Only the dying, book II - the sick man
THE sick man sees the sun once more
December 8, 1961.
WHEN DICK BENSON ROLLED in off Highway 41 in his old silver Chevy at 7 a.m., Brogan was standing in front of the station with his coffee, facing east. A pale disk was just rising behind a scrim of cirrus clouds. It was the last bit of sunlight the town would see over the next three days.
Brogan always arrived first. Benson didn’t even bother trying anymore. He was fairly sure the man didn’t sleep in the service bay, but sometimes he had to wonder. If Walter Brogan wasn’t working, he hardly knew what to do with himself.
For a reason he wouldn’t ever know, Benson sat for a moment behind the wheel before stepping out. He turned his head and regarded Brogan’s profile. The older man sipped from a white mug inscribed with the words THE GOLDEN WHEEL - the one he’d filched from his wife’s restaurant. He stared out to the horizon, thinking whatever unknowable thoughts went through his mind these days.
Back in the old times, when they were starting out, Brogan would have smoked his pipe, too. But now he’d had to beg off. Doctor’s orders. No tobacco, no alcohol.
Shit, Benson thought to himself. May as well box the fella up now.
Brogan looked beat. What was he mulling over so hard, anyway? Just another day on the beat, so far as Dick Benson was concerned. But for as long as he had known Walt Brogan, since he was barely twenty, there were whole corners of the man he’d never gotten near. Most days he could count on Brogan staring off into space at least once, fretting over something. Hard worker, but the sort of man whose troubles were always scampering pell-mell across his face. Disaster always at his heels.
It never phased Benson. All men were unknowable. Their thoughts muddled, their hearts permanently sealed off. As for women, forget it. God only knew what went on in their heads.
He swung out of his big boat of an auto and walked around to the front. Brogan nodded. The boss was outfitted in his standard winter gear - black working shoes, gray trousers, Navy blue jacket, matching Criterion cap smudged with grease. Now, he wore dark gray, horn-rimmed glasses that made him look both older and more studious than he was.
‘Mornin’ Walt,’ Benson muttered. ‘What are ya lookin’ at?’
‘The sun,’ Walter Brogan replied.
‘Well, take in what you can,’ Benson said. ‘It’s gonna go away for a while.’
Brogan said nothing.
‘Mind if I…?’ Benson asked, while fishing for his Lucky Strikes.
Brogan shook his head, almost imperceptibly.
‘So long as you steer wide of the pumps,’ he joked, an old one between them. Neither man laughed.
That was about it. Shortly after that exchange, customers began rolling in off both highways, and they set to work.
In the morning hours they could count on a steady stream of vehicles, given the fact that both the restaurant and the new hotel were both on the same junction as the station. The Golden Wheel was the only real eatery around for at least another 30 miles, east or west, if you were sticking to highways. Folks would get up at the Crossroads, fuel their bodies, and top off their autos before moving on to Chicago, or Indianapolis, or points beyond.
By nine there was no more sunlight. A ceiling of thick gray had rolled out like the sea, and the temperature dropped to just above freezing. No flurries yet, however. The paper hadn’t called for snow. But out here on the Hoosier plain, you could expect darn near anything. The wind was constant, strafing the intersection.
Around mid-morning Benson checked the tanks. He retrieved the gauge, a long pole marked with notches that they kept inside the garage along the wall of Bay 1. Two were just about dry. They could get by with the one until the delivery later this afternoon. The guy from Criterion always showed up on Friday to top them off, usually the final task of the work week.
On the way back Benson saw Brogan leaning over the driver’s open window of a familiar Ford pickup. It belonged to that Negro farmer he was friendly with - what was his name? Jeremiah? Jonah? Ezekiel? Something Old Testament. They’d been friends a long time. Brogan talked about the man being one of his former customers when he’d worked for Criterion. Even today the guy was still the only black farmer for miles around here.
