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By the Time I Get to Phoenix

WANTED TO BUY: Mercedes
300SL-Gullwing. For further
information, call 516-5…

Carmine DeSilva’s coffee cup covered the rest of the phone number, but the Long
Island area code caught his attention. He stared at the newspaper.

Reading the want ads had become a habit with him. It prolonged the morning ritual
of silence, the only time, he thought, Angela ever was silent. At least she let him read his
newspaper in peace.

He glanced at her furtively, hoping to avoid her attention. She continued to gaze
catatonically at the kitchen window. He knew she could not see out. Two tiers of frilled
curtains, faded and limp with age, covered the windows. Beyond the dingy glass was only
the gloom of 36th Street.

Angela was smoking her third cigarette and drinking her second cup of coffee.
Breakfast would consist of two more of each. The blue smoke from the end of the Marlboro
dangling from her lip twined with the muddy clouds exhaled from her nose. Her face was
fleshy below the pouty mouth. Carmine remembered with an inner sigh what the slender girl
had looked like. He had thought the blonde hair was natural.

Carmine looked again at the want ad, and moved his coffee cup to hide everything
but the words WANTED TO. His mind was on the tarpaulin-covered shape that occupied
the garage of the house. Their own 1979 Chevy always sat in the driveway between the
closed garage door and the chain-link fence that surrounded the front yard.

The garage was opened four times a year. On good days in the spring and the fall,
Carmine busied himself with seeing to the maintenance of the treasure that he drove only
once every three months, just as his father had done.

Treasure. That was what his father had called the Mercedes. “My treasure chest, boy,
and don’t you sell it!”

His father, Geno DeSilva, had lived with them for seventeen years. Angela and the
old man had fought over everything. She blamed their childlessness on him, claiming that if
she had not had to worry with Geno she would not be nervous and would be able to
conceive. She never stayed with one doctor long enough to find out what the real problem
was. Carmine wondered if it wasn’t his fault. Perhaps he was sterile. But then, he told
himself, he never had checked to find the truth, either.

“The creamer,” said Angela.

“Huh?” mumbled Carmine.

“When you’re at the store,” she said. “You always forget the creamer.”

Carmine stood and moved his coffee cup off the newspaper. The tabletop was cold
gray laminate. He hated the design on the table, a maze of tiny figures, overlapping. They
looked like miniature boomerangs to him. The thought of so many objects always returning
to their starting points depressed him. He shivered.

“You through with the funnies?” he asked.

Angela nodded, the cigarette glowed and she bared her teeth, exhaling a cloud of
smoke.

Carmine found himself holding his breath against the acrid odor. He gathered the
paper up with as deliberate a motion as he could affect and carried it and the cup to the sink.
He washed his cup, his cereal bowl, and the filter apparatus for the coffeemaker. He would
wash the pot when he came home from his twice-weekly trip to the grocery.

He tore the notice about the car from the newspaper and put the rest of it in the
garbage sack. Angela glanced away from the window.

“Just an ad about a tire sale,” he said, and he thought his voice sounded apologetic.

“Got the list?” was her only reply.

“Yes.”

“Put creamer on it.”

“It’s on,” he said and picked up the lined yellow slip from the counter.

“Check. You always forget creamer,” she said as he made his way toward the hall
closet for his old sweater. It never seemed to keep him warm these days.

At two that afternoon, Carmine walked along 36th Street, his lean frame immaculate
in starched white shirt, black trousers, and well-polished black shoes, a formal bow tie at his
throat. Carmine smoothed back his thinning, still dark hair with the palms of both hands and
then smoothed his cheeks. His hands smelled pleasantly of aftershave.

It was his habit to say a prayer or two each day on his way to work, an old habit
from school days when his mother would say, “Carmine, if you can’t go to Mass, you can
always say a prayer. Practice on your way to school. Say a prayer; say two.”

He and Angela hadn’t been to Mass in years. Not since his father died. Angela hated
to take the bus to get to the church and parking around the building became increasingly
difficult. They had watched the neighborhood change from a predominantly Roman
Catholic, Italian community to one that was almost entirely Greek Orthodox. LaBella, the
restaurant where he had worked as dishwasher, busboy, and finally as a waiter, was still on
Atlantic Avenue, but ten years ago, at Angela’s insistence, he had gone to work for Pete
Stavros at the Neptune, a larger and busier establishment. His father had never forgiven him
for “abandoning his own people,” but Angela was happy with the increased income.

