Killer Instinct by Joseph
Okay, so I'm an idiot.
(1) [Acura went into a ditch because I was trying to do too many things at
once. Radiohead's "The Bends" was playing, loud, while I was driving home, too
fast, since I was late as usual. Left hand on the wheel, while with my right
hand I was thumbing my BlackBerry for e-mails, hoping I'd finally nailed a deal
with a huge new customer. Most of the e-mails were blowback from the departure
of our divisional vice president, Crawford, who'd just jumped ship to Sony.]
Then my cell phone rang. I dropped the BlackBerry on the car seat and grabbed
I knew from the ring that it was my wife, Kate, so I didn't bother to turn down
the music--I figured she was just calling to find out when I'd be home from
work so she could get dinner ready. She'd been on a tofu kick the last few
months--tofu and brown rice and kale, stuff like that. It had to be really good
for you, since it tasted so bad. But I'd never tell her so.
That wasn't why she was calling, though. I could tell right away from Kate's
voice that she'd been crying, and even before she said anything I knew why.
"DiMarco called," she said. DiMarco was our doctor at Boston IVF who'd been
trying to get Kate pregnant for the last two years or so. I didn't have high
hopes,plus I didn't personally know anyone who'd ever made a baby in a test
tube, so I was dubious about the whole process. I figured high tech should be
for flat-screen plasma monitors, not making babies. Even so, it felt like I'd
been punched in the stomach.
But the worst thing was what it would do to Kate. She was crazy enough these
days from the hormone injections. This would send her over the edge.
"I'm really sorry," I said.
"They're not going to let us keep trying forever, you know," she said. "All
they care about is their numbers, and we're bringing them down."
"Katie, it's only our third try with the IVF stuff. It's like a ten percent
chance or something per cycle anyway, right? We'll keep at it, babe. That's
"The point is, what are we going to do if this doesn't work?" Kate's voice got
all high and choked, made my heart squeeze. "Go to California, do the donor egg
thing? I can't go through that. Adopt? Jason, I can barely hear you."
Adoption was fine with me. Or not. But I'm not totally clueless, so instead I
focused on turning down the music. There's some little button on the steering
wheel that I've never figured out how to use, so with the thumb of my driving
hand I started pushing buttons, but instead the volume increased until
Radiohead was blaring.
"Kate," I said, but just then I realized that the car had veered onto the
shoulder and then off the road. I dropped the phone, grabbed the wheel with
both hands, cut it hard, but too late.
There was a loud ka-chunk. I spun the steering wheel, slammed on the
A sickening metallic crunch. I was jolted forward, thrown against the wheel,
then backwards. Suddenly the car was canting all the way down to one side. The
engine was racing, the wheels spinning in midair.
(2) [I knew right away I wasn't hurt seriously, but I might have bruised a
couple of ribs slightly. It's funny: I immediately started thinking of those
old black-and-white driver-ed shock movies they used to show in the fifties and
sixties with lurid titles like The Last Prom and Mechanized Death, from the
days when all cops had crew cuts and wore huge-brimmed Canadian Mountie hats. A
guy in my college frat had a videotape of these educational snuff flicks.
Watching them could scare the bejeezus out of you. I couldn't believe anyone
learning to drive back then could see The Last Prom and still be willing to get
behind the wheel.]
I turned the key, shut off the music, and sat there for a couple of seconds in
silence before I picked the cell phone off the floor of the car to call Triple
But the line was still open, and I could hear Kate screaming.
"Hey," I said.
"Jason, are you all right?" She was freaking out. "What happened?"
"I'm fine, babe."
"Jason, my God, did you get in an accident?"
"Don't worry about it, sweetheart. I'm totally--I'm fine. Everything's cool.
Don't worry about it."
(3)[Forty-five minutes later a tow truck pulled up, a bright red truck, m.e.
walsh tow painted on the side panel. The driver walked over to me, holding a
metal clipboard. He was a tall, broad-shouldered guy with a scruffy goatee,
wearing a bandana on his head knotted at the back and long gray-flecked brown
hair in a kind of mullet. He was wearing a black leather Harley-Davidson
"Well, that sucks," the dude said.
