A Hand in Cold Water
Deakin, a tow truck driver, gunned the rattling wrecker around the corner so fast that his partner, Arnie Wilkins, almost slid out of his seat.
“Jesus, Russ, what are you in such an all-fire hurry for?”
“I’ve got things to do tonight.”
“What kind of things?”
He shrugged, rumbling past a delivery van. “Just things.”
“Sure you do.”
“Now what color is that Cherokee we’re looking for?”
“Black,” Wilkins grunted. “The same color it was the last time you asked me.”
It was close to five-thirty, and this was their last account to take care of today. Earlier in the afternoon they received a repossession notice from the Gateway Credit Agency to pick up a year-old Jeep Cherokee. Glen Rafferty, the owner of the vehicle, had missed his last three payments. According to the notice, he resided in a house on the east side of the river near the end of Sarasota Street, one of the longest streets in town.
“What’s the house number?” Deakin asked again.
He grinned. “We’re not too far from it now.”
“Another eight blocks.”
Deakin pressed his foot down on the accelerator pedal, eager to hook up the Cherokee and return to the shop and chug down a couple of beers before going home. It had been a long day. He and Wilkins had been on the road since before daybreak.
“There it is,” Wilkins announced a couple of minutes later, pointing a finger at the one-story stucco house in the middle of the block.
A large red-and-white “For Sale” sign was posted in the front yard.
Deakin parked the wrecker in front of the sign and shut off the engine. “I didn’t expect to see that.”
“Neither did I.”
He leaned back from the steering wheel. “I don’t see the Cherokee.”
“I wonder if this Rafferty guy is living here anymore.”
“There’s only one way to find out,” he sighed, pushing open his door.
Suddenly a dog started barking, and he hesitated, remembering the pitbull that charged him last month when he was hooking up a still new Navigator.
“Wherever it is, I hope it’s chained up.”
Nodding, he took a step then slammed the door shut and headed over to the porch while Wilkins went around to the garage to see if the Cherokee was there. He knocked several times but no one answered.
“There’s no Jeep in the garage,” Wilkins reported as he walked toward Deakin. “Only a bicycle and a lawnmower.”
“There’s no one in the house, either.”
Deakin, looking around, noticed a ginger-haired man getting out of a black Mercedes parked in front of a brick house at the end of the block and immediately started across the street to ask him if he knew if Rafferty still lived in the neighborhood. Wilkins trailed behind him, whistling some ancient Kristofferson song.
“Excuse me, sir?”
The man turned around, shading his eyes from the sun, and Deakin nearly dropped to his knees he was so surprised. It was Zirin, his hair was a little thinner, his belly more protruding, but it was him all right. He was sure of it.
“Yes, what do you want?”
Deakin just stared at him, unable to utter a word.
“What is it?” he asked impatiently.
Deakin still could not speak so Wilkins stepped past him and asked, “Do you know if Mr. Rafferty is still living in that stucco house?”
“Yes, as far as I know, he hasn’t moved out yet.”
Wilkins nodded. “All right, thank you.”
“What do you want to know for?”
Wilkins nudged Deakin in the ribs and, together, they edged away from the inquisitive neighbor.
“Hey, I asked you a question, mister.”
Ignoring him, they walked across the street to the wrecker. Wilkins, who assumed Deakin wasn’t feeling well, asked if he wanted him to drive, but he shook his head and got behind the wheel.
“You sure you’re all right?”
“Yes, I’m good, Arnie.”
“I thought you were going to faint for a second. You were so quiet.”
“Nah. I just recognized that guy.”
“He taught math where I went to high school.”
“I never had him for a class but I knew who he was. Everyone in the school did. Whenever he saw students in the halls during class periods, he’d demand to know why they weren’t in class, and if they didn’t have a valid excuse, he’d shake their hand.”
Deakin slid the key into the ignition but didn’t start the engine. “I mean he’d really shake it. He squeezed so hard that you’d want to scream and, believe me, I saw a lot of kids who did and a few who even cried his grip was so strong. I guess it was his twisted way of warning you not to cut class.”
“He sounds like a real sweetheart.”
Nodding, he turned on the engine. “Oh, he got a real boost out of shaking someone’s hand, the bastard. I really believe it was something he looked forward to doing so you knew that he was stronger than you.”
The first time Zirin shook his hand Deakin was a sophomore. He decided to skip his two o’clock French class, taught by an elderly Parisian who barely spoke English, and was almost out a side door when Zirin spotted him and asked where he was going. Lying, he said he had a dental appointment, and Zirin asked to see the excuse he should have received at the principal’s office.
“I don’t have one.”
“Why’s that?” he demanded.
“Here,” he said, sticking out his bear paw of a right hand.
Though aware of the math teacher’s reputation, he extended his hand, skeptical his grip was as powerful as others claimed. Not saying a word, Zirin looked him in the eye and crushed his fingers as if they were brittle blades of grass. He did not make a sound, though, refusing to give him the satisfaction of knowing how much his vise-like grip hurt.
“Later, after you get out of class,” Zirin suggested after releasing his grip, “you should stick your hand in cold water.”
He heeded his advice but his fingers still throbbed as if caught in a door.
Later that evening the repo men returned to Rafferty’s house and saw a Cherokee parked in the driveway. Wilkins confirmed the VIN number then Deakin informed Rafferty they had come to repossess the Jeep. As expected, he was outraged and offered one excuse after another why he was behind in his payments, all of which Deakin had heard many times before from other delinquent owners. He banged a fist against the screen door and threatened to unleash his German shepherd, even wondered if he should call the police. Ignoring his fulminations, they proceeded to hook the Cherokee to the winches of their wrecker truck and then started back to the shop.
Chugging down the street, Deakin noticed the Mercedes in Zirin’s driveway and suddenly wished they were hauling it away instead of the Cherokee. Maybe late some night, he thought, he might return and squeeze off that three-pointed hood ornament in retaliation for all the times he squeezed his hand. Serve the bastard right, he believed, squealing around the corner.