Give It Wheels
The last thing Webster wanted to be thinking about was a Russian woman in a chinchilla coat, not with harpies shrieking as they picked at his befuddled brain. But there she was again. Hard words were shouted in two languages, the door slammed, and out she flounced. She threw herself into a chair on the porch, fished for a pack of foreign cigarettes, lit one. Look close, you’d see the steam boiling out her ears.
Webster glanced at his watch. 6:20. She was early tonight.
By sitting on his own porch of an evening, one house down from hers, he had learned a few facts about his new neighbor. Not that he cared. But she, like him, gravitated to a porch. It was hard to ignore her. Quick tempered, bad English, no job. Sexy and self-regarding. High maintenance, people said these days, as though a human being were powered by an internal combustion engine that required tinkering.
She never spoke to him, which was fine by Webster. He might as well not be there, which also was fine. He was taken up with a project. The project ate his time, his energy, his ability to empathize. Distractions, few as they were, he resented.
It was September, too warm on the coolest evening for a fur coat of any description.
Webster read his book. The Russian woman smoked, coat collar turned up. A little later, the husband came out to the porch. Husband was what Webster presumed him to be, although the man was Webster’s age, pushing sixty easy, and the chinchilla woman not yet thirty. Ted, she had heard her call him. His thin gray hair was combed into wings. He had a gentle face and wore suits of a cut that had never been fashionable. He was a person in whom exasperation and forbearance were constantly brawling. Evidently the competition kept him on his toes.
Webster made an effort not to hear what Ted said to the woman, or what she said back. He concentrated on his book, humming low. He jammed a finger in his near ear. Finally the woman got up and made her way inside in a huff. Ted stood there for a moment, one hand jingling change in his pants pocket. He loosened his tie, which was wide and maroon and belonged to another decade.
Webster looked up from his book and nodded but did not reply. His days as a conversationalist were over. There had been a time when he held his own. People looked to him for trenchant observations on the psychic foibles of politicians, the habits of dogs, the behavior of a supernova. That was before he suffered reverses. Financial, personal, social, emotional; he had been diversely battered. Now, in defeat and retrospect, the reverses blurred into a single streak of flaming adversity aimed at his helpless heart, and he flinched.
At a certain point he had quit fighting his fate. Surrender – the decision to quit, shedding his attachments – gave him his project, and a bitter peace he was not about to jeopardize.
“Her name is Mikka,” Ted said. A note of apology reddened his voice, which belonged to a fairy tale cobbler. “She’s from Kazakhstan. They make ‘em high strung over there. Is it the coat?”
Being directly addressed flustered Webster. Well, it would only get worse. Soon he would be dodging the mailman, refusing to leave the house in daylight, disconnecting the phone. No price was too high to be left alone. He said nothing.
“It’s the coat,” Ted pronounced glumly, giving Webster to understand that his neighbor was volatile by temperament and defenseless in his grand love. “I knew it. Listen, the chinchillas they made Mikka’s coat from were tame. I mean, they were actually raised to be a coat. Does that help?”
He wanted an answer, but Webster had none to give.
Ted brightened with an idea. “Why don’t you come over this evening? We’ll play pinochle, three handed.”
“You don’t look busy. I never see anybody coming or going at your place. You spend all your time in the garage. What is it, a car? Antique? You rebuilding the engine?”
Encased in himself like sausage, moving clumsily as a man self-conscious in his own dream moved, Webster made an excuse that was no excuse and went inside.
It was still September when Mikka ran away. Ted was devastated, and the pain of loss brought out the house pet in him.
In his doggy misery he could not see how uncomfortable he made Webster, accosting him as he came out of his garage with a wood plane.
A baby’s butt, that was the gloss to which Webster sought to bring the surface of the rich cherry he was working with. He had a pride of style. Even a broken man, a man the gods belittled with the enormity of their indifference, had an obligation of style to uphold.
“Mikka didn’t give you any clues, did she?”
“Clues to what?”
“You two were always out on your porches. I thought maybe she let something slip. Like she always wanted to see the Grand Canyon, something along those lines.”
“We didn’t talk.”
Ted was skeptical. Given half a chance, what man wouldn’t glom onto an effervescent woman from the exotic east with a story told in a luscious accent? Webster was only being churlish.
“Please. Search your memory.”
