By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
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I’m sitting with Herb in my ’77 Datsun pickup. Herb has a top-of-the-line Lincoln. Dark leather and digital controls. A heater like something out of Los Alamos.
The heater in my Datsun is busted. Outside it’s a blowing wind. I’m thinking snow.
“We should have taken your car,” I say for the fifth time.
Herb doesn’t respond. He’s hunkered down in the passenger seat, knees brushing up against his chin, peering out the windshield at the door of a small white house with a green roof.
Herb’s wife, Carol, is inside. This, at least, is the way Herb’s got it figured.
I’ve known Herb for ten years. We work out of the same plant. Herb’s short, but there’s a meatiness to him. He has big hands. Knots of vein in his neck. You come away thinking he’s four inches taller than he really is.
Herb’s got this way of bringing his right hand, his ball hand, up and over fast, hooking it sharp till his thumb grazes his left ear. His ball always skids a good twenty feet down the lane. By the time it hits the pins, it’s like a fist powering right into someone’s face. Herb can pick up a ten-seven split heading into the tenth frame like nobody I’ve ever seen.
If it wasn’t for the way Herb looks standing the five and a half steps from the line, toeing the boards and cocking his arm just before he rockets the ball down the alley, I’d say, Herb, give it a rest. Back off already. I’d say, Let’s scoot.
Outside, it’s going dark fast.
I’m thinking I want to get home to Angie. It’s Friday. She’ll be making her fish stew.
Angie’s not Catholic. Went to church maybe five times in her life, and then it was always Lutheran or Presbyterian. Not a religion you remember for long. It’s one of the things I like about her. Me, I grew up going to church summer camp and playing in church softball leagues. Vacation Bible school. Choir. We’re talking God, economy size.
Angie has a thing about adopting other traditions. Says she’s without enough of her own. Get a sniffle and she’s there with a bowl of matzo-ball soup. On Bastille Day she sets off firecrackers.
I’m sitting here in my ’77 Datsun with the busted heater, freezing my vitals off, while Herb chews on whether his wife is right at this moment inside, her mouth open and her eyes closed. Her toes maybe aimed at some mountain peak in Asia.
I turn on the radio. An orange glow fills the dash. I flip the dial, but there’s news everywhere.
“Must be on the hour,” I say into the steering wheel.
Herb isn’t talking. He looks out the window and pulls at his lower lip. On the radio there’s talk of a U.S. fleet steaming to somewhere or other. Libya, maybe, or Lebanon. It’s hard to say because of the artillery punching up against the announcer’s voice.
“Turn it off,” Herb says. “Will you do that for me please? Just turn the damn thing off.”
Herb’s worried. He’s worried some other guy is in the white house with the green roof, probing Carol’s fifteen hundred in dental work with his tongue.
“I can’t see a goddamn thing,” he says. “Don’t you ever wash your windshield? Don’t you know how the hell to take care of a car?”
“It’s dark out,” I tell him. “It’s going to snow.”
“No wonder your heater doesn’t work,” he goes on.
“Herb, she’s probably at home.”
Fish stew puts Angie in the mood, is the thing. We have this big down comforter from Denmark.
Herb first met Carol at one of those money machines. This was before the machines started showing up three to a block. There were still some kinks in the system.
Carol was trying to pry the twenty from between the metal lips when Herb offered to help.
Herb left Andrew Jackson’s right ear and most of the head in the machine.
Herb explained all this to me a long time ago.
About a year ago Carol started to put on the weight. At least that’s the way Herb saw it. He’d toe up to the line in the fifth frame. He’d turn around and say, “She’s this minute stuffing her face.” Then he’d lay the ball on the pine boards and wait for the explosion of white pins.
Me, I never noticed Carol’s weight. When I thought of Carol, I always thought of her hair. It’s wild, curls on top of curls that seem ready to lift free and clear of her head.
“She’s still a hell of a looker,” I told Herb.
I was trying to help out here.
Herb wouldn’t let up. He started to ride Carol about her weight. He began making cracks in front of other people. In front of Angie and me.
“Him with that gut and all,” Angie would say later.
I tried defending Herb a couple of times. I tried hard to make out like maybe Carol was putting on a few pounds. I had these images that floated in front of my eyes. I gave up in the end.
It was in Herb’s head, is what I’m getting at.
“Carol’s at home, I bet,” I tell Herb again.