"Thanks for coming," I said.
"No worries," Harley said. "Let me guess. You were talking on your cell
I blinked, hesitated for a microsecond before I said sheepishly, "Yeah."
"Damn things are a menace."
(4) ["Yeah, totally," I said. Like I could survive without my cell phone. But
he didn't exactly seem to be a cell phone kind of guy. He drove a tow truck and
a motorcycle. Probably had a CB radio in there along with his Red Man chewing
tobacco and Allman Brothers CDs. And a roll of toilet paper in the glove
compartment. Kind of guy who mows his lawn and finds a car. Who thinks the last
four words of the national anthem are "Gentlemen, start your engines."]
"You okay?" he said.
"Yeah, I'm good."
He backed the truck around to my car, lowered the bed, hooked the winch up to
the Acura. He switched on the electric pulley thing and started hauling my car
out of the ditch. Fortunately, we were on a fairly deserted stretch of road--I
always take this shortcut from the office in Framingham to the Mass Pike--so
there weren't too many cars whizzing by. I noticed the truck had a yellow
"Support Our Troops" ribbon sticker on one side and one of those
black-and-white POW/MIA stickers on the windshield. I made a mental note to
myself not to criticize the war in Iraq unless I wanted to get my larynx
crushed by the guy's bare hands.
"Climb in," he said.
The cab of the truck smelled like stale cigar smoke and gasoline. A Special
Forces decal on the dashboard. I was starting to get real warm and fuzzy
feelings about the war.
"You got a body shop you like?" he said. I could barely hear him over the
hydraulic whine of the truck bed mechanism.
I had a serious gearhead friend who'd know, but I couldn't tell a carburetor
from a caribou. "I don't get into accidents too often," I said.
"Well, you don't look like the kinda guy gets under the hood and changes the
oil himself," Harley said. "There's a body shop I know," he said. "Not too far
from here. We're good to go."
We mostly sat there in silence while he drove. I made a couple of attempts to
get a conversation started with Harley, but it was like striking a wet
Normally I could talk to anyone about anything--you name it, sports, kids,
dogs, TV shows, whatever. I was a sales manager for one of the biggest
electronics companies in the world, up there with Sony and Panasonic. The
division I work for makes those big beautiful flat-panel LCD and plasma TVs and
monitors that so many people lust after. Very cool products. And I've found
that the really good sales reps, the ones who have the juice, can start a
conversation with anybody. That's me.
But this guy didn't want to talk, and after a while I gave up. I was kind of
uncomfortable sitting there in the front seat of a tow truck being chauffeured
around by a Hells Angel, me in my expensive charcoal suit, trying to avoid the
chewing gum, or tar, or whatever the hell it was stuck on the vinyl upholstery.
I felt my rib cage, satisfied myself that nothing had broken. Not even all that
I found myself staring at the collection of stickers on the dashboard--the
Special Forces decal, a "These Colors Don't Run" flag decal, another one that
said "Special Forces--I'm the Man Your Mother Warned You About." After a while,
I said, "This your truck?"
"Nah, my buddy owns the towing company and I help out sometimes."
Guy was getting chatty. I said, "He Special Forces?"
A long silence. I didn't know, were you not supposed to ask somebody if they
were in the Special Forces or something? Like, he could tell me, but then he'd
have to kill me?
I was about to repeat the question when he said, "We both were."
"Huh," I said, and we both went quiet again. He switched on the ball game. The
Red Sox were playing the Seattle Mariners at Fenway Park, and it was a tight,
hard-fought, low-scoring game, pretty exciting. I love listening to baseball on
the radio. I have a huge flat-panel TV at home, which I got on the
friends-and-family discount at work, and baseball in high-definition is
awesome. But there's nothing like a ball game on the radio--the crack of the
bat, the rustling crowd, even the stupid ads for auto glass. It's classic. The
announcers sound exactly the way they did when I was a kid, and probably sound
the same as when my late father was a kid. Their flat, nasal voices are like an
old pair of sneakers, comfortable and familiar and broken-in. They use all the
well-worn phrases like "high--fly--ball!" and "runners at the corners" and
"swing and a miss." I like the way they suddenly get loud and frenzied,
shouting things like, "Way back! Way back!"
