Around the time
Wylie’s daughter was born, he had the bad luck to get mixed up with a man he
knew—a brand-new father like himself—who got drunk one
night and accidentally killed his infant son. The man’s name was Lester Hardin,
and on Thursday nights he raced his old Ford in the Hobby division out at
Columbia Speedway, same as Wylie’s wife, Maddy, used to. Lester kept to himself
in the pit area and never had two words for Maddy and Wylie, but there was
nothing in particular about him to make you think he’d hurt his own son. He was
just another gearhead who hated racing against a woman and no doubt wished Maddy
good riddance when she got pregnant and quit.
It wasn’t until
Lester heard Maddy was selling the Fairlane that he tried getting friendly with
them. One night in the summer of 1971, he buddied up to Wylie in the infield to
inquire about the car. This was a few months after Wylie and Maddy had moved
into a clapboard cottage on her father’s dairy farm, trying to save for the
baby. Wylie was working as a mechanic at the Ford dealership, but on Thursday
nights he’d been moonlighting at the track, picking up a few extra bucks
clearing wrecks for an outfit called Atlas Towing. Mostly the job was an excuse
to watch the races now that Maddy wasn’t driving anymore—that and a
chance to talk up the Fairlane to the other drivers. After all the blood and
sweat he’d poured into that car, after all the races he and Maddy had won, he
hated the thought of selling it, but they needed the cash.
begrudge Maddy or the baby or even the prospect of fatherhood in general,
though it was true, here in the homestretch, that he’d started second-guessing
himself. Every time Maddy grabbed his hand and held it to her stomach (and she
did this constantly) he was more convinced that he didn’t have what it took,
that he lacked the enthusiasm or patience for kids—in short, that
he’d make a half-assed father, no better than his own, the kind of man who ends
up ruining his family or leaving it.
sauntered over, Maddy was holed up inside the wrecker reading Dr. Spock while
Wylie watched the Late Models take practice laps. Lester offered him a beer
from the six-pack dangling on his finger, then tapped his can against Wylie’s.
“To fatherhood,” he
said. “To babies that sleep all night and look like their daddies.”
Gladys, was pregnant too, eight months to Maddy’s six, but Wylie didn’t feel
like talking babies with a guy who acted as though they were just another notch
on his belt. In fact, he didn’t much feel like talking babies at all. When
Lester started telling him about the fancy cigars he’d bought for the big day,
Wylie tuned him out and found himself staring once again at the wrecker’s door,
the hand-painted silhouette of Atlas straining under the weight of the globe.
By the time Lester
finally got around to asking about the car, Gladys had started back from the
concession stand with a milkshake, picking her way through the muddy infield.
She had the glazed-over look in her eyes that Maddy was starting to get—like
she was so busy in her own private babyland that any minute she might wander
off or float away—but the second the mothers-to-be recognized each
other, they both clicked into focus. Maddy hauled herself out of the truck, the
two of them suddenly carrying on like long-lost sisters, though before that
night they’d been nothing more than casual friends. After a minute or so,
Lester horned in, trying to make nice with Maddy. He pointed at her stomach and
asked her did she have a little Richard Petty in there.
“It’s a girl,” Maddy
crushed his beer can and tossed it in the grass. “Future race queen.”
Maddy stood there
with her arms crossed, staring Lester down until he understood he’d put his
foot in his mouth.
then!” he said. “Ethel Flock!” These were old-time lady drivers, a couple of Maddy’s
heroes. She let him off the hook with a thin smile and turned back to Gladys,
leaving Wylie and Lester to talk money.
Lester wanted the Fairlane
at half the asking price. Wylie almost told him where to stick it, but no one
else was interested and Maddy’s due date was coming up fast; half was better
than nothing at all. At the end of the night, worn down by Lester’s haggling,
Wylie finally caved. They shook on it, Lester said he’d call as soon as he got
the cash together, and that was the last Wylie heard from him.