“I have no idea where your wife went.”
Webster’s voice came out cracked; a mad scientist locked in the laboratory of his imagination. It hurt to stand close to Ted, who was emanating waves of loverly anguish. Webster despised anguish in the same proportion that the gods despised him.
But Ted would not suffer alone. He followed Webster into the house as if he’d been invited. Also with Webster went a brother of the sadness he had felt, years ago, when the clerk at the grocery check-out told him she no longer cooked parsnips, now she lived alone it wasn’t worth the trouble. Her hair was a cat’s cradle of gray string, and the enclosed space behind the register made a cage. She had touched and humbled him.
Ted looked around Webster’s orderly minimalist kitchen – the spice containers were alphabetized on a shelf, and the copper bottoms of his pans shone like a store display – and told him, “You’re a neat freak, aren’t you?”
“I’m sorry your wife ran away. But I’m busy, I can’t talk.”
He might as well have saved his breath. Ted put the teakettle on and made himself comfortable in a chair, curious hands playing with cups and spoons. Webster realized it was the man’s optimism he resented. Even now, abandoned by his young wife, he could not quite eradicate it from his conscioness..
“I’ve noticed something about you, Webster.”
When Webster did not ask him what, he told him anyway. “You never say my name. I don’t mind, it’s just something you can’t help noticing. Anyway, you probably think it’s perverted, a mature guy like myself tangled up with a foxy young woman like her. Mikka was my translator, back in Kazakhstan. One thing led to another, I guess you could say.”
Ted turned out to be a man with an idea. By training and instinct he was a family therapist. In Almaty – he did not say why he went there, and Webster was too sour to ask – he learned he was no good with foreign languages so enlisted Mikka to translate his clinical sessions with troubled Kazakh families. Strangely, it worked. His idea was that the language barrier acted as a protective shield, allowing distressed individuals to express themselves more freely than they would in the presence of someone who understood, in this case, Russian and all its cultural freight.
“I want to write a book.”
“About your idea.”
“I can’t do it without Mikka. She’s got all those Russian nuances I don’t have a clue about. But that’s not why I want her to come home. I need her. It’s that simple. I need that woman, Webster, more than I need air in my lungs.”
Webster mumbled, with an effort withholding sympathy that would compromise him.
“Mikka and I are legally married. She’s a U.S. citizen. She can go wherever she wants. She doesn’t need my permission.”
Every sentence was a bullet. They all hit their target, which was himself.
Webster tried to trick himself by substituting disdain for numbness. It didn’t work. What to do with a kitchenful of boiling emotion? It spilled over everything, ruining his clean floor. He called on forgotten reserves of diplomacy to get his neighbor out of the house. Later, the relief he felt at being left alone was pointlessly intense.
Silence, the peace of perfect rejection, was hard to attain that evening. Stillness did not quite get him there, although he slathered it on so thick his skin was slick. There was a human hum around the house that would not go away. All those ambient people insisting on their presence. They were cannibals. He felt them chomping, making a happy meal of his mind, his flesh, his hollow heart.
Later, after Ted’s lights went out and the neighborhood forgot itself in slumber, Webster went out to the garage. The coffin was taking shape. As of a week it had definable sides, a floor, a head and foot. That much top-quality cherry was expensive, and he lived on a budget. But the wood’s rich gleam in the overhead light moved him. It was a statement of purpose. The purpose was oblivion. He craved it.
He picked up a hinge. It felt solid in his hand, of a quality commensurate with the fine wood. The meticulous care required to build your own coffin did not come naturally to Webster. He was no craftsman. There were kits available, but he had rejected the option. There was no hurry, and he was learning. He would give the project the time it deserved. Who am I? The question with which the Baltimore Catechism had once prodded him demanded a different answer, at this point in his life. I am a man, whispered Webster, building his own goodbye rocket.
In the old days, living a normal life, Webster and his wife Abigail had made a pact to be cremated. Taking up ground space on a crowded planet seemed inconsiderate, even rude. Such scruple was an affectation, it now seemed to Webster, and he had blown a chunk of his ever smaller wad on a graveyard plot. A prodigious sycamore lent shadow to the plot, which Webster enjoyed the thought of borrowing, knowing one day the sycamore, too, would fall and degrade.
