It was the crackling of leaves underfoot that got him, heralding summer’s imminent shredding by wind, by graduations of darkness and a brisk tenor of air. He hadn’t thought of it in years, that particular fall, yet here it was upon him as if someone had sat him down and fed him a story. His story, long-buried.
Rooney was alone as usual at the coffee shop. He couldn’t reserve a table outside looking over the west bank of the river, of course, but he usually snagged one. For starters, he came early, a few minutes after it opened. And he’d be there right on the dot except that he couldn’t stand being the solitary figure with just a fancy mug. Additionally, he was a regular, one might say too regular– and regulars got their pick, it was somehow sensed by those who straggled in. Others were in, out, off to somewhere.
He could be somewhere else, a gym or park or claustrophobic senior center. The last barely surfaced at edge of mind and when it did, he threatened it with silent curses which he imagined as bullets aimed at the bright red number like a warning of doom: “sixty-six.” He kept this to himself; he did not want anyone to suspect slippage into dementia or criminality. Not that they should. He was smart, upright enough, clear-headed. And he was, after all, a kid when that other thing happened. Well, over nineteen, under twenty-one, half a kid still.
The coffee was supposed to be excellent, every sign announced this. The place roasted its own beans, ground and brewed it fresh. Rooney sipped, tongue seeking signs that this was true. He always came to the same conclusion: it was strong, hot and vastly overpriced. Back in the old days (there it was, the age thing) it was twenty-five cents. He’d have to get another job to keep his current ill-advised habit.
Leaves swirled in a gust, crunched by more trampling. A woman in tall leather boots walked by with leashed terrier. She smiled indulgently at him; he touched the brim of his fedora. She thought he was a sweet old guy with nothing better to do than sit by the river on a brisk morning, watching others live their lives. Maybe so. He could hang out at the office; it still bore his name though Rooney’s Metal Fabrication was now run by his son. But Rooney wanted nothing more of it despite fussing at times. He liked this scenario of onlooker with coffee in hand, a walk along the river path. Then hours of reading, working on his collection of old clocks, tinkering with his 1968 Bonneville, checking investments, daily work on his half-acre, meeting with a friend now and again for lunch or dinner, gin rummy or chess.
The smell of leaves, too, an acrid-sweet scent a perfume he never tired of smelling but then it was erased by bone-chilling rains. He dreaded taking his coffee at the indoor, polished wood tables or getting it “to go” in a crummy paper cup with fancy print on it. Or just staying home alone; his wife had passed four years ago. It would take time to enjoy the whole new process but it rankled that he couldn’t take things as they came to well; he was used to planning and executing. Taking charge.
But not those days, or not that particular one, he thought as he placed mug into bus pan. Those days in general he was a follower, more than he’d have admitted. Well, it was what it was. Rooney walked to river’s edge, leaned his tall bulky body against the railing, lungs taking in air imbued with eau de crumpled leaves with notes of rock, rich earth, rushing water.
This was why he’d relinquished his business, these singular moments as sunny shafts parted pewter clouds and the river rumbled along and leaves danced then clustered about his ankles. He ambled toward a certain meeting spot, but that long ago day settled upon hunched shoulders.
Rooney had been trying hard to keep up with Fergus that fall, the guy who’d moved to Rattlesboro two years previous and become a cohort unlike any other. Fergie was fast on his feet and a mercurial thinker but also “brash and rash”, as he boasted, “that’s what the ole man says–got it from him!” No one doubted it.
Rooney’s easy-going, sedate father thought it a terrible alliance. Sure enough, Rooney engaged in shenanigans with Fergie, a little vandalism and drunk Saturday nights that resulted in Rooney having his car keys withheld. But the boys played neck and neck, racing Fergie’s souped up truck against competitors on back roads, chasing the few girls who looked their way, spicing up rural bonfire parties with “dashes of hash and smatterings of mushrooms” as Rooney put it, flying high. He didn’t much think about what he was doing. Or what was coming next or he’d have foreseen it, and likely come to his senses sooner.
