LIABILITY
s.p. tenhoff

Doug hit the kid while he was driving home from his weekly chess game with Otto the liquor store clerk. He had lost the game in a humiliating reversal, after feeling sure he had Otto whipped using an obscure line of the Taimonov system found in an old Chess Life. Otto gloated, as usual. He went backwards for Doug, replacing pieces on the board, untangling positions, all the way to the point of the fateful blunder.

“Here’s where your game went south,” Otto said mournfully, his fingertip on a bishop’s slotted head. “Right here.”

The kid sped into the intersection on a mountain bike, straight through a red light, torso tilted down aerodynamically. The bike ended up half under his car and the kid ended up down the street. A guy and his dog came over and watched the kid twitch for a little while. Doug joined them.

“You got a cell phone?” the dog owner said. “‘Cause I don’t. Otherwise I’d call.”
Doug took his phone out of his pocket.
“You want me to make the call for you? Can you handle this?”
“I’m fine,” Doug said, handing the guy his phone.
There was no blood. The kid twitched. He looked maybe fourteen. The dog owner called 911 and gave their location and Doug’s license plate number.
“She says don’t touch him,” the dog owner told him.
“I’m not going to touch him,” Doug said.

The dog quit sniffing the kid and looked up at its master with a let’s get moving kind of expression.

“She said five minutes if you can believe her,” the dog owner said, returning his phone. “Don’t touch him. Just leave him be.”
“Right.”
The kid wasn’t moving anymore.

“Which, hell, we don’t need her to tell us right? What are we gonna do? Don’t touch them. That’s the first rule. Leave it to the professionals. ‘Cause you could do more damage that way. Shifting things that are you know. . .”
“Right.”
“Jesus Christ.”
“He wasn’t wearing a helmet.”
“Jasper, sit.”

An ambulance came, spraying the intersection with the sound and colors of panic. But the men who got out worked in an efficient way that calmed everything down. They worked very fast but without any apparent sense of urgency, reminding Doug of the pit stop crews in professional auto racing. By the time the police arrived the paramedics had the kid strapped onto a stretcher and were putting him in the back of the ambulance. As they sealed him in and screamed away all he could think was: Thank God for those guys! They were like a hazardous waste disposal unit. Or a bomb defusing squad. They were like a special clean-up team that removed impossible things from the intersections of the world.

*               *               *

The police separated them: one talked to Doug and one talked to the dog owner.

Doug kept trying to listen to what the dog owner was saying. He could hear him make a whistling sound as he gestured with one hand.

The cop who was questioning Doug took his driver’s license to the patrol car. After a minute he brought it back.

The other cop squatted and said something to the dog Jasper.

A car had stopped in the intersection. Inside, a little girl and a man with glasses watched the five of them. They weren’t gaping, the way you imagine bystanders at an accident. They looked shrewd and knowing, like a pair of insurance investigators already on the scene. The cop who was talking to Jasper stood up and waved the car along.

“If asked, would you agree to a breath alcohol reading?”
Doug thought about this carefully. His answer to this question seemed crucial, even though he hadn’t been drinking.
“Yes,” he said finally.

Where was Jasper’s owner? Where was Jasper? They were nowhere to be seen. Their cop was measuring the skid marks behind Doug’s car with a tape measure. Doug’s cop went to the patrol car again and came back with a black object in his hand. At first Doug thought it was a breathalyzer kit, but it turned out to be an instamatic camera, which he used to take a picture of the front of the car.

“That about does it,” the cop said.
“What about the bike?” Doug said.
“Let’s see if we can’t yank her out of there.”

Together they did yank it out of there. It made a scraping, wrenching sound which for no good reason made Doug think of a filling being ripped from an open mouth with a pair of rusty pliers.
That sound: it was the worst part of the whole ordeal.

They looked down at the bike. It wasn’t mangled the way he had expected it to be. The handlebar was maybe twisted a little and the front wheel was shot but other than that the bike looked fine.

One cop opened the trunk and the other one fit it inside.

“Thanks,” he said to them as they got in the patrol car. It didn’t seem like the right thing to say.
He stood on the curb and watched them pull away. His cop lifted his fingers from the wheel in a little wave. As they drove off it occurred to Doug that he hadn’t been given the breathalyzer test.