Over the next few weeks, though, their
wives were on the phone almost every day, and before long it wasn’t just the
details of Maddy’s pregnancy that crowded out all other topics of conversation
between her and Wylie—now he had to make room in his head for
Gladys’s pregnancy, too. Maddy had gained x pounds so far; Gladys was up
to y. Maddy had terrible leg cramps. Gladys had terrible gas. Neither of
them believed in pacifiers. Both of them were going to breastfeed. Early on,
Wylie had been willing—even eager—to listen, but the more
he’d learned about babies, the more he realized he’d never know all that was
required, and after a while, he’d simply given up.
When Nat was born, Maddy
visited Gladys in the hospital, and afterward she kept Gladys company and
helped out with the baby over at the Hardins’ place. Wylie got regular reports
on Nat—what thick brown hair he had, what a bruiser he was, what a drooler.
Occasionally Wylie also got word through his wife that Lester was having
trouble coming up with the money for the Fairlane, that Gladys was on his case
for even thinking about buying it, but now that she and Gladys were so close, Maddy
didn’t want to get involved.
Then one night,
when Nat was about two months old, Gladys came home from work to discover him
facedown in his crib. The deputy coroner ruled it an accidental suffocation.
Wylie heard about Nat before Maddy did, from a guy in parts who’d stopped by
the car wash that Lester managed over on Rosewood Drive . Wylie left the
dealership early, drove straight home in a steady rain. Maddy was already two
days overdue, gingerly pacing the house, and he wanted to give her the news
himself, rather than have her hear it from a hysterical Gladys. When he told
her, during dinner, she set down her fork and got up from the table. He found
her in the bathroom on the edge of the tub, poking at her stomach, and when she
looked up at him, her look said Promise it’ll be okay but also You
can’t make it okay, and if it’s not, I’ll always blame you.
“She’s been kicking
all day,” she said. “Now she won’t move.”
put his arm around his wife and told her that what had happened to Lester and
Gladys wasn’t going to happen to them. He told her, as they sat there listening
to the rain and waiting for the baby to kick, that Lester and Gladys’s loss
tilted the odds in their favor.
Five days later, Wylie was standing in a
recovery room at Richland Memorial, holding his daughter for the first time.
“We are so lucky,” Maddy said. “Do you have any idea how lucky we are?” She was
propped up in bed, bleary-eyed and red-faced from thirteen hours of labor, but
happy—crying with happiness and relief, and gazing at her husband and
daughter as if the world started and ended right there. She’d never seemed to
doubt that Wylie was cut out for kids, and so for these last couple months,
he’d been living off her faith in him as if it were his own, although he was
sure it had less to do with him than with how badly she wanted a baby. Now, as
she sat there beaming, he clucked his tongue at Holly and waited to feel
something besides scared. He had hoped for what Maddy was feeling—love
at first sight, love washing over him like a wave. But here he was, just
holding a baby. It could have been anybody’s baby. The nurses kept saying she
was the prettiest little thing, and she did have pretty lips, but her hands
looked too big for her body, and she seemed so feeble, so raw. He took a seat
on the bed and played This Little Piggy with her toes, telling himself to give
it some time.
Later, after the
nurse had taken Holly away, Wylie went down to the cafeteria. On his way back,
he stopped at the nursery. Looking through the window at the row of babies, he
doubted he’d be able to tell which one was Holly, but there she was, staring
off into space like a little insomniac, as if she already had a head full of
worries. He tapped on the glass and waved, feeling helpless.
Maddy was still
awake when he got back to the room. She was sitting up in bed, looking out the
door. “I think that’s the room Gladys had,” she said. “Right across the hall.”
She leaned back, moved her dinner tray so Wylie would have a place to sit. “Do
you think I’m a terrible friend?” she said.
It had been five
days since Nat died, and Maddy still hadn’t spoken to Gladys. This was during
the time when everyone still believed that Nat’s death had been an accident,
before Lester confessed. Out at the track, the Hobby drivers had held a charity
race to help pay for the funeral, but Maddy had stayed home. She’d skipped the
funeral, too. She’d even stopped answering the phone, afraid it might be
Wylie kissed Maddy’s
neck. She tasted salty, like she used to after a race. “You haven’t heard from
I should have been at the funeral. I didn’t even send flowers.”
