Fairly Tall Order

No Man's Land
No Man's Land | Source

Pt. 1 of The Potshards, a possibly loosely connected series of short stories

John Stevens was a normal man, maybe a little too normal. He didn't like to make waves, he didn't like to make noise. He wore suits but they weren't flashy suits, He bought expensive leather shoes but he bought them for comfort and durability, not style. And he didn't buy them often, every two or three years. He liked to just do his job and know that it was done well. He didn't worry about whether he was noticed or not, but his quiet competence had earned him an office of his own. He and his wife, Theresa, lived in unpretentious comfort in a nice little house in an up-and-coming town, but not the most expensive part. His marriage was traditional but not in a confrontational way. Theresa stayed at home, but she liked staying at home, it wasn't any kind of political statement. They were happy that way. His nickname was "Jack." He was normal, except for one luxury.

He loved his car. He had to admit it, he really loved his car. After all, it was a really great car. It was a muscle car, there was no other way to describe it. It had that shiny grill that said, "Don't mess with me." The bulky yet graceful body let everyone know what was under the hood was more powerful than anything you ever drove. It hummed loudly when he turned the key and rumbled pleasingly under his body. Jack felt every inch, every centimeter of the blacktop, the cement, the gravel when he drove it and he loved that feeling. It was all clean lines that looked like they were moving forward, even when standing still. It had a shiny paint job that he kept as shiny as humanly possible. It was perfect.

It was unlike Jack to buy this car. It had been a moment of sheer madness, complete abandon when he'd bought it, a moment he knew he'd regret at some point and one that would cause no small amount of argument at home, but he couldn't resist. He saw the car on the lot, shiny and clean and just calling to him. He saw the car, he had to have the car, so he bought the car. He had never made a purchase without talking to Theresa, at least not as long as he'd been married. Every suit he bought for work, every knicknack he bought for the house, he had discussed withher. She was the one who was at home all day, why should she have to look at something she hated? It worked both ways, she always asked his opinion, and if he hated something, she did without. But he didn't dislike many things she selected. Even before he'd met his wife, he'd been careful and frugal. Rash decisions and impulse buying were just not his style. Even a stick of gum he wouldn't buy without considering the cost. The car was a huge expense and he was expecting Theresa to be unhappy about it. To his surprise, though, she had been okay with it when it rumbled up the driveway. Yes, they needed a second car. No, it wasn't the one she would have picked, but she had the minivan and that was fine with her. She smiled, she kissed him, and she said that he was entitled to do one crazy thing. They weren't rich, but the car wouldn't break them.

The grief had come from the source he really, really should have seen coming, his younger brother. His brother was a little younger than him, a little less neat, a little less tame. His given name was Marvin, which he hated. Marvin insisted everyone call him Ben, to the point where he was usually introduced to people as Ben. He never wore suits, at least not complete ones, and his hair was never cut just so. No, Marvin was a wild child, or rather he wanted to be. He thought he was all that, but he wasn't really. He dressed sloppy, had longer hair, usually sported a three-day growth of beard, and spoke in an animated, rapid-fire manner that made people think he was full of life and a little dangerous. Yeah, people thought that about Ben. He wanted to do things, he wanted to be withpeople, he wanted to be the life of the party and the center of attention. He wanted to slide through life on the strength of his good looks, his winning personality and his line of bull. Usually he did, but there was one person he could never snow and one thing he couldn't get. He couldn't get it by begging, pleading, cajoling, laughing, smiling, plying with liquor, nothing. Ben wanted to drive that car. He wanted to drive that car real, real bad because he had never owned a car like that, and neither had any of his friends. He couldn't drive one even by going to a lot and asking for a test drive, dealers always knew that he would be able to buy that car. But he wanted to drive it, he even wanted to borrow it. Big Brother Jack just said no. Over and over again he had to say, until he was as sick of saying it as Ben was of hearing it. He was not going to let his brother drive it, no way and no how. One time the normally taciturn older brother let drop a comment about Marvin and his hoodrat friends. The conversation had grown piquant after that.

