Red Sky Falling


ISBN 974-92385-7-5
Trade paperback 6" - 9 1/4"
2005, 261 pages
 

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Excerpt

Chapter 8

After Teddy had mustered out of the army in San Francisco, he had received an honorable discharge and had saved nearly six hundred dollars as a nest egg for civilian life. An army buddy found Teddy a cheap studio apartment in Chinatown. Two weeks later, Teddy was hired to work on a construction crew. His military background impressed Mr. Duncan, the construction company owner, and he made Teddy a foreman a month later. There was goodness in the world. A hard worker could get ahead In this life. The American dream Teddy had served to protect was roiling like the Bay fog right into his life. A soft, warm blanket of satisfaction settled over him. Not long after getting his promotion to foreman, he began dating Holly Wong. Holly, a Chinese girl, had Iong, flowing black hair which cascaded to her hips; a small delicate porcelain-doll face and tiny hands which worked chopsticks like surgical instruments. Although Holly spoke some Chinese, she was totally Americanized and sometimes he would forget she was Chinese. Teddy was liked and trusted by his boss, his landlord, his friends and his girlfriend.

Teddy might have gone on courting Holly. He had planned to ask her to move in and set up a real domestic household. His boss, Mr. Duncan, took him aside one day and told him that he had plans for Teddy in the business. That he wanted to pay for Teddy to go back to school at night and study business management and computer science. Unfortunately the cables that fastened people to the good life sometimes snapped and what they were holding fell into a vast, empty void.

The job had been an ordinary one; nothing in the job suggested that his life was about to change forever. The morning began pleasantly enough. Mr. Duncan was in a good mood since he had won a hundred dollars on the Giants' baseball game the night before. He slapped Teddy on the back, and offered to buy him a beer after work. But Teddy never got a chance to taste that free beer or to send in his application form to the local junior college. The trouble with Teddy was his Innocent belief in the value of work, his faith in the satisfaction and glory of doing a good job. He never anticipated that doing the right thing could throw him against a hard edge of fate.

Mr. Duncan had contracted to supply the insulation to a house up in the hills near Palo Alto. The job was at the Pink Horse Ranch. Teddy loved this part of the world which dung to the names of the old ranches, with the cattle and cowboys long displaced by lavish houses, circular driveways, and heart shaped swimming pools with diving boards. The air clean and crisp on the face. A sky so blue that the ocean looked inky black around the bay. And up in the hills were all those lean, tanned people with perfect teeth and easy smiles. No wonder Mr. Duncan liked doing business with the developers who worked in the hills putting up houses. There was a minor hitch. Teddy was to deliver the insulation materials to the Pink Horse Ranch and supervise the Installation. The open-bed Ford truck, no matter how much rearranging, wouldn't hold the entire load. About six or seven large sheets of insulation were left over. That meant, of course, making two trips, or adding another two hours to the job. Mr. Duncan in one of his jolly public displays of good humor just smiled at Teddy's dilemma and then called him into his office.

"Goddamn, Ted. I don't care how you do ft. You make it one load. I bid this job close. And you start farting around with another trip, and then where am I? You see my point?"

Teddy saw everyone's point, and that was part of his trouble, because by seeing everyone else's point he forgot about standing up for his own. Mr. Duncan was like a father to him. He admired him. But he knew that he was wrong to overload the truck. He should've had the courage to flat out tell Mr. Duncan, "Mr. Duncan, overloading that truck is dangerous. I don't think we oughtta be taking a chance. The cops patrol that freeway real good."

Here was the overly generous man who had promised to pay his way through business school. Teddy crumpled under the weight of Mr. Duncan's small request. "Sure thing, Mr. Duncan." That's all Teddy said, like some dumb ranch hand who'd been told to go out and brand the neighbor's cocker spaniel.

The last six or seven pieces of insulation were wedged in on the sides, and a couple of pieces laid over the top, with rope tying down the load. They were running late already. Teddy gave the load a quick glance as he ordered the two laborers into the truck. Those thick panels of insulation were the size of a man. Inside the truck, Teddy slammed the door and switched on the ignition.

"Remember that beer tonight," shouted Mr. Duncan, as Teddy popped the clutch and shot out of the driveway.

