I wanted to get home quickly after the business with the watch, but Dad drove at a slow, Mennonite pace, just below the posted speed limit. If Talmadge or one of his ilk had been following us, we’d have heard the cursing - the evening air was still and we had the windows rolled down. I took some deep breaths to keep my cool. I could freak out all I wanted. My bladder could be on the verge of bursting. I could be splayed out in the back seat with a partially severed limb. Dad would take his time behind the wheel.
I had the feeling, too, that he was going to mention Dairy Queen. In fact, I would have bet my entire record collection on it.
We pulled up to a traffic light, Dad applying the brakes in the teeth of a stale green light (in anticipation of amber).
“What do you say to a Dilly Bar?” he asked with a smile.
I was, in fact, kind of in the mood for a Dilly Bar, but what I said was that I wasn’t sure. I said I was feeling a little queasy, and that it might be best if we went straight home and I went to my room to calm down and do some studying. And maybe pray a little.
White lies. (But that’s how it starts, with the one or two expedient little half-truths. And it would end, as I well knew, in the lake of fire.)
The problem, however – the problem in which my mendacity was rooted - was that there would almost certainly be girls my age at the Dairy Queen. If Dad and I were to roll up on a Harley, that would be one thing. But to arrive in a four-door Plymouth driven by a wiry, crew-cut guy in a short-sleeved white shirt with a leatherette pocket-protector? I had a vision of myself, shunned and ridiculed, sitting alone at the end of a table in the crowded high school cafeteria, immersed in a sci-fi comic book.
Dad gently pressed the accelerator as the light turned green again. He looked straight ahead as he said, in his quiet voice, that he’d park the car down the street a little from the Dairy Queen, that he’d run up and get the Dilly Bars to go, and that I could wait in the car.
“That way I can get one for your mother too,” he added, as if that somehow wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.
Talmadge (or T, as he was known to almost everyone) was probably my best friend at the time. He was not a troublemaker per se, but he had a nose for the illicit. If something serious occurred in the area, he usually knew more about it than was printed in the newspaper. He had a large extended family, some of whom were said to be on familiar terms with local law enforcement.
The business with the watch had arisen as a consequence of my association with T.
In fact, the business with the watch might be better and more specifically described as a chain of events that had begun around noon on a Saturday, when I was riding with T in his ’55 Chevy (a loud and heavily modified variant of the stock version, with chrome exhausts and a spotless, deep blue metallic paint job).
We were several miles outside of town, heading for his cousins’ farm where we were going to shoot jackrabbits. As we approached the entrance to his cousins’ long country driveway, maybe two or three hundred yards from it, I saw something in the weeds by the side of the road.
“T, hang on a minute. Stop. I think I saw something there in the ditch.” I’d had to shout this at him, because he’d been blasting some kind of ‘70s rock – Peter Frampton, I think it was - through the car’s high-wattage woofers.
He said nothing in response (which was fairly typical) but slammed on the brakes, stopping the Chevy in the middle of the road (which was also typical – he wouldn’t put a wheel onto even a paved shoulder, much less a narrow gravel one). Then he turned and gave me a kind of slack-jawed look which I knew him well enough to know meant “you said ‘stop’ and I stopped . . . so, what the fuck . . . do something.”
I jumped out of the car and ran back to the item I’d seen. Watching me in his rear-view mirror, T threw the ‘55 into reverse, spun the tires on the hot pavement, and backed up as fast as he could before skidding to a stop – a precision maneuver that aligned the passenger door perfectly with where I stood on the shoulder, holding what I’d retrieved.
I got back in the car and examined the item. It was a small, hinged wooden box that had a crown-like logo and the word “Rolex” tooled into its leather covering. I opened it, and inside was a men’s wristwatch, brand new with the manufacturer’s tag still attached. The watch was running (although the time was wrong) and from the way the second-hand swept smoothly across its face (rather than travelling in small ticks the way our cheap quartz watches did) I knew immediately that it was the real deal.
T glanced over at it. “Put that in the glove compartment, man. Don’t let my fuckin’ cousins see it. I’ll lock it in there.”
His cousins never saw it, and to his credit, T made no claim to it. With him, the finders keepers rule was sacrosanct.
For a few days after that, I felt flush. Rolexes were valuable. I was guessing I could get eight hundred bucks for it – or who knows, maybe even a grand.
But equally, guilt gnawed at me. The watch had probably been part of a cache of stolen goods, and my guess was that it had “fallen off the truck” as T’s cousins had been transporting their haul to their farm. It was a tainted asset – the proceeds of a felony - and my status as an accessory would harden the longer I secreted it. It was as if I were keeping a vial of the Devil’s saliva on a shelf in my bedroom closet. Eventually it would seep out and begin to burn a hole in my soul.
So I raised the issue with Dad – Dad, who was a mechanical engineer and who, for the first few years of my life, had worked with my mother as a Mennonite missionary. He was both devout and exacting. Consulting him was a last resort, and an admission of failure. The failure of a loser. A mug’s failure to find plausibility in any of the sly and morally evasive avenues that had, at first, so readily come to mind. I could picture T slowly shaking his head in disgust with me.
Dad carefully folded his newspaper as he prepared to address the issue. He slipped his stockinged feet back into his house-loafers and edged forward in his chair. This was a serious matter. The paper could wait (although with its tidy creases, he could return to it fresh once he’d carried out his Christian duty as a father).
My buddy Talmadge, Dad charitably opined, had a good heart. But sadly, his family had done little to foster in him an understanding of the teachings of our Lord and Savior.
