THE FIFTH COLUMN, chpt 1
JD’s car was only notionally under Lissa’s control. She was on a two lane black top gouged out of the farmland. The front tire slid over the waxy yellow paint and kicked up rocks against the wheel wells. Then the road curved away under her tires, putting her back on the pavement.
Her head pounded from too much gin and orange juice. She was headed home from the 90s themed barbecue after-party. When the Senator left, Cindy and Lissa persuaded some tech-savvy volunteers to go with them to the mall office and build out a real campaign headquarters for the reborn Linn Candidacy.
When they were finished the old men’s wear store was transformed into a giant foot print for campaign’s Eastern Iowa push. It was now the pulsing, throbbing, vein riddled heart of the outreach effort. It had phone banks and workstations, operating servers, fiber optic connections, even a pirate radio station that an electrical engineering student wired together by bouncing a signal off the repeaters in the cell towers. When they were done, the whole office looked like the fetishized version of a web start-up.
But the party punch Cindy whipped together when they got there gave her heartburn, and she spent the ride home burping up acrid, acetaminophen tasting bile thanks to the Vicodin Cindy passed around like tic-tacs. Lissa pulled down the sun visor and positioned herself in what little shade it provided from the late afternoon sun. She was getting a headache.
As she approached her town, the fields pushed back from the road. Suddenly, both sides of the street were occupied by suburban ranch homes with lush bent and fescue lawns that met flush with the pavement. She drove through the commercial center of town, past the Chinese food joint, the liquor store and the scrap booking boutique, then turned into her subdivision. Two streets in, a Pepto Bismol pink Cadillac was parked half on a lawn and half in the lane Lissa drove down.
Location, presentation, curb appeal, ran on a loop through her mind. It was a little industry axiom she picked up from the woman who sold them their home.
“Location. Presentation. Curb Appeal.” Lissa mumbled.
She didn’t register that the other car was parked in her way, not until she felt the shudder of the bumper gouging along the back panel of the Cadillac. She heard the screech of the metal as her car tore away the chrome trim from bumper to bumper, then jarred free and continued on toward its destination.
At the next cross street, Lissa slowed down and turned right. Her house was up ahead on the left, everything else would work itself out once she made it home. She pulled the car into the drive. JD was already out on the lawn connecting the corner posts and rails of the porch with mortise and tenon joints. The whole thing was going up without nails in a fusion of Dougong style.
JD Walked deliberately over toward her as she pulled up and asked, “What happened?”
He asked and got down in a squat next to the front passenger’s side bumper and wheel. “I thought you were going into town to put together the campaign headquarters.”
“I did. It’s done. Phones, trees, copier, faxes, the whole shit show. Then we celebrated, Cindy had some Vicodin. I forgot how quick and hard hydrocodone hits you.”
JD ran his hand up under the front panel and the bumper. It was pushed up against the wheel. A channel of rubber was worn away in one smoothly shaved line.
“I think I scraped the Realtor’s Cadillac as I drove past on the last block,” Lissa said and walked out to the lawn.
She stopped in the middle of the grass. There were imprints in the lawn, flattened blades of grass and sections of wood around her feet.
“What are you drunk?” He asked. “Jesus Christ, Lissa, go lay down. I’ll go down in the car and sort it out with the Realtor.”
JD grabbed the bent intussuscepted mass of metal with his gloved hands and pulled at it with his whole body. He freed the tire so that it no longer rubbed, except when he turned the wheel too far to the right.
Lissa bent down as he did that and touched the lawn. The grass was damp where her hand touched. She pressed down the blades.
“What are you doing?” JD asked.
It wasn’t until JD grabbed her hand and led her to the house that she realized she was cold, and then almost immediately began to shiver. JD gently guided her over the unfinished and unsecured flooring of the porch and opened the front door.
“You know this is going to be beautiful when it’s finished,” Lissa told him and he felt a sense of hope flicker that up until then he thought had extinguished.
Once Lissa was inside, JD locked the front door and made his way across the porch and into the driver’s side. He turned the key in the ignition. The car started without hesitation. The passenger side airbag warning lamp lit up, but surprisingly, given the damage, neither one of the airbags had deployed. It would be a simple fix, he thought, once he took the car down to the shop.
JD felt better about the situation after he started driving. The damage wasn’t that bad. The car drove steady enough, even when he had to make a right turn and the wheel rubbed against the metal, you hardly noticed. As long as the car Lissa hit didn’t burst into flames, JD hoped, we could get out of this for under eleven hundred dollars.