He put the hardware back on the workbench. Too soon. He was not yet ready to attach the lid. He had been aware of the craters forming under his eyes, hollowing themselves out inexorably as the weeks went by and his sense of purpose deepened. Switching off the light, he felt his eyes fill with something wet.
It took just one day for the mourning wreath to work its backwards magic. Ted belonged to an Italian family down the road in Niagara Falls. The Rossis were traditionalists, and youngest son Theodore respected the place he came from. The afternoon of the day after he hung the reaper-black wreath on his front door, Mikka showed up, bedraggled and angry and calling for a cigarette. Ted was beside himself. Relief and jubilation powered him out of the house to Webster’s, whose no-after-no he steadily ignored. Which was why Webster found himself, that evening, playing pinochle with the reconciling couple in their living room. With a flourish Ted brought out a bottle of noble Russian vodka, and they tossed back celebratory shots. Mikka downed four of them to no observable effect.
Up close, her skin had a papery whiteness about it. She was smaller than she seemed at a distance, her features finer. Her doll-blue eyes had seen everything. They were historical eyes. Webster saw forced marches in them, a closetful of obsolete typewriters with Cyrillic keyboards, the lurid glow of an interrogation lamp in a night room outside which snow fell with resolute fury, changing the outline of memory. A thin nose, a thinner bridge. The lobes of her exquisitely tiny ears flaunted tiny diamonds.
Green card. That was anybody’s first thought. She had married her boss to make her way from hard Kazakhstan to easy America. But in her secret glance at Ted as he surrendered a bare ace to her ace of trump, Webster saw there was more to the marriage than convenience.
“We start on the book tomorrow morning,” Ted announced out of nowhere. “Right, Mikka?”
She shrugged bigger than her compact body would seem to permit. Wherever she had gone, whatever she had done there, she came back subdued. America was huge. If it wasn’t hostile, it was a problem not instantly solved. Plus, there was that look. She might despise Ted, she might look down on his gray-winged hair and anachronistic suits, but there was a kind of tender reverence mixed with her contempt.
The house had a Russian feel. The Soviets had sent Mikka’s great-grandfather to Almaty to administer a bureau, and over time the Kazakhs in the family took on protective coloration; they Russified with enthusiasm. Ted and Mikka had brought back cracked and smoky icons of angular Madonnas, someone’s uncle’s balalaika, an old walnut wardrobe the wood grain of whose door, they claimed, was a perfect match for Tolstoy’s head in profile.
“It’s your turn,” Ted said, flushed with vodka and fresh hope. “You know our story. Now tell us something about yourself.”
Damn the man’s incurable optimism. Webster blamed the alcohol, which he had pretty much forgotten about in his bitterness. He was out of drinking shape. That, along with Ted’s convivial pressure, and Mikka’s cool curiosity, loosened him up. An any rate he talked. He told, although it came out sounding like someone else’s story, of marginal interest even to him.
Vice president of a company that downsized him. Couldn’t find a job to equal the one he lost. Got distracted and frustrated and then lost interest. His corporate moxie disappeared along with his drive; they were two halves of the same unnamed thing for which he came to feel a deep distaste. He made his friends uncomfortable, at first without realizing it and later with a will, aggravating them until he was successfully abandoned by even the most loyal.
A full-moon moment arrived, no turning back. When he howled it came out Fuck You.
His wife was offended by his passivity, and disappointed in their grossly reduced income. She left with a clever-handed boy who fixed her computer. Webster’s son was in Recife, his daughter in Dubai. They had given up trying to Skype him. He got by. That was all he wanted, really, was to get by.
In the morning his mouth was dry, his head was misshapen, and he burned with retroactive shame for having said so much. It was like parading naked through the streets proclaiming one’s own shortcomings, and he beat himself up through the ritual of his solitary breakfast. There was a kind of friction in his interaction with people. He longed for it to simply cease. Neither to know nor to be known, that was the goal. Ted knocked, on his way to the free clinic where he dispensed counseling services. Webster did not respond; he could hear his neighbor humming.
When the coast was clear he made his way to the garage where he worked with the door closed, planing the lid of his rocket with slow pleasurable strokes.
It was October now, a raw month of sunshine and Canadian wind that could feel, if a person let it, like punishment for summer.
