The baby’s sleeping now, lambed-in, her sheepskin beneath her. Inside the stroller is safe, a gray nimbus on wheels, puffed above the maple leaves layering deeper and slick. The earth is calling the leaves down, knitting together a cinnamon and orange blanket, readying itself against the frost and flakes that are currently somewhere in Canada, rehearsing.
“Dakota’s finally asleep, honey,” Caroline announces. In the chilled air the words break from her lips as small steam cartoon balloons that dissolve and disappear from sight.
She tries again. “Dakota’s asleep.” This time she says it louder, the steam bubbles last longer, and eventually dangle into Howard’s ears.
‘Under the rooftops of Chevrolet,’ he sings to himself.
Howard gets a variety of songs, old TV jingles, R ’n’ B classics, running through his head pretty often, and he can hear the whole arrangement, in the original instrumentation, solos and everything. When he was with the band, before the baby, before he had met Caroline, he had been the guy who figured out the arrangement of the fusion cover tunes they did. Some Tom Scott, Chick, Herbie, “Freedom Jazz Dance,” stuff like that, playing a song on his turntable sometimes twenty times before all the parts were charted. Now, after listening so intently to so much music for so long, his brain had a way of offering up appropriate soundtracks to his situations and thoughts. Sometimes it’s funny. Sometimes it annoys him completely.
Caroline makes her eyes narrow, and they grow lines at the outside corners. she pulls her legs up under her, snagging the plaid blanket with her boots, making a rippled wool wave that begins at her spine and radiates out to the corners of the blanket. “She’s going to need some extra blankets, you know, good warm ones, not made out of that loose weave. I want her to have wool.”
“Yeah, wool. It’s light but warm, and it repels moisture.”
“OK. We’ll get her a wool blanket. First thing after the next unemployment check.”
Howard is prone, his worried head at home on his palms. He looks across the patchwork brown and green floor of the park, past the small cluster of yellow-leafed aspens. He stares into the street, the traffic hissing by their one remaining meaningful possession, the ‘56 Lincoln Premier, impossibly black-and-chrome, too long for a ‘90s parking space.
They’re living out of the Lincoln, an occasional night in a shelter if they can get in, and a few selected green spaces, until they have enough money for gas, food, and tolls, and for the probable emergency of a Lincoln breakdown. They’ll drive the steel artifact down to Louisiana, where they’ll pull into the gravel driveway ruts of Caroline’s mother’s front yard. Howard and Caroline and Dakota will stay there, live with Caroline’s mother, while they invent what Caroline refers to as their ‘fresh start’.
“My mom sounded real sincere on the phone. I think she’ll like having the company for a while.” A straight-razor wind sneaks across their blanket, shaving the plaid ripples.
“You’ll see. We’ll be all right. Maybe we can even be happy again.”
“I’m not selling it. It’s all we have left. It’s our independence.”
“You think Dakota’s warm enough? Maybe we ought to go to the car.” She moves her head under the striped canopy of the stroller, pressing her nose against the baby’s cheeks, against the perfect lips, gauging the temperature of her skin and the quality of her tiny breaths.
“If we make it to your mom’s, and we don’t have the Lincoln, we’ll be stuck out there, at her mercy. Fine for you.” He pauses and shuts his eyes for a long time. “Not so fine for me.”
Caroline pulls her head out, checks the locks on the stroller wheels, though they’re not on a hill and they’re not going anywhere anyway. She looks at Howard, looks through him, the way she has always been able to do.
Howard puts his index finger into his ear, twists it a couple of times, and rests his chin on his hand again, his fingertip between his lips. His tongue rests on the bitter ear taste, and it reminds him of being a boy, of cowboy sheets, and Band-Aids, and baseball-carded spokes.
“I think we made the right decision, honey. We’ve had it with the Midwest. We’ve wrung it out. There’s nothing her for us, no work, no family. Just us three and that car and the parks and those awful shelters and now the goddamn cold.” she opens her bag, her fingers mining for the familiar feel of her leather cigarette case. She can’t find it, and asks, “You have my cigs?”
‘Does anybody really know what time it is? Does anybody really care, (about tiimmme), if so I can’t imagine why’. Howard concentrates, and the head music swells up and around the lyrics. ‘We’ve all got time enough to die’. He doesn’t want to hear about dying right now. Not with the Lincoln kerchunking when it downshifts. Not with that U-joint looking so gimpy.
“It’ll hold up,” he says. “It’s a Lincoln Premier, for Christ’s sake.”