It was the week-end after Labor Day–they were both going on twenty at long last, working, both soon to embark on other things–but many took extended vacations due to the last brilliant weather.
“You know I was seeing Jan Townsend a minute, right? Until her mother caught wind of what was up, just as things were getting interesting. And her house is something, there’s a whole half of a yard devoted to food prep and entertaining–she explained it like that– the rest is just flowers , a tiny fish pond. It’s like a special Shangri-La for the Townsends. Man, I sorta miss it.”
“Sure, I was there a few times before you came to town. Birthday parties when we were younger. Pretty spot. Jan was nicer then, though.”
Fergie put his work boots atop the table–his overworked mother didn’t have the energy to keep three sons plus husband in hand and the surface was scarred and stained. Rooney shoved them off, shook his head but Fergie put them back, guzzled his cola then handed it to Rooney.
“I’m thinking of nosing around there tonight, something to do.”
Rooney choked on his big gulp. “What?”
Fergie grinned, eyes widening, slightly protuberant ears pinking up with enthusiasm but freckles darkening. That was the moment Rooney should have left. He knew that was a look that presaged all manner of sketchy activities. And yet he wanted to hear more; there was always something percolating in his buddy’s brain, things he hardly dared consider. Adrenalin let loose in his veins.
Fergie stretched. “I figure, why not? No one there, dogs boarded, there are few streetlights out that way. We could have a look, see what there is to see. There might be other places we could check out…” He shrugged as if this was not a novel or bad idea. “Before we go our separate ways, a last hurrah.”
“It’s trespassing! A dumb idea. But I kind of like it though I’ve got a dozen reasons to refuse.” He considered a moment more. “We can say ‘so long’ in better ways. How about we get a T-bone or two, cook out, then take your truck out for a last race? Is that cool?”
“Sure, but nosing around Jan’s place is better yet.” He gave Rooney an imploring gaze. “I’m moving to frickin’ Columbus, Ohio to work with my Uncle Joe, man, come on! Let’s go a little bigger a last time before I blow this dump!”
Rooney thought about the uncle’s towing and snow removal business, the deep winters there, how Fergie could barely deal with his cousins but needed to earn good money at almost twenty. And Rooney was about to enter junior college; time he forged a grown up life. So one last night whooping it up? It sounded good.
By the time they got steak, grilled it, ate with Rooney’s parents and finally slipped out the back yard and into the truck, it was fully dark. Fergie started the engine but kept the lights off a half block.
“Turn on the lights!” Rooney said.
When they stayed off, he reached for the knob to do so but Fergie slapped his hand away.
“I know what I’m doing attract no attention.” Fergie was quiet in the way he got when strategizing. “You gotta trust me like you mostly do. I got this whole escapade figured out, man, follow me?”
“‘Mostly’ is a key word…I’ve got to know what’s up.”
“You’ll see.” He turned on the headlights.
Fifteen minutes later they were entering territory they’d visited but could not claim as their own, the land of starched white collars, two or three car garages, the land of platinum blond upsweeps and real leather jackets that were not motorcycle styles or vintage fringed. The land where no hippie, no greaser was well abided. Rooney and Fergie were respectively, loosely, one of each.
The headlights went off again and Fergie slowed down, parked two blocks from the Townsend’s in a vacant lot behind trees.
“Okay, follow me, do as I say.” He studied his pal’s skeptical face, index finger up. “‘Okay? ‘Cuz if not, this thing is off and that’s that for us.”
Rooney balked. “But we’re just checking it out, then going out Sweeney Road, right? We’ll find guys to race, for sure.”
“Wrong, dude, we’re treasure hunting first, then the real race is on. Come on!” he hissed, then darted off.
And Rooney followed.