Benson didn’t even know any Negroes, really. He was familiar with Brogan’s buddy. Seemed a decent enough guy. He didn’t feel too strongly one way or another about black folks. Never had thought too much about their struggle for freedom or what have you. It had never affected his world. But he’d never had any trouble with blacks, either.
Brogan, however - he seemed to have some kind of affinity for the black man. Or at least for some of them. Benson wondered, not for the first time, where the hell this even came from? What did Walter Brogan know about the plight of the black man? Not a thing, so far as Benson could tell. He didn’t understand it.
He walked into the open bay, replaced the long gauge on the floor, and stepped back out into the cold. Then he glanced over to the pump again. Brogan was laughing at something the black man had said. Benson watched while wiping his hands on a rag hanging off of his belt.
Brogan reached into the pickup’s cab, grasping the driver’s hand. The two men shook vigorously, while Brogan added a final thought. The other’s head bobbed up and down, as if in agreement. Brogan whacked the top of the cab with his hand while the farmer pulled back out.
Benson shook his head. Those two had always found common ground, though Benson didn’t see where they had any. But old Walt, he always did have this way of getting on okay with other men in general. He was like the law in that way - he saw a man first as agreeable, until he was proven otherwise.
Then two other cars pulled in, one right after the other, drawing up to pumps 1 and 2. The black cable on the ground caught the tires and the bell clanged in the bay. Brogan turned to address them, while Benson took the opportunity to visit the jakes.
Around 11:30, Benson and Brogan were sitting silently together inside the cramped office. Benson’s small transistor radio was turned low, cackling a bit, warbling out ‘One O’Clock Jump’ by Count Basie. Brogan’s kind of music. The boss was seated behind the desk, wheezing a bit, his head bent over the pump register, tallying the final levels for the week in the book before the re-up. Benson thumbed through the Sports page of the Bentonville Star absent-mindedly.
After a short time Brogan observed, ‘Starting to flurry now.’
Benson looked up. The older man had lifted his head and was staring out the front window, past the old, hulking register on the counter.
‘You think we’ll get any real snow?’
‘Nah,’ Benson mumbled, returning to the paper. ‘Forecast didn’t call for it.’
A few empty moments passed. Then Brogan said, ‘That don’t mean it won’t come.’
Benson glanced up, lowering the newspaper. But Brogan had turned his eyes away and was ducking beneath the desk. There was a safe under there where he secured the registers for the tanks and the budget/expenditures on the top shelf, and the collected earnings for the week below. Every Monday morning they’d bundle the cash and make a deposit at the State Street Bank and Trust, following the weekend haul.
‘I need to hire a clerk,’ Brogan complained, closing up the safe and sliding back the chair while he regained his posture. ‘The figures on that tally start frog-jumping around the page after a while.’ He put his hands on his knees, sighed heavily.
‘I done told you before, Walt, I think that’s an idea,’ Bensen replied. The two men locked eyes for a moment.
‘It just might be time. Hell, Greta could probably do it.’
‘Shit. You waited too long on that. The horse is out of the barn,’ Benson laughed. He was referring to Brogan’s wife’s de facto role as manager of The Golden Wheel in the stead of her good-for-nothing brother, Peter. He picked up the Star again.
‘I’ll be damned. That negro from Syracuse won the Heisman. Davis. You see that?’
‘Sure did,’ Brogan said, his face cracking a slight smile. ‘That’s what I was talking to Isaac about.’
Isaac! That was it. ‘Oh yeah? What did you say to him?’
Brogan glanced at Benson again. He shrugged. ‘I said, “Congratulations.”’
‘But he didn’t do nothing.’
Brogan chuckled. ‘Of course not. But it’s exciting for his people, man. That’s all.’
They stared at each other.
Benson said, ‘Huh.’
The bell on the wall in the bay clanged, startling them both.
‘I’ll get that,’ Brogan said.
But his face clouded over. He sat upright stiffly, with his feet flat on the floor. A big black Packard, an old one, had pulled up at pump #2. Brogan stared at it.
