In our previous installment, we met Mark and, for a brief moment, his family. We join him as he awakens from his nightmare, behind the wheel of his car in a parking lot. The sun is dazzling and he sees the silhouette of a giant elephant.
His head pounded, and his tough felt like the orange shag carpeting you'd find on the floor of an old custom Ford Econovan, or a single-wide trailer, or a tree house. Furry, and full of dirt, that is. He coughed, and began to extricate himself from the car.
Old bones, and abused muscles. It isn't that easy to get out of a Fiat Spyder in the first place, and less so when you've passed out behind the wheel the night before. His heart was still beating rapidly from the dream, and he felt about as low as he could possibly feel. Except, he was sure, he'd feel even worse the next day, and the day after that, for that's how his life had been going lately.
"Forty. Over the hill. And a murderer," he thought to himself, as he blinked blearily at the elephant.
Across the parking lot, he saw a vendor selling Italian ices. Just the thing.
"You look like Hell, mister," commented the vendor.
"You look like Newark. Give me a lime ice," replied Mark.
"Sure, sure, no offense. That's a buck seventy-five."
"With prices like that, you owe me some entertainment too. What's with the elephant?"
"Man, you're lost. You mean you don't know about the Margate Elephant?"
The vendor proceeded to explain the history of Lucy, the Margate Elephant. A 65 foot high wooden replica of an elephant, she was really a building, which served as a hotel, tourist attraction, and tavern over the years. She was built in 1881 by James Vincent de Paul Lafferty, Jr, a Philadelphia engineer and inventor, at a reported cost of $25,000 (or $38,000 depending on who you ask). He patented her in 1882.
"Wait. A patented elephant?"
"If you interrupt, mister, the story just gets longer," said the vendor.
Mark bought him an Italian ice, since it was obviously thirsty work.
The vendor continued and explained that the patent was for *any* building shaped like an animal, not just an elephant hotel. Two other elephants were built, one in Cape May, and the other on Coney Island, but no other animals. Lucy was middling in size, with the Cape May elephant 40 feet tall, and the New York one a towering 122 feet in height.
As the vendor's voice droned on, Mark closed his eyes, to aid his concentration. He drifted along atop the sea of words, and at some point the vendor's voice became Lucy's. She, exemplifying the cliche "if these walls could talk", told him the story of her dissolution and resurrection; about being burned almost to the ground in 1904 by her patrons in her tavern incarnation. She described her distinguished visitors, including Woodrow Wilson, the duPonts, Henry Ford, and even the Rajah of Bhong and his wives all the way from Singapore. She talked about being moved two blocks in 1970, and about her continued improvement in health from the 70s to the present.
At this point Lucy started poking Mark on the shoulder with her trunk, proclaiming her hunger. "Hay! I need Hay! Hay, I tell you Hay! Hay! Hay!"
Mark awoke with the vendor shaking his shoulder, saying "Hey! You can't sleep here, you're scaring away my customers!"
Mark yawned a bit, thanked the vendor and handed him a five. "Get yourself another couple ices, and thanks for the info." Then he walked past the elephant, down toward the beach. He folded his jacket collar up against his ears. The sun was bright and warm, but the wind was biting. A typical New Jersey March day.
He found a bench, near a jumbled up pile of lumber, and had a seat. Partially sheltered from the wind, he gazed out into the ocean and his mind fell into the well-worn tracks of though he had traveled hundreds of times in the last few months, of what he could have done, and what he shouldn't have.
The phone call in the dream was, of course, the police calling to tell him that they regretted to inform him that Laura_Stratton, Jeanette Vickers, and Thomas Reece had been killed in a traffic accident with a tractor-trailer truck earlier that evening. They had died on the way to the hospital, there was nothing that could be done. Investigation later showed the front brake calipers were frozen, locking the wheels. Some contaminant in the fluid had swelled up the seals in the calipers and master cylinder, and swelled up the flex lines. "A real mess," said the forensic mechanic at the trial.
Oh yes, the trial. You see, when the police mentioned that the brakes had locked up, Mark immediately cried out, "Oh, God, I killed them!" Though he hadn't mentioned it, his little mistake with the power steering fluid had been preying on his mind ever since.
This confession, which the police immediately had committed to a sworn deposition, piqued the interest of the insurance investigator. Mark's family had been heavily insured. Laura always said "If I die before you, I want you to have time to grieve, without worrying about money." This ended up meaning enough insurance to pay off the house and cars, and to support all three of the survivors for a year. The kids were each insured to about half that, to guarantee the college funds and whatnot.
