The Causeway Bridge
The fever hit me. Like a freakin’ truck. I jumped into my Caddie and drove all the way to Galveston going 110. Maybe faster. I felt like I was seventeen again. Or nineteen. Or twenty. Whatever age that is where everything seems absolutely urgent and unique and the future is just this tiny dot in the distance you’re plowing toward as fast as you can.
I had a bank check for $117,000 in my coat pocket and another one for $36,500 in the glove box. Along with an outdated insurance certificate, a .38, a completely useless fuzz buster, and a medicine bottle that may or may not have contained a small amount of prescription marijuana. I really should’ve been pulled over. I mean I really should have been pulled over. But not getting pulled over just another minor miracle in a long string of minor miracles for me: I’d settled a case for too much money, I’d shaken Willie Nelson’s hand in a Denny’s parking lot, and I’d hit the nine horse at the Sam Houston Raceway (36-1) purely because it was named Abogado and I was willing to take a flyer. I was on a sick run of luck. Just sick. So it didn’t surprise me that I didn’t get pulled over. It’s what I expected.
The trip went by in a blink. Hobby Airport. Blam. League City. Blam. Dmitri’s and The Ocean Cabaret. Blam-blam. I mean, I barely even saw the oleander and the palm trees. It was only when I hit the Causeway Bridge that I sort of started to think about what I was doing and where I was headed. Galveston Island was stretched out there before me as I climbed the mainland side of the bridge. It wasn’t bad to look at. The water glinted in the midday sun. Big houses to the right. Ski boats. Piers running out into the bay. And then, on my left, those funny undulating concrete dividers between the southbound and northbound lanes of I45. They were meant to look like waves, I think. The sky above me was screaming bright. I felt like I was shooting up to heaven or something. I felt that perfectly good.
As I crested the Causeway Bridge, I saw the billboard with me and Hagohara on it. Him and me, standing shoulder to shoulder. Him and me, both wearing dark suits. Him and me, both wearing thin red ties. Both smiling grimly. “You need tough lawyers.” That’s what the caption said. It gave the office number.
At the very same moment as I descended onto the island, my former partner, Hagohara, may have been coming to the uncomfortable realization that a large sum of money was missing from the firm’s operating account. $372,372.35. All but $46 even, which I’d left him out of spite because it was his birthday. I could picture Hagohara sitting at his desk with the bank’s web site open on his monitor—gripping his forehead and letting out a wordless scream. Wearing those $3,000 Armani glasses on his moony face. God, I relished the fact that I’d deceived him. I had a deep-down hatred for him that I’d been repressing for years. Because he was an able minder, but he didn’t have the stones to really try a case. He needed me. He followed me like a lamprey, eating the garbage off my teeth.
When I reached the Cruise Pier Terminal, I strolled into the ticketing office, pulled out Jill Jefferson’s shining blue passport and opened it on the Formica counter. Jill was smiling in the picture, her bright, eager-looking smile. She was part Mexican, I think. She had a lot of gums.
I bought two Premier Class tickets for the Carnival Ecstasy. Three thousand seven hundred bucks apiece. Paper tickets bought with cash. The cabin had two shitters and its own Jacuzzi. They had a picture of the twin shitters in the pamphlet. I wanted to say something funny about it to the woman at the counter, but I held my tongue. Better that I not do something memorable just now.
The cashier put the boarding passes in an envelope and smiled as she slid them to me. I detected what? Interest? Envy? I stood there smiling back at her, but I was thinking about Jill: Jill’s skinny arms, Jill’s skinny legs, Jill’s bright white tennis skirt. We were set to leave on Wednesday afternoon. We had to get to Cozumel by Friday. Friday at the latest. Jill and I had to jump ship there and make it the rest of the way to Venezuela on our own. By Friday, I figured they might be looking for me at the customs office. Even in Mexico.
I hit Dmitri’s on the way back to town. They didn’t have a liquor license. You had to bring your own booze and buy ten dollar set-ups from the topless waitresses. The stripper onstage had a big scar from a C-section. Still, she moved better than any other white girl in the room, kind of flowing and drifting across the riser. There was a 20′ chromed pole in the middle of the club and this girl could climb it like an acrobat—upside down, rightside up, sideways, even something that looked like a vertical cartwheel. It must’ve taken a lot of strength to do what she was doing. Lots of practice. Training. So there was this curious tension. On the one hand, the girl could really get down. She’d studied somewhere. You could see it in the hardness of her muscles. But, on the other hand, she wasn’t what I’d call a pretty face. She had a pig nose and thick legs and of course the scar. The emcee said we should give it up for Dawn. Most of the crowd ignored him, but not me.
