Whodunnit?: Break Down

Whodunnit?: Break Down
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Deer Headlights

Luke sat at the desk in his bedroom and wrestled with his unfinished term paper. Outside, the autumn moon was near full and a change in the weather had been threatening for hours. Gusts of wind cut the air, tore leaves from their branches, and knocked against the storm windows. His mind drifted and he fixed his gaze on the windows shuddering in the wind. It had been five days since his mother’s funeral and he still had not gotten the cold smell of death out of his nostrils since he had kissed her goodbye. The forced expression of calm that bloated across her face infuriated him. His father, his sister, and all their relatives had pretended to be calm too. Why did everyone always pretend? The cheap satin lining of her casket and the droning hymns at the funeral mass turned her burial into an impersonal ritual that did not allow him to mourn. At the cemetery, he set a white carnation on the dark mahogany casket and watched as the container filled with his mother descended into the packed earth.

Luke cursed himself under his breath. The television beckoned him, and he pushed away from the desk and plodded downstairs. In the kitchen sink, soapsuds dissolved the microwaved remains of Chinese leftovers clinging to dishes, which would soak until his father returned home from playing darts at a bar and holler at Luke to clean up. He found his groove in the recliner and passed his time alone bouncing between channels to find nothing in particular. He looked up from the television and glanced at his cell phone. He struggled with calling his sister Marianne. He punched her name into his phone and dialed. She had returned to college in Washington D.C., and Luke imagined her having drinks with a desperate graduate student, so she could not feel her cell phone vibrate in her purse amid the drone of happy hour. Luke hung up without leaving a message and went back to channel surfing.

A set of headlights flickered in the distance through the front windows. He knew his father would not be home yet, and since it was rare for cars to pass through their suburbs at this time of night he took notice. Theirs was once a tight-knit neighbourhood with Tupperware parties and benign bicycle gangs. Over the years neighbors had grown suspicious of even the slightest peculiarities. They installed dead bolts, refused solicitors, and monitored garbage collectors. His mother had grown wary of the unfamiliar and once called the police after a neighbour’s flustered visitor accidentally knocked on their door. She thought he was a homeless man looking for a handout and slammed the door in his face.

