This text has been printed from storiesandnovels.com and is copyrighted by the author, Franz Jørgen Neumann. It can only be printed for personal enjoyment. No other use without express permission is allowed. Inquiries can be sent to franz@storiesandnovels.com.

Short Story

Baltic States

Rudy leafs through the auction paperwork as Verner drives them—and the two vintage Corvettes in the trailer—to the cars’ buyer in Estonia. A rare find is a worn phrase in the business, but true in this case: the Corvettes are immaculate, with only single digit mileage. And there are two of them.

Rudy tells Verner about the original purchaser, Maxwell Zims, owner of Zim’s Chevrolet in Los Angeles. Mr. Zims ordered the identical pennant-blue Corvette C1s a day after his wife delivered twins. Intended as presents for his two boys when they came of driving age, the C1s wound up with a collector in San Clemente, then another in Las Vegas, then a third in Boston. Now, Rudy’s delivering them to the CEO of a mobile app company in Estonia.

Rudy feels it might be his last trip for a while; he really shouldn’t even be working. But he hasn’t experienced a single hallucination since meeting Verner and his rig at the port in Rotterdam. The light show Rudy experienced on the flight over almost doesn’t count. Rudy finds the hallucinations—what his neurologist says is Charles Bonnet Syndrome—interesting. There’s the giant Kraken that hangs out in his complex’s indoor pool, the women in calico dresses riding horses at night, and his personal aurora borealis with colors he doesn’t have names for. He considers these intermittent visions, these tricks of his brain, to be personal entertainment. Like all good illusionists, his gray matter hasn’t revealed how it conjures its cast. Radiologists probably will: cholesterol deposits, blood clots, a brain tumor. Frankly, he doesn’t care to know. The answer will be a disappointment, and a worry. He’d rather not let the neurologist fumble around for the projector’s switch.

In Verner’s cab, Rudy gingerly unfolds the yellowed newspaper clipping with the story of Mr. Zims. Dated January 1953, the personal interest piece contains a photo of the proud father behind the wheel of one of the Corvettes. Mr. Zims straddles a baby boy on each leg, a superfluous smile on his fat face. Car buyers love this kind of provenance.

“But why did those boys not get the cars?” Verner asks.

“No clue,” Rudy says. “It’s not in the file.”

“I bet the boys were kidnapped,” Verner says.

“They weren’t kidnapped,” Rudy says. At least, he doesn’t think so.

Rudy can picture the twin boys visiting their father at the dealership, year after year, their lips blurred with motoring sounds as they sit behind the wheels, the stationary Corvettes angled in perpetual near-collision in the showroom. When older, the boys would have learned the rudiments of the combustion engine, peering under the hood. Later still, they’d study the manual with their lanky legs slung over the sides of the door and the radios tuned to the same station, the Corvettes on their tenth set of batteries. What a thing to have sitting there, waiting for you to grow up. Mr. Zims probably even saw them taking over the business one day. But no.

“Car market went soft after the Japanese moved in,” Rudy offers. “Mr. Zims probably saw a Toyota dealership pop up on one side and a Datsun on the other. He couldn’t compete. Had to sell the Corvettes just to keep things going a little longer.”

“Or the boys had a disease so they couldn’t drive,” Verner says.

Rudy shakes his head. He wishes Verner would stick to driving the rig.

Verner moves them over one lane to pass a slow car. He checks his mirror, then looks over at Rudy a bit longer than Rudy cares for.

“They were murdered,” Verner says.

“Why would they be murdered?”

“Because…America?”

“Too sensational,” Rudy says.

“By their father,” Verner adds.

Rudy laughs. But only a little. What if they’re both right? The dealership tanks; Zims has debts; he starts drinking heavily; his wife gets herself a job and a new boss who makes her feel desired again. Those twin boys, those empathy-devoid cretins, they keep demanding a level of comfort he no longer can provide. Starting them off with Corvettes, what was I thinking? Then one day he snaps. He’s out at the beach on his day with the boys while his wife is working, or whatever it is she does nine to five. He strides out to where his half-grown sons are messing around, hurling muddy sand without regard to those around them. Their mischief embarrasses Maxwell deeply. He grabs them both by their upper arms and pulls them past a breaking wave to clean them off. Their behavior needs to be remedied before they carry their disregard into adulthood. He takes them past the last sandbar to where the water is too deep for the boys to stand and he holds them down to get the sand out of their hair and to teach them a lesson, just a lesson, see, but he holds them down too long. It doesn’t seem more than a few seconds, but they aren’t prepared. And their lungs, after all, hold less air than his. And now Maxwell Zims is finishing a life sentence somewhere, or is already dead with a quick slit of remorse. Good god, Rudy thinks. Verner’s right!

