The heron stalked through the flooded marsh, eyes intent on movement below the muddy surface. Beak aimed like a javelin. It stopped, poised to strike. Patient.
The heron flinched before it burst out of the water, thrust from its huge wings leaving a mist like a jet’s contrail as it soared to a safe height over the maze of marsh islands.
Out of the haze of fog drifting over the water emerged a man. Behind him, as if he had bore a tunnel through the thick gloom, were woods with ancient oak trees twisting out into the bayou. Long tendrils of dull gray moss snaking down to the mud seemed to vibrate with a dissonant buzz; hundreds of thousands of insects clung to the trees and brush along the bank, belting out a chorus that was randomly broken up by disturbances in the water.
Hunched over, dull gray beard hanging like moss from a sun-weathered face, the man blazed a trail of silence, stepping through the muck with a heron’s patience. His eyes, black and stretched wide, had an unnatural gleam in the twilight.
An alligator hide rifle case was slung across his back, one hand holding the butt close to his flank, silencing its movement and that of his rubber waders. With his other hand he pushed aside sharp blades of grass that would have sliced into most people’s skin.
He came to the edge of the marsh island and stilled himself. Standing tall, a scarecrow overlooking a huge field of dead corn stalks, his eyes shifted to the left as theme park music began playing in the far distance. A ferris wheel stood above the fog bank, lights from several small rides glaring up at it, giving the entire fairgrounds a faint glow. The high pitched, tinny notes penetrated the thick gloom, floating along with it.
The man bared his black gums in that direction for a moment. Deep wrinkles spread from his eyes and mouth. Absently, he rubbed his ear; a twisted, misshapen scar ran right through it.
A dog barked. The man’s head turned forward in a blink, wrinkles deepening with a smile. Across the narrow channel was a large dog standing on a low wooden pier. A golden retriever. Behind the dog, on top of a hill, a dark gray mist shrouded a small mobile home. A breeze pushed out of the woods, momentarily showing a porch, a yellow light struggling to illuminate steps. A swing set, barbeque grill and trampoline were haphazardly placed in a large overgrown yard that sloped down to disappear into the high tide.
Claws ticked and scrambled over broken, failing planks. The dog barked at the water. A wave of silence spread rapidly throughout the marsh. The insects started up again. The dog’s panting could be heard clearly across the channel.
The object of the dog’s interest was three feet below the end of the pier. Sticking up like an old stump was the head of a bull alligator. The dog, unafraid, seemed to play a game familiar between the two. The barking, clawing and loud panting continued. Around the man frogs had joined the bugs, quieting after barks, as if considering how to reply and join in their game.
“Mario! Mario! Dummy. Get away from there.” A small boy materialized in the mist at the top of the yard. A screen door creaked and slammed on the trailer. He ran down to the pier, stopped and whistled, clapped his hands. “Come here, boy. Mario!”
The retriever glanced at the boy, tongue lolling. Started wagging his tail. His head swiveled back to the alligator, mouth opening, closing, tip of his tongue wiggling with each pant. He barked again, pawed the pier. Bounced up and down, darted from side to side.
The man hadn’t moved. He observed the alligator, peripherally tracking the boy and dog.
“Stupid dog! Come on. We’re not supposed to play on the pier. Mom’s gonna yell at us.” He wrung his hands, chewing on his lip.
Mario kept barking and wagging at the alligator. The boy stepped carefully onto the pier, looked over his shoulder at the trailer, then ran to the end of the pier, leaping a jagged hole. His sneakers thumped to a stop, arms encircling Mario’s neck. “Come on… What are you do-ing?” He looked down into the water. Wide-set emotionless eyes looked back at him. “Whoa! Crud! The alligator – !”
The dog turned to lick the boy, rear end wagging, and threw him from his feet. He shouted as his hands and chin banged hard on the planks. His shoes splashed in the water, legs sliding in. The alligator’s head disappeared in a swirl of black.
The man moved quickly. Grabbing the top of the rifle case he unsnapped it, slid out a crossbow and unfolded the arms, locking them. Loaded a bolt. Brought it to his shoulder, aiming through a high-powered scope at the boy’s legs.
“Mario!” All the boy’s breath burst from him in a single scream. Around the man the marsh creatures scattered into the grass or water. The boy tore at the planks with his tiny fingers, shoes thudding into the water behind him.
The dog wore a puzzled expression. He chuffed, pawed the pier in front of the boy. Then he stretched and bit the collar of the boy’s shirt, jerked and snatched him back onto the pier. The boy’s shoes cleared right as the alligator popped up under them.
“Whoa! Shoot! Whoa! WHOA!” The boy staggered, gripping his shirt, pushing at Mario until he let go.
The big dog abruptly spun and ran off the pier.
The screen door slapped shut from the trailer and a tall sandy haired woman in jeans and flip-flops walked down to the water gesturing with a hair brush. “God-damnit, Sam! Really? I told you to not play by the water, and specifically not on the pier. And your freaking clothes are wet? Get your ass in the house and get changed! You’re going to be late for the bus.” She stuck the brush in a back pocket. Whistled loudly, clapped her hands. “Mario! Let’s go, boy. Get your ass in the house! You better not be wet, too.”
Mario barked and waggled, looking at the woman. Then he bound up the yard and raced past her.
The woman turned to follow her chastened son and the man aimed the scope at her ass. His lips peeled back, blackened gums catching light that darkened them further, lines branching from the corners of his eyes blending into single deep furrows. Jeans stretched over hips, dug into buttocks at 70x.
The man’s finger caressed the weapon’s trigger.
The stump appeared in the water again. This time where the yard met the water. The dog zoomed past the woman and boy, barking up a storm.
The man tracked the alligator as it moved slowly towards the yard, crosshairs centered just behind its eyes. Mario, bounding downhill, tongue lolling in a toothy smile, barked his I’m-a-Good-Dog-Let’s-Play bark. As he came to a sudden stop, the man brought the crossbow up slightly and shot the dog in the front leg.
Gravity and momentum were against the big dog. He pitched over into the bayou.
The stump vanished. The dog never surfaced.
The splash made Sam and the woman stop and turn around. They didn’t see Mario. The woman frowned severely. The boy looked alarmed. When Mario didn’t respond to his name being called Sam ran back to the pier. The woman followed, flip-flops slapping hard against her feet.
The man took aim at her chest, shirt straining against her swaying breasts. His finger moved faster, though still gently, over the trigger.
“Well, where the hell is he?” The woman planted her feet, fists on hips. “Mario!” She demanded for Sam to find his dog and get his ass to the bus stop, wet clothes and all.
Sam, completely bewildered, looked from the pier to the water. Looked at his mom and shrugged. He squinted at the woods. Leaned over and peered intently through the fog, at the marsh across the channel.
He gasped and jerked upright. A sob caught in his throat as his eyes moved back to the pier. To the water.
He turned toward his mom. “The alligator, Mom. The alligator!”
“The alligator? What about the alligator?” The woman muttered “Shit” and walked down next to Sam. Frowned at the water. Her eyebrows lifted. She put a hand to her mouth. She almost said, But that old ‘gator and Mario are friends… But Sam knew better, and so did she.
Sam took a deep, sharp breath and let out a wail that pierced deep into the bayou.
The heavy fog began lifting. A fresh breeze billowed Sam’s wet pants as he clung to his mother’s leg, sobbing.
The man’s smile broadened to a full grin, tiny pinpoints of light refracting from his jet eyes and gums. One eye closed and he looked through the scope once more. A dry suction emitted from his throat, tongue pressing into his top gum, unsticking.
Carnival music, louder now that the fog was lifting, tinkled on the breeze as the man studied the woman’s backside again. She bent over to pick up her crying son and carried him up to the porch.
The heron stalked through the flooded marsh, eyes intent on movement below the muddy surface. Beak aimed like a javelin. It stopped, poised to strike. Patient.
Well you get down the fiddle and you get down the bow
Kick off your shoes and you throw them on the floor
Dance in the kitchen ’till the morning light…
I wake, angels or demons flashing on my lids. I know not which… The dead float off on dark waters like sullen guests after a Saturday night dance at Bubba Tidoman’s back yard parley with the bow and fiddle played by the Devil himself. My mind is swimming out of that moonshine veil of paradise into the real world, where I smell burnt toast and rotten eggs being stir fried, along with ham and grits on an open griddle that must be Jezebel Montieth’s, my shack up partner’s, morning wakeup call; and I realize I’m in hell not heaven, rubbing the sandbars out of my shanked eyes.
“Oh, Jeze, dearest,” I say, slightly mocking me Old Man’s style. “What you fixing that’s so deliciously scrummy, dear.” She’s looking askance at me, a cigarette dangling down out of the corner of her split lip, her snotty-nosed kid wrapped around her legs in my Red & Blue & Gray Confederate towel with her thumb stuck in her mouth like something I want even mention. I say nothing more. I know better.
She continues looking at me not saying a blasted thing till the toast is scorched black as my Truck. She seems oblivious to such issues as burnt toast, and rotten eggs at this point, her eyes blank as spades, and her cheeks puffing away at that cigarette like she was the last train from hell and I was her next victim.
I get up, shake my sorry ass legs out the wrong side of the bed, step on either a box of crunching cereal; or even worse, bird shit for her fucking parrot, below my skinny feet. I roll over and slide back to the other side, reaching for my smokes and lighter, and take a swig of what’s left on the nightstand; some rotgut piss juice I was drinking last night instead of my usual moon shine and whiskey combo, then I fire up that sulfurous delight in nicotine that warms my lungs with black death. I smile at the bitch with a big grin like it was the last one she’d ever see from me, which hopefully it will be.
“Hun, would you mind handing me the morning paper,” I say so sweetly. She continues looking at me, blankly. Not saying a fucking word. I think she’s either pissed, or stoned cold drugged out of her gourd; or both… at this point all I can figure is I better get the hell out of dodge.
I move to the edge of the bed, pull on my jeans, grab my dirty shirt hanging on the wooden chair, snare my boots and dirty socks from down below, and then slide on past the accident of her morning effete as I wink and smile into her pitch black eyes. She doesn’t move her body one iota, but turns her neck rotating it like that wind-up doll on the old exorcist movie; but luckily not backwards, but forwards, following me around I pass her toward the front of the trailer.
Finally, she speaks: “Where you going?”
Ah, the sweetness of that voice… “I got to meet Clay down at the Garage, Sweety,” I say with that sugary bullshit I hate, and she loves: “We have a job to do on that ole Caddy of John Sitwell’s.” Except this time she’s not buying my crap.
“You’re not going fucking nowhere till you fix that commode, moron,” She says, parenthetically.
Emphasizing my goal to leave the trailer, I give her that big hands up, the ones that say, “Oh, sure, baby, you know me, I’m own it like yesterday.”
I can see she’s not buying that ticket either, shouting at me: “If you don’t get your ass in gear, boy, and do something around this crummy joint, then don’t expect me to be here when you get back.”
I think to myself, “Finally, I’m going to get rid of the bag lady, for good… never wanted her or kids anyway. She can’t even fry bacon, for crying out loud.” All the time I’m smiling, placating, looking at her like I’m hurt that she’s laid a low blow on me, trying to charm her and disarm her with the ole “but baby” routine: “But sugar plum, you know you don’t mean that,” I feint, but she cuts me off at the pass…
“Don’t you fucking say it,” She’s frowning now, holding that pan of rotten food up like she’s about to use it on me like a gun.
So instead of saying another word I look from her to the door, where the kid has just gone out and left wide open. “Now’s my chance,” I think… I dash out the door, and hear the squelch and pop of grease froth surging behind me, following me out as I tumble forward end over end, holding onto my britches, boots, and hat, sprawling and tumbling, till I sit up in the dust, turn back and she’s at the door with a big pot of coffee in her right hand, about ready to chase me down and pour that boiling acid all over me. I get up and make a dive into my old Chevy truck, slam that sucker into neutral, pop the clutch, pitch back the driver’s door and run it till I can let that clutch go, and zing —we’re off to the races… the engine fire’s up, I hop in, and like a sling shot I’m on my way.
I look in the rear-view mirror and realize the dust devils I see in the fumes behind me, like shadows floating there in the sun’s mote, remind me of that portal nightmare world I woke from this morning into this daytime world… driving onward I wonder to myself, which one is which…
On slow days Lester shot things. It was good practice for busy days when he shot things.
He didn’t want violence today, he just wanted to make a sale. When he was done he’d go home wanting Alana, but she wouldn’t be there tonight. He didn’t think much had changed between them but she’d sure stormed out. Like it was permanent, not like when she’d left him before.
He circled the area where he was willing to park until at last he found a large enough space. The Buick was stolen, his license plates provided by people he almost trusted. The name on the registration matched the name on the driver’s license in his wallet. A wallet he’d throw in the sewer once this deal was done.
Lester stepped out of the car and his coat slid open enough to reveal the Glock .40 on his hip. In case the Glock didn’t keep trouble away, Lester carried a Colt .45 in a shoulder holster and a Beretta Tomcat on his ankle. Crime prevention.
He didn’t know who he was meeting on the sidewalk, only that it would be someone Dorst sent. Dorst. That motherfucker was all over his life, not in a good way. But he was paying for a lot of product, at least he said he’d pay. Lester had a lot on his mind. Not so much that he’d trust Dorst.
The street was busy and cars moved slow. Lester didn’t like waiting. He could fake patience, he was a practical man, but the longer he waited the more he expected to shoot whoever showed up.
It was supposed to be a simple exchange. Lester would walk away with a suitcase of money, the buyer would take the suitcase in the trunk. The car had served its purpose.
“It’s not about Dorst.” Alana faced Lester from the open front door of their house, her back to the outside world. Lester stood five feet away, empty glass in hand. “I went to him,” she said, “when you were fucking around with I don’t know who, but I’m not leaving you for him. I’m just leaving.”
“Where?” He wanted to shout but she’d already left, his voice weak as he clung to the glass in his hand.
Lester blinked, got back in the Buick. Had to stop thinking about her, was stupid to wait outside where he was an easy target. He felt like shooting himself for leaving the car in the first place. He sat in the car and waited.
A couple more minutes and a car across the street left its parking space. A few cars drove past the empty space, then a Nissan stopped next to it, waited until the cars behind it went around, then pulled forward and paralleled back into the space. Lester tensed and his hand moved to the grip of his Glock. The lane the Nissan had been in once again filled. Its driver paused for traffic to pass. Lester’s eyes slid side to side in case someone else approached.
When the car had parked a thick-armed man in a snug black t-shirt got out, a suitcase in his left hand. The man with the suitcase looked both ways but the cars weren’t stopping. A slight break and he stepped into the street. The first car stopped. The car in the next lane braked hard. Its horn blared. The man with the suitcase stopped in front of it, turned and glared at the driver. The horn stopped and the man resumed crossing.
He made it to Lester’s side of the street. From halfway down the block he took steady strides in Lester’s direction. Lester got out of the Buick, watched the man with the suitcase and stepped onto the sidewalk, faced him.
The man’s skin was dark, his features Saudi or African, Lester didn’t care. Except about the contents of the suitcase and the gun the man probably carried. The man ten feet away, Lester spoke. “You from Dorst?”
The man nodded.
“Put the suitcase down,” Lester said. “Open it.”
The man laid the suitcase on the sidewalk. No one else walked here, the usual for this block. Drivers on the crowded street, their views of the sidewalk blocked by parked cars, drove on. The man popped the suitcase open, lifted the lid so Lester could see inside.
“Step back,” Lester said.
The man took two steps back.
Lester slid his coat open wide enough to show the Glock. “Way the fuck back.”
The man stepped back farther. Lester pulled the Glock, aimed it at him, and he backed up more. Lester flipped through the rubber banded stacks of money with his left hand, picked one from the middle of the suitcase. He looked at the thick-armed man standing still, arms at his sides.
The money looked right. Lester counted the stack, multiplied it by the number of stacks. The count was right. He shut the case, watched the thick-armed man blink. Behind Lester, a car door shut. Lester shot the thick-armed man in the chest and he fell on his back.
Lester turned. A car had stopped on this side of the street but the man who got out was street side. No angle to shoot him, Lester turned back, shot at the thick-armed man’s head. The shot missed, but the man didn’t even twitch. Lester returned his attention to the street.
He crawled forward on the sidewalk, reached his right front tire and crawled under the Buick’s hood.
Someone stood in the street to Lester’s left. In range, but he could only shoot a leg. There was a Honda parked in front of the Buick. The man ran in front of it and ducked down.
Lester crawled in the street next to the Buick. Cars honked at him. The hiding man stayed low. All Lester could see was his shoes and the bottoms of his black slacks.
Lester knelt around the front fender and fired in the man’s general direction. The man stood and shot back. He was short and wide. Lester fired again, caught him in one shoulder. The man fell.
