The Most Amazing Thing
A Novel 

By Robert Grudin

Book One: Ruck's Run

Chapter One: Bullets Are Good For You

 

Thursday, April 2, 1998.

This isn't happening.

I'm not in Newark, in a dirtcheap motel room stunk up by Lysol and cigarettes.

I'm not in Newark, scratching on a notepad held against a Gideon Bible.

There's not a naked girl on the bed, unconscious, blood caking on her skin.

There's not a bullet-ridden van at the door, with billions of dollars soaking in vomit and blood.

I'm not Desmond Ruck, clown, thief and madman, with maybe three hours to live.

But is it a dream to have this web of pain through your back, pain you earned dragging a sumo-sized corpse out of the van and slipping in his gore? Or the pain and ringing in the ruins of your left ear, pain and ringing acquired by having some scumbag fire a pistol point blank at your face? Or the rain drumming against the window, or the newscaster in the motel TV quietly yakking about everything, it seems, except today's mass carnage on Stuyvesant Avenue? Or the fat fly checking out your ex-earlobe and then buzzing lazily over to Sleeping Beauty's torso?

No, it's real, it's a fact, it's an outrage. Nightmares are piss-poor by comparison.

Yet somehow for the first time in weeks I want to live.

Cut the losses then, put one foot in front of another.

I rise, stiffening with pain, take off my smelly shirt, go to the bathroom, piss for about three minutes, wash hands, pull a plastic cup out of a plastic sack, drink the sulfuric tapwater and start the bathwater at coolish, so as maybe to wake up the lady. I go back to the bed, bend my knees as I get my arms under her, lift her in lower-back agony, carry her to the bathroom, gently place her in the bathtub and turn on the shower. As the cool water cascades on her and begins to loosen the bloodlust, her nipples pucker but she doesn't move. I strip to the waste, grab a hanky-sized washcloth and begin to rub blood away as the bracing water soaks my back and head. I get to the face and the cheeks flush as I rub them and the eyelids flutter but go still. I straighten up and look down at her. With the water bouncing off her she's like a statue in a fountain. Sexy? No, I don't feel sexy, because you see I'm impotent, but looking down at her I get this strange feeling, as though I've never looked at a naked woman before. What can I say? The girl is perfect, as if she were made in heaven. I turn off the water, take a towel and pat her dry in front. I kneel down and lift her. Her thighs and upper arms, still moist in back, hang limp and buttery soft. Holding her so close, I notice that her body has a special perfume, not from soap because I didn't use any soap — a sweet outdoorsy freshness that I've never smelled on anyone before. I put her down on the bed, roll her over, dry her back and buttocks and legs, roll her over again, turn down the covers on the other side, put her in there, cover her up.

As I turn I hear a low sigh, then silence.

My back twinges again. I towel down and put on my shirt. I look at the wretch in the mirror and straighten its hair. I swab dried blood off my black raincoat and put it on and bring the collar up to hide my wound. I'm going forth into the night.

9:59 PM. I'm back. Ibuprofen, food, beer, and three changes of outdoorsy clothing, with two floppy fisherman's hats, for both of us. A bargain basement notebook computer with five spare batteries. A road atlas. All bought in a barn of a place called the Essex Depot, full of types so grubby and odd that I, hulking big guy with stricken face, didn't look strange at all. I returned bag-laden through the parking lot past the white bulging shape of Fatal Van and keyed my way into the motel room. The girl remained still as death, limbs in the same position under the covers. I leaned down and put my good ear close to her lips and hear the weak shallow breathing.

Would she ever wake up?

I've showered and now am stained by no blood but my own. I've booted up the computer and typed up what I'd just scribbled. I've eaten black bread and Swiss cheese and drunk Jersey City beer, and it felt like the first meal of my life. I could eat seven times as much. I could swim in beer, crawl in with my Lady Eve, pass out and sleep with her till kingdom come.

Except, my conscience bothers me. I've had no one to talk to for years and haven't leveled with myself for as long. I've got to write this down, confess my guilt, give my reasons. I can't live locked up with them. I'll write the truth, in every detail I can remember, and if I live to remember more I'll come back and add it.

