We're going to depart from our on-going story for a bit and take a look at another crime that happens everyday. The crimes that people commit when they look for love in all the wrong places. What's the price that they pay for their indiscretions? Read on, cowboys and cowgirls, and The Nightwatchman will take out his old guitar and sing you an old song about used cars, and pretty girls, and how those two things together will break your heart every time:
Taylor was driving Amy over to some car dealership where she thought that she could get a good deal. Her old one wouldn’t start anymore, and rather than fixing it, which he thought was the only sane idea, Amy had decided she wanted to spring for a new one. She walked out onto her parents’ driveway and into the passenger seat of his Toyota with a piece of paper in her hand. In the corner was a picture of a late nineties Ford Explorer with a yellow explosion behind it. It said that it had a 4x4 and it ran clean, $6999. “That one,” Amy said pointing to the paper. Taylor didn’t see anything about how many miles the car had on it, so that worried him. But, she seemed excited, and he liked that about her. It was easy to get her excited about anything new. She was like a little kid. Besides, maybe if she saw the car she wouldn’t think that it was all that hot, and then he could take her home and not drive around so much. The dealership was on a part of the street where there were about a hundred other car dealerships. There was a tiny building that looked like it might have been a house at some point with strings of little yellow flags radiating from its roof. As they approached the office Taylor suddenly felt very protective of Amy. All of the smooth talk they would get from the salesmen would be too much for her. She’d get suckered into buying a car that would eventually disappoint her, and then they’d have to go out and get another one all over again. It wasn’t just the inconvenience of it all. He wanted to be the voice of reason. He wanted to guard her from her own bad choices. She was impulsive and he was careful. Maybe, that was why she wanted him to go with her. She needed protection from herself. Before they got to the door, a young, dark skinned man came out and shook their hands. Taylor noticed his diamond pinky ring. He had on a blue shirt with a stiff white collar, and a burgundy necktie with matching suspenders. He was actually wearing suspenders. He looked like a stockbroker from that Oliver Stone movie. “My name is Afsheen,” he said, “Welcome.” He beckoned them to the front door of the office, but Amy didn’t go in. She showed him the ad and he whisked the two of them over to the back corner of the lot where the Explorer was. The car didn’t seem to have any visible damage, but Taylor thought that it had probably been sitting on the lot for a very long time. The red paint looked faded. The tires looked a little sunken. The dashboard had several little cracks in it which Taylor attributed to being out in the sun for too long. Amy gleefully opened up the driver’s side door and hopped into the truck. She turned on the wiper blades and squirted a little bit of the fluid onto the glass. “$7000,” Taylor said to himself as he ran his hands over the shallow tread of the front tires. “Can you go get the keys? We’ll take it for a little drive,” Amy said to Afsheen. Taylor got into the passenger seat and opened up the glove box to flip through the operator’s manual. There was maintenance schedule A, and maintenance schedule B. He peaked over the dash at the odometer: 85,000 miles. “That’s a lot of miles for what they’re asking, especially for a car this old” he said. “I want to drive it,” she said. Taylor thought that she was the kind of girl to buy a car like this. Her car would be bigger than other girls’ cars. She would have mastery over something that they didn’t understand and were maybe a little afraid of. Also, he thought that she liked that it had a 4x4. The idea to her was probably that she wouldn’t have to worry about navigating through the icy, slush-bound streets during the long winters where they lived. It was bigger, but it was also safer than the other cars. She probably thought that it offered more peace of mind, or some such thing. Taylor wondered why anyone would want to drive something like this anymore. Afsheen appeared with the keys dangling in his hand. He handed them to Amy and made a move like he was going to get into the back seat. “Would it be alright if we just drove the car around ourselves?” Amy said to him. Taylor thought that this was a pretty sensible idea. Why not just eliminate all of the patter of a sales pitch from the backseat during a test drive? Then, maybe he could talk her down a little. Afsheeen looked around like nobody had ever asked him if they could do that before. He looked like he didn’t know if it was possible. “I will need to make a copy of your driver’s license,” he said. Amy handed it over and he ran into the building. He returned less than a minute later and gave it back to her. “We’ll be careful,” she said. She started the engine. Taylor gripped the panic bar that was over the door as she spun the car out of the tightly packed lot, barely missing a few pricey