“Then call her,” he
said. “She’ll understand.”
Maddy sighed. “The
thing is, I don’t want to.”
Maddy had wanted Wylie to take a month off
work when the baby was born, but without the money from the Fairlane, all he
could manage was a week. That meant they’d have to rely on his mother and Maddy’s
father, Cal, to help out with Holly, but Maddy wanted to feel like she was in
control before she let the grandparents swoop in, and from the looks of it,
that wasn’t about to happen anytime soon. It was amazing, really, how quickly
things went to hell. Holly cried and cried and wouldn’t stop. Crying wasn’t
even the word for it. Screaming, shrieking, wailing, she worked herself into a
frenzy. The only thing that shut her up was Maddy’s breast, and she wanted it
constantly—every two hours, every hour. Wylie and Maddy never slept.
She accused him of sulking; he accused her of spoiling the baby. In no time,
they were on the brink of hating each other, and Wylie felt a tremendous weight
bearing down on him, despair like nothing he’d ever known.
On the third
morning, crack of dawn, Wylie slipped out of the house during one of Holly’s
meltdowns, telling Maddy he needed to give the Fairlane a tune-up. She followed
him to the door with the crying baby.
it,” she said. “Just run off and hide. Like father, like son.”
halfway across the yard, made himself take a deep breath. “Fine, honey. You do
the car, I’ll watch the baby.”
“You wouldn’t know
where to start,” Maddy said, letting the screen door slam shut.
gotten around to running an ad in the paper once he realized Lester couldn’t
afford the car, but in the whirlwind leading up to Holly’s arrival, he’d let
the ad lapse, and the car had been parked at the end of the lane ever since,
a for sale sign fading in the windshield.
He swapped out the spark plugs and was almost done changing the oil when he
looked up to see Maddy coming down the lane, stone faced and barefoot in the
gravel, Holly asleep in her arms. She patted the car’s fender. “I’ve come to
say my good-byes,” she said.
For three years,
that car had been their life, and during the early months of Maddy’s pregnancy,
it stung Wylie to think of the summers they’d spent in the Hobby division, how
their climb up the NASCAR ladder was finished before they’d reached the second
rung. But eventually he bought into the idea that a baby could be better than
racing, that a baby could bring him and Maddy closer together.
He asked Maddy if she wanted to take the car for a spin, and she said no, she just
wanted to sit in it for a while. As soon as she settled in behind the wheel,
Holly woke, hungry again. The baby was so frantic she had trouble latching onto
Maddy’s nipple. Normally Wylie would have helped, parting Holly’s lips the way
the nurse had taught him, but his hands were slick with motor oil, so he waited
until Maddy had things under control, then lowered the hood and gave her a
thumbs up, just like he used to do before each race. Maddy was focused on the
baby, though, and with the morning dew still streaking the windshield, she
didn’t even seem to see him.
In between fitful meals, Holly continued to
wail, so that afternoon they took her to the doctor. He told them she was fine.
Maddy despised him for saying so—“Nat’s doctor said he was fine, too”—and
Wylie despised her for despising him. The night before, she’d ventured that
maybe Holly’s crying was God’s way of punishing her for abandoning Gladys. This
from a woman who hadn’t set foot in a church since she was baptized. Wylie
didn’t think God had anything to do with it; the problem had to be that Holly
wasn’t getting enough to eat. Something was wrong with Maddy’s milk, or there
just wasn’t enough of it. Otherwise, why was Holly always hungry? But the
doctor told them her weight was right on target. “If you’re still worried,” he
said, “you can always try formula.” Maddy sneered at this, too. If God wanted
babies to drink formula, she told Wylie, she’d have tin cans for tits.
That night, after
Holly’s midnight meal, Wylie
drifted off into a hazy twilight between waking and sleeping and then rolled
over to find himself alone in bed. A light was on in the kitchen. Maddy stood
at the counter in her nightshirt and flip-flops, paging through a cookbook and
marshaling ingredients: eggs, flour, a bottle of vanilla extract.
“What are you
“Making Gladys a
pound cake,” she said.