But then Rudy looks at the newspaper clipping again, that face radiating such joy. No—Verner is wrong. Maxwell Zims is the guy who changes diapers, even back in the 1950s. He’s the kind of good-natured fellow eager to put everyone into a state of equal happiness—especially if it’s automotive in origin. It’s Verner who’s put Rudy in a dark mood. That and the jet lag. Mr. Zims is a good guy.

Rudy felt like a good guy in his first marriage: helpful, generous, loving. The future was his as long as he remained good. He treated his wife like a gift; he wouldn’t even let her wash the dishes. But the enthusiasm ebbed after only a few seasons of matrimony. He strayed. Goodness was rekindled in his second marriage, and especially during his wife’s pregnancy, but he smacked her once, during an argument, and in that moment he realized the goodness had gone out of him again; he just hadn’t been paying attention to its departure. Rudy didn’t think he’d be able to reclaim himself, but with his third wife, he had. The goodness went down to faint embers sometimes, but it kept burning. But poor Sheila has been gone eight years now, longer than he knew her. And here he is on the continent of his heredity without knowing a soul, except for Verner, and only for the past eighteen hours or so. Rudy looks at Verner. Verner looks back.

“Murdered,” Verner says.

They don’t say anything for a long while. And though he’s technically on the job, making sure the delivery goes through safely, Rudy succumbs to jet lag. He wakes as they pass through a weigh station at another open border.

“No more checks, huh,” Rudy says. He has the required paperwork, just in case.

“No. Makes smuggling easier.” Verner smiles and Rudy wishes he wouldn’t. “I, long before, had stuff, you know? Fifteen million worth, I estimate. This was when we still had kroons, not Euros. I was paid in diapers to do it.”

“What did you smuggle?” Rudy imagines human cargo. Drugs.

“Diapers. It was diapers. Ask me how many diapers I bought for my kids.”

“How many?”

Verner makes a zero with his fingers and thumb. “Until they got too tight.” He laughs. “We used tape to make them big—”

Verner’s cell phone interrupts him with a tune. When he answers, Verner slips out of English and speaks low in his mother tongue, as though Rudy understands Estonian. Rudy’s not even sure Estonian is a language. He isn’t even sure what country he is in. There was the Netherlands, then Germany, then they entered Poland and skirted around the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad—which he had never heard of—by way of Warmia and Masuria, which sounded like fantasy kingdoms in a children’s book. Maybe they’re in Lithuania now, or Latvia. A lifetime’s inattention to geography had led him to believe the Baltic states were somewhere along the Mediterranean, vaguely between Italy and Greece, rather than up here in the north.

Rudy looks out the window and searches for the familiar. The streetlights cast a different hue here. The light manufacturing and business parks, the suburbs—they all look different, like one side of the Atlantic built itself up from descriptions in books of the other side. Close, but not quite the same.

As Verner’s rig nears a traffic circle, Rudy sees three women on horseback approaching. They’re so close he can make out the buttons on their calico dresses. It’s a hallucination, but he’s happy to see the women again, surprised at what seems great effort for them to have also made it across the Atlantic, though, of course, they simply hitched a ride in his head. And though he knows this, they are familiar and therefore welcome company. He’s only seen them at night before. The women are in their thirties, as alike as sisters. They’re too young to be his past wives and bear no similarities, despite the neatness of their number. They’re also too plain to be sirens and too few in number to be apocalyptic. Even so, one of the horses pitches itself headlong into the truck’s side as they exit the traffic circle.

“Watch it!” Rudy shouts.

“What?” Verner said. He holds his phone to his ear with his shoulder as he completes the turn.

“Thought there was a speed bump,” Rudy says, recovering, searching for the now-absent riders.

Verner mutters something, then ends the phone call. “You put speed bumps in American roundabouts?”

Rudy doesn’t tell him that roundabouts and America are nearly foreigners to one another. “No,” Rudy says. “Thought maybe they did here. Just concerned about the Corvettes.”

“Safe as diapers,” Verner says, and smiles. “Look. No worries, okay? You hungry?”

Rudy looks out at the dimming light. It feels like late afternoon, but it’s early evening. He’s more than a little hungry, he realizes.

