31 • Running
Joe’s answer was wrong, Will thought as he drove toward the mill that afternoon. He had to measure the width of the road and then go see a farmer to measure the width of his tractor to prove what he and everyone else involved in the accident already knew: that the tractor wheels were over the yellow line because the tractor was wider than its lane.
Not hard to figure, really. Tractors aren’t designed for the road. They’re made for the field. Problem is that fields and machine sheds are connected to one another by roads and sometimes a guy has to drive his tractor on the highway to get to where he needs to work. And it would be nice if other guys driving their four-wheel drive pickups or low-rider coupes with subwoofers pounding all the way to Winnipeg would see them and take a little special care. But often enough, they don’t, and they charge up on those big boys lumbering down the highway and get so busy laying on the horn and brandishing their middle fingers that they don’t slow themselves down. And then their fancy wheels hit the soft shoulder too hard so they go tumbling into the ditch, screaming not for their lives but for the end of the farmer who took up too much of their side of the road.
If a guy could make himself slow down just a little, Will believed, just long enough to see who he’s sharing the road with, maybe see why he’s in your lane sometimes, maybe a guy’d be willing to give somebody else a little more room to get by.
His thoughts went back to Joe as he passed the Legion post over the bridge on the left. Joe was no doubt partly right, that he came to South Dakota for his wife, to make good on his promise to her. But Joe was forgetting his own lesson about how things can be more than one thing at a time. Will believed Joe didn’t just come, but also left. He’d been in Chicago his whole life. Fulfilling a promise to someone who wouldn’t even be there to experience is not enough to move out here, he thought. No, Joe left Chicago as much as he came to South Dakota.
By why? Was he lonely? Just couldn’t bear to wake up alone in the same bed he’d shared with his beloved every day for 47 years? Was it regret? Penance for waiting too long to retire and bring his wife back west?
Maybe Joe was a fugitive from justice. He’d moved here in ’85, not so long after the big Franco heist in Chicago. Maybe Joe was involved and figured no one would ever look for him in the middle of nowhere, like the Nazis who hid out in Argentina and Chile after the war, thinking it was the last place anybody would look for them. Hiding in plain sight on the open prairie.
Will laughed at himself as he pulled his truck onto the shoulder and stopped. “You’re reaching pretty hard, Phillips, ” he said. “You don’t want to answer Joe’s question so you just made him into a criminal.”
“It could happen, ” he answered himself as he pulled his measuring wheel from the back of his truck. “It could happen.”
His mind kept churning as he walked to the edge of the road. And what about Cameron? Why isn’t Joe probing her about why she came out here? If there’s anybody who must have a story, it’s Cameron. Young, urban professional, promising career ahead, comes out to the friggin’ boondocks to manage a no-name telecom just begging to be eaten by one of the big three if they just knew it—and the state—existed. She’s all but thrown herself on a shiny, silver career-sword coming out here. Will rolled the wheel across the narrow tarred road, jotted measurements into a small notebook and snapped a photograph in either direction.
“So ask Cameron what she is running away from, Joe, ” Will said, throwing his wheel into the truck and snapping the bed cover back down hard. “Quit nagging me about Barbara and ask Cameron her story, you goddamned old bank robber.”
Will climbed up into the cab and slammed the door. He started the truck and jabbed at the vent button with his index finger but missed and turned on the radio instead. He pulled his black and white striped cap down over his ears, almost covering his eyes, crossed his arms over his chest and slumped down in his seat.
“Stupid, stupid old man. Think you can throw around some fancy talk and all the books you’ve read and then I’m just going to believe you know what you’re talking about. You don’t know me, Joe. You don’t know anything about me.”
Will didn’t hear the tires on gravel behind his truck and jumped when he heard a tap on his side glass. He fumbled for the window switch, locking and unlocking the doors before he got the window to roll down.
“Jeremy, ” he said, sitting up. “Uh, hey. What’s up?”
Deputy Roundleg leaned down to see into the cab. “Everything okay, Phillips?”
Will pushed his cap back on his head. “Oh, yeah. Sure, ” he said. “Just came out to get some scene photos from an accident.”
The deputy glanced around the cab.
“Hey, ” Will said. “You didn’t happen to be the guy who responded to that deal here last month where Grand Prix swerved to miss a tractor and rolled into the ditch?”
Roundleg stook upright and laughed, his belly shaking over his belt. He pointed to the intersection and said, “Sure did. Ron Miller’s guys are hauling liquid manure and this joker is late for work and runs right up on the honey wagon before he decides to veer to the right to avoid hitting the wheel. It’d been raining and the roads were slick as hell. Jackass is lucky he didn’t end up covered in shit.”
“Can I quote you on that?” Will chuckled.
“Sure can. I don’t give a crap about these guys who come in here to work crews building the new mill. They act like they own the town and everybody needs to treat ’em special.” He put his hands in his pockets. “They don’t vote in this county and hopefully they’ll finish work and get the hell out of here in a few months. I might actually get a day off then.”
Will laughed and wrote a note on the file.
“You done here?” Roundleg asked.
“Yeah, just finishing up my notes.”
“Best get going then. Shift’s about to end over there and you don’t want to be on the road when these guys all break for Happy Hour.”
“Point taken, ” Will said. “Thanks for the info.”
“See you later, Will.” Deputy Roundleg walked back to his Durango.
Will signaled, looked behind and pulled out onto the highway. “I could use a Happy Hour, ” he mumbled as he drove toward town.
