Rob Marrino had sensed something odd, yet familiar; that same old feeling, that his life had circled back to the same time and place he had been once before. The day was bright, the air fresh and invigorating – he had hoped that was a sign of a new beginning; now, he had to wonder about that.
It was Rob’s day off, after his first week back at work in three months. A chain of events had started in May – one he was struggling to forget. Thankfully, he was doing much better now, with the help of his doctor, his loving family and the medication.
He leaned back in his old K-Mart lawn chair, lifted the lid on his cooler and cracked open an ice-cold beer. His day’s work had been carried out with passion, and now he sat admiring the mirror finish on his freshly-waxed and detailed Mustang.
Over the years, he had enjoyed working on the car, keeping it clean and tuned up. The car was a gift he had bought for himself, after making it through the bullets and bandages of the hell which was Vietnam. The 1969 Mustang, Mach 1 – in metallic red with a flat black trim – was Rob’s pride and joy, so most of the time he kept it stored safely in the garage, and drove his old, but reliable Chevy pickup.
On summer weekends, whenever they had the chance, Rob and Beth Anne – his better half – dropped the kids off at Grandma’s house, then cruised on down to the shore. It was a win-win situation for everyone, because Rob’s mom loved spending time with her grandchildren, and the kids loved their Grandmom – and all the goodies she made for them. Rob, meanwhile, loved to stroll along the sand dunes with Beth Anne, especially when they made their way to their little spot; their own private picnic paradise on the beach. This year, though, there were no sandy strolls; this year was all about getting back to normal, after the emotional rollercoaster of a nightmare the family had experienced.
It was a nice, warm, late-summer day, and Rob tried to put it all into perspective, attempting to think about all the good things in his life. As the doctor had wisely advised, he needed to “put the past to bed”. The sky was clear blue, with a few puffy, white clouds floating by in the light breeze. What a simple pleasure it was for him to hear the birds chirping and to watch the squirrels nibbling acorns, as they scurried about the giant oak trees. Some of the summer flowers were still in bloom, and the earthy smell of freshly-cut grass wafted through the air. The warm sunshine felt good, as Rob reflected on his life since he had left the U.S. Army and bought the Mustang.
Over ten years has gone by since then, he thought. It was hard for him to believe it was 1981 already. But, time moves on; things… change.
Now, the Army veteran was a 31-year-old police officer, sitting in the driveway of his house in the hills of Pikesville, New Jersey, pondering life and drinking a brew. Most of the time, he felt very far away from his past; a long, long way from the jungles of Vietnam, and those bullets and bandages. Those memories had become a faint light now, nestled deep in the archives of his memory.
Unfortunately, though, on rare occasions they came back to haunt him. When they did, he could still see shadows of the faces, and feel the horror all over again. He thanked God that, as the years went by, the dreams returned less often – usually with just a glimmer of the intensity they had once held.
After the severity of the latest drama Rob and his beloved family had recently suffered, he found it surprising that he no longer dreamt at all about the ordeal. For weeks after it was over, he found himself looking over his shoulder often, fearing it could happen again; stress and sudden panic attacks had threatened to overcome him back then. Beth Anne tried to help him deal with his paranoia, but it was all she could do to care for the children and work through her own problems. Things only got worse until they went to see Dr. Harry.
Thank God we did, Rob often thought; the good doctor had really helped them to deal with their problems and settle back into life.
As for Beth Anne, she was back to her old self again, working in her garden and poring through her books. Rob now found joy in the little things, like sitting in the sunshine, listening to the birds and working on his car. His time with Beth Anne and the kids helped him stay on track. The previous Sunday, they’d all gone to church with Beth Anne’s parents, and Rob realized he had missed the comfort of Father Peter’s voice in those sermons; it felt good to be together, to just sit and pray.
It was a Monday afternoon, and the house and neighborhood were quiet. Rob’s two children, Jennifer and little Robby, were in school, and Beth Anne was working her shift at the hospital. The children seemed to be doing fine, seldom ever mentioning those horrid happenings.
Being a cop had its benefits, if one could put up with the odd hours. Pikesville was a good place to work in law enforcement; a relatively peaceful place, with not a lot of serious crime to speak of. Rob kept busy by driving his patrol car and making his rounds around town. He also took care of occasional calls regarding emergencies, domestic problems or traffic accidents. Pikesville was a friendly little town, where everyone knew everyone. In fact, until last May, the biggest thing to happen here in years was when they lost power for two days, during the winter nor’easter. People still talked about that, and every recounting of the tale had the snow an extra few inches higher, boosted by their imagination.