All told, the accident could result in a cash payment of about $300,000. The insurance company was ready to seize on any proof of gross negligence or foul play, to avoid payment.
There was another thing too, but Mark didn't know about it. It's standard procedure to take a blood sample from the drivers in any fatal accident. Laura's blood tested out to about 0.11% BAC, about 50% more than the legal limit.
Mark didn't know about it because it wasn't admissible at trial. The Laura Stratton blood sample was labeled in a hurry, and the lab technician misread a 3 as an 8, and put the sample with some that were going out for disposal. The vial had sat out in the hallway of the coronor's office for a couple hours unattended, before a sharp-eyed technician (a different one), saw the smeared label and rechecked it. The chain of custody was broken. Normally, of course, the prosecuting attorney would have tried to get the blood alcohol test included as evidence anyway, putting the burden on the defense team. However, that would have also provided reasonable doubt that the defendant was responsible, and blow a murder conviction. The prosecutor told the defense attorney, though, as they were old childhood friends.
The defense attorney thought about it, but only for a few minutes. She was an expert on chain of custody, having used it many times in favor of her clients. She knew the prosecuting attorney would have it tossed out immediately. So, they agreed to ignore the question of blood alcohol completely. Mark never knew his wife was drunk.
The defense attorney knew her town, and knew her case. She knew the site of this poor remorseful man would preclude any sort of conviction beyond manslaughter or negligent homicide... and in fact, the nine months between the power steering fluid addition and the accident severed any causal connection.
The kicker for most members of the jury (who were selected for their lack of direct knowledge of car mechanics), was the fact that the SUV had passed a State Safety Inspection with flying colors, a mere 3 weeks before the accident. The inspecting mechanic testified for the defense that everything was in working order at that time.
The jury had found Mark Stratton not guilty on all counts. The insurance investigator had no proof solid enough to deny the claim, and so cut Mark a check a few days after the trial concluded. That was two weeks ago.
Two weeks ago. In the last two weeks, the dreams had grown worse. The jury of his peers had found him not guilty, but he was of a different mind. He quit his job, sold the house, and went north with his $300,000, a few changes of clothes, his 1980 Fiat Spyder 2000 with the intermittent tail light, and a powerful thirst.
A thirst for what, he wasn't sure. He tried gambling. He tried hookers. He tried booze, and that at least made him numb, and forced him to sleep. It also made the black times blacker, and the grey times fuzzy and distant. He spent more time inside his head than in the world, and it was a cold and dusty place.
He dozed on the bench, and for once his dreams weren't of that night, or of the trial. He dreamed he was standing on a beach, facing the ocean. Long black shadows from the buildings behind him obscured the waves and the shoreline. He was alone.
Something made him turn around, to face the west. The setting sun warmed his face and promised rest and solace and tranquility. He looked north, and looked south, and the brightness of the sun had blinded him. There was nothing left to see where he was standing, though he could feel the cold lap of the rising tide against his ankles.
He looked toward the west again. Silhouetted against the sun was a couple in their 30s, dressed in what seemed to be rather conservative swimming outfits. They stood in front of a road, which stretched out to the horizon.
Mark turned back toward the sea, which was now blocked by a sign illuminated by the reddish near-dusk light:
Seashore Life Begins at 40and atop the sign was a shield reading New Jersey / U S / 40
This is the eastern terminus of US 40
3,020 miles long - through 14 states
The light faded, leaving only darkness.
Mark was awakened by the shrill cry of a seagull.
"Life begins at 40."
"Life BEGINS at 40."
"If life begins at 40, it better start soon," thought Mark. "I've got less than 3 months left, and my life just ended."
Mark kicked a shell, disturbing some gulls who were resting on the pile of lumber. One approached the bench, looking for a handout.
"Fine," he said to the gull. "If Life Begins At 40, I'll give it that long to start. If everything is still shit come June 14, there won't be any point in going on, will there? I mean, then either life is shit or life will never begin."
The gull, giving it up as a bad try, flew off. Mark shook himself, and rose. "I need a drink."
He shuffled past the sightless eyes of Lucy the Margate Elephant. The Italian Ice vendor was nowhere to be seen. In fact, the place was deserted, except for the gulls, and the wind, and Lucy. He got into his Fiat, started after a few tries, and left the parking lot, turning right onto Atlantic Avenue, going north. The Fiat's odometer turned over from 99,999 to 00,000... whether that was 100,000 or 200,000 miles, Mark never knew. Nor did he really care at this point.