Stress Test Ch. 1
The Safety Belt
The state killed Uncle Roscoe.
Cousin Johnny laid it out plain and simple for Saury.
A palm slapped the tabletop, but the fly escaped into the kitchen with Sandy.
"State killed my daddy dead," Johnny said, with the candor of a child who knows the truth about the Easter Bunny.
Not that it was any big revelation. The whole family knew the story behind Roscoe's execution. Sandy never doubted that the tradition would be passed on to Saury one day. But the kid was only five—too young to remember Roscoe. Way too young to come to grips with this.
A steak knife slipped out of Sandy's hand and hid in the suds like a shy, poisonous fish.
If only Roscoe had been a serial killer, or a monster who forced drugs down pre-schoolers' throats, or a shameless, thieving television evangelist, he might be alive today.
Unfortunately, he was none of those things. Roscoe provided for his family. He budgeted for charity. He loved Oscar, the dimwitted, one-eyed beagle that never even learned to fetch the paper. He only cheated at solitaire once in his life—just to see what it felt like. Fact is, Roscoe was probably the pinnacle Skinner, the very best the bloodline had to offer. He was a world better than the one Sandy wound up with, Stephen X Skinner.
And so, according to the legend, the state went and killed him off early.
As she felt for the knife in the murky water, Sandy thought how much better her own life would have been if Stephen X, not Roscoe, had been the state's victim.
Sandy lifted her hand from the water and rubbed the back of her wrist against a sudden itch in her left eyebrow. Something like that would have really messed her make-up in the old days. She wore only a trace anymore, ever since she figured the make-up was one thing that attracted Stephen X to her. Long after it mattered, she realized that her mother had been right. The bright paint and soft powders made her look like a tramp. Not that her mother had really given a shit—when Sandy wore too little make up, it emphasized her pasty complexion; when she put on a conservative dress, she looked frumpy; a halter top turned her into a whore. She stuffed herself; she pecked at her food; she slouched and mumbled and her room was a mess.
She was perfect for Stephen X.
Johnny and Saury raised their voices in a wordless song and circled a pile of toys in the living room.
"Don't be so loud, Saury," she shouted. After a moment she realized that Linda was out back with the men, so she added, "You, too, Johnny. I can't think for all the noise."
Not that she really wanted to think where her mind took her. She remembered how they learned that Roscoe was dead. Stephen X had been with him not more than an hour and a half earlier. They'd been to a parts shop looking for some gadget or potion that would make Sandy's car stop burning oil, without the expense of a ring job. Stephen X always had an eye out for a shortcut.
She knew that Roscoe hated him as much as she did, but they were brothers so he had to put up with him. Roscoe knew a little about cars, so Stephen X could talk like he knew something, too. Roscoe also knew a little about people, but Stephen X could never pull off that sham.
Their mother had died before Stephen X could stagger more than three or four paces without falling. It was probably merciful that the woman never knew what she had inflicted on the world. Sandy pictured Mother Skinner struggling to rise a few inches from her deathbed, forcing Roscoe to take some regrettable oath about looking out for his kid brother.
Stephen X had only had time to down two tall boys before the phone rang. "Who the hell is that?" he muttered as he swung the fridge door shut and walked to the phone.
"I don't know," Sandy said, embarrassed at first that she couldn't answer the question, and then embarrassed because she had believed it was a question.
Stephen X cleared his throat the way he always did when the real world closed in, with two short hacks followed by a longer, harsher one. "Skinners," he said into the phone, and then he was silent for a long time.
Sandy was folding clothes with her back to the phone when she realized that Stephen X wasn't saying anything. She turned, thinking—she didn't know what—maybe he had disappeared, leaving behind a tidy heap of ashes, with the phone swinging like a pendulum at the end of its cord. Instead she saw that he had been staring at the back of her head. And now he stared at the front of her head. Or right through it. It didn't matter. She never connected with him anyway.
At last Stephen X grunted and hung up the phone. He cleared his throat again, with the same three-beat cough, and said, "Roscoe's dead."
Sandy flinched. Her hands flew to her face, smudging her peach-dust foundation. She wanted to say that she didn't do anything, that she didn't even know about it until just this minute. She had no idea what her husband would do next. Stephen X had never had a brother die on him before, and he never adapted gracefully to new situations.
Of course, that was before they knew that the state killed him. Linda was still unconscious. Days would pass before she could tell anybody what happened.
"I was just with him," Stephen X said, looking back to the phone, "and now he's dead.
"The phone stinks, Sandy," he went on after a moment. "What the hell did you do to it?"
She panicked. She wanted to give him the right answer, but she had never been with Stephen X Skinner when a brother died and she didn't know what to say. Her mind raced. "I was chopping onions this afternoon when the photo studio called. I must have forgotten to wash my hand before I picked up the phone."
"What did they want?"
"The photo studio."
"What do you mean?"
"Wake up! You just said the photo studio called."
"Baby pictures. They wanted to do a portrait of Saury."
"How'd they know we have a baby?"
She stared at him a moment, fear widening her eyes against their mascara rims. "The newspaper! They must have seen the birth announcement in the paper."
"I don't know."
"Didn't they tell you?"
"No. I don't even know if it was the paper."
"You just said it was."
"Maybe they call everyone."
"Which is it? You can't have it both ways. You can't change things just to suit yourself all the time. Which is it?"
"I don't know."
"We can't afford pictures. The goddamn kid costs too much already without paying someone to take pictures of it."
"That's what I told them."
"What's wrong with my camera? I can take pictures, too, you know."
"That's what I told them."
"Then what did they want?"
"I don't know. I don't know. Do you want me to call them back?"
"Don't play games with me."
Sandy could put up with that. She felt relieved that he'd forgotten to blame her for Roscoe's death. Stephen X treated it like some terrible, nameless injustice that had been visited upon him. By the time he got around to assigning blame, the story came out and she was safe.
It seemed incredible that a bureaucracy whose governor confused the names of every town beginning with the letter "S," whose lawmakers made headlines more often for indiscretion than legislation, and whose top lobbyists changed allegiance on the whim of a dollar, could have plotted the intricate death of Roscoe Skinner.
The mandatory seat belt law did it.
Roscoe was a sensible man. His only apparent genetic link to Stephen X was a stubborn bent. Even then, principle guided him more than pride.
"I know that seat belts are a good thing, that they save lives," he told Sandy. "I've been wearing one since I was sixteen.
"But by telling me I have to wear one, they've stolen my virtue," he went on, adjusting his rimless glasses. "Something I did because it was right and made sense I now have to do out of fear of being punished. People should have the chance to make the right decisions. They shouldn't be bullied into avoiding bad decisions. I feel like I've been raped."
"You don't have the faintest idea what you're talking about," Sandy snapped, feeling angry at Roscoe for the first time in her life. It soon passed and she never felt that way again.
To spite the authorities, Roscoe began leaving his seat belt unlatched. He continued to drive safely and without incident. One night, a burnt-out tail light on his Cutlass Supreme attracted a motorcycle cop. He got off with a warning for the light, but had to pay a small fine for not having his belt on.
Six weeks later, with the city facing a budget crisis, the mayor placed the police force on full revenue-enhancement alert. No violation was too small for their attention. The courts clogged up, but the money rolled in. Roscoe got pulled over and fined again.
Not ten days after that, Roscoe received his third ticket.
It was the next day that Roscoe dropped off Stephen X after their trip to the parts store, and picked up Linda. They pulled into Thrift Aisles for groceries on their way home. Linda said Roscoe was just turning onto Westmore Avenue and gunning the Cutlass to merge with the swift, merciless traffic when he saw the squad car waiting for the light to change.
Pragmatic to the end, Roscoe drew a sharp breath and fumbled for the seat belt under his butt. As he rose from the vinyl, his foot came down hard on the accelerator. With one hand on the wheel, he lost his tracking and sent the car scuttering crablike into the line of oncoming traffic.
They had to cut him out with a torch.
Now the kids shrieked again in the living room just as Sandy's finger found the sharp end of the knife. She gasped and pulled her hand from the greasy water. As she moved closer to the light and studied the slash in her puckered flesh, she wondered why there was no blood.
And she wondered how she would explain that to Stephen X.
Go to Chapter 2 of Stress Test.
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