Cloves and Home
The crater, which had begun as a series of the tiniest spiderwebs of cracks and fissures in the bridge, grew and exploded across the concrete with such speed and force that Albert had no option but to plummet through.
As the car dove 150 feet hood first into the river, Albert realized he was in a jam. He looked at the blue above and the blue below and began his goodbyes. Dahlia. He thought about the first time he saw Dahlia — her bright yellow sundress, strappy sandals, long dark hair, her absolutely perfect breasts and her slender finger tracing the ingredients on the back of a cereal box in the Green Grocer. He noticed the dress first, canary yellow with tiny green flowers that snuggled with her ample bottom, which he noticed second and longer. She’d looked up at him as he was staring unceremoniously at her behind, wondering how it moved when she walked and looking forward to finding out; when he got caught, he quickly turned his attention to oatmeal, throwing the Quaker man in his cart, face first, with enough hurried force to dent the top. She’d smiled, looking directly at him. Both of them held the same knowledge: she knew she had a solid 8.5 behind, 9 in jeans, and he knew that her behind would liberate a lot of men from their money. At that moment, he also knew he loved her.
They played pool on their first date. Albert had been very strategic in choosing the pool hall. First, he knew she would wear jeans, and he wanted the memory of her in jeans to take home with him when the date was over, later that night when he was alone in his small house, about to fall asleep in the bedroom with its sturdy wooden bed, single lamp, and his inheritance under the floorboards. Second, pool wasn’t hard, but it wasn’t easy either. He knew that he’d be able to learn more about her personality, problem solving, attention to detail, strategic thinking, and ability to deal with frustration from her pool game than he ever would from dinner and a movie. Third, he was very good at pool and wanted to impress her. Albert smiled, remembering how much fun he’d had, how he’d gone home and decided that he would marry her.
And marry her he did. They’d flashpan dated: Three months flew by as they asked all the questions (she was divorced, he’d never been married; she wanted children, so did he; she was an only child and close to her parents; he told her he was orphaned at 16 and had no siblings, and he didn’t have a good relationship with his foster family) and decided that being married would be more fun than not. Albert remembered making his decision based on the fact that he wanted to be the last man to ever make love to her again, own her ample ass, and fall asleep to back rubs more nights than not.
Sadness flashed across his mind as he realized he’d never buy Dahlia flowers again, and she had no idea that her husband was hurtling to his death while she was categorizing books in the store. That’s probably what she was doing, Albert thought, categorizing books.
He thought about buying the bookstore. Twenty-nine years ago he’d walked into The Little Engine, a struggling little bookstore right off Main Street owned by a retired teacher. She was ready to retire again, and Albert had $50K in cash. Two days later, he had a bookstore and she had a break. Albert was a good bookstore owner. He’d always like to read, he was quiet, he wore glasses, and now he could spend most of the day hidden among his books, in relative obscurity. Of course, when he’d first arrived in Vermont, the neighbors were friendly enough, with their pies and welcome bottles of smoky maple syrup, thin and rich, but they had questions. Where was he from? California. Why was he in Vermont? He’d read a book about it when he was a kid, and decided to find a quiet life after realizing medical school wasn’t for him. Where’d he get enough money to buy The Engine? His parents had died in a car accident when he was in high school, and as their only heir, he got their life insurance money at 18. Most of it went to a failed medical school career, and he thought it would be nice to live somewhere to get back to basics. Work hard. Marry a nice girl. Raise kids who understood the call to adventure and how to respect the outside. Albert was very clear, if not very expansive, in retelling his life story. He was scant on details, except the ones that mattered the most: he was an orphan; his money came from life insurance; he had left medical school. He and Dahlia had the best sex he’d ever had in that bookstore. It’d happened their second week of dating. He’d wanted to impress her, so he brought her to the Engine after Main Street had shuttered for the night, turned on the desk lamp and floor lamp and brought her to the scary books section. The scariest book in his collection was Bram Stoker’s Dracula. He’d picked it up while she sat in his chair at the desk where he rang up the mothers of pimply-faced, surly teenagers with battered copies of Great Expectations. She leaned back in his chair as he read her a passage, not really expecting to scare her, instead hoping to awe and arouse her, a proprietor at the ripe old age of 27. It worked. He’d barely gotten to the second page before she had gotten up, barefoot, and walked around the desk to where he was leaning against a bookshelf. She’d pressed her hand over his, lowering the book to his side as she pressed her body into his, beginning the second half of the night with a kiss. She’d smelled of vanilla and cloves. Warm. She smelled like home. He remembered he’d understood the word electric and at that moment he saw their entire life unfold in one flash: their fights over the temperature, his making coffee for her every morning and her serving pancakes the way he liked them, with blackberry jam instead of syrup. He saw her heartache when her parents died, and the puppy that would show up on their back porch a month later, shivering and hungry. He saw their shared life in that kiss and knew then that Dahlia was going to be his.