Mad Dog was putting on his jacket when Will walked into the office. “Hey, little buddy. I’m just heading out for a beer with Stu and Charlie. You going to come?”
“I’d love to. But I need to catch up on some paperwork before I go home, ” Will said. “Thanks though.”
“You bet. I left some phone messages on your desk. That Nina woman called and chewed my ass again.”
“Why can’t you just be nice to her, Mike?”
“I am pretty nice to her. She just doesn’t recognize it because she’d been getting dragged around by Justin and guys like him for so long she doesn’t know what a nice guy looks like.”
“Oh, right. I forgot. You are Mr. Virtuous.”
Mad Dog tossed his tennis ball and bounced it off Will’s head. “Listen, plenty of women think I’m a nice guy. In fact, I’m going to go see if any of them are at Marvelle’s right now. Later, sucker.”
Will bent to pick up the tennis ball and walked into his office. As usual, his phone had been moved and his papers shuffled.
“Dammit, Mad Dog. Why can’t you—” He stopped and threw up his hands. “Forget it. What difference does it make?”
“What’s that, Willie?” Mad Dog stood in Will’s doorway.
“Nothing. Never mind.” He sat down.
“Alright then, I’m out.” Mad Dog zipped his jacket and turned to go. “See you tomorrow, Willie Boy.”
Will leaned back in stared at the ceiling. “Hey, Mike?”
“How’d you end up here?”
“This is where I work, duh.”
Will rolled his eyes. “No, here. Dennison. You didn’t grow up here. How’d you end up in the town?”
Mad Dog stepped back into Will’s office and leaned against the door frame.
“Nah. I grew up in Nebraska. Same difference, I suppose.”
Will threw him the tennis ball.
“Moved here out of college. Got a teaching job at the high school back when Walter Dingman was the superintendent.”
“Are you kidding? You were a teacher? How did I not know this?”
“I figured I’d work a few years, cut my teeth on small town stuff, then go find a gig in the city.” He tossed the ball back and Will reached out to catch it with his right hand. He rolled the ball across his thigh with his palm.
“Charlie and Stu were teaching too. A few years later, the insurance company started picking us off one by one, seducing us out of the classroom with their big offices and bigger salaries. Probably 10 guys left the district within a couple of years.”
He reached up, inviting Will to throw the ball back. Will held it, squeezing it in his hand.
“By the time the insurance company was acquired by a bigger fish and swam away to the ocean, I’d married and divorced and pretty well settled here for good. I worked out a deal with them to be my first client as an independent adjuster. Next thing I knew, I needed a partner, you came along and look at us now. Such a happy couple.”
“The happiest, ” Will said and threw the ball, aiming hard at Mad Dog’s knees.
“Hey now.” He jumped out of the way.
“So you came here for a job.”
“Yep, guess so.”
“Were you trying to get away from something?”
“Get away from something? Hell no. I was a 22-year-old frat boy. What was there to get away from? I’d have stayed in school if I hadn’t run out of cash. I didn’t want to leave at all. But I needed a job and didn’t want to have to move back home.”
“So you were getting away from something.”
“Yeah, you were. You were getting away from home. From your mommy.”
“I don’t think so. Came for the money. Stayed for the girls.”
“Right. Lucky girls.”
“What about you? You’ve never really said what brought you here.”
“You brought me here, Mike. When you left the insurance company you asked me to go into business with you.”
“Yeah, but seriously. Who leaves Chicago and moves to the middle of nowhere to be partners with a guy he met at a claims convention?”
Mad Dog sat down across Will’s desk.
“I never pushed you about it, and pretended not to notice, because I didn’t want you to get all touchy-feely with me. But man, you were a freaking mess when you got here.”
“What?” Will sat up straight in his chair. “What are you talking about? I came and got the business set up while you drank coffee and golfed three days a week.”
“You don’t remember.” Mad Dog shook his head. “Hell, I was regretting ever proposing we be partners. I was afraid you were on your way to the loony bin.”
Will stared at Mad Dog, not blinking, but remembering.
“You never slept. You wore the same clothes every day for a week at a time. You worked 14 hours a day even when we had no claims. You always, always had a lit cigarette in your mouth. And you weighed like a hundred pounds more than you do now. Don’t tell me you weren’t on the run from something in Chicago.”
“Because now you are a psych expert.”
“Listen, I know you think I don’t know things. I like it better that way. But I was a psych major in college. I know a crapload about human behavior. I just don’t like to listen to people talk about their problems so I don’t say nothing about it. You, my friend, had run away. And if I was not mistaken, everything you ran away from in Chicago came along with you. Or at least you thought it had.”
* * *
Mad Dog was right, of course. Just like Joe had been right. Hell, even Pearl was right, though Will couldn’t for the life of him remember what it was she was right about. Maybe it was that the flowered apron made him look like her little sister, he thought, and kicked a rock from the sidewalk into the street.
After all his “I know everything about the human psyche, especially yours” bullshit, Mad Dog told Will he was taking himself too seriously and needed to come out for a drink with him and the other guys. Will resisted, turning down the invitation the customary Midwestern three times before he agreed to go along.
He left the bar before he finished his first beer, feeling restless as though the sounds of laughter and clinking glasses and country music on the jukebox were strips of cloth wrapping themselves around his body to entomb him.
Will took two dollar bills from his wallet and folded them under his bottle. “I’m out, fellas, ” he said, leaning to the side as he pushed his wallet back into his jeans pocket. “Have an early day at work tomorrow.”
Mad Dog shouted behind him as he walked away. “Tomorrow’s Saturday!”
(to be continued)