a short story by WILL TINKHAM
Jack pulled the cord as the bus neared 31st. It surprised him to see the old building on the corner still standing. That morning the sidewalks had been blocked off and workers seemed to be preparing for a demolition. Rumors had a new Apple store going in where a small bookstore and a barber shop used to be. The bus crossed the intersection, Jack thanked the driver and stepped out onto the sidewalk. The dust and rubble froze Jack before he could take a step toward home.
The side wall of the building that he had seen from the bus remained intact – like a phony front on a movie set – but the rest of the structure had been reduced to chunks of wood and cement, exposed cable and conduit. A low, mechanical growl startled Jack; it took a while to finally notice the Caterpillar tractor which seemed to have fallen through into the building’s basement. It groaned again; its tank-like tread tried to grip the foundation that gave way under its weight and the scoop at the end of the tractor’s long arm seemed to reach out for something to latch onto to pull itself out.
“What do they call them big tires?”
Jack was surprised to hear his ten-year-old son’s voice and to find the boy standing next to him. “Well, Marty, I don’t think they call ’em tires. Just treads, or tracks, maybe,” Jack said, then asked: “Say, what’re you doin’ here?”
“Freddie Fowler’s mom brought us.” Marty pointed toward the corner where Freddie Fowler’s mom waved, pointed at Marty and mouthed: You got him? Jack wondered if she expected him to shake his head in an emphatic no and bolt in the other direction. He continued nodding as he watched her hustle off with her son. Jack never knew what he might say to her. And she couldn’t speak without bringing up Steve, that bastard husband of hers.
“We’re gonna be late for dinner,” Marty remarked.
“I have an excuse. I was at the dentist.” Jack ran his tongue over the spot where two teeth used to be. The Vicodin seemed to be doing the trick.
“No, we’re both here watching ’em tear down this building.”
“I just got off the bus this minute.” Jack pointed in the direction the bus had gone.
“Mom’ll never believe that.” Marty turned back to the action. “And they didn’t even use a wrecking ball, just that crummy old tractor. And now it’s stuck!”
“Guess we better hang around and make sure it gets out okay,” Jack said and threw an arm around his son’s shoulders.
• • •
The little gray house had belonged to his wife’s parents. Most houses in the neighborhood of its era had been torn down and replaced in keeping with the times. Jack liked their little testament to yesteryear.
“Where have you two been?” Sally asked without turning toward the door.
“We watched ’em tear down a building!” Marty sang out.
“I was at the dentist,” Jack added. “Remember?”
“You could see the building from the dentist chair?” Sally still hadn’t turned to face them.
“I got off the bus and there was Marty and what was left of the building.” Jack hung his jacket on a hook in the hall. “Marty, go Google ‘tank tracks’. It’s bugging me, what they call ’em.”
“Google fast,” Sally hollered, “we’re eating as soon as I re-heat dinner!”
“I gotta admit,” Jack began as he sat at the table, “it was interesting watching this Caterpillar tractor that slid down into the basement of the building. The treads weren’t gripping enough to pull it out, so it had to reach out with its crane-arm.” Jack reached out with his own arm but Sally wasn’t looking. “It was almost human-like: the scoop on the end of the arm like a hand reaching for something to hold onto to pull itself out. You couldn’t help but think how it was reaching out for help from the very building it had just destroyed and –”
“Oh, that’s deep.” She had finally turned to face him. “That’s so deep, Jack. Can we look for that in the next re-write of your novel?” He should’ve known she’d bring up the novel. She always did. She moved closer, wiping her hands on a dish towel. “Or maybe a new story for your collection? I can see the story unfo–”
“Steve Fowler.” Jack’s interruption was barely audible. He watched his wife grip the towel in a fist. He thought about another Vicodin. Sally pulled a beer out of the fridge, thrust it in Jack’s direction as an offering. “No thanks. Vicodin,” he said, pointing to where his teeth used to be.
“And I don’t s’pose you brought enough to share,” Sally muttered, then hollered for Marty without noticing that the boy was standing right there.
“Con-ten-nyus track,” Marty struggled to read from a piece of paper.
“Contentious,” Sally corrected.
“Contentious track?” Jack mumbled, reaching for the paper. He read aloud from the Wikipedia page print-out: “Continuous track. Sure, they never stop.” He turned the page to face the boy, showing the tread in a picture and ran his finger around and around the oval loop.