*               *               *

As soon as he got home he went over to check the answering machine. He stared down at the box’s unblinking red eye, trying to decide whether he was relieved. He went into the living room, turned around, went back to the machine and turned it off.

For a while he watched TV. He didn’t let himself drink yet. Postponing was a recent policy: he would make himself wait if it seemed like maybe he was about to drink because he needed to. For some reason he thought of his ex. He sat on the couch and waited to feel something about the accident. Emotional disconnectedness, he knew, is a symptom of shock. It often happens to people following a trauma. It’s perfectly normal.

Finally he got up and rummaged through drawers until he found his insurance brochure. It was Sunday evening, but the brochure said “24-hour customer service seven days a week” and gave a toll-free number. An automated voice led him through a cycle of choices, none of which pertained to his situation. He went in and out of sub-menus and ended up on the main menu again. When he refused to push a button or speak into the receiver the voice told him to hold for the next available customer service specialist. There was some music, a click, and then a different automated voice told him to call during regular business hours.

He wandered around their website for a while, not knowing where to look. Eventually he went to the SEARCH box and typed in the keywords

accident pedestrian injury coverage

then deleted

pedestrian

and replaced it with

cyclist

which he changed to

bicycle

but, just before clicking GO!, he hesitated. Finally he added the word

accidental

*               *               *

He was on his second drink when the phone rang. He set the glass down and listened: seven complete rings, followed by an eighth strangled half-ring.

*               *               *

He decided to take the bus to work the next morning. Here it was the end of October and people were still in short sleeves. Across the sky clouds were fraying like ten-minute-old jet contrails. Wind blew bright gusts of sunlight down the street. Cars stopped and started and turned and coursed along together, the parts to some elaborate windup toy, all moving in sync and no way for anything to go wrong.

He hadn’t found what he was looking for on the website. After scrolling down a long page of print he’d realized that he was reading about cyclists’ coverage in an accident with an automobile instead of the other way around. During lunch break he sat on a bench outside and called the company again. He again refused to choose a number or to speak into the receiver when prompted, and this time got a customer service specialist named Craig who asked him a series of questions to verify his identity and then told him that information regarding coverage couldn’t be answered over the phone. Craig referred Doug to the website for more information. Doug told Craig he had tried the website. Craig said he would be happy to walk Doug through it. Doug said he wasn’t in front of a computer. Craig suggested he call back when he was.

It was already dark when he left work. The windup cars coursed along, stopping and starting, their ends lit white, their ends lit red.

*               *               *

He sat down in front of his chessboard. The pieces reenacted the situation after Black’s quirky and decisive pawn sacrifice at move thirteen of Kuzmin-Taimonov, Leningrad 1977. He tried to spend some time every evening moving through various lines. He had been doing this for about a year, ever since he started playing chess with Otto.

Doug had walked into his local liquor store one day and found Otto perched on a stool behind the counter. He looked vaguely reptilian. He was reading a paperback. Doug could see little chessboard squares and blocks of notation on the page. Otto didn’t look up until Doug thumped his bottle down on the counter. Then he reluctantly tented the book and rang up Doug’s order in a sort of patiently long-suffering way. Every time Doug went in Otto was either reading a chess book or staring at a little magnetic board he kept half-hidden behind the register. One day Doug leaned over, took a good look at the board and said: “Who’s winning?”

“. . .What?”
“Are you black or white?”
“I’m both,” he said. “I’m neither,” he said. “I’m studying a position.”

And then, when he saw Doug was still looking, Otto slid the board out from its hiding place for Doug to see.

After that they sometimes talked chess when Doug went in. Growing up he had been a good, if casual, player. People said he had a natural talent. When he set his bottle down Otto would slide the board from its place behind the register and make him guess the best move. If Doug picked the wrong one Otto would explain why it would be disastrous five or six or ten moves down the line. Doug realized later that Otto had been testing him. Finally Otto started inviting Doug to his house to play on Sunday afternoons. Losing was surprisingly painful (had he ever lost as a kid?), yet he found himself returning week after week. When he asked himself why, he decided it was his pride. Or the fact that the divorce had just been finalized, and time spent at Otto’s place was time not spent alone. Besides, the evenings at home, planning his eventual victory—he educated himself on chess theory, tested strategies against a software program called “Grandmaster”, searched through edition after fat edition of Modern Chess Openings for a magic formula—it all gave him something to do in the empty apartment besides drinking and brooding over things that were no longer supposed to matter.