Before he can respond, a little rectangle of light splits wide and somebody steps from the door of the white house with the green roof. It’s a woman. I can see that right off. A silhouette with wild hair. Curls up to here.
The rest is blue and gray shadows.
Herb lets out a big puff of air. “Okay,” he says. “All right.” His voice sounds small and far away. Even in the gray light I can see him working the fingers of his right hand.
I’ve got to be careful here, I tell myself.
The woman moves past the car. She heads up the street. She’s wrapped in a thick winter coat. Still, she looks thin.
I don’t mention this to Herb.
I’m hoping Herb’ll want to blow it off, go home and pour himself three fingers and wake up later like nothing ever happened.
“Okay,” Herb says again.
“Herb,” I say. I shove my hands under my armpits. “Herb.”
“You saw,” he says. He’s looking out the windshield. He isn’t looking at the woman, who’s halfway down the street, or at the white house with the green roof, or at anything at all. He’s just staring into the windshield, like he can’t see past it.
“I saw a shadow,” I say. “I saw a damn shadow is all.”
“This car is filthy,” he tells me. He is staring at the windshield. “Disgusting filthy.”
“Herb,” I say. “We should go. Let’s go on now.”
He doesn’t say anything then, so I crank up the Datsun and put it in gear. The snow has started. It falls in large, lazy flakes.
Herb got worse about the diet thing. He nagged at Carol. He really chewed on about it. One night Angie and I were over there late. We were all sitting around, having a few drinks. Watching TV. Nothing special, just nice, like it can sometimes be. We watched a movie about a cheerleader and a football player. This football player was worried that he was gay. This is what the movie was about, I swear. He decided he was going to crawl on top of this cheerleader and prove to the world and himself that he was one straight arrow. This cheerleader was blonde and long-legged. Ran around with these big yellow pom-poms in her fists. Turned out it was the cheerleader who was gay. This made the football player feel better, and everything ended on a happy note.
The news came on and we all settled back to watch U.S. troops running across these ditches. They crawled out of one ditch and ran for a while. Then they all tumbled into another ditch. They did this three, four times.
It was Colombia, or Calcutta. Could’ve been Columbus. I don’t remember.
Then Herb got out of his seat and changed the channel. Said it was time for “Carol’s show.”
We all watched. They had this woman with a microphone in her hand, roaming the audience, like on those morning talk shows. All they talked about was fat, and how to get rid of it. The woman with the microphone moved from row to row, stopping to talk to the women sitting there. It was almost all women. There were only a few men that I could see.
She talked to the women, and each one explained how she’d lost twenty, thirty, forty pounds. In five or six weeks. One woman had this bloated look to her face. All puffy. But the rest of her was all right. The rest of her looked thin. She had long legs.
This woman with the puffy face talked about how she’d lost eighty pounds. Eighty pounds in ten weeks. The audience went wild over this. They oohed. They hooted. They slapped their thighs. I’ve got to admit I sat up for a closer look. Eighty pounds is nothing to sneer at. I thought about what it’d be like to bowl with an extra eighty pounds hanging off me. I tried to think about what it’d be like in bed, with Angie, if I had that eighty pounds.
Then I looked over at Carol. I looked over at her and tried to decide if she was fat. Maybe just a little spread in the tummy was all. Not enough to get worked up about. Not like the women on TV.
Everyone on TV applauded. Then there was a commercial, only they didn’t break to a commercial, like you’d expect. The commercial was right there in the show, in between the different women who stood up to say they’d lost twenty, forty pounds.
For thirty-nine ninety-five they’d send you a six-week supply. If it didn’t take, if you were still a fatty after six weeks, they’d throw in another six-week supply. Free.
Herb hunched forward in his seat. His elbows rested on his knees. He leaned far into the living room. He brought his hand up and pulled at his lower lip.
“See?” he said when they talked about the special pills. “It’s a monster deal.”
Herb was talking to Carol. He was talking to Carol, but he was looking at Angie and me. “I don’t think they’d do that about the second supply if it didn’t work. I don’t think they’d do that unless it was for real.”
Carol didn’t say anything. She stared at her fingers for a while. Then she got up and went into the kitchen for some coffee. When she got up, Herb didn’t look at her. He was staring hard at the TV.
I tried to sympathize. I tried to get inside his thinking. If you’d ever seen him working on a two-twenty game heading into the seventh frame, you’d know what I was going through.
