by Joe Giordano
I bartended at a joint that featured live music. I accumulated a few bucks and bought a small, three-bedroom house on a busy street in East Austin that I rented to musicians who played at the bar. The legalities on rental property were onerous, so I stayed under the radar with word-of-mouth as the source for new tenants.
The last act in the evening, three guys with long black hair and beards that made them look like Sikhs without the turbans, were renting my house. They were tuning their instruments on stage, starting their set, when a police call came for me. Some poor bastard had lost control and drove his beater, pea-green Chevy into my house doing eighty. You can still see the skid marks on the asphalt. The driver was impaled by a two-by-four and died instantly. The house was thrown off its foundation severing every utility connection. The firemen turned off the water and gas, but the EMTs wouldn’t enter the house to remove the body until contractors installed braces to stabilize the roof. When I told the Sikhs, they wanted me to put them up at a hotel. I refused. One of them said that they’d turn me in for renting illegally. I walked away. Even musicians can be assholes.
The driver of the car was Farley Matheson, twenty-three, unemployed, living with his mother about ten blocks away. It seemed right that I see her. I arrived late morning. Before I rang I saw that the door was ajar. I called out, but there was no answer. I stepped inside. A woman with blue eyes, and pulled back gray hair sat scrunched into a corner of a thread-bare couch. She stared out a side window.
No answer. I took a few steps forward. “Mrs. Matheson, I’m Paul Nardelli. I own the house where your son’s accident occurred.
She didn’t stir.
I didn’t want to stand over her, and I didn’t want to sit. “I came to express my sympathies for your loss.”
She let out a deep sigh. “It’s not your fault.” Her eyes were red-rimmed. “Farley was a good boy. He made me warm milk to help me sleep.”
I glanced around the living room. There were three framed pictures. A man in his thirties, a younger man I guessed was Farley, and a rather old photo of a little girl with blonde pig-tails and a tender smile. “Mrs. Matheson, do you have someone to help you?”
She pointed at the pictures with a hand veined like a tobacco leaf. “Bobby was killed on the BP oil rig. Little Mazie was lost to me many years ago.” She sighed. “Strange, don’t you think? If you hit a little girl with your car, you’d stop to see if she could be saved?”
I gulped. The thought of grieving for three dead children hit me like a tsunami. My eyes moistened. I cleared my throat. “Your husband?”
“He left soon after Mazie died. We couldn’t stand the blame or the guilt.”
Mrs. Matheson’s blue eyes were in turmoil. “I try to understand. What sin did I commit that so offended God?”
My mouth opened and closed. She turned her head toward the window. Above the pictures I noticed a mark on the wall where a crucifix once hung, now just a white shadow. After a few moments, I slipped out of her home.
The insurance company sent Mr. Charles Smallman, from Kansas City, as claims adjuster. He was bald, and the sweat on his pate threw a glare that could’ve lit Sixth Street. He wore a brown-suit, yellow tie, and complained about Austin heat.
Farley’s Chevy had torn a hole through the living room as wide as the Congress Avenue Bridge, and the house was half on the grass. Smallman rooted around the debris with his tape measure for an hour.
Finally, I called out, “What are you calculating? The house is a total wreck.”
Smallman hadn’t unbuttoned his jacket. He produced a massive handkerchief and wiped his considerable forehead. “There’s a lot that can be salvaged.” He left in a rental car, and I stood, hands on hips.
Within a few days, I received a settlement offer for a fraction of what was required to restore the building. My face got hot.
One of my friends from school, we called him Outlaw Dan, rang me. Dan had been three-hundred pounds before his stomach was banded. He was down to two-twenty but still binged on Nacho Cheese Doritos. The year before, Dan hacked into Wells Fargo and changed account names to silliness like “Joaquin Barfly.” No money was taken, but Wells Fargo couldn’t calm customers for months. The FBI wanted Dan’s ass. He lived in a caravan and moved every night. He said, “Did you see the blog about your house crash?”
I couldn’t give a Longhorn’s turd for politics, but a well-known political tweeter had written about Farley Matheson’s death: “Another East Austin slacker bites the dust. Good riddance!”
My first thought went to Mrs. Matheson. She’d never read such trash, but a neighbor could call attention to this calumny against her dead son. My ears reddened like chili peppers.
I said, “Dan, we need to fix this prick. Will you help?”
Dan had an evil sort of laugh.
The blogger’s name was Reginald Crawley, and I hoped we’d find kiddie-porn on his hard drive. Crawley was surreptitiously an on-line hit-man for a nationally-known Texas politician. The politico paid Crawley to attack enemies while he disclaimed responsibility. Dan found copies of correspondence and proof of payment to Crawley, which we leaked to the Austin American-Statesman. You heard about it because the national networks picked up the story, and the politico’s Presidential hopes evaporated like Lake Travis in a drought. He didn’t resign. Narcissists like him are like clown punching toys that keep popping up with the same molasses grin. Embarrassment isn’t in their lexicon. Crawley, on the other hand, left town. He set up shop in California. I worry that he’s thriving.
Meanwhile, I had a long think about the paltry insurance settlement offer. By some amazing coincidence, the house must’ve been struck by lightning and burned. Anyway, that was my story. The insurance company had a different take, because I received a knock on my door late one evening from Sheriff Rufus Tyler. Ole Rufus brushed past me without a word and ensconced himself into my favorite chair. Tyler had a gunmetal crew-cut and a girth like he’d swallowed a dinosaur egg. He folded his hands over his belly. “You set fire to your house.”
It wasn’t a question. My eyebrows rose. “I don’t know what you mean.”
Tyler looked at his fingernails. “I knew you’d deny it.”
I leaned a shoulder against a wall.
Tyler said, “Trouble is that an orca-fat dude was seen leaving the scene, and he doesn’t fit your description.”
Instinctively, I pulled in my stomach.
He continued. “I know you had it done.”
“It was lightning.”
Tyler laughed so hard that he went into a coughing fit. He said, “You rented the house without the proper permits.” He smiled. “If I tell the insurance company, they’ll void your coverage.”
He really had my attention.
He said, “There’s a rumor that you’re responsible for harpooning –.” He mentioned the Texas politico by name. “I hate that son-of-a-bitch.”
Breath returned to my lungs.
Tyler stood. “You won’t like me so much the next time we cross paths.” He passed out the door like a cold front.
A week later the full insurance check arrived. I went to see Mrs. Matheson. “Farley’s life insurance came through.”
She was surprised that Farley had any insurance, but allowed that the money would come in handy. She agreed, and I went through her finances. We paid off her mortgage. She didn’t have much credit card debt, but we wiped that away. She picked a nice marble headstone for Farley, and we settled accounts at the funeral home.
I dropped by Mrs. Matheson’s every couple of days to buy her groceries, take her to the doctor, or to the senior center. One evening I made her some warm milk. She said, “Thanks, Farley.” I didn’t correct her.
One day we were sitting in her living room. She said, “It wasn’t God.”
“The death of my children. It wasn’t God, it was the devil.”
That’s when I noticed that the crucifix was back on the wall.
Joe Giordano’s stories have appeared in more than ninety magazines including Bartleby Snopes, The Saturday Evening Post, decomP, The Summerset Review, and Shenandoah. His novel, Birds of Passage, An Italian Immigrant Coming of Age Story, was published by Harvard Square Editions October 2015. His second novel, Appointment with ISIL, an Anthony Provati Thriller will be published by HSE in May 2017. Read the first chapters and sign up for his blog at http://joe-giordano.com/