Page 46 of Wheels

He had expected tenderness. He found, instead, a savagery in Rowena which at first amazed, soon after excited and, before long, inflamed him, too.

Nothing in his experience had prepared him for the wild, tempestuous passion she unleashed. For both of them, it lasted - with gaps which human limits demanded - through the night.

Near dawn she inquired mischievously, do you still think black is beautiful?"

He told her, and meant it, "More than ever."

They had been lying, quietly, side by side. Now Rowena propped herself up and looked at him. She was smiling. "And for a honky, you're not bad."

As he had yesterday afternoon, he lit two cigarettes and gave her one. After a while she said, "I guess black is beautiful, the way they say. But then I guess everything's beautiful if you look at it on the right kina of day."

"Is this that kind of day?"

"You know what I'd say today? Today, I'd say 'ugly is beautiful!"

It was getting light. Adam said, "I want to see you again. How do we manage it?"

For the first time, Rowena's voice was sharp. "We don't, and both of us know it." When he protested, she put a finger across his lips. "We haven't lied to each other. Don't let's begin."

He knew she was right, that what had begun here would end here. Detroit was neither Paris nor London, nor even New York. At heart, Detroit was a small town still, beginning to tolerate more than it used to, but he could not have Detroit and Rowena - on any terms. The thought saddened him. It continued to, through the day, and as he left Higgins Lake for the return journey southward late that afternoon.

When he thanked his host before leaving, Hank Kreisel said, "Haven't talked much, Adam. Wish we'd had more chance. Mind if I call you next week?"

He assured Kreisel that he could.

Rowena, to whom Adam had said goodbye privately, behind two locked doors an hour earlier, was not in sight.

Chapter 16

"Oh, Christ!" Adam said. "I forgot to phone my wife." He remembered, guiltily, intending since Saturday morning to call Erica and patch up the quarrel they had had before he left. Now it was Sunday evening and he still hadn't. In the meantime, of course, there had been Rowena, who eclipsed less immediate matters, and Adam had an unease, too, about facing Erica after that.

"Shall we turn off and find a pay phone?" Pierre Flodenhale asked. They were on Interstate 75, southbound, near the outskirts of Flint, and Pierre was driving Adam's car, as he had been since leaving the Higgins Lake cottage. The young race driver had come to the cottage with someone else who left early, and Adam had been glad to offer him a ride, as well as to have company on the way back to Detroit. Moreover, when Pierre offered to drive, Adam accepted gratefully and had dozed through the early part of the journey.

Now it was growing dark. Their headlights were among many slicing homeward from the country to the city.

"No," Adam said. "If we stop, it will waste time. Let's keep going."

He put out a hand tentatively to the Citizens Band radio beneath the instrument panel. They would be coming within range of Greater Detroit soon, and it was possible that Erica might have switched on the kitchen receiver, as she did on weekdays. Then he let his hand drop, deciding not to call. He was increasingly nervous, he realized, about talking with Erica, a nervousness which increased a half hour later as they passed Bloomfield Hills, then, soon after, left the freeway and turned west toward Quarton Lake.

He had intended to let Pierre, who lived in Dearborn, take the car on directly after dropping him off. Instead, Adam invited Pierre in and was relieved when he accepted. At least, Adam thought, he would have the foil of a stranger for a while before having to face Erica alone.

He need not have worried.

As the car crunched to a halt on the driveway gravel of the Trentons' house, lights went on, the front door opened, and Erica came out to greet Adam warmly.

"Welcome, darling! I missed you." She kissed him, and he knew it was her way of showing that Saturday's incident was over and need not be mentioned again.

What Adam did not know was that part of Erica's good spirits stemmed from a dress watch which she was wearing, the watch acquired during a further shoplifting adventure while he had been away.

Pierre Flodenhale climbed out from behind the wheel. Adam introduced him.

Erica gave her most dazzling smile. "I've seen you race." She added, "If I'd known you were driving Adam home, though, I might have been nervous.'

"He's a lot slower than I am," Adam said. "Didn't break the speed limit once."

"How dull! I hope the party was livelier."

