The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 8, No. 2

Atlas Towing

by Will Allison

Atlas Towing

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.
           Wylie didn’t 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.
           When Lester 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.”
           Lester’s wife, 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 said.
           “Ah.” Lester 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.
           “Louise Smith 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.”
           Wylie 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 Gladys.
           Wylie kissed Maddy’s neck. She tasted salty, like she used to after a race. “You haven’t heard from her, either.”
           “But 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.
           “That’s it,” she said. “Just run off and hide. Like father, like son.”
           Wylie stopped 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.
           Wylie’d finally 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 doing?”
           “Making Gladys a pound cake,” she said.
           “It’s one in the morning.”
           She cracked an egg and dropped the shell into the garbage. “Then go back to bed.”  She wouldn’t even look at him.
           Twenty minutes 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 to Maddy.
           “I think she’s hungry again.”
           “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 everywhere.
           “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 yourself.”

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.
           The following 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 kept racing.
           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 choice.
           “Lester,” she 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?”
           “Maddy’s pound cake.”
           “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 said.
           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 kid, Bluff Road 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.
           “Don’t,” she whispered. “He’s drunk off his ass.”
           And 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.
           “All right, 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 Lester’s confession.
           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 shoot him.
           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.
           The detective 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 you listening?”
           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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