‘Everything okay there, Walt?’ Benson asked.
It took Brogan a few moments to respond. Benson thought he saw some color drain from the older man’s cheek.
‘Sure,’ said Brogan. ‘Funny feeling.’
Then he got up and walked out the door. It was 11:37.
Benson never could have said why, but he followed Brogan’s back with his eyes out into the winging air. Fiona Miller, George’s widow, sat behind the wheel of the auto, waiting patiently.
About halfway between the office door and pump #2, Walter Brogan stopped dead in his tracks. His head was canted downward. Benson stared. He thought he saw the older man shudder or twitch, once, in a strange manner.
Then he fell down. Not over. Straight to the pavement.
When Benson reached Brogan, there was no pulse. Though he had never set foot in a Catholic Church in his life, Benson took off his hat and made the Sign of the Cross. The freezing wind continued to blow in from northern Indiana.
Strangely enough, in spite of the hour, approaching noon on a Friday, only one other customer had pulled into Walt’s Auto Stop between Brogan’s fall and the arrival of the police and ambulance. Perhaps a twenty minute stretch.
Even stranger, that customer was Jonas Wittenburg, a farmer. He was the oldest son of the late Cal Wittenburg, who’d been close friends to the man lying on the ground. The man who had just set off to wherever it was that Wittenburg had gone.
Jonas Wittenburg had leaped out of his pickup truck, shouting, ‘Son of a ….’ He jogged over to the side of Benson, kneeling by Brogan’s castrate form. When he looked upon Walter Brogan’s face, he removed his hat and shook his head.
Benson asked if Wittenburg wouldn’t mind staying with Brogan while he phoned the police. He strode over to Mrs. Miller, who by this time was standing beside her vehicle with an expression like she’d seen a ghost. He tried to offer her some words of assurance. Or consolation? Then he gently coaxed the old woman back into her car, telling her he’d fill her up after he had called the authorities, if she intended to linger.
Whereupon Benson trudged back into the office and picked up the telephone. Brogan’s radio was still playing, this time an older song: Blue skies, smiling at me---
Nearby was a small, framed picture from Brogan’s wedding day, way back in the early 20s. Brogan wore a dark tuxedo, his hair slicked straight back, a wide grin on his face. Next to him, his bride … Greta.
Benson paused, staring at the photo. His eyes inventoried the desk while he gripped the receiver. His expression was blank.
Half an hour later, Benson, Wittenburg, and Deputy Paul LaDue stood alongside Brogan’s still supine body. Snow furries whipped around their faces while they waited, hats in their hands respectfully. Below them a figure dressed in black knelt next to the dead man, clutching a rosary. He raised his right hand and offered Brogan a last blessing.
‘Much obliged, Father Frank,’ said Wittenburg, who knew the priest best, as a member of his flock at St. Joseph the Worker.
‘Of course,’ Father Franklin Caldwell said. He’d known Walter Brogan well, having met him around the time he took over the parish, right after the war. ‘I’m very sorry, Jonas, I know your families were close.’
'Yes,' was all Wittenburg could manage.
'Mr. Benson,' the priest shook his hand. They knew each other less. Benson was not a church-going man, but was known in the community. 'I’m sorry for your loss as well.'
Benson nodded. He stared at Brogan one last time. In his right hand were the wire-rimmed spectacles the Deputy had removed from Brogan’s face moments before. Somebody had taken the service cap away, too.
The expression on the dead man was calm, almost serene. Not a trace of the shadow Benson had witnessed there just before he stepped out of the office. Those clouds had since passed.
Deputy LaDue bent over and pulled the dark tarp over Walter Brogan’s face. Then he signalled to the ambulance crew, standing by with a stretcher at a respectable remove. They came.
'Father Frank, would you like to follow me over to the restaurant?' LaDue asked wearily. He gestured across the broad crossroads to the opposite side of the highway. It was strange that all this was taking place pretty much right under Mrs. Brogan’s nose, but she was not yet aware.
