COULD BE WORSE by Scott Nadelson
For a week in the middle of March, Paul Haberman felt increasingly out of sorts. Not much appetite, lousy sleep. In meetings he’d find himself absently chewing a knuckle. When the phone rang after nine at night, he braced for calamity. The wind blew hard against his bedroom window, and he imagined his neighbor’s oak tipping onto the roof. Lying in bed, with Cynthia huffing peacefully beside him, he asked himself what could be the matter and then did his best to answer. Maybe he’d been working too hard. Maybe he was troubled by the state of the world. Maybe by the fact that his stepchildren were growing up too fast. Or maybe it had been two months since he’d taken his car to the Baron. As soon as it grew light enough outside, he picked up the phone and dialed.
“Dr. H!” the Baron shouted on the other end of the line. “Why’s it been so long?”
“Lost track of time,” Paul said.
“You, maybe. But not that big beauty of yours. She needs a man who’s regular.”
“Any chance I can bring it—her—tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow, huh? Pretty busy, doc. But for your sweet lady, sure.”
The Baron always called Paul doctor, and Paul never corrected him. At first he’d held back out of caution; maybe all the Baron’s clients were doctors, and if he found out Paul was only a lawyer, he might turn him away. Paul had since crossed paths with others of the Baron’s clients, and among them were a pharmaceutical executive, a stock analyst, the president of a pest company. But now they’d known each other more than three years, far too long to set things straight without embarrassment. Still, Paul hadn’t quite gotten used to the idea of the Baron picturing him in a white coat, peering into people’s ears. When the Baron said, “Better cancel all your patients before noon,” it took Paul a moment to answer, and when he finally did, he could only murmur, “They won’t miss me.”
“I doubt that,” the Baron said. “But it’s what I appreciate about you, doc. Most of these guys, they think a medical degree turns their turds into bonbons.”
The misunderstanding had likely come about because it was a doctor who’d first sent Paul to the Baron—a podiatrist, who’d talked for an hour about his Alfa Romeo while digging a plantar wart out of Paul’s heel. As it turned out, he had a hard time talking and working at the same time, and he’d often pause to make a point, bloody scalpel jabbing the air above Paul’s toes. “I thought the whole transmission was blown. But the Baron talked me down. Cost me a couple grand, but she runs better than ever.” Paul worried the novocaine would wear off before he’d finished so refrained from asking questions. But after the third mention of the Baron he couldn’t resist. The Baron of what? By then, in any case, the doctor was cauterizing the hole in his foot, and he wanted distraction from the smell of his burning flesh.
“You don’t use a dealership, do you?” the doctor asked. “Might as well have my two-year-old change your oil.” Then he lowered his voice and glanced over his shoulder to be sure the nurse wasn’t lurking in the doorway. “Don’t tell him you’re a patient. Just say I sent you.”
He slipped Paul a card. The Flarin’ Baron, it read. Italian and American cars only! Underneath the phone number was a drawing of a hot-rod with flames bursting out of its rear. Was this meant to inspire confidence? After the doctor finished, Paul hobbled across the parking lot on his still-numb foot. He had no interest in Alfa Romeos that could take a hairpin turn at eighty miles an hour, without braking. But all the way home he thought he heard something rattling under his Imperial’s hood. That afternoon he called the number.
The truth was, he always believed something was wrong with his car. Within a few weeks of having it serviced he’d imagine his tires were going bald on one side, or his brake pads were wearing thin, or his radiator had cracked. The more time passed, the more convinced he became that a complete breakdown was imminent. Not having learned to drive until he was in his late thirties, he was still amazed that a person could sit behind the wheel of a metal box and careen down the freeway without exploding into flames as fierce as those on the Baron’s card. Every so often he’d open his hood and gaze into the tangle of pipes and wires, belts and filters, and understanding nothing of what he saw, experience an odd palpitation in his chest, along with a flash of heat in his face. How could this mess get him down the street, much less across state lines? How could it keep him from stalling on the Turnpike or from skidding into a semi on the George Washington Bridge?
Driving into downtown Denville, where the Baron’s garage was tucked between the old library, abandoned for a larger and less convenient space to the north, and an imposing Methodist church, Paul already noted a loosening in his neck muscles and jaw. The blustery weather had calmed, and though the sky was still overcast, through the dashboard vents he caught an anticipatory whiff of spring. He breathed it in and promised himself he’d come here more often. So what if it meant taking a morning off work once a month?
The garage was a nondescript building made of cinder blocks painted blue, with two sliding aluminum doors that were always closed, and set to one side, a fiberglass garden shed that served as an office. There was no sign to mark it, nothing in the way of advertising or welcome. Paul knew to pull around back, where a pair of pick-up trucks from the fifties sat on blocks, rusting beside a metal fence topped with sagging barbed wire. There he honked three times, and with the engine still running, he waited. Five minutes passed, ten. Finally, a windowless door—too small, it seemed, for the size of the building—sprang open, and out stepped the Baron, in dark blue coveralls and safety goggles, unruly tufts of black hair above both ears and centered over his forehead. Clear scalp everywhere else.