"Aw, come on! Why not?" That was Marvin's catch phrase, his mantra, the line he trotted out over and over again. Ben had used it to justify getting his parents to buy him that cool bicycle, and it had gotten the older sib to drive him to the biker bar. It was the line used just before he got into trouble, and with a laugh and a shrug it was the line used when someone else got him out of trouble. This time, like so many others, it was used while Jack was actively driving the car. He had just gotten off work, and he had picked up Ben (who had no car of his own) at a bar downtown.

The bar was actually just down the street from the office where Jack worked. He had probably passed it a thousand times and never noticed it. Jack drank the occasional beer with Dad, or the occasional something stiffer at office parties, but he wasn't much of a drinker himself. Ben, on the other hand, fancied himself quite the hollow leg. Jack never asked, but he suspected that Ben thought a certain perpetually nascent alcoholism was extremely romantic. It certainly went with Ben's tastes in friends and women. Where Ben got the money to pay for all the liquor he drank Jack didn't ask because he was afraid he would become the source. He had his suspicions, but he knew he would never ask.

Jack left the modern, steel and glass tower that was his office. He had taken his carefully hung jacket off the hanger on the back of his door and put it on, Smiling a bit wistfully at the tastefully framed picture of Theresa on his desk, he wished he were going home to her. The warmly panelled elevator took him quietly from the 126th floor down to the lobby, where he walked out the glass front door and turned right to walk down to the bar. From the street, it looked like an upscale watering hole, the kind where well-heeled working people put their well-shined shoes on a foot rail beneath a well-polished oak bar and drank expensive, single-malt liquor. When you stepped inside it looked as if it had been that at one time, then been bought by someone with a perverse sense of humor. It was now a hang-out for wannabes, the kind of people who thought they were as smart and talented and clever and good-looking as their more successful relatives and acquaintances, and who spent their time telling each other just that. The bar itself seemed unable to decide whether it wanted to be a bohemian, downtown bar for college students and struggling musicians or a middle-class retreat for working people who just needed a place to sit and a drink and maybe a sandwich. It was an argument it seemed to be having with itself, and losing.

The street had been bright, almost unnaturally bright even though the late afternoon light came from the sun. The bar was probably not unnaturally dark, but after walking in from the street it sure seemed that way. There was a small anteroom when you first walked in, probably the last holdover from the bar's days as upscale. When Jack walked through it to the actual bar area, he noticed the giant mirror behind the actual bar that was blocked with shelves covered with half-empty bottles of expensive liquor, the kind that was not poured into glasses for consumption. There were lights hanging down in various strategic spots, all turned on and all low. There were various neon signs advertising beer. Jack did not expect to have any trouble finding Ben and he wasn't disappointed, because down at the opposite end of the bar a crowd of people surrounded his little brother. Most of them looked like over-aged college students, some of them had obviously been drinking, and when Jack walked toward them they fell quiet in unison. They all eyed Jack the same way, like the big brother come to narc on his little siblings. Everyone looked at him like that except for Ben, who sat smirking with six empty green beer bottles in front of him.

"Hey!" he shouted out, "Big Brother is watching me!" This brought nervous laughter and confused looks from all his friends. "Whassup, bro?" Jack just motioned for Ben to follow him with a nod of his head. Ben was not in the mood, though, and said, "Dude! My buzz is just starting!" Jack just stood there, silently looking at Ben. Grabbing the only bottle in front of him that had any beer left in it, Ben stuck it in his mouth and swigged the last few drops. Then he thumped it on the bar, causing the bartender to grouse about the coasters that were not being used. The two stared at each other for what seemed like an hour.

Finally someone broke the silence. A blond girl wearing too much makeup said, "Maybe you should go, Ben. Didn't you say you were supposed to go see your Mom and Dad this afternoon?" Jack arched an eyebrow as if to say, "See? She has more sense than you." For his part, Marvin made great show of pulling a few bills out of his pocket and plunking them down on the bar, saying, "I believe this will cover my bill." He then sauntered out behind Jack while the bartender commented about finally being able to buy the shoelaces he was needing.

Jack had been commissioned to ferry Marvin to their parents house and then drop him off before heading to his own house, his wife and a hot meal. This happened once or twice every week, when Ben was in the city and either he wanted Mom's home cooking or Mom justwanted her baby. Jack never looked forward to these trips, for several reasons. First was Marvin's incessant badgering to drive the car. The second was because there was no straight line between their parent's house and his own. The third reason was related to the second, guilt over the fact that he almost always wound up staying at his parent's house for dinner.