'Of course,' said the priest. 'See you over there.' He walked off to his vehicle. The ambulance pulled away on to U.S. 52.
The Deputy sighed. He’d also known Brogan at least twenty years. They’d met during the war. He could remember sitting down with him to discuss the very first Corn Festival back in ‘38. He ran his hand through his gray hair, then replaced his cap. Now for the tough part.
'Dick, gonna need to ask you a favor. Can you go behind the ambulance, stay with him until I finish with the notification? I’ll meet up with you after it’s done.'
'Sure,' Benson said. 'Where do they take him? The hospital?'
'No need. They’ll bring him right to the morgue. You know where that is?'
Benson nodded. 'I’ll go. Just need to close up.'
'Fine,' said LaDue.
There was a moment of somber silence between the three of them. The sort of empty no man could fill. Time seemed to be accelerating right past them.
'Well. I can’t leave the good father to do it alone,' said LaDue after a while. 'Thanks, fellas. My condolences.' He left.
Wittenburg replaced his own hat.
'You two knew each other a long time,' he said.
'Yep. He hired me. Almost four decades ago now.' He glanced sidelong at Wittenburg. 'You were just a mite.'
There was another long moment.
'Well. Damn it all,' Wittenberg grumbled. 'Guess I’ll go let my mother know. She’s gonna be upset.'
'All right,' said Benson. He shook the younger man’s hand, then headed back into the office.
He phoned the Criterion office to explain the circumstances. Fortunately they were amenable to send their man special early the next morning to fill the tanks. Then he grabbed a sheet of paper from the desk and marked it with a pen: CLOSED TEMPORARILY DUE TO EMERGENCY. SORRY FOR INCONVENANCE. He stuck it to the glass door, shut off the radio, and locked up the garage.
At the Benton County Morgue, underneath the courthouse downtown, Dick Benson sat for about half an hour in the examination room along with what once was Walter Brogan. He chain smoked, exhausting his cigarettes. A round clock was ticking on the wall. The body lay on the slab, underneath a white sheet pulled up over the face.
Finally, Deputy LaDue came in with the mortician, Fred Something. They pulled the sheet back. Benson stood and looked, one last time. Brogan already looked like he’d been fashioned out of rubber. LaDue set Benson’s name down on a form. Then he led the way out to a bench in the hall.
'Tell me exactly what happened,' he said, holding a clipboard. Benson did.
Afterward, he stopped at the liquor store and picked up a bottle of rye and a new pack of Luckys. He located a parking spot right in front of the tobacco shop and walked up the stairs to his apartment.
The place was tiny and rather Spartan. There was a large sea crate he used as a coffee table and a tall, brass lamp by a chair. He sat next to the front window with the whiskey and cigarettes and didn’t move. It was about 3:30, 4:00, in that range. The sky, which had been slate gray all day long, was darkening.
Brogan’s funeral was arranged for the following Friday, the 15th. On Tuesday, Benson bisected the junction on foot. He was headed to the Crossroads to sit down with Peter Heinricks and talk about what to do next. When he walked into the office, he was startled to see Greta Brogan sitting across the desk from her brother. He took off his hat.
'Missus Brogan,' Benson stammered. 'I apologize. I didn’t … my condolences, ma’am.'
'Thank you,' said Greta. She sat in the chair with her knees together, dressed in a simple brown frock, flat shoes planted on the floor, small black purse in her lap. She looked dignified, determined, but her face was tight.
And no wonder. It was only earlier this year that she’d lost her father, finally. But he’d been 93. Brogan’s life had simply been cut short. There was nothing for it.
Peter cleared his throat. His collar was unbuttoned, tie jerked to one side. Benson noticed a tumbler with about a finger’s worth of amber liquid on the desk.