I pretended Carol was at that very minute in the kitchen with her head stuck deep in the refrigerator, cramming food into her mouth like you do when you’re in a hurry. When you don’t care what you eat, and you have to be somewhere. Or like when you want the last of something, just because it’s the last of it, and you eat fast, not tasting anything. Just wanting to get it down, because it’s there and it’s the last of it.
I couldn’t figure it. I didn’t think Carol was in there doing that.
Later, in bed, Angie turned to me and said, “What a jerk. What an A-1 jerk.”
I had my arm around her. I could feel her head on my shoulder, her breath on my chest.
I drive around for an hour, maybe more. Herb isn’t talking.
I’m not at all sure what to do. I can’t take Herb home. If Carol’s there, it might get nasty fast. I could take him to my place. But then there’s Angie — Angie and her fish stew. There’s the down comforter.
So we drive. I head through town, come out the east side, and then turn right around. The snow’s slicing down hard now. Every once in a while I can feel the tires on my Datsun give suddenly, slipping an inch or two over the glazed road.
My left wiper makes this scratching sound, gouging a small scar in the glass.
Herb sits there and stares out the window. Tugs at his lip. Works the fingers of his right hand.
I’m thinking I can’t keep this up much longer. It’s cold and I’m tired and I can’t see.
I dip my head and try to peer through the haze.
We come to an overpass. Street lights hang like flaming balls of cotton. I feel a slight jar, a silent adjustment in the way of the world, as the rear of the car canters to the left. The front grill ticks right. Guardrails dance by. I’ve got my hands gripped tight on the wheel, but there’s nothing to steer. I’m just hanging on. It’s quiet. I listen to my own breathing. The guardrails float past a second time, and then we’re sitting on the shoulder, my front bumper some eighteen inches from a sign that says “Bridge Freezes Before Road.”
We sit there and watch the snow kicking up and spiraling in tight eddies.
“Sorry,” I say. My voice sounds strange. I glance over at Herb. My knees are jammed far up under the steering column. My fingers ache.
Herb looks up at me. He’s got this expression on his face. He’s not angry. He’s not surprised. He looks the way he looks when he’s just powered the ball down the lane and it’s no more than halfway through its skid. Herb looks the way he looks when the ball races over the lacquered pine, an ugly bruise set against the wood, and he’s already pivoting on his heel and marching back to the molded plastic seats that ring the scoring area. You look at his face and know that he knows that the ball’s going to rocket into the one-three pocket and fire pins whomp whomp against the back matting.
That’s the kind of expression he has now.
I downshift, ease up on the clutch, and coax my Datsun back onto the road.
Carol’s on the quiet side. Can’t say I know her all that well.
I’ve said a total of maybe twenty words to her without some sort of audience. It was a while after Herb started in about the diet business. He was getting crazy about it.
Carol threw Herb a birthday party. Big three-nine, is the way she put it. There were maybe fifteen people in all, the guys from the plant and their wives, a couple of neighbors from up the street. Not a big party, but nice. Just everyone sitting around drinking a few, munching on chips and licking guacamole from their fingers.
The week before, Herb had accused Carol of sneaking money from his wallet. The way Angie told it, Herb claimed Carol was going through his wallet and his pants, picking up the loose change, pinching a dime here, a quarter there.
I tried to get inside Herb’s head on this one. I was willing to understand. I wanted to understand.
Herb figured Carol was running up to the Baskin-Robbins during the day, going for one of those overgrown banana splits with extra whipped cream and fudge topping. He decided she was sneaking out to the takeout chicken place a few miles down the road. He couldn’t shake the idea of her slopping up those mashed potatoes heaped in gravy, the kind they serve in little styrofoam containers. It got so that Herb wouldn’t let Carol out of the house. He stopped giving her money. Said she could go for a few days without feeding her face.
This is the way Angie explained it to me. Of course, I was only getting one side of it. It wasn’t as if I had the whole picture. No way was Herb going to talk about these things with me.
If I were locking my wife in the house, I wouldn’t want to talk about it.
At the party Carol looked tired, but not unhappy. There were a lot of jokes about turning forty and all. Carol had made an angel food cake topped with white icing. “Herb” was spelled out in tiny licorice sticks.
It was nice.
Carol was careful not to eat anything herself.
I noticed, is what I’m saying.