The car was sitting in it's customary place in the company parking garage, and Marvin did his customary complaining about it being on the fourth floor. "Why can't you park down on the bottom floor? Aren't you some kind of hot-shot executive now?" It was the same thing every time, usually followed by, "If I was a supervisor, I'd..." Jack could recite it from memory. Sometimes at family get-togethers he would regale everyone with his impression of Marvin. It was always a big hit, except with Marvin, who would sulk and get Mom to spend more time with him than anybody else. Most of the time, though, Jack just kept quiet, It was his way.

The car rumbled to life and Jack backed it out of his space. Even though there were few other cars in the garage at 5:28 (according to the dashboard clock,) he still backed out carefully. "Afraid a beam will jump behind you?" Marvin asked, always his cheerful, supportive self. Jack didn't answer, but made sure he was well clear of any obstacles even though there were none before he started going down the ramp and out onto the street. They pulled out of the garage and went two blocks west to the road that would take them out of the city and straight to Mom and Dad.

Now Little Brother began turning up the heat, trying to get the older one to bend, to smile, to say okay. Jack just looked over at Marvin with a bemused but slightly disgusted look. This had no effect on Little Bro who was all over his seat. Ben was not to be denied. His seat belt hung in its place next to the passenger door, he had taken it off almost as soon as he'd put it on, and the police never noticed him. Jack remained firmly strapped in and unmoved. He turned back to the road. This was completely nothing new, that as soon as they got out of the city that Marvin would start badgering Jack to drive the car.

"You cannot be serious!" Little Brother's finger punched the air for emphasis, one two three times. It came at Jack percussively, you could almost hear the drum snap with each push of the digit through the air. "So what if I broke a few of your toys! That was fifteen years ago!" Big Brother kept his eyes on the road. Marvin always went back to when they were kids, as if Jack's refusal to let him drive the car was simply revenge for all slights real and imagined throughout their shared lives. It irritated Jack so much that it just made him even more determined not to let Marvin drive the car.

They had left the city half an hour ago but were still a long way from the town where their parents lived. Jack kept his eyes on the road, but his face did not remain still. His brows furrowed, his mouth twitched, his lips pursed. He looked at the road. Then, without turning his gaze, he shrugged. Keeping his thoughts to himself was a habit that he had developed after Marvin was born, but he could never keep his face entirely still. And it drove Marvin crazy. Smacking the dashboard with his left hand, he shouted "What is wrong with you?" Then, sighing heavily, he turned to look out the passenger window, his twitching shoulders and moving head as active as Big Brother's were now still.

This stretch of road was long and straight, it seemed to go one for hours and hours. The brothers had dubbed it "No Man's Land" because the length and general desolation, coupled with the fact that they almost never saw anybody else on it, made it feel like the literal "middle of nowhere." About a mile outside the city the metropolitan street became a stretch of straight, two-lane road with a single, broken yellow line going down the exact middle. It went in a straight line almost right to their Mom and Dad's door. Not too long after the city street became the country road, all vegetation petered out until only a few shrubs dotted the landscape. Hills sat in the distance, but no matter how fast or how long you drove, they never seemed to get any closer. It was not the road Jack took to get home, but it was the only road he could take to the home he grew up in. There was no straight line between his house and his parent's, he had to go back into the city and get on this road.

The car wasn't the only act of craziness he ever allowed himself. Almost, though, because the only other act of craziness he ever allowed himself was on this stretch of road. He drove over the speed limit, sometimes way over. Why not? You could see into oblivion from anywhere on the road. Even if a police car had a laser to track your speed, you could see it so far down the road that it was effectively useless. And so he would speed, but he did it his way. He would gradually push his foot down on the pedal, first going five miles over the speed limit, then ten, then fifteen, then twenty. And on No Man's Land, the only way you knew you were going too fast was the way the road felt under you. The landscape seemed to crawl by, no matter how fast you went.

