Following is the first chapter from Peter Ferry’s second novel, Old Heart, forthcoming from Unbridled Books on June 9, 2015. The Chicago Tribune has weighed in with an early review: “Old Heart moves through time and grabs your interest on every page and will stay with you for keeps.” Ferry’s first novel, Travel Writing, was featured here at Bloom for our inaugural profile in November 2012.
Lake County, July 5, 2007
Tom Johnson looked at the broken front seat of the big taxi through the open door.
“Goddamn this piece of . . . crap,” said the big driver. Tom read his name from the license on the dashboard: Daniel Pecora. “Pardon my French, sir.”
“Sometimes the elderly don’t like cursing.”
“Doesn’t bother me,” said Tom.
“So what are we going to do now? I guess I could have them dispatch another cab for you, but it might take a while.”
“Why not?” Tom was about to say; he’d allowed for plenty of time. But there was something a little pathetic in the tone of the other man’s voice that gave him pause. “Well,” he said, “can you drive it?”
“This? Well, I don’t know. Let’s see.” He got in and eased the car forward, then turned into the street. He sped up a bit, then braked. He did it again. He backed up to where Tom was standing. “I don’t think the seat’s like, loose, you know, unanchored. It’s just broke.”
“Then let’s go to the airport.”
“Well, I’m game if you are, sir.”
“I’m game, Daniel.” Tom got in the back, closed the door, caught a last glimpse of the lake as they turned onto the road, and looked at the town one final time as they passed through it. I’m game all right. He imagined Brooks and Christine trying to piece things together after the accident. Where was he going? Why Paris? What in the world was he thinking? Then his cell phone rang and he asked Daniel to turn the radio off for a moment. “Morning, Christine. Yes, lovely party, dear. Best ever. Best pig ever, too. Thank you for everything. It was a perfect day. Me? Halfway to Devil’s Lake already. No reception up there, so don’t worry. I’ll be home on Friday. Call you then. Okay, sweetie. Me, too. Me, too. I will be.”
Tom turned the phone off. He pushed the back with his thumbs until it slid away, picked the SIM card out with his fingernail, replaced the back, rolled the window down, and flipped the phone out like a tiny Frisbee. He watched it skip once on the shoulder and disappear down the bank. Then he saw that Daniel Pecora was watching in the rearview mirror and had a surprised look on his face. Tom smiled.
“None of my darn business,” said Daniel.
“Our little secret,” said Tom. It was already the third one they had shared.
He had spent the three hours prior to the arrival of the taxi crossing every t and dotting every i, packing and repacking his suitcase, writing the letter, reading it, rereading it, addressing it, putting the stamp on it, going over and over his lists until each item had several check marks beside it, making sure that nothing could go wrong. And then the very first thing had gone wrong. Daniel Pecora was gigantic, a man so wide that Tom didn’t ask him to carry his bags as he had planned to but lugged them into the garage by himself. “Back her up,” he told the cabbie. “Back her right in here four or five feet.” This so the neighbors would not see him leaving with luggage. “Pop the trunk,” he said.
“Can’t,” said Daniel, hoisting himself with great effort out of the seat and the car. “Thing’s broke. Gotta use the key.” It was while getting back in that the big man broke the seat, and it was in examining it that Daniel unintentionally tilted it back and Tom saw what lay beneath it: a rodent’s nest of crumbs, crusts, peels, shredded food packages, bottle caps, and cans.
It wasn’t anything, really, until Daniel Pecora said, “You weren’t supposed to see that,” and then it became a dark, awful fat-man secret.
“That’s all right,” said Tom. “If it makes any difference, I’m wearing diapers.”
“You know, Daniel, Depends.”
So now they were floating down the interstate, for the old Chevy rode like a boat with its bad shock absorbers and loose steering, as if on small waves and wandering from lane to lane, Daniel perched on the wobbly, shifting seat, Tom steadying it with both hands from behind.
“I’ll get you there, sir!” said the fat man.
“Good man, Daniel.”
“Some drivers don’t like the elderly. Not me.” And then, in the spirit of the momentary confidentiality that had blossomed between them, “How old are you, sir, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“I’m 85, Daniel.”
“85? Well, I never would have guessed that, but now I know you’ll understand what I’m going to say: I like old people. Know why? They got something different about ’em, like me, if you know what I mean.”
“Well, I do,” said Tom. What he didn’t say was “You’re fat and I’m old,” but it was true, and somehow that was enough for them to like each other and joke a bit at least for this hour.
Tom took out the letter, unfolded it, and read it one last time.
Dearest Brooks and Christine,
By now you’ve discovered that I am gone. Please rest easy. I am healthy and happy and doing exactly what I want to do. I know it is not what you want me to do, but that’s just the point. This is my life, whatever is left of it, and I want to live it on my terms. You were simply never going to leave me alone. It was Hanover Place or nothing, and you were right, of course. You were doing what you had to do, and now I am doing what I have to do, because, you see, I do not want to live in Hanover Place or any place like it. I just don’t. I’d rather be dead, and this is better.
What is this? Well, I’m off to see the world, but if you try to follow me, the trail will end in Paris. Let me save you a lot of time and trouble. I have covered my tracks very well. I am not using credit cards. I am not purchasing tickets beyond Paris in my name. I have closed out all life insurance policies, bank accounts, mutual funds, and annuities and converted everything to cash, which I am carrying in the form of foreign bank drafts. All records of these are secured by legal confidentiality. My pension payments will be forwarded directly to me, and all related information is legally confidential. The same goes for health insurance payments and reimbursements, all of which automatically come out of and go into a confidential foreign bank account. I have left no forwarding address. I have taken everything I want and need and given away most of the rest to your kids, including my pickup, the pontoon boat, my tools, and your mother’s pearls. What’s left, do with all of it as you wish. Save nothing for me. I am not coming back.
Being your dad and Tony’s has been the greatest honor and achievement of my life; nothing else comes close. I shall think of you every day and always with absolute love; please do the same of me.
I love you both. Dad
Tom sealed the letter, looked up, saw that Daniel was again watching him, and smiled.
“So,” said Daniel, “sounds like you had yourself quite a little party.” He said this somewhat wistfully, like someone who hadn’t been invited.
“Yes,” said Tom, “quite a little party.”
Peter Ferry is a Chicago area teacher, editor and writer; he is the author of the 2008 novel Travel Writing. His short stories have appeared in McSweeneys, Fiction, StoryQuarterly, OR and Chicago Quarterly Review. He is the recipient of an Illinois Arts Council Award for Short Fiction and is a frequent contributor to the travel pages of The Chicago Tribune and the website WorldHum.