As his car continued downward toward the river, its cold, rushing water growing ever impatient to meet Albert, he remembered worrying the week before he proposed. He’d gotten a modest ring at a good price and was excited to give it to her, but he didn’t know how he was going to hide his inheritance. It was in the bedroom under a loose board beneath the bed, and anyone with a keen eye would eventually notice it. His spoils, his inheritance, was hidden in the bedroom, and Dahlia could never know. He thought about burying it in the backyard, but thought that if the animals didn’t get it the elements would. He’d walked the house, from front to back, looking for the next best place to hide his hard work, and decided to leave it where it was. The next day he went to the antique store, “Cheryl’s Treasures of Antiquity,” a few shops down from the Engine and purchased a solid mahogany chifferobe. It took two grown men and one teenager to move it to the bedroom, where it sat comfortably above Albert’s inheritance. Problem solved.
Over the years, it had gotten harder and harder to get the inheritance from under the chifferobe, but Albert had the heavy piece positioned so he only had to move it about 3 inches to the left to be able to move the board, reach in, and grab what he needed. When he was younger and his back was stronger, he’d been able to do it, sweating and grunting and cursing. Now, he would need to put the old girl on casters, but he’d never gotten around to it. Damnit. They only had $38,000 in the bank, and he’d never bought life insurance because it was under the chiffarobe, and he’d never found the right time to tell Dahlia that their future and their present was wrapped in bricks of aluminum foil. She didn’t know that for the past 15 years the Engine had been struggling more than he’d let on, and he’d bridged the gap between debt and income with his inheritance growing no interest under the chiffarobe. He grew sad at leaving his respectable, middle-class, very rich wife very poor. She would need the bank money to bury him, pay taxes on the Engine and house, and buy a new car.
Albert remembered he’d bought the house because of the loose floorboard. It had seemed like such a good idea at the time, a fail-safe plan to save the almost million dollars stacked neatly in three duffle bags that he had driven across the country in his Ford. Sturdy car, that Ford. He’d liked that car. Tan and nondescript, he’d kept up all the maintenance. He didn’t take chances with his car, who was as much of the plan as he was. The car had been his legs, fast legs, ferrying him away from each meticulously planned bank robbery. He’d never hit the same bank twice, and he always chose banks that were at least two highway hours away from the last bank. He’d been efficient at his trade: robbing banks had more to do with planning than luck and Christopher was nothing if not a planner, even if Albert was not. Even as a kid, he thought through what he was going to do and often decided two things: the potential punishment was worth the crime and he was not going to get caught. He’d started small, pilfering cookies from the batch his mother made and rearranging the ones he’d left behind on the plate so she’d be none the wiser, the occasional $20 from a neighbor’s purse, a small gold ring from his teacher’s desk. Sometimes people suspected Christopher, but he was so nondescript — quiet and polite, with large, earnest brown eyes no one ever confused with those of a Thief. Right before high school graduation, as his schoolmates beat the drum of excitement about local college, or the army, or cosmetology school or ranching, Christopher realized none of those things excited him. Not a single one. What excited Christopher was not getting caught.
So, he robbed a bank.
The first time he was amazed at how easy it was. He’d driven around for days, finally settling on a small savings and loan about five highway hours from his house. From a grocery store parking lot across the street where he ate bologna sandwiches on chewy white bread, he’d watched the comings and goings of patrons and the bank employees in blue and black suits. He learned their customs, who opened up and who locked up. He watched long enough to learn that the chubby manager with the ill-fitting suit always locked up late and the guard frequently got frustrated with his inefficiency and left about ten minutes before the manager. On the chosen evening, Christopher sat in his idling car and as soon as the guard left, he drove across the street, kept the key in the ignition, put on a hat and oversized jacket and knocked on the door. Chubby opened it and Christopher moved his body in, talking the whole time about having to make an emergency withdrawal. Confused, Chubby tried to explain to Christopher that the bank was closed and he would have to come back tomorrow. But, once Chris was in, he explained very clearly that the bank was being robbed and he would like the night deposit. Chubby, more confused than scared, stuttered and tried to remember the bank robbing procedures, but they were nowhere in his working memory. So Chris decided to be decisive, swift and sure for the both of them. He calmly requested the night deposit and the Chubby’s keys. Chubby, out of either fear or sorely needing some excitement in his own life, gave Chris the deposit. Chris explained that he was going to have to lock Chubby in the vault for the night, but the morning manager would let him out. For reasons still unknown to Christopher, Chubby went into the vault, Christopher shut the door, and walked out, $28K richer a cemented postsecondary plan. This was before security cameras were everywhere and the one camera that captured him was so grainy that he could have been, well, anybody. He drove the five hours home that evening, the cash hidden in the spare tire well in the center of the spare tire. He set the cruise control to one mile under the speed limit, ate his second bologna sandwich and peed on the side of the road.