“It’s one in the
She cracked an egg
and dropped the shell into the garbage. “Then go back to bed.” She wouldn’t even
look at him.
later, Holly started crying. He got up and changed her diaper—the
only one of her problems he knew how to fix. When he was done, he brought her
“I think she’s
“The kitchen is
closed,” Maddy said. “I just fed her an hour ago.” She was sitting at the
table, looking like she’d had about all she could take. There was flour
“If we got some
formula,” Wylie said, rocking Holly against his shoulder, “I could give her a
bottle while you slept.”
Maddy sighed as if
the very sight of him wore her out. “How many times do I have to tell you?
There’s a reason milk is coming out of me.” She got up from the table
and took a few bills from the coffee can on top of the refrigerator. She told
Wylie to go to the bakery in the morning, buy a pound cake, and deliver it to
Gladys. “Try to get one that looks homemade.” She rummaged under the counter.
“Put it in this.”
Wylie stared at the
Tupperware container she was holding. “You’re kidding, right?” Going to see Lester
and Gladys was the last thing he wanted to do. He was sorry Maddy felt bad, but
he was tired, and they weren’t his friends, and frankly he didn’t want to face
them any more than she did. The whole business with the Fairlane just made
things that much worse. Though he didn’t appreciate Lester stringing him along,
wasting his time, he didn’t want to show up on the guy’s doorstep and make him
feel like he had to apologize—not at a time like this.
“Go ahead and get a
card, too,” Maddy said. “Sign my name. But don’t be gone long. I can’t do
everything here by myself.”
Wylie took the
container and held it up for Holly to touch. He was determined not to raise his
voice. “Honey,” he said, “if you want to give Gladys a cake, take it over there
Lester and Gladys lived in a neighborhood
of small brick duplexes in West Columbia, about a mile from the track. By the time
Wylie found their place, he still didn’t know what he was going to say to them,
so he kept driving, aimless, hoping their rusty Dart would be gone by the time
he came back. He ended up out by the track and turned off into the rutted
meadow that doubled as a parking lot. It was Thursday, and he was due back
there that night; he hadn’t been able to find anyone at Atlas to cover his
shift. He wished he could curl up in his car and sleep until then. The gate on
the front stretch was wide open, and inside he could see the owner, Buddy
Gooden, slowly working his way around the banked oval atop his state-surplus
motor grader, pushing the clay and sand back toward the bottom of the track.
The summer before, Maddy
had been leading a qualifying heat when she fishtailed and hit the guardrail,
which wasn’t much of a rail at all, just sheets of plywood nailed to a fence.
As she sat there crosswise on the track, stalled out and waiting for the red
flag, the rest of the pack came sliding through the turn. You could hear the
whole infield suck in its breath, bracing for a crash. Wylie always told
himself that Maddy was invincible out there—he couldn’t afford to
think about it any other way—but seeing her come so close to getting
T-boned rattled him. When she got back to the pit area, he asked her to sit out
the feature race so he could look over the car. He didn’t think she’d go for it—she’d
been in wrecks before, had shrugged them off and hopped back in the saddle—but
that night, after she finished cursing her luck and loose dirt, she allowed
that maybe it wasn’t a bad idea.
Sunday he took her over to Darlington and dropped half a paycheck on good seats
for the Southern 500, the race Maddy always dreamed of running. He was thinking
it’d be just the thing to help them shake off the cobwebs, but Maddy spent most
of the race staring at the pregnant girl next to them—was so busy
staring, in fact, that she missed Buddy Baker’s Dodge crossing the finish line.
Wylie was lowering his binoculars when she
hooked an arm around his waist and shouted into his ear. “Let’s! Have! A baby!”
At first he thought she was joking, making fun of the pregnant girl for the way
she’d been rubbing her stomach all afternoon. Anyhow, the plan had always been
that they’d try for a baby after they quit racing—a plan, by the way,
that he’d just been going along with, assuming that when push came to shove,
he’d be ready. But Maddy was in his ear again, way ahead of him as usual,
telling him she was afraid she might not be around to have a baby if she
Now, as he watched
Buddy take another turn on his grader, smoothing out the grooves, Wylie thought
of the two Hobby titles Maddy had won, how good he’d felt knowing she couldn’t
do it without him and that he’d never let her down. That’s how he felt that
afternoon at Darlington when he said yes to having a baby. It was the last time he
felt that way.
