UNDERGROUND VOICES: 2013 PRINT ANTHOLOGY
MICHAEL C. KEITH
THE RULES OF GRAVITY
Jump up as far as you can. See how far you get.
When his divorce proceedings began, Sid Barrington had been advised by his attorney to avoid dating for at least a year to get his head back in a healthy place. He did as his lawyer suggested, but one year turned into two and then three. It wasn’t that he was deliberately avoiding the dating scene. He just couldn’t find anyone he wanted to go out with. Not that he tried very hard to make it happen. Then things changed when a young woman joined his company. She caught his eye instantly, and for weeks he watched as she settled into her job as the billing clerk for the flooring outlet where he worked as a buyer. He gradually developed a casual friendship with the woman and finally gathered the courage to ask her out. She accepted and he was happier than he had been since the collapse of his marriage.
Sarah Pendleton. I even love the sound of her name, he thought excitedly, as he readied himself for his date. God, I hope it goes well. His nerves were raw at the prospect of his first hookup with the woman who had grown more attractive to him with each passing day. Don’t blow it, Sid. Don’t blow it. Oh, shit, I probably will. Look, my palms are sweaty. Maybe a drink? Sid rarely consumed alcohol, but on this occasion he figured it might settle him down some. He poured himself a substantial shot of Wild Turkey, a gift given him by his brother a dozen years earlier, and downed it in one gulp. For a few moments he thought he would suffocate because he was unable to catch his breath as the liquor coursed through his system. When he finally was able to inhale, he nearly vomited. Oh, God, that’s awful stuff!
It took Sid a few more moments to get past the jarring experience, and when he had he could feel the effects of the powerful beverage. Whoa! That’s strong booze! he reflected, heading out of his condo. As he drove from his driveway, he struck the garbage can awaiting pickup by the curb. Easy, buddy. Don’t get a DUI. Halfway down his block, he felt something hit his bumper. What the . . .! Peering through his rear view mirror, all he could see was the blackness of night. Another garbage can, he thought, continuing on his way.
The remainder of his drive to meet Sarah at the cinema went without incident. By the time he arrived he figured most of the whiskey’s effect was gone, but it had done its job by relaxing him. When he caught a glimpse of Sarah standing near the ticket window, all he felt was excitement. God, she’s pretty! Unfortunately, over the course of the evening he discovered that she was more physically attractive than intellectually interesting. Throughout their dinner following the movie, she mostly talked about her two Siamese cats. When Sid tried to redirect the conversation, she would steer it back to her beloved felines.
“Would you like to meet Mimi and Pierre?” asked Sarah. “You can come to my place for coffee, if you want.”
Sid demurred, saying he had an early rise to drive up to his brother’s in Hartford, a few hours drive north of Baltimore. This was a pure fabrication, because by the end of the evening, he had lost interest in pursuing the striking brunette. While appearance was important to Sid, the substance of an individual’s personality was of equal or even greater consequence to him. In that area, he found her totally lacking. He was surprised and disappointed, because she had seemed so much more engaging at work. Although they never went out again, they continued to be cordial to one another in the workplace. Two years after their only date, Sarah would leave the floor-covering company to be married.
* * *
The next morning a TV report caught Sid’s attention. His neighbor had been the victim of a hit and run right on his street. It took him only a second to connect the dots. Was that what I hit last night? Oh, my God!! The person he now was convinced he had struck was well known to him, because he had been regarded as the scourge of the neighborhood since he and his wife arrived from Australia two years ago. Trevor Collins was a brute, and his wife was a lout as well. Both had alienated the residents of Furlong Drive with their callous behavior and blatant disregard for the appearance of their raised ranch and its surroundings. When neighbors had petitioned the couple to rid their yard of an assortment of debris––mostly rusting and decaying objects and plastic containers and soda bottles––they had been greeted with threats.
At least he’s not dead, thought Sid, his panic rising. And no one apparently saw me hit him. Upon inspecting his car’s bumper, he was relieved to find it undamaged. Maybe it wasn’t me. But on closer inspection, a piece of red flannel hanging from beneath the fender convinced him otherwise. His shirt . . . he was wearing a red flannel shirt the last time I saw him. Shit! What am I going to do? Go to the police? I’ll go to jail! Hell, no! That can’t happen. Nobody saw the driver. What about Trevor? The news says he has a concussion and broken bones but no recollection of the incident. Don’t do anything.
And so it was that Sid tried to put the mishap behind him, though he was not successful. His guilt weighed on him and forced him to confront his victim. A week after Trevor returned home from the hospital, Sid decided to pay him what he hoped would be a friendly visit. He had to know if Trevor had any inkling that he was the one who ran him down. If he did, he would try to make amends. Just how he wasn’t sure. Since neither Trevor nor his wife had made an attempt to contact him, he felt he was likely in the clear, but he had to be certain.
“Yeah, what you need?” mumbled Sybil Collins, answering his knock––the doorbell was apparently not working.
“Hello, Mrs. Collins. I’m Sid. I just thought I’d check to see how your husband is doing,” replied Sid, tentatively.
“Really? Trevor, you got company!”
The disheveled-looking woman waved for Sid to enter. The inside of the house was in no better shape than the outside. The furniture looked as if had been purchased at a flea market and old newspapers and magazines were stacked everywhere.