Lester opened his door fast and got behind the Buick’s wheel. The key was in the ignition. He turned it, hoped the man he’d just shot stayed down. Hoped the car that dropped him off didn’t come back. His head low, Lester stuck his pistol out the door and fired. No response. He got out, dropped to the ground, fired again and made his way to the trunk.
He opened it and removed the suitcase of smack. There were sirens now. The cars in the street sat still, no one visible inside them, windows rolled up. Lester holstered his Glock, grabbed the suitcase of money from the sidewalk and ran, a suitcase in each hand. He rounded the first corner then slowed to a fast walk.
The sidewalk was empty, good for making time. And thinking about what he’d do next, but that wasn’t where his thoughts ran.
“I don’t care if there’s other women any more.” Alana in the living room then, shortly before walking out. “It’s the way you live, what you do. The shape you got in. Not just your body, all of you.” She didn’t yell, just stepped away, like she dared him to do something.
Lester approached the Camry he’d parked an hour earlier. He dropped the wallet into the gutter and kicked it through an open sewer grate.
Inside the Camry he dropped both suitcases on the passenger seat floor, started the engine and pulled away from the curb. Left hand on the wheel, Glock in his right, on his lap. He had one bit of business left with Dorst. There wouldn’t be a deal this time. Dorst was a dead man, but if Alana was with him? Lester didn’t know how busy this day might get.
The stale stench of weed should have been enough of a warning when Gail had first looked around the flat. She’d always hated that smell, it reminded her of the dried in urine on her drunken father’s trousers when he’d occasionally return from the pub to get money or sleep before heading back out. She hadn’t liked living with that smell then and she wouldn’t like living with this one either. She should have listened to her gut, and not rented the place. But it was so cheap and she wasn’t exactly flush with cash – so she took it.
What she’d saved in rent, she probably spent in scented candles, joss sticks and plug in air fresheners. She’d got the landlord’s permission to paint the place. It wasn’t just the smell she couldn’t live with – she couldn’t bare the nicotine yellow ceilings and skirting boards either. She’d made what she could of a very basic studio apartment, kept fresh flowers and put up curtains with a floral pattern and tie backs. Throw cushions printed with affirmations made her hand-me-down sofa look a little more girly.
She was happy here – or she had been until now.
The knock at the door had been heavy. Urgent. She’d ignored it at first. But they’d knocked again, for longer and heavier still. Gail didn’t know anyone in town and didn’t want to answer the door, but then what if one of the neighbours was in trouble? She didn’t know them but Gail held a kind heart. She’d passed a young girl with a baby in the corridors a few times on her way home from work – what if the baby was ill and they needed to get to the hospital? And there was an old man who she was sure lived alone on the ground floor, maybe he had some emergency that needed attention.
Before Gail had the door fully open it was pushed from outside and two men burst in. Their clothes were made of cheap materials and bore the labels of designer brands in large print. She caught sight of gold watches and chains as they rushed at her and started yelling.
“Where is he? Where the fuck is he?” Yelled one of the intruders.
The other grabbed Gail by the hair and dragged her back into the flat before she’d had a chance to respond.
The first man continued to yell his accent an affected cockney learnt from low budget movies. He kept repeating his initial question.
“Where’s who?” Gail managed to sob through pained tears. Her head throbbed from being dragged across the floor.
“You’re boyfriend. He’s had a grand’s worth of gear off of us and we haven’t seen him in over a month. So were the fuck is the prick hiding.”
“I… I live alone,” Gail sobbed, “I only moved in two weeks ago.”
The man that had pulled Gail by the hair slapped her across the face. She felt her cheek welt from the blow.
“Don’t give us that shit, you know where he is.” He yelled.
Gail sobbed. She had no idea who it was they were looking for, but whoever had rented this place before her had clearly screwed over some very nasty people – and now she was going to pay for it.
She flinched as she saw him raise his hand again. Braced for the blow she looked away. But it never came. She looked back to see the first man holding the other’s hand back.
“Hang on a minute mate, she might be telling the truth. Have a look around, there’s no way that scrote lives here, it’s too nice now. Looks like the fucker’s done a bunk.”
As they looked around and the realisation sunk in to both men Gail sobbed, it wasn’t quite relief, more shock at the world she’d stumbled into.
“Sorry about that, love.” The man that had struck Gail said. He leaned down to try to help her up. She lashed his hand away wildly.
“Just get out!” she screamed.
“Alright love, chill out, it was an honest mistake.” The first man said, as if he’d taken the wrong trolley in the supermarket. He reached into his pocket and dropped a bunch of crumpled fifty-pound notes on the floor next to her. “For your trouble.”
The next day Gail didn’t go to work. She got straight onto the estate agent, she didn’t care how much more she’d have to pay, she wasn’t staying here.
Hoyt looked out the passenger side window of Culley’s Dodge Neon and did not recognize the world passing by. This profound disconnect existed between the world as he imagined it should be and the reality as it presented itself. He could have blamed this detachment on the dirty dime he served behind the razor blade wire of the bloody Bilt, a sentence he earned for being Cullman County’s greatest meth manufacturer and also for shooting a kid’s ear off with a .22, but, truthfully, he believed he’d been on the outside of everything since his rotten birth.
Lately, his malaise had come to be personified by a certain neighborhood hipster pedaling the backroads on a fixed gear bicycle. This fella cultivated a ridiculous mustache and wore a funny hat that wasn’t quite a fedora. Hoyt had seen these hats for sale at many a Hindu-operated gas station, these dusty oddities usually hanging above and to the right of the cash register. Every time he bought a pack of smokes, he’d glance at the hats and feel those tendrils of hipster aggression uncoiling in the deepest, darkest section of his brain.
At least now he knew there existed a target to hone in on, a jackass with a comically large mustache jutting off his face and little stick legs propelling a clownish yellow bicycle. Hoyt didn’t know the fella’s name, but he believed if he could just stomp the guy’s head into the concrete one real good time, he could somehow make peace with his shitty life.
Hoyt shared his idea with his colleague in criminality, and, of course, Culley had something negative to say. “Whatcha gonna do? Beat this kid to death because he looks like an asshole? Jesus Christ, Hoyt, where would it end? Mass Murder? Stay outta Wal-Mart, that’s my best advice to you. There’d be no end to the asses you’d feel compelled to kick.”
“I’m not saying I gotta beat down everybody, Culley. Pay attention. I’m saying one dude. One goofy fucking mustache. One pair horned-rimmed glasses. One stupid ass hat. See how I feel once I beat him half-dead; go from there.”
“That’s just silly.”
“It’s not for you. It’s for me. I don’t give a shit what’s silly to you.”
Then why’d you bring it up to me? Culley thought that oughta be the next logical thing to say, but he decided to just keep his mouth shut. Hoyt was clearly working through some anger issues and despite a tenuous friendship which managed to last half their lives, Culley knew that Hoyt could become plum unpredictable when the overwhelming urge to hand out ass-whuppings told hold of him.
“You want to put in my David Allen Coe cassette? That usually gets me feeling better about things,” Culley offered.
“Yeah, it wouldn’t hurt none to hear some ‘Long-haired Redneck’, I guess. You know the ladies use to say I looked like Merle Haggard.”
“I don’t see it.”
“Back in the day. Before Biltmore Prison.”
“Still don’t see it. Sure they weren’t saying ‘pure haggard’.”
“Why the fuck they say that? You even know what Merle Haggard looked like?”
“More or less. You do look country, though. I give you that.”
If Hoyt resembled anyone, it was Culley. Culley was a bit taller, Hoyt a tad broader across the shoulders. Culley’s teeth outnumbered the gray, rock bottom remainders in Hoyt’s yap. Hoyt’s hair was thicker, his eyes somewhat more crazed. The tattoos bunched heavily along Hoyt’s arms, whereas Culley kept his tattoos placed more strategically, a howling wolf on his shoulder, a grim reaper on his forearm. Their dirty jeans could have been purchased from the same thrift store rack, their work boots from the same Wal-Mart shelf. Hoyt’s Somewhere in Time T-shirt and Culley’s Can I Play With Madness T-shirt were both give to them by the Reverend Eddie Vacuum who bought his Iron Maiden shirts in bulk from some sketchy fella out of Scottsboro who thrived on copyright infringement.
“Leave them hipsters alone. I think a shot of leg would go a long way toward setting you right,” Culley said.
“What the hell you know?” Hoyt said, hoping to just kill the conversation so he could get back to staring out the window, listen to some David Allen Coe, and think of all the women who never called him by his name, either.
“We got an invite to see Eddie Vacuum’s band play the Hair Metal Symposium this Saturday night at the Hog Palace. Bound to be some trashy women there who don’t care about their lives enough to say no to coming home with us. Big hair. Painted on jeans. Knee high boots. If that don’t put a smile on that fucked-up face, there’s no hope for you.”
Hoyt’s jaw muscles trembled like tumblers falling into place.
Culley watched him out of the corner of his eye, but a smile never did appear on Hoyt’s fucked-up face.
Culley went back to concentrating on his driving just as a newer model Mustang shot past his Neon. Though he had the gas pedal mashed to the floorboard doing a respectable sixty miles per hour, the douche bag piloted Mustang made him look as though he were driving in reverse.
“You know who I hate?” Culley said. “Dipshit douchebags wearing backward flat brim ball caps with fashion symbols on them. And jackassy beards that look like they’ve been smeared with shit because the dumbass is past forty and trying to hide the gray.”
“And then they drive Mustangs.”
“Yep. And then they drive Mustangs.”
“We need to make some money if we’re gonna make any headway at the Hog Palace Hair Metal Symposium,” Hoyt said. “Some real money. Not confederate flag selling money.”
“They’re hiring at the Wal-Mart,” Culley offered, lips twisted in a grim smile. “Third shift, janitoring.”
“I’m not White Lion when I say I wouldn’t mind putting the White Snake to some of these Twisted Sisters,” Culley said, grinning like a jackal at the way he incorporated old hair metal band names into his verbal repertoire.
Hoyt, who’d been hearing this bullshit since Culley picked him up an hour ago was less than amused. The Hog Palace was living up to its name tonight. Most of the women present for tonight’s battle of the hair metal cover bands were shamefully obese or woefully old or both or they just weren’t interested in engaging Hoyt in conversation.
The Reverend Eddie Vacuum, friend of the family and owner/proprietor of the local fringe church/thrift store/professional wrestling megaplex, found Culley’s wit exceptionally hilarious. “These Cycle Sluts From Hell are Treat-ing us like a bunch of Ugly Kid Joes,” The Reverend added. “I’m like Enuff Z’Nuff already. Give my Great White a chance to Kingdom Come in your Faster Pussycat. Know what I’m saying?” Eddie glanced quickly over both shoulders, making sure his wife Charlotte was out of ear shot.
Culley’s hair metal knowledge was a bit more limited than the Reverend who actually fronted a band performing tonight. He thought he caught some of the references based on the hard emphasis Eddie put on certain words. “I hear you. I ain’t Def Leppard.”
“Both of you, shut the fuck up, before I Saigon Kick you both in the Blind Melons,” Hoyt said.
“Blind Melon’s not hair metal,” Eddie said. “They’re not metal at all, actually. Kinda mellow. Folksy. Like them, though. Very underrated band, especially the second album. Shannon Hoon is still missed.”
“You need to pay more attention to the shut the fuck up part of what I said,” Hoyt warned.
He glanced around the venue with eyes that would vaporize ninety percent of the people in attendance if he could. This was life for Hoyt. Every trip outside his house trailer upped his anger quotient. But he felt the desperate urge to fuck, and every moment the ladies refused to flock to his genitals, the greater the desire to punch faces became.
Culley monitored his friend’s fading humor through a series of sidelong glances. Hoyt had been getting edgy lately. He knew Hoyt was hurting for money. None of their criminal activities had panned out lately, and Hoyt’s talk of shaking down some area meth manufacturers made him nervous. Culley didn’t relish a career collecting Wal-Mart shopping carts; he really didn’t like the prospect of catching a shotgun blast to the face compliments of some crank crazed dixie mafia motherfucker.
Hoyt tended to disregard consequences. Culley just wanted to make it through the evening with some telephone numbers and at least one Vixen he could get his Hanoi Rocks off with.
While Hoyt sulked, Culley circulated. The Hog Palace usually catered to a more shitkickery clientele. Its dance floor was large enough to sustain an army of two-stepping jackasses who found profundity in the lyrics of Luke Bryant anthems. Strangely enough, the area had undergone a transition of sorts. There developed a sudden proliferation of hair metal cover bands celebrating the glam rock of the mid to late eighties, and the Hog Palace began focusing on an entirely different style of mullet.
The lady patrons who ultimately approved or disapproved of these night club aesthetics with this presence showed up in Aqua Net drenched droves. Their nightclub wardrobes switched from tight denim and boots to tight denim and boots. A little extra fishnet here and there. Tim McGraw concert tees discarded in favor of Ozzy Osbourne.
Culley moved among them, smiling, struggling for meaningful eye contact. The witty conversational skills he impressed Eddie and Hoyt with earlier abandoned him now. He couldn’t even recall the name of one god damn glam rock band’s name at one point when he tried explaining to one half ass decent-looking brunette the fun game he hand his friends played, working band’s names into casual conversation and how he excelled at it.
Hoyt wasn’t at the bar five seconds before he found someone to focus his rage upon. The man bun and scraggly beard were all reason enough to despise the man. What really put Hoyt’s teeth on edge were the Dream Theatre T-shirt he wore and the incredibly intricate vaping instrument the dude sucked on intermittently, commenting to no one in particular how mellow the Fresh Island Infusion tasted. “Pineapple and coconut with champagne infused blueberries with just a subtle hint of lime garnish.”
Hoyt enabled the jackass to make the mistake of commenting on the vape’s flavor by standing near him at the bar when he ordered his Coors. He reacted to the fella’s conversational gambit by knocking over his microbrew with his elbow. The comic skeleton on the beer’s label made quarter turns in either direction like a gut-shot victim as beer gurgled from the neck. The Dream Theatre fan made a show of securing his vaping instrument in a sophisticated fanny pack before addressing the fallen beer. By then, Hoyt was on his way back to Culley and Eddie who greeted him with lopsided grins and diminishing hopes.
“What did that Ratt do to Warrant such an Extreme reaction?” Culley asked, getting his mojo back.
“I didn’t like him,” Hoyt said.
“The band that just played all those Slaughter covers was Carnage,” Eddie Vacuum said, hoping to mollify Hoyt with some shop talk.
“They gave me a fucking headache with all that screeching,” Hoyt said.
“The lead singer, Wyatt, is a friend of mine. He’s stopped by the church a time or two. Took communion. Sung a few Iron Maiden hymns. The girls love him.”
“I think he sucks.”
“Hoyt, do you even listen to any glam rock? Hair metal?”
“Sure. Sure. Metallica. Some Megadeth. Dio, back in the day. Foreigner.”
“Hmmm… Well, you might like this next band, Gentle Ruckus. They do some pretty awesome Quiet Riot covers. So good, you’ll see. The actual drummer of the real Quiet Riot wanted to join their band, but, you know, the singer’s brother plays the drums, and you don’t cross family, even if it means having an in on the carnival circuit.”
Credit due, the singer did possess a very pretty head of hair. Very Farrah Fawcettian. He thanked the crowd for coming, announced their name a highly detailed back story of how Quiet Riot’s drummer really wanted to join his band and how he had to gently let down one of his childhood idols. The singer introduced himself yet again, Zeke Zydeco, a name which sounded suspect to Hoyt, and Gentle Ruckus launched into “The Wild and the Young”.
The audience who were far from youthful and no longer particularly feral, screamed to drown out the shoddy sound system.
Hoyt caught Culley’s eye. Culley immediately telepathed Hoyt’s thoughts, an experience akin to walking through toxic mist. My head hurts and I want to beat somebody to death.
Culley shrugged. The band sounded pretty good and the ladies looked like they were loosening up a little bit. Maybe he could integrate himself among them, mention how he use to play a little bass. Sure, he’d never played an instrument in his life, but Eddie Vacuum would back his play. He’d use the excuse of chronic tendonitis in his wrists if any of the ladies called for a demonstration… and had a bass guitar handy. Unlikely as that scenario might be, Culley’s luck dictated a high probability of this bullshit occurring.
Hoyt turned his back, walked toward the door as he shook out a cigarette. Since his prison stint, Hoyt found himself increasingly anxious among crowds. Too many moving pieces, here, too many banging heads. Even the Reverend Eddie Vacuum was getting his skullet swaying in time with the music.
Outside, Hoyt lit a cigarette. He exhaled a plume of smoke into the crisp night air and felt himself begin to relax, the muscles in his chest loosen. His headache began to dissipate, the constricted blood vessels in his scalp he could imagine opening up, a feeling akin to cutting the blue wire two seconds before the nuclear bomb detonates.