Marvin wasn't saying anything, but that was meaningless. He could never let anything go or take 'no' for an answer, and Jack knew it. He knew it was coming, so it didn't bother him much when Little Bro whirled around and said, "Please! Come on, man! Just one time!" But it wouldn't be just one time. It was never 'just one time' unless disaster prevented Marvin from repeating an action he really wanted to do. So Jack had no trouble just shaking his head. But something about this time, the way Marvin kept wheedling him, doing everything he could think of, even offering (with a grin) to give Jack his baseball card collection, his best comic boodk and a candy bar, finally wore him down. Taking his foot off the gas, he let the car slow down. Almost as if he didn't dare to believe it, Marvin kept his increasingly shiny eyes on the speedometer, watching with mounting glee as the needle dropped down to forty, then thirty, then twenty. Finally, Jack applied the brake and brought the car to a stop. The car had barely ceased moving when Marvin, giggling almost hysterically, threw open his door and ran around the front of the car. Opening his door and getting out at a deliberate pace, Jack sauntered around the front while Marvin jumped in and slammed his door shut.

"Hey!" shouted Marvin, looking down. Throwing his hands up in frustration, he yelled, "Where's the key?" Sliding into the passenger seat, putting the seat belt on and making sure it was properly adjusted, Jack produced the key, attached to a keychain that contained the remote lock and an LED light. Marvin tried to grab it, but Jack deftly kept it away in a hand closed. The passenger tapped his shoulder strap with his thumb. The younger man at first refused, saying, "No way, man! I will not put that stupid thing on!" but Jack didn't budge. "There's no cops for miles! This is stupid!" Jack just arched an eyebrow and shook his head, ever so slightly. Predictably, this drove Marvin crazy, causing him to shout, "You know, you always were a control freak!" but with his face toward the driver side window. Jack allowed himself a slight chuckle. Finally, wearing his defeat like a badge of sulkiness, Marvin put on his seat belt, pronounced his sibling a jerk and snatched the proffered key, almost jamming it into the keyhole.

The engine roared to life. The car's owner, the only person ever to have driven the vehicle since it left the dealer's lot, had always enjoyed sitting for just a moment, listening to the sound of the engine and feeling the rumble. But not his brother. With a rebel yell, Marvin jerked the car into gear and floored the pedal. They smell of smoke filled their nostrils as the rear tires circled against the concrete without moving the car forward. Then the auto lurched into motion, going faster and faster. Jack shot a concerned and angry look over at Marvin, but Little Brother just kept his eyes on the road and yelled, "No way, Bro! Speed equals freedom!" Then he laughed. And laughed.

Jack kept one eye on the road, and the other on the dashboard clock. Five minutes ticked by, then ten. The minutes seemed to move in direct,inverse proportion to the speed of the car. The minutes seemed to go as slowly as the landscape they were passing. Finally, fifteen minutes went by. Reaching over his own chest, Jack tapped the clock with his right forfinger. Marvin shook his head furiously and assumed a furious, rebellious look on his face. Jack cocked his head and arched an eyebrow. Marvin tried not to notice, but finally exploded, "Come on, man! I never get to drive a set of wheels like this! How can you make me stop now?" Both Jack's eyebrows went up and his head went forward just a little. Breathing his frustration in and out like some kind of polluted oxygen, and his inability to delay gratification like fire, Marvin turned his head and yelled, "You really are a control freak, you know that? How can you tell me to stop this? When do I get to have fun?" For a brief moment, they were kids again, with LIttle Brother scrounging in Big Brother's Christmas toys after he'd broken all his own.

Jack had just opened his mouth to say something when they heard it, a loud bang at the front of the car. Like a gunshot, the sound pulsed through both of their bodies, pulling their attention away from each other. Like a pair of synchronized toys, their faces both jerked forward as if the noise had put hooks in their cheeks. Marvin took his foot off the gas, but didn't apply the break until Jack slapped him on the shoulder. Putting the gear shift in 'Park', he jumped out of the driver side while Jack jumped out of the passenger side. They both looked behind them, expecting to see something, a dead animal or a rock or a tree limb or just about anything on the road. But there was nothing to see, only mile after mile of empty highway stretching to the vanishing point like some kind of grey still life painting. The younger man stood by the door wearing a puzzled expression and watched while nothing happened behind them, After satisfying himself that there really was nothing to see, Jack walked around to the front.