He drove past the driver’s side of the Cadillac and surveyed the damage. It was superficial body damage mostly, nothing that couldn’t be buffed out. OK, he admitted there was a little wrinkling of the sheet metal. But most of the damage was just a dull glaze where the hard plastic bumper danced along the metal panels of the Cadillac and left behind a thin layer of rubbed in plastic. Some of the metal trim around the wheel wells and along the base of the doors was missing. A pile of shiny scrap laid twisted at the front of the car, but all in all no real damage. They could probably pay for it themselves and not have to involve the insurance companies.
JD parked across the street, parallel to the Cadillac and far enough out of the road to avoid causing anymore problems for the dribble of weekend traffic that cut through the neighborhood. He crossed the road and started up the flagstone path meticulously arranged on the lawn. It led from the driveway, through the grass and up to the front door. He made a mental note, and pictured a grand walkway paved with similar gray stones leading to his own front door and the colossal porch he built with his own hands.
The door bell was lit. JD pushed it in and the button settled into its seat and stuck there, dark and inoperable. He waited for maybe thirty seconds before he pushed it again, but nothing happened. It neither lit up nor moved any deeper into itself. He knocked on the side of the frame with his fist to either summon someone from inside or to jimmy the door bell back to its lighted position so that he could try it again.
Through the lace and needle point curtains, JD saw a gauzy outline of someone coming toward the door. He looked himself over in the reflection, then wiped the few crumbs of toast and saw dust that clung to the waist of his polo shirt. He rubbed his chin with his hand. He needed a shave, but it was a summer Friday afternoon and it only added to the casual nature of his dropping by unannounced.
The figure pulled the curtain back and JD was face to face with an elderly woman, now frozen on the other side of the glass. She stared at him through a gel pack mask and a thin layer of some type of face peel. The peel was dried and cracked, and sloughed off around the edges like a molting lizard.
The woman regained her composure and pulled the shade back. There were a few moments before she opened the door. And when she did, she no longer wore the mask. It lay beside her on a small table in the hall, like some electric blue tropical fish.
“Yes?” The woman asked, “can I help you?”
“Gosh, I am really sorry to bother you but, I need to talk to the owner of the car parked in the street.” JD said laying on his best aw shucks affectation.
The woman looked over to the driveway, verifying that her own vehicle was safely moored just feet away from her home. She turned her head back toward him and a section of the peel popped free and flapped at the side of her chin, below the earlobe. JD felt the urge to reach out and try to press it back into place.
“Oh, that’s not mine,” She said and then called down the hall, opening the door wider, “Pamela, honey, there’s a gentleman caller here to see you.”
From down the hall, JD watched the realtor make her way towards them. She held a tall wine glass by the tips of her fingers. The contents sloshed precariously closer and closer to the rim of the glass, as her walk turned into a sashay.
“I don’t know how they find me. If tall handsome men keep showing up like this, people will begin to talk.” She said, with a hint of a Missouri accent to her words.
They’d obviously been drinking and quiet possibly were drunk. JD tried to keep it as casual as possible.
“We’re like moths to a flame,” he said
“Now you’re just flattering me. What can I help you with?”
“Well, there’s no easy way to say this, but there’s been a little accident, between me and your Cadillac.”
“I better come out there and take a look,” the Realtor said and drank the last of the wine.
She placed the empty glass on the hall table next to the gel mask.
“Now Susan,” the Realtor said and picked up the mask, holding it out away from her body, “you need to go back in and put this over your eyes for another five minutes. And try not to move too much, you face is peeling like a cheap vinyl dashboard.”
Susan grabbed the mask from the Realtor and scurried back into the house. JD and the Realtor walked outside with the Realtor leading the way across the lawn and straight to the Cadillac. She was oblivious to the smooth flagstone path and cut a dull green trail of bent grass blades in the lawn.
“She looks to be OK. What exactly did you do to her, or is this just a ploy to get me alone?”
“The car is fine, mostly, just a little minor damage on the driver’s side. I think you better go around and take a look.”
JD stood in front of the Cadillac and the realtor slid through the narrow space between him and the front bumper of her car. She wore a light fragrance, nothing overpowering, but it had a weight to it and hit him in the face. As she leaned over the hood in front of him to get by, JD couldn’t help but notice, when her blouse rose up in the back, that she wore a thong.
“Well that’s a bummer,” the Realtor said and ran her finger along the crease pressed into the door panel.
“Ma’am, I’ll pay for the whole thing. Start to finish.”
“Oh, I’m sure you will. And call me Pam. All my friends call me Pam.”
“I could leave you my information, name, address, even my insurance if you like. I already know most of your information.”