In appearance, the neighborhood hadn’t changed all that much. It was just grayer and
shabbier. Rows of attached houses with single garages, most of them faced with man-made
stone of a doubtful color or with pale asbestos siding, stood behind fenced front yards. Links
of aluminum chain separated the sidewalk from the plots of shabby grass. Gates were
padlocked across short concrete driveways.

The houses reminded him of the miles of gray granite headstones in St. John’s
Cemetery along the Central Expressway. One day he would move from his gray slab of a
house with its small plot of ground to a granite slab of a grave close to his parents.

“One headstone for another,” he thought.

Carmine let his thoughts drift to the one time he and Angela had taken a trip. They
had gone to California to visit a cousin of hers. They had driven the Chevy when it was not
new, but a “recently purchased formerly owned automobile.”

Angela had been appalled at the long drive, the immense distance between the two
coasts, but he had been endlessly fascinated by the changing landscape, marveling at the
broad sweep of the continent.

On the way back, they had gone through Phoenix. He often remembered the wide
vistas, the clean look of the desert, and the giant saguaro cacti that grew between Tucson
and Phoenix. And it was warm.

On impulse, he had suggested that they look at one of the retirement communities in
Arizona. Angela hooted at the idea, but for once in his life he argued her to a standstill. She
sat in the car, using the partially folded map as a fan, while he toured one of the facilities.

“I don’t want to live in no Sun City, and I don’t ever want to talk about it again,” she
said when he came back to the car.

He remembered how he had stood there, unable to say anything. He had loved the
feel of the sun on his back and the top of his head.

Now Carmine looked up at the iron-gray clouds that seemed to press down on the
Triborough Bridge. He sighed and walked the last chilly block to the Neptune.

Pete Stavros stood in the kitchen talking to the cook when Carmine made his way to
the alcove where the waiters had a cubbyhole for their coats. He hung his sweater carefully
on the same hook from which he took his gold waiter’s jacket. Carmine slipped into it with
the same deliberation he used in all of his movements. Then he slowly took the clipping
from this morning’s paper from his pocket.

Pete turned and started for his office area behind the kitchen.

“Pete,” Carmine said, “Got a minute?”

“Sure. One.” Pete was always in a hurry. His shoulders rolled with his bouncing gait.

Built like a welterweight, he always looked as though he was ready for a bout.

“What do you suppose a gull-wing 1954 Mercedes would be worth?”

“Jeez, Carmine, you been in my till?”

Carmine looked confused. Pete laughed.

“You thinkin’ ’bout buyin’ one? Tips must be better than I thought.”

This time Carmine laughed too, delighted.

“Get outta here!” he said. “Pete, I never told you. My dad had one. Left it to me,
along with the house that Angela and me live in.”

Pete’s black eyes were round as buttons. “You kiddin’?” Business always got his full
attention. He leaned an elbow against the edge of the counter next to Carmine where the
newspaper ad lay.

Carmine handed the ad to Pete. “Waddaya think it’s worth?”

Pete scanned the ad and then said, “Let’s find out.” He picked up the scrap of paper
in one hand, took the sleeve of Carmine’s coat in the other and pulled him into the office.

“Want me to call?” he said.

“Would you?” Carmine asked, relieved.

Pete was already dialing, a cool look of detachment and cunning on his face.

The phone answered and he asked for a Mr. Kolliopolis. After a pause, Pete
introduced himself in a crisp, business voice. “Could you give me an idea of the resale price
of a ’54 Mercedes. 300SL – gullwing?.” He listened and then put the mouthpiece against his
shoulder. “How many miles?”

“Twenty-eight t’ousand,” said Carmine.

“Twenty-eight.” There was a pause. “No, honest to God. I’m askin’ for a client and
this guy is as honest as the day is long, so help me. Yeah. It was his dad’s car.”

“His treasure chest,” Carmine said.

Again Pete covered the mouthpiece; “He wants some background. Where was it
driven and stuff like that. And what color is it?”

“Gray,” Carmine said. “We took it on the road four times a year. Spring and fall we
went up the Hudson, far as Poughkeepsie. Winters and spring, Dad liked to drive out to
Montauk.”

Carmine was overwhelmed by a nervous desire to talk. “Dad had that garage down
off Atlantic. He fixed a door handle on the car for a friend of Uncle Franco’s. Uncle Franco’s
a lawyer. And the guy never came back. Finally Franco tells Dad that the guy’s not coming
back so he can just keep the car – even got the title put in Dad’s name.”

Pete relayed only the pertinent part of the information, nodding impatiently at
Carmine but listening to Kolliopolis. He whistled through his teeth, “Holy Toledo. Okay,
and I appreciate your time.”

