excerpts – A Sense of Order and Other Stories

Jack HarrellThe Actuary

It is another humid night in August, cornfields trembling slightly in a soft Illinois breeze. Trucks and tractors wait in the moonlight like mute, silvery ghosts of their daytime selves. The headlights of Cliff Emerson’s Lincoln Town Car cut a momentary path down State Route 130, the countryside rushing past in flashes and silhouettes. Driving this rural two-lane road, Cliff knows it would take a lifetime to count everything he sees, to list the liabilities and assets of each farm and home now sitting parceled and still. There is no way to count it—the men and women and children sleeping or watching late-night TV, afraid of what the darkness reveals. There are too many choices, too many actions, too many wills for everything to fit inside something Cliff can understand. Coming home from a state insurance convention that night with a thirty-year-service medallion in his breast pocket, Cliff thinks about all the people and cars and buildings, hoping it might add up to something in his brain. He wants to know, once and for all, that it has some kind of meaning.

He powers down his window as he passes the Ebenezer Church road and the night air fills the car’s air-conditioned interior. The numbness he feels is dull and relentless. He doesn’t tell the doctor because there’s nothing there the doctor can see. Before the stroke, before this hollowness, he had felt something else: a constant, relaxed assurance that had been there all his life, as buoyant as his own voice on the phone. But on that night in the Emergency Room three months ago, as he lay waiting for the doctor, something left him. A genie escaped its bottle. His wife had her purse on the gurney beside him, digging for a stick of gum when a new wave of dizziness came over him.
“What’s happening?” she asked.

He couldn’t answer. A blankness filled his closed eyes, a whiteness like death.

“I need the doctor,” he finally whispered.

All those years he’d kept risks down, liabilities down, securities and assets on the rise. He’d made a life’s work of accounting for things. He could read the actuary tables like a fortune-teller, predicting the possibility of accident, injury, or theft and translating any loss into a solid dollar value, payable upon verification of premiums received. But after that night, he couldn’t straighten his accounts. Only days ago he’d sat in the living room of a client, Daniel Earl, the actuary tables spread out before them. “I’ll have to get back to you,” he finally said to Daniel, knowing he’d just lost a friend and customer of twenty years.

Things hadn’t been any better tonight at the convention. In the middle of his acceptance speech, the guys wheeled out a giant cake and two young women in sequined outfits popped out and began dancing. The room erupted in hoots and catcalls. Cliff stood awkwardly at the podium, halting, unable to read the words on the page before him.

“Sorry about that one,” Scott Rivers said later, clapping him on the back. “I told those bozos to wait for you to finish.”

Gripping the steering wheel now, bracing for a curve, Cliff asks himself a simple question: Finish what? Five miles down the road, he still has no answer.

He passes Higgins’ Farm Implements as the lights of a semi come and go. Feeling weary, he slows the car and pulls off onto a gravel spot a few miles down the road where truckers stop to sleep. He sits there with the air conditioner running, his window rolled down, the Lincoln’s big motor idling. The digital clock glows a green 11:54 p.m. His wife would be asleep by now, calm and oblivious on her side of their California king-sized bed. He thinks about what the house feels like on nights when he comes home late: silent, orderly, the kitchen lit dimly by a bulb over the stove, the bathroom veiled in the faint glow of a nightlight. He tries for a moment to remember where they got the nightlight, how long they’ve had it, what color it is. He doesn’t want to go home and undress in the dark, get in bed and whisper “It’s me” when she awakes uneasily.

He kills the car’s engine, steps out onto the gravel, shuts the door. The Lincoln’s headlights reach silently into the night. He leans against the car, arms folded, head down. Get back in the car, he thinks. What are you doing? He looks up at the sky, chalky with a thousand stars. He takes off his jacket, tosses it into the open car window, and looks out at the blackness of the cornfield across the road. What is out there in the darkness? A killer in a hockey mask? The Face of God? Maybe nothing at all. The last thought frightens him more than anything else. He walks along the road, his shadow breaking the headlight beam in the distance. God, you know how these feelings hit me. I looked around tonight, I didn’t know where I was. The same men, the same jokes. Giving each other awards, nodding at the numbers on the screen. I didn’t know them. I didn’t know myself.