Just before lunch, he took a break to admire the coffin lid resting on saw horses. Like a symphony before the orchestra introduced the theme’s first notes. He wiped cool sweat from his brow with a rag. Another knock. He did not respond.
“Webster, you are in there? I am Mikka. Please open. I need help.”
Was this a crossroads? Webster didn’t want it to be. He grudgingly opened the door a crack. She smelled like ginger snaps. Her eyes were wide. The jeans she wore made her look less American than perhaps she wanted to.
“What you do in there?”
“Ted says you fix old car.”
“Yes, I’m fixing a car.”
“You will help me?”
For the trap to work, he had to ask, help you with what? He did not step into it. She began to weep.
“Please, I go in.”
“Not here. The house.”
She followed him, crying into a pale silk handkerchief. Webster had assumed that such handkerchiefs were extinct, like telegrams, paste diamonds, dueling pistols. She took the same chair at the kitchen table that Ted had taken.
“I may have ashtray?”
“I don’t smoke. There’s none in the house.”
“You are redblood American, Webster, no allowing of cigarettes on premises.”
Premises? He brought her a saucer. The sooner she had her say, the quicker she would be out of there. She lit, inhaled, tapped a premature ash on the saucer rim. Blowing out smoke with what he assumed was Kazakh fatalism, she told him, “I cannot have baby.”
He took that to mean there was a gynecological difficulty and wondered how to shut her up before she launched into the details of her reproductive quandary. But the door was open, and she bulled her way across the threshold, smoking and sobbing and omitting the articles before important nouns. In a few minutes Webster understood that she was pregnant, and Ted didn’t know, and she believed she would make a terrible mother.
“You will help, please. I must have clean abortion.”
“I can’t help you, Mikka. I’m sorry, I just can’t do that.”
Her well plucked eyebrows arched. His refusal surprised her. “I do not understand. You are Ted’s best friend. Ted says all the time, we are lucky, so lucky, having Webster next house. You must do this, you must help wife of best friend.”
There was no point telling her that Ted was not his best friend. Webster’s nostrils would not stop curling, offended by the blue smoke befouling his kitchen. He took another tack.
“Why do you think you won’t be a good mother?”
More surprise. It occurred to him that he had not surprised anyone in a long time, least of all himself. But she had done some thinking on the subject and listed her shortcomings in a rush.
“I am mean, I am selfish, I make myself too sad all the time. I do not like smell of babies, they are dirty. Child of mine, child of mine he she will grow miserable. Will curse day of birth and both parents. Not fair to baby, not fair to Ted who is old.”
She blew her nose, a honking sound of desolation. She lit another cigarette from the dying end of the first. They were French, he noticed, Gauloises. The blue package looked exotic, an artifact of a life about which he knew nothing. The kitchen had never been so blue.
She believed he would help. He must. Webster felt trapped.
“From what I’ve read,” he told her, “it’s normal for a pregnant woman to have these feelings. They go away.”
But she came back with the clincher. “What kind of mother kills her own baby with abortion?”
There was no comeback to that curlicued logic, so he said, “Whatever you do, it has to be a decision between you and Ted. It’s something only the two of you can decide.”
“So. You do not help.”
She nodded slowly and got to her feet. She looked out the window above the sink hoping to get her eye on a more helpful neighbor in the back yard.
“You must say nothing to Ted. Make me such promise.”
He was ready to promise anything so long as it got her out of the kitchen, out of his life. “I won’t say anything to Ted.” He could not resist adding what any normal person would add. “But you should. You have to tell him.”
There was tragedy in the look with which she knifed him, as though killing him were not enough. Her disappointment in him – Ted’s best friend – ran deeper than the Niagara River. But she left. Thank God, she left, and took her dilemma with her.
It was no easy thing, recovering his equanimity after Mikka’s visit. He was too upset to work on the coffin, which called for a steady hand. He busied himself doing nothing, which was what he had to do. At six, a decision. Should he sit on the porch as he always did? Yes. He would not let the neighbors’ drama spoil his routine. He went out. He sat. A little later, Mikka came out. She did not look his way once, though she must know he was there. She sat quietly smoking and rocking. Webster was invisible again.
That should have made him feel pretty good. He ought to congratulate himself for a near escape from a foreign entanglement. Hadn’t George Washington warned about those? But if he was honest with himself, Mikka’s studied pique hurt. A little. He went inside closing the door quietly. Maybe she wouldn’t notice.
