It’s hard to keep a secret in Homeville, a small town in New York where everybody knows everybody. It’s the town where I grew up in the sixties. I felt secure there, insulated within its boundaries. After college at a state school, I came back, unlike many of my peers who aspired to the big city. I took a job at the Prestige Insurance Company, the big company in town. It was a comfortable situation, but crunching numbers and making decisions based on a set of predetermined rules without room for personal judgment became boring. Under thirty, I was in a rut. Better that, though, then to be like Jerry. Some days he hollered at the wind.
For lunch, I always went to the Homeville Diner, alone, unless, like today, I met Jerry on the street corner. I’d be dressed in my business suit and Jerry in his ragged jeans and tee shirt. My hair was cut to Prestige regulation, and my face clean-shaven. Jerry’s hair hung in knots down to his shoulders. His beard was ragged and trimmed with a knife. I used to envy his thick, curly hair in high school. He looked like James Dean then, and he carried a pack of Marlboro’s in the sleeve of his tee-shirt. The girls all loved him; how times change.
We selected seats near the rear, in my usual booth in Emily’s section. She wore a blue uniform with a gold trim collar and cuffs. We knew her from high school—not everybody had left.
She offered up a sardonic smile. “Well, lookie here. It’s Danny Unger and Jerry Scofeld—The Odd Couple.”
She was always sweet with me when I came in alone. We dated for a short time after I returned from college, and we were still friendly. Her attitude was directed at Jerry, not me. Jerry took no offense. He laughed so loud that it drew the attention of nearby diners, but I glared at Emily.
Emily ignored me and pulled a pad from her pocket and stood poised, with her weight on one leg, to take our order. “What can I get you to drink?”
I ordered iced tea, and Jerry got a Bloody Mary. “I drink it for the tomato juice,” he said, and Emily smiled indulgently.
“The Odd Couple, I remember that movie,” Jerry said after she left to get our drinks.
“It’s a TV show too,” I said.
“I never watch TV,” he said.
Obviously, since he lived on the street. “Bad reception,” I asked?
“No place to plug it in.”
The next day everyone at work was on their best behavior. Visitors from Statewide Mutual, a competitor, would be in the office, and there was talk of a merger. I dressed in my best suit and buffed my shoes to a shine. I lunched alone that day. Emily smiled, “Oh good, you’re alone. No offense, but Jerry gives me the creeps.”
I couldn’t let that stand undefended. “You’ve got no cause to treat him the way you do.”
“No cause? He was in Viet Nam. He killed innocent people.”
“You don’t know that. You don’t know what he’s been through. The war isn’t Jerry’s fault.”
She stared at me as if I’d turned green. When she returned with my food, she didn’t say a word. At least the weather cheered me up as I walked back to work, along Fillmore Avenue, under trees just beginning to bloom. A woodpecker drummed at the hollow of a tree. I turned my head to the redheaded bird when I spied a commotion ahead, between sprigs of fresh green leaves that blew in the breeze. Anything out of the ordinary had the makings of excitement in Homeville. I quickened my pace to get a better look.
Someone rushed past me, bumping me out of my attention to the disturbance. He’d burst from between the parked cars, away from the commotion, without an apology, moving with a limp-hindered scamper.
His face had appeared ashen white. His lips pulled back into a grimace. At first, I didn’t recognize him, but I identified the limp; it belonged to Jerry.
Jerry saved my life in high school during the summer after my freshman year. I’d gone to the park to be alone, having been at the point in my life when being at home drove me crazy.
A river runs through the park, cutting a gorge through rocky terrain. I had walked onto the edge of Lookout Rock, a big slab that jutted out over the river below. It had stormed for several days. The water cascaded over a stony bed twenty feet down, making a whooshing sound. I stooped to get a better view, but I was careless, and my mind wandered. I slipped off the edge and fell.
Thoughts rushed through my head in a flash. I analyzed every possible action I could take to survive. I twisted my body, searching for something to grab onto but finding only smooth stone, until, at the last moment, I grabbed the stub of a small tree, jutting out of a crevice in the rock. I seized it with one hand and held on with all my might, dangling and hoping the stub would hold me.
My arm ached, and my fingers threatened to lose their grip. I thought some weird shit while dangling there. Mother would wonder why I hadn’t come home. I’d miss my baseball game. I’d never get to kiss Candy, a tall girl with black hair with whom I’d done a history project with. We’d sit in the library after school, researching the project. I don’t remember the topic. She peeked at me through her bangs. When I looked up, she turned away as if she were annoyed. And she had this funny little laugh, a hitch in in her voice, a shift in pitch. If I’d known I’d end up dead, my body battered, and face down in the river, then I’d have been braver. I would have asked her out and made a move on her. Hanging there by a thread, I thought I’d never have the chance.