Gladys answered the door. It was almost
lunchtime, but she was still in her bathrobe, squinting at Wylie through the
torn screen as if she hadn’t seen sunlight in days, a road map of red in her
eyes. When she noticed the cake, she invited him in like she didn’t have a
called, “friend of yours.”
The curtains were
drawn in the narrow living room, and except for the traffic out on 321, the
house was quiet. Wylie hadn’t meant to come in. He’d hoped to hand off the cake
at the front door and be gone. Now he tried for a sympathetic smile and told
Gladys how sorry Maddy was that she couldn’t come herself.
“She had the baby
on Sunday,” he said.
“Please tell her
I’ve been meaning to stop by,” Gladys said, but it didn’t sound like she meant
it. It sounded like she just wanted to be left alone. She stood there cinching
her robe until Lester came out of the kitchen. When he shook Wylie’s hand, he
clasped it with both of his, the way a preacher does. Wylie told them he and Maddy
had been praying for them ever since they heard about Nat. “We’re deeply sorry
for your loss,” he said. This was something he’d rehearsed in the truck, and to
his ears, that’s how it sounded.
“You’re a good guy
to come all the way out here,” Lester said. “I just put on some coffee. Let’s
sit down and have some of that—what do you got there?”
“Gladys loves pound
cake, don’t you hon?” He put an arm around his wife, but she shrugged him off.
“I’m not hungry,”
she said, and then she went into the bedroom and shut the door. Lester looked
embarrassed. He rubbed a hand back and forth across his crew cut. Wylie was
about to say he should be getting home when Lester cleared his throat.
“I keep telling her
we can try again,” he said, shaking his head. “She don’t want to hear it.” He
glanced at the bedroom door, then held up the cake as if to say But there’s
this. Wylie followed him into the kitchen and sat at the dinette while
Lester cut two slices. “You know, it could have been a lot worse,” Lester said,
lowering his voice. “I mean, Christ, the kid was only eight weeks old. It’s not
like we had much time to get attached to him.” He set a cup of coffee in front
of Wylie. “Right? You must know what I mean.”
Wylie supposed he
did. If something terrible was going to happen to your baby, better sooner than
later, before she started trusting you to make everything okay. Still, as soon
as he nodded, it felt like a betrayal. Pretty soon he’d be telling Lester he
wasn’t sure why he’d wanted a baby in the first place. “Me and Maddy,” he said,
“we just feel so lucky—”
Lester cut him off.
“Goes without saying.” His smile was razor sharp. He took a bite of cake and
Wylie got to work on his, too, promising himself he’d get out of there as soon
as he was done. He was almost finished when Lester lit a cigarette and warmed
up to him again, apologizing about the Fairlane. Wylie told him it was no big
deal, but Lester went on and on, saying he’d never meant to leave Wylie in the
lurch. Things had gotten so busy with the baby, he said, and money was tight.
He still wanted to buy the car, though, assuming Wylie hadn’t already sold it.
“Not yet,” Wylie
Lester slid the
pack of smokes across the table, said that originally the car was going to be a
present for himself, to celebrate the baby, but now he wanted it as a surprise
for Gladys. He said that since she started hanging around Maddy more, she’d
been talking about entering a powder-puff derby—not racing racing,
just girls against girls—and although he’d been against it at first,
now he thought it might do her some good. Wylie shook a cigarette from the pack
and nodded along. He didn’t believe Lester would end up buying the car any more
than he believed Gladys would want it, but he decided to give Lester the
benefit of the doubt and told him he’d hold off renewing the ad, give them time
to work something out.
“In that case,”
Lester said, “why don’t I come get the car today?” He said he could swing by
the bank, bring Wylie a deposit that afternoon, and pay him the rest next week.