He knew there would be a fight that night, and there was. Mikka was a loud person. Ted might or might not be loud, but when his wife stirred him up he matched her decibel for decibel. Webster could not help hearing. Granted, he was expecting a blow-up, but half the street must know the old guy and his young wife were at it again. Webster could not tolerate television, but he switched on the radio and listened to Mozart. The music’s sunny cheer should have made him feel even worse. It suggested a world of harmony, achievement, acceptance, all that was anathema to Webster in his decline. But he didn’t hate it. He listened. He fell asleep in his chair.
And, rather late, was awakened by the telephone. He was ready, nearly ready, to get rid of the damn thing. Muscle memory made him pick it up.
“Webster? It’s Ted, next door.”
No answer. What could he say?
“I’m so happy, Webster, if I was Irish I’d be dancing a jig. Come on over and let a little Moskovskaya roll down your throat with us.”
These were Webster’s certainties. I can’t. I won’t. No. I’d better not. Never mind his curiosity. What had Mikka told Ted? I can’t. I won’t.
Hanging up the phone he got up from the chair and lay down on the sofa, heavy with himself, saturated with gloom of his own manufacture, disgusted with the worm he had become, the dirt-burrowing eyeless creature he knew himself to be. At least he had his project. Soon enough, his goodbye rocket would be ready to fly. Only sleep had the power to lift the burden of himself from his exhausted shoulders.
Webster finally settled on a plan to fly his goodbye rocket. He was not a particularly brave man. An overdose of pills seemed to him to be the least painful way to make the exit he craved. He began stockpiling what he needed to ensure that when he lit the fuse, it would be a one-way trip. In the interest of style, he dropped a hundred dollars on a bottle of expensive Scotch to wash down the fatal dose.
Having the plan, hugging it close, made it a little easier to endure the neighbors’ happiness. Hard as he tried not to be dragged into it, the three of them developed a routine. Pinochle in the evenings, after Ted came back from the clinic. A savored shot of vodka. Conversation colored with Ted’s relentless optimism and Mikka’s dark moods. She was trying to quit smoking, because of the baby, and not succeeding. If Ted doubted she could do it, he never let on. The man was genetically buoyant. Not an evening went by without his announcing that they were going to start working on the book any day, the next day, that week, any time now. He had something to share with the world.
“You have name in middle?” Mikka asked Webster one night, staring at the vodka bottle as if willing the alcohol down her throat. For the sake of the child in her womb she was cutting back.
“I don’t understand.”
“A middle name,” said Ted. “She’s asking if you have a middle name.”
Mikka nodded. “Maurice is good. Actually Maurice is quite fine, actually.”
“If it’s a boy, we’ve decided to name him after you,” Ted explained. “Webster is not such a common name, these days. Maurice is just the ticket, though.”
“Don’t do that,” said Webster. “Please don’t do it.”
“Hearts now trump, no?” said Mikka, and she led an off-suit queen.
Meantime, as the winter came on and they ran out of Moskovskaya and had to replace it with a vodka that was not as noble and winds from the north made their way through cracks in doors, the coffin was taking final shape. It now had a lid, and most of the hardware. Working on it, Webster did not think explicitly about death. His hands with tools in them had all there was to say on the subject. He did think, in a vague way, about not having to put up with Ted’s cheerfulness forever, but like just about everything else the thought stayed on the periphery of his beleaguered consciousness.
The man never stopped badgering Webster about his garage project, and Webster never stopped shunting him aside. Ted’s persistence wore him down, and he was taken completely by surprise on a Thursday afternoon when the garage door opened and there stood Ted in an antique suit. He’d come home from work early.
“Get out,” said Webster in a panic.
But Ted was in. He was definitely in, and nothing was going to stop him having a good long look at the coffin. The last of the pallbearer handles was screwed in place. The rocket was finished, and it was handsome. Ted walked slowly around it twice, inspecting. Webster did not know what to make of the look his neighbor gave him, when he had looked his fill. In it was the wisdom that pain conferred.
“A go-cart, huh?”
Webster said nothing.
“Funny, all this time I had myself convinced it was an old Mustang you were restoring. Four on the floor, big tires, souped up engine. That’s what I was hoping, anyway. I pictured the three of us bombing around Buffalo with the top down, never mind the cold weather.”
