a short story by:
Vincent A. Palazzo
I cannot get away from the thump…thump…thumping of her basketball on the asphalt. I hear it in the house and it follows me on those days when need and energy propel me outdoors to the market, to the dry cleaners or to that bench by the pond where I used to enjoy an afternoon read. You will be surprised how much a woman thumping a melon or a car with a flat thumping its way to the curb reminds me of the sounds of basketball. It is worse at 5 A.M. when the rhythm of her running up and down my driveway dribbling that damn ball drives me closest to madness. I have yet to sleep through it.
After breakfast, when I think of it, and I think of it every day, I watch Ella run the length of the drive. She moves the ball in bizarre geometric patterns. She defies nature, almost stopping time as she takes her shot. I watch her rise in the air and reach the perfect altitude before releasing the ball. The ball follows its own, higher arc as she gently floats to the ground. She watches the ball slip through the hoop and come back to her – almost on command. I am in awe of her skill. It is a talent and commitment I never possessed.
From my window I can see my lawn and part of the approaching street. My lawn and gardens used to be impeccably kept. My garage is littered with edge-trimmers and weed whackers, clippers and claws, a wide variety of seeds and an even wider variety of chemicals, sprays and powders to vanquish any weed or critter that dared to cross the sidewalk. It was my Magheno Line. It was not enough.
At 5 A.M., when I answer the call of the thumping basketball, I see more than my granddaughter. More than my pride and joy. More than a star athlete and high school scholar awaiting her first prom. I am able to look across my Home and Garden lawn and focus down the street. In the distance, I am able to see the car.
That day, the day of the car, I was in the window. I saw Ella rise effortlessly from the blacktop; she made her shot then moved three steps to the left for the rebound. She caught the ball on one bounce, pivoted, basketball extended in front of her towards the street, as if to pass, and disappeared. In real time, in the midst of that what-the-fuck moment, I did not see the car. I saw her there. I saw her gone. And then I saw her sitting, legs splayed against our garbage cans, a river of red forming under her and flowing into the drain a few feet from her Nikes. I did not see the car that came to rest in our crippled azaleas. I did not see the man who climbed out of the vehicle. I did not watch him sit on a small patch of my manicured lawn. I did not see him drink from his bottle of scotch or hear the sound of his laugh. All that came later. All that comes at 5 A.M.
From my vantage point in the window, I can see the car, an insignificant, nothing special, rusting, older sedan make its way towards my house. It weaves, barely missing cars and signs and mailboxes on both sides of the road. It is, as the sun starts to rise and the air starts to warm, proof-positive that God does not exist. If he did, the drunk would have totaled Tim Thackeray’s brand new Mercedes or laid waste to Aggie Cooper’s soccer mom express. Instead, the car manages to avoid everyone’s property, gaining speed inch by inch and frame by frame. I watch as the car does a crazy, lurching dance over the curb and cuts two crooked paths across my perfect grass. In the glow of afterthought, I see Ella pivot, ready for her next all-star move. I see the grill reflected in her eyes. I see recognition in her eyes. Through one eye, I see her flying backwards towards my cans. Through the other eye, I see the car start to spin on the asphalt, sliding sideways into the bushes. The ball finds its own path, bouncing down my drive and then further downhill towards Walburton Avenue. It comes to rest somewhere; I never learned where.
The final frames of the newsreel follow the driver, a young man in his twenties, as he struggles from the vehicle and weaves a new path towards the grass. He is clearly drunk but conscious enough to remember his bottle. He sits on my grass, his legs spread in a pose reminiscent of my granddaughter and drinks heartily. Huge gulps of scotch pass his gullet. His laugh, whenever the bottle leaves his lips, is boisterous. It is as if he has just gotten off a thrill ride at the local Six Flags and is…I am not sure what he is but the word happy keeps popping into my mind.
It is here that I turn away from the window. There is a gathering of people and then a gathering of bright and blinking lights but I don’t want to see any of it. I am drawn to something else; every time that I turn, I see Ella’s lime green prom dress, the one I thought was too sexy for a seventeen year old when she tried it on, hanging on the closet door. Every time I see that dress, the anger explodes.
The lawyer Perry Finn is a fat, unkempt man who reminds me of Charles Laughton - or maybe Orson Welles when Welles played Clarence Darrow – but there is nothing lawyerly or eloquent about this advocate. He wears a wrinkled suit and an old white shirt frayed at the collar. I have no doubt that, undisguised by his jacket, his shirt would be stained by sweat – and maybe lunch. He is a blue collar brawler comfortable with close quarter combat; whatever meat the prosecution offers the jury, he tears it apart.
Perry Finn stands before the jury. He makes his opening statement. Two short sentences, nothing more: “The defendant was not drunk at the time of the accident. The State will not prove otherwise.” Period. Perry Finn was assigned to defend Eddie Plumb, the twenty-six year old driver of an old rust bucket with five alcohol related arrests on his record and the blood of my seventeen year old granddaughter on his hands. He was assigned to defend a young man known as Party Boy. He did his dirty work well.
I sit in the gallery - every day - listening to the District Attorney ask hundreds of questions, virtually dragging the jurors word by word towards the anticipated guilty verdict. This is a slam dunk! It is a painstaking process. By the end, the jury is tired and I am running on empty – emotionally and physically.