It was hard for Rob to believe that it would be ten years, that autumn, since he had first joined the police force; Beth Anne’s uncle, Roy, had offered him the job. Over the years, he had worked his way up the ranks and pay grade, until being promoted to sergeant, six months ago. At times, he found the work a little boring, but he liked it that way; Rob had no regrets about accepting the job.
Lord knows I paid my dues: first as the coffee and donuts deliveryman, then came that dreaded midnight shift and weekends.
Rob drained his beer, as Vietnam suddenly paid him yet another visit, along with thoughts of his old Army friends.
How are those boys doing? he wondered. What did their lives become?
Without his permission, his mind then drifted back to that fateful day in May.
It had begun so normally…
Rob was sitting in this same old lawn chair that day, enjoying a brew after washing his car, when his friend and neighbor hollered: “Hey, Rob, are you gonna drive that baby or just sit on your butt and stare at it all day?”
What a sight Herman was, in his baggy, slime-green shorts and a frumpy fishing hat. He was standing on his lawn with a can of Schlitz in hand and a big, stinky cigar hanging from his mouth.
Rob smiled. “Hey, meathead, when are you moving out, so I can have a big going-away party for you?”
Herman let out a big, goofy laugh. “Why would I do that when I’ve got such a funny-looking neighbor to make fun of? I mean, really, man, who else just sits in his driveway, looking at his car all day?”
Herman and Rob enjoyed their banter as much as any good friends did – and at that time, Herman was still trying to get back at Rob for his latest practical joke: Rob had slopped a load of axle grease on Herman’s steering wheel, and the inside door handle of his truck.
Herman had taken over his late father’s plumbing business, and he kept pretty busy tending to the pipes of Pikesville. He always had plenty of cash, and he seemed to be able to choose what days he worked; he charged fifty bucks for a house call, before he had even shown up! A few years prior, Herman had offered Rob a part-time position, but the thought of fixing toilets clogged up with used Kotex and unplugging shit-filled sewer pipes had Rob refusing that idea in a hurry.
Herman lumbered over, never one to wait for an invitation. “You want a real beer, Rob? I know it may be a little strong for you, since you only drink that sissy light shit.”
Rob had to laugh as he stood up. “Thanks, pal, but I’m about to go for a little spin; maybe pick up a few girls along the way.”
Herman smiled; “Yeah, right! In your wildest dreams! Anyway, I’ve gotta run and get dressed; some of us around here actually work for a living. See ya later, at the game.”
“Okay, Herman, whatever you say.”
Rob had to laugh again as he watched his neighbor waddling back to his front door in those baggy, green shorts, leaving a stink-filled cloud of cigar smoke behind him. “See you at the game!” he yelled, as Herman went inside. Their sons were on the same little-league team, and Herman helped Rob out with the coaching, whenever he could.
Rob went into his garage and finished putting his bucket of tools away. After that, he stepped inside the house for a shower, then got dressed for a ride in the car. He had a few things to pick up for Beth Anne in town, and the errands gave him a good excuse to take a short road trip.
The Mustang roared to life and Rob waited for a few moments, satisfied by the throaty growl, as the engine warmed up. He paced the Mustang through the gears as he drove along the back roads, taking a quick but smooth ride into town. As he passed the general store, he waved at his friend and fellow police officer, Santo Mardi. After completing his wife’s to-do list, and picking up a few packages at the post office, he headed north, out of town. There, he felt the rush, as he put the Mustang through the gears again, pinning himself to the seat with the incredible power of the big V-8, as he merged onto the interstate.
Loving the feel of his automobile, he decided to take a little cruise up to Mountain Pine Park. He eased back into fourth gear, and the engine smoothed to a low growl, as he accelerated to cruising speed.
He keyed his radio and called his police buddies on patrol: “Capcom, Capcom, this is Sigma. The road looks clear; no traffic. I’m going for my usual ride. Copy that?”
“Roger, Sigma, we copy: to the park and back. Have a nice trip.”
That was a fringe benefit of Rob’s job: the ability to drive over the speed limit without the hassle of being pulled over. In Rob’s former life, he would swear he was a race-car driver, loving the feeling of high speed as he did. It helped that Uncle Roy was also the chief of police.
Beth Anne’s uncle had even bought Rob a new radio, med-kit and a small strobe-light for Christmas. “A cop always has to be ready for the unexpected,” he had explained. He insisted that Rob be armed at all times, when he was out on the road, so a 9mm Browning was stashed underneath the Mustang’s passenger seat. Of course, Rob prayed that he would never really have to use it.