Wylie tapped the end of his cigarette on the table. This wasn’t at all what
he’d had in mind, but he was in too deep to back out now, and he was too tired
to argue. He hadn’t slept in four days, his wife would sooner spit at him than
smile, and he was starting to think he’d rather sit there smoking with Lester
than go home and face his own kid’s howling. He took one last gulp of coffee
and stood to leave.
On the way home, Wylie fell asleep at the
wheel and drifted off the road, his tires biting into the grassy shoulder. A
row of scrub pines floated before him. He jerked upright and wrestled the car
onto the blacktop, cursing Maddy for sending him to see Gladys, cursing himself
for giving in to Lester again. Shaken, he stopped at a convenience store for
another cup of coffee and—debating whether to buy it even as he
approached the register—a can of formula. Just in case Maddy changes
her mind, he told himself. When he got home, she was asleep in bed with Holly.
The baby stirred as he looked in on them, and before he had time to think
twice, he whisked her out of the room. He knew you were supposed to heat the
formula, but he was afraid Maddy would wake up, so he told Holly she’d have to
drink it cold. He sat at the dining room table with her in the crook of his arm
like a football, brushing the nipple against her cheek the way he’d seen Maddy
do, dribbling formula onto her lips. She turned her head from side to side,
trying to get away from it. “Come on, cupcake,” he said. “Let’s be reasonable.”
She began to fuss, and when he persisted, sweating and shaking, she started to
cry in earnest. He had to remind himself that she wasn’t doing it on purpose;
she was only a baby. She needed to eat, whether she wanted to or not, and he
didn’t know when he’d get another chance. Finally, he worked the nipple between
her lips, and when she tried to spit it out, he held firm, determined that
she’d at least have a taste, no matter how much she fought and flailed her
little arms. It wasn’t until she began to choke that he finally eased up. As he
pulled the bottle away, she coughed formula onto his arm and shrieked, a sound
as terrible as a loose fan belt. “Now, now,” he said, “there, there,” but she
went on and on, screaming bloody murder. It was all he could do not to shove
the bottle back into her mouth, just to shut her up.
Wylie spent the
rest of the afternoon trying to make it up to Holly, carrying her around the
house and singing nursery rhymes while he waited for Lester. Once she stopped
crying, she didn’t seem to hold a grudge. It was as if Buddy had come along
with his grader, smoothing out all the ruts between them.
Lester never showed
up with the money, and he wasn’t at the races that night either. Same old, same
old, Wylie thought. He’d been a half hour late getting to the track himself
and, despite three large Cokes, nodded off in the wrecker. A track steward had
to tap on the window to wake him when one of the drivers blew a tire.
Back home, it was
business as usual—distraught wife, crying baby. This time Wylie
suggested they get out for a walk. The night was warm and breezy, and they
followed the dirt lane past the soybean field, past Cal’s house. Holly was
asleep on Wylie’s shoulder within minutes.
“Look at you,” Maddy
said. “You’re a natural.” For the first time all day, she seemed relaxed. She
slipped her hand in his, swung her arm as they walked. Wylie stroked Holly’s
head and glanced up at the stars. This was how he’d always imagined life
with a baby, he and Maddy exhausted but not defeated, pulling together.
They were nearing
the end of the lane when they heard the crash. At first Wylie thought somebody
had hit a deer, but then there was another crash, and another. As they got
closer to the highway, he could see in the moonlight a figure standing on the
hood of the Fairlane, stomping the windshield. He wanted it to be some local
riffraff, but he recognized the Dart idling on the roadside.
After one last
stomp, Lester hopped down and grabbed what looked to be a crowbar from his
backseat. Wylie tried to pass the baby to Maddy, but she held onto his arm.
whispered. “He’s drunk off his ass.”
then Lester began to whale on the Fairlane’s fender. The first blow woke Holly,
but Lester didn’t hear her crying until he’d taken three or four more swings.
Turning, he peered through the darkness, the crowbar cocked in his hand. Wylie
took a step toward him.
Lester,” he called. “Better get on home now.”
For a moment Lester
stood and stared, his shoulders heaving with each breath. Holly continued to
howl. In the distance, headlights appeared, the rumble of a tractor trailer.
