Not From Detroit
With thanks to Richard Matheson and Richard Christian Matheson
Outside it was cold and wet and windy. The storm rattled the shack, slid like razor blades through the window, door and wall cracks, but it wasn't enough to make any difference to the couple. Sitting before the crumbling fireplace in their creaking rocking chairs, shawls across their knees, fingers entwined, they were warm.
A bucket behind them near the kitchen sink collected water dripping from a hole in the roof.
The drops had long since passed the noisy stage of sounding like steel bolts falling on tin, and were now gentle plops.
The old couple were husband and wife; had been for over fifty years. They were comfortable with one another and seldom spoke. Mostly they rocked and looked at the fire as it flickered shadows across the room.
Finally Margie spoke. "Alex," she said, "I hope I die before you."
Alex stopped rocking. "Did you say what I thought you did?"
"I said, I hope I die before you." She wouldn't look at him, just the fire. "It's selfish, I know, but I hope I do. I don't want to live on with you gone. It would be like cutting out my heart and making me walk around. Like one of them zombies."
"There are the children," he said. "If I died, they'd take you in."
"I'd just be in the way. I love them, but I don't want to do that. They got their own lives. I'd just as soon die before you. That would make things simple."
"Not simple for me," Alex said. "I don't want you to die before me. So how about that? We're both selfish, aren't we?"
She smiled. "Well, it ain't a thing to talk about before bedtime, but it's been on my mind, and I had to get it out."
"Been thinking on it too, honey. Only natural we would. We ain't spring chickens anymore."
"You're healthy as a horse, Alex Brooks. Mechanic work you did all your life kept you strong. Me, I got the bursitis and the miseries and I'm tired all the time. Got the old age bad."
Alex started rocking again. They stared into the fire. "We're going to go together, hon," he said. "I feel it. That's the way it ought to be for folks like us."
"I wonder if I'll see him coming. Death, I mean."
"My grandma used to tell me she seen him the night her daddy died."
"You've never told me this."
"Ain't a subject I like. But Grandma said this man in a black buggy slowed down out front of their house, cracked his whip three times, and her daddy was gone in instants. And she said she'd heard her grandfather tell how he had seen Death when he was a boy. Told her it was early morning and he was up, about to start his chores, and when he went outside he seen this man dressed in black walk by the house and stop out front. He was carrying a stick over his shoulder with a checkered bundle tied to it, and he looked at the house and snapped his fingers three times. A moment later they found my grandfather's brother, who had been sick with the smallpox, dead in bed."
"Stories, hon. Stories. Don't get yourself worked up over a bunch of old tall tales. Here, I'll heat us some milk."
Alex stood, laid the shawl in the chair, went over to put milk in a pan and heat it. As he did, he turned to watch Margie's back. She was still staring into the fire, only she wasn't rocking. She was just watching the blaze and, Alex knew, thinking about dying.
After the milk they went to bed, and soon Margie was asleep, snoring like a busted chainsaw. Alex found he could not rest. It was partly due to the storm, it had picked up in intensity. But it was mostly because of what Margie had said about dying. It made him feel lonesome.
Like her, he wasn't so much afraid of dying, as he was of being left alone. She had been his heartbeat for fifty years, and without her, he would only be going through motions of life, not living.
God, he prayed silently. When we go, let us go together. He turned to look at Margie. Her face looked unlined and strangely young. He was glad she could turn off most anything with sleep. He, on the other hand, could not.
Maybe I'm just hungry.
He slid out of bed, pulled on his pants, shirt and house shoes; those silly things with the rabbit face and ears his granddaughter had bought him. He padded silently to the kitchen. It was not only the kitchen, it served as a den, living room, and dining room. The house was only three rooms and a closet, and one of the rooms was a small bathroom. It was times like this that Alex thought he could have done better by Margie. Gotten her a bigger house, for one thing. It was the same house where they had raised their kids, the babies sleeping in a crib here in the kitchen.
He sighed. No matter how hard he had worked, he seemed to stay in the same place. A poor place.
He went to the refrigerator and took out a half-gallon of milk, drank directly from the carton.
He put the carton back and watched the water drip into the bucket. It made him mad to see it. He had let the little house turn into a shack since he retired, and there was no real excuse for it. Surely, he wasn't that tired. It was a wonder Margie didn't complain more.
Well, there was nothing to do about it tonight. But he vowed that when dry weather came, he wouldn't forget about it this time. He'd get up there and fix that damn leak.
Quietly, he rummaged a pan from under the cabinet. He'd have to empty the bucket now if he didn't want it to run over before morning. He ran a little water into the pan before substituting it for the bucket so the drops wouldn't sound so loud.