“Howard, it’s decades old. You don’t think it’s going to last forever, do you? If we sold it, we’d have enough money to take the train down to Louisiana, with some left to tide us over until you find a job. This cold is coming on quick, and I’m really worried about Dakota.” Caroline buttons the top of her jacket and looks at her husband. “Did you take my cigs?”
“Yeah.” He finds them, covered in a fold of the blanket, and tosses the case onto Caroline’s lap.
“Besides,” she says, “we could always get another one after we get back on our feet.”
“Another what?” Howard says.
“Another car. Like that one.”
“Caroline, they only made twenty-two hundred of them, total. They’re probably only a hundred or so left in the whole world.” He starts to hear ‘My Little Deuce Coupe’, and pinches it off.
Caroline shivers and squints hard. The tears in her eyes are only partly from the cold wind that is beginning to increase.
Howard starts to feel the knot in his belly tighten up, the winding, finger-pointing accuser that hasn’t left him alone since things started going sour.
He tries to clown Caroline into another place, another frame of mind. “Speaking of Lincoln, did you know that Lincoln and Kennedy had a lot in common? It gets weird, the coincidences.”
“What are you talking about, Howard?”
“You mentioned the Lincoln. It reminded me about how much in common there was between Lincoln and Kennedy.” Howard rolls over onto his back and pushes his knee against Caroline’s thigh. Without hesitation, she hooks her hand around the inside of his knee and squeezes. Her hand stays there.
“Like what, for instance?” Caroline says.
“For instance,” Howard says, “Lincoln had a secretary named Kennedy, and Kennedy had a secretary named Lincoln.”
“I knew that. I mean, I think I heard somebody say that before.” Caroline leans over the baby again, adjusting the blue blanket. “What else?”
“Booth and Oswald both have the same number of letters in their full names.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“And here’s the weirdest–Lincoln was born in a log cabin, and Kennedy once spilled Log Cabin syrup in his father’s Lincoln.”
“No, not really. Jesus, Caroline, it’s a joke.”
Caroline drops her gaze to the tips of her brown boots. She picks off a little piece of leather, a boot hangnail, and tosses it onto the carpet of fallen leaves. “I know it was a joke, Howard. It’s always a joke.”
They’re quiet for a minute. Above them, in the dozing trees, skeletal branches rub together, trying to stay warm. Through the web of wood spins an orange frisbee, thrown wide and to the right by one of the few other people in the park this October afternoon. It swipes off a twig, changes direction, and lobs in a crazy decline onto the canopy of the stroller.
“If that wakes up the baby,” Caroline warns. It does. She pulls Dakota up by her armpits, up out of her little nest, and hugs her hard with both arms. The baby doesn’t cry, she smells her mother’s hair, her neck and her shoulder, and is happy to be there.
Caroline gets up from the blanket. “I’m going to the car to feed her. Where are the keys?”
Silence from Howard.
“Howard, where are the keys to the car? I have to feed her, and the car is locked.
Howard reaches into the back pocket of his jeans and hooks his finger around the familiar loop of his key ring. There are three keys on the ring now; the Lincoln ignition, the Lincoln trunk, and the key to a small cash box they’ve hidden in the trunk, wrapped in a towel, wedged under the flat spare tire.
Once there were more keys. Keys to their two-bedroom house when he was working at Chrysler, making eighteen dollars an hour installing windshields in New Yorkers. That job had felt as if it would last forever, and he and Caroline did their part in the American consumer economy.
They had consumed. They bought a house, in Garden City. They redid the basement, put up wood paneling and rust-colored sculpted shag carpet and a suspended ceiling and a bar with four matching stools covered in black vinyl.
Howard collected neon beer signs that hung on the walls and buzzed in the background when they entertained company. They bought a secondhand pool table and Howard enlisted six guys from work to help muscle it down the stairs. They bolted on the carved wooden legs and shimmed matchbooks under them until the table was almost level, then played eight-ball and drank two cases of Pabst Blue Ribbon and cooked some steaks on the Weber Kettle in the backyard.
Caroline washed their clothes in an avocado Lady Kenmore Five-Cycle washer, and dried them in a matching drier. During their first four years together, they bought a bedroom set and a dinette from Art Van Furniture, a Sears stereo for the living room, and a squad of three TVs: a nineteen-inch in the den, a seventeen-inch for the rec room in the basement, and a remote-controlled thirteen-inch that sat on a small cart at the foot of the bed.
But Howard’s proudest acquisition, his greatest connection to the exuberant and inviting twirl of the American ethos of possession, was the Lincoln.