Now Kuzmin-Taimonov provided him with the same kind of distraction from the accident: before he knew it three hours had passed without him thinking about it once. At the same time he had the sense that it might actually have been there in the back of his mind all along, like a chess problem you can’t solve: you’re beating Otto; somehow you fuck up again; for the next week, no matter what you’re doing, a part of you keeps trying to figure out how it happened. Two pieces intersect: there’s an unexpected outcome. The kid went straight through the intersection without even slowing down. Of course it wasn’t a chess problem. A human life was involved. But was he a monster for trying to make sense of it, for trying to reduce it to something as clean as the pattern of squares on a board? The kid went straight through. Doug hit the brakes too late. Why turn it into something more complicated than that? What was there to do now but continue with his life, which meant, for the most part, sitting alone in front of the chessboard, postponing the evening’s first drink, studying positions and imagining himself finally beating Otto?

*               *               *

He was riding the bus to work the next morning when it occurred to him that maybe the story he’d told the police officer wasn’t accurate. That maybe, once he saw the kid coming, he had accelerated before hitting the brakes.

*               *               *

An insurance agent came to his apartment. He said he had been trying to contact Doug. He looked tired. He was the sort of man who looks rumpled even when he isn’t. He had a copy of the police report. While looking down at his clipboard he read back the questions the police officer had asked. Doug repeated his answers. He learned the name of the kid he’d hit.
The kid had died, as it turned out. He hadn’t made it to the hospital.

The insurance agent said Doug appeared to be covered through the bodily injury liability clause of his policy, but he advised him not to contact the family or to answer any questions if they or their lawyer contacted him. Then he gave Doug his business card.

The dog owner had corroborated his story: the kid raced straight into the intersection without even slowing down at the red light. That story still felt true. It just didn’t feel complete. There was the part about Doug accelerating when he saw the kid. By now he was convinced he had hit the gas pedal and hit it deliberately, if that was the right word. He was pretty annoyed with Otto at the time, although he couldn’t really say whether that had anything to do with it. It was just a split-second thing. Chances are he would have hit the kid anyway.

The scraping sound when the bike was pulled out from under his car.

He stayed where he was on the couch. Postpone. Postpone.

Something seemed to be wrong with him. He didn’t seem to be able to feel anything about the kid’s death. He tried different constructions: If it weren’t for me that kid would be alive today. A boy is dead because of me. My actions cost a kid his life. And finally: I killed someone. He couldn’t get the words to mean what they wanted to. They just sounded like words. Maybe he was in denial. Wasn’t denial one of the stages in coping with death? But it didn’t feel like that. It didn’t feel like anything.

And then an emotion appeared: he started to feel guilty about not feeling guilty about what he’d done.

*               *               *

He went into the liquor store. “I hit this kid,” he told Otto.
“What kid?”
“With my car.”
“When? Just now?”
“After our game. The kid died.”

Otto gave him a free bottle of J & B.

He walked home. It was another warm night. Leaves shushed overhead. They looked yellow, but it was just the light from the sodium lamps: they were really still as green as ever. Really nothing had changed. It was fall but it wasn’t fall. It would just go on and on like that, he realized—an endless unchanging season.

When he got back to his apartment he took the bottle out of its paper bag, set it on the kitchen table and stood there for a long time looking at it.

*               *               *

He woke up and lay in bed trying to remember his dreams. Sometimes he could sort of feel his way around an outline, a shape, but there would be nothing inside it; all he could be sure of was that he’d been dreaming. Other times a scene would stay with him as he lay there, and he’d think it might be significant until he examined it, and found nothing but random scraps from his daily life all strung together in a row. He kept looking for the kid, or for the kid’s bike. Then again, he thought, dreams don’t usually come at you straight like that. So he searched for some transfigured sign of the accident; but he didn’t dream of police, or traffic signals, or ambulances. He didn’t dream of insurance agents or parents standing in his doorway with silent accusing faces. He didn’t even dream of dogs.