The headlights came to a stop. Luke got up from the recliner and walked to the window to get a better look. The old sedan parked at the edge of the lawn. An older man emerged from the driver’s seat and went around to the front passenger tire, then to the trunk. Luke watched the man pull out a jack and he figured he had a flat tyre. His curiosity faded and he returned to the recliner to watch television. His mind drifted to thoughts of his mother and how close his parents had grown since the diagnosis, their marriage began to repair itself, and the hope of the cancer’s remission promised a return to romance and much more. But as the treatments failed, cracks in their marriage turned to fissures, and under the pressure of her imminent death, Luke’s father fell into the whiskey bottle.
Twenty minutes passed and he could still see the glow of headlights. He returned to the window and watched as the man knelt beside the car. His conscience took over, and he went to the closet for his coat and boots. The cold wind rushed into the house as he stepped outside. He crossed the lawn and the frozen grass crunched under his soles. The stranger battled with the tyre and did not notice Luke’s approach.
“You need some help?” he said.
He startled the old man, who fought to catch his breath. He was not dressed for the occasion, wearing little more than a trench coat and thin corduroys. His cheeks shone red and Luke thought he could make out the tracks of tears down the old man’s face, either from the cold or the struggle. His white hair had been blown into a wild tangle.
“Well, yeah,” the old man said. “My tyre hit something about a mile back. I’m trying to change the sucker for a spare, but I can’t get these bolts loose. Would you mind?”
“Let me take a look.”
A near gale slammed against them both and Luke felt the cold shoot up his back under his coat. They both braced themselves until the air calmed. The old man held a feeble flashlight and backed away so Luke could crouch to get a better look. The corners of each bolt had been stripped, mutilating once-perfect hexagons. Luke looked up and motioned toward the socket wrench. He took it from the old man’s trembling hand. It bit his bare palms like a piece of ice. He concentrated and slid it over one of the bolts. Then he pushed it against the hub and applied a precise thrust, a strong manoeuvre the old man could not have done himself. The bolt slipped loose.
“Bingo!” the old man said. He watched Luke repeat his work and remove each bolt. After Luke was finished, the man introduced himself. “I’m Joseph.”
“I’m Luke. Nice to meet you.”
They shook their chilled hands. Joseph shivered in the cold and rubbed his arms to keep warm. Luke set the deflated tire on the ground and went to the trunk for the spare. He lifted the stiff upholstery from the bottom of the trunk bed. Wet mold had grown at its corners and the space for the spare tire was vacant.
“Joseph?” Luke said.
“Yes?”
“I can’t seem to find your spare.”
“What do you mean?”
“Look here.”
He walked over and Luke showed him the empty trunk. The old man grimaced at himself.
“Shoot. I guess I just figured I had one. Sorry ‘bout that.” He made a feeble glance at the trunk again. “Listen, I would call a tow truck, but my son lives pretty close by. Do you mind if I use your phone?”
“Sure,” Luke said. “Let’s head inside.”
They ducked their heads through the bitter wind and plodded into the house. He picked at the corner of the kitchen countertop while Joseph dialled and then listened to the phone ringing on the other end. They exchanged a pleasant smile to fill the silence. Luke got a good look at him under the kitchen lights. He was unkempt. Small wiry hairs grew around his earlobes and out of his nose. His face was a battlefield of erupted capillaries and dilated blackheads. Luke felt himself aging with each ring of the phone until the answering machine picked up.
“Hello, Wes. It’s your father. I’m in the area, on my way back from Albany when my tyre went flat. I was calling to see if you could help out your old man and get me back on the road. I’m calling from someone’s house. There’s this nice boy who could drive me to your place so we can change the spare. I’ll see you in a few. Bye bye.” He hung up.
“Shoot,” said Joseph. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to impose like that. You mind giving me a lift? He doesn’t live far from here, about fifteen minutes. You have anything to do?”
He thought about his work upstairs.
“If it were still light outside I might even walk,” Joseph said, “because a tow truck would take—”
“It’s not a problem. I’ll drive you.”
“Perfect. That’s great. You can just drop me off, and my son and I will take care of the rest. Then I’ll be out of your hair.”
The two headed outside to Luke’s Subaru. They waited for the engine to warm. Luke thought about his assignment and worried if he’d be able to get an extension. Joseph bounced his legs and rubbed his hands together. They pulled out of the driveway and onto the main road, which glowed with the moon and his headlights as they drove away from the house.
“This is a real big help. You see, I was out seeing a friend of mine about an investment property. Well, it took the whole afternoon and before I knew it—oh, quick, make a left here.” Joseph directed him at the last second and Luke barely made the turn in time. “Before I knew it, the sun set was going down. I would have avoided that pothole if it hadn’t gotten dark out.”
Joseph directed him further along where the road wound alongside a creek. He darted his hand in the direction of the next turn almost too late. Luke let out an irritated sigh.
“Whoops,” Joseph said. “Sorry about that. These turns come out of nowhere. So tell me about yourself. You in school?”
“Yep. Junior in college.”
“What are you studying?”
“Political science.”
“So, you a Democrat or a Republican?”
“Democrat.”
“Ah, a Liberal. My son, Wes, used to be the same way. Bleeding heart and all. Now he’s got that family of his. I can’t seem to get through to them any more. Well, you’re still young. And you know what Winston Churchill said, don’t you? If you’re not a Democrat when you’re young, you don’t have a heart. And if you’re not a Republican when you’re old, you don’t have a brain.”
“Winston Churchill never said that.”
“He absolutely said that. Why? You don’t agree?”
“That quote isn’t his,” Luke said. “Or at least he was misquoted. It’s not even a sensible idea to begin with and then people attribute it to Churchill to make it seem valid.”