fenders. She bounced over the curb and onto the road. He listened carefully for any strange noises from the engine as she pressed on the accelerator. “It’s fast,” she said. “It’s okay,” he said. He didn’t hear anything out of the ordinary yet. Not as far as he could tell, anyway. He turned on the AC and cranked the knob up all of the way. The vents blasted a freshet of super cold air. “It’s cold enough as it is,” she said, switching the knob to off. It was a windy day in late autumn, and she wouldn’t need the AC for several more months, but it comforted Taylor to know that it worked. In his mind if the AC worked then a lot of other things on the car had to be working. She got on the freeway on-ramp and accelerated enough to test the cruise control. The inside of the car was quieter than he thought it would be for a 4x4. He settled into the big plush seat a little more, and discovered a button that curved the seat more towards his lower back for more support on longer trips. “I love you,” Amy said. He had heard her say this before, and he still didn’t know how to respond to it, so he just kept quiet. He didn’t think that she really meant it. She was just trying it on for size. Maybe, she just liked the way that it sounded when she told it to another person, any other person. He didn’t know. He did know that there was no way that she could have actually loved him. The truth was, and Taylor knew this, they hardly knew much about each other with their clothes on. He had decided to go back to school to get his teaching license after earning his BA and working for a medical supply company for three years. He was 27, and Amy was 21. He met her in his Teaching Essentials class. He didn’t notice her at first. She seemed just like a lot of the other undergrad girls. Trying on different kinds of guys like they were different styles of shoes, not really deciding what they wanted to do yet, but letting their parents pay the tuition just the same. Going to keggers on Greek row, going to the same coffee shops and diners that all of the other kids went to. Trying to study, but also trying to be noticed at the same time. Taylor guessed that’s how it was. He didn’t have that much free time in college. He slaved in his father’s little market after classes and did homework on weekends. He liked to imagine the other kids in his classes going to these wild parties, drinking, smoking weed, never working or studying. It made him feel better while he was working nearly every night at his dad’s dirty little market. He was a pull-yourself-up-from-your-own-bootstraps type of guy and the others were not. He was stronger than they were. Amy had a big personality. When the semester first started, Taylor thought that Amy already knew all of the other girls in the class, except for the pretty, rich looking girls that didn’t seem to like her very much. She would gad around the room, whispering indecipherable things to the other girls and then they’d all start laughing and carrying on. He asked one of them how long she’d known Amy and she had said, “Who’s Amy?” He was shocked. He had never had much luck with women and when something like this happened it just confirmed his suspicions that all of the women in the world were in one secret, exclusive group and men were lonesome, clueless exiles; mere bystanders, in a world secretly run by women. He didn’t really think a lot about Amy. She wasn’t super pretty or anything. She was a little overweight and she had this short kind of nose. Her bottom lip seemed to stick out a little too far. But she did have red hair and Taylor liked that. It didn’t make her beautiful or anything, but it was unusual and unusual was good. At first he liked the way that she lit up a room and how everybody seemed to like her. He was having trouble getting interested in the classes that he was taking, and he thought that having Amy at this class made it a little more bearable. Gradually, though, he started to dislike how much attention she seemed to always need, and how readily everyone else seemed to want to give it to her. Mainly, he didn’t like it whenever people all seemed to be doing the exact same thing. It made them seem just a little more stupid, and Taylor would start to resent them a little bit. He thought about how hard it was to like a whole group of people if you only knew them as that one group. It was like they were in a play and everybody wasn’t real, they were just playing a part. Taylor saw this happening all of the time. After class one day he was walking to the bus stop. He was on his way to the restaurant where he was working nights. An old Honda drove up beside him and the passenger window whirred down. It was Amy. “Need a ride?” After that, he asked her for her phone number and she seemed surprised. “I didn’t know that you liked me,” she said. “That’s so weird.” Taylor didn’t think it was all that weird. Why did she pick him up and give him a ride to work that day if she wasn’t interested in him? Besides, he did like her. She was fun. The other people in the class were playing these roles and following her around, but she was just being herself. He liked to think that he wasn’t playing a role. He wasn’t the life of the party, but he was doing his own thing