The place was cloaked in shadows except for the strange glow a mercury lamp threw at a far edge of the yard. There were neighbors next door, house also dark, but a few past that were lit up. The moon’s light was sufficient to brighten edges of the Townsend lawn, make easy the way around the place. Rooney recalled times he had roamed there with young friends and smiled. Even better in sheer moonlight. He felt a twinge of discomfort.
Fergie peered into, then checked both windows of the garage.
“What are you doing?” Rooney stepped back. “That’s their property, not cool– no breaking in!”
“Rooney, get over it, we’re sniffing things out, I want to see what they have in there–why not?”
It was always a “why not?”, that was the trouble.
Rooney looked about, senses alert. He backed into bushes, panicked, just as Fergie advanced. It turned out he had more skills, could crack a glass window with barely a well placed, sweatshirted elbow punch. He knocked out more glass shards then hoisted his skinny self in and unlocked the side door.
“No!” Rooney whispered loudly, “this is not what I imagined doing…I thought we were window peeping since it’s empty, admiring the yard–creepy enough…”
“That’s the thing, Rooney, you lack imagination. Take some of mine, get in here!” He yanked him in and shut the door.
There was a red Mustang on the far side. Jan had used her mother’s car at times before she got her own, then left for Bennington College. A workbench was littered with various tools, as if Mr. Townsend had been working on something and left it for clean up when he returned. Cardboard boxes were stacked in one corner, maybe things to be donated or old files of whatever–Rooney didn’t care, he wanted to get out. Would Mr. Townsend sense an intruder had been there?
He noted firewood cut and stacked by the entrance into the house. The door led to the small mud room and then a large den, he recalled. He had carried wood inside, himself, during one holiday party. He’d known Jan better than he’d let on, had in fact liked her a lot at thirteen.
“Okay, Ferg, let’s take our look about outside, then leave. This was not smart.”
But Fergie was methodically examining tools, turning each over, putting them into a large cloth bag. Where had he gotten a bag? Had he hidden it in his clothing?
“Put those back!”
“Check out all you want, bud. Ten minutes, we’re out of here.” He turned to the Mustang.
“Not the Mustang!”
Fergie shot a look that silenced him. His behavior was not that of a novice, Rooney saw, but practiced, calm, fast.
“Those break-ins this past year…no one was caught…” Rooney whispered.
Fergie filled up the bag, shouldered it, paced before the car. “We can do it. I’ll hot-wire it in a few seconds and you open the big garage door and when I pull out you jump in–we’ll take the ride of our lives, right, buddy? I mean, look at it. Then I’ll dump you unless you want to come ‘cuz I’m heading to the state line and beyond!”
Rooney stared at him, unable to move. He flashed his small flashlight at him to make sure it was his friend spouting that nonsense.
“See how this id done, buddy?” Fergie was grinning, eyes bright and big with the thrill of it, then he opened the car door, slid behind the steering wheel. He leaned out the door a moment, head bopping to some silent beat in his crazy head.
“I’ll get this done and you get ready when I lift my hand and open that garage door, got it?”
“Not doing it, Fergie.” Rooney felt caught between fear and overwhelming clarity. “You’re on your own. Sorry it came to this.”
Fergie got out and stood before his friend, body tensed, face ugly. “What an idiot you are. This is what makes my life interesting, how could you not know all this time? What keeps me going! But you could never be a part of the fun because you’re just common chicken liver–such a nice guy, a real sweetheart. You know nothing, are nothing! Get out! Then shut the hell up, hear me? At least do that one last thing.”
“No, man, please don’t do this.”
Fergie’s fist flew up and grazed his friend’s jaw, a warning, but Rooney raised both of his and pressed into the slim space between them. They stood stock-still and then Fergie shook his head sadly, got into the car, started to work on wires.
Rooney filled with rage and sadness. For a moment he almost tackled him then, torn, started to the big garage door to aid and abet. That fine car, the charge of the illicit rose up like a punch of energy. Then he was seized with a more powerful sense of wrong. A deep betrayal. He was spurred out the side door and across the yard and down the street, stifling a terrible urge to roar out the anger. But no sound escaped other than labored breathing, a heavy hiss from between clenched teeth. His tongue went to a metallic taste of blood on the soft inside of mouth as feet pounded asphalt, crunching early autumn leaves frail and fallen.
