Vignette, rated G.
Set pre-Push. No specific spoilers; assumes familiarity through 'The Letter of the Law.'
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Beta nods to MaybeAmanda, who boldly stepped outside her One True Fandom, and to Pam, Secret Jedi Beta Master (do not believe her when she tells you she can't beta).
'Push, Nevada' TM and copyright Live Planet, ABC Television, and their related entities. Neither this work of fiction nor its writer is authorized by the above.
Summary: An impulsive act made by a deliberate man.
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He made the left at the fork after the gas station and turned off what passed for the highway onto the side road. He was heading west now, into the late-afternoon sun, and even though the summer days stretched long into the evenings, the sun was already low enough in the sky to make him squint. He lifted one hand from the wheel and reached up and turned down the visor.
He would have turned on the radio, but that was the most recent of the things that had stopped working. It was as if the Buick wanted to add insult to injury. He drummed his fingers against the wheel and tried to remember the song that had been playing on the Muzak in the office as he'd walked through the lobby and said goodnight to the receptionist. He couldn't quite call it to mind. All those songs sounded the same -- the same string sections and the same tactfully muted percussion. It was almost startling to recognize a tune now and then, to remember what it had sounded like in its original incarnation, before it had been bled dry and piped into the office like the recycled air from the air conditioner.
Here, a few miles out of the town proper, the houses were further apart, set further back from the road, driveways marked by battered rural mailboxes and the occasional decorative planting of cacti and other hardy flora. He knew he was looking for number 1175, but he glanced down again at the sheet of paper on the seat beside him, the directions written in his neat, precise hand. Under the directions lay the newspaper, open to the classifieds and tidily folded to show the page with the circled ad.
He'd called home just before lunch to tell Darlene he would be home late because he was going to look at a car after work, but she hadn't picked up, so he'd just left a message on the machine. He'd been a little surprised that she hadn't been home; her shift doing manicures at PerfecTan & Nails didn't start till two on Tuesdays, and it didn't seem likely she'd be in the bathroom getting ready -- she'd been in the shower in the morning when he left.
He hadn't puzzled over it, though, because in a way it was a relief. Even while he was dialing he'd still been trying to figure out how to answer when she asked him what kind of car he was going to look at. He wasn't good at evasive answers and, in truth, he wasn't sure himself exactly why he'd circled that particular ad three days ago, why he'd kept Friday's paper tucked into the lower left-hand drawer of his desk, or why he'd finally taken the paper out this morning and dialed the number. Idle curiosity, he'd told himself at first, or maybe nostalgia; now that he was actually driving out to the edge of the desert to see the thing, he supposed it must be something more, even though he couldn't say what. He liked concrete reasons; it wasn't like him to act on a hunch like this.
He'd already noticed that the numbers on the mailboxes increased by increments of five and that, though all the mailboxes were on the right-hand side of the road, the corresponding driveways of the odd-numbered boxes were on the left. Now, just passing the mailbox numbered 1110, he made a rapid calculation and deduced that the driveway he wanted would be the seventh one on his left. It was the kind of thing he did unthinkingly, almost unconsciously. Darlene, who needed a pencil and paper to add more than a few digits, always marveled at it, but he couldn't imagine not being able to do it. He'd always liked numbers. Numbers were consistent, numbers were predictable; numbers didn't hide anything, no matter how the people he investigated tried to cook their account books and make them do just that. Sometimes he had to smile at the sheer folly of their efforts.
The mailbox numbered 1175 had been blue once; the sun and wind had weathered off most of the paint, and it looked like the box had taken a few hits from passing cars. The numbers had been repainted in a crooked bright-red freehand with an arrow beneath them pointing, as he'd expected, across the road. He braked and turned, listening to the way the car's engine raced for a moment as the transmission sought and then abruptly dropped into the lower gear.
At the end of the long gravel driveway he found a small house that, like the mailbox, had seen better days; it was a faded robin's-egg blue, and he supposed it must have matched the mailbox once. The poured-concrete steps were flanked by neglected, half-wild flowerbeds.
He brought the car to a stop behind the dusty pickup truck parked outside the garage. He set the parking brake and turned off the engine. As he stepped out of the car he saw the front door of the house open, and a tall, stooped man with an unruly shock of white hair shuffled onto the porch.
He shut the car door. "Mr. Niznik?" he called. "I'm Jim Prufrock."
The old man squinted at him.
"I called this morning about the car...?"
"Oh!" The old man nodded in recognition. "Oh sure, sure. Hang on a minute. Be right with you." He disappeared into the house again.