If no one ever reads it, I'll have said it anyway. Which calls for another beer.

How do I begin? With my birth? No time. How about this simple fact:

At about three this afternoon I left the Brazen Head Bar and turned left down the east side of Stuyvesant

But that's not a simple fact. The truth isn't just what we do, it's also what's in us when we're doing it. I can't say what was in me on Stuyvesant Avenue that day without going back a couple of hours to Titus Farnacle's house.

I went to see Uncle Titus because I'd gotten to be kind of poor. The kind of poor where the brake-job you need is worth more than your car. The kind of poor where you begin to notice subtle aromas as you pass KFC. And I more or less deserved to get poor. By more or less I mean utterly. I deserved to get poor because for fifteen years I'd avoided real work, and strung myself along on part-time jobs, and written endless bullshitting journals, and spent my mornings watching the Science Channel, and blown my afternoons playing tennis with the old boys, and joked with the neighbors like some big shot, while the economy ran away from me.

By the end of last month I realized, this was it. I'd have to go to work full-time. I'd have to take any job that was available. All I needed was a grubstake to keep the wolves from the door. For this I'd fly to New York. I'd ask Uncle Titus.

Except that my uncle, Titus Farnacle, is a shit. I'd call him a sonofabitch, but that would insult the canine profession. I'd invent a new word for Titus, something with a clackity in-your-face ring to it, but I can't think of one right now. A word describing a shit who's proud of being one.

And Titus is filthy rich. His "house," as he puts it, is the whole block of brownstones having its southwest corner at Stuyvesant and McCanles. You enter thinking it's a single address, or half-address sharing space with the Brazen Head, you labor up three flights of steep dark stairs with little valleys worn right through the linoleum, you give your name to a horsefaced man in black who looks at you as if you were something growing in a tidal pool and, don't bother to sit down, you wait. Horseface has mumbled something into a phone, and soon an ancient stooped form of unknown sex appears from behind him, clad in blotchy pink shawl, croakingly introduces itself as Patrice and beckons to follow. A narrow corridor to the left leads right through the wall of the house, as you can tell by the drop in level and the bare brickwork, then through the next house and so on, passing nests in the lair of Packrat Farnacle, storehouses of boxed and labeled engine parts, museums of old machine tools, a great dark chamber housing ornaments from demolished buildings, a smoke-filled chamber where lots of shirtsleeved men are torturing grimy computers, and finally Titus' inner sanctum, a dimly high-ceiling apparition of tile, marble and tapestry that has to have been, in earlier New York days when blood ran high, a prostitutional steam-bath.

Titus, dwarfed behind a marble table big enough for sixteen or so jolly old Knickerbocker aldermen to have sat bare-arse on it, was visible as a grease-stained moth-eaten primordial Boston Red Sox cap pointed down at the table-top, where fingers like tapeworms protruded from cut-off gloves examining some object under a high-intensity lamp. Approaching I saw that said object was a small gold crucifix, probably fresh-stolen from a bishop's grave, and Titus looked up to reveal a small turtle-face with bright gray eyes and a beak so pronounced that he couldn't focus both eyes on you without constant sideward adjustments of the head.

"Desmond!" he squeaked, and rose with a cackle. "You've put on weight. Not playing enough tennis?"

This insult to my wage-earning manhood hit me where I lived. My upper spine felt like it was jellifying, and blood rushed away from my head as I managed, "Uncle Titus."

With him turning to Patrice to order a deli special for two, I was reminded that Titus himself was nothing to crow about in terms of good looks. Dirty tufts of gray hair stuck out through the moth-holes of his Red Sox cap, and it was pretty clear he slept in the damn thing. His chinless face was gaunt and unshaven, and his deep eye-sockets, together with his habit of looking sideways at people, gave him all the charm of a fresh corpse. He was wearing this old blue smoking jacket, that looked like it'd been used regularly to mop up an ER floor, and under that a faded plaid flannel pajama top, and around his scrawny neck, serving as cravat, a ragged item that might have been cut from a length of used fire hose. Titus' nether parts were left to the imagination, being cut off from my view by the marble table top, lying on which, I now noticed, were six or seven wads of $50 bills. The sight gave me goosebumps.