I yelled, once, for help, but the effort loosened my hold. I moaned softly, for no good reason, except that it helped me mark time. Each moment felt like an eternity. I imagined I’d already died, and this was hell: my arm stretched out with searing pain, my fingers crying for relief that never came.
Then Jerry appeared out of nowhere. I recognized him from school. He was older than me, going into his senior year. It was risky, him pulling me up. We could have both fallen to the rocks below, but Jerry didn’t hesitate. He lay down on the slab with calm assurance, and grabbed my arm. At one point, his grip slipped before he grasped me again, more firmly than the first time, and pulled me to safety.
I thanked him, but he shrugged and left. I worried that he would tell everyone at school, and I’d become a laughingstock, but he never told a soul as far as I knew. I had scrapes and bruises, and I’d torn a tendon in my arm. I told Mom I fell out of a tree as if that were a less stupid thing to do. The injury ruined my summer for baseball—light consequences for a foolish act. I promised myself that I would make it up to Jerry someday.
After graduation, Jerry signed on for a six-year stint in the marines. Two years later, I went to college. I came back to Homeville with a finance degree and a job offer. Jerry came back with post-traumatic stress disorder. He had a nervous twitch, and he’d jump at the slightest noise. He couldn’t hold a job. His father repeatedly threatened to turn him out. I told him he should go for help, but he said the VA wouldn’t help him. They didn’t call it PTSD then. They left Jerry on the street to fend for himself.
I’d been startled when Jerry bumped into me. He appeared not to recognize me, and then he disappeared beyond a curve in the road. I turned back in the direction of my office. Soon, I saw what I had been unable to make out between the trees, at the corner of First and Main—a police car and a stretch of wide yellow tape encircled the entire intersection and read, POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS. A plainclothes policeman with a sketch pad diagramed the crime scene from within the perimeter. Another busied himself with measurements, calculating the distance from the street to the corner of a building across from where I stood, at the corner where Jerry hung out, playing “Give Peace a Chance” or “Honky Tonk Women” on his cassette machine. An officer leaned against the open cruiser door, pulling on the radio cord, barking into the mike.
Another uniformed officer engaged in crowd control, restraining gawkers and passersby, myself included. On the far side of the block, uniforms huddled about a point of interest. They broke rank when the paramedics lifted a body into an ambulance. Stretching my neck for a better view, I saw a dark red stain on the sidewalk. Then, when a photographer turned his camera to the crowd, I hurried away, having no desire to have my picture taken.
I looked back from the Prestige Building entrance, an imposing stone threshold, before I entered the building, memorizing the crime scene, snapping it like a photograph in my mind.
As I settled into my chair, Priscilla, in the next cubicle, said, “Dan, did you see what happened outside?” Her golden-brown hair hung down from one side as she tilted her head, peeking around the cubicle wall.
“The police had an area marked off with yellow tape,” I said. “Apparently, someone was attacked on the sidewalk.”
Her eyes got big. “Someone was stabbed. The rumor is that it was one of our visitors from Statewide Mutual. They think that crazy guy that hangs out on the corner did it.”
She’d come inside my cubicle now, resting against the edge of my worktop. I wheeled my chair around to face her. Her skirt had ridden up, exposing her thighs, but I looked away. Dating fellow employees at Prestige was strictly forbidden.
“Do you mean Jerry? No way. He’s harmless.”
She snorted, “His eyes are cold and mean, like a shark. All the women in the office are afraid of him, the way he shakes. Martha says he threatened her once when she wouldn’t give him her spare change.”
“Well, you know Martha,” I said, “she’s afraid of her own shadow.”
“He scares me too,” Priscilla said. “I make it a point to cross the street rather than walk past him.”
I shrugged and turned back to my work. She didn’t talk to me for the rest of the day.
I didn’t care. Jerry saved my life, and I wasn’t going to turn on him because he came back from the war damaged. I couldn’t believe he’d stab a man, at least not without reason.
After work, I passed the scene again on the way to my car. All evidence of the incidence had been scrubbed clean. There was no sign that anything ghastly had happened. I thought of George Orwell’s 1984 and let an idea roll around in my brain—that Jerry had been disappeared by the police, that he had ceased to exist, that they made it so that he had never lived. But if Jerry never existed, neither would I exist since he wouldn’t have been there to save me.