'Listen, Greta,' Heinricks said, his voice rasping. 'We ain’t gotta have this talk now. Benson and I can discuss--'
'I’ve only a little time,' she interrupted. 'I need to stop at the florist, then meet Father Frank. And you’re not doing this without me. So, if you don’t mind, let’s get on with it.'
Benson sat down in the chair opposite Greta. He kept his face neutral. But he wondered how Heinricks could be this woman’s own kid brother and not seem to know her.
'All right then,' Peter Heinricks said. 'Sorry.' He tried to compose himself. 'So, er, Greta, you’ve got Gertie and Billy with you now at home, correct? When does Luke get in?'
'He’ll be in tonight by train.'
Peter nodded. 'Is he coming from Indianapolis, or---'
'Chicago,' his sister said.
'I’ll pick him up,' he offered.
'That would be fine.' Greta didn’t change her position in the chair, seated almost on the edge. As if moving would upset her sense of balance.
'Okay. Obviously the hotel is open for business. Only makes sense, plus we’ll have relations coming in…'
'When can we open the station back up, Dick?' Greta half-glanced his way. 'We’re losing money there.'
Benson answered without hesitation. 'Anytime. Whenever you want. I’m ready.'
Greta looked up now. Their eyes met. Benson got the impression that she was feeling him out. For what, he did not know. He kept his gaze steady.
'But you’ll need assistance.' It wasn’t a question.
Benson shrugged. 'In time, I guess. But I can manage a while. What else am I doing?'
Greta said nothing for a few minutes. Then she looked away, nodding. 'All right. I’ll let you see to getting the place back open. And thank you,' she added.
'Don’t mention it.' Benson was jonesing for a cigarette.
Peter coughed. He took a sip from the tumbler.
'Just a second,' his sister said, casting a wary eye toward the glass. Then she shifted position, turning to face Benson more directly.
'You know, Dick, we haven’t really spoken. I still would like to hear what happened. I mean, from you.' She looked at him straight. Her eyes were clear, her voice steady.
Benson met her gaze, looking for any sign of hostility. But he knew he would find none. It was truth Greta was looking for. The straight story. She was the sort of woman who could handle it.
'Yes ma’am,' he said. 'I suppose there’s time.'
She nodded, as though satisfied to have gotten the request out.
'Would it be all right if I sent Luke over in the next day or two to retrieve Walter’s personal effects?' She looked away. This request seemed to cost her more.
'Yes, of course.'
'Very well,' said Greta. She turned back to Peter. 'So. The restaurant.'
Benson’s thoughts turned away from the conversation.
Something was starting to emerge from inside him. As though crawling up through the dirt. But he kept his mouth shut and affected to listen.
He opened up on Thursday, running things on his own. The morning saw more terse conversations than filling tanks or checking oil. The customers knew, for the most part, except those just passing through.
One fellow said, 'I supposed you’re going to need to change the name of this place?'
Benson shrugged. 'Not really my decision,' was all he said. He glanced at the blue letters on the hand-painted sign he’d helped Brogan pitch up on the roof: WALT’S AUTO STOP.
It was the same name they’d used for the station Brogan had run back in the twenties, the one he’d hired him for the first time. It had come back around full circle, after Brogan went to work for Criterion for a while and a few other jobs before deciding to work for his father-in-law again in the early 50s.
If I were them I’d just keep it this way, Benson thought to himself. His thoughts turned to Greta Brogan and her family - how they would have to figure things out. They would have to manage.
Then, as if summoned, a vehicle rolled into the lot and pulled up - not to one of the pumps, but alongside the building. It was a Ford, dark green, one of those newer two-door sedans. The cars were starting to get smaller now. But seeing this one in particular tooling around the town was still something of a novelty.
It was Peter Heinricks’. He’d bought it last year in Lafayette. Benson remembered the time he’d come by to show it off to his brother-in-law. But it was not Heinricks who stepped out of the car.