As Patrice left, Uncle caught me eyeing the loot. "Wistful thinkin', fellah?" He suddenly looked almost wistful himself. "That money ain't neither yours nor mine. That's bosses' money, by jiminy."

"Bosses?" I asked. "I thought you were boss around here."

"Don't mean around here," said Titus with a sneer. He grimly brandished a big wad of US Grants. "This is for my old friend the Bronx boss, Guccio Imbratta. Lives right down the street. Mr. Imbratta fixes things so that my house doesn't burn down, and he seems to have a way with the tax assessor." He picked up another wad. "This is for Ercole Stramba and his likewise blessed assistance with FARNACLE's department store on Fifth Avenue and these (pointing to smaller wads) are for local bosses near my production plants in Asia. Don't know what I'd do without 'em."

Titus motioned me to a chair and launched into a major speech in praise of organized crime, itemizing all that it's done for American civilization. His point, as I pretended intense interest with my gaping pig imitation, was that without organized crime you'd be stuck with disorganized crime, a fate worse than death. Titus was getting almost weepy about this when Patrice limped in with the lunch and spread it out on the marble table: hot pastrami on rye, big pickles, pastries and coffee in white cardboard tubs. I ate ravenously and sloppily. Food brought courage and I popped the question. Can Titus, my mother's brother, my veritable flesh and blood, see his way clear to help me redeem my furniture and save my house?

The big room went silent. I tried to bolster my spirits with a pickle, but in the stillness my chewing it sounded gross and hideous, like Swamp Thing sloshing along on his way to a rumble.

I gulped coffee and looked up at Titus, who'd gone all gray and rolled up his eyes so you could only see the whites. Titus was throbbing, sort of, and my fond hopes that the old fart was in cardiac arrest (I'm his only living relative) were dashed when I realized that he was actually laughing. He caught his breath, picked up the Stramba wad and shook it at me like some phallic baton. "Desmond," he croaked, "you disappoint me. Do you reckon I'm stupid enough to waste money on a no-account like you? Didn't you realize I wrote you off when you married that Irish lunatic? You're a mental butterfly, just like your dad. You're no Farnacle but a Ruck through and through."

The food was literally curdling in my gut, and I was thinking about throwing my chair at him but feeling the pain in my ruptured disc. I pleaded, "But to someone of your wealth..."

"Wealth!" he exploded, "Horsemanure! I'm a poorer man than you are, Desmond Ruck! How much are you busted for, ten, fifteen grand? I'm leveraged seventeen million dollars beyond my assets! How did I manage it, fellah? By smart borrowing. How do I sustain it? By cash flow. Where do I get the flow? By retail sales and floating debt. Those men in my computer room are manipulating my three thousand, give or take, personal credit card accounts and adding about eighty new accounts a day. The banks love it! When I go into debt, they lap up the interest. When I cash out a loan, they raise my credit! Don't you get it, Dumbo? I'm priming the great economic pump. Everybody's happy! In my humble way I help the US economy. I massage the system, I power the Ship of State! Ho ho!"

Titus was on his feet now, geriatrically bouncing up and down and waving his wad of greenbacks like a flag and nasally humming Souza's Stars and Stripes Forever. That was it. I couldn't take this kind of heat another moment. Convulsively I wheeled about and rushed from Titus' office and through the Farnacle complex, hotfooting it through room after room like a whipped and pummeled cur. My lower-back pain had climbed up my spine and was now radiating into my throat, where like a little hand it grabbed at my adam's apple, producing the terminal snit that's been with me since childhood, hanging somewhere inside me like a framed motto:

YOU'VE LOST IT ALL, KID, AND
NOTHING'S GONNA MAKE IT BETTER,
AND IT'S ALL YOUR FAULT

I slunk past sneering Horseface and headed for the stairs, but by the third flight my legs went out of sync and I lurched downward, desperately grabbing for and catching the handrail. I needed a drink, and the suggestion was no sooner raised than I was out the front door, entering the Brazen Head Tavern, sitting down at the bar and ordering a double gimlet on the rocks. Discreetly two-handing same to make up for violent shudders, I drank deep, and the gimlet began worming its way into my sorrows with tidings of comfort. Like a friendly hand it caressed my innards, but it couldn't touch my sorrow, my sense of being finally and hopelessly alone, my hopeless dilapidation. Looking up as I ordered a refill I caught myself in the mirror and silently cursed the swarthy good looks that opened so many doors for me when I was young, made things seem so goddamn easy. How come I looked so good, when I've just been crushed under heel like a roach? Turning my eyes away from this, and from my deceptively capable-looking hands on the counter, I focused on the bottles lining the wall, and as I tuned out my mental theater did a screening of Ruck's Year in Review: the grim scenes with Glynda, the ever-weaker excuses and rationalizations, the shameful failures and finally, last week, the morning I sang a Rogers and Hammerstein medley in the bath and came out to find the furniture gone, including several pieces I'd built myself. I ordered a third drink, kind of like dessert, but instead of improving things it got me a little confused. I checked my watch, found out it was after 4 and decided to head for my hotel. I set down a tip and floated out the door.

I floated straight into hell.

Looking south from the Brazen Head, Stuyvesant Avenue runs downhill towards Tammany Boulevard, where there's a subway stop. Leaving the bar I turned left and headed down Stuyvesant to catch the subway.

It was raining now. I wove downhill among the foot-traffic, noticing that a couple of houses ahead of me there was a white unmarked delivery van pulled up in a waiting zone, with its driver's door open and a group of men discussing something or other on the sidewalk nearby. What struck me was that these guys were all well-dressed in suits and that they were all big fellas, not nearly as tall as I am but all real hefty and broad in the beam. As I walked towards them I was thinking, Hey, maybe that's Mr. Imbratta's house, and I wish I had the tailor's fee for all those fancy clothes.

But I looked up quickly because somebody'd screamed. I saw people running for cover all over the street, but what I didn't see until it was too late was one of the big guys in suits heading straight for me like a train. He caught me off balance and tipped me sideways, which definitely saved my life, because right then the shooting started, you can't believe how loud, and the first casualty was a woman who was walking directly behind me, who took a body shot. She dropped her shopping bag and just stood there. She was an older lady, with olive skin and deep lines beneath her widow's kerchief, and in that split second I saw centuries of Italian tragedy written on her face. Then she toppled backward onto the pavement.

Now bullets were flying all over the place. I was wedged between two parked cars, looking for an escape route, but going back uphill was no good. The guy who shoved me was cornered on a stoop and firing down at another colossus who'd taken cover in the street behind a car. Meanwhile a can of Casa Mia tomato sauce — funny how you remember these things — a can of Casa Mia tomato sauce from the Italian lady's shopping bag, was rolling down the sidewalk toward the van. Down thataway two men next to the van were firing their pieces up the front steps at two others who were wedged in the entrance way of the house and blasting back at them. I thought How can they miss? These guys are three feet wide. But it turned out they weren't missing. Both men in the entrance way were clutching bloody wounds as they fired, and when I looked at the van I saw that one of the others had fallen behind the truck and could be seen only as a pair of splayed and motionless feet.

I wiped rain out of my eyes and glanced back uphill to see the man behind the car take aim and suddenly crumple up as his head exploded into a rosy mist; and the guy who shot him from the stoop was now staggering from his perch and towards me, with blood oozing from his neck. He let go from the hip as he reeled forward and the slug dinged into the trunk of the car two inches from my left leg. I lunged streetways and was almost demolished by an eighteen-wheeler winding uphill in low.