He slapped the phone onto is base. “How does two hundred sixty-five t’ousand
bucks hit you?”

Carmine stared at him.

Pete’s eyes were shining like those of a child who had been read a fairy tale. “Jeez,
what a piece of luck,” he breathed. He snatched up the phone again, dialing.

“Ah, yes.” Pete’s voice was suave. “Ah, I’m calling as to the ad placed in the paper
regarding the purchase of a 1954 Mercedes 300SL … uh huh … mmm. I’m calling for a
client, missus.”

Carmine suddenly had a sinking feeling. Would Pete expect a cut? He was ashamed
of his own greed.

“Right. Yeah.” Pete was making faces into the telephone mouthpiece. “Thank you,
missus. I certainly appreciate your help.” He slapped the phone down again.

“Now, Carmine, here’s the deal. The guy’s a lawyer, big Wall Street firm. The
missus said call him at home, late.” He shoved the scrap of newsprint back at Carmine and
was out the office door.

“Thanks, Pete,” Carmine said.

Later in the evening, Carmine found himself with a slow time at his tables. He dialed
the Long Island number and noticed that his bony fingers were trembling so that he could
barely find the holes on the old dial wall phone in the kitchen.

A man answered. Carmine introduced himself and asked if the gentleman had placed
the ad.

“Yes,” was the brief reply.

Carmine told him about the car.

“Of course, I would have to see it.” The comment was cool.

“Oh, sure. Any time.”

“And what are you asking for it, Mr. DeSilva?”

Carmine’s mouth went dry, “Well … uh … well, I’m told its worth about … uh.”
Carmine swallowed, his gullet in spasm. He cleared his throat and rasped, “Two hundred
sixty-five t’ousand.” He felt a rush of blood to his face, but at least he had gotten the words
out.

“Two hundred sixty-five thousand.” There was a pause. “When could you bring it
out?”

Carmine thought he was going to faint. He realized he had been holding his breath.
“Anytime,” he said, “Well, when it’s convenient. Well, I work nights, but that don’t matter,
whenever you want.”

They settled on the following Saturday, exchanged names and addresses, and T.
Howard Sandford bid Carmine DeSilva a rather cold good-bye.

The house was quiet when Carmine came home from work. Angela was asleep.
Often she was awake, watching television. She loved late-night television.

Carmine went to the garage door. The tarpaulin-covered shape took up most of the
space. Carmine lifted the canvas away from the near side of the automobile and carefully
jackknifed himself through the open window. The small garage did not allow him to enter
through the wing- like doors, but Carmine was used to this sort of entrance and exit.

For a moment he relaxed against the leather seats, the feeling of comfort and luxury
seeping into his tired muscles. Angela may not have understood his father’s affinity for this
lovely machine, but he did.

At last he opened the glove compartment and switched on the map light. Somewhat
dim, he noted. The autumn drive was overdue and the battery needed a workout.

He removed the pseudo-leather envelope that he knew contained the car title,
although he had never looked inside it. His father’s angular handwriting had signed it and
made the ownership over to Carmine. Also inside the envelope was a letter addressed to
him. Carmine’s hands shook as he tore the flap open. Inside was a letter in his father’s
crabbed hand. There was no salutation.

So she finally talked you into selling your inheritance, it began. I just hope to God
it’s not because she wants to buy new furniture or some damnfool thing like that. If it is, and
you’re smart, you’ll wait until you are ready to retire. Then take the money if you want to,
but the for Lord’s sake, get it in cash. Nobody but crooks, even high class ones, ever buy this
kind of car.

There was no signature, either.

On Saturday morning, as Carmine cleared away the breakfast dishes, he said, “I’m
going to take the car out to Long Island. You want to go?”

Angela looked incredulous, the cigarette halfway to her full lips. “You kiddin’? The
Jets is playing.”

“It’s a nice day and I need to take the car out.”

“So take the hunk of junk. God, you and your old man. Hang on to that thing, takin’
up room. Fer what?”

For about two hundred sixty-five t’ousand dollars, thought Carmine, but he held his
tongue.

“Just thought you might like to get out,” he said.

“Go on,” she said. “With the Jets playin’?”

Later, as he backed carefully out of the garage, she stood, still in her bathrobe,
watching him. Her elbow was cocked and she held a cigarette between the third and fourth
fingers. The blonde hair was still in pink plastic curlers.

Carmine gave a sigh of relief. He had been afraid up until the last moment she would
change her mind. For now, this was his secret.

