Dirt Dark Day - T. R. Healy
Until yesterday, Birch Lane was one of the quietest neighborhoods on the east side of town and one of the safest. It was a place where people moved to raise their children, where nearly every house for a stretch of almost a mile displayed lights during Christmas that attracted visitors from all around the city. Until yesterday, the most unusual thing to have occurred there was the morning lightning struck one of the numerous birch trees that lined the street and set it on fire. That was more than twenty years ago.
From the bottom of his mailbag Max Lashley fished out a certified letter then pressed the doorbell of the Cantlay residence.
Almost at once, Mrs. Cantlay opened the door, a striped dish towel draped over her left shoulder. "What can I do for you today, Max?"
"I have a letter for you to sign for, ma'am."
"I've been expecting this," she said, not sounding at all pleased.
He handed it to her.
Scarcely looking at it, she signed for it then slipped it into the pocket of her apron.
"You have a good day now."
"And you as well, Max," she replied perfunctorily as she closed the door.
Next, he crossed her lawn and dropped a handful of letters into the mailbox of the Berger family.
"Good afternoon, Max," Mrs. Berger greeted him from the back of the garage.
"I understand we might be getting some hail later today."
"I heard that too."
"So I'm surprised you're wearing shorts."
The Bergers were new to the neighborhood, having moved in at the end of the summer, so he assumed she hadn't noticed he wore knee-length blue shorts every day regardless of the weather. He had delivered mail for nearly eight years and halfway through his second year he started to wear shorts daily because he found them more comfortable than the long itchy wool pants that were the uniform once the weather turned colder. He also often wore a pith helmet which helped him make-believe he was delivering mail in San Diego where it was warm all year round and where he hoped to move after he retired which would not be for several more years.
"Howdy, Max," Harold Ewell, a retired pharmacist, said as he handed him a Time magazine and three letters.
"It looks like you have quite a project ahead of you," he remarked, looking at all the bricks scattered across the front lawn.
"Yeah. I've been meaning to mend our fence for I don't know how long so I figured I might as well get started."
"That'll keep you busy. That's for sure."
Ewell smiled as he stepped away to take the mail into the house.
Abruptly, a fierce screeching sound blared like a siren from somewhere down the street.
"What the hell was that?"
Lashley shrugged. "Sounds like a car peeling out of a driveway."
He nodded. "Probably some kid who just got his driver's license."
"I wouldn't be surprised."
For the past three months, Eric Dahlstrom, a college sophomore, earned some spending money delivering salads and sandwiches on his bicycle for a small Greek delicatessen half a block from a light rail stop. He worked Monday through Thursday, from eleven o'clock to two o'clock. An avid cyclist, who often competed in sprint trials on the weekend, he enjoyed his job. It was certainly preferable to shelving books in the university library which he did during the fall term.
"You know where you're going now?" Gus, the owner of the deli, asked as he always did before Dahlstrom set out on a delivery.
He tapped the left pocket of his jacket where he kept his itinerary. "Yeah, Gus, I know."
"All right," he said, winking his left eye. "Ride safely."
"I always do."
The first delivery was to a veterinarian whose office was only four blocks from the deli then he headed north to make some deliveries over in Birch Lane. Near the entrance to the neighborhood was a very steep hill that compelled him to rise out of his seat he had to pedal so hard. It was one of the most demanding climbs in the city so he always looked forward to the challenge.
Exhausted as ever, after he reached the top, he paused for a moment and took a sip from his water bottle then checked his order list and pedalled down the boulevard-wide lane to deliver two salads to the Cummings residence. After that was done, he made his way to the Wainwrights who ordered panini sandwiches at least twice a week. He was within half a block of their place when he became aware of a maroon Mercury in his side mirror and immediately swung over to the side of the street. Surprisingly, the car also swung over, staying right behind him, and as he started to wave it to pass by, he felt something brush against his back tire and before he knew it he spilled off his bike and split his helmet in half.