I'd nowhere to run but downhill on the sidewalk towards the van, and I did so like an animal who's been so frigging terrified that it can't fear anymore. There was big carnage down there. One of the men in the entrance way had left his position and was rolling slowly down the steps like a spent beach ball. His partner, a fountain of blood, had dropped his gun and sat down on the steps and was making Wa-Wa noises and pointing at me. The survivor by the van was now halfway in the van, and from six feet away he aimed at my head and fired. I thought it was the end but it was only an earlobe, and lurching against the side of the van I opened up a clear shot for the bloody-necked man who'd been staggering up behind me. He fired once, and the guy in the van screamed and toppled back into it.

With a neat sound like a rotary saw a bullet creased the side of the van next to me and That's it, folks, I've had enough fun for today. I jumped into the goddamn van. The guy inside must have fallen into the back, because the driver's compartment was empty. Instantly I released the caliper parking brake and was coasting downhill. I heard two more shots, but Bloodyneck had no angle, and my panic wasn't about him but about finding the windshield wiper switch so I could see through the rain to steer. I switched them on and set the gearshift on Drive. I glanced over my right shoulder just long enough to see that my companion was on the floor and dead still. I put a quarter mile between me and the bloodbath, pulled up at a red and signaled left onto Tammany. My head rang with pain but I was alive, and the thought made me want to jump for joy.

Breathing again I caught a couple of green lights, and as I drove it suddenly occurred to me that I'm safe, I've escaped. I could park now and exit the van and go find somebody to sew up my ear and answer a few questions from the police. I could leave all this blood and danger behind me. Yet somehow I didn't stop. It's like something'd popped inside me, like the proper grownup had been kicked out and an angry kid appeared, a big angry kid with no respect, who was saying, "OK, YOU TURKEYS, THE LAUGH IS ON YOU. YOU CAN DISS ME AND SHAME ME AND PUSH ME DOWN AND SHOOT ME, BUT SOMEHOW I SURVIVE. AND BY THE WAY, I'VE GOT YOUR TRUCK!"

You see, it'd come into my head that there was something valuable in the van, that it was the van those guys were having their little spat about, and I wasn't going to make any rash moves 'til I found out what it was.

An intense knifelike voice, Glynda's voice, said inside me, "YOU'RE STEALING A VAN! YOU'RE STEALING A VAN!" But Angry Boy replied, "OK, SO I'M STEALING A VAN. SO ARREST ME, WHY DON'T YOU?" I pulled onto the Cross-Bronx Expressway and took it to West Side Drive, leaning on the gas. I wanted to be in Jersey before they sent out an All Points and I got snagged in the evening rush. Why Jersey? The Hudson River's a barrier, man. Unless you cross it you can only drive north and south. Jersey's the West, man.

I hit an on-ramp for the George Washington Bridge, and traffic slowed down, but I could see it moving along pretty well on the bridge itself. The rain was heavier now, and the windshield wipers, in their military rhythm, quacked and yakked to me of crime and punishment. At one point traffic stopped and I could check on my passenger. He was on his back, just far back enough in the van so that he wouldn't be noticed at the toll booth. His belly was so huge that it would have blocked out his face, but his head was propped up on something. He was looking sort of dead, with one eye covered in blood and the other wide open and glancing sidewards. What was propping up that death's-head? Suddenly I was nauseous.

I must have spaced out, because before I knew it there was a great blare of horns behind me. I goosed the gas and hot-footed it across the bridge. What was propping up Monsieur's head? I didn't have time to look back until the wait before the toll booth. It was a briefcase, a fat black briefcase, and there were lots more like it!

The toll-woman, probably strung out on cocaine, dropped a quarter as I paid her. She looked at me angrily, then motioned me on.

Now at turnpike speed I opted for US 80, which would take me, if need be, all the way to San Francisco. But nearing Hackensack I got qualms. The gas read half-full, but the oil pressure was low and the temp needle was in the red. I couldn't afford a breakdown, and I had to get rid of Monsieur before my next gas fill-up, so I took the Hackensack exit, turned north onto Wagner and started looking for a lonely place. It was 5 PM and getting dark already in the grim spring rain, so I switched on the headlights. Three blocks down Wagner on the right was a shopping mall under construction, and what with the rain it was deserted. I drove completely past it and turned right. There was a service road running between the half-built mall and the privacy wall of a housing development on the other side. I ticked halfway down this service road and stopped the van and killed the lights. Still nauseous and dizzy, I got out into air smelling of damp concrete, walked around the van and checked up and down the road. 150 yards of clearance on each side, everything quiet but no time to lose — police cars patrol alleys like this.