One of the announcers was commenting about the Sox pitcher, saying, ". . . but
even at the top of his game, he's never going to come close to the fastest
recorded pitch speed of one hundred point nine miles an hour, thrown by . . . ?
Jerry, you must know that one."
And the other guy said, "Nolan Ryan."
"Nolan Ryan," the first guy said, "very good. Clocked at Anaheim Stadium,
August the twentieth, nineteen-seventy-four." Probably reading off the
prompter, some research fed him by a producer.
I said, "Wrong."
The driver turned to me. "Huh?"
I said, "These guys don't know what they're talking about. The fastest recorded
pitch was Mark Wohlers."
"Very good," Harley said, nodding. "Mark Wohlers. Hundred and three."
"Right," I said, surprised. "Hundred and three miles per hour, in
"Atlanta Braves spring training." Then he smiled, an easy grin, his teeth even
and white. "Didn't think anyone else knew that," he said.
"Of course, the fastest pitcher ever, not in the major leagues--"
"Steve Dalkowski," said Harley. "Hundred and ten miles an hour."
"Shattered an umpire's mask," I said, nodding. "So were you a baseball geek
when you were a kid, too? Collection of thousands of baseball cards?"
He smiled again. "You got it. Those Topps gum packs with that crappy stale
bubble gum inside."
"That always stained one of the cards in the pack, right?"
"Your dad take you to Fenway a lot?" I said.
"I didn't grow up around here," he said. "Michigan. And my dad wasn't around.
Plus we couldn't afford to go to games."
"We couldn't either," I said. "So I listened to games on the radio a lot."
"Played baseball in the backyard?" I said. "Break a lot of windows?"
"We didn't have a backyard."
"Me neither. My friends and I played in a park down the street."
He nodded, smiled.
I felt like I knew the guy. We came from the same background, probably--no
money, no backyard, the whole deal. Only I went to college and was sitting here
in a suit, and he'd gone into the army like a lot of my high school buddies
We listened to the game for a bit. Seattle's designated hitter was up. He swung
at the first pitch. You could hear the crack of the bat. "And there's a high
fly ball hit deep to left field!" one of the announcers crowed. It was headed
right for the glove of a great Red Sox slugger, who also happened to be a
famously clumsy outfielder. And a space cadet who did things like disappear
from left field, right in the middle of a game, to take a leak. When he wasn't
bobbling the ball.
"He's got it," said the announcer. "It's headed right for his glove."
"He's going to drop it," I said.
Harley laughed. "You said it."
"Here it comes," I said.
Harley laughed even louder. "This is painful," he said.
A roar of disappointment in the ballpark. "The ball hit the back of the glove,"
said the announcer, "as he tried to slide to make the play. This is a
major-league error right here."
We groaned simultaneously.
Harley switched it off. "I can't take it anymore," he said.
"Thank you," I said, as we pulled into the auto body shop parking lot.
It was a kind of scuzzy place that looked like a converted gas station. Willkie
Auto Body, the sign said. The manager on duty was named Abdul and probably
wouldn't have an easy time getting through airport security these days. I
thought Harley would start off-loading the carcass of my poor Acura, but
instead he came into the waiting room and watched Abdul take down my insurance
information. I noticed another "Support Our Troops" sticker on the wall in
here, too, and a Special Forces decal.
Harley said, "Jeremiah at home?"
"Oh, yeah," said Abdul. "Sure. Home with the kids."
"This is a friend of mine," he said. "Make sure you guys take care of him."
I looked around and realized the tow truck driver was talking about me.
"Of course, Kurt," Abdul said.
"Tell Jerry I was here," Harley said.
I read an old copy of Maxim while the tow truck driver and Abdul walked back to
the shop. They returned a couple of minutes later.
"Abdul's going to put his best master tech on your car," Harley said. "They do
good work here. Computerized paint-mixing system. Nice clean shop. Why don't
you guys finish up the paperwork, and I'll get the car in the service bay."