By the time they caught Fergie not ten miles from the house with that candy apple red mustang, Rooney had gotten home and on his bed, sprawled sleepless across the handmade quilt, listening to any stray sound and his heart beat. The next morning he answered questions from his parents and then police but there was so little to say, he had left Fergie sooner than later, walked home after a disagreement when his parents, early-to-bed as usual, were asleep. But his mother, unbeknownst to father or son, had cracked the door, noted the time his arrival: ten-eighteen. Earlier that she had expected.
She’d decided he was innocent, believed it.
No one had seen him on Marley Street or elsewhere. Fergie said he’d worked alone.
Later that day Rooney drove to a meadow at edge of town where he’d enjoyed picnics with his family as a child, the one where a creek rose and fell according to the seasons, where creatures played out their blameless stories. He shed tears of relief and a disgust with all of it. Himself, too. But not for long. He waded the creek, its music and coolness assuaging the ache of it. Thoughts came about college, making a real life far from there.
Rooney watched a leaf spin on the river’s current and he wondered how far it could go, to the next city, to the next body of water? He might like to travel like that, he mused, and turned when squeaky wheels signalled a walker rolling up.
“Hey, there,” the man said, khaki overcoat flipping out from the rake of his body with each stumbling step.
“Hey yourself, how’s it going?”
“It’s herky-jerky but I get where I need to go, as you know. I’m great, I’m on my feet, you are, too!”
“Best news all morning.”
Frank Tillton had been employed at Rooney’s business for thirty-two years as accounts manager, when he had a stroke. Rooney had kept him on to help the new employee, a woman with a fine talent for numbers. But she had to accept Frank’s place or she wouldn’t have the job. It’d worked out, more or less.
The two men had been close friends for most of those years; they knew much of the other’s life. Like, how Frank was a “high functioning alcoholic”, later in and out of recovery until the stroke put him smack into it for good five years ago. Now they were both unemployed for the first time in their lives.
“You look like you’ve been thinking already this morning,” Frank said, laughing as he came to a stop beside him. “Is it that serious?”
“Naw, just a memory.”
“Oh, those are like smoke, here and gone, no sense worrying over them.”
“Right as ever but I was thinking I hadn’t yet told you the story about almost becoming a thief.”
“That so? This I gotta hear, you’re holding out on me. Let’s get walking. Then I might tell you how Lucy Masters and I nearly tied the knot. True–before Eileen came along. Lucy is famous now as a newscaster, I didn’t want to spill those beans… ”
“I’m ready for that one! Mine has a half-famous person in it, too, but not in a commendable way, I’m afraid.”
“We might have to find a bench if it’s long.”
“Yep, it’s a park bench sort of story, old friend.” He glanced at the crinkling of a smile about Frank’s eyes. How different a face than was Fergie’s–open, sunny and generous. And how fortunate a life Frank lived in comparison, a difficult life reclaimed while Fergie’s was lost to long stretches in prison. And his own? It had been made different by a hair’s breadth, perhaps, though he knew he would not have made it as a burglar or con man. Not enough cold-edged boldness, reckless confidence or even greed. But he had made a good businessman, had another idea if Frank was game: one mug of just everyday coffee for one buck (he’d call it “One for One”) in an airy, festive, colored-lights-lit tent at river’s bend. A reasonable place where customers could relax when it poured all winter or got too sweaty in summer.
Or maybe an internet business. They’d talk.
“Most good stories are worth a sit-down, boss man.” He lifted an eyebrow at Rooney. “Bald ole bestie, heh heh.”
They chortled and took off, Rooney with tweed coat flapping about long legs, fedora clapped onto his bald head and Frank yakking, step-sliding with the walker, each advancement feeling like a victory for them both.