Finally Lester reared back and flung the crowbar into the underbrush across the
road. The Dart sprayed a rooster tail of gravel as he pulled away.
When his taillights
faded, Wylie and Maddy walked over for a look at the Fairlane, saw what a
number he’d done—all four tires knifed, the driver’s seat shredded
down to foam and springs, the windshield intact but caved in. Wylie picked up
the for sale sign, brushed it
off, tossed it onto the seat. Once upon a time, he’d poured his heart and soul
into that car. Now all he cared about, really, was how he’d get Lester to pay
for the damage.
“Guess he changed
his mind about the car,” Wylie said.
Maddy just shook
her head like she’d been expecting this all along. Wylie thought she’d be more
upset, but he saw then that she’d let go, too, that whatever happened to the Fairlane
now didn’t much matter to her.
The next morning, when Wylie called the
police, the dispatcher asked him to repeat Lester’s name, said wait a minute,
then came back on the line and informed him that Lester Hardin was already in
custody. She asked Wylie to come down to the station to file his report. When
he got there, he was greeted by a detective, an older man with puffy eyes and a
dark suit that looked slept in. They knew each other from the dealership: the
detective brought in his ’68 Fastback GT for an oil change every two thousand
miles on the nose. His office was as tidy as his car, a small, bright room with
photos of his wife and daughter arranged on the windowsill. He pulled up a seat
for Wylie alongside his desk. When Wylie asked what Lester was doing in jail,
the detective took off his glasses, rubbed his eyes, and told him about
Shortly after he’d
finished with Maddy’s car, Lester had walked into the Richland County sheriff’s office
and confessed to the first officer he saw, a young deputy at the front desk.
Lester told him about the night he’d been home alone with Nat while Gladys was
waiting tables at the Waffle House. They’d been having their usual fight before
she left, and he was sick of hearing her complain about money, about his job at
the car wash, about having to leave her baby four nights a week just so they
could make ends meet. Lester spent the evening in front of the TV with a bottle
of whiskey, listening to the baby cry and trying to decide what to do about his
life. When he’d had enough of the noise, he went into the nursery and held Nat,
muffling the baby’s cries against his chest. All he was trying to do, he told
the deputy, was shut Nat up, get him to go to sleep. But the harder the baby
cried, the harder Lester held him, and by the time he let go, Nat wasn’t
breathing. Lester then placed him facedown in the crib, and that’s how Gladys
found her baby when she got home. When he was done, Lester begged the deputy to
At first, Wylie
couldn’t quite get his head around what he was hearing. It was so horrible, he
thought that Lester must have made it up. What’s worse, every time he tried to
make it real, every time he tried to picture Lester smothering his baby, what
he saw instead was himself cramming that bottle into Holly’s mouth. The two
events ran together like water in his mind. For a moment he had an
impulse to confess, if for no other reason than to hear the detective tell him
he’d done nothing wrong. He sat quietly while the detective finished the story.
He was saying that Lester finally confessed to Gladys last night, had actually
gotten down on his knees and begged forgiveness, at which point she’d told him
she wished he were dead.
“Then she gave him
a choice,” the detective said. “Turn himself in, or she’d do it for him.”
Wylie sat up
straight, heard himself asking if Lester had meant to kill the baby.
shrugged. “He says he didn’t. Says it was an accident. We’re just trying to
find out what we can, which is why I wanted to hear about last night.” He
pulled out a notepad and began asking questions about what had happened with
Lester and the Fairlane. Wylie had trouble concentrating. He had to force
himself to make eye contact with the detective. Starting with the night Lester
approached him at the track, he told everything he could remember, hoping he’d
say something that would be of use. The anger he was feeling toward Lester went
beyond what he’d done to the Fairlane, beyond Nat’s death even. A half hour
later, as Wylie walked out of the station and into the morning glare, he wished
the police had honored Lester’s request and shot him on the spot.