It was time for the reckoning.

I got back into the van. Reaching back over the dead man I grabbed a heavy briefcase and put it down on the console next to the driver's seat. I switched on the map-light. The briefcase wasn't locked. It contained about forty large white envelopes made of soft cloth-like paper. I took one of these envelopes and undid it by unwinding a little thread in back. A packet of stock certificates slid out. In the dim light I read that the firm was Consolidated Silicates, Ltd., and the quantity was 200,000 shares. I needn't ask what Consolidated Silicates, Ltd., had been trading for, because a handwritten pink post-it told me that it was 103 5/8 as of March 15. I turned it over and noted that it had been duly signed over for redemption by Leonard Jacobus, the registered owner.

The math made this certificate worth over twenty million bucks. I checked the others in the envelope and there were about fifty of them and they were all a lot like the first. A teasing little voice started singing to me, "They're neGOSHable, they're neGOSHable."

Uncertain of what else to do, I vomited all over them.

I caught some more vomit in my handkerchief, got out of the van, doused handkerchief in puddle, wrung it out, got back in van and wiped as much vomit as I could off the loot. I re-stowed certificates, envelope and briefcase. I turned off the map-light, leaned my head on the steering wheel and thought, There's billions in this van. The police search will be colossal. But Angry Boy, still inside me, answered: No, sonny, it won't be so colossal. Billion-dollar van deliveries aren't advertised transactions, they're secret deals. The police won't know what's in the van. If they think that the Stuyvesant Avenue action was an in-house mob adjustment, they may not even prioritize the search. Chill out, man. That's easy for you to say, I shot back, but suppose the police are grossed out with mob adjustments and want to play for keeps this time. Or suppose the mob has its own police. Where does that put me, wise guy?

If you can separate yourself and the money from the van soon enough, said Angry Boy, IT PUTS YOU ON MARVIN GARDENS IN FAT CITY!

But first I had to separate the van from the corpse.

I swallowed hard to settle my guts. I opened the door and stepped down into the rain. I keyed open the rear door and climbed in. The van was awash with big black briefcases, but by rearranging them I could open up a path. Without looking at the face I grabbed the corpse under the arms and lifted with all my strength. There was a spasm in my back as my left foot slipped on the bloody floor, but I ignored my back, braced myself and lifted and pulled harder. The dead weight moved and slowly painfully I pulled it up and towards the rear. When he was close enough I got down from the van and grabbed him by the armpits again, this time with my head horridly close to his, and when I'd pulled far enough I couldn't hold him up any more and the body slipped from my grasp and flacked down on the pavement. As the barrel-shaped carcass hit, it made this low guttural grunt, and I jumped in fear, but in a second I realized it was just air forced out past the vocal chords. Trembling now, I felt for his wallet, which I needed in order to slow up a police search that could mark Hackensack as part of my trail. I found it in his inside jacket pocket, alligator skin, jumbo-size and bulging, one side still warm. I tossed wallet onto driver's seat, returned to corpse, checked out other pockets and finally, with last remaining oomph, I dragged him behind a big pile of re-bars.

I got back in the van and saw the girl.

She'd been under Monsieur, lying face up. She had no raincoat, just a woolen suit with a white blouse, and they were both soaked with blood. Suit, nyloned legs and high-heeled shoes suggested some pathetic plan for an evening on the town, perhaps with Monsieur himself. He's crushed her, I concluded, but as though answering me she groaned and stretched slightly. Those briefcases near her must have cushioned the body's impact. I kneeled next to her and examined her carefully enough to make sure she wasn't bleeding herself. I searched the van for her ID, but there was no handbag.

Before starting the motor I checked one more thing — Monsieur's wallet. As I expected, it was loaded with a wad of big bills thick enough to choke a moose.