Teddy waved his arm out of the window. And as he looked in the rear-view mirror, he saw Mr. Duncan give him the thumbs-up sign. He switched on the radio and his two-man crew began tapping out time to the sound of The Charlie Danielís Band. Stomping their boots on the floor of the truck. Teddy started to relax and sing along with the men. Twenty minutes out of San Francisco, he'd forgotten he was behind the wheel of an overloaded truck. Not too far from the Joan Baez estate, and where Stephen Jobs lived in a mansion, Teddy was brought back to reality. The parched hills with their dandelions, thistles, and ragweed were the backdrop to Teddy's headlong collision into the world where things that aren't tied down tight shake loose and enter the lower cavity of the atmosphere as if propelled by their own free will. Though things by their very nature don't have free will, one insulation panel from Teddy's truck did Its very best to disprove this conventional wisdom.

He saw the random sheet of insulation in his side mirror. Hanging in the sky for a moment like a child's watercolor painting of rain clouds. A dull gray cloud with perfectly cut edges had flown off the truck. He watched the insulation bounce off the windshield of several cars behind him. It could have been a Hitchcock film, Attack of the Cloud. It smashed against the window of a new Porsche, lifted up like a tumbleweed into the air, rolled across the roof like a piece of loose fuzz, two cars back, struck the windshield of a Rolls Royce. The startled driver's law dropped down, hitting his cellular telephone. But the impacts left no mark. Pillow-fight blows. No damage of any value had been caused as the piece of insulation sailed downwind. Then the law of averages stepped in. Not every woman passes her Pap test. Not every loose piece of insulation Just harmlessly blows off the freeway and wedges in a fence. That would have been a second chance. The ancient strings playing that day dictated another use for that loose piece of insulation.

A two-year old Lincoln Continental with two couples inside drove over the slab of insulation. Two inches either side and the Lincoln would have run over it like a prairie dog. No such luck. Rather than the panel coming out the end, it stuck to the undercarriage of the car. This single mattress like piece of insulation bonded itself as if it were a factoryinstalled extra device. Teddy watched with horror out of his truck window, as the Lincoln shot past doing about eighty or so. The driver smiling, his head half turned, talking with the other couple in the back seat. One of the workmen commented on the large hood ornament on the front. A fierce, raging mustang horse, rearing back on its hindlegs, nostrils flared, kicked at the fast-moving sky with its front hooves. The driver failed to acknowledge Teddy or his laborers. His silver horse clawed the open spaces. And the owner, his hands grasping a pale green snakeskin-covered wheel, was lost in conversation with the other occupants.

The body contour of the Lincoln was such that Teddy couldn't see even a speck of light between the freeway surface and the underbelly of the car. The Lincoln, a car engineered to get drunk on gas, disappeared as a small dot on the horizon, dragging a chunk of disaster beneath. A second choice presented itself to Teddy. Just get off the freeway at the next exit and go back to the shop. Call it a day. At that moment it was reasonably clear to Teddy that the interconnected parts of that Lincoln's undercarriage had never tested to ride long distances over a large section of highway covered with insulation material. Silver mustang or no silver mustang, the heat and sparks flying left no doubt that black flames would appear.

Six miles up the road the Lincoln had puffed over onto the shoulder of the freeway. Teddy had passed an exit and just kept on driving until he saw the disabled Lincoln. He pulled over and stopped his truck twenty feet or so behind the Lincoln, and told his men to stay in the truck. He was the boss, wasn't he? He left the radio on, got out and slammed the door. The two men he'd seen a few minutes earlier inside the Lincoln were now standing outside the car, leaning over the engine. The hood was wide open, the mustang now reared upside down, and steam poured out of the car. At first blush it looked like the radiator hose had burst. Clouds of steam rolled out over the freeway. Cars slowed down for a gawk, their windshield wipers swishing clouds of fine white mist that rolled across the freeway. Teddy stood no more than a couple of feet away, his hands dug in his jeans pockets, shuffling his boots on the loose gravel. He saw the little orange color of fire starting under the Lincoln.

"Anything I can do to help?" Teddy asked. He tried not to look at it. He wanted to say, hey mister, your car's on fire. Get the women out of the car. But he couldn't find the words. If he ignored the fire it might just go out.

The driver of the car pulled down his sunglasses and looked at Teddy. "Damn thing's overheated. You know anything about engines?"

"A little," said Teddy, glancing at the woman in the front seat, twisted to one side, and talking to the woman in the back. Both wore lots of jewelry, and cotton sleeveless shirts and shorts. They looked to be in their early twenties, cute, and sexy. The guys were a good fifteen years or more older than the women.