“Oh? You do, do you. So are you a secret admirer or just a run of the mill stalker?”
“Actually Pam, you sold me and my wife our home. I live one block over, moved in about a year ago.”
“That’s too bad,” she said making a pouting expression with her lips, “I’ve got a lovely little hide away I’d love to show you by the river.”
She took a business card and passed it too him, “here put all your information on the back of this: name, address, phone number, likes, dislikes, turn-ons. You know your particulars and I’ll call you up on Monday or so and we’ll go from there.”
JD searched his pockets and found the nub of a pencil. Embossed in red on the side of it were the words Iowa State Lottery. He had no idea how it ended up there, but was glad to have it. He did not want to risk being lured into the house by the Realtor and her slightly smashed friend. He quickly filled in his information and tried not to notice the Realtor, as she flagrantly scoured his body and calculated a tally of plus and minuses.
He handed the card back to her and she quickly read through the information.
“Well, this all seems to be in order, wait. Where’s turn-ons? You have to give me something.”
“I don’t know. There are a lot. It could take a whole rolodex of cards to fit them all.”
“OK, then,” she said and crouched down on her heels to tug at a loose bit of trim that still clung to the under carriage, “how about turn offs. The biggest one.”
“Well Pam, since you’re being so cordial, I’ll tell you but it goes no further than us.”
The Realtor nodded, leaning further over so that the cleft of her breasts was clearly visible to JD as he looked down.
“Women, who are quiet in bed.”
The Realtor stood up and put out her hand.
“Well you won’t have to worry about that with me,” she said shaking his hand, “your secret is safe. Now I better get back inside. That lovely lady wants me to knock off ten years and I’ve only got about another half hour to do it.”
“Of course, please and I am truly sorry about this. I should have been paying more attention. Thank you for being so cool about it.”
“I’ll be in touch.” She said.
The realtor walked around the car and up the grass again. JD caught himself following the path she treaded. His eyes followed a delicate curve of grass, up the heel of her designer espadrilles, past her trim ankles and fit legs. He paused on her slightly more than ample hips and thighs, then up her back, stopping at the rhythmic undulation of shoulder blades. She carried herself in a fluid, almost delicate sway. If he didn’t hate the sound of it, he would have said she walked like a jungle cat, a puma.
JD waited for her to turn back, to wave good bye. But she never did. She entered the door and closed it behind her.
Left out in the middle of the road, JD stared at the house. It was only the sound of an oncoming Plymouth Voyager minivan that got him moving again. He got behind the wheel of Lissa’s car and pulled out.
He followed the minivan, through the intersection, skirting along the lawns where they began to roll over onto the road’s surface. He just followed, absently keeping his own vehicle locked in the tracks of the van, turning right when it did.
He drove past a single story ranch home with dark blue shudders and small azalea bushes. In the yard were piles of pine board, bamboo plywood and a quarter pallet of shingling neatly stacked by a half built porch. It was his house. He drove right by his own home, before realizing and watched his yard retreat in the rear view mirror. He put the car in reverse and backed it into the driveway. The minivan disappeared down a side street further up the block.
The sound of the tire against the bumper, a dull grinding sound, filled the cab as he turned the wheel and backed up. He began to curse and swear at Lissa for being so careless. He put together some hip pocket figures. They were cursory, ball park figures. But any way he looked at it, it put him down between two grand or maybe even twenty-five hundred to fix both cars. The sound kept going even after he straightened the wheel, adding another couple hundred to his calculations.
“God damn it,” he swore.
He yanked up on the emergency brake, and the ratcheting of the teeth screamed under his hand. The car jerked to a stop. He faced the empty house across from his own. He thought for a moment about the Realtor, her breasts, the dip of her cleavage, while he tried to remember how long the house across the road had been vacant. You had to be a pretty good realtor to unload a house like that in this type of market, but with all the foreclosures up and down the neighborhood, JD wondered if she was any good.
It didn’t matter either way, he thought, and shifted the transmission into park. He reached to turn off the engine. Then as if in slow motion, JD watched a tremendous explosion ripple through the dashboard on the passenger’s side. The seam above the glove box split and spewed forth the airbag in a spray of grey mist from the expiring cartridge that inflated the system. JD jumped back and banged the side of his head on the door frame and seat belt hitch.
He swore loudly and stared at the flaccid airbag dangling in the passenger side compartment. He switched his gaze and watched the driver’s side air bag, while opening the door with one hand and deftly sliding out of the projected path of explosion, just in case it decided to pop off. From outside of the car with the door hung open, JD tentatively slapped at the steering column. It sent bleeps of horn out into the neighborhood.
