Friday, September 26, 2014

No Good Deed by James Shaffer

Hank waits out a storm in his caravan and thinks back over his romantic life with Alice; by James Shaffer.

I put on my flashers and pulled the caravan over to the side of the road hoping to wait out the worst of the storm. I kept the engine running but silenced the wipers. Heavy raindrops pounded the cab's roof like a tenor drum chorus and rainwater zigzagged in rivulets down the windscreen. Intermittent flashes of lightning cast shadows that glistened and slithered over the cab's interior. Even in the darkness between, I knew the silent serpents were still moving. It put me in a tribal mood. I caught my face in the rear view mirror. At that moment, I could have put on war paint, run naked in the road and sounded a Commanche war cry. It felt like that kind of night, filled with a mysterious mist and windswept streaks of rain. I switched on the headlamps and through the slant of sparkling raindrops, watched the barren road disappear in darkness beyond the reach of any light. The driving rain and darkness gave me pause. I was safe and dry inside the cab. I smiled at what I'd contemplated as I fired up the wipers and pulled back out onto the road.

Civilization was once again spared, I mused. The sight of me running naked in the rain would no doubt have been perceived as a setback, an irreparable fault in the space-time continuum. It would have set everything just a bit askew. Better to spare the future, unwitting generations.

Maybe Darwin was right. Over time, the slow process of evolution brought change, and the traits of the fittest survived. Observing the current state of the world, that theory may defy proof, but it's what remains, what we live with everyday. Maybe a war cry on a dark and empty road would only be another step in the evolutionary process - a step forward or back remained the irresolute question.



That year I purchased a used Autotrail Pawnee caravan. I bought it from a retired couple who'd dreamed of spending lazy, long weekends on the Devon coast. Their hardest daily task, they thought, would be unfolding the matching lawn chairs they'd received as a retirement present. They'd envisioned sipping hot teas together on cool mornings while nestled comfortably under the caravan's side awning, an unbroken seaside vista stretched out before them. But, she said, it was not to be. Those dreams had taken a detour when her husband fell ill. A six-month stint in the hospital had saved his life, but in the end their depleted nest egg confined them to their terraced house in Basingstoke. The Devon shore, though still there and still real, would now remain only a dream. The story moved me, but it was meant to. I liked the story so I didn't dicker on price. I paid what they asked and drove away slowly and gently, their precious dreams in tow.

I've been on the road ever since, living on caravan sites around the country, taking on odd jobs as a handyman to keep myself in ready cash. I did some time in the Army in the motor pool. There, I learned everything I could about the mechanics of a vehicle. It's what kept the caravan running in good nick.

My background and education had been in civil engineering, so when I got out of the Army, I set up my own business. It paid well. County contracts kept me busy. I was building for the future. I took on a secretary to keep up with the paperwork and to do my scheduling and generally keep me on the straight and narrow. I needed direction. She was good. She took over, helped make the business prosper and with little coercion, steered me right up the aisle to the altar. Her name was Alice.



We were married at the end of a particularly hot summer. It is unusual for England to have any long stretch of good weather, but that summer was an exception. We went to Paris for our honeymoon and stayed a week at the Hotel St. Séverin near the famous Place St. Michel on the left bank. It was a lively quarter filled with students from the Sorbonne nearby and to our liking, offered a wide choice of cafés and global cuisine.

A scenic boat ride on the Seine eventually took us under the Pont d'léna to the Quai Branly at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, our destination that day. I remember Alice stood for a long time staring upwards at its cross hatch of riveted steel straps and girders. We made an entire tour of the base just to make sure it was bolted down securely.

"So, do you think it's structurally safe?" She was asking my opinion as a civil engineer.

"Well it's stood here for almost a hundred years now. As far as I know, it hasn't moved."

"It looks like it's leaning," she said staring at the top against an azure sky and the passing clouds.

"It's an optical illusion," I parried.

She stopped at one of the feet and looked long and hard up along the tower's edge to the top.

"It's not straight." I followed her sightline. I had to admit it wasn't straight. The heavily riveted edge meandered its way to the top like a stumbling drunk. "Well, it's not perfect if that's what you mean. Most things aren't up close. Still it seems like a pretty sound structure," I ventured. I often found the philosophical approach a successful diversion. Still, to prove my point empirically, I walked over and gave the tower foot a good kick. She watched me and laughed. Then she ran over and jumped into my arms.

"Let's not break the spell."

"The spell?" I asked. "What spell?"

"You know, the spell! Let's anticipate going up to the top of the Eiffel Tower."

"Okaaay..." I replied. Though I couldn't be sure, I thought I saw where her reasoning was headed.

"You know how it is sometimes. Anticipation is part of the excitement. After it's done, it's over. The anticipation is gone. Let's not do it now, let's do it another time. That way, we'll have both."

Her philosophy won out. I didn't argue. I kissed her, then we walked hand in hand in search of a taxi along the Quai Branly.

"Place St. Michel, s'il vous plait," I told to the taxi driver and off we went back to the hotel.