and he thought that people could tell that about him. He was just being true to himself, and he thought that she was doing that too. At first, they just went to cheap diners together and got burgers, sometimes Chinese food. She talked a lot, but whenever Taylor would ask her a question about herself she would give a one word answer and then look really bored. When she was finished eating she would rip her napkin into tiny pieces and then stuff them into her water glass. Then, she’d mix the remainder of her food up into this disgusting looking pulp, and then dump the water that was full of napkin chunks over it and make this brown, sloppy mess on her plate. One time, very late at night, Amy called Taylor up and asked him if she could come over to his place. Taylor stood up and began rearranging the furniture in his tiny apartment, moving the pillows around on his couch, running his hand over the surface of his counter to catch the crumbs. “Sure, sure,” he said into the phone. She came over and they sat down for a minute. The TV was on and she started talking, talking about everything and nothing, talking a mile a minute. Taylor wondered what was going on. Finally, she stopped and he started kissing her. They kissed some more and then he started unbuckling her belt. “What are you doing?” she asked, angrily. “God, sorry. Sorry.” She rolled her eyes and they went into his bedroom. The next few nights were a lot like this and it seemed to be getting better. They’d have sex and then they’d go out to his balcony and smoke Camels, even though neither one of them smoked. This was a really funny joke to both of them. Amy said that they were just like people in the movies who smoked after having really great sex. Taylor liked that, “really great sex.” This was a couple of weeks ago. Now, they were coasting down the interstate in this used car that they had hijacked, and everything was fine. Taylor noticed that Amy wasn’t dodging in and out of lanes like she normally did in her old car. She left the cruise on and they just sailed along in the right hand lane. The freeway was practically deserted, which was unheard of on a Saturday afternoon. He didn’t hear any noise from the outside. He didn’t hear any noise at all. Maybe the engine had been overhauled somewhere along the line, he thought. He still thought it was kind of a piece of junk, but maybe for the price it was pretty good. Maybe it was the piece of junk that fit her. Maybe it wasn’t all that bad. “I love you, too,” he said. He was a little late, but she didn’t mind. She looked over at him and gave him a little smile, as if to say, “I know.” It felt good to say it. He still didn’t think it was true, but what was the harm in saying it? It was a nice thing to say. Maybe, it was one of those things that could actually happen if you believed in it enough. Fake it until you make it, or something like that. “I’m buying this car.” “Good. I think you should. I mean, I think you should if it’s really what you want. We haven’t looked at anything else yet.” “I know we haven’t looked at anything else, but I really like it. When you look at it it’s really not a bad deal.” “Yeah.” They exited and got back on the cross-town drag towards the car dealership. When they drove into the lot, Afsheen was waiting for them, anxiously stooped over, wringing his hands in worry over his stolen SUV, all dressed up with nowhere to go. Taylor got out and smiled, shaking the salesman’s hand for no reason at all. They fooled around with the lights for a minute, and opened up the hood to see how dirty it was in there. They went back into the office and made some arrangements for the bank, signed a bunch of papers. They decided that they could go to the bank with Afsheen tomorrow and get everything finalized. Amy said that she had to talk to her dad about something, and Taylor wondered where the money for the car was coming from, but he didn’t ask. It was easy. It was a relief that they didn’t feel the need to play hardball with Afsheen or go through the motions of seeming indecisive about buying the car just so they didn’t look like schmucks who bought the first car that they saw. That’s not what they were. They were two people who knew what they wanted and this happened to be it. They knew what they were doing. They got back into Taylor’s car and he started driving her back to where her parents lived. He took a different route that took a little longer than he would have liked. They passed by the mall and everybody ahead of him braked to make right hand turns and the rest of them seemed to pull into the median to turn left just before he smacked right into them. After that was a cobweb of four way stops and slow red lights through a residential area. Amy was quiet. Taylor wondered if the traffic was just annoying her, but that didn’t seem right. She just bought a new car. She should be on top of the world. “Can we stop somewhere?” she said. “Sure.” “Can we go to the library on campus?” “Well, we could’ve started heading there a minute ago. It’s kind of back the other way now.” She was silent. “What do we need to go to the library for?” “I’m supposed to meet Roger there, today.” Roger was Amy’s ex-boyfriend, or ex-something. Amy had moments where she was transparently materialistic. One of those moments was when she would say that one of her ultimate goals was to marry a doctor. Why a doctor? Well, doctors had lots of money and they helped people. They were certain types of men, careful, well-groomed, composed men who didn’t expose themselves to the other habits that other people had. They didn’t just sit around and watch TV. No, doctors were continuously improving themselves and the lives of people in their community, all while earning cushy salaries and lavishing their wives with expensive gifts. Gifts all the more expensive because they were never around, but Amy seemed to be okay with that. It was the thought that counted. Amy seemed to like letting Taylor know that he wasn’t a doctor. She would joke that she was dating beneath her station. In fact, Taylor was so far from being a doctor that it was ridiculous that they were even together. At first, Taylor thought that all of this was pretty funny, but she brought it up enough that it didn’t really seem like much of a joke to her. She really didn’t like that he wasn’t a doctor. Roger was a doctor. Roger was also a divorced alcoholic, who lived with his parents, but he was a doctor and that was enough for Amy. He was much older than Amy. He was 38, old enough to make Taylor’s skin crawl. What does a 38 year old man want from a 21 year old girl? Probably, the same thing that he wanted. Probably, more than that. Now, they were driving to the library and they were all going to see Roger together and Taylor didn’t know what to think. How would normal people react in situations like this, he wondered. Maybe, this is what normal people really did. Maybe, this just happened all of the time. “Why are we meeting Roger at the library? Why don’t we meet him at the mall or at the zoo, or something?” “Because we agreed that we would meet at the library,” she said. They agreed, Taylor thought. Where was he when they were agreeing on everything? What did she need from him now? Was he supposed to protect her from the unstable ex-boyfriend, provide her with some security for whatever was going to happen with her and Roger? Or was he strictly ornamental? Look, here’s my nice normal boy who doesn’t have all of your liquor soaked oedipal hang-ups, look there he is. “Amy, what are we doing here?” She started to cry. She closed her eyes and put her head down and then she let out a gasping sigh and some tears came out. “I promised that I would give him $4,000.” Taylor squeezed the wheel a little tighter. He saw two boys rolling one of those old time hoops down a hill, trying to keep the hoop from falling over by balancing it with a stick. He’d never seen one of those before. Why would kids these days want to play with something like that? “$4,000?” he said. “We’re driving to the library to give this guy $4,000? I thought he was a doctor, or something. What does he need that kind of money for?” She sniffed back her tears and her face returned to its regular color. You would’ve never guessed that she had just cried. “He’s going through a really tough time right now. He moved back in with his mom and dad because they were having trouble. He wants to help them, but things are really tight right now. These are really hard times on everybody, and I’m just trying to help out a friend, okay? It doesn’t mean anything. It’s just money. Why is money always so important to you? You always make a big deal out of it, and it just doesn’t matter.” “You just bought a car and now, this? Where did you get an extra four grand that you can just lend somebody?” Amy was working for her dad and Taylor knew that she couldn’t have all that much money. She didn’t seem to be working very much. She complained about how often he worked and how he was killing himself, and how he never gave himself enough time to do anything fun. Maybe, that was true, but it didn’t really bother him all that much. Everything that he did was just something that he had to do. Nothing was supposed to be easy. That’s the way the world was. They started into the secluded, countrified outskirts of the town where the local university was. Trees without leaves lined the drive. The long, flat blocks of the university buildings could be seen beyond the wide manicured lawns that separated them from the streets. Taylor began to wonder what Roger would look like. He imagined a pimp-like character, with a subtler, less garish kind of sartorial style, the just bought clothes, the mellow tan, and the white smile of someone who practiced at concealing all of their deep-seated personal defects to better gull naïve girls into giving them a lot of money. He liked that they were meeting in the library. It was a silent, anonymous place where people could make dirty deals in peace and quiet. Taylor thought of those movies where the gangsters exchange large amounts of money in underground parking garages, everybody wearing suits and designer sunglasses, the money kept in those fancy stainless steel briefcases. He chuckled a little bit, and wondered if he was having too much fun. There was a lot of free parking on Saturday, so finding a spot near the library was no problem. Taylor wore this old double-breasted pea coat that didn’t keep the cold