“Doc!” he called, arms spread, palms up, as he made his way across the yard, a void of cracked concrete and discarded exhaust pipes. “Why you treating this baby so bad? She needs some lovin’.”
When he reached the Imperial, he stroked its hood and cocked an ear to listen to the hum of its belts. Then he walked around it twice, kicking tires, signaling Paul to turn on headlights and blinkers, pointing up to indicate he should step on the gas. “Shove over,” he said, and Paul slid into the passenger seat. With the Baron came the smell of singed fabric or hair. For another few minutes, he fiddled with turn signals, wipers, heat controls, radio knobs, frowning the entire time, and Paul readied himself for bad news. But the Baron only nodded, caressed the steering wheel, leaned close to the dashboard, whispered something Paul couldn’t hear. Then he straightened, smacked his hands together, tipped his head to the side. “Off you go.”
Paul slipped out and watched him roll the Imperial around to the front of the building. By the time he made it there himself, the car had already disappeared inside, and the sliding door was closed. In three years he’d never once glimpsed what went on behind it.
Instead he waited in the little office, on the only chair, which was really just a stool on wheels in front of the folding table that served as the Baron’s desk. The only other furniture in the shed was a filing cabinet, either full or unused, stacks of papers leaning against it. On one wall hung two flags, Italian and American. The others were covered in posters of cars—Maserati and Mustang, Fiat and Firebird—none of them framed, several hanging loose at one corner, a smudged loop of tape showing where it drooped forward. The only image not automotive was a photograph of the Baron, whose real name was Ronnie Gianella, with his wife and three mostly grown boys, the oldest twenty-three, the youngest seventeen. The photo, also unframed, had been shot on a cruise ship. In the background, calm Caribbean water an impossible blue, a lumpy ridge of coral visible in the distance. On deck, everyone was looking in a different direction, one of the boys leaning over the railing, another scowling at the camera, the youngest laughing at something out of sight. When it was taken, the Baron, five years younger, had had more hair but looked otherwise unchanged, broad squashed nose and skin the color of smoked pork, little eyes that seemed to have trouble peering out of their deep sockets.
Of them all, only his wife appeared content, a few steps removed form the group, smiling serenely at her boys, head covered in a silk scarf that didn’t hide the absence of hair underneath. When Paul had first come to the Baron she’d just finished her second round of chemo. “Seems to be doing the job,” the Baron had said. But then, slicing both hands down his chest, added, “Didn’t save her beauties, though. Went from Delray curves to flat as a Caprice.”
It was half an hour before the Baron joined him in the office, and when he did, he was frowning again, shaking his head, safety goggles reflecting the overhead light. Before he could open his mouth, Paul stood and said, “I know I should have come sooner—”
“You got that right.”
“It’s been a busy time.”
“No excuse,” the Baron said. “Great girl like that, you shouldn’t neglect her.”
“I didn’t mean to.”
“She needs attention. You know how it goes—she starts feeling like she’s being taken for granted, then she gets cranky.”
“Is it bad?”
The Baron’s expression shifted from disapproval to sympathy, and he put an arm around Paul’s shoulder. “Could be worse,” he said. “Could be a lot worse. Be thankful for that.”
He led Paul to the table, where he penciled out a list of services, adjustments, replacement parts. Paul understood little of it—didn’t tires rotate automatically whenever he drove?—but he agreed to each of the Baron’s suggestions. Cooling fan? Okay. Oil pan gasket? Sure. Wiper blades and fluid? Yes, yes. Only when the Baron mentioned an evaporator coil for the air conditioning did Paul hesitate. “Something’s wrong with the air?” he asked. “Seemed to be working just fine.”
The Baron frowned again and took a step away. “Sure it works,” he said, voice inflected with insult. “But efficiently? Hell no. Chews through all our girl’s gas. Notice how often you been filling the tank?”
Paul hadn’t. Nor had he turned on the air since last summer. But he gave an apologetic shrug and gestured at the list. “Whatever you think it—she needs.”
“Can’t do things halfway,” the Baron said. He leaned back on his heels, thumbs tucked into cloth loops on the coveralls. Pinched brows shadowed the whole of his eyes. “Not here.”
“You’re right. I know.”
“Come to me, it means you’re all in.”
“Of course,” Paul said.
“She worth it to you?”
“Okay, then,” the Baron said. His brows relaxed, and he touched the tip of his pencil to his lips. “So. We finish off with some new spark plugs, grease the drive shaft, and she’s a girl who feels pampered.”
