Fiction Fiction Issue

Bible

Her abductor didn’t want money or sex. So what was he after?

Maureen rubbed her scratchy eyes and one of her contacts drifted out of focus. She blinked furiously until it slipped back into place. “I’m turning the heat off,” she said.

“No. Leave it warm.”

But she turned it off anyway, and he made no move to stop her. He looked wary, watching her from his place against the door; he looked cornered, as if she had seized him and forced him to this lonely place. The car engine was doing something strange, surging, then almost dying, then surging again. The noise of the blower had masked it. Piece of shit. Another paycheck down the drain.

“OK, doctor,” she said. “You’ve got your parent-teacher conference. What do you want?”

“You will not report Hassan to Mr. Crespi.”

“Father Crespi, you mean.”

“I call no man father but one.”

“Wonderful. So you choose a school called Saint Ignatius.”

“I understand. This would not happen if Hassan were Catholic.”

“Oh, please. Hassan can’t speak English, Hassan needs help, Hassan isn’t Catholic. Jesus! I’m not even Catholic.”

He made his laughing sound. “So you choose a school called Saint Ignatius. With your Jesus on the cross behind your desk—I have seen it myself at the open house. I was there! I was there. But no, she is not Catholic, not Mrs. Maureen Casey.”

Even with the heat off, the air in the car was stale and close. Maureen opened her window halfway and leaned back, bathing her face in the cold draft of air. “That’s right,” she said. “I’ve had it with clueless men passing on orders from God.”

“Without God, there is no foundation,” he said. “Without God, we stand on nothing.”

“Anyway, you’re too late. I’ve already reported him.”

“You have not. Mr. Crespi is out of town until Monday.”

“Father Crespi. Well, I’m impressed. At least you’ve done your homework.”

“Hassan is going to be a doctor,” he said, rubbing his hands together, gazing down at them as if expecting some visible result.

“Look at me. Look at me. Now listen.” She held the man’s liquid eyes, held the moment, not at all displeased that what she was about to say, though true, would give him pain. “Hassan is not going to be a doctor,” she said. “Wait—just listen. Honestly, now, can you picture Hassan in medical school? Even supposing he could get in? Even supposing he can get through college at all? Think about it—Hassan in medical school. What an idea! You could make a comedy—Hassan Goes to Medical School. No. Hassan will not be a doctor. And you know it. You have always known it.” She gave that thought some room to breathe. Then she said, “So it doesn’t really matter if I report him or not, does it?”

Still she held his eyes. His lips were working, he seemed about to say something, but no sound emerged.

She said, “So. Let’s say I don’t play along. Let’s say I’m going to report him, which I am. What are you going to do about it? I mean, what were you thinking tonight?”

He looked away, back down at his hands.

“You followed me from school, right? You waited for me. You had this spot picked out. What were you going to do if I didn’t play along?”

He shook his head.

“Well, what? Kill me?”

He didn’t answer.

“You were going to kill me? Too much! Have you got a gun?”

“No! I own no guns.”

“A knife?”

“No.”

“What, then?”

Head bent, he resumed rubbing his hands together as if over a fire.

“Stop that. What, then?”

He took a deep breath. “Please,” he said.

“Strangle me? With those? Stop that!” She reached over and seized his wrists. They were thin, bony. “Hey,” she said, then again, “Hey!” When at last he raised his eyes to her, she lifted his hands and pressed the palms to her neck. They were cold, colder than the air on her face. She dropped her own hands. “Go on,” she said.

She felt his fingers icy against her neck. His eyes, dark and sad, searched hers.

“Go on,” she said, softly.

The engine surged, and he blinked as if in surprise and pulled his hands away. He rested them in his lap, looked at them unhappily, then put them between his knees.

“No?” she said.

“Mrs. Casey …”

She waited, but that was all he said. “Tell me something,” she said. “What did your wife think of this brainstorm? Did you tell her?”

“My wife is dead.”

“I didn’t know that.”

He shrugged.

“I’m sorry.”

“Mrs. Casey …”

Again she waited, then said, “What?”

“The window? It is very cold.”

Maureen had a mind to say no to him, let him freeze, but she was getting pretty numb herself. She rolled the window up.

“And please? The heater?”

Maureen drove back down Frontage Road. He kept his face to the other window, his back to her. Now and then she saw his shoulders moving but he didn’t make a sound. She had planned to put him out by the turnoff for her bridge, let him find his own way from there, but as she approached the exit she couldn’t help asking where he’d left his car. He said it was in the same lot where she’d parked hers. Ah, yes. That made sense. She drove on.

They didn’t speak again until she had stopped just up from the parking lot, under a streetlight, in plain view of the drunks walking past. Even here, cocooned in the car, engine surging, Maureen could feel the heavy bass thump of the music coming from Harrigan’s.

“Hassan will be dismissed from school?” he asked.

“Probably. He’s spoiled, it’ll do him good in the long run. You’re the one I haven’t made up my mind about. You’re the one on the hot seat. Do you understand?”

He bowed his head.

“I don’t think you do. Forget the prison time you’re looking at—you haven’t even said you’re sorry. I said it, about your wife, which makes me the only one who’s used that word tonight. Which strikes me as pretty damned ridiculous, given the circumstances.”

“But I am. I am sorry.”

“Yeah—we’ll see. One thing, though. Suppose I’d promised not to report Hassan. Whatever made you think I’d keep my word?”

He reached into the breast pocket of his coat and took out a white book and laid it on the dashboard. Maureen picked it up. It was a Bible, a girl’s Bible bound in imitation leather with gilt lettering on the cover, the pages edged in gilt. “You would swear,” he said. “Like in court, to the judge.”

Maureen opened it, riffled the thin, filmy pages. “Where did you get this?”

“Goodwill.”

“My dear,” she said. “You really thought you could save him.”

He pushed the door open. “I am sorry, Mrs. Casey.”

“Here.” Maureen held out the Bible, but he put up the palms of his hands and backed out of the car. She watched him make his way down the street, a short man, hatless, his bright, puffy coat billowing with the gusts. She saw him turn into the parking lot but forgot to observe his leaving, as she’d intended, because she got caught up leafing through the Bible. Her father had given her one just like it after her confirmation; she still kept it on her bedside table.

This Bible had belonged to Clara Gutierrez. Below her name, someone had written an inscription in Spanish; Maureen couldn’t make it out in the dim light, only the day, large and underlined—Pascua 1980. Where was she now, this Clara? What had become of her, this ardent, hopeful girl in her white dress, surrounded by her family, godparents, friends, that her Bible should end up in a Goodwill bin? Even if she no longer read it, or believed it, she wouldn’t have thrown it away, would she? Had something happened? Ah, girl, where were you?

Presented by

Tobias Wolff’s story in this issue is part of his new collection, Our Story Begins, which will be published by Knopf in April 2008. His most recent book is the novel Old School (2003); he also teaches at Stanford University and is a frequent contributor to The Atlantic.

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