Excerpt from After I’m Gone
They left at dusk, about an hour before the fireworks were scheduled
Published: February 5, 2014
July 4, 1976
They left at dusk, about an hour before the fireworks were scheduled, and by the time they were at the old toll bridge over the Susquehanna, Felix could see glimmers of light through the one tiny window, little celebrations everywhere. He had told Julie to take the old way to Philadelphia, up Route 40. He was being cautious, yet nostalgic, too. He had gotten his start out here, taking action in the bars.
He sneezed. There was hay on the floor and a horse blanket. If they got pulled over, he would arrange the blanket over himself and hope for the best. He had started to do just that when the truck slowed about an hour into the trip, then realized that it was the toll on the bridge across the Susquehanna. Bert and Tubby had said they should put a horse in the trailer because then no one would bother to look inside, but he wasn’t going to crouch in a corner for the hundred-mile trip, trying to avoid hooves and shit.
He had said goodbye to Bambi earlier in the day, before she and the girls headed out to the club, where they would stay well after nightfall. He hadn’t told her what was going on, but it was clear she suspected something was up. Bambi was smart, smart enough not to ask questions. When the feds came snooping, she’d be convincing in her ignorance.
The hardest part had been saying goodbye to his unwitting daughters, keeping it casual. They were used to doing things without him; his work had always demanded long and odd hours, then the house arrest had come along, keeping him on a short leash while on appeal. No one would think twice about Felix Brewer not being at the club on the Fourth of July, not this year. The girls had given him perfunctory kisses, so sure of him, and he had not dared to hold them as close and hard as he wanted to. He did give the baby, three-year-old Michelle, an extra-hard squeeze. “Bring me present?” she asked, which startled him for a second. But Michelle got confused, thought she should get a present every time someone left the house, even if she were the one leaving. He pretended to steal her nose, showed her his thumb between his fingers, refused to give it back until she kissed him again. She had a way of cocking her head and looking at him through her lashes. Just like her mother. It slayed him.
As for Bambi, he kissed her as if it were the first time, which had been February 15, 1959, parked in front of her parents’ house in the car her parents had given her, a last-ditch bribe to persuade her to return to college. The first kiss was at once passionate and chaste, a kiss that contained everything that was to mark their future together—his aching need for her, the slightest sense of reserve on her part, as if she would always hold back a piece of herself. Their last kiss contained their entire history. A piece of an old song passed through his head, something about flying plates and broken dates, how that was part of being in love. Bambi would never throw a plate. He wouldn’t have minded if she had, once or twice.
Bambi wouldn’t have liked that Julie was driving him—if she were ever going to break some crockery, that might be the moment—but Julie was the best person for the job. Her sister actually had horses, or access to them, so it was plausible for the two of them to be hauling a trailer north. Besides, Julie was going to have it hard, once he was gone. Bambi had the girls, friends, family. Julie didn’t have anyone except her sister, an odd duck and that was being kind. The puss on that one when she took the wheel. “This better be for forever,” she muttered. “You’re getting yours,” he reminded her. Everybody was getting theirs, one way or another.
“Forever.” That was the word that Julie had repeated when he explained things to her last week. It wasn’t quite a question, more like a concept she had never heard before. They had been sitting in the little coffee shop, his one legitimate business. The weekly receipts wouldn’t have kept his girls in hair ribbons. And his girls actually wore hair ribbons. Bambi dressed them like Towson preppies, all pink and green, taught them how to blow-dry their unruly hair into ponytails. Well, not the baby, but the baby was a dead-ringer for Bambi—hair as sleek and dark as a seal’s, blue eyes, impossible eyelashes. Linda was the organized one, Rachel was the smart one, and while they were both pretty, Michelle was going to be the beautiful one. They were going to make their mark on their world, each in her own way. And he was going to miss all of it, all of it.
“Forever,” Julie repeated, drawing out the syllables, tracing the watery ring left by her Coke. She hardly drank, this one, although she pretended to at night, sipping scotch to keep him company.
“Looks that way. Unless something unexpected happens.”
Another long silence. Julie was one of those odd women who was prettier when she didn’t smile. Stone-face, she was a sultry enigma. When she grinned, she still looked like the hick teenager that Tubby scouted in the Rexall four years ago.
“Seven point five percent,” she said at last.
“The country is two hundred years old this year. They’re asking you to give seven point five percent of the country’s entire history. That’s a lot.”
“And you know I don’t give points easily.”
A quick smile at that. She used to have bad teeth before he fixed them, another reason that she didn’t smile much. Julie didn’t actually have a great sense of humor, anyway. She was a little literal-minded for that, a dollars-and-cents girl, very practical. A practical mistress was a good thing. She had never entertained the thought that he would marry her, for example, although there was that tiny little weirdness last year.
She understood that Bambi was the love of his life. It was Julie, after she started some community college class, who told him F. Scott Fitzgerald said the test of a first-class mind was holding two conflicting ideas in your head without going nuts. Felix was an old hand at that. He loved Bambi, he needed other women. Julie had been with him for a year when Michelle was born, but she didn’t act like it was a betrayal, the way some girlfriends might have. Of course he still slept with his wife. She was his wife and very attractive, and he was crazy in love with her. Being with Julie wasn’t an expression of dissatisfaction with Bambi. It’s just that life was better when you ordered a’ la carte. There had been girls other than Julie, too, a one-nighter here or there. Because he could. Because he needed to. If only Bambi would let go of that piece of her she kept locked away, if only she weren’t so goddamn self-sufficient.