Prufrock looked around. In the towns, surrounded by buildings, the vastness of the land was disguised; out here, where the houses were set farther apart, it was almost overwhelming. It was an uneasy feeling. The hot, dry desert wind ruffled his hair, and he reached up absently and smoothed it back into place.
He heard the front door of the house bang shut, and turned to see Mr. Niznik making his way down the steps, leaning against the handrail and seeming to favor his left leg.
Prufrock stepped forward. "Can I give you a hand?" he asked, but the old man waved him off.
"Nah, nah," he said dismissively, even as he looked down to watch his feet on the steps. "It don't hurt none. I just don't get around as quick as I used to, is all." Reaching the bottom of the stairs, he paused and looked up at Prufrock. "She's in there," he said, jerking one thumb toward the garage. "C'mon." He shuffled off across the brown grass. Prufrock followed.
If this wasn't as quick as Mr. Niznik used to get around, Prufrock thought, then he must have been hard to keep up with in his day. Mr. Niznik didn't appear to be hurrying, but Prufrock's own long stride barely kept him at the old man's heels.
Mr. Niznik stopped so suddenly at the garage that Prufrock almost bumped into him. "Here's where you can help, young feller," he barked. "Garage door opener went and died on me the other day. Goldarned thing was fine when my boy was here to keep fixin' it, but now it's just a pain in the neck." He stepped back and eyed Prufrock speculatively. "Door's too heavy for my old back, but you look strong enough."
"Of course," Prufrock answered, and leaned over, bending almost double, to grasp the door handle. He gave an experimental tug. The door didn't budge, but his tie freed itself from its tie clip and dangled in his face. He started to straighten up so that he could fasten the tie down again, but he heard Mr. Niznik clear his throat pointedly behind him, so instead he ignored the tie, took a two-handed grip on the door handle, and braced his legs against the ground. He strained against the door and felt the blood rushing to his face. Mercifully, after a long moment, he felt it give, and he heaved it open.
"Eh," Mr. Niznik observed as the dust cleared. "Damned heavy door."
Prufrock took a deep breath and then coughed behind his hand. "A little," he allowed, and recaptured his tie.
Mr. Niznik waded into the garage, pushing aside heaps of what Prufrock would have called trash. "See, if that door hadn't been stuck like that," he explained, "I'd 'a had this all cleared out so you could see her better." He turned and thrust a wooden crate full of empty paint cans at Prufrock. "Here, set this down out there, would you?"
Prufrock set the crate aside.
"Now, you see anything else asides the car that you take a fancy to," Mr. Niznik said, "you just say so, and we'll talk turkey. Everything's gotta go. End 'a next month, I'm moving to Florida. Wanted to go for ten years, but my Ann, she didn't want to hear about it." He looked over his shoulder at Prufrock. "Been a free man for a year now, and dang it, if I want to go to Florida, I can go to Florida."
Prufrock took a look around the inside of the garage and couldn't imagine where he could find a collection of things he wanted less. He could see the roof and part of the windshield of the car above the rubble, but little more -- there, that must be a headlight there, behind the wheelbarrow, but the hood was obscured by a loosely rolled-up rug that had been tossed across it. He started to pick up a bucket that was nearest him on the pile, but had to hastily push it back into place to forestall the landslide of things that had been leaning against it.
"Here. Here you go," Mr. Niznik announced suddenly. "You can step right through here." Prufrock picked his way over some lumber and around a derelict washing machine toward the little clearing where the car waited.
"She's been a Nevada car all her life," Mr. Niznik proclaimed. "Not a speck 'a rust or rot on her." He seized the end of the rug and pulled at it, but only succeeded in unrolling it across the car's nose in another billow of dust.
"Here," Prufrock offered, seeing the rug was closer to him now anyway, "let me get that." He held his breath as he took a fingertip hold on the rug and pulled it forward toward the car's nose. He was already feeling chagrined at having made this almost-certainly wasted trip, and the sooner he got a look at whatever hulking wreck lay hidden beneath the rug, the sooner he could be on his way.
The rug fell away from the car to the floor, and he forgot about his escape plan, and stared.
"Nice, ain't she?" Mr. Niznik asked, pride evident in his voice, and Prufrock nodded slowly, not taking his eyes from the car. "Yessir, fifty-nine Rambler," the old man went on. "They don't make 'em like this anymore, you know."
Prufrock nodded again. "I know," he said. "My father had one just like this." He stepped over the rug and walked down along the driver's side of the car, studying it carefully -- the two-toned pale blue and white paint, the extravagant chrome, the broad expanses of windshield and window. "My mom sold it when he died."