I fully agreed with Dad’s assessment. T and his family were indeed among the raging heathen. Everyone knew that - and it was one of the reasons I liked to hang out with him. But what to do with the watch?
“You need to try to return it to its rightful owner,” my father said.
Ah, the counsel of perfection. Thanks a bunch, Dad, but returning the watch to its rightful owner is going to be just a tad difficult. Mainly because we have no idea - not one clue, really – as to who the rightful owner might be.
Oh, but pray for divine guidance, he would tell me (I didn’t even ask, because I knew that’s what he’d say).
So I prayed – the dutiful cycle of prayer that I’d been taught, at bedtime, on rising in the morning, and before taking nourishment. I petitioned the Lord during my ablutions, mouthing my prayers into the showerhead as if I were preaching from the stage in a revival tent. But I was none the wiser. Eventually, with lukewarm fervor, I simply asked for the courage to throw the wretched bauble into the river and be done with it.
Two days later, and before I’d made it to the river, Dad showed me a story in a week-old edition of the local newspaper (which, in a brainwave, he’d remembered and retrieved from the trash). It said that Kleindorf’s, a jewellery store that had for years been a prominent fixture on the main drag downtown, had been raided by thieves. Working overnight, they’d managed to disconnect the alarm system and had relieved the store of a fair proportion of its inventory, including – the article specifically pointed out – several fine Swiss watches.
Unduly scorned, divine guidance had fostered divine retribution.
Dad had a plan, though. A simple plan that would please God, purify my soul, and restore my sense of dignity. He would take me to see Gus Kleindorf (the owner of Kleindorf’s Jewellery), and I would return the watch in person, explaining to Mr. Kleindorf the circumstances in which I had found it. We would do it that very evening – going to Kleindorf’s house rather than his place of business, so as not to disturb the wholesome flow of commerce with such an unseemly matter.
It was, in my opinion, a terrible idea. For one thing, it seemed to place me – a wholly innocent party – squarely in the firing line. What’s more, Dad had done his best to eliminate the possibility of any tangible upside. If a reward were offered, he said, I must refuse it. (And he noted too that while he agreed with my corollary observation that virtue is its own reward, he did not care for my sarcastic tone.)
But my reservations counted for nothing. Dad’s plan was now the plan, immutable and non-negotiable. I’d just have to get on with it, and do my best to cultivate thoughts of contrition and humility: Never again would I ask T to stop the ’55 Chevy for some shiny object, a stray dog, a hooker (as if), or anything else. In fact, I seriously considered avoiding T and the ’55 Chevy altogether from then on (although in the event I did not – I was in the car with him again the next day).
So at 7:30 that evening we pulled up in front of Old Man Kleindorf’s house. Dad waited in the car in the street while I made my way up to the imposing entrance and rang the doorbell. Kleindorf himself answered the door.
“Yeah?” he said.
I blurted out my carefully rehearsed lines: “Hello Mr. Kleindorf, my name is Orton Spotswood, and I have something here that I found by the side of the road. Based on a recent newspaper article that I’ve seen, I thought it might belong to you.”
I held out the watch-box and he snatched it from my hands.
“Where the fuck did you get this?” he said, opening the box, pulling out the watch and examining it with a jaded jeweller’s eye.
“Huh?” he said. “Where?”
“Well,” I said, struggling to keep my voice even and audible, “I was riding my bike, out where Lincoln turns into County Road D - you know, where the quarry is - and I saw it lying in the ditch there.”
That, of course, was a complete fabrication – as to both location and mode of transport. My blush deepened as I drew nearer the lake of fire, but I had judged that God would not want me to rat on my friend’s cousins (or, more pertinently, would not want me to be beaten to a pulp by my friend’s cousins if they found out that I’d done so).
“Bullshit,” he said. “You stole this. Get in here, kid, I’m calling the cops right now.”
“No sir,” I said, standing my ground. “I did not steal it. I found it. My Dad brought me here to see if it was yours. He’s in our car, right there.” I pointed to the car, and as I did so I saw Dad quickly turn his head and pretend not to be looking at us.
“You found, it eh?” Kleindorf said, calming down just a little. “Where?”
I repeated my lie about the location.
“You find anything else there?” he asked.
“No sir,” I said, “just this.”
He put the watch back into the box and snapped it shut. He looked at me for a moment, breathing through his mouth and eyeing me up as if he’d been told that I was carrying some infectious disease and his task was to guess which one.
“Get the fuck off my property,” he finally barked. He waited for a moment to ensure that I was making a beeline for Dad’s car, and then slammed his front door shut.
“Well, what did he say?” Dad asked, once we were a block or so away from Kleindorf’s house.
“He said thank you.”
Dad was quiet for a full minute or so. Yes, he’d been watching me, and he’d probably been able to read Gus Kleindorf’s lips for much of the conversation.
“People express their gratitude in different ways,” he finally said.
“People,” I sneered, shaking my head.
I consulted my own crappy little watch. It was ten minutes to eight. “Timex,” I said, holding up my wrist for Dad to inspect.
“Yep,” he said. “It’s like they say on the commercials. Takes a licking, keeps on ticking.”
I looked out my side of the car, in order to conceal the smirk on my face. We were passing a warehouse with weeds growing out of the brickwork and rusty iron bars on the windows – unshowy, and content with such presence as it may have.
In this world, but not of it. Dad as his usual dumb self. Jesus, Dad. Jesus.
About the Author: Lawrence Leporte was born in the American Midwest. For much of his adult life he lived in the UK, where he worked as an English solicitor and partner in a British law firm. Now a full-time writer (and part-time bus driver), he lives with his family in California. His novel, Found on the Bottom, was published in April of this year.