“I know a good place,” Verner says. “We can eat and sleep there. Cabins. Nice. The perfect place. Better than last night.“

“Good,” Rudy says, resting his eyes.

They aren’t expected to arrive at the collector’s property until tomorrow. Rudy will take over, snap the requisite photographs and secure the signatures. And then he’ll be done. He’ll catch a flight back to Boston from Tallinn, maybe pick up some tchotchkes for his granddaughters first, nesting doll, perhaps, though maybe they’re too old for such things, or maybe nesting dolls aren’t even a thing in Estonia.

Rudy last visited his daughter and granddaughters over Christmas, year before last. The girls had come down with head lice and strep but they hadn’t thought to let him know. But he was good. He even stayed for a few days longer than planned so his daughter could go back to work. In dutiful turns, the girls sat cross-legged in front of him as he went nit-picking through their hair with a magnifying glass. He gave the lice names. There was Mrs. Poopie-pants and her children Squish, Splat and Eek. He even began to enjoy the just-perceptible crack of the lice as he crushed them between his fingernails. After each kill, he showed the girls his bloody nails and the girls sang a little jingle they made up to a tune in The Wizard Of Oz. Split-splat the lice is dead, the wicked lice, it wasn’t nice.

Rudy pauses the memory. Or did this happen with his own daughter? He’s noticed this lately, too: memories tack sharp, but unhinged from the calendar. Whether it has anything to do with the hallucinations or simply with aging, he isn’t sure.

He opens his eyes to brightness, even though it is evening. They are now driving in the mountains. Snow lies thick as cotton batting and as deep as the roofs of a few scattered homes. Rudy checks himself. “Any snow coming?”

Verner shakes his head. “Too early. Maybe next month.”

Rudy watches the hallucinated wintry landscape unfold. The horse riders didn’t surprise him, but this: this is an entire landscape. He’s impressed that his lowly mind can manufacture an alternate reality with such seamlessness. He wonders if everything is a product of his imagination: Verner beside him, the story of the Corvettes, his job, his condo—even the earth below, the sky above. Though, if he is so god-like, he certainly would have made things turn out better than they have. A happy first marriage, say. A wave of the hand and the lice disappearing in little puffs of smoke, or how about no lice? A less reckless husband for his daughter, another example. He’d have kept a hell of a lot more promises, too, if he could remanufacture his past. But this snowy landscape, this isn’t half bad.

He’s a little disappointed when Verner pulls off the road and parks near a handful of other other rigs. The snow melts in a moment. In a nearby restaurant overlooking a campground and lake, they sit and drink beers and eat open-face shrimp sandwiches. It’s a place where you can still smoke, or where no one cares if you smoke. Verner books them a cabin. Rudy follows Verner out onto the green lawn and toward the cluster of pale accommodations the size of tool sheds. There’s has a bunk bed and Verner claims the top.

Rudy doesn’t feel like sleep, though. He says goodnight and walks down to the shore and takes it in, the foreignness of this place. The lake is freshwater, but Rudy can smell the sea, not far away. He thinks to call his daughter, and knows, even as he tries to place a call, that his phone won’t work here. Something different about the phone’s innards or the wireless standards. Almost the same, again, but not quite. Somebody understands this stuff, just not him. He walks for a few minutes along the shore, then turns around and walks back. The shore is pebbly and littered with seagull feathers and the flat paper discs from ice cream cone tops. He watches a tern overhead, then hears the rude gunning of engines. He turns away from the lake and sees a blur sweep behind Verner’s rig and onto the road. Then the second pennant-blue Corvette rolls out the back of the trailer down orange ramps. A man is waving the driver backwards, then hops into the car as it takes off.

Rudy feels something scooped out of him. He has to cough to get his heart beating again. All the paperwork, all the travel of getting those Corvettes here…and now this violation. He runs to the cabin, as much as a man his age and in his shape can run. This is a professional heist, by people who knew the trailer’s cargo and its worth from the moment the Corvettes were loaded at the docks. Maybe even before then. Verner’s involved, of course. He knew a good place to eat and sleep? Right. That long phone call in the rig? It all comes together.

Rudy stops outside the cabin to slow his adrenaline. Is he getting fired? Likely. Maybe even sued. Still, not worth a coronary. He counts to ten. But when he opens the door and sees Verner sleeping in the top bunk like there isn’t a problem in the world, his anger surges and will have its moment.

“You little shit,” Rudy says, and pulls Verner down by his legs.