*               *               *

He started driving again. He drove more slowly than usual, both hands on the wheel. He wasn’t afraid exactly. It was like he was waiting for something to happen—a revelation maybe—and he didn’t want to rush past and miss it. One day after work he went through the intersection where he hit the kid. Not because he felt compelled to return there; it was on his way and he told himself he wasn’t going to make a detour anymore just to avoid it. He stopped on red, waited until the light changed, drove slowly through. It was just an intersection. You couldn’t tell by looking that anything had ever happened there.

He hadn’t played Otto since the accident, but he still spent his evenings gazing down at Kuzmin-Taimonov, move 13. There were no revelations to be found there either. Chess, he finally decided—he was at the board late one night, a glass wavering over the squares like a piece in mid-move, his once-strict rule about mixing chess and alcohol abandoned now—chess is only revelatory when you don’t understand it. In fact there are no secrets to the game: it’s simply incremental, the gradual accretion of details that lead you in a certain direction, sealing off choices, one after another.

*               *               *

He called the insurance agent and asked for the address of the kid’s parents. The agent advised Doug again not to contact them. He had seen people jeopardize their coverage that way, just opening the door wide to liability. Finally, though, he read the address out for Doug, along with the father’s name.

The place was less than a mile from his apartment. This made sense; after all, Doug and the kid had been using the same intersection. But the proximity of their homes seemed to have some kind of sinister significance. He was thinking he might even have passed the house before, driven right by the place where the kid spent his life. The block turned out to be unfamiliar, though. Southeast Gladstone was a quiet street with small run-down houses on one side and a closed warehouse on the other. The Sekowsky home was the nicest one on the block: it had a fresh coat of paint at least, and a well-tended front yard.

The house was dark when he got there. He felt disappointed, depressed even, although during the whole drive over he had been terrified that someone might actually be home and he might have to go up to the door. He sat in his car and stared at the house, as if, by looking hard enough, he could make it blink to bright life, shadow-play figures set into sudden motion behind the curtains. Nothing happened. It was the same thing the next night except when Doug was about to give up and leave, a car pulled into the driveway.

*               *               *

Raymond Sekowsky (if that’s who it was) looked about Doug’s age. He got out of an old Camry, a compact, deeply tanned man in a green work uniform. My age, Doug thought, and already a teenage son. He must have started early.

Or maybe it was just that Doug had started late. It wasn’t his idea. His wife came out of the bathroom holding the test stick and told him: no more abortions. So that was that: the baby was born. He’d tried to convince her he wasn’t ready, wasn’t fit for fatherhood. It didn’t matter. The baby was born. It came out pissing. Like one of those plaster cupids. The arc barely missed Doug as it was moved from between Kim’s legs to a complicated table nearby. Doug glimpsed a bluish-gray body. Over the nurse’s shoulder, he saw the face for the first time: a purple fist, clenching and unclenching around its giant wail. Very impressive, that wail. It seemed intent on convincing him that this was all really happening. Doug was convinced. The fact of his fatherhood trembled there an arm’s length away, pissing and wailing, purple and gray, furious and incontestably real.

Four days later the baby came home with them. Doug was stunned at the way it took for granted that it belonged there, that its cries were meant to be answered. Kim gave in immediately, serene and stoical in her exhaustion. She might not have been eager exactly to sacrifice everything for the baby, but she seemed sure anyway that she was doing exactly what she was supposed to. Doug would stare at it sometimes, at the enormous black alien eyes—where did those come from?—and the cheeks crosshatched with the claw marks it inflicted on itself in its sleep. He would stare at his son and suddenly feel terrified. What are you supposed to do with love like that? It wasn’t reasonable. Neither was drinking all the time, but at least he got the feeling that he was making some kind of progress, that he was fortifying himself against that terrible love. He was already a drinker, of course, but this was different. This was like work. He threw himself into it. Kim said if he loved his son he should be able to stop. Which was really unreasonable. She couldn’t understand what it was he was trying to do. When she finally left, when she took his son away from him, he drank in weepy celebration. He forgave her—the bitch!—for abandoning him. He forgave her for having the baby. By taking it away, she was only trying to undo the wrong she had done to him. All in all, he was glad they were gone. Relieved. Grateful even. About a week passed before he noticed he wasn’t feeling grateful anymore.