"You wanna have a look?" asked the driver. "I can't see a fucken thing. And neither can Sam."

Sam used a finger to close one of his nostrils and shot a line of snot along the side of the freeway. "This shit doesn't smell right. Kicks up my allergies. It doesn't smell like anything I ever smelled coming from a car. Smell that shit. " Sam emptied his other nostril and stepped back from the car.

"It's the insulation," said Teddy at last.

"Say what?" The driver spit on the road.

"Under your car. It's burning."

They had just pulled the women out of the car when the gas tank on the Lincoln blew, lifting the rear end of the car into the air and sending debris and black smoke across the freeway. One of the young women suffered burns over twenty percent of her body, but none on her face. It was the other woman. The one who'd been in the back seat. The right side of her face had sloughed off from the intense heat. Teddy suffered bums on his face dragging her out. Later, in prison, he started the mustache to cover his upper lip; the lip that held smelled burning, his own flesh roasting under his own nose the day of the accident.

At Teddy's trial for reckless endangerment, the legal aid lawyer had Mr. Duncan testify about what a hard worker Teddy had been. All the jury and judge could see was the awful, evil-looking tattoo on Teddy's arm. The same tattoo he got in a seventy-two hour layover in Hong Kong. It's doubtful they ever heard a word of Mr. Duncan's character reference.

"The boy's of good character," Mr. Duncan testified. "His only flaw," Mr. Duncan paused and looked Teddy straight in the eye as he sat at the defense table, "Only one real flaw. He can be careless. Cut comers. Something I warned him about several times."

The injured girls filed large lawsuits against Mr. Duncan. This wasn't a case of fake whiplash. Serious personal injury had been done. Duncan and his insurance company were on the hook for enough potential damages to support a small country. Teddy suddenly had become an orphan. Someone from the lowest deck of the ship who had been volunteered by his commanding officer to walk the plank. It had been hard, though. Mr. Duncan had been like his father, and fathers don't answer questions in such a way as to guarantee that their son will be put away like a dangerous virus. But he had valid economic reasons. Mr. Duncan stood to lose his entire business. His insurance didn't cover the full liability. But his lawyer came up with an attractive theory: an employer isn't liable for the criminal acts of his employees. And Mr. Duncan decided he liked being an employer a whole lot more than being Teddy's father.

Teddy's progression from foreman to convict moved as smoothly as if he had been carried on an airfoil. Four years became two years actually *served with time off for good behavior. Teddy, of course, had been a model prisoner. Holly married midway through his second year in prison. Teddy sent a card and flowers to the place that the newspaper said Miss Holly Wong was to be married. But the flowers, all wilted, and the card, which had been folded, were returned to the state prison. He found out later that Holly had met her husband shopping at Safeway. He was an assistant manager at the Safeway out where the park joins the sea. They met on a singles night at the supermarket. Wednesday nights had been set up to bring in shoppers who scooted their carts down the aisle looking for more than food.

California hadn't been the answer for Teddy. After he had fought his way up the ladder, two steps from the top, he'd fallen and lost a life decorated with good credit, honor, and a lover who said she believed in him. After Teddy's parole came through, he went around to see Mr. Duncan. But a secretary stopped Teddy from going inside his office. He was in conference. But if Teddy would like to make an appointment sometime next week, then maybe.

Teddy Eliot went back to Howard Beach in Queens by Greyhound bus with one suitcase and one hundred and fifty five dollars, and a genuine desire to put California behind him and start afresh.

"Howard Beach? Man, that's where they have killer gangs," said the middle-aged man who sat next to him. The man had climbed into the seat next to Teddy somewhere in Missouri.

"What are you talking about?"

"Where you been? Don't read the papers, huh?"

"I've been in prison," said Teddy. A few minutes later, the stranger shifted out of his seat, eyeing Teddy closely, and walked back to another seat.

There was a pattern to Teddy's life. A kind of personal archaeology had begun to emerge for him: No matter where and when you asked him to dig down into his past for an explanation of the present he always brought up basically the same type of bones. At the bottom of each grave was the linger of some insurance executive pointing skyward like a broken shard of clay pottery. The only difference this time was that the finger had turned into a fist, and this time the freshly dug grave bore Teddy's name.

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