After Dawn got off the stage, she circled the room, looking for some lap dances. I actually raised my hand up and held it there for her to see, like a kid in grammar school. I called out, “Hey, Dawn,” and smiled at her.
The woman wore a lot of blue mascara. Maybe it was tattooed on her eyelids. Her eyes flicked at me. Flicked closed. Flicked open again. She gave me one of those dead looks that say, “Fuck you, Mack. Just fuck you through and through.” And then, just as quickly as she’d blinked, she sprang to life and walked toward me, smiling enthusiastically, her true feelings erased or buried.
Dawn made her money, though. She was polite to me. She told me I looked like what’s-his-name from Rockford Files. And she sure put her ass right up in my face. On my cheeks. On the bridge of my nose. Her ass crack smelled like pussy and vanilla extract. I mean like really really good. I tried to revel in it. I really tried to. But I couldn’t.
The lights were down and I was feeling shot, you know. Just gassed. I sat back in my chair and watched Dawn wriggle. There was some rap on. All base. Tooth-rattling bass. Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom. “Ain’t nothin’ but tooty-fruity, get on the floor if you got that booty.” The same words, over and over again while Dawn pounded it out on my lap. The noise gave me a headache. No matter what I thought of I couldn’t get it up.
I woke up at a rest stop on I45 with a horrible taste in my mouth. Stale whiskey mixed with chicken grease. I was in the back seat of the Caddie. There was a Popeye’s bag on the floor with a big wad of dirty napkins stuffed in the top. I reached over and crammed the mouth of the bag closed to see if that would stop the smell from leaking out.
When I picked myself up, I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the rear view mirror. Heavy-lidded. Red-eyed. Big-lipped. Ten years older than I really was. The seams from the car seat were imprinted on my cheek, two rows of perfect stiches. My eyes listed toward the dash. The clock read 8:55.
Jesus Christ. Oh shit.
I felt my pockets. No keys. I turned my jacket inside out looking for them. I patted down the length of my pants. Nothing. I looked under the seats and between the seats and under all the floormats and then in the pockets on the back of the seats and in the center console and finally the glove box. Nothing. Fucking nothing. Zip.
I was supposed to meet Netni at this greasy spoon called Kelley’s. Kelley’s in LaMarque at nine. We had agreed. Because Netni was bringing the rest of the settlement money. And Netni wouldn’t wait. He’d miss the meeting if he could. Because Netni was an insufferable prick who rejoiced in the suffering of others and the deliberate complication of their lives. I hated all defense attorneys, but most of all I hated Netni, who was good in court and also crooked. Netni would be overjoyed to miss me. I imagined the smile creeping across his face when he realized that I was running late.
I crawled over the console and into front seat, fishing around between the cushions for a second time. All I came up with was wadded up gum wrapper and some pennies. But no keys. They were fucking gone. Evaporated. They’d been abducted by aliens. I groped around with a sort of nauseous panic. I bent down and looked underneath the driver’s seat again. The blood ran to my head. The pressure throbbed. I was close, really really close to puking.
Finally, I just sat myself behind the steering wheel, grimacing and seething, pounding the wheel with the palms of my hands. The car was hotter than shit, even with the door open. Ninety, easy. There was a stabbing pain behind my eyes. It came and went with every heartbeat. I smacked my hands against the wheel some more. Whap. Whap. Whap. And somehow or other my smashing on the wheel made the visor drop down. The keys! They slid right off the visor right into my lap! I looked at them in the folds of my slacks. As a child looks on a Christmas present. With thankfulness. With greed.
But when I screeched into Kelley’s, Netni’s beemer was nowhere to be found. I circled the building just to make sure, trying to suck the bad taste off my teeth. There was nothing in the lot that Netni would have even considered driving. Just pick-up trucks and big go-to-church cars. Still, I went inside and stood by the hostess’s stand, looking over her shoulder for him. Scanning the greyish, freshly-scrubbed inhabitants.