He hadn’t thought of his son in a long time. Neglected memories reared up, reproachful, and for a moment he completely forgot about Raymond Sekowsky. By the time he looked back, Sekowsky had nearly reached his front door.

Right away Doug noticed something strange about the man’s walk. The strange thing was how ordinary it was. There were no slumped shoulders; there was no sunken head. No solemn march or faltering step. Nothing like that. Doug didn’t expect him to break down there in his front yard, but shouldn’t his movements have offered a hint at least of his recent tragedy? There even seemed to be, well, maybe not quite a spring in his step, but yes, definitely a lightness, something loose-limbed and lively that animated his whole body as it carried him up the stairs to his door.

The next evening was the same, and the evening after. Between seven and seven thirty the Camry would pull into the driveway and Sekowsky would hop out, thrusting a jaunty elbow in front of the car door and slamming it shut with a twist from the waist. There would be the same incongruous walk to his door. Once he was inside, a pause, and then, behind a curtain, a single light would come on in what must have been the living room. (The other windows remained dark; there was never any sign of another Sekowsky.)

Doug had intended to come here and face the parents, to tell them who he was and, if he had the courage, to confess his crime. He’d felt a strange thrill at the thought of confession, a thrill that only grew stronger when the insurance agent warned him not to go. He had imagined the disconsolate parents: raw, hollow-eyed, their slack faces not sad so much as baffled, the faces of people who have closed themselves around a question they don’t expect an answer to. Then he had seen Raymond Sekowsky walk to his front door. Doug tried not to hold that walk against him. People, he reminded himself, deal with tragedy in different ways, and a cheery bounce in his step did not preclude mourning going on inside where he couldn’t observe it. But the more he watched that walk from car to home the more obscene it started to seem, an insult to the kid’s memory, as if Sekowsky were coming home every evening to caper across his lawn in a shiny party hat.

And then there was his behavior at the shopping mall.

On Saturday afternoon Raymond Sekowsky left his house, drove to the mall, and sat for a long time on a bench in front of the LensCrafters with a bag of Pretzel Time Cinnamon Sugar Bites. At first Doug took this as possible evidence of grief, since he just sat there all by himself with a peculiar strained look on his face. But then he noticed the Forever 21 next to the LensCrafters: when teenage girls entered or left Sekowsky’s head would turn surreptitiously, his hand would freeze in the bag, and he would follow them with his eyes until they were out of sight. Then he would innocently resume munching until other teenage girls passed. Sometimes he even leaned forward past the fern to get a longer look.

How would the kid—why did Doug resist using his name? To keep him at arm’s length? To make him less specific and therefore less human? Or was it that calling him by his name seemed presumptuous, as if he were pretending to himself that he knew the kid, when in fact he didn’t know him as anything other than a flash of moving color followed by a shape twitching on the street? Anyway, how would the kid feel if he were here to see that, instead of staying home and grieving and possibly drinking too much, his father was spending his Saturday afternoon eating Cinnamon Sugar Bites and leering at underage girls? But—Doug would have explained to the kid—this behavior could, if you thought about it, simply indicate a need to escape from his feelings. Lonely people often went to public places. Maybe he found solace in the parade of young lives marching past. Some of these girls must have been the kid’s own age. Some of them might even have known him. Maybe Sekowsky was considering this as he watched the girls. Or maybe he was imagining his son, alive, sitting there watching the girls in his place. The point was, Doug and the kid couldn’t know with any certainty what was going through the father’s mind. So what would have looked to the kid like leering, if he were there with Doug, hidden behind the wedding card rack of the Hallmark’s peeking through the glass at the father, might not have been leering at all. . .

Still, there would have been no way to explain to the kid’s satisfaction the wood-chip-pouring incident. Sekowsky came out of his house the next afternoon with a bag of the wood chips people put in their gardens. He came out—for a second, Doug was sure that Sekowsky looked right at him, where he was parked in front of the old warehouse, looked suspiciously, like he had noticed him there before; but on the other hand maybe not; it was just a passing glance—and then went over to the garden in front of his porch and started adding wood chips to the ones already there. Which, what kind of man would be worrying about wood chips when his son just died? But the worst part was that Doug could see his lips puckering as he poured the chips from a hole in the bag’s corner. His lips puckered, and even though Doug was too far away to hear, he knew, as the man scattered chips across the speckled, sunlit length of his garden, puckering and scattering and repuckering and sometimes squatting to smooth and sculpt the growing mounds, he knew that Raymond Sekowsky was whistling.