The address was in the old part of Garden City. The long green lawns and generous
shingled houses bespoke comfort and settled money. Mostly it was a façade; Manhattan’s
lucky and hard-working entrepreneurs owned the majority of the turn-of-the-century homes.
These men, now reaching fifty, were not born to wealth but, with the assistance of good
schools and a rising economy, had made fortunes.

Carmine rang the bell next to the red painted door. A small roof, supported by
wooden columns, covered the porch. T. Howard Sandford opened the door himself. He wore
golf slacks and an expensive polo shirt of Kelly green. The topsiders would be exchanged
for golf shoes when he met his foursome at two-thirty. The salt and pepper hair was
carefully trimmed, the face smooth despite hours on the links.

“Mr. DeSilva?” he said, and held out a hand.

Carmine was not surprised at the firm grip.

“Well, let’s take a look,” Sandford said, approaching the car with purpose.

Carefully dusted, the Mercedes’ gray paint gleamed. Sandford opened both doors,
and the automobile looked poised for flight, its long hood and slanted vents making it appear
already in motion.

Sandford sat behind the wheel and ran his hand over the flawless leather, worn only
slightly on the cording.

“Go on,” Carmine said, “Take it for a spin.”

For one moment, the wealthy lawyer looked like a small boy, then quickly
reassumed his professional attitude. “Well, of course I will want to drive it, and I want my
mechanic to look at it. In fact I asked him if we could bring it by his house. He’s right here in
Garden City. I was sure you would understand my caution.”

“Sure, go right ahead,” Carmine said.

“Do you want to ride along?” Sandford asked.

“No I know you ain’t goin’ no place,” Carmine smiled.

Sandford hesitated. He seemed eager not to have Carmine along as he tried out the
car, but was undecided.

“Well, Mr. DeSilva, I can hardly leave you on the curb. Let me take you in and
introduce you to my wife.”

The next forty minutes were excruciating for both Carmine and Lelia Sandford, but
to Carmine, it was worth it to see the joy on Sandford’s face when he returned.

“You and your father have taken excellent care of that automobile, Mr. DeSilva,” he
said, “I must admit I didn’t really believe you when I talked to you on the phone, but my
man says it is in A-number one shape. I think maybe we have a deal.”

Carmine didn’t know what “maybe” meant. He held his breath.

“I didn’t want to pay more than two hundred thousand for one,” Sandford said.

“The books says two sixty-five,” said Carmine.

Lelia Sandford excused herself.

“Two twenty-five,” said Sandford.

“Two fifty.” Carmine was surprised at the note of finality in his own voice.

“Done deal,” said Sandford and held out his hand.

“Just one thing,” said Carmine.

Sandford dropped his hand suspiciously.

“Could I have it in cash?” said Carmine.

“Cash? Good God, man.”

Carmine could see the deep mistrust in the man’s clear gray eyes.

“Well, you see,” sputtered Carmine “It was my dad’s wish. He wasn’t very trusting
and he left me this letter with the car. Oh, no offense, Mr. Sandford, I’m sure you’re honest,
but … ”

Carmine ran out of argument and Sandford was still stunned.

“What about a cashier’s check?”

“Cash.”

“Look here, man. I don’t want to carry two hundred and fifty thousand dollars
around this city in cash, and neither do you. Take a cashier’s check.”

Carmine was adamant at first, but the problem of safety bothered him, too. They
finally agreed on a cashier’s check made out to Carmine for one hundred fifty-thousand
dollars and one hundred thousand in cash, to be delivered the following Saturday morning.

The two men shook hands and Carmine settled into the car, driving it back to Astoria
with utmost care.

“I’ve sold the car.” Carmine didn’t break the news until breakfast on Saturday.

“Wha-a-at? You sold the hunk of junk? Get outa here. That’ll be the day.”

“And I gotta deliver it by noon. You’ll have to drive the Chevy, Angela.”

“It’s rainin’, for God’s sake. And there’s a series game today.” she whined.

“Get dressed, Angela. We got to go to Garden City.”

“Ah, fer Chrissake,” she said, “And what did you get for it? Nothin’, I’ll bet.”

Carmine’s answer stunned her to silence. She stubbed out the cigarette. “You lyin’ to
me, Carmine DeSilva?”

Carmine began to clear the table.

If Carmine’s first visit with Lelia Sandford had been embarrassing, Angela managed
to mortify him even more. Angela would not relinquish her worn gray tweed coat, and
managed to spill some of the cola her uneasy hostess offered. The drink spilled again when
Angela made an unceremonious grab for the cashier’s check, snatching it from Carmine’s
grasp.