Benson almost didn’t recognize the young man. He was, what … thirty now? Maybe even older? He’d been out of town since right after the end of the war, when he left to attend Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. The kid had never really come back. Benson couldn’t blame him.
Luke Brogan pulled the overcoat around his shoulders. He was tall and beanpole-thin - a different build entirely from his father. At well over six feet, he also had at least two inches on his old man. He was dressed in khaki pants, dark coat, with a forest green watch cap pulled down tightly over his ears.
He also had wire-rimmed glasses that were similar to what Brogan had worn, which heightened a resemblance between them that people didn’t always see. But unlike his father, Luke had required glasses all his life.
The younger man squinted against the cold air and stuffed his hands in his pockets. Then he approached Benson.
'How are you, Mr. Benson?' Brogan’s eldest son said formally. He held out a hand.
Benson shook it. 'Hello, Luke. Or, I - I’m sorry. Is it "Father" now?'
Luke chuckled. 'Nope, not yet. About a year to go. Luke is just fine.'
'Okay,' Benson said. He’d have thought for sure the young man would’ve been a priest by now. But Brogan had never talked about it much. That always struck Benson as curious.
He nodded. 'How do you like the wheels?' he had to ask, gesturing at the car.
'I barely fit inside, seems like,' said Luke. 'But it’s got a nice ride to it. I hardly ever drive, myself. It’s a good thing I remembered how.'
'Listen, ah, Luke … I’m sorry for your … you have my condolences.'
'Thank you very much. I appreciate that, Mr. Benson.'
It was Benson’s turn to chuckle. 'You can call me Dick, Luke. I known you since was yay-high to a fencepost.' He held one hand out flat, palm down.
'Well, I suppose that’s why your Christian name doesn’t come naturally,' Brogan suggested, smiling.
He sure talks like a college boy, Benson thought.
'You make a good point,' he replied. He looked up. Luke was staring at him, both hands in his pockets, with the smile affixed.
'Well,' Benson said, a little unnerved. 'Gotta admit, I forgot you were coming by. You’re here for your father’s … his stuff.'
'I’ve got it all set for you,' Benson said, and led the way into the office. Everything seemed strangely quiet, empty. The day was sunny but cold, the sky pale in a way that looked unnatural, like the face of someone that isn’t well. One or two cars rushed by on the highway, enroute to somewhere in what seemed like a hurry.
Benson opened the door for Luke. 'What do they have you doing now?' he asked, just making conversation.
'Teaching. It’s my first year,' Luke answered.
'Christian Brothers College High School. It’s in St. Louis.' Luke stepped in, looked around the room.
'You don’t say. That’s a far cry from your old man. What are you teaching?'
'Ah, Introduction to Philosophy is the one course. And a second on the Gospels.'
Benson nodded. There was an awkward pause. Possibly because Benson couldn’t manage a comment on either philosophy or the Gospels. Luke rubbed his hands together.
'Right,' Benson said. 'Well, over here.' He gestured around the end of the counter. A cardboard box was there on the desk.
Luke Brogan approached the box cautiously. As though there was something alive inside of it that was going to jump out at him, Benson thought. But there was nothing alive in there now. Everything was fast receding into memory.
Benson could see the radio, the one that had only a few days prior had been filling the office with Count Basie. Luke, his back turned to Benson, reached down into the box. He lifted something out that Brogan didn’t see at first, and looked down at it for a moment in silence. Benson shifted on his feet, and realized it was the Brogans’ wedding photo.
Suddenly the younger man, the teacher, soon to be a priest, said: 'My father and me, we didn’t have a great deal in common.' He didn’t turn around.
Benson nodded agreement, even though Luke couldn’t see him. He sensed that there was more. Then Luke Brogan did turn, still holding the picture.
'But he was proud. And he always enjoyed working.'
'Yes,' Benson agreed. He didn’t know what else to say. For a brief instant he was terrified that Luke was going to show his emotions, to which he would have nothing to answer.