*               *               *

Sekowsky left his house a little after noon. Doug watched him lock his front door, swing the keys around their ring with a flourish and drop them in his pocket.

He hadn’t decided anything. Afterwards they claimed premeditation. A plan. It wasn’t true, not in the sense that they meant it. If anything, it was because he couldn’t decide what to do that he had come. He was hoping a confrontation might force some kind of decision out of him.

He often regretted later not being able to say he was drunk when it happened. It would have made everything easier to explain. But the fact was he had taken just one gulp from his flask, and that was more of a token confidence-builder than anything else. The blood alcohol content measured during the arrest—this time they actually gave him the breathalyzer test—was a result of all the drinking he did while he waited in the car for the police to arrive.

He was about to go knock on the door when it opened and Sekowsky came out instead. This threw Doug off for a second. He had imagined himself there on the front step. Sekowsky would greet him, possibly through the screen door. He might ask Doug what he could do for him. And as Doug answered, he would know why he’d come. Whatever happened, it would be over. And whatever Doug did, it wouldn’t be for himself. He would be acting on the son’s behalf. This would make him feel calm and impersonal. . .

Instead he sat there now, damp and jittery, hand on the car door latch, unable to persuade himself to move, while Sekowsky crossed the lawn and got into his own car.

Allowing himself one drink, he realized, had been a mistake. He should have allowed himself two, or three, or as many as it took to be able to do something he couldn’t take back. He saw himself—now that it was too late- getting out and confronting Raymond Sekowsky there on his lawn. Confronting him with what? Insufficient mourning? No, not just that: with being a bad father. Yes, that was it: bad father. Angry words, back and forth. He tackled Sekowsky. Sekowsky tackled him. Either way, it wouldn’t matter. A tussle there in the grass. One of them beaten bloody. But he had never been violent, drunk or otherwise. He didn’t seem to have it in him.

So then why had he hit the gas pedal when the kid raced in front of him?

He kept asking himself this as Sekowsky pulled out of his driveway and drove down the street. He already knew where they were going. Sure enough, ten minutes later they turned into the mall’s giant parking lot. The lot was divided into sections marked with animal signs, big colored signs on posts to help you remember where you’d parked your car. They were in the Giraffe section.

Sekowsky managed to find a space right away. Doug circled. There was no hurry. He had a pretty good idea where Sekowsky was going to end up: back on the bench in front of the LensCrafters, his hand in a bag of Cinnamon Sugar Bites. And Doug would end up in the Hallmark’s again. He saw the scene as if he were spying on someone: a man stands at a wedding card rack, fraudulently fingering a lacy card while he peeks through the glass. He didn’t recognize himself in that scene. That man wasn’t him. It was clear enough what he should do: leave the parking lot and go home. But leaving felt like a surrender. Like giving up on ever figuring out what killing the kid had meant. He circled the Giraffe section, thinking he would park and thinking he would leave and doing neither.

Ahead, down near the end of the row, someone stepped out from behind a pickup. Raymond Sekowsky.

He felt dizzy, as if the circles he’d been making in the car had been getting smaller and smaller. Then panic, and with it a hatred for himself more vivid than anything he’d ever felt before.

Raymond Sekowsky was walking, his back to Doug, in the direction of the mall. And his walk, as he went, was—what else?—buoyant and carefree.

Doug hit the gas and turned the steering wheel slightly, altering his trajectory.

In those few seconds before he changed his mind and slammed on the brakes, he understood something. He knew it as the car hurtled forward, his head tingling crazy warning: he had never done this before. This experience was new. He hadn’t hit the kid on purpose after all. There was no time for him then to consider why he’d needed to blame himself, no time to locate and name the guilt he’d been secretly hoarding since long before the accident. He only knew this: he wasn’t a killer. Foot on the pedal, he rushed toward a collision not yet too late to stop, paralyzed with disappointment and something like joy. He wasn’t a killer. He was innocent.

 

 

S. P. Tenhoff was educated at Columbia University, where he was awarded the Bennett Cerf Prize for Fiction. His writing has appeared in Fiction International, Confrontation, and Ninth Letter.