PURITY chapter one

Scattered across a moonless sky,
Like pinholes through the darkness.
One day
We’ll look back
Upon an age of wasted time,
Wringing our hands,
And realize
That’s all they were
All along.

“Pinholes” © 1990 Rick Baber

by Rick Baber


When the phone rang at a quarter ‘til ten, Jeff didn’t want to answer it, but he knew if he didn’t get it then, this nutbag would call back bright and early in the morning and cut into his primo sleeping time. He’d already had a brief conversation with the man earlier in the day – when normal people are working – but the guy was traveling and the cell signal was lost. Jeff didn’t worry about calling him back. There were plenty of other things to do.
His supervisors would rather he answered the phone using the standard company greeting: “Good afternoon (or, in this case, “good evening”), Natural State Claims Service, Jeff Davis speaking,” but that was all just a load of bullshit, and too many words to use after another exhausting day and half a night working through his backlog of insurance claims. Besides, he had a couple of side businesses using the same phone, and he didn’t want to lose a potential photography or private investigation customer. So he answered in his usual cheerful manner.
“Jeff Davis.”
No surprise. The “unknown caller” on the other end of the line was who he expected.
“Mr. Davis, this is Ernest Biggers. We spoke earlier and lost the signal…?”
“Yes, Mr. Biggers,” Jeff replied as he fumbled through his paper file for the notes he thought he already had in front of him, “I tried to call you back several times and it went straight to voice mail, so I assumed your signal was still lost. What I was trying to explain to you is that Mr. Graves’ auto policy on his pickup that was stolen doesn’t cover your riding lawn mower that was in the back. The comprehensive policy only covers Mr. Graves’ vehicle.” The part about calling him back sounded better than the truth.
The man was irritated. Jeff already knew that. “Well, look here! That’s a bunch of crap! The mower was in the back of the pickup!”
“Yes sir, I know. I suppose we wouldn’t be having this conversation if it wasn’t. But you had borrowed the truck to move your mower and it was stolen overnight where you parked it. There’s no negligence on the part of Mr. Graves…”
The caller cut him off. “So, you’re telling me that if somebody steals my car and it’s got, let’s say, a bunch of guns of yours in it, then my insurance ain’t gonna pay you for the loss of those guns?”
“Yes sir. That’s exactly what I’m telling you. I’d have to turn those guns in under my own homeowner policy.”
“But the lawnmower was in the back of the truck. That makes the truck owner liable!” The man’s voice was getting deeper and stronger.
“No sir. He’s not liable for somebody else stealing his truck. Did he do anything to cause it?” Jeff was trying to be at least pleasant, but his disgusted tone was coming through. “The only loss we have to contend with here is the theft claim on the vehicle.”
“And we got a theft claim on my lawnmower, too!” the man yelled into the phone. “You know anything about the Bible, mister? Do unto others as you’d have ‘em do unto you. That’s what it says. I’m a Christian, and the way you’re treatin’ me, well, it just ain’t Christian! I’m not makin’ this up. My mower was in the back of that truck when it was stolen. So the insurance on the truck oughtta pay for it!”
Jeff couldn’t help but laugh. He thought of the Abbot & Costello skit, Who’s on first. “No, again…”
Before he could finish his sentence the man began to scream into the phone again. “Are you laughing at me, you son-of-a-bitch? I tell you what. Just forget the goddamn claim. Why don’t you just tell me where you are, and I’ll drive over there and get eighteen hundred dollars out of your ass!”
After twenty- six years of adjusting multi-line insurance claims, Jeff fully knew the man expected him to be shocked and intimidated by the threat. After twenty- six years of adjusting multi-line insurance claims, he was not.
“You got a pencil?” he asked.
“What?” The man responded more timidly.
“A pencil. I don’t want you to be calling me back in the middle of the night because you’re running around lost in Springdale. I’m gonna give you directions on how to get here, it’s a little tricky.”
“No…..goddammit. You just be expecting a call from my lawyer!” And, with that, the man slammed down the phone.
Maybe it was the comment about the guns. Or maybe this was just another one of those guys who’s real tough on the phone, or behind the wheel on the Interstate, but a little mousier when it comes to a face-to-face. Jeff had seen plenty of those over the years. In all the time he had been with NSCS, and Middle America Property & Casualty before that, and even more places before that, the closest he had ever come to having bodily injury done to him, by a human, was by a preacher, with a claw hammer, who didn’t think he should have to fill out a personal property loss worksheet after a fire burned down the church’s outbuilding. That time, the seasoned and jaded adjuster actually backed up to his car and drove back across the Oklahoma line to the safety of his native Arkansas. Before he even got back to his home office the company had called and left a message that the claim was being reassigned. OK with him. Maybe they’ll do the same with this one.
He shut down his computer, picked up the White Russian from the desk, and went out on the front porch to light a cigar. It looked like Monday was finally over.
Debbie laid down her book and followed him out there, sitting down in the chair beside her husband.
“Another rough day?” She asked, almost sarcastically.
“Dumb son-of-a-bitch,” Jeff said, with a mouthful of cheap cigar, as he rolled it around trying to light it. “You just can’t make ‘em understand.”
“Well,” she laughed, “It’s not like he’s the first dumb one you’ve had to deal with!”
Jeff pulled the stogie from his mouth, leaned back, and blew a thick cloud of smoke up into the hot, humid August air, and took of sip of his drink. A silent puff of lighting illuminated the billowing smoke. “Once,” he began, “I had a Homeowner’s claim where a water heater ruptured and caused the floor to buckle….”
Debbie sat back in her chair, expecting this to be a long story.
“This woman,” Jeff continued, “expected me to pay for her water heater too. I told her there was no coverage for the water heater unless it was damaged by some covered loss – you know, like if it exploded, and that’s what caused the thing to leak. She had already had the thing hauled off before I got to the house, but she immediately said ‘Oh, yeah, it exploded’. I asked her if she had any evidence of that, because I couldn’t just take her word for it. She walked me over to the place in the kitchen, on the opposite side of where it was sitting and showed me some debris on the wall. I said ‘Are you telling me that the water heater literally exploded and part of it hit this wall?’, and she said ‘No. My son was sitting here in his high chair, eating peanuts. When that thing blew, it scared him so bad he spit the peanuts all over the wall. So I just left ‘em here for you to see.”
With that, he stopped and took another toke off the cigar, still gazing up into the sky.
His wife paused for a moment, waiting for him to continue. When he didn’t, she went ahead and asked. “So you didn’t pay her?”
“No,” Jeff smiled. “I paid her. That was just fucking creative.”
Debbie stood up, relieved that he wasn’t upset, and that she wouldn’t have to listen to a bunch of insurance talk she didn’t understand. “Well,” she said, “I’ve gotta go see what bills I can pay before I go to bed.”
“Good luck with that.” He sneered.


