BackroadMature

Be careful of what you wish for. It might come true as one man finds out.

My barber, Barry, was standing behind me snipping away at what little hair I had left when Bill Gerty came walking through the front door. My jaw tensed. Both Barry and I watched Bill’s reflection in the long wall mirror as he walked by and waved a newspaper high overhead. "You're not gonna believe what happened to one of our young local girls," he said. He sat down behind us, a little to our right, and thumped the back page of the newspaper."Either of you see this?"

   Why couldn’t the old geezer have just sat elsewhere--like right behind me--so I wouldn’t have to see him, I thought to myself.

   “Seems a teenage girl went and got herself murdered last night,” Bill said. The look on his face was calm. He was smiling, too, as if he was reading the comics section rather than the obituaries. Tolerating the man was a true test of humility and humanity.

   Bill was the kind of guy who canvassed the suburbs, circling whole neighborhoods in his old Ford station wagon, on the lookout for tots and their toys in front yards. That’s how he made a living: get a foot in some young parents’ door and sell them health or life insurance, or a worthless college policy, sometimes even a prepaid burial one--on their kids. Insurance was all a big numbers game he’d once told me at a local Chamber of Commerce meeting.  “Knock on ten doors, get nine of ‘em slammed in your face. That’s how it works,” he said. A predator he was. Maybe not like the one who murdered one of our local girls--but a predator nonetheless. Yeah, I knew about the dead girl, but I didn’t let on to Bill that I did.

   “Nope, didn't read the paper yet,” I said, taking care to not shake my head; I didn’t want Barry accidently cutting off part of my ear.

   “Me neither.” Barry said. “I can't imagine her family's heartbreak. I’ll read it as soon as I'm through.”

   “Tell me, Bill,” I said, “how old was that girl?”

   “Fifteen,” he said, popping the newspaper to its full spread, his face hidden behind it.

   “Tell me something else, Bill.” I pushed Barry’s scissors away and asked him to spin me around. Bill looked over the newspaper at me, his eyebrows raised.

   “What do you want to know?”  He folded the paper into a neat square, lay it across his lap, and crossed his hands atop it.

   I stared down at the guy. “Tell me, Bill, how does a fifteen-year-old girl go and get herself murdered?”  He squirmed in the chair and then stood. I looked up at him. “Can you tell me that, Bill? Huh?”

   “You're a jerk, Reggie,” he said. He shook his head, as if in disgust or maybe disbelief, tucked the paper under his arm, and turned to leave.

   I smiled big as the little bell above Barry’s door went off. But Barry wasn't smiling. I’d just cost him a customer for the day, maybe even for life.

   “Sorry ‘bout that, Barry. I just can’t stand the man's callous attitude.” Barry turned me back around to the mirror and went to cutting where he’d left off earlier.

   “I don't like him, either,” he said. He studied the back of my head briefly before returning his attention to our reflections in the mirror. "I wish he’d stayed, though. Been a slow week and I need the money. Rent’s coming up on this place.” He smoothed my hair flat with the palm of his hand and pulled away the drape covering me, popping it hard like a whip. Wisps of greying hair rose and then settled to the floor. “All done. That’ll be a twenty spot, Reg.” He grabbed a broom, started sweeping, pausing only long enough to point at the sign above his barber license. It read “DON”T FORGET TO TIP YOUR BARBER.” I handed Barry two twenty dollar bills.    

  “Can’t really say as I’m sorry, Barry. Hardly anybody in town likes that guy.” Barry just nodded, smiled, and wished me a good day.

   I took a desolate backroad home afterward to avoid late evening traffic when I spotted what appeared to be a white station wagon following me. The sun had slid down the backs of the hilly roads behind us so I couldn't make out the driver's face. The station wagon stayed close on the rear of my Camry for the next few miles. I finally slowed down and pulled off onto the side of the road. The driver passed by slowly, leaning over the steering wheel, head turned my way. It was Bill. He waved then blew his horn.

   “You're a jerk, too,” I said under my breath as he sped off, a cloud of exhaust and dust trailing him. I sat there collecting my thoughts, watching the woods to my right. It wasn’t long, though, before I was out of the car and behind a tree, pissing in relief when I heard a car coming--and coming fast. It was Bill again.  I broke out in a run for my car, hopped in, and had just started the ignition when Bill pulled alongside me.

   We sat window to window, my car on the shoulder, his on the hardtop, facing the wrong way. I could've reached out and touched his car. He was that close. I rolled up my window and locked the doors. Bill yelled something at me, but I couldn't make the words out. He got out and then tapped on my window.

   “I just wanna talk, Reggie,” he said. He rapped the glass again. “You hear me?”

  I heard him clearly, but wouldn't answer. He bent forward and brought his face closer to the window.

   “Come on, Reggie, just step on out and we’ll talk.” I didn’t want to talk to the guy. I turned and stared at him. “Suit yourself,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. He turned away, went to the rear of the wagon, and lifted the hatch. He returned with a big box of chocolates and held them out to the window.

   “For you and the family. My apologies for being rude,” he said. "I'm real sorry, Reggie. I hope you can forgive me."

   “No, Bill," I said. "I hope you drop dead." I popped the gearshift into drive, hit the gas, almost sideswiping Bill as I pulled past him and back onto the road.

   A glance in the rearview mirror and Bill was still standing there in the road beside his car, his back to oncoming traffic, watching me drive off, me watching him holding that big box of candy.  I topped the hill, and he soon disappeared from view.

   When I got home, I didn't tell my wife, Lydia, of my encounter with Bill. We ate dinner, played with our kids until their bedtime, watched some late night TV together, and then went to sleep. Bill was the last thing on my mind. That is, until the next morning when Lydia brought the newspaper to the breakfast table.

  “Sad, so sad,” she said, pointing at the front page while sucking in her bottom lip, biting at it. “That guy Bill Gerty gave me the creeps, but this is horrible.” She handed me the newspaper.

    I glanced at the front page while she left to fill our coffee cups. My forehead broke out in a sweat. My stomach cramped with nausea. I lay the paper down and soon the room, the world, began spinning around me. Closing my eyes and cradling the burn in my gut didn't help.

    Lydia sat down, pulled the paper to her, and spun it around to read. Her eyes grew wide. "Oh my goodness," she said.

    She looked up at me just as I was pushing away from the table, hoping to make it to the bathroom before I puked in the kitchen floor--or her lap. Evidently unaware of my nausea, she reached out to stop me.

   “Wait, wait a minute," she said, pointing at the paragraph underlying the headline. "Says here Bill Gerty was killed yesterday afternoon. Run over by a tractor trailer..." She paused to take a sip of her coffee, “...while standing beside his car on old Highway 16.”

   She sipped more of her coffee and then looked at my pale face. “Honey, isn’t that the same road you take home sometimes? Honey? Reggie?”

 

 

 

 

The End

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