He walked toward the side courtyard of the Hog Palace. The area was dark and isolated since most of the smokers congregated in the rear with the tokers. He set his beer down on a picnic table and finished his smoke and lit another. The music, muffled as it was, sounded all right. They were playing “Love’s a Bitch.” Hoyt knew this because Zeke Zydeco was one of those jackasses who the need to introduce every fucking song as if it were new to earth.
Hoyt was just beginning to feel human again, or at least backing away from the cusp of mass murder, when he heard someone say “there’s the man of the hour” and just knew it was directed at him.
Hoyt didn’t recognize the voice, but knew the figure stepping out of the shadow by size. 6’6, three hundred pounds. Lank, greasy hair, protruding forehead, jaw like an anchor, the same Live After Death T-shirt he wore the first and only time he met the massive bastard.
“Moon Slice or Moon Dog or whatever the fuck you call yourself.”
“Moon Pie. Cause when people ask me how I got so big, I tell ‘em I eat a lot of Moon Pies.”
“Good thing they don’t ask you how you got to be so goddam ugly,” Hoyt said, flicking away his cigarette distastefully. “Folks be calling you Dick Suck.”
“You a funny motherfucker,” Moon Pie wasn’t smiling. “The Reverend said you a funny motherfucker. What you think, Bubala? He a funny motherfucker?”
Bubala stood half a foot shorter than his friend. In the dim illumination put forth by the Christmas lights strung across the courtyard, Bubala looked instantly familiar though until now they’d never been introduced by name.
“Oh, he’s a motherfucker. I don’t’ know so much about funny.”
The red bandana Bubala wore didn’t come close to obscuring the medical bandages swathed around his head. His left eye was still so red you’d think he could squirt blood if he winked real hard. He wore a Scorpions T-shirt under the black leather vest festooned with Invaders insignia.
“All them bandages of your head, I imagine it takes some time for my jokes to sink in.” Hoyt tried keeping it funny, scanning the darkness for the silhouettes of any more Invaders, specifically a certain little red-headed sausage-fingered dwarf who trucked with these motorcycle gang wannabes.
“You’re referring to the knock I took upside the head. I’m guessing you wouldn’t know anything about some bushwhacking son of a bitch who’d club a man half to death and steal every last goddam Confederate flag within a half mile radius of his fallen body, would you?”
Funny he should ask that. Little less than two weeks ago, Hoyt and Culley knocked out a couple Invaders with lead pipes before stealing enough Dixie flags to overflow a Dodge Neon. When they hocked the flags at Reverend Eddie’s thrift store, the entire score netted the duo a cool twenty dollars.
“Sounds like something them Southside niggers would do,” Hoyt said.
Culley had spray painted BLACK POWER on the cinderblock wall of the Invaders’ hang out. It was a subterfuge Hoyt doubted had the desired effect on the gang’s psyche considering Moon Pie, newly baptized into Reverend Eddie’s fucked up faith, had been hanging around the store recently.
“That was my first thought, honestly. But them ghetto clowns know better than to fuck with us.” Bubala slapped the large AB emblem tattooed on his forearm.
“So what’s that got to do with anything?”
“So what?” Hoyt showed his SB tattoo amidst the swirls of ink coloring his arm. “Southern Brotherhood. For folks who truly hate niggers, rather than just tolerate them.”
“Tolerate? Who tolerates jigs?”
“You do, jackass. Aryan Brotherhood, friends of niggers for long as I can remember.” Hoyt had to laugh.
This Bubala joker was throwing off some serious bitch vibes. He stood there, exaggerating his butt hurt sentiments to a homosexual degree, flexing his steroid swollen muscles, narrowing his eyes, grinding his teeth, shifting his weight from one foot to the other as if he were going to do anything other than stand there and take the insults.
Moon Pie stood stock still as a totem pole. Only his eyes moved between Hoyt and Bubala.
“You do not know what the fuck you are talking about.” In his building rage, Bubala took the time to enunciate his words perfectly.
“Sure I do. Those AB boys, they’re pretty all inclusive these days. Doing my dirty dime at the bloody Bilt, I seen Aryan Brotherhood playing checkers with niggers, lifting weights with niggers, sharing sissies with niggers. In fact, you can always tell when the Aryan Brotherhood’s getting anxious, they got black dicks hanging out their mouths.”
“You’re so full of shit,” Bubala spat. “Where’d you do your bit?”
Hoyt looked at him with a mixture of pity and disdain he normally reserved for Jeff Gordon fans. “Ten years at the Biltmore Federal Penitentiary.”
“I guess that makes you think you’re a tought motherfucker, doesn’t it? ‘A dirty dime at the bloody Bilt’ he says, like that means something to me. I did two months at Huntsville Correctional. I’ll tell you what I hated more than anything is trying to make grilled cheeses in the cell. I hate how that prison cheese don’t melt; it just blackens and burns.”
“Cheese?” Hoyt blurted. “I got stabbed fourteen fucking times.” He pulled up his shirt revealing the scarred, mottled mess of flesh stretched along his left side from the top of his ribcage down to his waist. “This was from the second race riot while I was there. The one the Aryan Brotherhood decided to sit out of. The one that was so bad it got every prison system in the entire fucking state locked down. I was going toe-to-toe with this fire plug-looking nigger and he was blasting me in the side. I’m wearing out his head, but every time he hits me in the ribs it feels like bombs are going out cause he’s shivving the shit outta me.”
“I’m gonna stop you right there,” Bubala said. “Cause I don’t give a shit what happened to you in prison, you ain’t smart enough not to get your ass shanked nightly, whatever. It doesn’t give you the right to steal our Confederate flags the day before our first annual Invaders Ride for the Freedom to Celebrate our Southern Heritage. We had to ride our bikes passing around a couple of goddam Dixie hankies Goat Fucker Udee had stuffed in the bottom of his sock drawer.”
“What’s going on out here?”
Culley and Eddie came around the corner, their cigarettes glowing like two red Marlboro eyes.
They caught Bubala’s attention just long enough for Hoyt to step forward and punch him right in the bandaged head. Bubala made a strange “gurk” sound and dropped to the ground unconscious.
Hoyt balled his fists and stared up into Moon Pie’s jack o’lantern-looking mug. “You got a problem with what I just done?”
Moon Pie glanced at the Reverend Eddie Vacuum. Eddie shook his head, no. Moon Pie repeated the gesture. “Not unless you killed him,” Moon Pie added as if to prove some level of autonomy remained to him.
Hoyt wasn’t exactly sure. He toed the Invader and got a slight groan out of him.
“Christ,” Culley said. “You have to hit him so hard?”
“Didn’t have time to wrap my fist in padding to make you happy,” Hoyt said.
“Yeah, but couldn’t you just hold back a little. Never mind, there any more of these fuckers running around here?”
Hoyt shrugged. Culley stared at Moon Pie.”
“Don’t look at me,” Moon Pie growled. “He’s just an acquaintance. I ain’t responsible for what he does, who he runs with.”
“You two looked pretty chummy when it was just the three of us out here.”
“You were shooting your mouth off at him. Any man’s gonna defend himself. I didn’t side with either one of you dummies.”
“All right. All right. He’s just an acquaintance,” Culley said. “Then you won’t mind if I do this.” Culley grabbed the Invaders vest and peeled it from Bubala.
“Then you won’t mind if I do this,” Hoyt added, reaching into Bubala’s back pocket and withdrawing the man’s wallet.
“That’s pretty sorry,” Moon Pie said.
“He ought not to have fucked with me. Now he ain’t got no wallet.”
“As much as I want you guys to see me own the band with my band, The Reverend Eddie Vacuum and the Powerslaves,” Eddie said. “It’d probably be best you guys get the fuck out before this poor bastard wakes up, or dies, or someone finds him.”
“The Invaders are gonna find out this Motley Crue is Every Mother’s Nightmare after we Stryper’d a few more asses,” Culley grinned.
“Seriously,” Eddie grimaced. “Up the irons. And get the fuck outta here.”
On the way home, Hoyt sitting in the Neon’s passenger seat, he took out the driver’s license from the stolen wallet. “Joe Bubala. I know where you live, now. Maybe I oughta send you a thank you note for the eighty bucks you donated to the Southern Brotherhood cause.”
“Eighty bucks, huh?”
“And he gets to go back to his boyfriends and explain why he don’t have a sassy leather vest no more. How’d you do?”
“I got a phone number. Girl named Natalie gave me her number. And it’s her real number, too. I dialed it right there standing in front of her.”
“Yeah. Only problem is I got two days learn how to play the bass guitar.”
It’s been about a year since Dave the Marketing Director told me I was out of a job, that I wasn’t going to make it out of my probationary period at Northeast Health Care. I can still see that smug piece of shit with his frat-boy haircut, sitting behind his desk toying nervously with a pen, his little piggy eyes darting between my open HR file, his computer monitor and the clock on the wall. That cocksucker didn’t even have the guts to look me in the eye when he told me.
“I’m just not convinced that you’re keeping our brand values top of mind,” he said.
I didn’t bother to argue. It had been abundantly clear for some time now that the prick had made up his mind weeks ago. I never had a chance. I handed over my ID, packed up my shit while a security guard watched, and got escorted out of the building.
That night I killed a bottle of rye. In the morning I slept in while the wife went to work. That afternoon I filed for unemployment and started looking for another gig.
They say unemployment’s down, that the economy’s recovered, but it sure as fuck hasn’t recovered for me. Dozens of applications sent out, all my connections around town tapped and retapped, and nothing to show for it but a handful of interviews that went exactly nowhere once the jerkoff behind the desk figured out I was on the wrong side of 50.
Over the next few months, the booze never seemed to run out but the health insurance did and the unemployment checks stopped coming a month or so after that. The wife kicked me out a few weeks later. I don’t blame her. Truth be told, she could do a lot better than me. I’m just surprised it took her so long to realize it for herself.
I got a room in some fleabag up on Munjoy Hill and that’s where I’ve been ever since, drinking hard and trying to stay relevant.
The idea had been growing in my mind for a while.
I think it had always been there, in some form or another, since the day I got canned but I can’t say for sure when it first took hold and blossomed into something more – sometime after the soft pillow of despair gave way to crystalline shards of anger, I guess.
Eventually, things got to the point where I spent more time thinking about it than I did not thinking about it. I dreamed about it at night and my mind continually drifted toward it during the day, an oasis of calm in a growing hurricane of rage – wiping that smug fucking look off Dave’s face once and for all. Bringing as much fear and anguish to him as he’d brought to me.
But ever so slowly, so I could enjoy every minute of it and he would know deep in whatever pile of shit he had for a soul that he had fucked with the wrong guy.
The only question was, how?
They say that when God closes a door, he opens a window and I guess that must be the case because a few nights ago, I ran into Eddie down at Sangillo’s. We had a few and got to talking. He opened his leather and showed me a piece. Said it was clean. Untraceable. And that I could have it for $100.
On Thursdays, like clockwork, Dave worked late to, “get his ducks in a row,” for a standing breakfast meeting with the executive team the next morning. So that night I filled my hip flask with some shitty bourbon and packed my old Converse bag with a flash light, a roll of duct tape, some zip ties and the piece I got off of Eddie, fully loaded. I took the bus over to Northeast and in the growing darkness, I drank whisky and watched as my former colleagues went home, one by one, until only Dave’s Volvo SUV was left in the lot.
Soon enough, out he came, cell phone pressed to his ear and talking loudly.
“Absolutely, Larry. That’s definitely top-of-mind messaging, but you can’t make a chicken salad out of chicken shit, am I right? I mean, is this the hill we want to die on? My thought is, let’s not go there now. Let’s buy a ticket and go there later … right. Okay. Fair enough. See you in the morning.”
Dave ended the call and got behind the wheel, still staring at the screen in his hand. He never even knew I was there until I slid into the passenger seat next to him.
He jumped in his seat when I slammed the door. He started to say something but I cuffed him hard on the back of the head and told him to shut the fuck up. He started to flap his gums again, so I showed him the gun. That shut him up.
I told him to take a left out of the lot and make a right on Washington. When we passed the Cumby’s I had him head out Presumpscott.
After a few minutes, he asked where we were going. He was trying to play it cool, but I could hear the fear in his voice. I smiled and told him to shut the fuck up or we’d pull over and I’d put a bullet in his head right here on the side of the road.
I took a pull off the flask and flicked on the radio just in time to hear ol’ Zach Martin roll into a double shot of REO Speed wagon on ‘BLM.
“You a classic rock guy, Dave? Of course you are. That’s fucking perfect. Who’s your favorite band? You know what? Never mind. I really don’t fucking care. Take a left.”
We pulled into Quarry Run – ten acres of forest and field with a few miles of trails winding through what used to be Portland’s dump. This time of night it was deserted.
We got out of the car and it began to rain.
I clicked on the flashlight, making sure Dave got a good long look at the gun. I told him that if he tried anything, anything at all, I’d drop him right here like a rabid dog. I made him kneel and zip-tied his wrists together, making sure I tightened that shit up as hard as I could. Then I duct-taped his mouth.
I think that up until that point, Dave had been able to successfully tell himself that I was just trying to put the fear of God into him, but when the duct tape closed over his mouth and wrapped tight around his head, he must’ve realized that shit was getting real. He started begging and pleading, his eyes wild with fear, trying to talk his way out of what he surely knew was coming – at least, that’s what it sounded like. It’s hard to tell what someone’s saying when his mouth is taped shut.
I motioned with the gun.
“Get up. Let’s go. You first, shit stain.”
We crested the hill and I pushed him off the path into the woods. He stumbled but kept his feet. In front of a large rock, I told him to stop.
“Take a good look around, asshole. This is where the magic happens.”
I put a round into his knee and the left leg of his khakis exploded in a mist of blood and bone. He fell to the ground hard, his screams muted by the duct tape over his mouth. He tried to press his hands to the wound to stop the bleeding, but the zip ties made that difficult, I guess.
“How’s that feel, Dave? Does that exceed expectations, you fucking cocksucker?”
He whimpered and I kicked him in the face, hard. His head snapped back and bounced off the rock.
“I dunno, Dave. I think we need a deeper dive on this.”
I squeezed off another round and a little puff of feathers shot into the air as the slug passed through his down vest and bit into his shoulder. He screamed again, but not as loud this time.
“How’s that working for you, Dave? I’m giving you a chance to be pro-active here, but I’m thinking we just need to go ahead and pull the trigger on this.”
I shot him again, in the other shoulder this time, and took another drink from the flask.
“I don’t hear a single, Dave. We really need to pick a lane here and just bowl on it.”
I fired again.
I put the gun in my pocket and pulled him off the ground, leaning him up against a tree. He’d lost a lot of blood and he was most definitely in shock.
“Stay with me, Dave. Stay with me, you prick. I need you to own this project.”
I poured the last of my bourbon over his head and slapped his face a couple of times.
“Jesus, Dave. You’re a fucking mess. Well, we’re almost done here. I know it’s a shit sandwich, but we all gotta take a bite, right?
I pulled the gun from my pocket and held it up in front of his face.
“There’s just one more thing I want you to keep top of mind, Dave.”
I stepped back and pulled the trigger. The top of his head erupted in spray of blood and brain, and Dave’s lifeless body slumped to the ground.
Now, I may not be the smartest man in the room but I sure as fuck know my ass from my elbow and by my count, I’d put five slugs into him. That left one round for me.
Because at the end of the day, it is what it is.
“Go back to sleep” he says to her. He is sitting on the end of the bed, the stoplight down the road flashing yellow caution through the broken blinds. His head is in his hands. The snub nose perched between his knees.
“I can’t,” she says from behind him. She’s tried turning over a couple times It does nothing. It is dark in here. The heat is stifling and sweat crawls on her skin like fingers. She doesn’t want to look at him. Never again. She stares at the ceiling and chases shadows.
“Just try,” he says.
He sighs. Shoots a glance back at her. Her bright silver eyes glare back at him like a tiger in the jungle brush. He says nothing. She says nothing. He looks down at the gun tucked in his knees. She scoffs She shakes her head and tries closing her eyes knowing damn well it won’t help for shit.
She opens them again and sighs. He thinks she’s being overdramatic. He’s smart and says nothing. He blames her mood on the heat. It can do crazy things to you sometimes. Happens to everybody. It’s understandable. Just be patient and drink your water and wait. They can keep moving tomorrow.
“They’re coming for us aren’t they,” she asks in that scared-little-girl voice that makes the hair on the back of his neck flare up. He doesn’t breathe less the stutter in his heart show. Doesn’t look back less he have to look her in the eyes again.
“We’ve been runnin for a long time, baby,” he says. “Runnin fast and not lookin back.”
She scoffs again. He doesn’t believe a word he says either.
“You were fucktard enough to check in under your real name.”
“They asked for my ID,” he begs her, “what’d you expect me to do?”
“Maybe check in under mine since I’m not the one they’re after?”
“What good would that do,” he snaps. “They know you’re with me.”
She makes that irritated noise again and throws the sheet off her legs and her feet bang on the floor and she runs over to the lamp in the corner of the room.
He stands up. He gets between her and the lamp like a bouncer.
“Are you fucking crazy?” he hisses. “What if they’re trying to find our room? We gotta be quiet.”
The shadow slashes her as she steps out. The sweat dotting her pale face and the brown hair pulled back and the thin lips and the wild fiery eyes make him take a step back.
“I don’t give a shit anymore,” she says and lunges at him. He sidesteps her and she slams into the wall and keeps banging her fists into it as he runs over to try calming her.
“I want out,” she starts screaming. “I want outta here. Now.”
“We’re bailin in the morning.”
Her nostrils flair and a hair pulled back in the ponytail pops off one by one like a string breaking.
“We can’t leave tonight,” he reminds the woman again and steps up to her like the fool she is. “They’ll be lookin for us on the roads.”
“What the fuck’s the point in hidin out when all we’re doing is wastin time and blowin all the money we got. They ain’t lookin fo’ me, anyway,” she says with the sarcasm dripping through her teeth, “it’s you they’re after.”
“We can’t drive in twelve hour shifts anymore. We’ll wreck out. You know that.”
She spits at him. Nothing comes out. The fire comes over him. She looks away with that fucking grin on her face and he tries to control himself. Better cool it before he snaps again. That quick trigger wasn’t never good for him.
Gravel outside the window crunches and a motor gets closer. He stops in his tracks and she does too as the headlights creep towards them and the brakes squeak as it stops in the parking an inch from the window. He holds up a hand to shut her up and she is already sitting up with the sheet between her teeth. No sound between them save chopped breathing.
The lights never turn off. They shine right through the blinds that cut across him in piss yellow light and bleak shadow. His shadow fills half the room. He moves an inch at a time and it crawls on the walls like a spider. He shuffles across the carpet and lunges down and grabs the gun and cocks it back. Pull the hammer forward, open the chamber. Six bullets?
No. Five. They’re running because one bullet went into the wrong man.
The gun’s at his side and his pointer slips in and out of the guard. No time to psych himself up. He has to pretend he’s ready to kill a man again in order to protect himself. And what little he has fucking left.
The headlights have been on too long. The motor doesn’t hide the footsteps crunching on sand from the office down on the left to the passenger side of the truck. She gasps again and he wants to put a pillow on her face to shut her up for good.
He doesn’t. No time. The steps have stopped. They’re listening. They start again. They’re coming for the two of them.
“Let’s go,” she whispers and he shushes her with the steel in his eyes.
“Let’s go I said,” she repeats louder.
He ignores her and steps closer to the door. The feet are on the other side. Those aren’t cop boots. No radio chatter. Only a spit to the side that rustles the bush leaves.
“Is that them?” she asks without restraint. She stands up and he shoots her another look telling the woman to shut the fuck up. His heart pounds in his ears. There’s a snear crawli ng on her lips.
The thug on the other side of the door says nothing.
Key in the lock. Slow turn left. He runs forward to put the chain up. The gun drops to the floor. The key stops turning. The door starts to open and he slams into it hoping something gets caught between the door and the frame. They kept fighting. Push in, push out. Chain rattles between the track ends and he manages to jam it in and run back and he dives to the floor for the gun.
He lands on floor cold and empty. Her foot slashes his head and his nose shatters and blood patters on the carpet and another one hits his jaw and he’s taken worse beatings than this so he tries to fight and get up and scream at her that he knew she was in on this but the gun explodes in her hands and the round hits his shoulder and it burns and he rolls in agony.
The world is going silent and he fades. He doesn’t try to stop the bleeding. He doesn’t ask why. He knows she’d been planning this for a while. Just let me die, he thinks. Just let it all go away. I’ve done all I can. Just let me go in peace.
It’s been a hell of a two weeks. He killed a man because he deserved it and he thought justice was still a thing in this world.
He rolls over to face them, his blood soaking in a pool beneath him and mixing with the sweat stuck on his skin making him feel cold. He cranes his neck up to see the thug’s face but gets nothing but tennis shoes, blue jeans and a khaki jacket with white gloved hands in the pockets.
“I’m sorry it took so long,” she says in a way the girl hadn’t talked to him in so long, “I thought he’d snap by now.”
The voice is deep. Drawls.
“He got a chance?” it asks.
“I got him good.”
“Good. Wannme to finish?”
“No,” she says, and he feels her staring down at him. “Leave him. Let’s git.”
He laughs from the floor. He can’t stop. She borrows the thug’s gun and pops another round, aiming for his head, hitting the collar bone on the other side. The blood coats his teeth and he keeps going. He tries to say something to her; a goodbye, a thank you, an I-Loved-You, but he gives up and just keeps laughing.
She spits on the floor and the two walk out and the door slams on him. He tries to sit up and collapses back on the pool. Tries crawling to just to see if he can and he’s too weak.
He is laughing when his end comes. Bitch couldn’t shoot for shit.
He made his money during the early 2000s when Fishtown was making a turn. Gerald Rivers was there to scoop up what he could. Young professionals, hipsters and later on millennials were appearing on the narrow streets and along Frankford and Girard Avenue. Rivers bought up all he could and sat on most, rented out what he could. By 2010 Rivers had flipped all his residential real estate at almost triple the price he paid for it. He began buying on the commercial strip where coffee shops, bakeries, vegetarian restaurants and hipster pubs opened up. He flew under the radar as other big buyers made splashes about their talents developing old city neighborhoods. Rivers preferred to be in the background although he was known in certain circles as realtor, speculator. In others he was known as a skirt chasing cocaine sniffing egotist. The one thing Gerald Rivers didn’t realize during his money making days was his age. He was now 16 years older than when he began his business dealings. 52 in Fishtown was a lot different than being 36. His other problem was he would hit on any woman in a skirt no matter the age and was horrified when a twenty something asked him bluntly how many grandchildren he had. The change came to him one night at Johnny Brenda’s when he bought drinks for a group of ladies, he waved at them when in unison they all said “thank you Pappy”.
Caroline Peterson had her eye on Gerald Rivers for some time. She had come out of a bad marriage, obtained her real estate license and worked for a small broker. Some of her girlfriends told her stories of Rivers, his condo on the river, his cocaine habit, how wealthy he was. Caroline considered herself different from the others. She came out of her marriage hardened not needy. In her early forties she knew she had a brief period of time to make some money and land a man she could take advantage of. She knew how to dress, spent her free time at the gym, hardened her body as she had her mind, wore her hair in a bun although when set free it hung down to her waist. Caroline was at Johnny Brenda’s the night Rivers was called “Pappy” and made sure he noticed her laughing at his stunned look. The following morning she made sure to bump into him at his favorite coffee shop and did so for the next two weeks until Rivers made his approach. She smiled at him the first time he attempted to speak to her and left the shop. Caroline made a habit out of wearing short skirts and low cut tops with just the right pair of heels. She would sit at the first high top table and cross her legs. Rivers would come in and order his coffee and without fail come over to speak with her. After his fourth attempt she engaged him. He was charming asking what she did for a living and what her hobbies were. Rivers was impressed she was in real estate telling her he dabbled a bit here and there. He asked her out on a date and she politely declined. That evening she arranged to be at Rivers favorite restaurant, arrived at five and took a table in the corner. Like clockwork he arrived at five-thirty and immediately noticed Caroline. He walked to her table and asked if he could join her as he sat down. Caroline smiled at him. They each spoke of their lives and ambitions and Caroline of course told him she was newly single and desired to get involved with a decent man. Rivers told her he just might be that guy. Caroline was spinning her web and Rivers didn’t notice, he was enthralled with her. Over the next two months they dated, went to theater, five star restaurants and not once did Rivers even get to third base. Caroline noticed Rivers wasn’t snorting cocaine although he drank a bit too much.
The moon was full in the summer sky; there was just enough humidity in the air to cause Sean Forks to break out in a sweat. It took him over four years to admit to himself that he had been a bad husband. He often thought back to telling his ex she was too fat, her hair was shabby and her clothes disgustingly tight on her. There was nothing she could do that was good enough and when he got drunk he slapped her around. Sean stood along the river at Penn’s Landing breathing in the warm air thinking of what an idiot he was and still is. The last time he slapped her around she broke out a baseball bat and cracked his ribs. Within an hour she had moved out all of her stuff and he hadn’t talked to her since. Their divorce was uncontested, she didn’t ask for anything. Over the last month Sean Forks had been stalking his ex-wife who was in fact stalking a rich realtor. Unlike Sean, Caroline has transitioned to a full dating relationship and now the guy was chasing after her. Sean had noticed a woman everywhere he went while on his stalking detail, she was always lurking in the background. Every so often she would enter a restaurant and sit in the back watching the couple.
It was a Tuesday evening at seven o’clock and like the clock Caroline and her realtor arrived at El Rey on Chestnut Street. He noticed the woman standing at the Dunkin Donuts. Sean decided to walk over and talk to her.
“I’m Sean, I’ve seen you around a bit.”
“I noticed you around.”
“So what brings you here?”
“I’m hunting a pig!”
Sean looked her over. She had long blond hair, green eyes, and an excellent figure. He took her for a rich girl by the designer pocket book she had slung over her shoulder.
“So who’s the pig?”
“A creepy old guy like you! All I want is to get him alone but he’s always with that glamour chick!”
“Hey I’m not a creep!”
“What else do you call a guy who walks up and talks to someone he doesn’t know?”
“I think we have something in common.”
“What the fuck would that be?”
“Your pig is dating my ex-wife.”
“Isn’t that something? We’re both loser stalkers!”
“So why do you want to get him alone?”
“He dated me for a month, he degraded me, had his way and when he was done told me to get lost, treated me like a fucking whore!”
“So what do you want to do to him?”
“I wanna blow his brains out! What do you think of that?”
“A little drastic I think.”
“Drastic? That fucker gave me the clap!”
“So what did the princess do to you?”
“She broke my ribs and left me.”
“That’s pretty cool.”
“No one deserves that!”
“You look like an abuser, she probably waited too long to kick your ass!”
“I wasn’t a good husband. I’ve changed.”
“So you think she’ll take you back?”
“No. I just want to say I’m sorry.”
“She doesn’t care.”
“Good advice from you. Your stalking a guy, call me names and you want to blow his brains out!”
“At least I’m not a whinny bitch like you.”
“You didn’t tell me your name.”
“Well Monica, I thought about you being in all the places I was and figured you were doing the same thing I was. I have an idea.”
“And how aren’t you a creep? You have a plan for me?”
“I was thinking instead of you lurking out here or hiding in the back of the joint we could go in together.”
“So let me get this right. You are asking me on a date so that we can stalk our exes together?”
“I just thought we could both get this over with and I don’t think you need to shoot him.”
“What’s your plan?”
“Let’s go in like a couple, grab a booth across from them. They always sit in a booth. We can act like a couple and I’ll pretend to notice Caroline and take you over to introduce you. After I apologize to her you can have your say with him.”
Monica and Sean entered El Rey and were seated at a booth directly across from Caroline and Rivers. Monica leaned to the middle of the table and called Sean to her, he leaned across and she kissed him full on the lips. When they leaned back Sean noticed Caroline was staring at him. He stood up and walked over to the table.
“Hi Caroline. I just wanted to tell you I was sorry.”
He waved at Monica to come over.
“Leave me alone. I don’t care. I wish I never met you scumbag.”
Monica walked over as Caroline told her to run as far away as she could from Sean. He was a wife beater and a drunk.
“Really? Did you know your rich boyfriend has VD! He gave me the clap!”
Gerald Rivers looked at Monica.
“Who are you?”
“I’m the girl you fucked for a month, gave the clap and dumped me like I was nothing! You don’t remember me?”
“Well there were so many back in the day. Now that I think of it, you’re that crazy chick!”
“You’re a fucker you are! I ought to blow your brains out!”
Sean and Monica were tossed out of El Rey. They went to Dunkin Donuts and had coffee.
Caroline and Gerald left the restaurant. Caroline told him she was getting a cab, not to call her until he could prove he didn’t have any VD and was not HIV positive. If he didn’t do that he shouldn’t call her ever again.
“So if I do that you’ll sleep with me?
“Go get a test asshole!”
With that Caroline grabbed a cab and went home. Sean and Monica went their separate ways after they chatted and finished their coffee. Neither of them asked for the others phone number. Gerald Rivers went home to his condo on the river. He felt he wasted over a month and half on a chick who would never sleep with him. He drank a few beers and went to bed.
A few months passed as Sean made his way through the twelve steps of life. After his apology he moved on with his life. It was autumn and the city streets came alive with vibrant colors of trees. He had been dating a woman in the Northeast section of the city and the two of them enjoyed the great park areas of the Northeast. On Sundays they would go to the Quaker Diner for breakfast. On this October Sunday they sat by the large screen television. KYW news was on and it quickly caught Sean’s attention.
“Early this morning a Fishtown realtor was stabbed to death in front of Johnny Brenda’s. Police believe it to be a domestic violence case and they have one male in custody.”
Sean looked at the crowd shot. Leaning against a light pole with a huge smile on her face was Monica.
“The latest information from police is that a jealous boyfriend attacked the realtor. More to follow later in the report.”
Sean and his girlfriend finished their breakfast and headed off to Burholme Park for a walk in the West Woodlands.
The American sailor lay on his back. Naked from the waist down on the bed. The Japanese couple entered the hotel room. The woman was dressed neatly in robes. The man was dressed shabbily with unkempt hair on his face. It was hard to tell his age, probably considerably older than the woman. She gently placed her satchel on a chair, then pulled off her robe and undergarment.
No words were spoken as she crawled up on the sailor and sat on his erection. She lifted her hips, up and down, waiting for signs that her work was done. Tears began to stream down the cheeks of the Japanese man who turned away slightly but was watching out of the corner of his eye.
The sailor moaned and closed his eyes.
The woman climbed off him and dressed herself. Her male companion continued to face away but he was wiping his eyes with a cloth.
The sailor spoke in Japanese to tell the woman that the money was under the book on the dresser. He added in English, “Tell your man he can’t come back if he cries.”
She lifted the book and counted the bills carefully before folding them in her hand. The crying man opened the door and the two visitors padded into the hallway.
No pimp would cry in front of his trick. The sailor figured he was her husband or her father. He didn’t care. He hated the Japanese. Seven years ago, he had spent the last months of The War as a prisoner on an island far south of this one. His crew had been tortured for meaningless information. Guards killed most of his buddies to keep the burden of prisoners down to a manageable number. Killed in morbid extended rituals for the amusement of the warriors of Nippon.
There was some daylight left and the sailor needed to go out to the restaurant. He hoped to walk back to the hotel before dark. The slums between the hotel and the restaurant made him nervous. This was Japan and he was playing against tricky people on their own court.
He had jumped ship, a freighter going on further west, and couldn’t afford to get caught without papers. He was already at some risk by staying at a hotel that advertised to Americans. A thorough search of his hotel room would turn up his reason for coming to Nippon. That would mean years in a prison. He needed passage on board a ship headed back across the Pacific. But first he had to hand over the reason for his trip to Japan.
Someone would contact him at a certain restaurant during his evening meal and take the treasured relic off his hands.
The sailor sat at the same table at the restaurant for three nights in a row, against the wall in a back corner where the ceiling hung low. He ordered the same meal. He washed it down with one cup of sake. The place was dimly lit.
On the fourth evening in the restaurant, a well dressed older Japanese man and teen-age boy seated themselves next to his table under the low ceiling. Japanese diners usually gave him wide berth when selecting a table. He understood that foreigners were considered dirty by the Japanese.
The man and the boy were served a small bowl of lumpy sauce inadequate for the large bowl of rice that arrived shortly after they sat down.
The sailor heard something hit the worn bamboo floor. Something small. The boy bent over and retrieved a figurine and placed it on the sailor’s table. He said something. The sailor knew enough Japanese to understand that the boy was asking him if the figurine belonged to him.
The sailor picked up the item and looked at it with calculated nonchalance.
He could see that it was a replica of the treasure hidden back in his hotel room. It was a netsuke of the same size and shape as the reason for his journey, but the color was different. The carved turtle that the boy placed on his table had less fine features than the sailor’s smuggled netsuke which was white with a light brown coloring at the edges, stained dark in the intricate parts. A high priced artefact.
His instructions were to handoff the netsuke to the person in Japan who showed him a matching turtle. The smuggled netsuke was carved from a wooly mammoth tusk and more than a couple of hundred years old, part of an original collection of five netsuke created to secure the sash of a long dead Japanese prince. It was the last missing netsuke of a royal set. This piece would recomplete a collection which had been smuggled out of Japan during the occupation at the end of the War. Now, one by one, all five pieces had returned to Japan.
The sailor handed the signal facsimile back to the boy. He told the pair that he would return for dinner tomorrow evening and show them a netsuke much like the one that the boy had found on the floor. The sailor paused and waited to be sure that the two understood the meaning of his Japanese.
“Yes, okay,” the young man said handing the imitation netsuke back to the old man.
The next afternoon, the sailor walked to the wharf a few blocks away. He found a ship that looked like it was leaving soon. The crew of a Mitsui freighter, the Daigen Maru, was busy bringing sacks of rice aboard from a truck. The sailor chatted with the crewmen and found that the ship was leaving for Seattle in three days with a load of raw silk and rubber picked up in Hong Kong. The sailor found the mate in charge and booked on as a passenger. He got a chit for his deposit and departed the docks for the restaurant.
Back in Seattle, the sailor was to collect the back end of his payment for this job. The amount was much larger than Migaki had ever paid him but well deserved. The sailor had to jump a ship’s crew and hide out in Japan without proper papers in order to deliver a national treasure. Migaki told him the Japanese authorities suspected the netsuke was coming to the homeland soon.
The payday would buy the sailor his dream, an old seiner docked in Seattle. He intended to fish up and down on the west coast of Alaska. The boat’s owner had fallen to cancer. His widow was selling cheap. The sailor had made the down payment using all his savings. Migaki’s payment was nearly sufficient to finish purchasing the boat. The sailor would need a little luck to dig up the remainder. He thought he might have figured out a way to be lucky.
He arrived early at the restaurant.
The old Japanese man and the lad came in and sat at the table next to him.
The sailor pushed his food aside and extended his arms out on the table with palms up. The valuable ivory netsuke was in his left hand.
The boy rose and stepped to the sailor’s table. The kid pulled out his imitation netsuke and set it on the table. Then he reached for the original but the sailor closed his hand before the boy could pick up the valuable piece of ivory.
The young man swiveled his head to look at the older man then back at the sailor.
The sailor advised that he wanted a specific amount of yen in exchange for the netsuke in his closed hand.
The boy spoke in a crisp tone, “Mr. Migaki has received our payment.”
The sailor was free-lancing for an out-of-contract bonus that didn’t involve Migaki. The sailor repeatedly curled his fingertips of his unlocked hand to make his point clear.
In a quick motion, the boy raised a thin bladed dagger above his head then drove the blade down penetrating the open palm of the sailor’s hand. The point stuck into the wood table top beneath. The blade anchored the sailor’s hand in its place on the table top. Blood squirted from around the puncture.
The sailor froze a moment before he opened his other hand to grip the dagger handle that had been abandoned by the teen-age boy. The old ivory netsuke dropped out onto the table top. The boy snatched it up and followed the older man who was already making his way to a back door.
The sailor shut his eyes and tugged on the knife grip with his free hand. After wiggling the handle back and forth, he was able to pull the blade from the wood table top and his hand. The pain made him gurgle but he did not scream out.
No one in the restaurant had seen the incident. The sailor wrapped his bleeding hand with a cloth napkin. An American with a bloody hand would be of interest to the locals. He was feeling weak but placed his wounded hand in the pocket of his wool coat and made an effort to walk normally out of the restaurant. He leaned against a wall outside in the street. He forced himself to continue the walk. The sailor crossed back and forth on the street in order to stay in the shadows as he stumbled back to the hotel. He rested a moment outside the door before entering.
The sailor stopped at the front desk and asked the clerk to send someone to help him at his room.
Back in the room, he flopped on the hotel bed and breathed long and deep.
After some time there was a knock at the door.
The sailor rose and slowly pulled the door ajar. It was the hooker and her old man.
“You need help, please?”
The sailor realized that the desk clerk had misunderstood his request, “help” did not mean sex. He waived off the woman, then reconsidered. He called out for her to return. She shuffled inside leaving her man in the hall. The sailor unwrapped his hand to show her the wound. She furrowed her eyebrows but did not react otherwise.
The sailor conveyed his need for antiseptic and some wrap. She opened the door and spoke some orders to the old man who stepped quickly down the hall.
She shut the door and took the sailor over to a table. The hooker pulled a cloth and bottle of water from her satchel. She washed the puncture and applied a dark red ointment to the wound holes. Her fingers pushed the stuff into the holes with sufficient pressure to make the sailor cry out.
A knock at the door. The old man came in carrying a bundle of gauze. The hooker wrapped the damaged hand. The sailor pulled out a pint of whiskey from his back pocket and drank the bottle to half empty.
The sailor asked the hooker to return the following night, with more bandage. She agreed. He held out a handful of yen. She took it, bowed and left the room.
The hand festered and swelled up over the next several hours. When the hooker came again, the hand was mottled with dark spots.
She gasped at the sight of the hand without the bandage. She was silent for a moment before telling the sailor what he already suspected. The infection in his hand would kill him.
The mariner wasn’t sure if he could walk the six blocks to where the Daigen Maru was docked. He hoped for a medic on board the ship. He was afraid to go to a clinic. Papers might be required.
The hooker spoke a couple of very fast sentences to the old man. He nodded.
She pointed to her man and said, “Jinriksha”.
“Him?” the sailor nodded at the old man.
The Japanese man raised his hand as if to volunteer.
The hooker quoted a price. It was more than a fat tourist and his wife would be bilked for a rickshaw ride, but the sailor took the deal. He didn’t dare to bring any more attention to himself outside on the street.
“Half now, half at the ship,” he told the hooker who received his down payment and led the old man into the hallway. She told the sailor to go to wait in front of the hotel. The door shut behind her.
The sailor packed his duffel. His clothes were packed around the collection of gears he had purchased from a shop on the dock here in Japan. His new boat needed these parts.
He gripped is duffel with his good hand and walked past the front desk into the narrow street. After a few moments, the hooker’s old man pulled up with well used rickshaw. The sailor stepped up and sat on the hard seat with his duffle bag on his lap. The whiskey bottle was empty and his hand was exploding with pain. Six blocks was a long bumpy ride on cobblestones.
The old man took a route that stayed on dark unpopulated streets. When they got to the freighter, the sailor stepped down from the rickshaw and handed some yen to the Japanese man. The old man didn’t say anything. He turned and trotted off into the night. The sailor swung his duffel over his shoulder and inserted his damaged hand into his coat pocket. He bit his lip to distract from the pain and walked on board the freighter.
The sailor noted that the ship was older than he had first deemed but seemed to be tight and tidy. He made his way to the bunk room and found the man to whom he had paid the money for passage. He asked if the ship had a medic. The crewman shook his head from side to side. The sailor pulled out his wrapped hand. A dark fluid was soaking through the bandage. The crewman opened his eyes wide and nodded affirmatively. He trotted off. The sailor rolled onto a bunk. He held his wounded hand by the wrist and waited. It would not be his hand much longer.
After an hour, a new man came in the room and asked the sailor for a look at his wound. After some observation, he told the sailor that the hand required amputation. The sailor pointed at the hand then at the man. The new man refused the task until the sailor pulled out a bundle of yen and waived it under his nose. A deal was struck.
The new man had served in a Japanese field hospital during the war. He was experienced at amputation. That lucky fact might save the patient’s life.
The American sailor’s disdain for the Japanese didn’t suspend for this medic. The Asian was filthy and smelled of old sweat mixed with the stench of whatever it was these people ate. The dark signs of gangrene were plainly showing in his swollen hand. It hurt like hell. He was sure that the hooker had poisoned the wound or the young man in the restaurant had contaminated his dagger blade. But it didn’t matter now.
The medic had only a small scalpel in his bag of tricks, nothing that would cut through a wrist bone. He left the room for the ship’s work bench and took down a hack saw. He removed the blade and ran it up and down in a bottle of iodine. After washing his hands with the same iodine, he reinstalled the blade and returned to his patient with the hack saw hidden in a paper sleeve.
The sailor was laid out on the crew’s dining table. The medic began a drip of chloroform falling into a cloth placed on the sailor’s face. After the sailor passed out, the medic signaled his mate to take over the chloroform drip. When his hands were free, the medic placed a rope noose around the wrist of the gangrenous hand. He jerked it tight. A third crew member pinned the sailor’s arm down on the table. The medic used the scalpel to cut away tissue down to the bones. Then he began sawing. He paused his stroking back and forth in order to check the patient’s pulse. The strokes resumed at the same steady pace but quickened just before the hand detached.
The medic cauterized the end of the stump with the red hot blade of a knife heated with a torch. He moved quickly with efficiency that comes from experience. The stench of burnt flesh was heavy in the room. The medic was soaked in perspiration and dotted with blood and bits of human bone on his face and clothing.
After the amputation, the medic fed the patient some stupefying drug. The sailor was dazed for the next 24 hours. He came out of his stupor on the morning the Daigen Maru was about to pull away from the dock.
The rain had ceased and the sun shone through the window hatch. The sailor sat up on the side of his bunk. The bleeding had stopped but the bandage was yellow with draining fluids.
He thought about his one-handed future. He was a proud man. The sailor meant to be the feared captain of his own fishing boat. But he would also be the bosun, a stacker and at times, the only deck hand when the skiff man was out tending the nets. He’d be a deck hand with one hand. A joke. The sailor’s dream suddenly seemed far-fetched. He had been a fool. A fool was not worthy to captain a ship, even a fishing boat.
He stood up and gently eased into his coat. The sailor buttoned the coat all the way up to his neck using the fingers of his remaining hand. He pushed his feet into his boots and grabbed the duffel before kicking the door open and walking out onto the ship’s deck. He stood against the railing and looked back through the mist at the mountains of Honshu, dark and shadowy in clinging fog.
Then the sailor who hated the people of this land, immersed himself in Japanese tradition for just a moment. He raised the duffel to his chest and closed his good arm tightly around the heavy bag before plunging feet first overboard. He did not cry out during the fall nor resist his entry into water. The splash was shaded by the adjacent freighter. There was underway noise and crew was too busy minding the departure of the ship to have noticed. It would not have mattered anyway. He couldn’t be saved. The sailor sunk quickly, propelled downward by his missing hand.
“Why was Father Christmas upset when he got a sweater for Christmas?”
“Because he was hoping for a screamer or a moaner.”
Clive Clayhill laughs gutturally, then offers me a nasty grin – his rotten teeth are the same colour as Elaine’s gravy. I push my empty plate away and scuff my chair back on the faded linoleum, feeling strangely nauseated.
That’s what happens when you buy your Christmas crackers in the fucking Sex Shop…
It is Christmas day, and Clive is the only other guest staying at The Swanson. He is a spectacularly ugly man, even by local standards. His skull looks like a used roll-on deodorant – stray hairs plastered across the pale skin.
I spent last Christmas in prison, so this place is a genuine step up for me. No one got me a present this year, but when I checked in, I found two pairs of mouldy crotch-less panties stuffed behind the radiator and a tube of genital wart cream in the bathroom cabinet.
The Swanson used to be a hot-sheets hotel, and briefly functioned as a bail hostel for paroled sex offenders. Now it is supposedly under new management. Out of season, it is just a hotel with no guests.
Elaine, the landlady, has strung up a few threadbare strands of tinsel in the TV lounge, and there is an artificial sprig of mistletoe in the lobby. I’m not sure whether the mistletoe is intended as a challenge or a threat: Elaine is half my height and twice my weight.
I often hear Clive grunting like a hog through the paper-thin walls late at night. Sometimes he cries afterwards. I guess his willpower isn’t as strong as mine.
Clive smokes in silence as I finish my beer. There is no ashtray, so he drops his high-tar cigarette in an empty Skol can on the table. He lights a second, and passes me a black and white photograph. I vaguely recognise the suits and hairstyles from my childhood, but little else seems familiar.
He gestures towards the two men – a pair of cops called Benson and Hedges– with the glowing end of his cigarette. Then he tells me that they abducted his younger sister back in 1984.
I swallow his story and it sits heavier in my gut than Elaine’s roast dinner.
Clive tells me that they are planning to snatch another girl.
I start to feel sweaty. The gauzy dining room curtains twist lightly in the winter breeze.
I ask Clive how he knows.
He tells me he has been hired as their driver.
Clive told me that Benson and Hedges like to unwind at a place they call the Clubhouse. It’s an old portakabin that has been dumped in a field adjacent to the Ocean Spray Caravan Park.
I manage to find a taxi idling next to the public toilets. The driver adds on a £10 surcharge, but doesn’t question the well-worn pick-axe handle across my lap.
I trudge across the winter mud towards the ramshackle structure. The phrase ‘Trespassers Will Be Shot’ has been painted across an old floorboard and nailed to the wall. I hope it is an idle deterrent: I have already been shot once this year, and it wasn’t pretty.
Despite the icy temperature, the door is wide open. A portable heater pumps out stale heat. Benson and Hedges are sitting on a faded leatherette couch, ties loosened, their shirts yellowed with sweat. Hedges is the larger of the two – handsome in a big-boned way, with a thick swathe of white hair spilling over his collar. Benson is thin and corpse-coloured, with stringy hair.
The portakabin smells of burnt food and stale urine. A skeletal Christmas tree leans against the back wall, like an afterthought. The two men seem to be playing snap with a deck of pornographic playing cards.
I shake the slush off my boots and tap on the doorframe with my pickaxe handle.
“Planning a Christmas party, gentlemen?”
“Who the fuck are you?”
Hedges has a gap-toothed smile and a boil the size of a billiard ball on the side of his neck.
“I’m a friend of Clive Clayhill.”
“I wouldn’t admit that in public, pal. Clive Clayhill is a junkie cat burglar with a penchant for eight-year-olds.”
I relax my sweaty grip on the pickaxe handle.
A rotten chuckle bubbles up from Benson’s withered chest.
“Out is he?”
I’m not sure how to respond, so I grunt.
“We have long memories, son. We knew Clive when he was wanking off other junkies for spare change. He has spent the last decade in Channing’s Wood. We were the ones who banged him up.”
I grunt again.
“Clayhill is a conniving little fucker – if he wants you out of the way it is for a reason.”
I suddenly feel embarrassed and shuffle out of the portakabin.
Hedges claps Benson on the shoulder.
“Well, old friend, the plot fucking thickens…”
Their diseased-sounding laughter follows me across the dead field.
I head back to The Swanson. The street is empty except for two burned-out cars, and a 12-year-old, breathing glue out of a plastic bag. The B&B sits between two weed-choked vacant lots. Last year, the body of a missing psychiatric patient was found in the condemned hotel that used to sit next door. The case made the national press. The killer was known as the Ladyscraper. You can still see scraps of faded yellow crime scene tape in the weeds, but only if you look hard enough.
The TV lounge is empty, but the boxy television set crackles with canned laughter. Men who have been dead longer than I have been alive mug for the camera. The volume has been turned up loud enough to fucking wake the cadaverous bastards up again. I yank the power cord out the wall and the screen fades to black.
I take the stairs two at a time, and bang on Elaine’s door with my clenched fist. As she opens it, her leopard-print robe falls open. She is wearing low-heeled shoes and no underwear.
Behind her, the room is empty. The only sound I can hear is that of her vibrator, throbbing idly on the bedside table.
“Changed your mind about that Christmas kiss, darlin’?”
“Where’s Clive, Elaine?”
She knots the robe and pouts. She has a thick white scar down the side of her chubby, heart-shaped face. It clashes with the freshly applied cherry-red lipstick.
“How the fuck should I know? I’m his landlady, not his fucking parole officer.”
I stomp down the corridor. The lock on my door has been popped with a screwdriver. I don’t bother checking inside. I only have one item of value.
Further down the hallway, Clive’s own door is ajar.
He is laying on his bed, smoking. Naked. The ashtray is balanced on his sickly looking chest. In the wintry half-light his face looks raw and uneven, like a badly rendered wall.
On the threadbare carpet, at the end of the bed, lies a half-deflated rubber sex doll.
On top of Clive’s chest of drawers is my £5,000 retirement fund, still wrapped in the pillow case from my old rooming house.
I drag him off the bed by his wisps of greasy hair, and he lands on his bony knees with a crack.
He holds up his hands pleadingly. He tries to say something, but my pick-axe handle caves his teeth in before he has a chance.
I want to say something smart, something threatening, but I don’t have the energy.
I retrieve the pillowcase full of cash from the sideboard, and leave Clive drooling blood on the carpet. He tries to crawl after me, so I kick him in the gut – hard enough to rupture something.
Elaine is standing in the corridor, robe open once again. The vibrator buzzes helplessly in her hand.
She tries to peer round me, but I slam the flimsy door.
I dip into the pillowcase and retrieve a £50 note. I hand it to Elaine.
“Sorry about the mess…”
I hand her another banknote and keep on walking.Fuck it.
She shouts down the hallway at me: “Merry fucking Christmas to you too…”
We did not celebrate Christmas in the house I lived in as a kid unless my old man was locked up. He was a mean drunk and he was drunk most of the time. If he was around and you were lucky enough to make it through the day without getting your ass kicked that was a gift.
One year he was doing ninety days for some drunken shit he had pulled. On Christmas morning, my mom made pancakes but she got high and burned them. Kenny and I each got two, with no butter and a splash of syrup. Some judge got in the holiday spirit and gave a bunch of prisoners from the county slam early release. My dad walked in later that day, already drunk, and found mom in the sack with his friend Billy Flynn. He carved them up like Christmas turkeys.
Kenny was two years older than me. We went into the foster system. I got lucky, Kenny didn’t. He bounced from one home to another .He went to juvie when he was 13. He spent most of the next twenty years incarcerated.
An amazing couple adopted me. Frank Carson was a doctor and his wife Maureen a stay at home mom to me and two other kids they had taken in. My first Christmas in their home was like something out of a movie. I had a stocking with my name on it above the fireplace. On Christmas morning, much to my delight, I found it stuffed with candy and little toys. Under the tree were new bikes for all of us and a baseball glove for me.
And that’s how my life went. These wonderful people taught me respect, humility and unconditional love. They told me everyone has opportunities in this life. It fell on the individual to take advantage of them. I counted my blessings and thanked God for my good fortune.
They put me through college and like my adopted dad I became a doctor. I married an incredible, beautiful woman who graced me with two wonderful kids. Our lives were close to perfect. We had a circle of friends; we were involved in our children’s lives and found time to volunteer in the community.
Then Kenny came back into my life. I was on my way home from rounds at the hospital when my wife called, asking me to pick something up. Instead of stopping at the super market, I pulled into a convenience store a few miles from home.
It was dusk. In front of the store, a small group of unkempt men all with long, greasy looking hair drank cans of beer concealed in paper bags. When I exited the store, one of them approached me as I reached my Lexus and asked for money. I reached for my wallet and he slugged me, knocking me to the pavement. He grabbed my wallet and ran.
As I unsteadily got to my feet, I saw him returning. This time there was something familiar about him.
He held my wallet, opened to my driver’s license.
“Michael, man is that you? Damn, I’m sorry, I didn’t know”
“Kenny?” I said.
“Yeah, it’s me. Been a long time. Looks like you’ve done okay little brother.”
He hugged me. He reeked of body odor, beer and cigarette smoke.
“What can I do for you Kenny? Are you using?”
He nodded his head.
“Let me get you in rehab,” I offered.
“Nah, I’m good. Guess I got the old man’s genes huh?”
Those words would haunt me.
“You could slip me a twenty if it wouldn’t be too much trouble. I could use a fix.”
I gave him two twenty’s and a ten and went home to my comfortable life.
A week later, just after dinner there was a knock on the door. When I opened it, I found Kenny. He looked worse than he had before.
“Swell place you got,” he said as he glanced around. “I’m in a bad way. Can you give me fifty?”
I did and sent him on his way.
Two days later my wife returned from a charity lunch and found our home had been broken into. Jewelry, cash and some other small items were missing. When I got home the police were there. They explained there was a heroin epidemic in the area and burglaries like this were becoming common place. When they left, I drove to the convenience store where I had first encountered Kenny. Sure enough, he was lurking in the shadows with two other men.
I motioned him over.
“Let me get you some help.”
“No man, I don’t think so. I like my fucked up life. Rather live it than that masquerade you take part in every day. You ever think maybe you forgot where you came from?”
“Look, here’s how it’s going to be you won’t get help, don’t come around my house again. Understand?”
He stared at me with a menacing glare that caused me to shiver as I drove away.
Two days before Christmas, I arrived home just after dark. No lights were on, nor was the Christmas tree. The front door was open. The house had been ransacked. Wrapping from gifts were strewn about the tree, a bottle of Scotch tipped over on the carpet.
I went from room to room calling my wife and my children. I didn’t get a response.
I found them in our bedroom, swimming in a sea of blood. My wife’s lifeless body covered my kids. She died trying to protect them.
Shock turned to rage. In the garage I had a shotgun I used for duck hunting. I sped to the store.
Kenny grinned at me. I got out of the car and by the time the gun was empty there wasn’t much left of him. Guess I inherited something from my birth father as well.
Christmas in prison isn’t that bad. Just this morning we had bacon. And pancakes- they weren’t burned and they even came with butter and as much syrup as I wanted.
The first step went unheard by all except its maker. Little more than a soft crunch as the midnight snow compressed against the roof tiles. The second, however, caused Jimmy Gibbons to stir beneath the comfort and warmth of his spaceman duvet.
Excitement raced through him. A flurry of thoughts about new toys, and treats, and games.
He sat upright in bed and listened beyond his eager heart. He didn’t have to wait long before his ears confirmed his hopes through the dark. A footstep. Loud and defined and unmistakable. Then another, followed by several more leading to where Jimmy knew they would lead.
Jimmy knew there was nothing to fear. This moment was a dream come true, and he deserved it.
He swung his legs from under his sheets and plopped them down on the soft carpet. On the tips of his toes, he crept across his room and out into the hall, taking care not to tread on the discarded toys from the previous Christmas.
He considered the door to his parents’ room but chose to let them sleep. He didn’t want to share this moment with anyone, but especially not with his younger brother who often slept in their room.
Jimmy moved toward the stairs where the warm lights from the Christmas tree cast playful shadows on the wall below. Delicate clusters of green, red, and gold beckoned Jimmy down to the living room.
As he reached the top step, a distinct rustling drifted up to him, like a racoon fumbling for vital leftovers. Jimmy froze at the sound, letting the thrill wash over him, his hand on the wooden bannister, a single foot hanging out mid-step.
Below, the festive glow dimmed as a large shape moved past the lights. Jimmy crept down, his bare toes feeling for the wood and gripping each edge until he reached the bottom.
He turned toward the living room, and his breath caught in his throat.
The creature stood on six armoured legs, each one a foul combination of joint and muscle beneath the layers of its interlocking carapace. Jimmy had seen a crab before, and he tried his best to make sense of this horror, but this was no crab. It had the torso of a four-armed man, with an oversized wolf’s head. Four menacing red ovals set deep inside its skull gleamed with bright intent as it turned toward Jimmy, repositioning its legs with grim precision over the toppled Christmas tree.
The creature snarled, exposing razor-sharp teeth.
Jimmy shook as his bladder released in a warm trickle that ran down his pyjama bottoms and pooled at his feet. The creature pulled a hessian sack from its shoulder and let it fall open. Jimmy saw blood and gore inside, and an infant’s red shoe that he thought he recognised, but before he could scream, before he could call for his father, the creature lifted him by his delicate throat and drew the sack beneath his trembling feet.
In The Kringles’ grip, Jimmy’s body folded like dry kindling. Its powerful arms made light work of snapping his bones and crushing his organs before stuffing him in the bag with the other naughty children.
Bobby Lindstrom was napping on his ratty old couch when he got the call. Whenever he talked about it later, which was often, that was how he always referred to it: “The Call.”
“Hello, who’s this?”
“It’s Bobby, Charlie. What’s up?”
“So, you know me, right? Is that who I am? ‘Charlie’?”
“Just a sec,” said Bobby. “I just woke up and either you’re talkin’ nutso or I’m still comin’ around. Now let’s start again. What’s up, Charlie?”
“How did you know it was me before I said who I was?” asked the person on the other end.
“Well, my ringtone started playing its really cheesy rendition of “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap,” the little Caller ID box said ‘Charlie,’ and ‘Bango’, I said to myself, ‘that’s Charlie.’ Have you been smokin’ somethin’ that you should have shared, ol’ buddy?”
“I just picked the first number on ‘Recent Calls’ and it said ‘Bobby.’ I’m in some kind of trouble; I don’t know who I am. I woke up and don’t know who I am or where I am.”
Bobby let that sink in for a bit before he answered. “You’re puttin’ me on, right? I think that I was right the first time: You’re at your place with Eddie smokin’ somethin’ and you guys decided it’d be fun to mess with me. How’m I doin’? Pretty close, right?”
“If this is my phone and you’re Bobby, then you must know me. But I don’t know me and I don’t know you. And another thing; sittin’ on the couch next to me is a guy who looks like me.”
“Ya mean like your brother, Tommy; he kinda looks like you.”
“No, not kinda; I mean exactly like me. Before I called I took a piss. When I looked in the mirror over the sink, I didn’t recognize my own face. But this guy next to me on the couch has that same fuckin’ face. He looks just like me.”
“Put him on,” said Bobby. “Let me talk to him.
“I don’t think he can talk. He’s just sitting there with his eyes closed.”
“Ya mean like he’s unconscious? Or like he’s dead? He ain’t dead, is he, Charlie?”
“Not dead; more like he’s not powered-up.”
“Not powered-up? Now that’s an odd thing to say….”
“What? What did you say, Bobby?”
“Nothin’, nothin’. Sit tight; I’m comin’ over there.”
“Over where?” said Charlie, his voice rising a little at the end. “I don’t even know where I am.”
“Look at the coffee table in front of the TV. Are there a lot of beer bottles and empty pizza boxes on it?”
“There’s beer bottles, but no pizza boxes. There’s some empty Chinese take-out boxes, though.”
“You’re at your place; I’ll be right there.”
It took Bobby about ten minutes to drive over to Charlie’s. When he knocked on the door, somebody answered. Bobby always says “somebody answered” when he’s telling the story.
“Hi…, um, Bobby. How are you?” the somebody asked.
Bobby nodded, and after stepping into the apartment’s small living room, he pulled up short when he saw the coffee table. The usual mess was gone and the table looked like it had been polished. There were two magazines on it that were positioned like they’d be if the table was on the cover of “House Beautiful.” The magazines, however, were cheap sex magazines; not “Good Housekeeping” or “Reader’s Digest.”
“I’m really busy right now; you can’t stay.”
“I’ll just make sure that you’re all right; you didn’t sound so good over the phone,” said Bobby.
The Somebody Charlie grabbed one of Bobby’s biceps and started to lead him to the door. When Bobby tells this story, usually at a bar with somebody else buying the drinks, he swears that this Somebody Charlie had an iron grip; there was no resisting him.
“I don’t know,” said Bobby. “You don’t seem like your old self.”
“Why, Bobby, what an odd thing to say.”
Having been ushered out into the hallway, Bobby stopped and looked back at the closed door. He tried the knob and found that the door was now locked. He knocked for a bit but nobody answered. Then from inside the apartment, he heard Charlie scream, “Bobb-eeee!”
Bobby lifted his right leg and was just about to kick in the door when he heard something hit it on the other side so hard that it loosened the woodwork. Plaster dust drifted down from the ceiling like snow. Bobby lifted his leg again but stopped when he saw blood start to seep out from under the door into the hallway. Then, as Bobby stared transfixed, leg still in the air, the blood no longer seeped, but actually flowed for a few seconds. Two teeth that were mixed into the blood sailed out from underneath the door like two tiny ships on a placid crimson ocean. Bobby slowly lowered his leg and quietly started down the hall toward the stairs.
When he got down to the street Bobby used his cell phone to call 911. “Send some cops to 1452 Elm Street right away; I think somebody’s gettin’ murdered.” The 911 operator asked him to stay on the line trying to get more details, but it wasn’t very long before Bobby could hear the wail of the sirens so he hung up. Three black and whites pulled up in the street and six officers ran up to Bobby.
“Upstairs, fourth floor, apartment 3; my friend Charlie’s in trouble. He’s either hurt real bad or maybe even dead.”
Four of the officers ran into the building with their guns drawn. The other two stayed with Bobby and started asking questions. While they were talking to him, something happened that Bobby never mentions when he’s telling the story. The cops had their backs to the building and Bobby saw himself walk out the front door, down the front walk, and then turn to go down the street. As this Somebody Bobby walked past Bobby and the two cops, he nodded and smiled at Bobby giving him an exaggerated wink. Blood was spattered all over his face and all over the white T-shirt and jeans that that Bobby had last seen Charlie wearing. The cops never missed a beat; they just kept talking to Bobby like they never even saw the Somebody Bobby.
“There’s a helluva lot of blood up there by the door, but there’s nobody in that apartment,” said one of the returning officers. “The other guys are starting with the apartments on the first floor and moving up. They should come up with something.”
“Is there a back door to this place?” asked one of the officers who had stayed with Bobby.
Bobby wanted to yell at him, “He walked right past ya, asshole!”, but instead just mumbled, “I don’t know; I don’t live here.”
The cops took Bobby downtown, listened skeptically to his story two or three times for an hour or more and finally told him not to leave town. Right then, there was nothing Bobby wanted to do more than to leave town. Something very strange had happened at Charlie’s place and he didn’t want that “something” to happen to him. Just by the action of grabbing his biceps the Somebody Charlie had been able to morph himself into Somebody Bobby.
He kept the story to himself for a couple of weeks, but gradually came to see that it could be good for a few beers and now he tells it every chance he gets. But when Bobby gets to the end of the story, he has his own reasons he doesn’t tell the part about the Somebody Bobby passing him and the two cops on the street. To him, that would be like tempting fate; jinxing himself. He ends it with the cop saying that there was nobody in Charlie’s apartment. Bobby then throws in some dialog that could have come right out of The Brothers Grimm.
“…..and I never saw my buddy, Charlie, again.”
The storm knocked out the neighborhood’s power. It was still raining the next day as Eddie and I drove through the old folk’s trailer park. Tree branches littered front yards, and the gutters overflowed with runoff and debris. The elderly residence sat under eaves on their front porches, waiting for the restoration of electricity. At the last trailer on the block an old lady sat alone in a rocking chair, knitting a quilt.
“Her,” Eddie said.
I turned the corner, and parked the van.
I first met Eddie in Juvenile Hall. He was my cellmate. Like me, his youth was spent in abusive foster homes. Eddie landed in Juvie as a result of his violent tendencies. I gained residency in the Hall for borrowing other kid’s video game consoles. I didn’t think it was a problem, but apparently appropriating something from a locked house with nobody home was a no-no.
Eddie was a massive hulking giant with an exceptionally small head, a limp and a harelip. The other kids in the Hall mocked him obsessively about his large stature, tiny head and goofy walk until he started cracking skulls. After that, nobody messed with him.
I was an average kid of normal height and build with one exception: A shock of white hair blazed across the left side of my black locks. Everybody called me Skunk and ostracized me, but it wasn’t until puberty that I really attained freak status.
Most kids have acne in adolescence, but one morning I woke up, and oozing red boils had colonized the entire surface of my face. Real estate was especially desirable on my nose. My carbuncular appearance made me the ridicule of every schoolyard I hallowed. In Juvie, Eddie stuck up for me. If my bubbly face offended some kid, Eddie offended the kid’s face with his fists. After Juvenile Hall, the plundering wens disappeared as mysteriously as they had arrived, leaving my head a pockmarked moon.
Our socially unacceptable physical appearances, and our similar experiences growing up in shitty foster homes initially bonded us while doing time together, but it was grifting that solidified our camaraderie. Released from incarceration around the same time, we split the rent on a dumpy apartment. Stealing video game cartages from Wal-Mart, and hocking them at the used video game stores was our initial source of income. We made rent with this line of work for several months until the venture ceased being lucrative. Our next endeavor entailed rolling drunks after the bars let out, and again our enterprise kept a roof overhead until Eddie got a little too rough with a drunkard one night, shattering the poor bastard’s teeth with a ball-peen hammer.
It was a rotten thing to do, but I figured nobody cared enough about an alky’s dental work to cause a stink. I was wrong. The incident made the evening news. They even broadcast sketches of the suspects. The profiles looked nothing like us. I don’t know how you screw that up because a haggard skunk and a giant with a baby’s head are sights you don’t soon forget. I attribute the misidentification to luck, but regardless of our good fortune, the gig was up, and we were forced to seek other means of gainful employment.
We sat in the van, eating a cold pizza. I didn’t like the look in Eddie’s eye, and I certainly didn’t like what he’d done to the last old lady we’d marked. I meant to have a chat with him, but I never got around to it. I finished my half of the ductile pie, and pulled a dark work cap low over my brow, obscuring my hair and face. I exited the van into the rain, wearing a denim shirt and khaki pants with a flashlight in my pocket. Eddie stayed put, washing his pizza down with a two-liter bottle of Pepsi. When I reached the old lady’s porch, the rocking chair was empty.
“Who’s there?” an old woman’s voice asked from within after I knocked on the front door.
“Electric company,” I said.
“Power’s been out all day,” the voice replied, and the door cracked as much as the chain allowed. “There was a loud crash last night, and the lights went out.”
“Lines down all over town,” I said. “I’m here to restore your juice. Can I come in?”
“You’re with the electric company?”
“Yes,” I said. “We’re going door to door.”
“I don’t know,” the voice hesitated.
“It’ll be several days to a week before we can get you back on the grid if you miss this appointment.”
“Okay,” the warbling voice said, and the door opened.
I switched on my flashlight, and entered the darkened living room. A couch and a table stacked with quilts occupied the space. There was also a recliner, and an old television set. Embroidered kitsch hung on the walls, and a framed certificate of sobriety. A musty smell lingered in the air.
“Where’s the breaker panel?” I asked, and the old woman led me down the hall to a closet.
The tiny walk-in was filled with quilts. Various intricate patterns and colors adorned the folded blankets. She removed a stack, revealing a metal box in the wall. I pointed my light at the breaker switches, and rubbed my stubbly chin.
“I’ll have your lights on in no time.”
“Oh good,” she said.
“It’s an easy fix, but it requires a fifty-dollar down payment.”
“Fifty dollars,” she said, wrinkling her brow and wringing her hands.
“Hold on,” she said, and disappeared into the bedroom. I stood still, listening to a drawer open and close. She returned with a fifty-dollar bill. I stuffed Grant into my pocket, and flipped the breakers on and off.
“Where’s your husband?” I asked.
“Passed away,” she said.
“Sorry to hear that. I left my voltmeter in the truck. I need it to check your current. Be right back.”
Normally, I’d just take the money, and move on to the next sucker, but old people don’t trust banks. They tend to keep their savings squirreled away in their homes. Not to mention, I didn’t even know what a voltmeter was, or how to use one, but I sounded like I did.
“How’d it go?” Eddie asked as I climbed into the van.
“As expected,” I said, and flashed the fifty-dollar bill. “She’s alone, and keeps her money hidden in her bedroom.”
“Dentures?” Eddie asked.
“Let’s go,” I said, ignoring the question. “She thinks I went to get a tool.”
I grabbed my loaded snub-nosed .38 from the glove compartment, and put it in my pocket. I wasn’t expecting trouble, but I wasn’t taking chances either. We exited the van, and made our way through the rain. I wished Eddie would at least try not to limp. If somebody saw us, and had to give our descriptions to the authorities, a giant with a hitch substantially drained the pool of suspects.
The door was still unlocked, so we switched on our flashlights, and entered the living room. I tried to tell the old lady I brought along a co-worker, but before I could say anything, Eddie knocked her to the floor.
Eddie was never really in it for the money. He enjoyed making people suffer. I came to this realization back when we rolled drunks. My interest was strictly financial, but Eddie delighted in blackening an eye, breaking a bone, or powdering some poor bastard’s teeth. Fortunately most old ladies we conned were toothless, but regardless, I needed to rein Eddie in before we lost another form of employment.
“Lighten up,” I said. “She’s frangible.”
“Grab the dough,” Eddie barked.
I went into the old lady’s bedroom, and pointed my flashlight at an oak dresser, removing drawers, and turning them upside down. The top ones contained clothes, and the bottom ones were filled with more colorful quilts. I rifled through everything, but found no money. I was about to check under the bed when I heard Eddie swearing.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, running back into the living room.
“She’s got an emergency alert device around her neck,” he said. “I saw her push the button. We better dip before the cops show.”
“We’re safe,” I said. “The power’s out. She can’t notify anybody.”
“I don’t like it,” Eddie said, and removed the electronic pendant from her neck. “You get the money?”
“I’m still looking,” I said, and returned to the bedroom.
I tore apart the bed, and searched under the frame, finding more quilts. I pointed the flashlight at a nightstand, and removed the drawer. I discovered a leather satchel, opened it, and hit the jackpot, locating several thick bundles of cash. I snatched the money, stashing it in my pockets as something else inside the bag caught my eye.
I trained my flashlight on an old yellowing photograph. The image was of a young boy. He looked about three years old. He had a toy ball in one hand and a water pistol in the other, and Band-Aids taped to both knees. A small streak of white hair marked the left side of his head.
I paid special attention to the boy’s facial features. His smiling eyes were completely ignorant of the horrors that lay ahead. I ran my fingers over my scarred visage, gazing at the child’s smooth complexion until a mournful sound drew my attention away from the picture.
I returned to the living room, and pointed my flashlight at Eddie. He stood over the old lady with his pants around his ankles.
“Give me a minute,” he said, looking back with a sneer.
The old lady was on the floor, crying. I drew my .38, and shot Eddie in the back of his tiny head. His massive body crumpled, and blood gushed from the wound.
I pointed the flashlight at the old lady.
“Don’t hurt me,” she said.
I pocketed the gun, and turned the flashlight onto my face, removing my ball cap, and revealing the shock of white hair against my blackened coiffure.
“Skunky-Poo?” She asked in bewilderment.
I helped her to her feet as the front door opened, and a police officer with a drawn service revolver ordered me to put up my hands, and get down on the ground. I lay on the floor, realizing the crucial mistake I’d made: the emergency alert device ran on batteries.
I had hoped to beat the rap on those home invasions, but fingerprints don’t lie. Fortunately I wasn’t charged with Eddie’s murder, or I’d be facing twenty-five to life. The judge at my trial deemed it self-defense. My return to incarceration has been hard, especially without Eddie there to protect me, but I can’t complain. It could be worse. At least I have one of mom’s hand stitched quilts to keep me warm at night in my prison cell.
In the early 1980s, in the USSR, the monstrosity that was the Soviet state had already begun to die, but it hadn’t yet started its death rattle. Among the millions of dissidents, the KGB had imprisoned an angry, slightly talented poet of little note. Ivan Ratchikakhov became an enemy of the Soviet state merely because he voiced his dislike for it.
This shouldn’t have surprised anyone. Ivan liked nothing, ever, and Ratchikakhov was a bad poet. His poetry failed to resonate with anyone, other than the very angry, and inconsolably frustrated. Among his problems was that he lacked empathy. He was unfamiliar, and thus inarticulate when trying to express human emotion of any description, except anger. He had the anger thing down pat, and in spades.
When the Soviet Union crumbled, ending the Cold War, the gulags jettisoned their dissidents, setting them loose to pursue their happiness in a new, free Russia. That presented a dual problem for Ratchikakhov. His angry poetry was now quite pointless, and he had absolutely no idea what happiness was. With no income, Ratchikakhov emigrated to Brooklyn, where he found work as a porter in his building. There he married and had a son, Gustav.
Given his unlikability, and utter lack of potential for anything other than menial labor, it wasn’t long before Ivan’s anger morphed into blazing resentment. He resented how his life turned out. He resented the fact that he had to live it in a land he would not have chosen. Rather than being grateful for having a roof over his head, and steady employment to keep it there, Ratchikakhov resented everyone he perceived as being responsible for the fact. In his bitter and limited imagination, that would be everybody. The two people nearest at hand to bear this resentment were of course his wife and son. He expressed his disappointment most frequently to his wife and son with a cruelty and brutality unmatched by anything other than its consistency.
Ratchikakhov’s wife, Mariyah, bore it until Gustav was six. Then she fled back to Saint Petersburg, leaving her son to fend for himself. The boy was tough. Years of cruelty will do that to anyone. But, all young Gustav knew was pain. So much so, that it lost its significance. Nothing he did had any effect on the amount, frequency or severity of the torment. It was constant, and yet somehow random. Savagery absorbed without limit or reason, soon became understood by Gustav as a normal condition of life. His only ambition was to one day be the inflictor; as opposed to the target.
Gustav’s own capacity for cruelty began to develop when he was young, first torturing neighbors’ pets. When that failed to satisfy him, he started killing them, in more and more elaborate ways. He experimented with fire. Gustav found the screams enjoyable, but it lacked the satisfaction of cutting or bludgeoning. He was after a motif to satisfy his blood-lust. He was looking for something to make the act of the destruction of another living being, all his own.
While in elementary school, Gustav naturally graduated to bullying. Bigger than the other children his age, what distinguished him from his peers was his willingness to inflict all manner of pain on others. There was nothing he wouldn’t do. He was only limited by his imagination. The bullying had the effect of helping Gustav expand upon that. He liked the fear he inspired in his classmates. High School became a laboratory for his developing viciousness. He hurt a lot of people. He also picked up a nickname. Because of his penchant for violence, and his Russian heritage, he became known as Red Gus. He embraced the name, and the concept.
This burgeoning talent for violence, coupled with Gustav’s utter void of human compassion, soon drew the notice of a local loan shark. Gustav was hired as a Mob collector. This was an over-reach. Because of his legendary lack of compunction, Gustav seldom left his clients with the ability to work. He could not understand that the goal was to scare the victim. If you crippled them, they couldn’t pay anything. His failure facilitated his ascension to the vocation he was meant for.
Sabato Melchiore was the Capo of the Genovese family in Bushwick. He had a use for Gustav. He offered him a job.
“I notice you like to hurt people. Ever think about killing them?”
“All the time. Bill collecting sucked. What’s the point?”
“I think the point is to leave them well enough to go to work, so they can pay their debts. I have something less frustrating, and not nearly as nuanced. Sometimes, I need to make someone dead. I need it public, and messy. I’m sending a message as much as anything else. Interested?”
“Sure,” Gustav didn’t hesitate.
“Don’t you want to know what it pays?”
“You’re going to pay me?” Gustav asked with wonder.
So began Gustav’s career as a hit man. He was good at it, and he loved the work. So well, that he began free-lancing. He started selling himself for short money to anyone that wanted someone dead. He was doing so much wet-work, that he was on the verge of killing more people than cancer. His blood-lust was insatiable, but there was a point to all of this mayhem. Gustav was in search of that one method of murder that he could call his own. He thought he found it when he took that contract from Jimmy Gutless Ciocio. Gustav became more concerned with perfecting his craft, than with his due-diligence. The opportunity to kill blinded him to the huge gaps in the background information the client provided him. Other than the fact that the girl was Ciocio’s ex-girlfriend, he knew nothing about her.
In his quest for the perfect method of murder, Gustav discovered there is nothing as satisfying as the sound of a hatchet being buried in a living skull. It feels good too, he admitted. Like making perfect contact on the sweet spot of the baseball bat. You don’t even feel it. It’s the same with a hatchet and a head.
He was glad he learned to look at his victims’ faces, because it was worth it. They would get that Oh shit look, accompanied by the sound of their bowels giving way in a liquid splat. The uncontrollable twitching, Gustav found amusing as fuck. I really like this method, he thought.
Every hitter had a signature; that one method that was their own. This one was Gustav’s. He used it until he thought he had elevated it to an art form. But his growing fascination led to over-use. Over-use leads to mistakes. The rising blood-lust prevented Gustav from appreciating as much. Other than the exhilaration of snatching the life right out of his many victims, Gustav had trouble appreciating anything.
So he definitely didn’t appreciate the irony of the position he was in at the moment. He had made a canoe of the head of his boss’s niece. He hadn’t known she was Sabato Melchiore’s god-daughter. When the naked and broken body of Celine Abandondo showed up on Decatur Street and Saint Nicholas Avenue, with her head caved in, Melchiore was briefly distraught. When he composed himself, he knew instantly who he had to speak with. Jimmy Ciocio was called Gutless for a reason. Even though his own death was already a certainty, he rolled over on Gustav within seconds.
That is how Gustav Ratchikakhov found himself tied to a chair in a filthy Bushwick basement. The feel of his own urine, warm and spreading down from his lap, pooling at his feet, brought Gustav into intimate contact with the fear had had inflicted upon so many others. When Melchiore picked up the dull hatchet, swinging the tool to get the feel of it, Gustav was forced to concede; I really don’t like this method of murder at all. It was the very last thing he ever thought.
As I step to the edge, an absurd feeling of vertigo creeps across my skin, raising hairs beneath my shirt sleeves and lingering in my palms as a tingle of cold sweat.
To remain steady, I look toward the horizon but instead catch my reflection in the windows of the building across the street. A man-shaped outline seems to spoil the brilliant blue glazing. A well-dressed imposter, standing motionless amongst the endless conveyor belt of reflected clouds and sky.
London is quieter from the rooftops, as though playing through headphones hanging free around my neck. The familiar roar of commerce and infrastructure quelled to a whisper, diluted by the wind as it whips around the uppermost levels of the capital’s iconic structures.
With one hand, I loosen my tie, working a finger into the pinstriped knot and pulling harder than the poor thing deserves. It is a magnificent tie. Oxford Blue with grey detailing. Fine quality silk with wool interlining. Hand-finished stitching. Dry clean only.
As the knot surrenders, I tug the length of blue silk out in front of me, pausing to enjoy the warm glow on my neck as the material skims the underside of my collar. It fights my grip like a captured creature, urging for me to release it into the wind, flapping with wild abandon, desperate to fly from its troubled master.
I ignore its plea and pocket it before taking a moment to consider my watch.
On an average day, I would be tipping the wrist a dozen times to see its familiar face. Double that, if a deadline approached. It had become the master of delivering reassurance-at-a-glance, rewarding an extra hour in bed, or a moment to grab a coffee.
But it could also be cruel.
Without words, it could bestow panic and distress. A firmer press on the accelerator pedal, a dash to beat the red light. It’s the Jekyll and Hyde of modern chronology, and a gift from my two-faced wife.
The watch tells me I’ve been away from my desk for one hour and forty-eight minutes. I’m late back from lunch but feel no urgency. Who cares where I am? There’s nothing for me here anymore, and even less at home. Good timekeeping no longer matters.
The irony of that is palpable, a bitter taste that interrupts my daydreaming. The most significant event of my life had occurred last month when I arrived home earlier than she expected.
Without allowing myself to dwell on that memory, I turn my wrist upwards, pinching the clasp to release its grip. I pull the watch from my wrist and, without pause, cast it into the air ahead of me.
After watching the billowing of my tie for so long, I expected the watch to blow away in the breeze, but it falls, without ceremony, toward the street below.
My wrist appears bare for the first time in years, a slight mark on the skin where the pigment differs is all that reminds me of it ever being there. I hold up my hand, covering the sun with my palm, allowing the rays to flick between my fingers.
A glint of gold directs my attention.
“That has to go,” I say while eyeing my wedding ring.
Before I can attempt it, the feeling of vertigo comes back. Looking into a moving sky makes me feel weak, I feel off-balance. I close my eyes and plant my hands on my knees while I regain my composure. A few deep breaths and I decide not to look up again.
When I open them, I can see beyond my brown leather shoes; a crowd has gathered some thirty or so floors below me. A halo of people surrounding what I can only assume are the skeletal remains of an Omega Seamaster. For a moment, I think I can hear it ticking.
As the tremble subsides, I open my palm once more to examine my ring finger. It looks tight. I knew that already, but I look at it now with different eyes. I don’t see the love anymore. It no longer lives there as a token of our bond. It is just another reminder of all that she has taken from me.
“It’s a lie,” I say with a contempt that threatens to choke me.
I grab at my finger and pull the ring. It doesn’t budge. My finger only fattens as the ring bunches my loose skin together. I can feel warmth building in my cheeks as I am seized by a frustrated determination to rid myself of the promises I made nine years ago.
Promises I kept.
Without thinking, I shove my finger into my mouth biting hard on the base in a final act of bitter resentment for my wife. My beautiful, cheating wife. I taste blood, but I continue to clamp down as pain floods my hand. I struggle against bone as I grind my jaw back and forth hoping to saw through.
In the end, the pain is more than I can bear. I withdraw my hand. The bite mark is moist with what little saliva I have, blood fills the dents where my teeth have sought to liberate my finger. Maybe that will be enough to show my intention, but I am ashamed I can’t finish the task.
In a glimpse of regretful hindsight, I wonder why I didn’t fill myself with scotch before coming up here. I am too sober, and now my hand throbs with a pulsing reminder that I can’t even get that right. I have not had alcohol for years; it had not occurred to me that this might be the time to get off the wagon.
I look beyond my feet once more; there are lights now. Flashing blue lights and the yellow box of an ambulance. I am too far to see details, but I can spot police as they usher people away from the building. Arms spread wide, shepherding my colleagues behind a cordon.
Out of the splash zone.
Will this hurt? I don’t imagine I will know. It can’t be worse than the pain I have suffered these last few weeks.
A loud crash behind me as a door is flung open; the access has been kicked in. I turn around and face the three people now sharing the roof with me. I don’t recognise two of them, just police officers, generic faces in black and white.
But the third. I knew her …
She had been a happy-go-lucky college student, a formidable artist, a wild lover, a blushing bride—
“Sir, we are going to have to ask you to come down from there, you can’t be on the roof.”
— A distant stranger, a selfish liar —
“Sir, we need you to come down, we would like to talk to you.”
— My wife. My beautiful, cruel wife —
She screams something, her face more alive in this moment than it has been in months. I must have been crying. The tears that had clung to my cheeks make a drastic whip sideways as I let myself tip backwards into the London air.