"Thanks, man," I said.
"Okay, Kurt, see you," said Abdul.
I came out a few minutes later and saw Harley sitting in his tow truck, engine
idling, listening to the game.
"Hey," he said, "where do you live? I'll drop you off."
"It's pretty far. Belmont."
"Grab your stuff out of the car and jump in."
"You don't mind?"
"I get paid by the hour, buddy. Not by the job."
I got my CDs off the floor of the car and my briefcase and baseball glove off
"You used to work in a body shop?" I said when I'd gotten back into the
The walkie-talkie started blaring, and he switched it off. "I've done
"How do you like towing?"
He turned and gave me an Are you out of your mind? look. "I take whatever work
I can get."
"People don't like to hire soldiers anymore?"
"People love to hire soldiers," he said. "Just not ones with DDs."
"What's a DD?"
"Dishonorable discharge. You gotta put it down on the application, and as soon
as they see that, you're out the door."
"Oh," I said. "Sorry I asked. None of my business."
"No big deal. It just pisses me off. You get a DD, you don't get any VA
benefits or pension. Sucks big-time."
"How'd it happen?" I said. "If you don't mind my asking."
Another long silence. He hit the turn signal, changed lanes. "Nah, I don't
mind." He paused again, and I wasn't sure he was going to answer. Then he said:
"The CO of my Special Forces A-team ordered half of us to go on this suicide
mission, this broke-dick reconnaissance mission in Tikrit. I told the CO there
was a ninety-nine percent chance they'd get ambushed, and guess what? The guys
got ambushed. Attacked with rocket-propelled grenades. And my buddy Jimmy
Donadio was killed."
He fell silent. Stared straight ahead at the road as he drove. Then: "A good
kid, just about finished with his tour, had a baby he'd never even seen. I
loved that guy. So I just lost it. Went after the CO--head-butted the bastard.
Broke his nose."
"Wow," I said. "Jesus. I can't blame you. So you got court-martialed or
He shrugged. "I'm lucky they didn't send me to Leavenworth. But nobody in the
command wanted to draw any attention to what went down that night, and they
sure as hell didn't want CID looking into it. Bad for army morale. More
important, bad PR. So the deal was, dishonorable discharge, no time."
"Wow," I said again. I wasn't sure what CID was, but I wasn't going to ask.
"So are you, like, a lawyer or something?"
"Entronics. In Framingham."
"Cool. Can you get me a deal on a plasma TV?"
I hesitated. "I don't sell the consumer line, but I might be able to do
He smiled. "I'm kidding. I couldn't afford one of those anyway, even wholesale.
So, I noticed the glove you got back there. Sweet. Rawlings Gold Glove, Heart
of the Hide. Same as the pros use. Looks brand-new. Right out of the box. Just
"Um, about two years," I said. "Gift from my wife."
"Oh. You play?"
"Not much. Mostly on my company's team. Softball, not baseball, but my wife
didn't know the difference." Our team sucked. We were on a losing streak that
resembled the Baltimore Orioles' historically pathetic 1988 season. "You
He shrugged. "Used to."
A long beat of silence.
"In school or something?" I said.
"Got drafted by the Detroit Tigers, but never signed."
"My pitch speed was clocked at ninety-four, ninety-five miles an hour."
"No way. Jesus!" I turned to look at him.
"But that wasn't where my head was, at that point. Enlisted instead. I'm Kurt,
by the way." He took his right hand off the wheel and gave me a firm handshake.
There was another long silence, and then I had an idea.
"We could use a pitcher," I said.
"My company's team. We've got a game tomorrow night, and we sure could use a
decent pitcher. How would you like to play on our team tomorrow?"
Another long pause. Then: "Don't you have to work for the company?"
"Guys we play have no idea who works for us and who doesn't."
Kurt went quiet again.
After a minute, I said, "So what do you think?"
He shrugged. "I don't know." He was staring at the road, a half smile on his
At the time it seemed like a fun idea.
Copyright © 2006 by Joseph Finder