That night she took an unusually long time getting ready for bed. Being a man, I was in bed in five minutes, teeth brushed and naked under the covers. The voile curtains wafted into the room through the open terrace doors like a breeze filling a set sail. As a woman's laughter filtered up between the buildings, I turned off the light. Reflections from the neon street signs below flickered on the ceiling. I rose naked from the bed in the semi-darkness and crept to the terrace doors. I could hear the accordion music before I could locate the street musician at the broad, cobblestoned intersection of Rue de la Harpe and our avenue. I could see him at an oblique angle. There was already a small crowd gathered. A car horn beeped almost in tune to the melody. The city's bustling nightlife spilt over into our room. All at once she was beside me sliding her arms around my waist. It made me jump and broke my reverie.

"You always stand naked in an open window, soldier?"

I eased my arm around behind her and pulled her close. Her fingertips danced lightly across my chest and made a slow descent to the rhythm of the accordionist's tune.

"Only when there's a beautiful woman present." We stood that way for some moments, watching and listening.

"What's the song?" she asked.

"Sous le ciel de Paris." The musician played it slowly, like a waltz. The crowd began to sway to the music. I turned to her. The shadows from the moving curtain shifted on her face like shimmering light reflected off the surface of a pool. "May I have this dance?"

She came around in front of me and held up her arms, and I pulled her to me. We were no Fred and Ginger, but at that moment, in that dark room, we could have been. As we glided away from the window, she laid her head on my chest and hummed to the music.

"It's a real Paris melody," she said.

Her hair was soft against my cheek. As we turned, the scent of her perfume drifted over us like a night breeze from Shalimar. Her white gown caught less and less of the window light as we floated further into the room's shadows until we almost disappeared.

Later, when the music stopped and we were left with only the street sounds of stacking tables and chairs, we gave up and slipped under the covers. I put my arms around her and we kissed as I pulled her on top of me. Then we slowly began another dance that needed no music. Over her shoulder, I saw the reflections from the neon street lights dance on the ceiling like some old movie on the wall of Plato's cave.

As I drifted off to sleep, caught between the world and dreams, I thought I heard a woman's scream turn into laughter and then again, a scream, a strange war cry in a dark and empty street.



The Civil Engineers Association had a get-together every year. That year they were giving me a special award for a bridge I'd designed and built, one that spanned a river and diverted traffic away from the small hamlets that lined its banks. We lived in one of those hamlets, so in a way I liked to think that I'd improved our lives just a little.

Alice and I had always gone together, but that year I was going stag. She was disappointed but was seven months pregnant with our first child - and felt like it, she said. It hadn't been easy for her. I empathised as much as a man can, as much as a devoted husband should. I knew a large part of her wanted to attend and badly. I could tell. But it was the smaller part that would keep her behind.

A warm rain had fallen most of the day. The sun even managed to shine at times and projected a rainbow against the dark clouds on the horizon. It was a seasonal rain that casually marked the end of summer. The exact change of seasons was uncertain, but the evenings were cooler and daylight ebbed sooner than expected.

"Have you seen my tie?" I was standing in front of the hall mirror folding back the French cuffs on my shirt.

"You mean your special engineering tie?" She came up behind me, reached around with some difficulty due to her girth and attempted to help me button my shirt. She was teasing about the tie.

"You know, the green one with CEA written across it."

"I think I have it somewhere here... soldier."

The tip of the tie was sticking out the top of her blouse, the rest hidden in her ample bosom. She eased it out slowly while humming her version of The Stripper. I smiled and felt a slow warmth building. She never had to do much to arouse my desire.

"Are you trying to get me to stay home or make me late? Which is it?" The tie was completely out. On cue, she stretched it between her arms then flipped it at me. Unexpectedly for both of us, I caught it and pulled her to me. It could have been choreographed by Mr. Kelly, but we were just amateurs. "So?"

"Where'd you learn that move, soldier?" she asked.

"In the army," I said. My arms were around her.

"What was her name?"

"We didn't bother with names, just rank and serial numbers. There were spies everywhere." She laughed at that. Then she regrouped.

"My name's Alice."

"Mine's Hank." Our faces were close. I looked into her eyes. "Wanna dance, Alice?" I twirled her lightly down the hallway.

"I could be a spy, you know," she taunted me. We gently waltzed into the living room.

"Ah, but I know your name." We performed a small, delicate turn as her condition dictated.

"Maybe that's not my name." She laughed. We stopped. She looked at me.

"Maybe I'm not Hank." She laughed again, then got serious.

"One thing I do know. Keep this up and you're going to be late, soldier."

Later I stood at the kitchen sink waiting for Alice, a glass of cold water in my hand. Outside, I could see the fog creeping past the window. Occasionally, a light from across the river broke through the mist.

The plan was that we would both drive to the train station, then Alice would drop me off and head back home. I'd get a taxi on my return. It was a simple plan designed by a mindful pregnant woman. I could find no fault with it. The train station was on the other side of the river and to get there, we had to cross the bridge I'd built.

She insisted on driving. It was a chore for her to get in and out of the car, so when we arrived at station, she wouldn't have to get out again until she got home. It was sound reasoning from a very pregnant woman. I didn't argue.