Mr. Niznik snorted. "What, she wouldn't give it to you?"
Prufrock reached out and rubbed a forefinger over the chrome edging above the back door. "I was twelve," he explained. The chrome was smooth and shiny under the thick layer of dust. For a moment he could see the sunlight gleaming again on the chrome of his father's Rambler, could feel his mother tugging on his hand, leading him away from the car, toward the taxi that would take them home from the police station.
"Ah," Mr. Niznik said. He scratched one hoary ear with a forefinger. "Ah."
Prufrock leaned closer to the car, trying to peer through the grimy windows. He heard a clatter across the garage and looked up to see Mr. Niznik fishing a rag out of a heap of tin cans. "Here," he said, offering the rag to Prufrock. "If I'd had that door open, I'd 'a cleaned her up some, but..."
"Thank you." He rubbed the rag across the front window and, inside, the familiar shapes of wheel and console and gauges appeared, and the cigarette lighter just like the one he'd burned his finger on when he was ten. The upholstery on the seat looked a little worn, but he couldn't see any frays or tears. He straightened up and looked over at Mr. Niznik.
"Door's open," the old man prompted him.
He wasn't sure that was what he'd been planning to ask, but he went ahead and rubbed the rag across the top of the door and the handle, and found the paint and the chrome were smooth and shiny there as well. He set the rag atop the roof and reached for the door handle, and after a moment's hesitation he pushed the catch with his thumb and swung the door open.
So many memories tumbled so quickly through his mind; it wasn't so much like opening a car door as it was like opening a time machine. Only half-aware of what he was doing, he leaned into the car, sat down in the driver's seat, swung his right leg into the well beneath the steering column. He placed his right hand on the wheel and wrapped his fingers around the thin hard plastic -- he was sitting in his father's lap, steering the car in a wide slow serpentine path through a deserted parking lot while his father's feet worked the accelerator and the brake. "That's it, Jimmy," his father was chuckling near his ear. "Bring it around to the left again. Good work, son."
Mr. Niznik was saying something about the battery. Prufrock blinked and looked up.
"I'm sorry," he said. "Excuse me?"
"Pay attention, young feller." Mr. Niznik took the rag from the car's roof and shook it admonishingly at Prufrock. "I said, I haven't started her up for six months or so, but the battery oughtta be all right, so I imagine you want to try." He dangled a pair of keys over the car door. "The square one. The other one's for the trunk."
Prufrock took the keys. "Yes," he murmured, running his fingers along the rounded edge of the trunk key. "Yes, I know." He shook his head to chase away the ghosts, and he pushed the square key into the ignition and put his foot on the gas pedal. The engine grunted as if in surprise, and coughed once, and then turned over and caught. Prufrock looked up to see Mr. Niznik grinning triumphantly down at him.
"She sounds good, don't she!" the old man crowed, and though he could tell it hadn't really been meant as a question, Prufrock answered.
"Yes, she -- ah, it does," he admitted. In fact, it sounded surprisingly good. He tapped the accelerator a few times and listened to the way the engine revved and fell away again. The idle should be adjusted, he found himself thinking, but all the cylinders seemed to be firing, and there was no blue smoke, no odor of burning oil. He pushed his foot against the brake pedal and found it high and steady; he shifted the car into neutral and then into drive, and the sound of the engine fell to a low, steady rumble. He listened for another long moment, and then shifted the car back into park and turned the engine off.
"No offense, now," Mr. Niznik said slowly, "but she sure don't sound any worse than what you drove out here in."
Prufrock leaned forward in the seat and studied the console. He rubbed a finger across the glass covering the odometer. "Is this the actual mileage?"
"I expect it's rolled over." Mr. Niznik shook his head. "Course, that don't mean so much. That's a rebuilt engine in there, and I can't say for sure how many miles are on it."
"Oh, really?" Prufrock asked with fresh interest. He got out of the car and followed Mr. Niznik around toward the front, where the old man stuck his fingers up under the grille to find the hood latch.
"Yep. Take a look," Mr. Niznik said as the latch let go with a heavy thunk and the hood sprang up an inch or so. Prufrock reached down and lifted it. Rebuilt engine or not, it was the same cavernous old-car interior he remembered, everything straightforward and easy to find, and he smiled a little. He reached without looking for the prop and fastened it into the notch on the underside of the hood.
The familiarity was not lost on Mr. Niznik. "Know a little about these cars, do you?"
