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
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.
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.
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.
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?"
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
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.
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
that beer tonight," shouted Mr. Duncan, as Teddy popped
the clutch and shot out of the driveway.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
driver of the car pulled down his sunglasses and looked at Teddy.
"Damn thing's overheated. You know anything about engines?"
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
wanna have a look?" asked the driver. "I can't see
a fucken thing. And neither can 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.
the insulation," said Teddy at last.
what?" The driver spit on the road.
your car. It's burning."
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
are you talking about?"
you been? Don't read the papers, huh?"
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.
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.