He sits down on the pavement, loosens his tie. The road’s surface is still warm from the heat of the day. The abandon in this action—doing what’s never done, sitting in the middle of the highway at midnight—awakens something inside him. He remembers summer nights just like this one, growing up in southern Illinois. Jeff and I used to talk when it was dark and quiet like this. Sneak out our bedroom windows, sit in the middle of the street at midnight, and see how long it took before a car came. What were we then, fourteen years old? He shakes his head and smiles, arms resting on his knees. That one night we were talking about UFOs, Jeff stopped in the middle of his sentence. He pointed behind me with this scared look on his face. I fell for it, big time. For that brief second, before I turned around, it was like breaking through to something. When I turned around, though—nothing.

Lying back on the pavement, resting his head gingerly on the hard surface of the road, Cliff looks up at the sky spread out like black velvet, a thousand diamond stars keeping their secrets. He extends his arms on the pavement. He’s an exhausted swimmer floating on the water after a tough race.

Rolling onto his side, he feels the macadam with the soft palm of his hand. Each tiny pebble embedded in the pavement could be its own world, its own universe. His face is there, just above the pavement, close enough to kiss its calloused surface. He can imagine the tiny lumps against his lips, warm and porous. He knows the tar, the tiny stones in the asphalt, the giant paving machine that can lay down a solid sheet of road like a coat of thick black paint. He imagines the men driving the trucks, the massive rollers, the blond woman in faded Levi’s and an orange vest lazily holding the SLOW sign. So much to count, he thinks. He slaps the concrete hard; a tingle stings his palm. Any actuary tables for this? He touches the pavement once more, almost caressing it. I know this, I can feel it. It’s solid and real. He puts his cheek to the pavement. I shouldn’t be doing this. Men don’t behave this way.

Then he hears a car. He groans as he rises from the pavement. A new dizziness washes through his head when he walks back to the Lincoln, brushing at his slacks. He reaches for the handle to get in his car, drive home, end this nonsense, illuminated by the lights of the oncoming car as it rushes past—but then there’s a blast like a gunshot, followed by the clumpity-clump of a tire disintegrating.

He sees the brake lights of the car as it drifts to the side of the road. Getting in his own car, he slowly drives the hundred yards or so along the edge of the highway, stopping behind a small white Toyota, taillights ablaze. One of the car’s tires is still on the edge of the pavement. His headlights shine on two young women inspecting the remnants of their left front tire. One of the girls is a brunette in jeans, the other a blond in sweat pants. They both wear tennis shoes and tee shirts, both have their hair pulled back in ponytails. Cliff can’t place where he’s seen them before. Daughters of clients, maybe. The blond turns toward him, squinting into the brightness of the headlights.

“The thing just blew up,” she says as he walks toward them. “Thank God I didn’t wreck!”

“I was asleep,” the brunette says. “Scared the hell outta me!”

“You know how to change one of these things?” the blond asks.

Up close they look older, maybe twenty-five. Something like this could happen to his own daughter out on the road, and he would want someone to come along and help. “I’ll see what I can do,” he says.

He gets his flashlight and hands it to the blond. The spare tire is one of those little donut things under the carpet in the trunk. Cliff moves a box aside to lift the carpet, a box of glittery costumes, the kind dancers wear. He doesn’t make the connection at first. “We worked an insurance convention tonight,” the brunette says, “a bunch of tight-fisted old men.”

Cliff looks up. These are the girls who jumped out of the cake. They don’t look at all the same—the heavy makeup washed off, the glittery costumes in the box, the high heels in the back seat somewhere. “They were cheap,” the brunette huffs.

“They were nice,” the blond counters. She waves the flashlight at Cliff. “Like this guy,” she says.

Cliff can’t make sense of the way the girls look now—so collegiate—compared to the slinky, catlike way they danced around the cake. “Thanks for stopping,” the blond says.

He lifts the donut tire out of its well in the trunk. “Would you grab that tool kit?” he asks. Carrying the tire to the front of the car, he feels a bothersome flutter in his head. But he kneels and positions the jack under the frame. He takes the lug wrench out of the tool kit, slides it into the slot on the jack, and starts turning the crank.