Monsieur's name? Michelangelo Imbratta, probably a son of Uncle Titus' friendly godfather, a prince of the royal line.

I hit the starter and crept forward down the service road. It was almost 6 and quite dark. My intention now: to get the van off the road and out of circulation, preferably at some dumpy motel, as soon as possible. But the van had other ideas. I was no sooner onto Wagner but the engine got rough and clouds of steam started rising from the grill. Going all sweaty I shifted to neutral as the engine died and, running a red light, I took a right and coasted to a stop on the left side of a one-way street. I'd fetched up in front of the Pillar of Fire Church, fifty feet from the corner. Rush-hour traffic was lively, but there weren't many pedestrians. I leaned on the steering wheel again, physically exhausted. A little bird told me that all I had to do was grab one briefcase, abandon van and girl, taxi to Newark Airport and fly away rich as Croesus. But another little bird squawked back that if the police found the securities, they'd contact the SEC and be onto me when I sold mine. Besides, I now felt that I owned the van, and all the wealth in it, by law of conquest — that it was kill or be killed, and I somehow was not killed and had survivor's rights.

I got out, locked the van and in the darkness found my way into the engine compartment, which was soaked and stinking of coolant. There was no mystery what had happened. Steam was still hissing from a half-inch split in the heater hose. I left the engine open so the night air and the rain would cool it down.

I hoofed it back to Wagner, noting near the corner an abandoned and partly dismantled bike locked to a parking meter.

Three blocks north on Wagner I hit an A & P and was out of there almost at once with a gallon of water, a pocket flashlight and a penknife. On the way back I stopped at the abandoned bike. The front wheel was missing, and the rear tire was flat. I checked for passersby and then got to work. With one hand I pulled the rear tire off its rim, with the other grabbed the inner tube. I cut off about eighteen inches of same. Back at the van I used the flashlight to locate the slit, which was no longer hissing. I looped inner tube over it, made a knot on the other side and pulled tight. The inventor in me smiled — the glory of this jury-rig was that the expansion of the hose from heat would make the patch even tighter. With a little luck his hose would be good for miles.

I topped up the radiator with springwater and drove the van away.

Back on Wagner I headed for the freeway. In five minutes I was on the Garden State Parkway, heading south at 60 in heavy traffic as the wipers beat back the rain. I exited at Newark and moseyed along looking for the right motel, but they were all too well lit and close to the street. I opted for the truck route and within a few blocks came upon the Dallas Motor Inn. With faded flickering neon name-sign, another red neon sign reading -ACANCY, and a parking lot extending clear around to the back, the Dallas Motor Inn filled the bill to a tee. In the lobby I liked it also that the front desk was back far enough from the window to make it hard for the clerk on duty to see what I was driving. I offered credit card, asked for a ground floor room away from the road and signed my name. The clerk was too busy with a phone call in Spanish to notice anything about me. Funny how people's infernal apathy can sometimes work in your favor!

Only one tricky maneuver remained. Getting the girl into the room. I propped open the motel room door with a wooden chair. I wrapped her in my raincoat and was just out of the van when we were caught in the headlights of an approaching car. This car parked two doors down, and the passenger window came down, and somebody was watching us. What did I do? Of course, I sang. I started singing A Hard Day's Night, complete with Liverpool accent, but once I was in the door and out of sight I donned a ladylike falsetto, shouted "Put me down, you brute!" added a Goldie Hawn laugh and barked out a meaty guffaw in my own voice.

I put the girl down on the bed, and when I came back to close the door I heard a woman outside say, "Why don't you ever carry me, you clown?" and after laughter, "Hey, that big guy's got some great voice."

It's 4:30 AM. I'm going to lie down next to her soon, without much hope of sleeping, but first I'm going to take some Magic Tape to those bullet-holes. Give myself half a chance or, if you will, more rope to hang myself with.

O the power of art! My singing must have livened up conversation between the couple in the car, because I'm now being treated to a virtuoso performance of the Bedspring Concerto, complete with vocal duets, from the room next door. Could they please stop?

To Chapter 2

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