I didn’t want it to be this way. I didn’t want to think of Herb in this way at all.
It was getting late, and Herb had been generous with the drinks. He’d stand at the dining room table and mix up a batch of gin and tonics. Then he went with a pitcher of tequila sunrises.
Herb was into it. Herb was having a good time. Thirty-nine didn’t seem to give him any trouble at all.
I headed into the kitchen for more ice. Carol was there, washing some dishes.
“KP already?” I said to her.
She looked back over her shoulder and grinned at me. She grinned through those enormous curls. It was the kind of grin you want to stick in your pocket and keep always and pull out whenever you need some cheering up.
In the window behind the sink sat a little portable TV. She had the station turned to one of those twenty-four-hour news channels.
“I hate waking up to warm whiskey in the bottom of a glass,” is what she said.
The refrigerator door sucked open. I emptied two ice trays into a plastic bowl. I moved to the sink. I was going to wait until Carol was in between whiskey glasses, and then hit the cold tap and fill up the ice trays.
On TV a helicopter came out of the sky and hovered maybe six feet above the ground. The place looked hot. Dry. Palm trees flapped in the distance.
“Where’s that?” I asked, nodding toward the television.
They were jumping from the helicopter. They’d come to the lip of the chopper and pause, then leap out into the open air. When they hit, they flexed their knees and rolled, coming up in a crouch. They looked ready to use their rifles.
Carol shrugged. “I’ll be done in a minute,” she said then. She smelled of soap.
Carol had on a pink blouse. Her bra straps made these small ridges in the cloth. Every time she bent to reach for another glass, a small crescent of purple poked from beneath the pink. It looked like the edge of a real whopper.
I touched her there. I set both ice trays on the counter and touched the bruise lightly, with my thumb.
She froze. Her back went tense. Everything seemed still and very far away.
She turned to look at me. She did not smile, or say anything. She stared until I looked away.
She turned back to the dishes. “Panama,” she said then. “I think maybe Panama.”
We’ve been through town twice, and Herb hasn’t uttered a peep in about thirty minutes. I can feel the hate boiling up in him. Meanwhile, my headlights are useless. High beams, low beams. I even try my parking lights. All I get is blowing snow backed up against construction paper black.
I figure Angie’s eaten the fish stew by now.
I take a left and turn onto the freeway. It’s not until we pull into the parking lot that Herb looks up. He looks around for a long time, like he’s coming out of a deep sleep.
When I open the door and step out, he doesn’t move. I reach back and pull out my ball and shoes.
What the hell, I tell myself.
I’m halfway to the entrance when I hear the truck door slam.
We get lane eleven. From lane eleven you’ve got a good view of the entire layout.
I throw a sucker strike first frame, the four pin kicking wildly off the metal brace and topping the seven just enough to send me back to the scoring table. Herb picks up a ten-pin gimmie for his spare.
Next ball I hook bad, and end up missing the pickup. The six pin wobbles, and then stands still as a sentry on duty.
One lane over a young redhead rolls a pink ball shot through with gray streaks, like thin ribbons of cloud. She can’t bowl, but the ball looks pretty as it works its way up the alley.
On the seat behind her sits a folded newspaper. The headline is big, a good inch and a half of bold black. Below it is a grainy picture. From here it looks like a giant elephant. Or maybe just a real fat guy in sunglasses.
The headline is shouting something about Nagasaki, or Nicaragua. Maybe Nigeria.
Herb stands with his back to me. He’s rubbing the ball the way he does, tiptoeing back and forth along the pine boards, lining up. I look at him standing there, and I realize his ass is too big. His ass is too big. Too much sitting. His elbows look like they’re two hundred years old, wrinkling into tight little whorls and capped by liver spots.
Next time try a punching bag. Try a wall, fat boy. This is what I want to say.
I watch as Herb sends his ball dead-level into the one-two pocket. The ball rushes there like it’s being sucked in. The ball rushes in and is there and it is beautiful and there is no getting around it. There is the play of fluorescent lighting off rubbed pine, the odor of fresh lacquer cutting the air. There is Herb, already making his way back toward his seat. Herb with that look on his face.
It comes to me then that I’m going to keep my yap shut.
Herb’s ball slices into the one-two pocket. The pins seem to pause and gather close for a moment, only to hurl themselves finally whomp whomp against the back matting.
Terry L. Toma