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"Over The Edge"Excerpt:  Over The Edge

Chapter Four

Matthew stepped out of the plywood cell numbered four at the Homestead Motel halfway between Twin Falls and Pocatello.  Last night, visibility had disappeared with the swirling snow and onset of evening.  The low-slung, cracker-box motel had been as welcome as the Ritz in the blinding blizzard.

His previous night’s workout had generated enough body heat to risk a quick shower before bed.  Quick was the operative word.  The hot water couldn’t have lasted more than three minutes.  Still Matthew showered every night.  He had to.  Each night’s shower took him another step from war and fear.  Weeks of sweat and filth, sleeping in slime and mud, never caring to even scrape the crap off his hands had generated a reaction that necessitated cleanliness.  One night without a shower and he might wake up back in Hell.

Matthew crunched through several feet of new snow toward the unnamed coffee shop next door.  The early morning sun’s brilliant reflection magnified a world gone stark white.  Life was too bright, too sharp, with no place to hide, no comfort zone.  He could only stagger until his eyes focused.  He pushed through the well-worn door of the blunt, flat bungalow that had to be a relative of the Homestead Motel and stepped into a swirl of warmth and breakfast smells.  A definite improvement. 

He ordered bacon, eggs, potatoes, and toast with lots of coffee from a cheerful, petite lady.  She twirled around the tight space, handling the entire operation of cooking and serving the several small tables and stools.  A clanging bell on the door kept up a nerve-jangling notification of each customer’s entry and exit. 

A large, unshaven farmer plunked his ample rear end on an adjacent stool, passing over two vacant ones further to the left.  Why so close?  Proximity fueled unease, even anger.  Rage again stirred, and again out of proportion to the event.  Matthew rose to relocate as his order arrived.  So he sat back down and ignored the man, as well as a two-hundred-and-fifty-pound mass could be ignored.

The quality of the food was a pleasant surprise.  He inhaled his breakfast, having missed dinner last night.  Then, to the obvious delight of the cook, he doubled down on a duplicate order.  Sitting on the unsupported perch of the hard stool intensified the pain.  But his hunger and pleasure in breakfast, at least for the moment, masked the eternal discomfort, even with the proximity of his unwelcome neighbor. 

Matthew had tracked the concept of pain levels through weeks and months.  The First Level proved most terrifying.  Immersed in wave after wave of maximum agony, he had cried out for peace.  Even begged for instant death.  Only the appearance of Dr. John Nordman, a newly minted surgeon serving his military time perfecting his trade at Letterman Hospital in San Francisco, had saved him.  And there’d been no shortage of on-the-job material for the good doctor.  Letterman was the primary depository of the carnage that was Viet Nam.  Dr. Nordman had helped pull Matthew to the next level.

That Second Level of pain defined the point where life could be considered an equal option to death.  He became a prisoner to the songs on the radios of his companions-in-suffering.  Music he couldn’t turn off marked the passage of time.  The repetition—Janis, Jimmy and “Hey, Jude”—would now precipitate violence.  But hope had showed up.

The second breakfast order arrived.  Matthew plowed into his bacon and eggs.  Once again the pleasure of eating sidetracked his discomfort.  Too soon his plate emptied, his mind jerked back to pain.

Level Three had featured agonizing rehab, a return of sanity, iron discipline and a fierce, angry determination.  But guilt, doubt, and bitterness also accompanied Level Three.  Through all the misery, a plan developed.  Head for the mountains, far away from the jungles and rice paddies.  Once again Dr. Nordman came to the rescue, arranging a place to stay in Wyoming with his brother, Jim.

The actual absence of all pain seemed as improbable as Joe Namath and the upstart New York Jets winning next week’s Super Bowl.  He tipped off the stool, his movement rousing the hulk beside him.  They both rose and moved in awkward concert to the register.  The woman handed Matthew his bill first, ignoring the farmer.  Matthew paid.

“Take care, young man.”  The lady’s sweet voice and smile caught Matthew by surprise.

“Thanks,” he said, and meant it.

Back outside, Matthew walked to his Corvette, cleared the snow off the windows, unlocked the door and started the engine.  A good sign.  The Corvette belonged in snow like a bear in the city.  Enough powder had been moved around in the small parking lot to allow Matthew to slip-slide out to the highway.

Only two hundred miles to Jackson Hole, but today’s road was as changed as the day.  Yesterday’s solid, stable ribbon of asphalt had become a treacherous surface of snow and black ice, dangers often invisible on the roadway.  The piercing sun, accentuated by the one hundred percent, blue-bird sky, brought nothing but a headache.  Now, on a snow-covered Idaho highway, his father’s gift of fantasy wheels felt as unstable as Matthew’s self-respect.

His lovely Corvette, the vessel that had sped him to a different world on a straight secure path, now became an accident waiting to happen.  He crept down the highway, acknowledging insecurity under his tires, building his speed to sixty and tentatively holding it.  He left Pocatello. Braille his operative driving technique.  Like many things in Matthew’s life, something positive had turned treacherous and evil.

Then his rearview mirror filled with a startling, huge, black truck.  A gigantic black grill to be more precise.  A painful, flashing surge of electric energy almost jerked him off the road.  The surprise appearance of the massive machine had the same effect as an unexpected mortar.   

And the goddamn truck pulled out to pass him.

Big tires kicked up chunks of snow and ice that assaulted his windshield as the black monster pulled in front of him after an effortless pass.  How could anyone handle the deadly conditions of this road at such high speeds?  The chemical surge in Matthew’s body turned to anger.  He instinctively accelerated.  Wrong move.  The car’s rear end began swinging.  The fiberglass body whipped from one side of the road to the other like a huge pendulum, fishtailing out of control.  The car smashed against the right snowbank, a thick, white veil of moisture sweeping across the windshield, the blinding powder thick and impervious.  Just like the damn tule fog he’d left behind—a solid, chilling mist rising from the rich valley earth of Northern California.

An overpowering memory.  A desperate, twilight-zone dash through smothering, low-hanging fog and rush-hour traffic, his father clutching at his heart on the seat beside Matthew.  The gigantic, white El Dorado had rocked and swayed like an overpowered whale, taking them to the hospital in time.  His dad too tough to die.  Had the Corvette been a gift of thanks?

The car represented his only positive connection to the past.  Was it about to be destroyed?  The snapping motion of the car cleared the blanket of snow from the windshield.  Matthew clung to the wheel, reducing his speed, pumping a little gas to maintain some traction.  The wide arcs lessened, and Matthew regained control.  Control.  He swallowed hard.  Yet another reminder of how close to the edge he traveled.

Where the hell was that son-of-a-bitch truck?  The black pickup  was half a mile down the road and pulling away.  The image seared into Matthew’s mind:  Large and black with oversized tires, an easy-to-identify green-and-yellow Wyoming license plate with its distinctive cowboy and bucking bronco, and gun rack with rifle in the cab’s rear window.  Maybe a Ford or Chevy, but definitely customized.

The bastard had almost killed him, then was gone.  No way Matthew’s pretty little plaything was going to catch him.  Or her.  Only an empty, disconcerting feeling remained, reinforced by a residue of unused adrenaline.  How quickly things changed.

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© 2005, 2006 Marc Paul Kaplan, All Rights Reserved