I smelled. I smelled like booze and B.O. and cigarettes. Maybe a little bit like piss. And I knew that. I was a little scared the lady wouldn’t seat me. But, when I held up two fingers, she just smiled robotically, picked up a couple of plastic-coated menus and signaled that I should follow.
It was godawful bright in Kelley’s. Brighter even than outside because of all the fluorescents and the chrome. Every knife and fork and spoon and even the salt shakers gave back the shining light. Everywhere I turned I could see my distorted reflection in polished metal. I watched myself slide by in the backside of a napkin dispenser, an almost liquid form. That too made me sick.
I ordered coffee and put a big one down in less than a minute, then signaled to the passing waitress for another. She had decaf in one hand and the real stuff in the other. She smiled and poured from the carafe with the orange lid. Somewhere along the way, I found a plastic flask in my breast pocket. Thank God. I said. Aloud. Thank you, God. I pulled the coffee mug down in my lap and mixed the whiskey with it, fifty-fifty. Just that act made me feel better. I knew the pain would be over soon. All I had to do was wait.
By the time I finished my second cup of coffee, I’d determined the stuff in the flask was Evan Williams. I was pretty sure about it. Even though I still wasn’t sure where it had come from. It left a warm glow in my stomach. I could feel the swelling in my eyelids starting to go down.
Netni walked into Kelley’s Diner in LaMarque at nine-thirty on Wednesday morning in an impeccably pressed black suit, buffed Ferragamos and a grey silk tie. His hair was slicked back. He hadn’t shaved his jaw for a week but his throat and his cheeks were clean as a whistle. He could not have looked more out of place in LaMarque if he’d walked in wearing a trench coat and fedora.
I dipped my chin and watched the skin of the coffee in my third cup while he walked over.
“You’re late,” I said, barely even looking at him.
Netni skeptically examined his Rolex, ticking his head back and forth as if to jog a memory loose. To him, it didn’t seem to add up. It must’ve been my mistake. He leaned closer to me. He spoke in a lowered voice. “What did you do, Frank? Did you sleep in your car?”
I squenched up my cheek, but didn’t answer.
Netni looked down brushed something off the seat. A crumb he had found there.
“Did you order?”
“Are you eating?”
“Let’s not drag this out, Judd,” I said. “I gotta be someplace.”
Netni sat down opposite me. He looked at me awhile. “Ah yes,” he said, “your vacation. What’s Hagohara going to do without you while you’re gone?”
I shrugged. I couldn’t remember what I’d told him about the vacation and what I hadn’t. I didn’t want to give any more away.
“Choke on his chopsticks,” I said. “Fuck if I care.”
“I mean what’s he going to do with the practice? With the firm? With all the fucking billboards?”
I looked down at my fingertips, which were shaking just a bit. “He can’t try a case himself. Never could. He’ll have to bring somebody in.”
“Will he call the police?”
I shook my head. I smiled. Of this much I was certain.
“No way in hell he will ever call the police. I think I can safely say that the last thing he wants is someone looking through his precious books.”
Netni waited for more from me, but I gave none.
“Where are my checks, Judd?”
Netni patted his breast pocket. “You have Mrs. Johnson’s signature?”
I took the settlement and release out of my jacket and slid it across the table. It was folded in thirds and stapled in the corner. Netni flipped it open to the last page. The old lady’d signed in violet ink. There she was by the notary block, clear as day. Delores Johnson. Recently of the Beaumont Pain Management Clinic. A graduate of Golden Triangle Neurological Institute. Her injuries were lifelong and debilitating. A certain neurologist I knew had averred that she would never work again.
“Alright,” I said. “Gimmee gimmee.”
Netni took an envelope out of his pocket. He held it midway across the table. Like the prick he was. He wanted me to reach.
“There’s something I’ve always wanted to know, Frank. Before you go. Did you really have a thing going with Judge Carmen? People always said you had something going with Judge Carmen.”
I pushed out my lower lip. I shook my head. “Not like you think.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means Al never asked me for anything. We took some vacations together. Family vacations. That was it. We let people think what they wanted.”
I let the question sit.
“Have you talked to him since they sent him to the pen?”
I shook my head and pursed my lips. “His wife called me a couple of times. That’s it.”