The fog drifted down the High Street in our little village and obscured the streetlamps above. Sometimes they appeared when the fog thinned out, shimmering in the mist like a full moon on a cold harvest night.

I thought the fog might dissipate when we mounted the bridge. I reasoned that we might be above it; but on the river the air moved unfettered by any barrier. It was dense and swirled silently across the bridge like a lace curtain in a strong breeze. Its lateral movement across our path created the illusion that we were moving in the opposite direction. Alice reduced our speed. I rolled down the window to smell the air. It was like flying through a cloud. On the opposite shore, the village lights blinked intermittently through the mist.

"I can't see a thing." She crept along at an even speed concentrating on the curtain of fog in front us.

"You're doing fine. Can you see the painted line along the edge?"

"Yeah, but that's all I see."

Then I heard the railroad crossing warning bells that carried easily through the dense, humid air.

"Slow down. I hear the warning bells from the crossing. A train's coming. We'll see the flashing lights soon." She slowed down to a crawl; then the fog turned red and pulsed from the flashing barrier lights. We came to a stop and waited. I turned to her.

"You OK?" I looked at the side of her face reflected in the flashing red lights.

"I'm fine. What a night."

She glanced at me and grabbed my hand. I looked out my open window and stared at the night. The stars peeked through the holes in the clouds. Then she squeezed my hand hard. I jerked my head around and thought I saw the bright lights of a train coming at us head-on. Alice screamed.

Maybe to dream is better than being alive, or to be caught between life and death is better than being dead. I'm not sure. I was in a coma for two weeks.

I awakened from that coma to a room full of flowers. Friends, relatives and co-workers, thoughtful people had sent them. My reward for building that bridge was even nestled among the bouquets. It was a chrome-plated replica of the bridge I'd built. Alice and the baby had died instantly. They'd taken the brunt of the impact.

They told me that an articulated lorry had careened down the hill on the other side of the crossing. It was carrying heavy machinery and had ploughed through the crossing barriers at full speed. He'd just beat the arrival of the train. They said he'd hit the driver's side of the car maybe in an attempt to miss it, then veered into the bridge railing and went over the side. I had no recollection of it. Those who calculate such things said he must have been doing at least sixty, maybe seventy. No one knew why. Maybe it was the fog or he was asleep. Maybe his brakes failed. No one had an answer. The driver had died, buried under an earthmover in twenty feet of dark, swirling water. It didn't matter. No answer would have been good enough.

Maybe I'd been driven by my own selfish pride. My award for building the bridge glared at me from its place among the bouquets of condolence. Greater beings had fallen much further for less reason, so who was I in the grand scheme of things? Or maybe it was fate. Whatever you want to call it, it played its hand that night. There's not a day goes by that I don't wish I could relive that evening for the chance to alter the course of history. My buddy Darwin would have a field day with that.



Now I fix the things I can. I'm a glorified handyman, a plumber, a carpenter, an electrician, whatever the job requires. I keep on the move. I don't stay in one place too long. I do my job and move on. The people I meet drift through my life like passing shadows. I've adapted to a new life. I tell myself I've made the necessary changes.

And when the moment comes and the mist rolls in, when the moon is obscured by a cloud and no stars shine, I hunch my shoulders against the heavy, humid air and listen intently for the warning bells.

I've evolved.

7 comments:

  1. Very nicely done. The descriptions were telling, the wording emotional. Enjoyed this much more than I expected.

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  2. Great story. A nice mix of noir, romance, tragedy, a certain flavor of wartime melodrama. While a lot of the events here seem like memories right out of movies, the story seems to suggest that life's made up of such events: flashpoint gestures, emotional pinpoints, big occurrences and small sensual nuances, all made more real by how they're placed in contrast with each other: like a montage.

    Evocative language relays a hard-boiled sadness as well.

    Roger

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  3. really first class, beautiful descriptions lull you into the story.
    interesting for me is the idea of a loner, and his background, making his way through life.

    Michael McCarthy

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  4. A vivid story, even in the short length the reader becomes involved in caring about what is unfolding for the characters. It works at the 'movie script' level of a well-paced tale; and also at a philosophical level in raising questions abut death/loss, adjustments to 'afterwards', randomness, what is an evolved human, and particularly the interface between the small decisions we make and unforeseen life-defining outcomes. I liked the freshness of the sexual encounters, and the finely tuned observations of the minutiae of relationships. A well crafted piece, demonstrating emotional intelligence.

    Ceinwen Haydon

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  5. Wow, what a big powerful story you've told in just a small space. Beautifully written.

    Charlotte Hayden

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  6. I'm with Roger, this one is movie like. So descriptive. I remember that love story. The honeymoon in the Latin Quarter. The favorite little Hotel St. Severin, the street musicians...what a sad, believable ending.
    You have always been my favorite storyteller jts-Fred, whatever your name is. We'll always have Paris.

    Love, Ginger xxx

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  7. Evolution...Opens with an urge to a primeval display...closes with the narrator's recognition that 'he's evolved', and spanning right through it all in 'a cross hatching of steel riveted girders' is engineering science. Great theme, and a real story for the 21st century.

    Brooke

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