He’d seen it first on the aggregate-paved used car lot of Mort Pedrowski, who had graduated high-school a year ahead of Howard. The car slumbered in the center of the lot, just outside the aluminum screen-door of the sales hut. It was a sedan, black and shiny as the surface of hot tar. Howard was tugged by a feeling about the car. There was a conjunction between him and this great machine; a conjunction that forced him to wheel around the corner and rocket back into the lot, as if the very mass of the Lincoln was a Howard-magnet.
It had a long, low, Lincoln footprint. an appearance reinforced by the deeply-skirted wheel-wells. It was a heavy car—when it had been built, the enormous Rouge steel plant was thundering out metal to the tune of tens of millions of tons annually—and Howard use the weight as a major benefit in his sales pitch to Caroline, pointed out the increased personal safety inherently found when motoring around in three tons of Detroit’s finest.
“The only thing that could drop a dent in this baby is a bus,” he said.
Mort Pedrowski had used this exact line on Howard. He had driven the car himself for six months, and was selling it with no little heartache. “Once you drive a 1956 Lincoln Premier,” he’d said, “you’re spoiled forever. Nothing else like it in the history of the automotive industry.
Mort said the word ‘automotive’ with four distinct syllables, as though it were written in fancy script. He’d even made Howard promise to give him first shot at buying it back if he ever decided to get rid of it.
Finally, after three trips to visit the car, and listening to Howard and Mort extol its virtues, Caroline agreed to the purchase. On their fourth trip Howard wrote out a check for five-hundred dollars as a down payment. A week later, their bank approved the loan for the balance, four-thousand five-hundred dollars, and they picked up the car. Caroline followed Howard home in the Dart.
Three months later, Howard was unemployed. the layoff was a shock, but all the guys on the line, and the union brass, and management, all of them, felt sure that it would be a short term deal as Chrysler retooled to meet the Japanese import threat. Just a temporary setback, they said. But when four months had slipped by, and Howard hadn’t been called back, they started to get a little nervous.
Howard and Caroline decided to start their own business. They emptied their savings account, bought a used 1977 Dodge Tradesman 200, a new vacuum, some mops and brooms and buckets, and launched a janitorial service. They stayed up late plotting out which businesses to approach, and how much to charge per hour, or whether to offer a flat rate. They tried to join their first names into something catchy to call the business, but adding ‘C’ for Caroline to ‘-oward’ made ‘Coward’, and putting an ‘H’ for Howard onto ‘-aroline’ sounded vaguely like ‘heroin’, so they settles on ‘C & H Cleaning Service’.
Within a year, C&H had fourteen accounts, and Howard had more keys than would fit on his old UAW key ring. He got one of those retracting chain key holders and clipped it onto his belt. He put little paper labels on the keys. The labels had the names of the businesses Howard cleaned, places like ToeTyme Shoes and the Hi-Spot Bar and Barb’s Beauty Bungalow.
Caroline did the books and the billing, keeping neat handwritten accounts on green ledger sheets. Howard did the cleaning, starting with the businesses that closed earliest, and ending up at the Hi-Spot after it closed at two a.m., mopping up the cigarette butts and amalgamated cocktail residue that coated the floor and made his shoes sticky.
Howard extends his arm, stiff from supporting his head, hands the ring with the three keys up to Caroline, and says, “The meter is almost expired, too. Got any quarters?”
“No. you handle the finances now, remember?”
“Right. I handle the finances now. Doing a hell of a job, too.” Howard hears the cash-register-and-coins intro to Pink Floyd’s “Money.” He digs into his front pocket, coming up with three quarters. “Here you go.”
Caroline puts Dakota into the stroller and carefully arranges the blue blanket around the baby’s body. The child’s cheeks are red, as are Caroline’s.
“I think maybe she’ll sleep. It’s warmer in the car. I didn’t sleep too well on that cot last night; those shelters fell like a camp out in hell.” Caroline smiles distantly.
Howard thinks about the distance between a new Art Van bedroom set and a cot in a county homeless shelter. It’s a very long distance, he thinks, but one that can be traveled in a very short time.
“Just lock the doors. I’m going to take a walk while you rest. If you’re not awake when I get back, I’ll knock on the window and wake you up. Maybe we can splurge for dinner tonight; go to Denny’s or something.”
“Oh, Howard. We’re supposed to be saving the money. I’d rather have PB and Js if it means we can start out for my mother’s sooner.”
“We need some hot food. Something like home. Chicken-fried steak, or pork chops.” Chicken-fried steak always sounded homey to Howard, although they never made it even when they had a home.
“We’ll talk about it when you’re back from your walk. I’ll take the blanket to the car.”
Howard doesn’t move.
“Well, get off it,” Caroline says.