Prufrock leaned over and pulled out the dipstick, wiped it on the rag that Mr. Niznik had set on the radiator, and replaced it. "My dad used to do a lot of the routine work himself." He remembered Saturday mornings, the Rambler parked in the shade of the open carport; he remembered climbing onto an overturned milk crate to lean over the fender to watch, remembered handing his father tools from the red metal toolbox. "Change the oil, change the plugs. Adjust the carburetor. Things like that."
He pulled the dipstick out again and angled it, squinting to see the level. He looked over at Mr. Niznik. "It could use a quart."
"Eh. I don't doubt it. Been a while since she was maintained, really." Mr. Niznik sighed, and some of the spark seemed to go out of him. "That was... Well, she was my boy's project, and since he's been gone, she's just set here, mostly."
"Really?" Prufrock, pushing the dipstick home again, looked over his shoulder. "He couldn't bring the car where he was moving?"
"You could say that." The old man made what looked like a wry attempt at a smile, but didn't meet Prufrock's gaze. "He died six years ago this September."
Prufrock's hand, reaching for the radiator cap, stopped short. "I -- I'm sorry."
Mr. Niznik shrugged. "You didn't know, young feller. No harm done."
"But still, I --"
"Never mind." Mr. Niznik's voice was firm again. "I'd 'a sold her back then, but my Ann, she wouldn't hear of it. Wouldn't set in her and drive nowhere, mind you, but wouldn't let me sell her neither. Women, eh?"
Prufrock thought of Darlene and nodded helplessly.
"Yep. Women," Mr. Niznik nodded sagely. "So all this car's done is sit out here in the middle of nowhere, gettin' old." He picked up the rag, folded it so the oil stain was on the inside, and leaned over to rub at one of the car's headlights. "Sort 'a like me, now I think of it."
Prufrock felt as if there was something he ought to say, something wise and profound, but he didn't know what it might be. He never seemed to know what it might be that he should say when he felt this way, so he did what he had learned to do instead -- he looked solemn and nodded his head. It was wasted on Mr. Niznik, though, because the old man was still slowly, carefully polishing the rim of the left headlight.
A moment later Mr. Niznik straightened up. "All right, then," he said, as if he'd made up his mind about something. "Now like the ad said -- I'll take nineteen hundred dollars for her, and you're getting a bargain at the price."
"Nineteen?" Prufrock kept his surprise from showing on his face. "I'm sorry, but I'm sure the ad said seventeen."
Mr. Niznik made a dismissive noise. "No, no. Couldn't be. Nineteen, it was."
"I have the ad in my car, if you'd like me to get it," Prufrock suggested.
Mr. Niznik was quiet for a moment. "Seventeen. You're sure, eh?" he finally asked. He squinted at Prufrock as if sizing him up. "Eh. Must 'a been a typo."
"Perhaps it was." Prufrock folded his arms and waited.
"Well," Mr. Niznik said slowly, rubbing his chin, "well, I might take seventeen, now you mention it."
"I was thinking more along the lines of fifteen, actually," Prufrock said evenly.
Mr. Niznik frowned theatrically. "I wouldn't 'a thought you were the kind of feller to try to take advantage of an old man," he blustered. "I thought you understood there's a value beyond cash for a fine car like her."
Prufrock maintained his poker face. "But I'm sure you understand, sir, that cash is the only thing that will get this fine car taken out of here on a flatbed," he said, pointing to the Rambler's flat tires.
The old man pursed his lips, studying Prufrock's face. Prufrock held his gaze and waited.
"Say sixteen," Mr. Niznik said at last, "and you've got yourself a car."
Prufrock did the math. It was going to end up costing just as much to get this car on the road as it would to put a transmission in the Buick. He could already hear the lecture he'd get from Darlene; it would be the standard one recounting the many fingernails she'd slaved over to help put him through accounting school. She would point out that she deserved better. If she was very angry -- and Prufrock suspected that this car would make her very angry indeed -- she might remind him of all the other suitors she'd had when they were in high school, and imply that she could have done better than to choose him.
Prufrock held out his hand. "Sixteen it is, Mr. Niznik."
"There you go!" The old man grinned and shook his hand vigorously. "Let's go on back up to the house and you can give me a deposit." He let go of Prufrock's hand and squinted at him again. "You did bring cash, eh, young feller?"
"Yes, I did," Prufrock nodded.
"Good. Let's go." Mr. Niznik turned and began shuffling out of the garage. "And close that door on the way out." He didn't wait for an answer.
Prufrock turned back to the Rambler. Supporting the hood with one hand, he folded the prop back down flat with the other, and then lowered the hood halfway. When he let it go, he liked the solid sound of it falling back into place.
Prufrock ran his hand along the smooth chrome over the car's headlight, and it felt right, and he smiled.