"Not all that much, Mrs. Trenton. Compared with some I've been at, it was quiet. Gets that way, I guess, when you only have men."

Don't push it, pal! Adam wanted to caution. He saw Erica glance at Pierre shrewdly, and suspected the young race driver was not used to the company of highly intelligent, perceptive women. Pierre was clearly impressed with Erica, though, who looked young and beautiful in silk Gucci pajamas, her long ash-blond hair falling around her shoulders.

They went into the house, mixed drinks, and took them to the kitchen where Erica made fried egg sandwiches for them all, and coffee. Adam left the other two briefly - to make a telephone call, and, tired as he was, to collect files he must work on tonight in preparation for the morning. When he returned, Erica was listening attentively to a discourse on auto racing - an extension, apparently, to Pierre's remarks to the group around him at the cottage.

Pierre had a sheet of paper spread out on which he had drawn the layout of a speedway track. ". . . so heading in to the mainstretch in front of the stands, you want the straightest line possible. At two hundred miles an hour, if you let the car wander you lose time bad. Wind's usually across the track, so you stay close to the wall, hug that old wall tight as you can . . ."

"I've seen drivers do it," Erica said. "It always frightens me. If you ever hit the wall at a speed like that . . ."

"If you do, you're safer hitting flat, Mrs. Trenton. I've been in a few walls . . ."

"Call me Erica," Erica said. "Have you really?"

Adam, listening, was amused. He had taken Erica to auto races, but had never known her to show this much concern. He thought: perhaps it was because she and Pierre liked each other instinctively. The fact that they did was obvious, and the young race driver was glowing, responding boyishly to Erica's interest. Adam felt grateful for the chance to regain his own composure without being the focus of his wife's attention. Despite his return home, thoughts of Rowena were still strong in Adam's mind.

Every track you race on, Erica," Pierre was saying, "a driver has to learn to handle it like it was a . . ." He hesitated for a smile, then added, "like a violin."

"Or a woman," Erica said. They both laughed.

"You have to know where every bump is in that old track, the low spots, what the surf ace gets like with a real hot sun, or after a sprinkle of rain. So you practice and practice, driving and driving, 'til you find the best way, the fastest line around."

Seated across the room, his files now beside him, Adam threw in, "Sounds a lot like life."

The other two seemed not to have heard. Obviously, Adam decided, they would not mind if he got on with some work.

"When you're in a long race, say five hundred miles," Erica said, "does your mind ever wander? Do you ever think of something else?"

Pierre gave his boyish grin. "God, no! Not if you figure to win, or even walk away instead of being carried out." He explained, "You've a lot to keep checking and remember. How others in the race are doing, your plans for passing guys ahead, or how not to let guys past you. Or maybe there's trouble, like if you scuff a tire it'll take a tenth of a second off your speed. So you feel it happen, you remember, you do sums in your head, figure everything, then decide when to pit for a tire change, which can win a race or lose it. You watch oil pressure fifty yards before entering every corner, then, on the backstretch, check all gauges, and you keep both ears tuned to the way the engine sings. Then there's signals from the pit crew to look out for. Some days you could use a secretary . . ."

Adam, concentrating on memo reading, screened the voices of Pierre and Erica out.

"I never knew all that," Erica said. "It will seem different watching now. I'll feel like an insider."

"I'd like to have you see me race, Erica." Pierre glanced across the room, then back. He lowered his voice slightly. "Adam said you'd be at the Talladega 500, but there's other races before that."

"Where ?"

"North Carolina, for one. Maybe you could come." He looked at her directly and she was aware, for the first time, of a touch of arrogance, the star syndrome, the knowledge that he was a hero to the crowd. She supposed a lot of women had come Pierre's way.

"North Carolina's not so far." Erica smiled. "It's something to think about, isn't it?"

Some time later, the fact that Pierre Flodenhale was standing penetrated Adam's consciousness.

"I guess I'll be moving on, Adam," Pierre said. "Thanks a lot for the ride and having me in."

Adam returned a folder to his briefcase - a ten-year population shift estimate, prepared for study in conjunction with consumer car preference trends. He apologized, "I haven't been much of a host. I hope my wife made up for me."