At 10:30, just about the time Jeff crushed out his cigar stub, a road contractor employee was working about thirty miles away under the lights of a noisy generator, compacting soil in a ditch beside the highway. A white pickup rolled up beside him and another man wearing a hardhat stepped out and motioned for him to shut off his compactor.
He yelled to the laborer over the racket of the generator. “David says you gotta get this up to grade tonight. They’re gonna start layin’ pipe first thing in the morning!”
The laborer threw his hardhat to the ground. “How the hell am I s’posed to do that?” He yelled back, “I don’t even have a loader operator. I gotta do everything myself!”
The foreman put his hands on his hips and leaned into the laborer’s face, like a pissed off coach talking to an umpire. “That’s ‘cause you’re the only swingin’ dick getting any overtime Marty! Would you rather I paid one of the other guys to do this? ‘Cause I don’t give a flyin’ fuck who does it, long as it gets done!”
The laborer didn’t speak any more. He picked up his headgear, put it on, and cranked the string to start the “whacker-packer”. Then the foreman got back in his truck and headed home for a late supper.
Two minutes or so after the pickup drove away, the laborer threw his helmet again, then flipped the switch to turn off his machine. He reached into his shirt pocket for a cigarette, and found a joint that he had rolled earlier in the day. After smoking it for a few minutes, sitting on the tailgate of his truck, he walked back to the compactor, kicked it over, and got in his truck and sped away, bumping the still-running gas-generated light as he bounced through the ditch to get onto Highway 102.
Another fifteen minutes passed before the heat lightning and the humidity evolved into one of the sudden summer storms, not uncommon in Arkansas. Just before the rain a hard gust of wind caught the aluminum hood on the work light and, having been destabilized by the bumping from the laborer’s truck, it fell over sideways, landing on a berm, still running, shining brightly into the path of eastbound traffic. Then the rain started coming down in sheets, with ½” hail scattered in just to make it interesting.
An eastbound tractor-trailer was coming around a curve, just to the west of the light, flashing his own, thinking he was meeting an oncoming vehicle with its brights on. A westbound late model Lincoln Town Car topped a small hill at about 55 miles per hour, just as the trucker finished the curve. Blinded by the light, the truck driver locked up his brakes and jackknifed the empty dump trailer, which stayed partially in the highway when the cab slammed into a large oak tree on the right side of the road. The driver of the Lincoln cut hard to his right and skidded to a stop, but not before the left rear of the car slid into the left rear tire of the trailer, bouncing it off into the ditch where the laborer had been working a few minutes before.
In the pouring rain, the driver of the car first tried to pull out of the ditch, but the wet, compacted red clay would not allow him any traction. After a short while trying, he bumped the door with his shoulder a few times before being able to open it, to go check on the truck driver. Slipping and falling twice before he reached the cab, covered with red clay mud, and soaking wet, he jumped up on the running board and pulled the door open to find the driver, not moving, staring blankly forward. The passenger door to the truck was open, and the rain was blowing in. The stereo was still running, playing an old Alabama song called “Roll On 18 Wheeler.”
Behind him, above the sound of the rain and thunder, the Lincoln driver heard a horn honking and turned around to see a small car with the passenger window rolled down, and the interior light on. A woman yelled out to him, “Do you have a cell signal? We don’t!”
The man stayed on the running board as he answered. “No! No signal here!”
“We’ll go into Centerton and call the police!” She said. “Is everybody OK?”
“No.” He said. “They’re in bad shape!”
The woman looked briefly toward the driver, her husband, then back to the Lincoln driver. “Oh my God! Will you be OK here?”
The man turned all the way around with his back to the truck driver and waved for the motorists to go on. “Yeah”, he said, “Go get help! I’ll say here.”
In a moment, the taillights of the small car disappeared into the stormy night.