There it was was. lying right in front of the vehicle. A dead animal, apparently pushed by the car, or thrown by the force of the impact. Kneeling down, he studied it; the matted fur, the outstretched limbs, the unseeing eyes. Looking down at the poor beast, Jack expected to see a pool of blood, but there wasn't any. He looked at the grill of the car, expecting to see it caved in, but it wasn't damaged at all. The shape and shine were as pristine as the day he drove it off the lot. He couldn't understand it, and he was pondering it when he became aware of his disheveled brother kneeling next to him. They looked at each other, then at the animal. They looked at each other, then at the grill of the car. They looked at each other, then off in the distance of the surroundings, trying to figure out where the animal even came from. They looked at each other, then they stood up. Jack dusted off the knee of his slacks and straightened his jacket, then looked down at the tops of his shoes. They had those creases that leather gets from continued use. He needed a new pair, but the shine on this pair was good and they went well with his suit. He straightened his tie and looked over at his passenger. Ben had somehow acquired a dusty look since getting out of the car, his hair looked more unkempt than usual, and his childlike twinkle was gone. He seemed to be thinking, being uncharacteristically quiet but at the same time his face was all bunched up. Jack was thinking as well. He looked back down at the animal, and a single tear fell from his eye, dropping onto the creature's soft, unmoving fur.

"Don't you do that, man!" Ben exploded. He was swirling around like a dust devil, a small cyclone of hot wind kicking up dust. His face was in motion, betraying the muddle of his mind. His hands punched and pointed, his old and worn jacket seemed to take on a life of its own while he spoke. "We didn't do anything wrong, there's no need for you to get all sad!" Jack had just given Ben an uneasy look, but now looked back down at the animal. "And don't start in with any of your fairy tales!" the younger brother yelled, pointing with both his finger and his eyes. "I don't want to hear it! You want to get sad, wait 'til you get home!" Shoving his hand toward the front of the car, he continued at high volume, "Look! Just look at it! The car's fine, man! In fact, it looks better than before this happened!" Walking by the older brother, Ben threw the key at him and said, "Come on! We're gonna be late for Mom and Dad!" Then he jumped in the passenger seat, slammed the door shut and put on his seat belt. John just stood, looking from the animal to the front of the car, then to the road ahead. The front of the car did look better now than it had before the accident. But he couldn't figure out how that could be.

Rolling down the window and sticking out his head, Ben yelled, "Look, just drive around it! It'll be gone before you come back this way, anyway!" John stood for a moment, looking at the animal with a face that betrayed all his confused emotions. He looked at the road ahead, how it went off into an identical vanishing point to the one behind them. For a moment, he had the uncomfortable feeling that they had come from nowhere and were heading to the same place. Then the horn was being leaned on, and he sighed and got in the car.

Putting the key in the ignition, he looked at the road. You couldn't see the animal from where they were sitting, but it was there and he well knew it. He wondered how Ben could be so sure the animal would be gone when he drove the road again, in the opposite direction. Engaging the reverse gear, he backed up far enough to see it, then pulled into the wrong lane until they had gone around the animal.

Ben had been right. Even though he was only supposed to be dropping his sibling off, John knew that "they" would be late for Mom and Dad. The pair didn't look at each other as the car purred down the road, seeming to devour the concrete beneath it. They didn't look at each other and they wouldn't look at each other all the way to their parent's house. He knew that Marvin would never tell their parents what had happened, and he knew that he would. They would sit, have some dinner, some quiet family time, almost like it used to be. No, just like it used to be. Maybe Mom would have fixed some chicken, or maybe Dad would have some steaks on the grill out back, the Porterhouse cuts he favored. He would call home where his wife would have something prepared. Theresa would know that something was wrong by the sound of his voice, and would ask him, and he would not tell her then. He would have to come back on this road, going all the way back to the city to turn and get back to his own house, with his own yard and his own trees. His own trees, with animals in them. And later, or maybe tomorrow, he would tell her everything. But for now he didn't say anything. Neither of them said anything. Because for now, there was nothing to say.


copyright (C) 2012 christopher w neal all rights reserved


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