Another bleak November day: clouds choking off the sun, trees
stripped bare. Nothing moving, not even the usual chilling breeze
to twitch the branches.
A petrified world, Bert thought. But no rain so far, I should be
able to get this over with fast. The car lurched into high gear
as he fed it the gas. The speed drove him back against the seat.
Bert swung the wheel, relentlessly opening up the slow-slung compact,
guiding it into the middle lane of the turnpike. He cursorily glanced
at the traffic as he passed it in both directions, not really observing
with any consciousness.
Martha, Martha, what are you doing to me, what have I done to you?
The numbness in his throat wouldn't go away. He'd had it for a week
now. Until that time, he'd never suspected.
Jill MacGregor had been the bearer of the news, stepping into his
office, insisting that he break off his work. Why had she told him?
A certain loyalty, he supposed. Wasn't like his secretary to be
"Yes, I'm sure Bert," Jill had said, with a catch in her
voice. The look of hurt and pity on her face and in her eyes convinced
Bert it was the truth. It had rocked him, from a standing position
to his office chair. He had suddenly felt weak and ill and older.
Bert had gotten the word right after lunch. He had wolfed down the
sandwich and cup of coffee that Jill had picked up as usual from
the ground-floor cafeteria of the office building. He'd been working
on the soap corporation account, planning the national television,
radio and publication campaign since early September. It had taken
a lot of his time, even most nights. Too much. Otherwise it might
never have happened.
With Jill hovering nearby, her words devastating darts punching
holes into his psyche, Bert had sunk into a plush office chair,
leaning forward as if to guard against a powerful breeze. He pressed
his elbows hard against the desktop and braced his feet against
the carpeted floor. Knees trembling and mind reeling, he felt if
he leaned back fully he might slip down the chair and flow into
a puddle under the desk, like water flowing to a low spot.
Son of a bitch, how can it be? Can this be happening to me? He dropped
his shaking fingers from his forehead.
"Okay Jill, let's have it all. What else?"
"Please calm down Bert. This isn't easy," she said in
a strained voice, her eyes looking like an undertaker's.
"Get on with it," he said wearily. The long, demanding
weeks of meetings and brainstorming on the soap program had taken
their toll. Bert had been bone-tired and popping tranquilizers for
some time now.
He stamped harder on the accelerator. The auto leaped forward, its
roar louder but mostly behind the hurtling vehicle.
It was bad enough that Martha was two-timing him but the idea of
making it with a colleague--Vince Jamieson, close friend, counselor,
drinking buddy. Shallow bastard! Just like me.
The car was streaking now and Bert had to make a couple of quick
maneuvers to avoid plodding tractor-trailers. Then he slowed. Not
that way, he thought wryly. Why wipe out the innocent.
"It's been going on for a couple of months, Bert," Jill
had informed him. "I only found out about it by accident. I
was off last week and was headed out to the Strip towards the beaches
with one of the office girls. I saw your yellow convertible and
thought you and Martha had finally taken a day off to live it up
Jill slumped into a chair near Bert's desk before continuing. "I
noticed Martha was driving and was about to pull alongside to wave
when I noticed Vince on the passenger side. We drove a ways, us
not too far behind but I tried to keep a car or two between us because
I didn't want her to see me. Then she turned into Anderson's Motel.
Something clicked, Bert."
Jill's voice had a tremor as she said, "I got this awful cold
feeling right away."
"Sure, Jill, I'll bet you did." Jill didn't seem to notice
his tendency toward sarcasm with her. She went on: how she had dropped
her friend at the beach, headed back towards Anderson's. She had
parked near the motel, keeping her eye on the empty convertible
for a couple of hours until she spotted Vince and Martha emerge
from a motel room and leave. A twenty dollar bill had made it easier
for a woman housecleaner to remember.
"She and Vince have been visiting the place twice a week for
the past month or so. They spent nearly a week there when you had
to go to that conference in Chicago." There were tears in her
eyes and smudges below them.
"I couldn't tell you right away, Bert. I thought maybe I wouldn't
tell you at all. I thought it over for a week and I..."
"What in hell are you crying for?," Bert said bitterly.
