After nine. Before eleven. Ten. One zero.
Although he’d been a certified public accountant during what now seemed like a lifetime ago, Bob Scott was far from the biggest fan of numbers.
They’d caused him significant grief over the years, like the time at Kinko’s he wanted to make eighty copies of the lyrics to Christina Aguilera’s “Genie in a Bottle” to hand out to his church congregation, but mistook the “0” key for the clear key on a self-service Xerox machine, tapping it a few times too many and making 80,000 copies to the tune of $8,000. (In his defense, a zero does share certain characteristics with the letter “C,” only accentuated when the peanut butter on his finger smeared onto the key, obscuring the right half of the letter.)
Then, another time, he misplaced a comma within a rather substantial number on a rather substantial government document, and went to prison for a rather substantial period of time.
So one might think that his troubles with numbers would lead to a heightened awareness of them—a cultivated ability to see their patterns in everyday life, especially when they seemingly aligned, warning of some cosmic significance.
One would be wrong.
It was Saturday, January 10. This much Bob Scott knew. He knew because a Chinatown psychic had warned him, only months earlier, that on this day his lifeline would end. What he didn’t know was when or how, so, resigned to his fate, he’d become determined to not be afraid of the uncertainty. To face the looming inevitably with wide open arms. To court the darkness.
It was precisely ten degrees Fahrenheit at precisely ten o’clock in the morning. And had he not been engrossed by the colorful pages of a Superman comic book, he would have also known that, in the time since planting himself on that snow-dusted wheel stop in the shadow of an abandoned warehouse, nine motor vehicles had passed on the street.
It would be the tenth vehicle, a 1982 blue and black Ford Bronco, that would veer into the parking lot where he sat, and rumble toward him. He felt no alarm whatsoever, assuming it was his motorcycle driving instructor. If his lifeline were indeed going to end today as the psychic had predicted, he’d be damned if he didn’t learn how to drive a motorcycle first.
All the questions he had about them rose to the surface of his mind. Could they turn corners, or was that just in the movies? Would they be easier to steer than a bicycle, a skill he’d never mastered? Were taking shortcuts on them to avoid traffic jams, say, through people’s backyards, legal? And how fast could a man who wore a toupèe (not him) drive one (not his) without a helmet before his hair flew right clean off?
He didn’t know if he’d get answers to all those, but the ad on Craigslist promised otherwise dramatic results. First, obviously, the basics. Skills like working the kickstand and balancing on the seat.
Then, on to more advanced territory: jumping cars. In Bob Scott’s case, it’d be three cars. He still wasn’t sure why it cost $22 extra to do a jump—maybe his teacher needed to buy a hammer and nails to build a ramp?—but he was hoping the additional expense would be well worth it. (He was also offered the option of a flaming hoop to jump through, but opted to pass; he tended to catch on fire with little effort, and, also, it was another $6, and he wasn’t exactly Mr. Moneybags.)
The Ford Bronco lumbered to a stop right in front of Bob Scott. He rolled up the Superman comic, stuffed it in the side pocket of his women’s fleece parka, swept a trace of fresh snow from his gray sweatpants, and rose to his feet as the driver side window squeaked its way down.
“Bob Scott,” a woman asked from behind the wheel, “fancy meeting you here.” There was a vague air of familiarity about her. It must’ve been clear, his complete lack of recognition of her, because she tacked on, “It’s me—Dinnah,” and when that still didn’t register, she wagged her beefy tongue at him, slathering up her lips real good, then blew him an exaggerated kiss—a rapid sequence of gestures she evidently thought he’d recognize.
Which he did. Immediately.
“Dinnah! Hello.” He knew her from square dancing, which he partook of every first Friday. Ten months ago, he’d accepted her invitation to the annual Sadie Hawkins shindig, a date that was cut short by what he thought was his fourth heart attack. It turned out to just be bad gas from chili cheese nachos. He planned to ask her out again, but life had gotten in the way, and by the time things settled down for him, she was gone. Word was, she’d moved away in search of a better, more tolerant place to raise her children.
Bob Scott shot a glance at the expanse of the parking lot. “If you’re here for me to jump you,” he said, “I’m not sure where you should park it.”
Fanning her face with her hands, eyes bulging, she exhaled. “Ooh, Bob. So untoward. I’m a mother.” She sipped coffee from a foam cup spewing steam. “Saw your Twitter. Saw what you said about your lifeline ending. What if I told you,” one of her arms extended down from the window, “I knew a way to keep that from happening?”
The back of her hand brushed his chin. Uncomfortable, he turned away from the touch, not because he didn’t like her—no, quite the contrary, he liked her very much. It was a surge of insecurity that prodded him to move. In the rush of the morning, he’d neglected to apply his usual layer of concealer, leaving him to feel vulnerable in the harsh winter light, his burn scars and “knobby bones,” as he called them, on full display.
“If you mean a bulletproof vest, I borrowed my friend Conrad’s.” Bob Scott parted his women’s fleece parka to reveal a gray T-shirt riddled with rips and holes. Printed across the front was a svelte woman wearing a black teddy and boots, in profile, on her knees, her fist clenched. It read, “Carly Simon” in hot pink, with smaller type proclaiming, “Nobody Does It Better.” He lifted it in front just enough to show off a sheath of Kevlar.
Dinnah shook her head. “That can’t protect you from everything, hon. What you need is a hiding place. Somewhere nobody would ever think to look. Somewhere you could eat all the tapioca pudding in the world, and never feel unsafe again.”
A warm tingle washed over him. There was no room for debate: tapioca was the best pudding in the whole, entire pudding family. He preferred it chilled, topped with a dollop of Cool Whip.
But it wasn’t the promise of a pudding that gave him the warm tingle. It was what she offered after that. “Never feel unsafe again.” And it was the way she said it. Sincere, reassuring.
There was only one other woman he’d ever known with those qualities in her voice. A woman who made him feel secure in every way. She didn’t care about burn scars and knobby bones, nor that fact his brain didn’t work like everybody else’s. She simply loved him for all that he was—and wasn’t. To him, she was a blessing beyond anything he could have ever hoped or prayed for. An angel. And so he made her his second wife.
Their joy was but a brief glimmer, disease already festering inside her. And when she was gone, his fingers closing the eyelids of her cancer-ravaged body, he knew whatever remained of his life would be dedicated to simply going through the motions. Sleeping, waking, eating, breathing. Repeat.
The night of her death, he stood motionless in her basement scrapbooking room, just eyeing the scissors, and glue sticks, and multitude of wood stamps bedecked with things like grinning suns and bursting hearts. All things she had held in her hands. Those remarkable warm little hands capable of expressing such an abundance of pure love.
Never did he so much as flinch when they caressed his face.
He’d never really talked to anyone about the hole in his heart. He’d never shared that crushing grief. It just seemed easier to sweep it aside. To keep moving.
And so he climbed up into Dinnah’s Bronco, leaving the glacial air behind. There was no guarantee that going with her would alter the course of his destiny, but he was okay with that. At least he would be with somebody who cared for him. Somebody who would hold him, and sob with him, and then, when that final moment came and went, close his eyelids after he was gone.
He hid it well—from family, from friends, from his social media followers—but Bob Scott was lonely. Very, very lonely.