Linda Fincher, a part-time hair stylist, was also a dog walker. It was probably the last thing she ever thought she would do for a paycheck. She had never been too fond of dogs until soon after her separation from her husband when another stylist, who was going out of town for the summer, asked her to take care of her three-year-old beagle, and though she was reluctant she agreed to look after the animal. To her amazement, she became so attached to the dog that she hated to give it back when her friend returned to the city. Because of this attachment she went to work for "Canine Strolls" which provided walkers for owners who were too busy or too decrepit to walk their pets themselves.
This afternoon she was slated to walk an Irish setter that belonged to the Arnett family who lived just about in the middle of Birch Lane. Their dog was one of the most well-trained animals she had ever dealt with so she always was eager to accept this assignment.
"Hello there," Lashley said from across the street.
"You going to walk Clancy today?"
"I hope you don't get rained on."
"So do I."
She walked the setter so often that she was used to exchanging greetings with the mailman whose name she always intended to find out but never remembered to ask the Arnetts. Today she would, she told herself, digging a fingernail into her palm so she would not forget.
A few minutes later, as she started to cross the street, she spotted a maroon Mercury racing around the corner. It was going much too fast in a residential neighborhood where the speed limit was twenty miles per hour so she stepped back to let it go through the intersection. Not a moment later, the Mercury veered onto the sidewalk, heading straight toward her, and immediately she leaped back onto a grass embankment and just missed being struck by the left side of the vehicle.
"Maniac!" she screamed as the car roared past her and returned to the street.
Andy Hillis, a longtime employee of the Water Bureau, knelt down on one knee to read the meter at the Rivera household. It had been almost three years since he recorded the meters in Birch Lane but another worker called in sick so he was told to take her place. He well remembered the last time he worked in this neighborhood because a feisty Boston terrier bit him on the thumb when he entered the Raskin's backyard. It required a couple of stitches to close and hurt for a good two weeks. Ever since then, he always wore a pair of thick leather gloves when he was reading meters.
He had just come out of the backyard of a three-story Victorian house when he saw a woman sprawled on the grass next door and a maroon Mercury roaring down the street. Concerned, he rushed over to her. "Are you all right, lady?"
"I don't know," Linda mumbled, as if not quite sure what had happened. "I suppose so."
"You must have tripped on a crack in the sidewalk," he suggested. "I do it all the time."
"No, I didn't trip," she snapped as he helped her get on her feet. "That damn fool in the maroon car almost ran me down."
"You have to remember to look both ways when you cross a street," he reminded her, "even in quiet places like Birch Lane."
"I wasn't in the street. I was on the sidewalk and that car jumped the curb and headed right for me and would've hit me if I hadn't got out of the way."
"It was on the sidewalk, you say?" he asked skeptically.
"I know it sounds crazy but it was I swear. Whoever was driving it wanted to run me down and I don't have any idea why."
He didn't really believe her but didn't see the point of challenging her claim, and after making sure she was all right, he resumed his rounds.
"Damn it," Dick Rusk moaned after another rose sticker nipped his elbow.
A landscaper, he had four homes in Birch Lane whose yards he took care of once a week, usually on Wednesdays. The only one he had any difficulty with was the Arnett house because of all the rose bushes. He seldom ever managed to get through their yard without also suffering a few cuts.
After he finished clipping the last rose bush, he went back to his truck to fetch a rake, but before he pulled it out, he heard a whining sound and spun around and saw a maroon Mercury speeding up the street.
"Hey, slow down!" he shouted, waving his clippers above his head.
The car bolted past him then all of a sudden it stopped, its brakes squealing, then backed up almost as fast and stopped right across from him. Its windows were tinted so he could not make out the driver.
"You're going too damn fast."
Furiously the driver revved his engine for at least three minutes then took off, going even faster it seemed.
"This isn't a racetrack!" Rusk shouted as the car tore out of sight.
"My God!" Hillis gasped when he saw the Mercury weave to its left and plow into a mailman who was nearly halfway through the crosswalk.
He was at the opposite end of the block and, dropping his notebook, he ran as fast as he could to see if the man had survived the collision. But before he reached him, he heard an explosion and saw that the Mercury had crashed into one of the birch trees which suddenly burst into flames as if struck by lightning.