All Is Bright (6)

A Christmas Eve story in 24 installments

Six

The Buick veered from the center line to the curb and back again, down the length of Chapman Street, from the outskirts of the city to the river. It crossed the drawbridge and continued erratically onward, over the bluff and through the wide-lawned neighborhoods of the west side.

Larry Eller barely knew his drinking buddy that night, other than his name and just enough vague details of his life to create enough familiarity between the two to keep them together for three hours, which was at least two hours too long.

Larry had assured himself that he would only stay for one drink. The salesman would just stop by the Christmas party of the industrial company he had sold plastic resins to for the last eighteen years, at a generic suburban steakhouse, just long enough to greet and toast his buyer, and some of the executives responsible for approving his sales. He arrived at 5:30 to find that his buyer, the head of purchasing, had already gone home, and the execs—who seemed to barely recognize his name—were guardedly cordial but were already checking their watches and stifling yawns, clearly intent on leaving.

After an awkward half-hour Larry was ready to leave, too, but then happened to strike up a friendly conversation with one of the company’s own salesmen. Their products couldn’t have been much more different—bulk resins versus engineered automotive components—but they shared a salesman’s innate gift of amiability and the ability to talk to absolutely anyone. Against Larry’s better judgment he accepted the salesman’s offer of a second drink, which turned to a third and a fourth as they chatted at an empty table at the edge of the room like old friends who had known each other for life. When the party ended and the restaurant host shooed the last two lingerers away, the conversation kept on as they moved down the corridor and into the lounge, which they entered after Larry briefly eyed the exit before, carried away in the moment, agreeing to one more drink which ended up being more than one.

Chapman Street was a blur even before the Buick reached the edge of downtown. Behind the wheel, Larry could see little more than the glowing yellow center line and the streetlights to the right, between which he struggled to keep the car centered as it sped onward. At Central he sensed some commotion in the street, some movement just beyond the windshield, which was soon passed by, whatever it was, and he had just enough awareness to notice that the next three stoplights were still yellow as he passed through the intersections, although the last light might, just maybe, have turned to red.

The car clattered across the steel bridge and slowed for a moment at the base of the steep hill until Larry stomped on the gas pedal, only easing off a few blocks after clearing the top of the bluff. In the darker west side neighborhoods where the houses and lawns were bigger but the streetlights only stood at each corner, he found it harder to keep the car going straight, the lateral veering of downtown becoming even more severe, and though only a few minutes from home he fiddled with the radio’s tuning knob, looking for a song he knew. The Stones would be great, though he would settle for Skynyrd or Bad Company. But he found only commercials pitching car dealers and supermarkets, and in his frustration his hand slipped from the knob and banged against the center console. His focus impaired even further by the dull pain, the car careened to the left and scraped the far curb. He yanked the steering wheel back to the right, but much too far, and he saw the looming parked car only at the last second.

He corrected left again and had almost cleared the car when he heard a heavy thud and the crash of glass, though the Buick kept going. Three blocks later he recognized his house—its front lights blazing through the darkness—and braked, turning oh so slowly into the driveway. He stopped the car outside, not confident enough to pull it into the garage. He wobbled out of the car and moved toward the house but then paused, remembering, and circled around to the passenger side. Peering along the fender he saw, with sudden, almost sober clarity, that the sideview mirror had been torn off and the doors gouged with long, deep furrows. He shook his head and turned back toward the house, barely seeing the icicle lights which hung from the eaves and the illuminated Christmas tree inside the front window as he searched his still-spinning mind for any decent excuse.