Wylie had been planning to swing by Atlas
and borrow a flatbed, then haul the Fairlane out to a buddy’s speed shop in Lexington and sell it for
parts, take whatever they’d give him. Now that seemed like more than he could
manage. He stopped for a six-pack and pointed his car home, gunning the engine
past the cinder-block juke joints and matchbox houses along Bluff Road , slowing down only
to look at the ruined shell of the Fairlane as he turned off the highway.
Halfway between the main farmhouse and the cottage, he pulled over and switched
off the ignition, sat there drinking and staring across the field at the cows. One
beer, two beers, three. He told himself he was working up the courage to tell Maddy
about Lester, but mostly he was thinking about his father: his brooding, his shouting,
the whistle of his belt. It occurred to Wylie that maybe his father had done
him a favor, that maybe he’d left to keep from doing more harm.
After a fourth
beer, Wylie slid the bottles under his seat and drove the rest of the way home.
Maddy was out front with Holly and a fistful of Kleenex, sitting on the porch
swing where she and Wylie used to spend evenings watching the sun set behind Cal’s
silos. She looked like she’d been through the wringer. At first Wylie thought
she’d already heard about Lester, but it wasn’t that—just another
morning of trying and failing to please Holly. He was barely out of the truck
when Maddy thrust the baby into his arms.
“Thank god you’re
home,” she said. She blew her nose and began telling him about Holly’s latest fit,
how she’d tried feeding her on one side and then the other, but nothing was
good enough. “She’s not even a week old and she already hates me.” Maddy was so
worked up, she didn’t ask Wylie about his visit to the police station until
they were inside. When he told her about Lester, she covered her mouth, shook
her head as if it weren’t true. “Poor Nat!” she said. “Poor Nat! Poor little
baby!” That got Holly going again, and if it weren’t for the four beers
cushioning him from all the crying and misery, Wylie thought he might have
started bawling himself. Later, though, when Maddy had gotten past the shock of
it, she told him she was actually relieved. “When it was a baby dying in his
sleep, that was even worse,” she said. “That could happen to anyone.”
They were sitting
on the floor with Holly between them on a blanket. Wylie lifted her up and blew
a raspberry on her stomach but stopped when he noticed Maddy watching him. He
thought she was about to accuse him of smelling like a brewery. “You know, if
it weren’t for you,” she said, “he might never have confessed. Seeing you must
have done it, made him realize what he’d done. Otherwise, why would he bust up
our car on his way to the police?”
Wylie stood and
carried Holly to the window. He thought about the Fairlane, imagined Lester
plunging a knife into its tires, stomping the windshield. He had to admit, he
liked the idea of being the one who’d pushed him over the edge. He liked the
idea of Lester wishing he were in his shoes. But for all he knew, the only thing
separating him from Lester was circumstance and a little luck, and he was
surprised that Maddy didn’t see this, too.
Maddy got up and
went into the bathroom, asked Wylie from behind the door to check Holly’s
diaper. The toilet flushed, and then she said, “What I don’t get is, how could
Gladys not have known? She lived with the guy. She was married to him.” Wylie
unpinned Holly’s diaper, saw that it was clean, and refastened it. When Maddy
turned on the faucet, he picked up a small blue pillow from the rocking chair.
Holly was kicking as he placed it over her face. He tried to imagine holding it
there, pressing down, but he couldn’t do it, not even for a second—as
if that proved anything. But who was to say? Maybe Maddy was right. Maybe she
saw something in Wylie he couldn’t yet see in himself. He pulled the pillow
away and whispered “peekaboo,” trying to make a game of it. He figured Holly
would start crying then, but she just lay there, blinking. That was what really
got him: she didn’t even have the sense to be afraid.
“Not that I blame
Gladys,” Maddy was saying. “Besides, she really needs me now. I was thinking
I’d go see her tomorrow, if you’d drive me over.” She shut off the water. “Are
Wylie leaned over
and kissed Holly on the tip of her nose. When he stood up, the room spun a
little. He had time to set the pillow aside as Maddy came out of the bathroom,
but he didn’t, and then he felt her behind him in the doorway, probably leaning
there with her arms crossed, trying to figure out why he was standing over
their baby with a pillow. “I’m listening,” he said.
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