The airbag remained packaged behind the steering wheel, but JD had his doubts. In the yard, next to the skeletal frame of the porch, there was an eighteen inch long piece of scrap 2” x 4”. He grabbed it and brought it over to the side of the car and made exploratory jabs at the steering wheel.
Feeling comfortable with his technique, he started rapping on the front of the steering column with the widest side of the wood. JD rapped harder and harder on the column, each time with more intensity. The sight of the limp nylon material hanging from the split dash on the passenger’s side enraged and worried him. He imagined driving the car to the mechanic and the blinding burst of the air bag, the ringing in his ears, the taste of pennies running down the back of his throat from where the whole thing smacked him in the face.
He could already see that first morning back. He’d have to explain to the people at work the characteristic raccoon eye bruising, the tape and gauze packing in his nose. It would be too embarrassing. Once more for good measure, he thought, just to be sure.
He took a last whack at the steering wheel, really swung for the fences. He tucked his arms in and threw his hips into it. He brought the 2” x 4” crashing down.
The vibration it sent up his arms made him drop the wood into the driver’s seat. The horn sounded again with the last hit, but instead of the sound racing off into the neighborhood and reverberating off the surrounding homes before disappearing, it stayed on.
The horn kept going, filled the cab and the front yard with the loud piercing sound of compressed air humming through the conch shaped horn. JD slapped at the steering column again, this time with his hand. It only succeeded in sending little staccato stutters of sound into the long drawn note of the horn.
The horn wailed unabated. JD pulled the keys from the ignition, hoped it would shut itself off. It didn’t. He popped the hood.
As soon as JD got to the front of the car and opened the compartment, he was assaulted by noise. One sustained note pushed against the delicate membranes of his ear drums, disrupting the leveling effect of his cochlea as it rumbled against the delicate bones and fluids in his inner ear. He felt dizzy and nauseous.
JD tore open the fuse box and scanned the diagram on the cover. He tried to isolate the fuse marked horn. He found it and pulled at the green rectangular fuse with his fingers. The sound was crippling. The stimuli overload sapped his synaptic energy and starved the parts of his brain that normally reacted to the little blue sparks that flashed as he tried rocking the fuse free with bare hands.
A distinct wavering could be heard in the long sustained blast echoing out from the open hood area. JD ignored it and kept pulling on the fuse. Finally, he took his car keys from his pocket and successfully pried the fuse out.
There was silence. But even after the horn stopped he still physically felt it. The echo of the reverberating contralto note continued to crash around in his head and rattled his ear’s vestibular apparatus.
But there was silence, however brief. Then a horn started again, but with a slightly higher pitch. This one emanated from under the front bumper.
He grabbed the fuse box lid and scanned the diagram, looking for another delineated rectangle marked horn. But there was only one noted, the turquoise green fuse that he pried from the rest. This had to be some aftermarket add on, another circuit, a back-up incase the first was disengaged, an alarm to ward off thieves and ne’er do wells. He grabbed the remote on his key chain and smashed down on the alarm button. The lights and blinkers flipped on and off, but the horn kept sounding.
The sound came from under the front bumper on the driver’s side. He leaned over into the open hood and tried to spy it out. But with the cramped and efficient use of space in the engine compartment, he was unable to do much more than feel the warmth of the motor against his face and further damage the little fibrous hairs responsible for hearing. He had to get down to the ground level.
From underneath the front end, with his head barely clearing the undercarriage, he saw the horn. It was a small seashell hanging right behind the Styrofoam packed bumper. He wriggled his body along the ground, until he was able to wedge his hand up against the horn. He felt around for any cords, any loose wires that he could tear out. His hands scoured the outside of the mechanism. The vibrations of the housing raced along his fingers and created an uncomfortable sensation at the point where the bones in his forearm came back together at the elbow.
The horn was warm and he worried about getting electrocuted. But he kept swiping blindly at it with his fingers. He felt a plastic clip and a long wire that ran away deep into the engine compartment. He grabbed both sides, felt the plastic connection give and slid the wire out and away from the horn. Silence.
Gradually the whisper of wind rustling through the leaves floated back to JD. In the distance a neighbor’s dog yelped and farther out he heard the rush of traffic as it flowed past on I-80 like the receding tide.
JD locked the car doors and looked up and down the street. No one stood in the lawn, not a door was open. No neighbor peered out to see what all the noise was about. There were just the same rows of single family detached homes, each on their half acre lot, slowly settling lower and lower into their foundations. He trudged up his driveway to the front door, exhausted from the barrage of sound. His mind was numb and all he wanted was to lie down. Just as he closed the door it started to rain.