“Yeah, Judd, for money. The feds took everything. They took his house. They took his ranch. They took his fucking horses.”
Netni pushed the envelope across the table. I took out the checks and held each one up to the window. The sun shone through and backlit the ink. $1,250,000 and no cents. $47,500 and no cents.
“Goodbye, I guess,” I said.
I got up to leave him with the bill.
Netni was smiling at me, that apelike smile of his.
“Bon voyage,” he said.
I’d promised my girlfriend Susan I’d take her to her parents’ house that morning and I had to keep up the pretense since I didn’t want to let on that I was leaving her. I’d had a shower to help get my mind straight, but still I wasn’t feeling quite 100%. The two of us were in the front of the Caddie. Her spaniels were in the back seat. Dottie and Don. Donnie and Dot. Something like that. A male and a bitch. And Susan was blabbering away about how her analyst had encouraged her to paint the scenes from her dreams. I don’t exactly remember how we got there in the conversation. Really, I was just thinking about Jill and about how soon I’d be rid of Susan and all her crazy New Age bullshit. How I was going to leave her at her parents’ house and never have to listen to her talk about her therapists again. She wouldn’t even know I was gone ‘til I was five hundred miles out to sea. I’d just disappear and then she’d have to wonder. Maybe someone from one of the newspapers would try to call her up for answers.
That’s when I came up on this old yellow Cavalier chugging along in the fast lane. We were ten miles past the beltway on the north side of town. There was no way anyone should be going less than 75 in the fast lane out there. That may even have been the limit. So I eased over to the right and went by, right? No biggie. An easy pass. No problem. But when I glanced back to check the clearance, the Cavalier took a hard left turn. It swerved into the concrete divider in the middle of the Interstate. Cranked into it full bore. The left-front hood folded up like an accordion. The windows blew out, all six of them at once. To me, it looked almost like the driver’d run it into the wall on purpose. And then things got really bad. The car tipped over and started rolling. I remember specifically seeing the doors fly open while it tumbled. It kind of reminded me of a tree roach spreading its wings. Nothing came out, but the doors were wide open.
The first thing that popped into my head was, “Did I do that?”
I mean, it seemed like a completely clean pass to me. I didn’t think I’d cut the other driver off or anything. A few car lengths on a pass is all anyone is entitled to in this world. But I’d taken a couple of Percocet at a gas station about a half hour before. The truth was, until I saw the wreck, I hadn’t really been paying very much attention to anything. So I cut Susan off in the middle of her dream, which apparently had something to do with how inconsiderate I was. “Hey Honey, was there an accident back there?” I asked. All nonchalant. All cool. Sometimes I amaze myself.
Susan craned her neck around. And as soon as she did, she screamed right into my ear. “Aaaaaaahhhhh! Oh Christ, Frank! Jesus Christ! Stop the car! Stop the car! Oh Jesus Christ!” Because, just when she turned around, a huge black dually—a Dodge Ram, I think—ran right into the passenger side of the Cavalier, which hadn’t even come to a stop yet. The truck plowed into the car and smashed it into the divider all over again. And I’m watching this all in the rear view mirror, slow-mo, going Oh Shit. Oh fucking SHIT. Because if the people in the car had made it past the rollover, I doubted anyone could survive the T-bone.
Susan whacked her hands on the dash. She scrunched up her orangey face. “Aaaaaahhh! Pull over, Frank!” she screamed again.
Now, I was pretty sure I was innocent. Nothing I’d done should have made the Chevy’s driver cut the wheel. Maybe it had blown a tire or hit something on the road. And the Ram clearly hadn’t kept an adequate following distance. But, when I looked at myself in the rear view mirror, the guy looking back at me had eyes that were as glassy as marbles. If I’d been a slot machine, I would’ve just hit the lemons.
Susan started pulling on my arm. “We have to go back! We have to help!” she cried.
“Look, Honey,” I said, and I was still serene with Percocet. “We’re on a divided highway. I can’t just turn this car around. I’d have to loop around at the next overpass. And God knows where that’ll be. It’s probably not for another ten miles. And we’re already a half hour late getting to your folks’ house. Plus, there’s plenty of people back there to help. There’s going to be way too many people there for us to do any good. We’d just get in the way.”
“Jesus, Frank! I can’t believe you!”