“I’m not saying that. I’m just saying he said it.”
“And I’m saying people should think for themselves.”
“Okay. Never mind then,” Joseph said. He fell quiet, searching for something else to talk about. “You have a girlfriend?”
“I don’t,” Luke said.
“You aren’t dating any of those young honeys at your school?”
“I don’t have much time for that.”
“Gotcha. Busy man,” Joseph said. “I just figured a young man like yourself would be keen on dating around a bit. If I could go back to those days I’d sow my wild oats with the best of them. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that sex is all there is to life. We’re put on this earth to do as much as we can with what we’ve got. I feel as if I have… What did my son used to say? I have actualized my potential. You could say I even have some potential left. Maybe not in the way that you have with your whole life ahead of you, but—well, you see my point.”
“You make a good one,” Luke said.
“Make a good what?” Joseph said.
“A good point. You make a good point.”
“Thanks. And what about your family? Looked like you were the only one home tonight. Where are your folks?”
“Well, my dad is out with friends playing darts.”
“Any mother in the picture?”
“No. She’s dead.” It was the first time he’d said it out loud.
“I’m sorry to hear,” Joseph said.
“That’s OK. So now it’s just my dad and me. She had brain cancer and lasted about four months after the diagnosis.”
“I’m so sorry.”
Joseph moved to put his hand on Luke’s shoulder but then drew back. Luke saw the gesture from the corner of his eye and braced for the old man’s touch that never came.
Growing up, at the dinner table every night, his mother tried to make the most of the time with Luke and his sister. She’d ask them about their day or just come out and teach a lesson to her two children about helping others in need. It had always felt like a platitude, something everyone already knew, that kindness should always come first and come naturally. Luke now felt like his mother was playing a joke on him from beyond the grave.
His vision tunnelled on the road where leaves blew from the left, across the beam of his headlights. It was common in late autumn for deer to be out at night, especially in the wooded area where Joseph was leading them. Luke had once learned deer were not able to respond to a car’s bright lights. He had made a conscious effort to develop the instinct of honking his horn whenever he saw a deer while driving. Most people, if they saw a deer on the road, would flash their brights to scare it away, but this paralyzed the animals. The intense light would wash over a deer, disorient it, and freeze it to the road. It was when a deer could hear a loud noise as a car approached that it would run off. Luke turned cruised around the next bend and passed a horse farm. In the darkness, Luke saw a pair of large glowing eyes. He pulled his foot off the accelerator and slammed his palm against the center of the horn. Joseph jumped and the horse reared up on the other side of a fence.
“Jesus!” Joseph yelled.
“I thought it was a deer,” he said.
“No worries,” said Joseph. “Simple mistake. Besides, we wouldn’t want to hit a deer out here anyway. I can’t afford a second unscheduled stop tonight. Neither can you, I’m sure. Anyway, we’re almost there. You’re gonna make the next right you come to. About a mile ahead.”
A calm filled the car, and he wanted to ask Joseph if he’d noticed anything strange about the evening’s weather. Maybe he could ask him if the snow ever come? He had a few minutes until he would drop off Joseph. Then the father and his son would hit the road together back to the idle car, catching up on each other’s lives and having a good laugh about the flat tire as he followed behind. Luke inhaled to say something.
“Oh, here’s the turn,” Joseph interrupted him. “You’ll want to bear to the left when the driveway splits,” Joseph said.
Luke put on the indicator, slowed down and turned the car onto smooth asphalt. Tall, well-trimmed hedges rose out of a meticulous lawn and flanked the sides of the driveway leading to a stately home with a three-car garage, a large Black SUV, a basketball hoop, and what looked like at least five bedrooms inside. He was surprised to not see a lavish fountain out front.
“You can park here and I’ll make sure he’s home.”
Joseph got out of the car and Luke watched him trudge fifty feet to the front door, through the gusting wind. Then he looked to a large bay window where the glow of a television flickered through the unlit house. He kept the engine running to stay warm. Soon he’d be relieved of his Samaritan duties and return to alternating stares between the television and the stairs leading to his homework while the dishes continued to soak in the sink.
Luke watched Joseph wrapped against the door once, waited, and then knocked again. A light turned on inside the house and Luke saw a family of four settled into their couch. They paused from watching television together and a lanky man got up from the couch, moved from the bay window’s frame, and then appeared inside the front door. He greeted Joseph with an expression of confused shock. Luke realized this must be Joseph’s son Wes. The father delivered a meek greeting to his son who grew large and cross. Joseph said a few more words and then motioned over his shoulder toward the Subaru. Luke shrank low in the seat to evade Wes’ gaze. He shut off the engine to hear the escalating conversation. With the windows closed, he could make out tones of voice, Joseph’s soft and pleading, the son’s harsh and accusatory. He rose back up in his seat to see what was happening. Wes barked at Joseph with a strained neck. Inside his children were shielded by their mother and led upstairs. Wes continued to erupt at his father, whose face filled with desperation, pleading to his son with clasped hands. Luke saw Joseph ready to get down on his knees. He could now make out a few bits of the yelling.
“— out of our life!” Wes shouted. “I’ll call the police…”
Joseph bowed his head, raised his hands to his son, and backed away. Wes took one step forward with fury before he backed into the house and slammed the door. Joseph remained at the door for a moment before turning around and walking back to the car. He opened the passenger side door and a stiff wind blew from behind him into the car. He climbed in and settled down next to Luke.
“Everything all right?” Luke asked, knowing it wasn’t.
“My son didn’t get the message on his answering machine is all. He just wasn’t expecting us.”