Verner mutters something as he collapses to the floor. He seizes Rudy’s legs to stop Rudy from kicking him again.

Rudy loses his balance and falls on Verner and they struggle, Rudy from age, Verner from the weakness of sleep, until they come to blows. Rudy tastes blood in his mouth. He rights himself and storms out. People are emerging from the other cabins, looking at him, at the commotion.

“What did I do?” Verner says, chasing after Rudy now.

In the parking area, Rudy tries the handles of a couple of parked cars, hoping he’ll find one that’s unlocked. He could borrow a car, chase down those Corvettes, get those thieves—or at least attract the police in the process. Later, in Tallinn, the CEO of the game company who is waiting for him will be tremendously thankful, will have him tell the story of how he recovered the cars, and the entrepreneur will show Rudy how it all works: the mobile apps, the computers and screens and antennas and everything Rudy doesn’t understand. One big ah-ha moment for Rudy.

“What the hell, Rudy,” Verner says.

“Diapers. Right,” Rudy says. “You do this all the time, I bet.“

Rudy reaches the back of the trailer, but they’ve locked it. Even the ramps have been removed. He digs the padlock key from his pocket, removes the lock, then swings one side wide.

“Ah shit,” he says, and pinches his nose.

He shakes from the sudden cold, and from knowing he can no longer believe anything he can’t touch. Because there, lit by the endless Baltic dusk, is the first of the two Corvette C1s, still in the blue wrapping he did himself. Below the Corvette’s shape are the tires he strapped down. One’s a little low. Rudy hoists himself into the trailer and peels back the protection and finds a door through the batting. He feels the cold paint and colder chrome trim. He raps it with his knuckles and sees Verner staring at him, waiting for an explanation.

“Just a drill,” Rudy said. “That’s all.”

“Drill?”

“For insurance purposes.”

Verner mutters something and storms off, and when Rudy, later, enters the cabin to sleep, he does so quietly, like a man coming home later than his wife can forgive.

Rudy doesn’t tell Verner about his hallucinations the next morning, not even when snow begins sliding down the windshield. He doesn’t ask if the precipitation is crystalline or an illusion. The only thing he’s certain of is that he has two pennant-blue Corvettes to deliver. They once belonged to twin boys who never put any miles on them. The cars have been taken farther from them with every decade, by men like Rudy, and men who’ll come after him, for as forever as one can imagine the cars existing. Rudy doesn’t tell Verner about his visions even when the women in calico dresses reappear ahead of him, driving the Corvettes. This hallucination isn’t without humor, he thinks; his unconscious mind sampling cheekily from his conscious thoughts. Rudy doesn’t care whether the cars drive out front or are hauled in back: they are all headed the same direction, now.

“Verner,” Rudy says, after daydreaming. “Verner. I know what happened.”

Verner is shaking his head. They still aren’t on speaking terms.

“I know why the boys never got their cars,” Rudy says.

Verner stares at him before looking back at the road.

Rudy feels certain that Maxwell Zims died long before the kids came of age. An auto accident or a heart attack; it doesn’t matter how. His grieving wife divested herself of the dealership quickly, yearning for simplicity. She sold the two Corvettes as well when her husband’s debts were revealed to her. Her boys were her husband’s sons, but now they were completely hers to care for; she didn’t want their future tied to rubber and steel. The boys grew up and attended a local college. She sold the house and took a modest apartment in order to have enough to pay for their room and board. The boys stayed close by. As they grew older, they hardly thought of the Corvettes at all. And when they did, it was never with regret and only in the context of their father, whom they remembered now less with sorrow than loving amusement. Those cars were a ridiculous portrait of their future. But that’s all their father had to give: a promise of what the future might hold if the future was his to command. And as the boys passed the age their father was when he died, they came to understand that it was the making of promises that mattered: this vision of a life together, the resolve to always be there for them up to and including that bright chrome future. A showroom life. You have to imagine the future to have a chance of making it even halfway there.

“Well?” Verner says.

The wipers come on and strike a steady rhythm. Outside, the road is wetly black, but dusted white beyond. Rudy thinks he can hear the creak of the Corvettes’ suspension behind them. Those cars are nothing but old steel and old paint for someone’s new dreams.

“Murdered,” Rudy says, to make peace with Verner. “Those boys were murdered.”

Verner smiles and nods his head. “Yes.”

“Yes,” Rudy says, forgiven.

“Baltic States” first appeared in Crab Creek Review, who nominated it for the Pushcart Prize.

Tweet / Share / Print