He opened the front door, went out on the porch, carrying the bucket. He looked out at his mud-pie yard and his old, red wrecker, his white logo on the side of the door faded with time: ALEX BROOKS WRECKING AND MECHANIC SERVICE.
Tonight, looking at the old warhorse, he felt sadder than ever. He missed using it the way it was meant to be used. For work. Now it was nothing more than transportation. Before he retired, his tools and hands made a living. Now nothing. Picking up a Social Security check was all that was left.
Leaning over the edge of the porch, he poured the water into the bare and empty flower bed. When he lifted his head and looked at his yard again, and beyond to Highway 59, he saw a light. Headlights, actually, looking fuzzy in the rain, like filmed-over amber eyes. They were way out there on the highway, coming from the south, winding their way toward him, moving fast.
Alex thought that whoever was driving that crate was crazy. Cruising like that on bone-dry highways with plenty of sunshine would have been dangerous, but in this weather, they were asking for a crackup.
As the car neared, he could see it was long, black and strangely shaped. He'd never seen anything like it, and he knew cars fairly well. This didn't look like something off the assembly line from Detroit. It had to be foreign.
Miraculously, the car slowed without so much as a quiver or screech of brakes and tires. In fact, Alex could not even hear its motor, just the faint whispering sound of rubber on wet cement.
The car came even of the house just as lightning flashed, and in that instant, Alex got a good look at the driver, or at least the shape of the driver outlined in the flash, and he saw that it was a man with a cigar in his mouth and a bowler hat on his head. And the head was turning toward the house.
The lightning flash died, and now there was only the dark shape of the car and the red tip of the cigar jutting at the house. Alex felt stalactites of ice dripping down from the roof of his skull, extended through his body and out of the soles of his feet.
The driver hit down on his horn; three sharp blasts that pricked at Alex's mind.
Honk. (visions of blooming roses, withering going black)
Honk. (funerals remembered, loved ones in boxes, going down)
Honk. (worms crawling through rotten flesh)
Then came a silence louder than the horn blasts. The car picked up speed again. Alex watched as its taillights winked away in the blackness. The chill became less chill. The stalactites in his mind melted away.
But as he stood there, Margie's words of earlier that evening came at him in a rush: "Seen Death once ... buggy slowed down out front ... cracked his whip three times ... man looked at the house, snapped his fingers three times ... found dead a moment later ..."
Alex's throat felt as if a pine knot had lodged there. The bucket slipped from his fingers, clattered on the porch and rolled into the flowerbed. He turned into the house and walked briskly toward the bedroom,
(Can't be, just a wives' tale)
his hands vibrating with fear.
(Just a crazy coincidence)
Margie wasn't snoring.
Alex grabbed her shoulder, shook her.
He rolled her on her back and screamed her name.
"Oh, baby. No."
He felt for her pulse.
He put an ear to her chest, listening for a heartbeat (the other half of his life bongos), and there was none.
Quiet. Perfectly quiet.
"You can't ..." Alex said. "You can't ... We're suppose to go together ... Got to be that way."
And then it came to him. He had seen Death drive by, had seen him heading on down the highway.
He came to his feet, snatched his coat from the back of the chair, raced toward the front door. "You won't have her," he said aloud. "You won't."
Grabbing the wrecker keys from the nail beside the door, he leaped to the porch and dashed out into the cold and the rain.
A moment later he was heading down the highway, driving fast and crazy in pursuit of the strange car.
The wrecker was old and not built for speed, but since he kept it well tuned and it had new tires, it ran well over the wet highway. Alex kept pushing the pedal gradually until it met the floor. Faster and faster and faster.
After an hour, he saw Death.
Not the man himself but the license plate. Personalized and clear in his headlights. It read: DEATH/EXEMPT.
The wrecker and the strange black car were the only ones on the road. Alex closed in on him, honked his horn. Death tootled back (not the same horn sound he had given in front of Alex's house), stuck his arm out the window and waved the wrecker around.
Alex went, and when he was alongside the car, he turned his head to look at Death. He could still not see him clearly, but he could make out the shape of his bowler, and when Death turned to look at him, he could see the glowing tip of the cigar, like a bloody bullet wound.
Alex whipped hard right into the car, and Death swerved to the right, then back onto the road. Alex rammed again. The black car's tires hit roadside gravel and Alex swung closer, preventing it from returning to the highway. He rammed yet another time, and the car went into the grass alongside the road, skidded and went sailing down an embankment and into a tree.
Alex braked carefully, backed off the road and got out of the wrecker. He reached a small pipe wrench and a big crescent wrench out from under the seat, slipped the pipe wrench into his coat pocket for insurance, then went charging down the embankment waving the crescent.
Death opened his door and stepped out. The rain had subsided and the moon was peeking through the clouds like a shy child through gossamer curtains. Its light hit Death's round pink face and made it look like a waxed pomegranate. His cigar hung from his mouth by a tobacco strand.
Glancing up the embankment, he saw an old but strong-looking black man brandishing a wrench and wearing bunny slippers, charging down at him.
Spitting out the ruined cigar, Death stepped forward, grabbed Alex's wrist and forearm, twisted. The old man went up and over, the wrench went flying from his hand. Alex came down hard on his back, the breath bursting out of him in spurts.
Death leaned over Alex. Up close, Alex could see that the pink face was slightly pocked and that some of the pinkness was due to makeup. That was rich. Death was vain about his appearance. He was wearing a black T-shirt, pants and sneakers, and of course his derby, which had neither been stirred by the wreck nor by the ju-jitsu maneuver.
"What's with you, man?" Death asked.
Alex wheezed, tried to catch his breath. "You can't ... have ... her."
"Who? What are you talking about?"
"Don't play ... dumb with me." Alex raised up on one elbow, his wind returning. "You're Death and you took my Margie's soul."
Death straightened. "So you know who I am. All right. But what of it? I'm only doing my job."
"It ain't her time."
"My list says it is, and my list is never wrong."
Alex felt something hard pressing against his hip, realized what it was. The pipe wrench. Even the throw Death had put on him had not hurled it from his coat pocket. It had lodged there and the pocket had shifted beneath his hip, making his old bones hurt all the worse.
Alex made as to roll over, freed the pocket beneath him, shot his hand inside and produced the pipe wrench. He hurled it at Death, struck him just below the brim of the bowler and sent him stumbling back. This time the bowler fell off. Death's forehead was bleeding.
Before Death could collect himself, Alex was up and rushing. He used his head as a battering ram and struck Death in the stomach, knocking him to the ground. He put both knees on Death's arms, pinning them, clenched his throat with his strong, old hands.
"I ain't never hurt nobody before," Alex said. "Don't want to now. I didn't want to hit you with that wrench, but you give Margie back."
Death's eyes showed no expression at first, but slowly a light seemed to go on behind them. He easily pulled his arms out from under Alex's knees, reached up, took hold of the old man's wrist and pulled the hands away from his throat.
"You old rascal," Death said. "You outsmarted me."
Death flopped Alex over on his side, then stood up. Grinning, he turned, stooped to recover his bowler, but he never laid a hand on it.
Alex moved like a crab, scissoring his legs, and caught Death from above and behind his knees, twisted, brought him down on his face.
Death raised up on his palms and crawled from behind Alex's legs like a snake, effortlessly. This time he grabbed the hat and put it on his head and stood up. He watched Alex carefully.
"I don't frighten you much, do I?" Death asked.
Alex noted that the wound on Death's forehead had vanished. There wasn't even a drop of blood. "No," Alex said. "You don't frighten me much. I just want my Margie back."
"All right," Death said.
Alex sat bolt upright.
"I said, all right. For a time. Not many have outsmarted me, pinned me to the ground. I give you credit, and you've got courage. I like that. I'll give her back. For a time. Come here."
Death walked over to the car that was not from Detroit. Alex got to his feet and followed. Death took the keys out of the ignition, moved to the trunk, worked the key in the lock. It popped up with a hiss.
Inside were stacks and stacks of matchboxes. Death moved his hand over them, like a careful man selecting a special vegetable at the supermarket. His fingers came to rest on a matchbox that looked to Alex no different than the others.
Death handed Alex the matchbox. "Her soul's in here, old man. You stand over her bed, open the box. Okay?"
"That's it. Now get out of here before I change my mind. And remember, I'm giving her back to you. But just for a while."
Alex started away, holding the matchbox carefully. As he walked past Death's car, he saw the dents he had knocked in the side with his wrecker were popping out. He turned to look at Death, who was closing the trunk.
"Don't suppose you'll need a tow out of here?"
Death smiled thinly. "Not hardly."
Alex stood over their bed; the bed where they had loved, slept, talked and dreamed. He stood there with the matchbox in his hand, his eyes on Margie's cold face. He ever so gently eased the box open. A small flash of blue light, like Peter Pan's friend Tinkerbell, rushed out of it and hit Margie's lips. She made a sharp inhaling sound and her chest rose. Her eyes came open. She turned and looked at Alex and smiled.
"My lands, Alex. What are you doing there, and half-dressed? What have you been up to ... is that a matchbox?"
Alex tried to speak, but he found that he could not. All he could do was grin.
"Have you gone nuts?" she asked.
"Maybe a little." He sat down on the bed and took her hand. "I love you, Margie."
"And I love you ... You been drinking?"
Then came the overwhelming sound of Death's horn. One harsh blast that shook the house, and the headbeams shone brightly through the window and the cracks lit up the shack like a cheap nightclub act.
"Who in the world?" Margie asked.
"Him. But he said ... Stay here."
Alex got his shotgun out of the closet. He went out on the porch. Death's car was pointed toward the house, and the headbeams seemed to hold Alex, like a fly in butter.
Death was standing on the bottom step, waiting.
Alex pointed the shotgun at him. "You git. You gave her back. You gave your word."
"And I kept it. But I said for a while."
"That wasn't any time at all."
"It was all I could give. My present."
"Short time like that's worse than no time at all."
"Be good about it, Alex. Let her go. I got records and they have to be kept. I'm going to take her anyway, you understand that?"
"Not tonight, you ain't." Alex pulled back the hammers on the shotgun. "Not tomorrow night neither. Not anytime soon."
"That gun won't do you any good, Alex. You know that. You can't stop Death. I can stand here and snap my fingers three times, or click my tongue, or go back to the car and honk my horn, and she's as good as mine. But I'm trying to reason with you, Alex. You're a brave man. I did you a favor because you bested me. I didn't want to just take her back without telling you. That's why I came here to talk. But she's got to go. Now."
Alex lowered the shotgun. "Can't ... can't you take me in her place? You can do that, can't you?"
"I ... I don't know. It's highly irregular."
"Yeah, you can do that. Take me. Leave Margie."
"Well, I suppose."
The screen door creaked open and Margie stood there in her housecoat. "You're forgetting, Alex, I don't want to be left alone."
"Go in the house, Margie," Alex said.
"I know who this is: I heard you talking, Mr. Death. I don't want you taking my Alex. I'm the one you came for. I ought to have the right to go."
There was a pause, no one speaking. Then Alex said, "Take both of us. You can do that, can't you? I know I'm on that list of yours, and pretty high up. Man my age couldn't have too many years left. You can take me a little before my time, can't you? Well, can't you?"
* * *
Margie and Alex sat in their rocking chairs, their shawls over their knees. There was no fire in the fireplace. Behind them the bucket collected water and outside the wind whistled. They held hands. Death stood in front of them. He was holding a King Edward cigar box.
"You're sure of this?" Death asked. "You don't both have to go."
Alex looked at Margie, then back at Death.
"We're sure," he said. "Do it."
Death nodded. He opened the cigar box and held it out on one palm. He used his free hand to snap his fingers.
Once. (the wind picked up, howled)
Twice. (the rain beat like drumsticks on the roof)
Three times. (lightning ripped and thunder roared)
"And in you go," Death said.
The bodies of Alex and Margie slumped and their heads fell together between the rocking chairs. Their fingers were still entwined.
Death put the box under his arm and went out to the car. The rain beat on his derby hat and the wind sawed at his bare arms and T-shirt. He didn't seem to mind.
Opening the trunk, he started to put the box inside, then hesitated.
He closed the trunk.
"Damn," he said, "if I'm not getting to be a sentimental old fool."
He opened the box. Two blue lights rose out of it, elongated, touched ground. They took on the shape of Alex and Margie. They glowed against the night.
"Want to ride up front?" Death asked.
"That would be nice," Margie said.
"Yes, nice," Alex said.
Death opened the door and Alex and Margie slid inside. Death climbed in behind the wheel. He checked the clipboard dangling from the dash. There was a woman in a Tyler hospital, dying of brain damage. That would be his next stop.
He put the clipboard down and started the car that was not from Detroit.
"Sounds well-tuned," Alex said.
"I try to keep it that way," Death said.
They drove out of there then, and as they went, Death broke into song. "Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream," and Margie and Alex chimed in with "Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream."
Off they went down the highway, the taillights fading, the song dying, the black metal of the car melting into the fabric of night, and then there was only the whispery sound of good tires on wet cement and finally not even that. Just the blowing sound of the wind and the rain.
"Not From Detroit" was originally published in 1988 in Midnight Graffiti. It later appeared in Bestsellers Guaranteed, a collection of Lansdale's short stories published by Ace Books, and in High Cotton: Selected Short Stories of Joe R. Lansdale, published by Golden Gryphon Press. "Not From Detroit" © 1988 Joe R. Lansdale.
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