Finn, by contrast, moves slowly and talks softly – you have to focus to hear him – but he never asks more than two or three questions of any witness:
“Are you aware that the Defendant was seen drinking after the accident? There are a dozen witnesses.”
A reluctant yes.
“Would consuming large amounts of scotch at the accident scene AFTER an accident affect blood alcohol results?
A furtive glance at the D.A. An almost whispered yes.
I am aware that Finn keeps referring to my lawn as an “accident scene”. The District Attorney called it a “crime scene”.
“How do you know that this young man was driving drunk?
The Police said so. They wouldn’t say it if it wasn’t true.
Indeed. Sarcasm. Thank you Mrs. Birnbaum.
I keep noticing that Finn refers to Party Boy as a young man – as if finding him guilty would rob this young man of a future. I feel the irony. The jury does not.
“If you hit and killed a young girl wouldn’t you need a drink?”
A sheepish shrug. It is reluctant but true is true. Another neighbor owns that moment.
The jury acquitted on the top shelf counts but found Eddie Plumb, a.k.a. Party Boy, guilty on a relatively minor open container charge. The judge hands down a six month sentence then suspends the sentence. Eddie Plumb, poor young man that he is, couldn’t afford bail. He served his time, awaiting trial, in jail.
The Defendant is free to go.
The gavel is final.
The clap of the hammer pushes the thumping sound of the basketball to the back of my mind.
The clap of the hammer sounds like a gun.
Buying a gun, even in a State like New York, is not difficult. I simply walked past ladies lingerie, men’s boxer briefs, you-assemble-furniture and the toy department and asked some eighteen year old clerk in Sporting Goods for a shotgun. She put a couple of suggestions on the counter and let me get a feel for them. She prattled on about the weapon’s various features – in a few years she’d be making real money selling used cars – while I clumsily turned the gun in my hands. It really didn’t matter which gun I choose. She never bothered to ask why I wanted a shotgun. The sign above my head said hunting season was over. Why would have been a logical question – at least for me – but it never came up. She explained the legal requirements, helped with the paperwork and, in the course of time, got me my gun.
I have lived my entire life in the Adirondacks and I have never owned a gun. I have never shot a gun…until now.
I have a camp on some acres about fifty miles north of town. My friends have used it to go hunting; I have never felt the urge to join them, not even for the beer. Now, bizarrely, I have spent three days, alone, turning watermelon flesh into viscous, red goo, exploding cantaloupe, peppering smoked hams and attempting to hit baseballs mounted on broomsticks. I’ve gotten good with the edibles. There is nothing recognizable in the yards and the cupboards are virtually empty. The baseballs are a different story. Mostly I miss or hit the sticks. I do not know if I should consider that a wound shot but it is not what I want. Presumably I will rip the horsehide off them before I head home.
The phone call came in while I was still at the cabin. I do not get cell phone service up there but the phone spoke about halfway down the mountain. You have one voicemail. I heard my daughter Karen’s voice but the message was garbled. Individual words and phrases – him, no report yet, can’t believe it. It wasn’t much.
My nephew Richie, my sister’s son, was sitting on my porch when I pulled into the drive. As I got out of the car he stood up.
“Tell me you were out of town.”
“I know you were at the cabin. Tell me you didn’t come down yesterday for anything – liquor, beer, milk, ice cream, anything!”
“I was there for nearly a week.”
“Thank God. I don’t know how you could have done it, but thank God!”
Richie flew off the porch and smothered me in a powerful embrace. I dropped my bag as he held me. I could feel the big man shaking and could swear he was crying.
“Party Boy is dead!” he whispered in my ear. When he stepped back, his face was streaked and pale and exultant. I like to think exultant, anyway. It is how I felt.
I am reminded of the farmer who thanks God for a bountiful harvest. Eddie Plumb was good for one more traffic accident and it took his life. From what I learned from the media and what little else the authorities would offer, he was travelling west at speeds the exceeded the speed limit – but only slightly. At a curve overlooking Pine Lake he executed an impossible maneuver; Party Boy drifted right onto the shoulder and somehow threaded his latest rust bucket between the steel barrier on the left and a large granite outcropping on the right, through an opening the engineers would never have considered possible. No paint transfer was discovered on the railing or the boulder. The car then hit a patch of wet, marshy ground, slid away from the road and pointed directly down a steep embankment. Plumb – or his car – navigated around and over rocks, roots and ruts, rocking wildly from side to side, as both headed straight for the water. He gained speed all the way, reaching the bottom with enough momentum to propel the sedan a good fifteen feet into the lake. The water was deep enough to submerge the car and despite hand cranked windows, Eddie Plumb could not extricate himself from the vehicle. He drowned behind the wheel. Post-mortem testing showed that he was completely sober at the time.
I disavowed the existence of the Almighty when Ella died. Party Boy’s demise – I like to think of it as an execution – allowed me to let God back into my life. The impossibility of the accident allowed me to embrace the concept and rediscover religion. I am still angry with him - there are still a few people who deserve a little divine intervention - but I am willing give him a little time. A man has to be fair – and have faith. Besides, if I don’t hear back, there is always Plan B.
Melon is still in season.