“A car!” the brunette says.

Cliff looks over his shoulder. The oncoming car doesn’t slow down. It eases halfway into the next lane and swooshes past.

“Doesn’t care about us,” the brunette mutters. She walks to the middle of the road and makes a gesture at the car’s taillights. “Screw you, bud!” she shouts.

Cliff knows they could all be liable if an accident happened—the car on the edge of the pavement, no flares or triangles on the road, the three of them standing in the traffic lane. Turning the crank of the jack, he thinks, These girls should have pulled over more.

When the front tire is almost off the ground, he puts the wrench to the first lug on the wheel. The nuts are tight, but the first and second finally give way. He stands to take a breath. He can still feel the dizziness in his head, like his right eye is being pulled out of its socket. But the sensation seems familiar and trivial.

He takes in the Toyota at a glance. It’s worth $2,000 at most. The blond probably has the minimum 25-50-25 liability. His own car, the Lincoln, is worth $29,000. He’s got plenty of insurance, though—$200,000 in accidental, $150,000 group, $100,000 individual. He’s got the PLUP too, a million dollars in a Personal Liability Umbrella Policy. If something happened, a sharp lawyer would put Cliff at fault and go after that.

Cliff clenches his teeth, trying to ignore the throb in his right eye. “You all right?” the blond asks. He shakes his head and kneels down, going to work on the third bolt. We’re all liable here, he thinks. He puts the wrench on and leans into it. This one’s more of a bugger than the first two. “They put these things on with an air gun,” he explains.

“You gonna be all right, old guy?” the brunette asks.

Cliff nods, not speaking. The lightness in his head is expansive. He wants to change this tire before something happens. He jerks hard on the wrench. He doesn’t understand why he can’t get the nut off, why a lug nut can feel like the center of the universe. Everything he’s ever known branches out from here, from the wrench in his hand, from the stubborn nut that will not turn, that will not give up its secrets on a humid August night. He leans on the wrench. As the nut gives, it squeaks out the word stroke in a tiny voice. All the symptoms are there, but worse than before. His face and arm go numb. His right eye is two feet out of his head. He drops the wrench, stands and staggers like a drunken man. God, this is it. You know this is it.

He hears the girls cry out as he stumbles backward, his feet tripping ridiculously beneath him. He falls to the center of the opposite lane, his head wrenched to one side. The headlights of an oncoming truck fill his eyes with light. He can account for everything now. A driver named Kent. A semi-truck loaded with soy beans headed for Decatur. Kent’s listening to an all-night radio talk show. He wears a beard and a felt cowboy hat, a red band above the rim, a turquoise jewel on the front. Sipping his coffee, he takes his eyes off the road for a second. By the time he sees a man collapsed on the pavement, it’s too late. He can’t stop himself because he knows it could be him out there some day, an old skunk waiting to be road kill. Eighteen wheels whine as they slide across the pavement. The blond shrieks, pulling Cliff’s arm in a vain attempt, but Cliff’s dumb with the pain, blinded by new vision.

As the truck twists into a jackknife, Cliff makes an account of it all. The tractor-trailer is old, an owner-operator rig worth less than $20,000. The trucker has $50,000 in property insurance, $300,000 in personal. He’ll have a few bruises, a totaled rig, a lifetime of guilt.

The lawyers will go after Cliff’s policies. After the settlements between the trucker and the dancers, his wife will still get half a million. He has that much to comfort him as the massive truck moans out one last shrill complaint.

The blond falls backward, just out of the truck’s path, and Cliff sits up suddenly, rising like a saint from his coffin. A vague notion strikes him, as light as a poem on a funeral program. He reaches out for the truck that’s coming on like the Face of God from across the universe. The body gives way. The bones break. This is knowledge. The rear wheels of the tractor strike him, tossing him a hundred yards into the cornfield. He leaves his body and doesn’t look back.

From a dark, Illinois cornfield, Cliff Emerson moves into all the world, except he isn’t Cliff anymore and never was, because he’s everything. Everything in the mind of God. Everything that’s accounted for at every moment. This is real he shouts in a voice like hallelujah. This is finally real.