He’d robbed 19 banks across Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and North Dakota between the ages of 18–27. Like all professions,he got better at it the more he did it, and by the time he’d retired he’d amassed close to a million dollars. $986,000 actually. He’d been strategic, waiting at least 3 months between jobs, never hitting the same chain of bank, two banks in the same state back to back, and always at least five highway hours from his parents’ house. Kind, but simple people, they believed him when he said he was working his way up to manager at the grocery store he took a job in right after graduation. Wanting to stop before he was caught and sent upstate to bust bricks or make license plates, Christopher decided early on that he would retire east where no one was looking for him once he’d earned a million. When he packed up for the last time and set his sights toward Vermont, he remembered kissing his mother on the cheek and telling her he was going to find his adventure in California, maybe own his own grocery store in the land of plenty. He never spoke to her again, after that goodbye which was more “bye” than “see you later.” He was sad that his mother had never met Dahlia. She would have liked Dahlia, both as herself and for him. As far as his mother knew, he may have already been dead.
The water drew closer, and the car fell faster. Albert smiled, remembering the easy jobs, the close calls, the long drives across deserted, dry highways, the great plains and the prairie. He recalled how awed he was by seeing the sun rise over the mountains, shades of orange and yellow wrapping around the darkness, hugging life into another day. He thought about the drive east, his inheritance secured in three duffel bags in the trunk. He didn’t stop in any cities where he’d done a job,choosing quiet, sleepy towns along the route to get a chicken fried steak dinner or burger and fries, black sludgy coffee that served only to keep him awake, not enliven his taste buds. The drive had taken six days, and he’d slept in America’s finest midwest motels.
Changing his name hadn’t been easy, but it hadn’t been impossible either. It’s a wonder what kind of guy $15,000 cash can find and buy in Montana. Besides a new identity, it can also buy better silence than a barber or lawyer. Once Albert existed, Christopher ceased. Not dead, but not quite alive either. Christopher was “in California.” Albert remembered the new ID guy had a long, curved scar on his hand and had enough sense not to ask about it.
Albert didn’t rob banks. Albert owned a respectable bookstore in Vermont and had a beautiful wife and one dog and no children. He remembered that they’d tried, but children were not in the stars for them. He remembered how that had almost broken them — he didn’t know how to love his darling Dahlia, after the third miscarriage, blood spotting in the second trimester. At this, what would be their last pregnancy, he’d stopped getting the nursery ready,scared to tempt fate to deliver grief once again. It hadn’t mattered. This one had ended like the previous two, in heartbreak that dulls but never heals. Dahlia had stopped smiling, her unrelenting optimism finally giving way to a heavy cloak of grief and fear. She didn’t cry either, which somehow made it worse. She just stopped…being. Stopped dancing in the kitchen. Stopped getting up early to weed the garden, saving the flowers from being choked by interlopers. Stopped stretching like a cat across the sofa in the afternoon sun while she read a pinched book from the Engine. She’d just stopped, instead moving through the perfunctory motions of wifeness. And he didn’t know how to start her again. He remembered trying to talk to her, but not knowing what to say. He’d felt like a failure, like his body was equally responsible and to blame. He grieved too, but his grief was different. He grieved a little for the babies they’d never had and a lot for the light which had dimmed behind Dahlia’s eyes. They’d grown cold that year and the year after, but he kept remembering his Dahlia and believed he could free her from her captor. He didn’t know how, but decided to keep trying until he wrestled her away from grief. He’s still not sure what did it (though he would like to think it was unsolicited backrubs he gave her in the middle of the night when he heard her muffled tears), but one day she seemed less away and more there. And they’d built a new marriage from that moment. She wasn’t the same old Dahlia, but the new Dahlia was a different kind of perfect. She was grounded and open and she settled deeply into their lives, determined to build a home that was full of love, even if it wasn’t full of children. She’d decided to turn the nursery into a creating room and when she wasn’t at the Engine, she was often there, painting or writing, sewing or crocheting, and for a brief period, pottery — spinning clay into misshapen vases and coffee cups, most of which looked like penises.
But he’d never told her about the money. To tell her about the money would be to tell her about Chistopher, and his might-be-alive parents, and his propensity for robbing banks. She loved Albert. He didn’t think she would love Christopher.
The car’s hood hit the water first, with so much force it knocked Albert back against the seat. Instinctively, he held his breath, closed his eyes, and gripped the steering wheel. The first force of the hit knocked his head back against the headrest; the second ricocheted his forehead into the steering wheel.The water’s roaring sounds were deafening and the cold temperature threw his body into shock. Dahl he thought, just as the blue turned black.
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