Luke’s voice, however, remained steady. 'You were always loyal to him,' he said. 'Thank you for that.' He reached over and put the picture back in the box.
'Well,' said Benson. 'There was always more to be done.'
'Have you got plans for … what’s next?' Luke suddenly asked.
Benson was surprised by this. What did it matter to him? He gave it a minute.
'I never was much for making plans.'
Luke seemed to be waiting for more. Then he seemed to realize none was coming. He smiled.
'Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof,' he said.
They locked eyes. Benson said nothing.
'Well,' said Luke. 'I’ll get out of your hair.' He turned around and picked up the box. Then they both returned to the car, and the younger man stuffed the box into the passenger’s seat of the two-door.
They shook hands a second time.
There was a lengthy pause. Both men seemed lost in thought, reaching mentally after something that eluded them.
'Again, I’m sorry, Luke. Your father was a hard worker. I liked him.'
'Thanks for always sticking with him. My whole family appreciates it,' Luke Brogan answered.
Then he drove off.
On Friday morning the funeral started around 11:30. So did the rain. At the same moment Luke Brogan stepped up to the pulpit to eulogize his father, it increased to a downpour.
Benson drove to the station. He parked the silver Chevy right in front of the office door. The backseat was filled with clutter, things he’d take out of the apartment. A tall lamp. The sea crate, stuffed to the lid, that he’d given the kid who helped stock the shelves at the tobacconist’s two dollars to help him get down the stairs.
He grabbed a small canvas bag he’d found in his closet from the passenger’s seat and stepped out of the car.
Inside the office, everything was tidy. He’d picked up any loose papers the night before and stacked them neatly under a paperweight on the desk. Then he’d swept the whole room, wiped down the counter and the giant cash register that he suspected might pre-date this century.
Now, he made sure the CLOSED sign was on display. Then he stepped around the desks and crouched onto one knee.
It took him exactly two attempts to open the safe. First, he tried 6-25-24 on the combination lock - the Brogans’ wedding date. This he wouldn’t have known except for the fact that someone, perhaps Brogan himself, had penned it on the back of the photograph that was in this office up until yesterday. He spun the wheel a few times and yanked it. No luck.
Then he tried the only other date he knew for sure. 7-22-28. Luke Brogan’s birthday, the day Walt had become a father. Benson had been the first to let him know. He’d taken the phone call from Greta herself, all those years ago, while Brogan had been talking to the Criterion distributor.
The lock clicked. He pulled the safe open.
Benson picked up the papers from underneath the paperweight. He stacked them inside the safe neatly on the top shelf, next to the registers.
Then he pulled out all of the small stacks of bills, one by one. Hastily, he counted through them. It was a bit more than he thought, considering the shop was closed for the better part of four working days. But there was also the earnings from last week. There hadn’t been time to make the usual run to State Street on Monday, given the events of the previous Friday.
Benson had assured Peter he’d make the deposit himself. With his mind elsewhere, and having no reason to distrust him, Peter had consented. Benson knew he would not bring it up to his sister, who might have questioned it. Then he’d simply left the money alone, until now.
He cleared out all of it and placed it in the canvas bag. Then he shut the safe and stood up. He scanned the intersection, searching in both directions through the cold rain. Nobody around, as far as his eyes could see.
Near the door, Benson paused, his hand on the jamb. He traced the whole office and the service bays. Everything was quiet but for the rain on the roof and the ticking of the clock on the wall. He stood there for what seemed a long time.
Then he turned and opened the door. One the wall next to the entrance was an advertisement for Havoline Motor Oil. There was a picture of a large black and gold can with a red start Texaco logo in the middle. Beneath the image, in large red letters, the ad recommended, DON’T WAIT. CHANGE IT NOW.
Benson gripped the small bag, left the room, and yanked the door closed. It locked.
He got into his loaded car and pulled away. No one from the Brogan family, from Bentonville, or from Indiana ever saw Dick Benson again.