“You sure?” he asked. “It looked like you two were—”
“Everything’s fine. I’m sorry to make you come out here for nothing…”
They agreed it was getting late and that they should try to make it to the mechanic’s garage. Luke started the car and returned to the road. He made all the turns and found the reverse route without calling on Joseph for directions.
“What happened back there?” Luke asked, hoping for but not expecting an answer.
“My son and I,” Joseph said, “well, we don’t see eye-to-eye on many things.”
Luke swallowed, realizing he wouldn’t get the full story. He kept his eyes on the road until he heard a soft whimper come from Joseph. It startled him. He glanced over and saw Joseph’s hands holding his face. The old man stopped himself and took a deep breath.
“As a parent,” Joseph said, “and you’ll understand someday. Sometimes even a father’s love can’t make things right for his children.”
From a quarter of a mile away, they could see the garage was closed. He drove past to confirm its lights were off.
“I just remembered,” Luke said, “My dad has a spare back home that might work for you. Sorry I didn’t think of it sooner. You can return it later.”
“You sure?”
“No sweat.”
A sign in the window advertised tyres for eighty dollars each. He pointed it out to Joseph. “Now we know how much they’ll bill you for a tyre.”
They arrived back at the house and found his father’s truck still was not yet parked in the driveway. Luke unearthed the spare tyre from the garage and got to work on the spare, replacing the tyre as quickly as he had removed the flat. When he was finished he returned the flat tyre, the jack and the wrench to Joseph’s trunk and closed the mouldy flap. The two men surveyed the temporary repair and saw the large car dwarfed the spare tyre.
Joseph reached out and shook Luke’s hand. He pushed a few folded bills between Luke’s fingers.
“I can’t accept this,” Luke said.
“I insist.” Joseph pressed his hand until Luke took the money and slid it into his pocket without looking. “Well, I’ll be off. Thanks for your help,” Joseph said.
“I’ll be around tomorrow for you to return the spare, or whenever you’re free.”
“I may just leave it against your garage, if that’s all right.”
Luke nodded.
“It was nice to meet you, Luke.”
“Nice to meet you too, Joseph.”
The old man got into his car and started the engine. The car rattled back to life. Joseph waved goodbye from the window and took the car out of park. As he pulled away, snow began to whirl in the air. The flakes melted as they touched the ground. Joseph flashed his indicator and pulled out of the neighbourhood. Luke reached into his pocket and pulled out the money Joseph had given him. He counted four twenty-dollar bills.
He walked back into the house, out of the cold. On the wall in the foyer was a family portrait of him, his mother, his father, and his sister posing in their Sunday best. Luke thought they all looked like startled animals, especially his mother with her clear blue eyes. The week she died, they did not leave her side at the hospice facility. He’d been cruel to his mother since her diagnosis. As if the cancer was her fault, so he could locate his anger within her. Even in those final days, he couldn’t shake that anger. He couldn’t just be with her before she had to let go. His father tried to tell stories and bring up good memories, but he ran out of material too quickly. The last time he was alone with his mother, Luke held her hand and tried to find the words that would keep her alive. He never did. Maybe now he’d ask her to stay and protect him.
In the dark house, Luke went for the liquor cabinet and pulled out a bottle of bourbon. He said a brief prayer his father would stay at a friend’s place for the night and poured himself a small tumbler. As he climbed the stairs to his bedroom, he hoped to numb himself. The tumbler sat on his nightstand and the bourbon’s legs clung to the side of the glass, but he did not drink from it. He lay on his back, awake with thoughts of Joseph cowering before Wes in the cold night. He regretted not having the presence of mind to lower the windows and listen more closely to their altercation. What were they arguing about? He imagined a scenario where he would have jumped out of the car and intervened. In his vision, he stood taller than Wes and held Joseph around the shoulder like an old friend or a brother.
He yelled, “How dare you!”
He lurched up in his bed and hugged his knees. His eyes darted around the room and settled on the window. The wind had subsided and gave way to a steady snowfall that blanketed the noise outside. He threw the covers off, bounded out of bed, and fumbled in his desk drawer for his pocketknife. He opened the blade, tested its point and edge, closed it, and slid it into his pocket. He walked downstairs through the empty house and out through the garage. The snow had turned the driveway milky, and he walked toward his car. He was warmer and more comfortable than before with the same coat, but now he wore flannel pajamas and shearling slippers.

He started the car, steered onto the main road and found each turn until the final bend came into view. He shut off the lights and parked at the top of the smooth asphalt. He found himself at the head of the driveway and saw the looming silhouette of Wes’ mansion. He killed the engine and pocketed the keys.
He stepped out and looked for a guard dog or motion detector to undermine him. He waited to for any sign of life from the house, in the bedrooms, living room or kitchen. All the interior lights were out, and he figured Wes, his wife and children were all asleep. He imagined them in their beds, their eyelids flickering in deep sleep at dreams that would fade by morning.

The fallen snow lit the driveway, and he stepped toward Wes’ SUV. Its waxed finish collected a lattice of snowflakes on the hood. Above him, Luke saw immense floodlights ready to snap on and shine upon him. His right hand was buried in his coat pocket, holding the knife and keeping it from getting cold. A gust of wind blew into him, but he stood tall and let it flow around him. He drew the knife out from his pocket, opened its blade, and crouched down to puncture the first tyre. The steel tip entered the hard rubber easier than he anticipated. He moved on, punctured the next tyre and the next. The thin hiss from each combined in harmony and filled the hushed night air. He figured three was enough, stood up, and made his way back to his car.

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