The two men finished their business, Carmine putting the stacks of green bills away
in an old canvas zippered tote bag he had brought for that purpose. He hung on to it,
ignoring Angela’s glare.

Sandford could not resist one piece of lawyerly advice; “Now look, here,” he said,
“It’s none of my business, but this is going to put you right up in the top bracket this year.
Don’t forget the IRS is looking over your shoulder.”

Carmine had already discussed this with Franco. “‘Bout eighty-fi’ t’ousand,” he said,
wagging his head in the way he thought businessmen did.

Sandford clapped him on the shoulder and walked the couple to the battered Chevy.

“Going to get a new car?” he laughed.

“And then some,” Carmine answered. “Maybe we’ll even retire and move to Florida
or someplace.”

Awe had curbed Angela’s tongue at the Sandfords, but the ride home loosened it.

She was ecstatic. The purse with the cashier’s check was pressed to her bosom.

Carmine stole a look at her face. She was happier than he had seen her in years. She
chattered on and on about the house and the furniture and the carpets and what they would
buy. She made it clear that her plans stretched only so far as the Astoria house.

Carmine ignored her, aware of a deepening depression. He was surprised that he
would feel the loss of the automobile. Feel the loss, and still nothing seemed to have
changed. Not even Angela’s usual complaint when halfway down the Long Island
Expressway, she said, “Carmine, you gotta stop. I gotta to go to the bathroom.”

He obediently found an exit and headed for the nearest gas station. He pulled the car
to the side near the rest rooms and she fled to one, clutching her purse.

Carmine watched the traffic make its way on and off the Expressway. He didn’t want
to go to work. He didn’t want to go home. He wished Angela would even talk about moving
out of Queens, somewhere warm. They could do it now. Sell the house, trade cars and even
after taxes have plenty to invest for their old age. They had insurance and it was paid up.

The bus from Manhattan snaked off the ramp and stopped across the street at a bus
stop. The stop for the on ramp was twenty yards from where Carmine sat. The inbound bus
was a block away, stopped in traffic.

Carmine opened the car door. His knee brushed the keys in the ignition, setting off a
tinkling, like wind chimes. Automatically, he reached for the tote bag.

His body moved without volition, one foot in front of the other toward the bus stop.
The bus was approaching; he could hear the hiss of the air brakes. He felt in his pocket for
change. His entire body was numb.

Thoughts swirled thorough his head. How did people disappear? They did it all the
time. Got away with it. How did you get a social security card? Open a bank account? Were
the bills he carried traceable? Would anyone bother? What about Angela? She had the check
and they had a joint account. The house was in both of their names. She had the car. She had
cousin Franco. She had her cigarettes and her bladder and her mouth.

He boarded the bus, watching the car covertly as he walked down the aisle to an
empty seat. Angela emerged from the rest room, settled into her side of the car, staring
straight ahead, as if waiting for him to come out of the men’s room. She was pouting.

Carmine settled into the seat as the doors whooshed closed and the bus moved onto
the Expressway on its way to Manhattan, on its way to the bus station, on its way to
freedom.

A sense of peace settled over Carmine and he began humming strains from an old
Glen Campbell song.

  • “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” first appeared in Issue No. 23 of The Northern Virginia Review. Reprinted here by permission of the author.
  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR
    Janet Taliaferro is a graduate of Southern Methodist University and holds a Master’s Degree in Creative Studies from the University of Central Oklahoma, where she received the Geoffrey Bocca Memorial Award for graduate writing. Her novel, A Sky for Arcadia, was a finalist in the 2002 Oklahoma Center for the Book Award. She has published short stories and poems in The Northern Virginia Review, New Plaines Review, Deep Fork Anthology, Dream Quarterly International and Tight. She lives in Virginia but has been a summer resident of Wisconsin since she was eight years old. She is a member of American Independent Writers and Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets.

    About Janet Taliaferro

    Janet Taliaferro is a graduate of Southern Methodist University and holds a Master’s Degree in Creative Studies from the University of Central Oklahoma, where she received the Geoffrey Bocca Memorial Award for graduate writing. Her novel, A Sky for Arcadia, was a finalist in the 2002 Oklahoma Center for the Book Award. She has published short stories and poems in The Northern Virginia Review, New Plaines Review, Deep Fork Anthology, Dream Quarterly International and Tight. She lives in Virginia but has been a summer resident of Wisconsin since she was eight years old. She is a member of American Independent Writers and Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets.

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