I turned on the television at my Mom’s house, where I still lived. The local stations carried the story ahead of the war protests. They called the incident “The Homeville Stabbing.” The victim, still unidentified, was in stable but critical condition. The Homeville police, all eight of them, were looking for Jerry, “the vet that is known to hang out on the street corner where the incident took place.” He was a person of interest, they said.
Mom’s mouth dropped. “That’s your friend they’re talking about. What’s he got to do with a stabbing?” She pointed at the TV screen.
“Nothing, Mom, It’s a mistake.”
She gave me that disapproving look I remembered from childhood. “I wish you didn’t associate with that… Jerry.”
“He gets rattled sometimes, Mom. I think he has flashbacks. Sudden noises scare him.”
“He sounds dangerous to me, and he’s wanted by the police. If you know where he is, you better let the police know. They’ll charge you with aiding and abetting or something. He’s a wanted criminal.”
I rolled my eyes at her, the way I used to do. “They want to question him because he hangs out where the guy was stabbed.”
“They think he did it.”
As she spoke, another picture of Jerry appeared on the television screen. He was standing on the corner, looking scruffy. Mother gave me a satisfied look and said, “Just look at him.”
The next day at work, Gill, my supervisor, called me into his office.
“There’s a police officer in the lobby. Wants to talk to you.” He glared at me. “What’s this all about?”
My forehead wrinkled. I could see this incident worming its way into my performance review. Gil, I believed, would use any excuse not to promote me. We didn’t see eye to eye on any subject, but I always kept my head down and did my job. “I have no idea,” I told him.
I walked away before he asked me anything more. Co-workers have seen me with Jerry. When Jerry and I were together, they tended to ignore me, but being with Jerry made me feel nostalgic. I think that’s what Jerry liked about me too. We remembered better days without even talking about it.
The lobby was a transition from one world to the next, a kind of decompression chamber. It had gray walls and guest chairs with a table scattered with magazines. The door locked behind me, leaving me alone with a large uniformed officer who introduced himself as Officer Bennett. It was strange, I thought, that for the smallness of Homeville, that I didn’t know this man or any other of the town’s policemen. He reminded me of a Bennett from high school, a football player a year ahead of me. This policeman must be his father. That’s the way it is in Homeville, no more than one degree of separation.
He got right to the point. “Do you know the whereabouts of Jerry Scofeld?”
I didn’t like his tone. My voice tensed. “No,” I said curtly.
“We’ve been told that you’re a friend of his. Is that true?”
Just then, Priscilla walked through the lobby door. Her eyebrows rose at the sight of the police officer. She turned her gaze to me. “Hello Dan,” she said, drawing out the Dan in an exaggerated manner.
I just nodded. Priscilla pouted and walked away.
“Well!” the officer scowled.
“I don’t know where he is. He hangs out on the street. Sometimes we go to lunch together. I buy him lunch.”
Officer Bennett’s chin jutted out. He was so close I could smell his breath. “That’s awfully nice of you.”
“Isn’t it, though?” This guy was pissing me off.
“Don’t get smart with me, or we can continue this conversation at police headquarters.”
I didn’t answer.
He jabbed his finger in my chest. “If you see him, contact the department immediately.”
On Friday night, I went out with my girlfriend, Candy, the same girl I had a crush on in high school. Like me, Jerry, and Emily, she’d become a Homeville hang-about.
I took her to Uncle Sal’s Pizza and Ribs. Really, the place was owned by Candy’s Uncle Sal. He always gave us a discount. We sat in a booth with a television in clear view. I couldn’t escape the stabbing story. They interrupted the ballgame for an update. I worried about how Jerry would react if the police caught up with him. I suppose I wasn’t paying Candy much attention.
Candy sucked in her breath. “What’s the matter with you tonight?”
“Nothing,” I said, drawing my eyes towards her.
“Well, something is bothering you.”
Like Emily, she didn’t like Jerry either, so I shrugged and turned my attention back to the television. When I took her home, she didn’t allow me inside. Normally, I’d be upset, but that night it didn’t bother me; she was out of my thoughts by the time I parked the car. I left it at the back of the house in front of the garage. I’d just locked it when Jerry stepped from the shadow of my neighbor’s tree.
He startled me, and I hit my elbow on the side-view mirror. “Ouch.”
He looked frantic. “Shush, the police might be out front. They think I killed that guy downtown.”
I nodded. “It’s all over the news. You almost knocked me over on the street.”
He frowned. “That was you? I got scared when I saw blood.” He bit his lip. “Wait. Did you tell the police you saw me?”
“You saw the stabbing? Who did it?”
“I don’t know him, but I’d just traded him my knife for a bottle of booze. He was a straight-looking guy, but then he takes the knife, and just like that, stabs the guy who was with him. I’d never seen either of them in my life. They were both wearing suits. He dropped the knife and walked away as if nothing happened. I should have tried to stop him, but the blood freaked me out, so I ran.”
I glanced around and whispered, “I’m supposed to call the police if I see you.”
He shifted his weight from one foot to the other, like a kid that has to piss. “You won’t, will you?”
“Of course not, but you should turn yourself in. The police just want to question you.”
“Not a chance. The cops killed that black kid last month when all he did was ask why he was arrested.”
“You’re not black.”
“I’m the kind of person they’d just as soon be rid of. I need a place to hide.”
I brought him some blankets and let him stay in the garage. That night, I dreamed of that policeman jabbing me with his finger. I could feel it in the middle of my chest while my mother harped, “turn him in…Turn him in.”
Jerry was in deep shit. No one had noticed the real killer, but they saw Jerry, the town outcast. The victim was stabbed with Jerry’s knife. Witnesses saw him run from the scene. If they found him in my garage, well, Mom was right. I’d be in deep shit too. But he had cleared out before dawn when I went to check on him. The blankets I’d left for him were gone. I hoped he’d turn himself in peacefully, but I knew that he wouldn’t.
On Monday afternoon, Priscilla told me they’d spotted Jerry.
“How do you know?” I asked.
She leaned forward and whispered, “Don’t tell Gill. I heard it on the radio.” She pulled an earphone out of her ear. “They chased him into the park, but they lost him there.”
I bolted from my chair as Priscilla stared after me. It took five minutes to drive to the park. I avoided the main entrance. Instead, I went down a one-lane access road that the maintenance crews used, but then I came to a large oak tree that lay across the clearing, blocking my path. I ran in my suit and dress shoes up the trail leading to the rocky cliff where I almost lost my life. Below, I saw what must have been the entire Homeville police force methodically searching. How could I expect to find Jerry before they did? But I had to try. If I saw him, I could act as a negotiator and, hopefully, keep Jerry from getting killed. Or maybe we’d both end up dead.
I stood back from the cliff, out of sight, wondering how I could find him. And then I heard rustling behind me in the bushes.
“Danny,” Someone called.
I recognized Jerry’s voice. He stepped onto the path.
“Jerry, the police are after you.”
He led me to a rocky area with a narrow opening in the stone. “Down there,” he pointed.
I hesitated. It looked like a narrow tunnel. I would ruin my suit, crawling in there, but the police grew closer with each wasted moment.
I scrambled, feet first, down the rocky passageway, like Alice down the rabbit hole. Jerry followed after covering the opening. The path opened into a large cavity.
As my eyes acclimated to the dim light, I saw a makeshift bed made with the blankets I had given him. A stone pit held a bed of ashes, with a stack of logs nearby, along with an empty liquor bottle and the charred remains of a rabbit.
The river rumbled below. We were somewhere beneath the cliff from which I’d fallen. Jerry must have been down here that day when he heard my call for help.
His lips stretched tightly across his face. His eyes glared. I saw him, then, as the others must. I knew why Priscilla crossed the street to avoid him.
“You shouldn’t have come here,” he said. His voice cracked with tension.
“I heard they were coming for you.”
“Nobody will find me here, but they might have shot you by mistake.”
“Nobody’s going to shoot anyone,” I said, but I couldn’t even convince myself. Anything could happen in a manhunt.
He chuckled and took a deep breath. “How do you like my little hang-out? I found this when I was a kid. Nobody else knows about it.”
“You can’t stay here forever.”
He turned tense again. “You’re right, of course. You’re the smart one. Help me get away.”
I had a crazy idea, wrong and illegal, but I couldn’t refuse him. Together, we worked it out.
The small shafts of sunlight that found their way between the crevices from above disappeared. Jerry lit a fire. “It’s dark. You better go,” he said.
“Won’t the police still be out there?”
“Those guys?” Jerry rolled his eyes. “Their wives would never let them hear the end of it if they aren’t home for dinner.”
I wasn’t too sure of that, but I stood up to go.
“Be careful,” he said.
I made my way back up the narrow passageway, pushed the stone away, and crawled out of the opening, laying flat, listening hard but hearing nothing but raspy breathing. My own. I rose warily and ran. The snap of twigs underfoot sounded deafening. I slowed as I approached the car, wondering if the police had noticed it, but no one was there that I could see. Maybe they were waiting in ambush. My head was on a swivel. I slipped into the car and turned the key. The engine snarled to life. I backed out the entire mile of the narrow road, struggling to maintain a straight path.
On the main road, I kept my eye in the rear-view mirror, fighting desperately to hold my speed within the limit when I wanted to fly at breakneck speed. By pure luck, I made it home without incident, my heart still beating as if I’d run a marathon. The house was dark—Mom must have gone up to bed.
I peeked out of the window. Nothing moved but the shadow of our maple swaying in the light of a single street lamp. I lay awake for hours before falling asleep, restlessly, in a flurry of half-dreamed thoughts and images of doom. I woke in the morning, fatigued but with a nervous energy that carried me through my designated tasks.
Throughout the week, I made cash purchases at Jerry’s request, a few at a time to avoid suspicion: ropes and knives from a sporting goods store, dried foods from an organic food store chain, an old ax, and other sundry items from my garage. A “C” bag from the Army surplus store. Lastly, and this was not Jerry’s idea, I emptied my bank account of about five grand, explaining to the teller that I was taking Mom on vacation.
On Friday, Gil approved one week’s vacation on short notice. He looked at me skeptically when I turned in the request as if he thought I wouldn’t be back. Last year, Henry Jones, another analyst, never returned from vacation, and he never came back for his personal belongings.
The case faded from the news, at least to the extent that it wasn’t the headline story any longer. I hoped the cops weren’t laying an ambush. On Friday night, I returned to the park. Jerry waited in the brush, at the access road where the tree had fallen. He stepped out from the bushes when I arrived.
“You okay?” I asked.
He grunted. His eyes darted back and forth, looking for danger, expecting it.
We got to the main road. “Where are we going?” I questioned. Some wilderness, I presumed. I expected to drive a long way, maybe to the Rockies or to Mexico, although I didn’t have a passport, and as far as I knew, neither did he.
Instead, he had me take him over the state line to Philadelphia. I dropped him at the railway station. When I opened the trunk, he gave me a questioning look. My oversized business suitcases with the initials, DU, on the locking mechanisms looked out of place next to Jerry’s C-bag: like two different species.
“You can’t come with me, Danny. This ain’t no business trip.”
“Where are you going?”
He looked at me as if I were stupid.
“Right,” I said. “It’s better if I don’t know.” When we shook hands, I gave him an envelope.
“My savings. Take it.” I didn’t want an argument.
We held eye contact for long seconds. Then he nodded and stuffed the envelope in his pocket. I watched him board a train from the city that housed The Liberty Bell.
I went to see it because I had a week to kill. The bell was on view behind the glass cage in the Liberty Bell Center. I wondered about Jerry’s liberty. I imagined him sleeping under the stars at night and fishing in a stream by day, somewhere in the Rockies. I held optimistic hopes for him.
I considered my liberty. I thought about staying in Philadelphia, where I could enjoy anonymity among people. In Homeville, a trip to Simon’s Grocery Store for bread could take an hour, with acquaintances blabbering gossip. If I went back, I’d end up marrying Candy, settling down, and having kids. It seemed so predetermined.
But by the end of the week, reality made my choice. I hadn’t found work. I was almost out of money, and I missed Mom.
The drive home felt long and lonely. I arrived at Mom’s past midnight, Saturday. Sure enough, a police car sat in front of the house. Officer Bennett stepped out of the car and met me on the driveway. His hand rested on the butt of his handgun. He hulked over me. I’d turned off the engine, but I hadn’t released my grip on the steering wheel.
“Where’ve you been, Unger?”
“That’s what they said at your office. Your Mom said you went to the ocean. That right?”
“Where’s your buddy Scofeld?”
I shrugged my shoulders. “I don’t know.”
“Get out of the car.”
This is it, I thought. He’s taking me in.
I got out of the car. He pushed me at the shoulder, knocking me backward against the vehicle. “He’s in the clear, you know. An eyewitness came forward. We arrested the victim’s partner.”
“What did he kill him for?”
Officer Bennett shrugged. “Not my concern, but it will come out. And so will the truth about Jerry Scofeld’s whereabouts.”
Officer Bennett was wrong about Jerry. They never found him. Even if I knew—and I did find out, eventually—I’d never have said. I’d made a promise. His secret is safe with me.