearably. He'd had a couple of pulls of straight bourbon, and this was much better. He thought he could learn to like apricot brandy.

“Here” he said, passing the bottle back, not turning around although he could see various comely parts of Posey Atkinson anytime he wished to glance in the rearview mirror.

They took a sip each, spilling it on themselves and the seat as they tried to drink without sitting up. Then Bobby passed the bottle back to Jack.

“You need it worse than we do,” he said. “You've got to sit up all the way home. Maybe we'll have some more later.”

He had a couple of long drafts before they got back to the U.S. highway that would take them north. He had two more once they got on the road. Holding the bottle up to the light, he saw that it was half empty.

“I think I like this stuff,” Jack said, and something in the way he said it made Posey laugh and caused Bobby to ask him, distracted as Bobby was, if he was all right.

“Never better,” Jack said, and Posey laughed again.

They were no more than five miles from Dinwiddie when he saw the blue light in the rearview mirror. It was still far in the distance but seemed to be gaining.

Jack was holding the bottle between his legs. He passed it back to Bobby.

“Cops,” was all he said, and two heads popped up as one and peered out the back window.

“Turn here,” Bobby said, just as Jack saw a road on their left at a 45-degree angle. He was able to make it with almost no braking. He would never know whether Bobby Witt knew about the little side road somehow or if he was just making a wild, reckless guess.

The road curved clockwise, and Bobby said it would circle back to the main highway if they kept going. He told Jack to slow down a little, so they would be behind the cop when that happened, but they heard the siren to their rear, somewhere around the curve, and Jack accelerated.

What they came to was not U.S. 1 but another narrow, hump-backed road with anemic shoulders. It seemed to be barely paved.

“Left!” Bobby Witt said, and Posey agreed with him, probably because she always did.

Jack Stone turned left.

They didn't hear the siren now and couldn't see any lights, blue or otherwise, behind them. Jack, though, was going to make sure this time that they were not caught. He gained speed as they bumped down the old road. It was beginning to seem like an adventure, something to talk about at school on Monday.

He figures he was doing 70 when the road turned to clay. Jack struggled to control Bobby's car as they bounced along in a sudden fog that projected the headlights' high beams back at him.

They barely had time to scream for him to stop when he felt the rumble of wooden planks beneath them only for a split second. And then nothing. And then the jaw-breaking slam into the water.

They couldn't have sat there for very long. Jack remembers the slow descent below the water line, the pain, the pitch darkness, the wild, selfish scramble to get out, to breathe air. The driver's side door wouldn't open, so Jack rolled the window down, and then the muddy pond was with them, an unwelcome guest filling up the Buick's interior. It was a two-door, and Jack could feel and hear Bobby and Posey trying to get over the seats to the front. In the darkness and in their panic, they had chosen the same door from which Jack was trying to extract himself.

Just before total chaos made any escape possible, Jack was able to slip through the window and start kicking and clawing his way to the surface, through water so cold that, had he had breath still, it would have taken it away. He would have traded all he ever hoped to be for just one gulp of oxygen.

He felt his foot slam against something softer than car metal, and he would always wonder if it was Bobby Witt's head. He still knows, to his shame, that even if it happened a thousand times, he would always swim to the top and leave his friends behind.

You could say one for all and all for one, he suddenly learned as he fought the water, but when you're 15 feet below the surface of a lake inside a car with two doors and no air, on a blind-dark, freezing February night, it's one for one.

They might all have saved themselves, if they'd had their wits about them. They might have pressed near the top of the car, buying time in the oxygen bubble they didn't know was there. They might have calmly eased out the window, one at a time, and swum like water babies to the surface, wiser for the experience.

BOOK: Turn Signal
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