"How do you think I feel?" His voice was husky and it
broke. Jill opened her mouth, reached toward him uncertainly, then
walked behind the desk to momentarily touch his arm gently. He shrugged
it off and asked her to give him some privacy. She left the office
with a stumbling gait, blotting tears with tissue, shoulders shaking.
Now the pieces were fitting together. Bert guided the car from the
outside lane, cutting in front of a big Buick full of kids and two
beefy parents hauling a house trailer.
He recalled how Vince seemed to be avoiding him lately. Their twice-weekly
visits to a corner bar near the office for a drink before heading
home had ceased. They hadn't had one since he'd taken over the soap
account for the agency.
Somehow Vince could never make it. In fact, Vince hadn't been working
late hours for some time. And Bert's rare encounters with him had
been abrupt and uncomfortable. Bert had been aware of it but had
chalked up the uneasy feelings to a situation that time would eventually
right, never really being able to pinpoint the source.
And Martha, she had been acting differently, too. No more complaints
about late work, no demands; quieter and cool in her relations with
him, making none of her familiar female overtures. He had wondered
about it but hadn't really had time to reflect. And she was almost
never there during the few times he had tried to contact her at
home during the day, and sometimes from work at night.
Bert remembered her telling him she was taking an adult education
class and was becoming active in a women's bridge club. Martha,
who had dropped out of college after less than a year and who hated
any kind of card playing. But at the time he had been relieved.
It was good for her to have pursuits, particularly when he was tied
up so much with clients. Pursuits, alright. He-she pursuits, or
was it she-he?
Martha's face was suddenly before him, as it had been so often since
he had found out eight days earlier; wide brown eyes and shining,
dark hair that glowed like copper in the sun. Her body pressed against
his; her arms insistent, pulling him closer, her warm breath in
his ear. "Bert, how I love you, you'll never know." She
had said it so many times, kissing him on both cheeks and then on
the mouth, again and again. Her scented hair showering his face,
her vibrant warmth spreading, encompassing him. But not lately.
Bert shook his head slowly, his mind felt fuzzy and he knew he wasn't
thinking clearly. He hadn't been sleeping well and had lost weight--and
his soap advertising account--that because Bert had insisted on
transferring the business to another ad executive in the agency,
just before he resigned. Work suddenly had become unimportant now.
He recalled Jill's sad face, her eyes welling with tears, when he
The pills weren't helping to ease his nerves, either. He felt washed
out, finished. Without warning, tears erupted and his vision blurred.
Bert spotted the place just past a point where state troopers hung
out with radar patrols. He pulled the car over to the side of the
highway, cars and trucks speeding by, making his car rock slightly
in the gusts their airwaves made. Bert put the hood up and got back
inside. Rain had started to pepper the windshield and drum on the
His thoughts revolved around his wife, their past, their sorry present.
Bert pondered the only solution he could devise. He had made no
effort to forgive her, and had no desire to even try to forgive
himself. For him, it was easy to justify her infidelity. He hadn't
even bothered to confront her, or to apologize for having taken
her for granted. His guilt was obsessive for responsibility for
No, there was no healing or cleansing on this earth short of retribution.
Bert quieted, waiting stonily and morose, Martha's lovely face there
Finally, the flashing light behind him, a car door slamming, a firm
voice, almost friendly, "got trouble, sir." The eyes were
very blue and piercing, teeth white in a weather-beaten face under
the wide-brimmed hat.
It'll work out as planned, he thought as he rubbed his left raincoat
sleeve across his eyes, reaching for the glove compartment with
his right hand. He swung the gun barrel towards the trooper. One
cartridge should do it. Slow, he reminded himself, slower. Give
him plenty of time.
Bert saw the executioner's eyes widen, his hand drop quickly to
his holster and then swing up the gun. Bert carefully pointed his
weapon to the right of the officer's head, aiming well into the
sky, and squeezed the trigger of the .22 target pistol. The explosion
sounded big in the small car.
The trooper's gun looked huge, probably a .38 Bert guessed, good.
Time was incredibly frozen in slow motion. Maybe my eternity will
be like this.
Then the second muzzle blast, the flash, a searing numbness from
the state's bullet. The eerie, slow-motion sprawl across the narrow,
leather auto seat. Goodbye Martha. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima