The Knack of Shifting Gears
Original Online Fiction
Grace Burgundy lived in a small, attractive house with several garden beds spread on its contours at the end of a lane in the town of Lakeswan, Massachusetts. She was utterly convinced that she had not observed the garage door open in three years at the home of her neighbors, Johnston and Myra Koleride, who lived directly across the street.
Koleride was founder and president of the local bank, Lakeswan Bank & Trust Co., as the bank sign proudly declared in heavy black letters that appeared to garrison, end to end, the whole block-length structure of interest, balances, and trusty incomes. The full enterprise spoke well of its business-clad soldiers of the guard, each a sample of prosperity in the selected employee ranks, for the touch of gold goes magnetic in some directions, hungers or needs. Banks, basically, are born and borne for that charge.
The stately Koleride house, with garage attached, sat mute and Moroccan brown on the other side of the road, and generally attracted the roving eyes of area visitors. There were no garden beds on the property because, clearly, the banker had no love for greenery, but most assuredly loved his privacy.
Often wrapped in deep thought and solace at her garden work, and often carried away by miraculous dreams while turning over endless earth, Grace agreed with herself that she’d trade houses if given the chance—and in a quick minute. The elaborate house across the street, with not a single bush or bloom evident, was at least twice the size of her home, and there were no children to decorate or scratch up either one. Once or twice, in deep reveries at her daily garden matters, she even dreamed up scenarios where children flowed a worn path between the two domiciles, but often those musings were shut down the minute evening shadows slipped back home to where they belonged.
Grace also remembered, most consciously, an image positioning itself solidly in her mind: the day she was working around the most precious and colorful of her small flower beds, when Koleride drove up in a brilliant new red vehicle, full to flowing of shine and shimmy, and parked inside the garage.
The next morning, he drove the car off to work, after needlessly wiping the windshield free of the smallest speck, most likely non-existent. That was the morning of June 2, 2013, her 40th birthday. She never saw the car outside the garage again, and never saw the garage door open or ajar again, in the three years that followed. It was a mystery, unfolding to curiosity, bent noses, neighborhood news-bearers or seekers, for their own pleasure or for others who like to listen.
When that fact began to pop up in her nightly dreams, and even in her constant sleep apnea, Grace wanted to attribute the cause to the banker himself. Indeed, her watchfulness told her that Johnston Koleride either walked to work at the bank on good days, had a member of his staff pick him up, or a town taxi delivered him home at day’s end. It had become routine. The different methods of travel to and from work became the norm, while the garage door seemed was as though a carpenter had nailed it tight.
Grace’s husband, George, was a spirited though limited handyman about the house, dallying over the simplest problem. By unspoken agreement, the lady of the house took care of the gardens while he performed the usual repair and maintenance tasks to keep their simple house shipshape—as well as he could. But the day he detected serious rot starting under one corner of their garage addition, structural dotage at hand, he knew they were in trouble; the rot appeared at least core deep and worked its way into his worries as well as into the house’s foundation. Maintenance and correction of this sort were above and beyond his capabilities and they loomed as significant costs to repair—also above and beyond what he and his wife had in the bank, perhaps even-steven with their equity. Trying to think about how he’d tell Grace the bad news, how to make an easy pronouncement, George walked slowly to the far end of the house where she was pruning a cluster of rose bushes still on their upward leap carrying new blossoms.
He not only hated to tell her about the situation, he was very nervous about doing so. Grace, he had learned long ago, had a certain way about her, especially about surprises, responsibilities, demeanors.
“Don’t bother me, George, with anything about the house. How many times do I have to tell you, that’s your ballpark?” She clipped a long, bare offshoot from one bush, waved it in his face, and added, “This part is my ballpark.” She spoke like a fourth-grade school teacher talking at the end of a long day to an irascible child.
George spilled the news at once. “Well, Grace, I hate to tell you, but the rot is so bad in a couple of beams that we’ll need a contractor to fix it, and that’ll cost an arm and a leg, and we won’t have enough left over to handle anything else.”
“George, that’s easy. Go to the bank and get a loan. That’s the only thing we can do. I am not leaving my gardens or my house because a second garage in this damned neighborhood goes useless but may fall down around your neck. You can just walk across the street and talk to Koleride over there, our big-time president of the bank. It’s easy as eating cake—or cutting cake.” An ironic smile curled up from her true self like a statement of her humor, and she waved the rosebush offshoot as though it had become a sword of some measure.
“Okay, I’ll see him at the bank some day this week,” George said. “I’d rather do that than walk up to his house and ask him for a loan, off the beaten path so to speak.”
“Okay, George, do it your way.” She went back to her trimming work, another long bare shoot falling to the ground with the tool’s next adamant snip, as if it had said, “There’s nothing left to say.”
The following Wednesday, George came home early from work and appeared angry when he stepped into the kitchen, half murmuring under his breath, “That son of a bitch across the street turned me over to one of his associates at the bank, a friggin’ beginner, who turned down my request, and I’m convinced he was told to get rid of me.” Irritation scarred his face with a bewildering redness.
Grace almost dropped the dish she was holding. “What do you mean, get rid of you?” She stood straight and tall, her head cocked at a curious angle, something in her carriage admitting she was as mad as her husband, and more likely to provide a reply to this high and mighty denigration.
“Like he doesn’t want us as neighbors,” George said. “But we never did anything to him, to them. We mind our own business. Haven’t we? Don’t we?” He shook his head several times, shrugged his shoulders, left a puzzled look, a grimace, hanging on his face, lost in the middle of a storm.
Grace wasn’t sure if wonder or hatred had affected him the most, but she could feel her own build-up of feelings start immediately. “Of course, we never did anything to him, to them. Why would he be like that? I can’t really believe it’s spite for something we didn’t do.”
She turned away from her husband and went back to bush trimming, the tool snapping loudly in the otherwise sudden silence.
In bed that night, half asleep, somewhat wakeful and wondering about the banker, Grace Burgundy’s mind was transported back to June 2, 2010, her 40th birthday, and there followed a whole package of reasons, possibilities, scenarios of every description about the banker’s car and his garage. She could not go back to sleep because every reason that came to her mind, every possibility, came with images so vivid they proved to her to be actualities. Ultimately, she believed he was keeping his car out of sight for a legitimate reason—or an illegitimate reason, such as carrying a danger for him or the bank.
She’d soon find out if a deep secret had to be exposed. More than once she heard a voice in her head say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t nail it shut,” not sure if it was a warning, a threat, or a promise, and she could feel a sense of excitement begin to mount in her mind. There was something besides roses on the bloom.
At 2:45 A.M. she slipped out of the house in the blackest outfit she could find in her closet and walked directly across the street to sneak a peek into Johnston Koleride’s garage. After a few moments with her phone’s camera tight against the garage window, the flash doing its job, she went back across the street and into her own home. Once back in bed, she fell asleep in a matter of minutes, the rest of her day already planned.
George went off to work in the morning, and Grace yelled out, “Have a good day, dear,” just as a car pulled up in front of the banker’s house and he, too, went off to work. Her eyes followed the vehicle, the new voice inside her brain saying, “Don’t mess with us, Mr. Bank President.”
In an hour she was dressed, and her oversized pocketbook was filled with pencils, pens, two regular-sized notebooks, one small 3×5 notebook. At 9 A.M. she entered the town’s public library, where she said to the librarian, “I want to look up news reports or records for June 2, 2013. That was the date of my 40th birthday and I want to make a surprise for my husband; we got married on the same date in 1993.”
The librarian, a young woman in her thirties, exclaimed, “What a marvelous idea! I can direct you to our computer and connect you to the Internet. You’ll find out a ton of stuff for any date. Oh, my, what a delicious idea. This is a pleasure, which doesn’t happen very often here.”
She ushered Grace to a new computer, saying, “It’s all there: births, marriages, deaths, town matters, headline news, sports, big games and big names. You name it and it’s there. Have a ball!” She walked back to her duties, as pleased as she could be, a definite bounce in her steps.
There was nothing of note in the Lakeswan Birder, a weekly newspaper carrying little more than advertisements, local sports and a top-notch crossword puzzle. But the out-of-town papers gave her exactly what she’d been looking for: a young man was killed by a hit and run vehicle. Grace wrote down an eyewitness’s full statement about the accident: “Speeding the driver was, and right through a red light. No way that driver should have been at the wheel of a brand spanking new vehicle, red all over and shining like a gem, the kind I’d parade around in.”
The account was given by a lone witness from a town about 30 miles up the coast. Extracting all the pertinent details and entering them in her smaller notebook, Grace nearly danced out of the library, waving her thanks to the young librarian.
A few days later a letter—the address typed and no return address, the stamp cancelled from another small community about 50 miles away—was delivered by the mailman. Myra Koleride, Johnston’s wife, opened the envelope and dropped her lower jaw agape; a singular intake of breath jammed its way down into her lungs, as emotion rang a solid alarm. She quickly dialed her husband at the bank. “Please come home,” she said in a tone he recognized and understood as soon as he heard them.
At the door, she nervously handed him the open letter. “Somebody knows.” She nodded sideways at the garage, her eyes widened with fear, shaking her head and nearly collapsing into his arms before he read the letter.
In bold, dark upper-cased letters, the short note said, “We know what you did, we know what you hid, but you can’t hide it forever. Don’t dump it now because we have pictures of the damage. We have scraped off blood residue. And the witness, thank the good Lord, is still alive, old as he is. We know where he lives… and not in great comfort.” (That last part made him see the image of another hand reaching towards him.)
A small addendum on the note said, “You know we will contact you again. There are favors to be gained from appropriate action.”
The next morning, Grace Burgundy saw Johnston Koleride get picked up at the door by a bank associate. At first, she wondered about Koleride, and then about her husband. How much deeper could they get—should they get? A death was in the mix. The line must be drawn at some time, at some place. There’d be a judge pointing an official finger, lawyers arguing, a jury with smug smiles, a separation of lives. Questions kept coming and she couldn’t remember them all, the way they pounded at her from every direction, every corner of her mind—at bedtime, at cooking, at gardening, even after making love. “It’s such a burden for you,” George uttered once, to which she offered no reply.
Koleride, fully forced against the wall, stood that early evening in a front room of his home, perplexed, unable to name any enemies to advance this newest deed. He’d had detractors before, sour businessmen who’d missed out on timely or good deals because the bank would not extend credit; usually it was their own fault, but they placed blame on him—but never legal threats, legal repercussions, injunction of property, repossession, jail time, shame, displacement…
In this quandary, he noticed that his neighbor across the street, working as usual in her attractive gardens, too often to be casual, turned suddenly to study his house. She was persistent, looking back and forth, making him think of different scenarios. He quickly remembered his loan officer at the bank had turned down a loan for her equally odd-lot husband, George Burgundy. An entire reactionary scenario jumped into Koleride’s mind as if it had been shot there by a pistol, into the deepest part of his brain. The imagery ran amok for a short spell.
Koleride nearly salivated at the clarity of it all, as if it had mushroomed into a cloud of crystallized vapor; some answers he heard or saw before he knew the questions bound to be asked, before they were even formulated, and then tossed at his feet.
He called his wife into the front room. “Myra,” he cautioned with grave concern and certainty, “the source of our problem may not be too far from us.” He nodded out the large picture window to their neighbor across the street, who at that moment turned and looked at their house and the garage door still shut tight—locked up tight in each mind in the small, narrow triangle now in place.
Breaking the silence, he said, “Of course, I can’t go too far trying to get information about them, about her. Not directly, of course, because of bank business, the matter of odd appearances. But you can, at least from a friend or two at the Garden Club. From what you’ve said, I don’t think she belongs to much else. He mixes with no one that I know about, and it’s so plain that he’s the kind to hide things. But hell, everybody has a secret now and then.” He shrugged his shoulders. “And everybody has a price in mind. It’s so damned apparent that he does too.”
Later, on a gorgeous day of bright sun and soft breezes, Johnston Koleride stared from his office at the bank across the square until his eyes rested on the library. Another scenario jumped into his mind with such clarity that he left the bank early and entered the library on the way home. The smile on his face grew from the inside, as though it was carried by a new taste.
By a twist of luck or good fortune, he was approached by the same clerk who had aided Grace Burgundy in her lone search. Soon they were in discussion about how people in town, without computers, came in for information, and quickly learned the search ropes. “Why, a little while ago a woman was looking for information about a particular date. I’ll never forget it: June 2, 2013. Said she wanted to make a surprise for her husband.”
“What interesting research,” Koleride said, and followed the librarian to the nearest computer.
He didn’t dig very far into the computer, not at all, already pretty well satisfied he knew what Grace Burgundy had discovered in her search. He called his Myra at home.
When he arrived back at the house, she had the insurance policies, several different ones, neatly arranged on the kitchen table. “They’re all there for you to check again,” Myra said. “All of them. I agree it’s the only way.” She fell into his arms.
“Oh, don’t worry, my dear,” he offered softly, hugging her in turn. “I’ll take care of the whole thing with a single match. There’ll be nothing left but a new start for us. I told you I’d take care of everything right from the beginning. It’s like I said, I really should have driven up there that night, not you. Don’t blame yourself one bit for that.”
Tom Sheehan is a prolific, award-winning writer and a great friend of Faith Hope & Fiction. Among The Knack of Shifting Gears, Tom’s many accomplishments are: 33 Pushcart Prize nominations, five Best of the Net nomination (one winner), short story awards from Nazar Look for 2012-2015, and a Georges Simenon Fiction Award. He has published 32 books and has four books in a publisher’s production line.
Image Credit: Copyright ocusfocus