“Who is it?” called Trevor from another room.
“It’s Sam from down the street.”
“Sid . . . It’s Sid.”
“Get your butt out here, hon!”
Trevor entered the room on crutches. A soiled bandage covered a section of his head, which had been partially shaved.
“Yeah, what can I do for you, mate? I’m in a bit of pain here.”
“Just want to see if you need anything?”
“We need something all right,” blurted Mrs. Collins. “We need to find the bugger who done this to him.”
“They don’t know who did it?” inquired Sid.
“Naw, they’ll never find the ratbag who hit him.”
“You never know, Sibby. These jackals usually are found out,” said Trevor, flopping into a chair. “Can you get me and . . . what’s your tag?”
“Yeah, Sid, a beer. Would you like one?” asked Trevor, pointing to Sid with his cane.
“I’m fine. Not much on the booze.”
“One of them tight-ass tea teetotalers eh? Well, just don’t stand there, Sibby, get me a Fosters."
“Hold your horses,” replied Sybil, trailing off to the kitchen.
“Some chips, too, while you‘re at it.”
As soon as she was out of the room, Trevor began to snicker while staring at Sid.
“Guess we both know, don’t we?” asked Trevor, arching his eyebrow.
“Know what?” replied Sid, baffled.
“That you were the one runned over me.”
“Yeah, you. Got a look at your car before going under. A Jeep Cherokee, right?”
Sid was at a total loss for words. He felt like his heart would pound its way through his chest.
“That’s what I thought. Guess I should call the cops. Unless we can work this out between us.”
“I didn’t mean to . . .. It was an accident.”
“Nearly killed me. Bad blow to the head and my ankle is all broken up. That should be worth some major compensation. Wouldn’t you think . . . mate?”
“What do you have in mind?” asked Sid, feeling his world collapse around him.
“A monthly payment would help ease the pain. I may not be able to walk right again. How am I supposed to work construction if I’m disabled?”
“Let’s say five hundred dollars a month for life. That seems reasonable considering. Don’t it, Sid? I mean I could sue your Yank ass for a hell of a lot more.”
“That’s a lot. Okay . . . fine.”
“And don’t say nothing to the missus,” said Trevor, his forefinger over his lips as his wife reentered the room. “Where you been? Thought I’d never see you again.”
“Oh, shut your yap, you old bludger. Here’s your bloody beer and chips.”
“Well, I guess I’ll be going now, Mrs. Collins,” said Sid, turning to leave.
“Keep in touch,” responded Trevor, with a complicit wink.
“I will. Definitely. Thank you.”
On his return home, Sid reached the conclusion that it might have been better for him if he had killed Trevor rather than merely maiming him.
* * *
Two days later, Sid received a phone call from Trevor advising him how to get him the agreed upon monthly payment.
“Cash only. No checks. Just put it under the front door mat on the first of each month. Best to do it after it gets dark so the missus don’t see you. Got that, mate?”
As the years went by, the monthly compensation Sid was obliged to provide Trevor increased twofold. Eventually it became a financial burden to him, especially after the business he had been employed by for nearly twenties years went bankrupt and had to lay off its entire staff. Sid had managed to save a decent sum, since he had few expenses, but he could foresee a time when he might not be able to pay off his hit and run victim. What the hell would happen then? Sid wondered. He’s been extorting me for five years. If he says anything, he’ll be in deep trouble, too, he reasoned. I should just stop paying the prick. Call his bluff.
But Sid did not have to confront his blackmailer because he had fallen to his death from the scaffolding of a highrise under construction. That’s it. I’m out from under. No more monthly payments, thought Sid, dialing the number of the funeral home where Trevor Collins was to be waked. At seven that evening he would bid his worst nightmare adieu and take back his life. For the first time in months, Sid felt optimistic about his future prospects. An interview the previous week had resulted in a callback for a second one, and Sid felt confident that he would soon end his period of economic strife, if not the continuing drought that made up his so-called love life.
* * *
It did not surprise Sid that the parking lot of the funeral home was mostly empty. There was no more than a half dozen attendees inside and none appeared to be in a state of mourning. As Sid approached Mrs. Collins, he caught part of her conversation.
“It was that crushed ankle of his from that hit and run. Couldn’t keep weight on it for very long. Probably why he fell. Never too sure-footed after being run over.”
The couple she had been addressing nodded and moved away leaving the new widow alone.
“Hello, Mrs. Collins. I’m very sorry for your loss,” said Sid, extending his hand.
“Thank you. You’re Sam from down the street.”
“Sid, Sid Barrington, from number seventy-two.”
“Oh yeah, you came to our house after Trevor’s accident. I remember.”
“Did he ever find out who ran over him?” inquired Sid, wiping his moist palms against his pants
“Oh yeah, he knew who hit him.”
“He did?” asked Sid, sensing he was nearing the edge of a cliff.
“It was his stupid cousin, Quinn. Confessed not long after you visited us, as a matter of fact. Trevor wouldn’t tell the cops. Kept it a secret. Didn’t want his kin to get into trouble. Don’t know why. His cousin sure wasn’t any treasure. Now it don’t matter anymore, does it?”
“No . . . No, I guess it doesn’t,” answered Sid, catching his deflated image in the polished side of Trevor’s coffin.Michael C. Keith is the author of several story collections. See his website at: www.michaelckeith.com
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