For a minute the Baron scrutinized the list, tapping the pencil on the tuft of wiry hair above his right ear. Then, without itemizing anything or making any calculations, he came up with a number, scrawling it quickly at the bottom of the page. He circled it, slapped the pencil on the table, shoved the paper at Paul, and turned his back, attending to a piece of mail he pulled from the top of a nearby stack. Paul knew to wait a moment before picking up the pencil and adding his initials. After he did, he cleared his throat and asked, “How’s Janelle?”
When the Baron turned back to him, he was grinning a tired grin, the goggles propped on top of his head. “Thanks for asking, doc.”
“Last time I was in she was getting ready for radiation.”
“Seems like it took. We’ll know more next month.”
“I’ll be thinking about her.”
“Could be worse, you know? Two years, total remission. And they got it early this time.”
“And the boys?” Paul asked. “Doing any better?”
The Baron blinked his little eyes and wiped his palms on the front of his coveralls. “Up and down, I guess. Mike’s working again, but his marriage, forget it. John and me, we just do better when we don’t talk at all. He’s good to his mom, anyway. And Jeremy, I think he’s learned his lesson. He’ll stay out of trouble, for the most part. But he’ll never have a normal life, not now. I’ll be taking care of him until they put me in the ground. But you know, could be—” He ran a hand down his face, recharging his grin, and let out an awkward little shout of laughter. “How ’bout you? Aside from your beauty out there? Things been good?”
Paul rubbed a thumb over his knuckle, chapped where he’d bitten it. “No complaints,” he said.
“I’d swap places with you in a heartbeat, doc,” the Baron said. Then he backhanded the air in front of him, as if swatting away clinging fingers. “Now get lost so I can take care of your girl.”
For an hour Paul walked around the little town center, poking his head into a magazine and cigar shop, a jeweler’s, a bakery where he came away with a cheese danish. He ate it on a bench in the riverside park, watching mallards paddle around the shallows, dipping green heads into murky water. The sun had begun breaking through clouds, and though the air was still crisp, he was comfortable enough to lean back and stretch an arm across wooden slats, two fingers picking idly at flaking paint.
No complaints. Wasn’t it true? Sure, there were the long hours at work, the traveling that wore him out, the sore throat that had nagged him much of the winter. There was his stepdaughter Joy, fifteen, spending afternoons with a rodent-faced boyfriend—her first—who lived with his grandmother in a dilapidated bungalow just off Route 10. Where the parents were Paul had no idea. He wore shirts that hung lopsided, jeans rolled above filthy sneakers. Whenever Paul answered his calls, which always came at odd hours—ten-thirty on a weeknight, seven on a Sunday morning—he didn’t say hello or announce himself but just grunted, “Can you put her on?” A month ago Joy had come home with mouth-sized bruises on her neck. Last week, while folding laundry, Paul picked up a pair of silk underwear, blue and trimmed with lace, far too small for Cynthia.
And then there was his stepson Kyle, two years younger, recently hammering sheets of plywood into a sprawling maple at the edge of the backyard. Wasn’t he too old for a treehouse? Paul asked, and in response, Kyle spit in the grass and said, “It’s not a treehouse. It’s a fort.” To keep out marauders? “Man, I just need my own space,” Kyle said. He’d swiped the wood, it turned out, from a construction site at the top of the ridge, and a few evenings later a contractor knocked on the front door. He’ been up and down half the streets in the neighborhood so far and had found his supplies at every house with a kid in junior high. Paul led him out back and helped him carry away what wasn’t already nailed down. He wrote a check for the rest, while Kyle sulked in the half-built fort, a pair of boards leaning crookedly across two limbs, a rickety ladder of two-by-fours spiraling up the maple’s trunk. “He’s not really mine,” Paul told the contractor, who tucked the check in his pocket and said, “Know what you mean. I’ve got two. Most days I’d happily sell them to the fucking circus.”
These were things he might have complained about, but not to the Baron. They weren’t the same as having a son unemployed and breaking up his marriage, another who wouldn’t speak to you, a third who’d broken into a liquor store and gone to jail. They certainly weren’t the same as having a wife who’d lost her breasts and hair to cancer, who was having radiation treatment after a two-year remission. They were things he could keep to himself, though now they seemed to drift with the ducks crossing to the far bank, the current carrying their opalescent heads and sooty backs a dozen yards downstream. Janelle Gianella. It was a lovely name, one of the loveliest he’d ever heard. He’d always wondered if she’d married the Baron just so she could have it. On his third or fourth visit, the Baron had insisted Paul call him Ronnie, but Paul had never been able to, not even in his thoughts. It was too silly a name for an adult. Why not go by Ron or Ronald? A few visits later, he’d asked Paul if he might take a peek at his wife’s latest PET scan, see if he agreed that she needed another round of Cytoxan. “We like our doctors fine,” the Baron said. “But you know, sometimes it’s good to get another look.” He’d be happy to, Paul muttered, but it wasn’t his specialty, and he didn’t know if he’d really be able to help… “I understand, doc. You’re a busy man. Forget I asked.”