Then again, she would need to take care of herself now. He couldn’t have left if he wasn’t confident that Bambi could manage. Hell, she had always run things. Had run everything except him and the money part. Voluble and flashy as Felix was, he wasn’t that removed from the old joke, the one about the kid who came home from Hebrew School and told his mother he had been cast as the husband in the school play. “You go back and ask for a speaking part,” the mother instructed. Oh, Felix got to speak. Felix got to talk and talk and talk. But at the end of the day, it was the 110-pound girl with the cerulean eyes who ruled the roost without ever raising her voice.
He was flying from a small airfield outside Philadelphia to Montreal. The Olympics were less than two weeks out, so he figured that was a safe bet, as a starting point. Lots of people were arriving in Montreal right now. From there, he would make his way to Toronto, then to his final location. He had probably over-thought it, which was not his usual style. But he had only one shot at this. The main thing was to treat everyone fairly. It was the practical thing to do. Malcontents would rat him out.
He did the math. He had always loved numbers, which had served him well for so long. Fifteen years. Michelle would be eighteen; Rachel, twenty-nine; Linda, almost thirty-one. Bambi would be edging into her fifties. She would probably still be good-looking, too. She was going to age well. Julie—harder to tell. But he wasn’t going to last fifteen years with Julie. They had maybe a year or two, tops. She was getting restless. She was ambitious, wanted to move on. Why else would she be taking those college courses? He hoped Bambi wouldn’t be too pissed about Julie getting the coffee shop, but it’s not like Bambi could run it and it was the easiest asset to transfer. He would have given Julie the club, too, but she said she didn’t want it. Said this was her opportunity to become respectable. He told her respectable was overrated. Besides, if you had enough money, whatever you did was respectable.
Seven point five percent of a nation’s history. A young nation to be sure, but still—that was a good way of looking at it. Fifteen percent of his life, if he lived to be a hundred. Probably more like 20 percent of his life and not just any 20 percent, but the heart of it, his prime. Even with the legal lottery in place, he was still making good money. Beyond good. The legal lottery seemed to prime the pump in a way he couldn’t quite fathom. His old customers played both lotteries now, street and legal. Things had been going so well that he was on the verge of buying Linda and Rachel horses, another one of Bambi’s ideas. Good thing he hadn’t because those would have been the first things to go. There were going to have to be big changes. He hoped Bambi understood that.
At the airport, he leaned into the car from the passenger side, using his weight to keep the door shut, a barrier between him and Julie. He’d give her a kiss, sure, but not some big Casablanca clinch. That would be a betrayal of Bambi.
Yet even their relatively chaste peck left the sister with that same sour expression. “I’m an accessory,” she had said when they were loading up. He had wanted to say: Well, your face looks like leather, so why not be a bag? He didn’t like ugly women. Lord, it had been a relief when Linda had finally grown into the nose he gave her. And even that had needed a little surgical refinement. He made Bambi do it right after his sentence was handed down, and Linda was now the pretty girl she deserved to be.
He handed Julie the briefcase that he had been sitting on throughout the ride and she gave him his valise, which had been riding up in front with her. He didn’t want his stuff to smell of manure.
“Don’t stop anywhere,” he reminded her. “Take it straight to the place, then open it.”
“I’ll be okay,” she said. Meaning, he knew, that she didn’t expect or need anything from him. That was part of the reason he had given her as much as he had.
“You’ll be with me,” he said. “Always.”
“Forever,” she said, the tiniest wisp of a question mark clinging to it.
On board the small plane, he reached for his new passport and found, nestled next to it, the letters he meant to pack in the briefcase. Damn. What could he do? Julie was on the road, would be for at least two hours. Even if he could call her, would he dare? Oh well, everyone knew what to do. It was just sad that he would never have the chance to explain himself to Bambi.
He was the only passenger on the plane, an eight-seater. The pilot was a dark-eyed man who didn’t want to know him or his story. Smart guy. Felix, who had ceased to be Felix the moment he boarded the plane, looked down at the lights of the city, his real city, which he had left behind years ago. His parents were down there somewhere, as was his sister. They hadn’t spoken for almost twenty years. But he didn’t want to speak to them. He wanted to talk to Bambi. She’d be back from the club now, and she’d know. She’d know.
Within ten years, a man of means would be able to make a call from his seat on some airlines. Within twenty years, almost everyone would have a cell phone and be able to call anyone, at any time. Within twenty-five years, the Towers would fall and the rules would change and disappearing via Canada, even with access to a private plane, would be much more difficult.
But Felix Brewer was not a man given to imagination, except when it came to ways of getting people to part with their money voluntarily, through a technically criminal enterprise that required neither gun nor force, just a basic understanding of the human weakness for hope and possibility.
Seven point five percent. Talk about the vig. The government had rigged the game until walking away was the only choice. The plane rose in the sky, city lights gave way to vast swaths of dark empty spaces. He was gone.
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