He rolls off the blanket, onto the cold ground. His Tigers baseball cap slips off his head, and as it lies upturned for a moment, a maple leaf parachutes from a branch above and lands in the bowl of the hat. Howard pulls the cap back on his head without noticing the leaf.
Caroline bends down and rolls up the plaid blanket, picking off the ripped leaves clinging to the bottom. she grabs the frisbee and tosses it onto Howard’s stomach. “Maybe you can find the rightful owner of this while you’re walking,” she smiles. “And be sure to thank them for waking up your daughter.” She lays the blanket over the canopy of the stroller, lifts her bag, and rolls their daughter toward the car.
He watches as this woman, his woman, reaches the Lincoln. She pauses at the parking meter, inserts the coins, and twists the handle. Taking the keys from her bag, she unlocks the passenger door, and reaches back to pull up the lock stem of the rear door. After gently laying the baby on the rear seat, she quickly opens the trunk, folds the stroller, and puzzles it into the crowded compartment. Howard has always loved to watch her body move; graceful, flexible, with a strength so unlike that of a man. She closes the trunk lid and slips into the back seat, shuts the door, and disappears below the rear window. Howard sees her hand reach up and slap the lock down. From where he’s lying, it looks as if she’s waving goodbye. Then her hand disappears, too.
Near the center of the park is a fountain. There’s a city worker there, dressed in a soiled brown pair of coveralls and an orange hunting cap with the ear flaps pulled down low across his cheeks. Above his left breast pocket is an oval iron-on patch with ‘Calvin’ inscribed at the center.
Calvin has a large key ring attached to a loop on his outfit, and slung onto his right hip is a leather tool pouch. The sound of jingling keys carries easily through the October afternoon, and Howard walks to a wooden bench, sits, and closes his eyes to listen.
‘All the leaves are brown, and the sky is gray’. The Mamas and The Papas wail their first hit. Howard lets it play. He opens his eyes, twists the cap from his head, and puts it, upturned, on the frisbee. Puzzled, he sees the Maple leaf.
From the other side of the fountain, two boys in multicolored designer sweatsuits jog toward him. As they cross the cement circle surrounding the fountain, one of them notices the frisbee. He grabs the other’s arm, and they both stop running.
“That your frisbee?” the boy asks.
“Nope,” says Howard. “Fell from the sky.”
“Were you over there?” The boy points to the general area where Howard and Caroline had been lying,
“Yeah. And you woke up my daughter with this thing. Thanks a lot.”
The boy walks to the bench and jerks the frisbee from under Howard’s hat.
“Don’t mention it,” he says. The boys laugh, and jog back into the trees.
Calvin watches their retreat, and says, “Little shits. Don’t respect nothing anymore.” Resting his right hand on the top of his tool pouch, he stops his work and takes a long look at Howard.
“You all right?’ he says. “I mean, I seen you and your old lady over there on the blanket. Seems kind of cold for a picnic.”
Howard says, “It’s no picnic. He scratches his shins and says, “We’re between abodes, you could say.”
“That’s tough. Got enough to eat?” Calvin walks to the bench and sits next to Howard.
“We’re not starving. We’re saving some money, from the unemployment checks, enough to make a move down south. To stay with Caroline’s–my wife’s–mother.” Howard feels as if he needs to excuse his situation, to drop some of the blame onto the shoulders ofthe fates. “I had some bad luck, a few bad breaks. Used to provide, I used to be a provider.”
Leaning his elbows on his knees, Calvin says, “Not so easy as it used to be. Survival is more the way it is now. Forget the luxuries. Just surviving is a noble art.” He looks into the palms of his hands, as if he’s looking for what to say next.
Howard peers down at the tops of Calvin’s rubber boots. They’re black, and reflected in them he can make out the monstrous convexity of his own face, and behind, the spidery canopy of Maples and Oaks. The reflections of the branches surround his face, the trees cradling his feature in a oddly tender gesture.
The Hi-Spot Bar, at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Inkster Road, was the last stop for Howard each night. He usually got there about three o’clock, and the whole cleaning job took an hour and a half. One Tuesday night, or early Wednesday morning, he noticed a burned-out bulb in one of the fixtures perforating the dirty gold-flecked blown-on ceiling.
Instead of going out to the van for his stepladder, he climbed onto a small wooden table, stepped too close to the edge, and flipped the thing over, Coming down, his head smacked against the corner of the bar, hard, knocking him out. If he hadn’t hit his head, he could have managed the fall without too much damage. As it was, he landed with his right arm extended, and, if he had been conscious, he would have heard the gristly snap of bone as his forearm shattered.
He lay unconscious for about two hours.