Janelle Gianella. He found himself repeating the name silently, the sound of it as lulling as that of the water easing past. What had he been so anxious about all month? Why chew on knuckles and fret over kids whose mother only shrugged and said, “They’re not half as bad as I was when I was their age.”
Overhead, crows squawked at something nearing their nest—a squirrel? a hawk?—and leaves rustled though there was no breeze. It was warm enough now to take off his jacket, which was scattered with flakes of paint and pastry. He checked his watch. Two hours had slipped by as swiftly as a sign on the freeway. When he made it back to the garage, the Imperial was back outside, parked on the street in front, hubcaps shining in the fresh sunlight. The Baron was waiting for him in the office, sitting on the stool, arms folded across his chest. If he had any other cars to work on today, they didn’t seem to be here now. Paul had his checkbook in hand but had learned not to have filled anything out ahead of time, or at least not to have entered the figure the Baron had written down.
“You look relaxed,” the Baron said. He picked up the pencil again and began tapping it once more on his lips.
“I don’t get too many mornings off.”
“Patients don’t give you much of a break, I bet.”
“I’ll pay for it later,” Paul said. “But it’s worth it.”
“Good to put yourself first every once in a while.”
“Everything go smoothly?”
“She’s a tough girl. Hardly any tears.”
“There’s always something.”
“Nothing too bad, I hope.”
“Well, doc,” the Baron said. His sympathetic look was back, though this time he didn’t put an arm around Paul’s shoulder, didn’t rise from the stool. “Considering the possibilities, no, not too bad.”
“What was it? What did she have this time?”
“Of course I couldn’t know until I got in there. Not just the evaporator coil, but the housing, too, and the housing cover. But you’re lucky. The condenser, that’s the big one. No problems there. Be grateful for that.”
He wanted to be. There was plenty to be grateful for. But hearing the Baron say so irritated him, and he couldn’t keep himself from saying, “I never noticed any trouble with the air.”
This time the Baron’s expression wasn’t insulted but injured. Without goggles on, his eyes had a precarious quality, always on the verge of weeping, it seemed, and usually the sight of them made Paul turn away. But now he found himself waiting to see if tears would really fall. “Any time you want a second opinion—”
“I trust you,” he said, more sharply than he meant to. “What’s the damage?”
The Baron, looking no less hurt, squinted and tapped the pencil. He thought for a minute, two, and then wrote. The number he finally passed along was three hundred dollars more than the original. Paul filled in the check and handed it over without a word. “She did just fine,” the Baron said. “Treat her well, and she’ll take care of you for a long time.”
“Appreciate it, Baron,” Paul said, catching sight once more of the photograph of Janelle and the boys, her smile less peaceful than chilling, he thought now, so removed from the distress of everyone around her. Why couldn’t he call him Ronnie, just this once? After all he’d been through, why not give him that one small thing, instead of begrudging him a few hundred bucks? “I’ll be thinking good thoughts,” he said, and then, knowing he shouldn’t, added, “When the results of the next scan come in—”
“All right,” the Baron said, standing abruptly and waving the check at the door. “Now get back to your patients before they start thinking you skipped out to play golf.”
He followed Paul out to the curb, watched as he opened the Imperial’s door and slid inside. The sunlight set him blinking, and he couldn’t seem to stop. He had Paul rev the engine several times, run the windshield wipers, press on the brakes while he checked the rear lights. Then he patted the trunk and said, “You’ve got a keeper here. We should all be so blessed.”
He stayed where he was as Paul put the car in gear and rolled down the street. He was still there, in the rearview mirror, by the time Paul made it to the intersection and began to turn. There was no question the Baron was taking him for a ride. He’d known that for some time now. What bothered him wasn’t going along with it so much as realizing how badly he needed it. He couldn’t wait to hear the Baron say, “Your life sounds all right, doc,” only then believing it. It didn’t matter that the Baron knew nothing about him, not even what he did for a living. Why couldn’t he decide his life was all right for himself, without having to compare it to someone’s whose wasn’t? Why did he have to do so over and over again, every other month? There was probably something unethical about it, or maybe immoral, and one day he might decide to stop.
For now, though, he let himself enjoy gliding down the quiet, late-morning freeway, floating on rotated tires, all parts greased and slipping across each other without friction. Before he made it to the train station, he turned on the air conditioning and bathed in the cool breeze, knowing that for a short while—the rest of the day, the next week or two—he’d trust metal and rubber and the mostly smooth pavement underneath.