Double Yellow Line
“It’s my fault, my mistake,” Karen says. “I let us get involved before the divorce was final.”
Our mistake, I almost say, but instead look out my office window at Janice, the other secretary. She takes her afternoon dose of coffee from the microwave and returns to her desk. Behind Janice’s desk, a poster proclaims Safer Is Always Better. I’m reminded of something Johnny Higgins told me years ago.
“I told Janice I’m checking out early,” Karen says. “It’s not like I can get any work done.”
“I still think you should call Sheriff Atkins,” I tell her, “or I can call him.”
Karen shakes her head.
“If the law’s at the house this time, Carl said he’d not phone again. He’ll just show up one night.”
“You think he’s watching for them near the turnoff?”
“I think he’s parking on a logging road and walking the ridge trail,” Karen says. “Both nights that deputy was with me, I could feel Carl waiting in the woods. Now I know he was out there. I think he walked in at dusk and stayed there in the dark, all night.”
Karen looks up. She’s pretty in so many ways – high cheekbones, long blonde hair, trim figure, but it’s her eyes that give her a special beauty. Blue, but a blue that lightens as you look deeper into them, drawing you in. I tell her again that she can stay with me but she says no. The phone rings and I look out my window and see Janice pick up. She writes something on a notepad and places the phone in its cradle.
“It’s not him calling back,” Karen says. “He’ll not say another word until we’re face to face. There won’t be a day I don’t expect him to show up, whether it’s my place or your place or the office or even that shelter. If it doesn’t happen tonight, it’ll just make things worse. If what he’s about is hurting me, he’ll do it here same as up there. I’m worn down, Bobby. Seeing him is the only way to end this.”
Karen’s left hand is closed, thumb rubbing the side of her index finger. It’s something she does when she’s nervous, and she’s done it a lot lately. She steps closer and leans her head into my shoulder, arms at her sides as though too tired to lift them. Karen has hardly slept in a week and she’s not eating. I know she’s probably right about Carl. He isn’t going to let her be, let us be. But I also know that’s the way he had to be for Karen and me to ever get together – handsome and athletic but such a bastard that she’d not care so much if a guy has acne scars, never athletic, a bit clumsy, just as long as he was steady and predictable, wasn’t bad tempered or abusive.
“What time did he say he’d be there?”
“After dark,” Karen replies, lifting her head. “He said that would give you plenty of time to get there too, if you decide to come.”
“What if he decides to show up early?”
“He won’t,” Karen says. “He’ll wait until he’s sure the law’s not coming.”
I tell Karen I’ll be at her place by six. She takes a step back and raises her left hand, settles it on my face, her fingertips on my forehead as if checking for a fever.
“What we have together, it’s a rare thing, Bobby,” Karen says. “We’ll get through this.”
I lock my office door and tell Janice that I’m leaving early too.
“The paint crew has a question about the road at the high school,” Janice says.
“Tell them to keep it double-yellow,” I tell her.
“So you won’t be going out there?”
“No, I’ll check it tomorrow.”
Janice nods and picks up the phone as Karen and I walk outside. It’s one of those early fall days when there’s a stillness in the air, the sky such a pure deep blue you wonder how it could ever cloud over again. Karen drives out of the parking lot ahead of me. At the stop sign she looks in her rearview mirror. Our eyes meet and she holds the gaze. Despite what I told her, she probably has some doubts whether I’ll come. She finally lowers her eyes and turns right.
I turn left and soon see the paint truck in front of the high school. Tim Rainey’s seated in the back with the tanks. His job is to make sure the sprayers are emptying right. One day we’ll switch to thermoplastic, but for now Tim spends all day watching the yellow paint and glass beads pour onto the blacktop. It’s easy work, especially compared to being on the patching or ditching crews.
You need to talk with Johnny Higgins, my supervisor had told me my first week with DOT, figuring an older traffic engineer like Johnny to be a good mentor. So one afternoon I drove over to McDowell County to meet him. Years out in the sun had splotched and creased his face and neck, but he was trim in the belly, his eyes quick and clear. He’d come around his desk and grasped my hand, said he’d heard good things about me. We sat down and made some small talk and then he asked about what I’d learned at NC State. I recited what had been drilled into me – that The Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices was your Bible, and you always deferred to it. So if the manual said you needed a sight line of a thousand feet at 55 mph for a passing lane, you measured the distance as carefully as a football umpire measuring for a first down. One inch over a thousand and it’s a passing lane, one inch shy and it’s double-yellow. That way if a cluster of white crosses appears beside a stretch of road you line single, no relative can blame you. All you have to do is turn to page 43 and prove you did it by the book. Johnny had nodded like he’d heard it all before. Then he’d leaned back in his chair and told me it wasn’t that simple.
I cross the railroad tracks and park, cross the street and enter Yarbrough’s Pawnshop. Trey Yarbrough’s on a stool behind the counter, a trumpet in one hand, a rag doused with polish in the other. The radio’s on, some Nashville cowboy singing about horses and whiskey. There are no windows, and the fluorescent lights give off a disconcerting brightness. Maybe it causes customers to feel exposed, so less likely to haggle. Or maybe it just makes everything shinier, newer looking, like the polishing. Trey holds the trumpet out so I can see it better.
“Interested in a trumpet?” he asks.
“No,” I say, “a pistol.”
“Damn,” Trey says. “I knew folks want you to raise the speed limit on Clayton Road, but I didn’t figure it to come to a shootout.”
“Someone tried to break into my shed the other night,” I tell him. “I figure he might come back.”
Trey sets the trumpet and rag on the counter.
“Any idea who it was?”
“Probably one of them meth heads,” he says. “They’ll do anything for that shit. One came in last month with a hearing aid. I asked where he got them and he said his Daddy had died yesterday. I told him to get the hell out of here.”
“What do you think I ought to get?”
“Some would tell you a .22 because it’s the cheapest, which is fine if you just want to wave it around, maybe shoot at the sky to scare him off.”
Trey leaves his stool and walks over to the glass case that holds the pistols. He slides the case open and takes a short-barreled revolver off the green felt. He places it delicately on the counter and nods for me to come over.
“A .38 special is what I recommend. First thing is reliability. You could douse a .38 in a mud hole and it’d still shoot. There’s no springs, slides, safeties, or magazines. Plus, it’ll fill your hand enough that the asshole won’t miss seeing it.”
“Two hundred for this Rossi and I’ll throw in a box of cartridges.”
“Okay,” I tell him, and pause. “I know there’s supposed to be a waiting period, but this guy, he could back tonight.”
“Yeah, I know,” Trey says. “I can take care of that, as long as you keep quiet about it, but you still have to fill out the paperwork.”
“Of course,” I say.
Trey swipes my credit card and gives me the receipt to sign along with the paperwork. He goes to a shelf behind the register and gets the cartridges, sets the red cardboard box on the counter.
“Hollow points,” he says. “They spread wide as a dime when they make contact. If you do have to use it, you want something that’ll stop him cold.”