Webster said nothing.
“Where are the wheels?”
“Go-cart can’t go unless you give it wheels.”
“I was just asking.”
“Get out, you goddamn fool.”
Webster was, he supposed, an introvert. Screaming at a man, abusing him with all manner of filthy names and filthier insults, was not something that came easily to him. But the spark of anger flared, and he went crazy on Ted, cursing and waving his arms in a threatening manner. At a certain point, he became aware of holding a claw hammer. Ted took it for longer than neighborly obligation demanded. He had a gentle soul. But when Webster showed no sign of easing up, his complexion reaching a dangerous red, Ted shrugged and shook his head, smiled and turned and quietly left.
Webster’s fit was over before the door closed behind him. With calm came certainty. Tonight his rocket would fly.
In the house, he was overwhelmed by a gratifying sense of occasion. Question: had he not been waiting for this night to arrive? Answer: yes, he had. So, it was here. He was not hungry but believed he should eat, so he fried a hamburger with some onions. Medium rare. He ate it slowly at the kitchen table, reading the paper and sipping a bottle of beer. That was one thing that was better about America lately, the beer.
Washing his dishes, he realized he had not considered what he should wear. Don’t take yourself too seriously, he chided himself. Nobody cares. But he put on a clean pair of khakis, a plaid shirt, a sweater. He opened the bottle of Scotch and poured a triple shot. He tried to swallow a handful of pills but the whiskey wouldn’t wash them down. He needed water. Only when the pills were in his stomach did he go back to the Scotch, the taste of which might have tempted another man to stay alive for more.
He sat in his chair. Already he was feeling sick. He was feeling tired. More Scotch. Another handful of pills. Had he planned a little better he might now have Mozart. As it was he made himself content with the music of the spheres.
But not forever. His body had its own separate and dissenting opinion about the poison he had put into it, and coming awake he tumbled out of the chair. He tripped. Getting to his feet, he heaved on the hassock. His stomach despised the pills, and the whiskey didn’t help. He heaved until he was dry and noticed his head was splitting. The pain confused him. It did something to his reason. He reached for the bottle of Scotch but missed it. His hand was shaking. He had no plan.
So it was an impromptu affair, going out to the garage and listening to In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida on an MP3 player. Wheels were the easy part. He took them off a riding lawn mower that hadn’t run in years. The axles were trickier. He ransacked the place until he came up with a couple of fat iron rods. Cut to fit, they would probably not stand the test of time. He’d worry about durability later.
The solemn moment came when he took a drill to the coffin to make holes for the axles. That was what perfection was for; you perforated it. Because you had to. Same with the lid. Off it came. His head had stopped aching, which he took as a good sign and an inducement to keep going.
He was not annoyed when Ted and Mikka came into the garage. Saved him the trouble of waking them up.
Ted cupped his hands and hollered, “You’d better turn that music down.”
“The Watsons were going to call the cops. I told them I’d take care of it.”
He took care of it. Webster had not been aware, in a socially conscious way, of the volume. The quiet cleared his head and steadied his hands, although his stomach continued to gyrate. Ted watched him work. Mikka watched him work. Webster was proud of his craftsmanship. Before he had started on the project he had been all thumbs. Building the coffin had taught him about tools.
With the unusual pace at which time was moving, it seemed only minutes before he asked Ted to help him lift the thing down from the sawhorses.
“Ready? On three.”
Suddenly the coffin sat on the floor of the garage. In the overhead light it looked ready for the Soapbox Derby. Webster had built himself a real racer.
“How do you steer it?” said Ted.
“I haven’t figured that part out yet.”
“How do you stop?” said Mikka.
“I’m working on it. Lift the overhead, will you, Ted?”
Ted raised the door. The driveway leading to it had a slight downhill slope.
“I want to ride,” said Mikka.
“What about the baby?”
“You will be careful.”
Webster nodded. Ted, who was humming the In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida tune, also nodded. Mikka lowered her young body into the cart. She propped herself on her elbows, grinning. There was a contagion in her happiness. Ted stood on one side, Webster stood on the other, each with a hand on a pallbearer handle. It was hard to describe the sense of satisfaction that Webster experienced as the rocket picked up just a little speed, going down the drive.