out for long. He flipped up his collar and dug his hands into his pockets as they made their way over the winding sidewalks. Amy stormed ahead of him, her flat heeled feet slapping against the concrete. She was mad, because he was mad. He wasn’t allowed to get mad at anything. Taylor thought that she looked funny from the back while she hustled along indignantly. Her hair tossed from one side to the other. Her feet didn’t move one in front of the other, but she kind of waddled from side to side like a big angry duck. Inside the big marble vault of the library it was almost as cold as it was outside. Gentle draughts blew over them as they descended the deserted staircases that led down to the quiet study areas where there were long rows of desks shielded by wood partitions for private studying. The mausoleum-like quiet of the place always thrilled Taylor. He fondly remembered his undergrad days that he spent poring over his textbooks and devouring big, inconsequential novels in the cubicles and lounging with his feet up on the giant overstuffed chairs when he had some time between classes. They came to the outside of a glassed off room where all of the biology journals were kept near the quiet study area. “There’s Roger,” said Amy. Through the glass he could see a man sitting in one of the easy chairs. He had dirty blonde hair and glasses with a three day old beard on his florid, swollen looking face. He had a denim work shirt on and tan work boots. His hands looked thick and worn and Taylor could see small scabs on his knuckles. He didn’t look like a doctor at all, he looked like someone who painted houses or hanged dry-wall for a living. Taylor wondered if he even was a doctor anymore. He had the look of someone who had found work where they could find it, and had been working that job for awhile. Someone who lived alone and got up early to drive to whatever job they had to do that day, then spent the nights in a bar with other people like that, smoking bad cigarettes and drinking cheap whiskey, coming and going, an acquaintance to some, a stranger to most, and a friend to no one. “He’s drunk,” Amy said. “He’s already had a half a bottle of vodka.” Taylor wondered how she knew this. She told him to wait there and she walked over to where Roger was sitting. He got up slowly and started making his way toward her. He moved like an old man, his feet shuffling and his back bent over. He didn’t weave around like a drunk person. His movements were slow and deliberate and it seemed like he was in pain, but he was careful, like someone who had a lot of practice trying not to fall down or knock anything over after drink a lot, someone who knew that they needed learn to act normally if they wanted to drink a bottle of vodka every day. Roger managed a weak smile when he saw her. They didn’t hug. They talked for a second before she handed him an envelope and then she patted him lightly on the shoulder like you did when said something to somebody else like “take care of yourself” or “hang in there”. He went back to the chair and then stared at the envelope, turning it around in his hands like he had found something that he didn’t recognize and couldn’t make out what it was. “Let’s go,” Amy said. As they walked back Taylor thought a little more about Roger. He thought that he could be like that someday. He wasn’t old enough yet, but it could happen. He wasn’t a big drinker, but maybe that didn’t matter. Things just fell through for people. Things just didn’t work out. Maybe he had failed somewhere along the way already and things were kind of unraveling themselves slowly, slow enough for him not to notice, but surely enough so that when he got to the kind of place where Roger was, he would know exactly how it happened. He suddenly thought that he would have to think very hard to find a way to stop it all from happening, but he was terrified that there was no amount of thinking that could keep all of that misery away from him. Maybe, thinking only made it worse. Maybe, thinking was what allowed the thing that had happened to Roger to pick you up and carry you away, carry you over this threshold where nothing worked anymore, and then you would wake up and there you were. He wondered if Amy had something to do with it. He didn’t see things going much further with her, but that didn’t seem to matter. He would keep choosing her and others like her, and they would keep choosing him. They all knew each other in a secret kind of way and it was the kind of thing that made it impossible for them to get to know someone else who wasn’t like that. Pretty soon the kind of people that they all were would catch up with them, and who they are and where they were going would just fall apart. Taylor felt sorry about it all. He felt sorry for himself and for Amy, but most of all he felt sorry for Roger. He was sorry that Roger was that way and probably had to go on being that way. As the big red-headed girl waddled ahead of him he felt a sickness in his stomach. His palms and his forehead were in a cold sweat. They got back into the car and started driving. “Did you tell Roger that you loved him?” he asked her. “I will always love him, in a way,” she said. He knew that was the exact right answer.