“Can we check out the building tomorrow morning?” Marty asked. “I’ll wake you up.”
“I bet you will.” Jack chuckled and set the paper on the table. “But for now, let’s have some dinner, then get you goin’ on your homework.”
• • •
Putting away the last of the dishes, Jack eyed the bottle of vodka. He pulled the Vicodin bottle from his pocket and read the label: Do Not Drink Alcoholic Beverages While Taking This Medicine. Use Care When Operating A Car Or Dangerous Machinery. No car, no Caterpillar tractor, he thought. He felt discomfort where the teeth had been, so the Vicodin had obviously worn off. He decided to go with the vodka and save the drugs. He grabbed a glass from the cupboard. Sally had left the ice out after making her own drink.
In the living room, Sally occupied her usual spot in the old recliner; she sank in deep with one leg draped over an armrest. It had been Jack’s chair for years till one night – before he lost thirty pounds – he got stuck in it and Sally had a good laugh as he struggled to dislodge himself. Actually, it had been their chair, back in that first apartment, when it was their only piece of furniture. Jack smiled thinking how the two of them had fit rather nicely into that recliner.
Most every night was the same: get Marty to bed and watch the old movie channel. Sally liked the ones from the fifties and sixties, while Jack favored the thirties and forties. Jimmy Stewart and the possibility of a head buried in the garden had just piqued Grace Kelly’s suspicions in Rear Window when Sally swung her arm and empty glass out toward Jack – her signal that a refill was needed. Jack polished off his, could hear the tv from the kitchen, and returned with fresh drinks. After the movie ended, a guy came on and told them that Harvey was up next.
“Must be Jimmy Stewart night,” Jack said. Sally swung her arm out and Jack got up to make two more. At some point she’d say how she got bored with black-and-white movies, Jack thought; the same way he’d scoffed earlier about Hitchcock giving in to using color. Returning to the living room, he slipped the drink into her outstretched hand – had it even moved? – and settled back onto the couch.
Jack giggled his way through the opening of the movie, though he’d seen it several times. He envied the Stewart character and his big, invisible rabbit friend. Sally cleared her throat, held out her glass, and Jack took it from her. “I have to use the bathroom,” she whimpered like a sick child and reached out her hand as she struggled in the chair. Jack’s hands being full, he bent down and gave her a forearm to grab. She flailed weakly, barely nicking his arm with a fingernail before giving up. Jack pulled his arm back and moved toward the kitchen.
“You’re no writer,” Sally muttered and Jack froze in the hall. This one again, he thought and stepped back into the living room. He slipped his whole tongue into the place where his teeth had been. How could there be such a huge gap where two small teeth had so recently fit? he wondered.
Sally pushed herself up to the edge of the chair, her knees clutching the recliner’s footrest – one false move away from slipping down between the brackets that held it up. “ ‘How’s the novelcomin’?’ People ask you that all the time.” Sally seemed content in her awkward position. “People ask me how your novel’s comin’. People don’t ask how my job’s comin’. My job that supports this family.”
Jack shifted his weight onto the other foot, watched Jimmy Stewart innocently usher Harvey into the loony bin. Somehow Jack’s own job – bartending three nights a week – didn’t count, in Sally’s eyes, because he didn’t have to get up in the morning and it wasn’t sheer drudgery.
“When we were dating and you said you were writing a novel, I stupidly thought that meant you’d publish it, sell copies of it, a damn movie deal.” Sally pushed with all she had on the armrests and the chair slowly sucked the footrest back in. “Never thought it was something to just talk about. Talk, that’s all –”
“Steve Fowler,” Jack said, just loud enough to be heard. Sally smacked the arm of the chair with her fist. Jimmy Stewart invited the doctor and nurse to meet him for drinks and Jack remembered his mission. As he moved to the kitchen, he heard the squeak of the recliner and Sally’s footsteps shuffle toward the bathroom.
Jack freshened his own drink, thought how Sally brought up the novel most every night. He deserved it. He’s been sloughing off. Maybe he’d work on it in the morning. No, he promised Marty they’d check out what was left of the building tomorrow. Maybe the next day. He made Sally’s drink anew, clattering ice cubes into her glass. Vodka, he thought, and some tonic and just a splash of guilt. Maybe he could work that Caterpillar into a story.
© Will Tinkham, 2018