Her eyes were bugling out. She turned all the way around in her seat, sitting on he knees, looking back at the wreck. The dogs were looking back there, too. I could see them in the rear view mirror with their paws up on the head rests.
Her voice was shaking. “I think somebody got killed back there!” Susan cried. “I heard a shriek!”
“You hear a what?” I asked.
As soon as I asked, I knew I shouldn’t have.
Susan wheeled on me. She hated being doubted. “A heard a shriek. A psychic shriek. It’s the sound people let out as they die.”
“You’re fucking kidding me,” I said.
In my own defense, opiates will loosen up your tongue.
Susan held up her palm to stave off my disbelief. “Frank,” she said, “I don’t want to have an argument about it with you right now. Just turn the car around.”
“Look, Suz, I mean, there wasn’t any shrieking, psychic or otherwise.”
“Everything screams before it dies. It’s scientifically proven.”
“By who?!” I asked. “By L. Ron Hubbard?!”
I already knew this wasn’t going to end well. My mouth was dry. There was this chalky film gathering on my tongue. I was feeling white and pasty. In my mind’s eye, I was kind of picturing all these mangled bodies back there in the Chevy. Grandma driving. Mama beside. The kids in back in their car seats all bloody and bashed together. I’d seen pictures of it a time or two.
“C’mon, Frank. Turn the car around! It won’t take fifteen minutes. Please, Honey. Please! You’ve got to go back!”
I pretended like I was weighing my options. Like I was really considering turning around. But I wasn’t. I drove right past the next exit without even touching the brakes. I was never turning around. Not for that.
I dropped Susan off at her parents’ place in Conroe and immediately turned back toward Houston. She was still shouting at me to go back to the car wreck as I backed out of her parents’ driveway. When I looked at her in the rear view mirror, she was standing at their idiotic wrought iron gate with all the curlicues. She had a handful of gravel in her hand. She threw it after me. It rattled on the Caddie’s paint. I couldn’t hear what she was yelling, but I could almost read her lips. “I hope you get some help!” is what I think she was saying.
I shot down I45 and across The Causeway Bridge and only slowed down when I hit the exit ramp for the Cruise Ship Terminal. Harborside Drive. I was waiting to experience the bliss of the day before, but somehow I couldn’t quite recapture it. The scene was the same, but it was not the same. There were deep water rigs in dry dock along the roadside, wrecked skeletons of them, and oil tanks too—painted green and rusting. And then there were the sulfur piles. Mountains of the stuff. Some of them must’ve been seventy or eighty feet high. Then finally the vast plain of the terminal’s asphalt parking lot.
I found a spot for the Caddie pretty close to the ship and waited for Jill there, watching for her station wagon. It was hot as hell out there on the pavement. There were deep black mirages every way you looked. But there was nothing I could do but wait there in the heat. There was no way to make time run faster. Everything was slow. I could not control it.
I sat behind the wheel of my car with the windows up and a/c running full blast. It didn’t matter to me if the gas ran out. That’s what I thought. I was leaving the Caddie there anyway. Someone else could have her if they filled her up. After all, she’d been faithful. She deserved a new home.
I turned the radio off and just sat there watching the ship, the passengers trundling up the gangway in twos and fours, fat and dressed like day beds. Some of them had already started arguing.
Finally, an announcer came on the scratchy P.A. to say the ship was leaving. “All aboard,” he bellowed and it sounded like he meant it. So I got out of the Caddie into the blazing afternoon. The sun burned straight through my shirt and into my back. I could feel the heat of the parking lot cooking the soles of my shoes.
My shit was in the trunk in my little brown shoulder bag. Two swimsuits, four pairs of underwear, two shirts and some flip-flops. Jill’s stuff was beside mine in her enormous purple roller. I took her passport out and started flipping through the pages. Every one of them was blank. There wasn’t a single stamp. She’d gotten it just for this trip. The photo looked brand new.
I thought about putting her passport in the mail and sending it back to her. I could have done that if I’d wanted to. If there’d been a postbox nearby. If I’d had and envelope and half a dozen stamps. But she could just have another made, couldn’t she? So what would be the point in sending it? To remind her that I’d loved her once? That I’d thought of her as I got on board? To show her what a considerate, earnest guy she’d ditched? I was never going to do that. What would’ve been the point?