During that time, Caroline, six months pregnant with Dakota, was sleeping at home. When she awakened at six a.m., and her leg slid across the expanse of cold sheets instead of Howard’s warm back, she phoned the Inkster police, who found his van at the rear door of the bar. They called Caroline back, asked her for the name of the owner, and called him, waiting for him to drive the ten miles from his home.
When they found Howard, he was lying where he had fallen, inching his way in and out of consciousness. One look at his arm, at the grotesque angle of it, was enough for them to surmise what had happened. The new light bulb lay powdered near his head.
After the accident, Caroline was too pregnant to work, and Howard was too banged up. They tried hiring someone to handle C&H until Howard mended, but their profit margin was slim and they never really cleared their overhead. They sold the van, and the tools. They sold the Dart. They sold the pool table, which didn’t fetch much, and they sold the stereo from the living room. Before they had completely sold off their lives piece by piece Dakota was born. They found a buyer for the house, and came out of the deal with about six-thousand dollars, which paid for Howard’s medical bills and the move into an apartment. That was early spring, and he hadn’t been able to find any work that paid enough to support his family.
He tried. He did some carpentry work, but the housing starts were bad, and he was laid off from that job, too. He sold appliances at a big discount chain, Little Jerry’s, but the pay was all in commission, and the recession had most everyone scared off from the major purchases. Finally, he accepted a job at the Garden City Burger King, working next to high school kids, taking lunch orders from men in suits, from men in men’s uniforms, while he wore a maroon polyester zip-up leisure suit and matching hat. He also had to wear a button that said, ‘Ask me about onion rings’.
Sitting in the parking lot, in the Lincoln, after his very first shift, he had opened his wallet and looked at the pictures of Caroline and Dakota for a long, long time.
Howard gets up from the bench. He hadn’t noticed how cold it was when he had sat down; he hadn’t really felt it. Now, standing, he feels the chilled material of his pants against the backs of his thighs. He walks, quickly, across the small park, past the flattened leaves where their blanket had been, up to the car where his wife and child lay huddled together in the back seat.
He turns the wheel from side to side, his eyes focused on the reflections of the clouds coating the buffed blackness of the hood.
Their warmth had fogged the windows; he could barely see inside. He says, “Caroline. Honey, it’s me.” He waits for some motion on the car. “I’m back.”
Through the fog, Caroline’s face appears, and she smiles and unlocks the front door.
“Did you have a nice walk?”
Howard slide into the seat. “I don’t know. I guess so. Yeah, come to think of it, I did.” He rubs his hands together to warm them. “Let me have the keys, OK?”
Caroline sits up, holding Dakota, and picks up the keys from the floor. “Here,” she says, and lies back down. She opens her blouse and Dakota finds her breast. “Are you all right?”
Howard sits behind the wheel of the Lincoln, his hands in the ten-and-four position. He turns the wheel from side to side, his eyes focused on the reflections of the clouds coating the buffed blackness of the hood. The sun appears, just for a moment, then is muffled again by a streak of gray. ‘Little darlin’, it’s been a long, cold lonely winter’, he hears.
“Any regrets? About you and me, I mean. Do you have any regrets?” He’s not sure he wants to hear the answer to the question. His gaze remains on the hood of the car.
“Yeah.” She turns onto her back and balances the heels of her boots on the top edge of the back door. “I wish I had known you in high school. We could’ve had a blast together, don’t you think?
“I think you’re right.” He starts the Lincoln, wipes the inside of the windshield with the cuff of his jacket, and clicks the defroster on high. They pull away from the curb.
The Lincoln rides smoothly over the potholes cratering Michigan Avenue. Driving in the right lane, Howard lets the Toyotas and the Mazdas and the mini-vans sizzle past. Most of the drivers slow their cars as the pass, appreciating the long black piece of Detroit moving Howard and his family along.
After a few moments, Caroline pulls Dakota from her breast, buttons her blouse, and sits up with the baby on her lap.
Howard doesn’t answer. Instead, he makes a wide right turn underneath the thousand multicolored pennants waving and beckoning in the frosty October wind. In the middle of the lot, standing in a small sea of cars, is a two-room hut, dwarfed by the billboard rising behind it. ‘Cash and Carry’, the orange letters spell. ‘We Finance’. Howard taps the chrome horn-ring twice, and a red-faced man in a brown suit steps out of the hut. He walks to the Lincoln, a smile forming on the left side of his mouth, enlarging toe a grin as he recognizes the Lincoln.
Howard rolls down the window, and says, “Hi, Mort. Feel like spending some money today?”
Mort’s eyes sparkle. “You mean—oh yeah.” He does a little dance in the gravel, remembers himself, and pulls into his version of a dignified demeanor. “Most definitely.”