The sky looks peaceful as I see my favourite tie, rippling on an ocean of endless blue.
The zit-faced copy center clerk looked over the counter at Rummy and said, “What’s the name supposed to mean, this Crystal Crust?”
“Means we got the best pizza in town. What’s it come to?”
“I’ve never heard of you. And I eat a lot of pizza.”
Rummy looked down at the clerk’s gut and held his tongue. He said, “We’re new. What’s it come to?”
“No joke. I really love pizza.”
“I said what’s it come to.”
Rummy fished two 10s out of his pocket and handed them to the clerk.
“Maybe I’ll give you guys a try sometime.”
Rummy shrugged. He picked up the box of flyers and headed out the door into the suffocating post-storm heat of the late afternoon. His cousin Lauren was parked around the corner. The short walk to her Corolla was enough to make Rummy’s Orlando Magic tee stick to his chest with sweat. He tossed the flyers in the backseat and slid in alongside them. He tugged on his shirt collar, fanning himself. “This goddamn heat, man.”
His other cousin Markie was in the passenger seat, rolling a joint. “They say 95 degrees is the temperature when most second-degree murders happen. The ones people don’t plan ahead of time. Something about that temperature makes people come unhinged. Lose they goddamned minds.”
“You shitting me?” Lauren said pulling out into traffic.
Markie was too focused on the joint to reply. He sealed it up between his lips and examined the precisely crafted work. Nodded in satisfaction. “Who’s smoking? Rummy, you smoking?”
“Naw. Last time I got high in this kinda heat, I puked.” Rummy shifted his ass sideways, tried to make himself comfortable – an impossible task when cousin Markie was around. He always put a knot in Rummy’s stomach. 10 years Rummy’s senior, Markie always seemed to be on the edge of violence, like he was perpetually playing “punch for punch” with the world, but the world didn’t know it.
Rummy flinched a lot when Markie was around, but he was desperate for money since his mom’s disability checks stopped coming in the mail. The state had caught wise to her “brittle ankles” and severed her lifeline. So now it was up to Rummy to provide and cousin Markie’s pizza flier scam was a moneymaker. Tourists were always easy prey and what better way to get them to open their hotel doors wide than pizza.
“Getting blazed in the blaze,” Markie said slowly, like a prayer, letting the weed smoke float out of his mouth. “Getting blazed in the blaze.”
Lauren merged onto the highway, towards the tourist hotels that pockmarked south Orlando.
Cliff Baxter stared into the mirror of his hotel bathroom. Stared through his own bloodshot eyes, through the mirror and into the storm banging inside his head. “Shut up, shut up, shut up.” Even with the door closed and both taps on the faucet running, he could hear his youngest son Aaron wailing over the lost E.T. doll.
He clamped his fingers on the sink, gritted his teeth, and then threw a punch at the mirror. He held back at the last second, stopping inches from his reflection. He squeezed his fist tight enough to make it hurt. “Shut up, shut up, shut the fuck up!”
He splashed cold water on his face and didn’t bother to towel off.
“Why would you throw your brother’s doll in the lake?” Cliff said coming back into the room. Aaron was curled up on one of the beds, his face shoved into a pillow. It did nothing to muffle his cries, which had reached a sonic pitch that blurred the edges of Cliff’s vision.
On the other bed, Owen, the eldest son by three years, was lying on his stomach, legs kicking in the air. He was flipping through the channels on the television perched in the cabinet in front of his bed. He stopped on a cartoon.
Cliff took the remote out of his hands and switched off the television. “Answer me, Owen. Why did you throw his E.T. into the lake?”
Owen shrugged. Cliff looked at his eldest, dumbfounded. His chest puffed in and out. “I said answer me, Owen!”
Owen rolled onto his side and looked up at his father with those flinty eyes he inherited from his mother. “I’m hungry.”
Cliff sighed. “Aaron, your brother’s hungry. Are you hungry?”
Aaron removed the pillow from his face. His freckled face was void of tears, his eyes clear. Like he hadn’t been really crying at all. “Yes, I’m hungry.”
Cliff’s wife was delivering a speech at one of the nearby convention centers. It was her idea to take the kids to Universal Studios for the two days of the expo – leaving Cliff alone with them. Alone in the madness of the theme park and the crippling Central Florida humidity. Screaming, sweating, pissing, fighting, and one nose bleed. This was what Cliff had used up his vacation days for.
“Dad!” Owen said. “We’re hungry!”
Cliff nodded slowly, staring at the carpet pattern as he remembered something.
Before Owen had inexplicably hurled Aaron’s E.T. souvenir doll into the lake that bordered the hotel’s parking lot, Cliff had pulled a flyer off his windshield. It was for a local pizza place. Yes, that’s it. Fill their little garbage mouths with pizza. Seal them with cheese. Bind their lips with tomato sauce forever. Then, the peace.
“Who wants pizza?”
“Crystal Crust Pizza, pickup or delivery?” Lauren said. The caper only worked if they wanted delivery. The man gave her the name of a hotel and his room number. She hung up the payphone and walked back to her car.
“We got an order,” she said, getting behind the wheel. “Triple Sands Resort. Room 305.”
“Shit, about time,” Rummy said, stifling a yawn. He thought about phoning home to let his mom know he’s okay. Instead, he shot her a quick text saying he’d be home in about an hour with some dinner. “Was starting to think today was gonna be a bust.”
Markie opened the glove box and took out the snubnosed revolver. He held the short barrel up to his lips and said, “Order up!”
Lauren and Markie laughed. Rummy slumped down in the backseat and said, “Time to get paid.” He tried his best to sound enthusiastic.
“Can we do the Transformers ride again? Dad? Dad! DAD!”
Which son was screaming now, Cliff couldn’t tell. Could be Aaron or Owen. Or a third child. An invisible one sent from Hell to push his insanity along. A triplet, like the third head of Cerberus.
After ordering the pizza, Cliff had gotten changed and the boys had been absorbed in the TV. He’d put on a nice buttoned shirt and some chinos his wife had bought him the week before. She liked him in chinos. Changing into these clean clothes, Cliff managed to feel somewhat human again. It quieted the storm a bit – pushed it back out into the ocean. But then a commercial for the new Transformers movie had come on television and their voices cracked again and the crown of high-pitched chaos returned for Cliff to bear.
There was a knock at the door, followed by both sons screaming PIZZA in unison.
Through the peephole, Cliff saw a young man holding a pizza box. He grabbed his wallet off the dresser. When he opened the door, Rummy rushed through the door, shoving the empty pizza box in Cliff’s face, pushing him off guard. Markie came in next, his arm extended, covering Cliff with the revolver.
“Your money!” Markie said, kicking the door shut. “Give it up!”
The boys ran to the corner of the room, hugging each other and screaming.
“Shut those kids up, man!” Rummy said.
“Shut em up, pops!” Markie said, stepping further into the room. He was in between Cliff and the kids now. The kids screamed louder. Rummy was blocking the door, bobbing on his toes, ready to strike. “I said shut em up!”
The screams of the strangers and his children merged inside Cliff’s head, behind his eyes. They rattled together for a moment and then he heard nothing. Like someone had hit the mute button. There was only a dull humming where the noise had been.
The silence jarred Cliff. He had to steady himself on the bed. He looked at the intruders, their mouths contorting, no sounds coming out. He looked at his sons.
Their faces like little wolves howling. He heard nothing. It was here, finally. The peace.
But it wouldn’t last long, Cliff knew. The peace gave him this clarity. He had to make it last. Make it have an impact.
Cliff took one step towards Markie and punched him as hard as he could in the side of the head. Markie went down and the gun dully bounced once on the carpet. Rummy made a dive for it but Cliff was closer. He snatched it up and aimed it at the two men.
Rummy crab-walked backwards to the wall and hunched close to cousin Markie, who was shaking his head to maintain consciousness. “Yo, we’re sorry!” Rummy said. “My mom’s got a disability! I just needed some money for her, man! For food! Keep the gun, just let us go!”
Cliff looked over his shoulder and saw his boys holding each other. They had stopped crying and were looking up at their father, their faces distorted with a mixture of fear and confusion and something else. Something he’d never seen in his sons’ eyes before. Awe?
Cliff glanced out the window. The moon was reflecting off the hotel’s round lake, giving it a ring of silver. Like a crystal crust.
He turned to Markie and Rummy and smiled. “Either of you guys know how to swim?”
Lauren held the smoke in too long and let out a painful hack that burned her throat. She knew she should slow down with the smoking, since she had to drive all the way back to south Orlando, but this shit was making her nervous. What was taking her cousins so long? Usually it was in and out. The tourists hand over the cash or the traveler’s checks and they split it up on the ride home. Tonight’s caper was taking too long.
She couldn’t worry about it for too long because she dozed off. The humidity and weed will do that to a person.
Markie and Rummy opened their car doors, jolting her awake. Markie was rubbing the side of his face as he plopped down into the passenger seat. He did not look like someone who had just scored.
“What happened to you?” she said.
She could smell Rummy before she turned sideways in her seat and got a good look at him. He was sopping wet and looked even more miserable than Markie. “Why the fuck do you smell like a dead fish?”
“Just drive,” Markie said. “For the love of God, just drive away from here.”
Lauren turned the engine over and flipped on the headlights. They lit up to reveal Cliff walking back towards the hotel entrance. He turned and waved at the Corolla.
“Who the fuck is that guy? And why is he carrying a fucking E.T. doll?!”
Benji lives at 865 York St. in Oakland, California 94610. He lives there with his wife Tess, his dog Raider, and a big ass gun. I didn’t catch the name of his big ass gun. I’m telling you right now, he doesn’t play nice.
“What are we playing?” Scotty asks.
Scotty is built like a pit bull. His neck disappears into his shoulders and his wide jaw resembles a bunch of wood planks and cement bricks slapped together willy-nilly. No shit. Scotty is a weekend player. We all are. Some worse than others. Scotty is worse than others. The man is a billboard. A bad hand- he likes to grind his molars back down into calcium and sawdust and his temples throb. A good hand- he’d trace the tip of his fuck you finger along the edge of his cards and smirk like an arch villain. Last time we played, Scotty helped me pay rent. He is the last one to the table and I am happy to see him.
“Seven card, nothing fancy, fifty to get in, no limits.” Benji answers. “Nico, get me a beer. Tess bought a case earlier: It should be behind that tofu stuff she eats.”
“Benji, do I look like a bitch?” Nico barks back with no bite.
“Well, yes. Yes, you do.” replies Benji not looking up while he shuffles a red and white deck.
Nico fetches us all a round of piss beer.
Nico cannot play cards. He doesn’t have the guts for it. What Nico can do is talk a nun naked and then convince said nun that god can only hear her prayers when she is bent over and her hair is being pulled. That doesn’t mean shit at cards but sometimes helps away from the table. He has a healthy disdain for gambling and gives up on most hands. He’s only here because of the snacks, I think.
I met Nico years ago at Bozo’s Bandwagon on Grand Ave. We were drinking the same brand of cheap whiskey. We both knew whiskey wasn’t so much of a drink but rather a way of life. I wouldn’t call the man my best friend but he was the closest thing to it. He knew how to laugh with little reason and somehow he never let the grind get to him. I liked Nico for that.
“Stop spilling your drink on the goddamn table. Tess is gonna kill me.” Benji snaps at Scotty. “O.K. who’s in?”
We are deep into the game at this point. A few hours in and the money and the luck and the drink are swaying back and forth between the four of us but I have the biggest stack…
We started the night at Bozo’s and then proceeded to twist the night into a blur of booze and smoke. Both kinds. All kinds. Nothing good ever comes from this but all men feel lucky and strong during these hours so we thundered on. We drenched last call with drunken laughter and idiot applause. We didn’t leave Bozo’s until we swallowed the last drops, and slapped the bar’s wood grain slabs with our empty bottles, and said our final goodbyes to the D.U.I.’s and the one night stands.
It was 2a.m. when we stumbled out of the bar. It was 2a.m. when Benji whispered in my ear, “I feel like hurting something.”
Benji knows the game. He plays it close to the vest. Nevertheless, he does have a tell. When the cards are bad for him, he flares his nostrils quickly and only once; like a coked up bull ready to charge without the sprinting Spaniards. When he’s drunk and losing big his temper trumps reason. He starts to bully the other players with big sad bluffs. Not so much “pushing his luck”, more like shoving and spitting on it.
My pops told me once that when it comes to any kind of successful hustle, alcohol and stupidity should never mix. Tonight, 865 York St., Oakland CA 94610 is brimming with alcohol and stupidity. I barely know how to play cards. Nevertheless, I can’t walk away as pops would have liked. Poker is complex and difficult thing to learn, people are not.
Scotty was easy money. Benji will risk his first born when he’s drunk. Nico is a nimrod with a sugar momma. And I have my wife and my daughter waiting in a pay-by-the-week room that’s past due. I need the money.
“So Scotty, you still doing side work for Big Al?” Nico asks.
“Naw, fucked up the wiring in one of the apartment units. Some kid walked into a room, flipped the light switch on, and now the kid can’t talk right, slurs or something.” He replies, shaking his head. He pauses for a bit and in one mammoth gulp drinks almost half a fifth of whiskey. “Now every time I ask Al for work he mumbles something about insurance.”
“What he really means is you’re a brain dead who, when push comes to shove, couldn’t find the ON button on a T.V. set,” Benji states through a cocked smile.
“Speaking of ON buttons, I finally got that Puerto Rican bartender at Limelight to help me scratch an itch.” Nico bellows.
“What happened to Stacy?” I ask, tugging at my sleeve.
“Nothing happened to Stacy. Anyways, last night I go over to her spot and everything gets real nasty real quick.” He says, almost delirious. “She slams me against the wall, knocking down pictures of her and her kid at some beach somewhere, rips down my pants, and starts sucking my dick like it was her favorite food. Then she stops, gets on all fours and, I shit you not, screams, screams, at me to finger her asshole hard. Real hard. Like I was supposed to knock her out through her butt hole.”
“What the fuck did you do?” We all say in unison.
“1st round knock out.” Nico answers with his head tilted up.
“Such the fuckin’ gentleman.” I say, smiling and shaking my head.
“Whaa time issit?” Scotty slurs aloud to no one in particular. The whiskey has won.
“Almost 7 in the morning.” Lighting another cigarette as I answer. Our bender waning.
“Shiiit, I godda go. Los so much money t’nigh.”
Scotty staggers to his feet, takes one last tug from a random leftover beer, and stops moving.
“Rochelle iz, iz… gonna kill me.” He says while staring at his empty hands as if they are telling him a secret only he can hear.
The story should have ended there, right when Scotty left. I should have finished my drink, pocketed the money, and walked the fuck out but Benji was drunk and getting a ruthless run of bad cards, and Nico was still stupid, and Lady Luck was blowing all her kisses my way. I had to see how far I could take it.
“Raise you $30.” Benji slurs, nose flaring.
Benji doesn’t have shit.
“I’m out.” Nico says, running his hand through his hair, fixing it for the eighth time.
“What was that!?” Benji snaps. “With the hair?” Benji looks down at his cards then back at us.
“Shut up. It was nothing and I call.” I reply, scratching my neck.
I win that hand big. It isn’t close. Benji looks at Nico with a mix of disgust and suspicion but doesn’t say a damn thing. He sits back on his chair and takes a slow, long drink of the remaining vodka.
The early morning sunlight is now piercing through the cracks in the shades like burning bullets. One of the stray lights hits the clear bottle as Benji takes his drink and the light immediately shatters against his face. I stare at him without saying a damn thing.
“Damn. What was that, six maybe seven, big hands in a row?” Benji snarls. Completely drunk. Shifting hard in his seat.
The last time I saw Benji this faded he ran into the kitchen at Applebee’s and started to choke the cook. I still don’t know why. It was funny at the time but I wasn’t the one trying to cook chicken fingers for a family of four with Benji around my neck.
“Something like that. I guess the cards are going my way.” I say.
“Sure you’re not gettin’ any help?” Benji stares directly at Nico without blinking.
Nico deals the next round. I watch as the cards drop and with each one, I feel Benji grit his teeth meaner and meaner. Two of clubs for him. Ace of hearts for me. Seven of diamonds for him. Ace of diamonds for me. By the fifth card, I know I will win. For a split second, I consider throwing the hand, but that will make the situation worse, so I let it play.
“It’s only us again.” Benji says, no longer disguising his anger. Nico folds early so he tosses the sixth card to us and waits. Nico can feel something is not right. He begins to get nervous. He starts talking fast and at a higher pitch. The big dummy.
“So how’s your wife?” He asks. I want to scream, shut the fuck up. “Heard she went Tahoe this weekend.”
“When did you start to give a shit about Tess?”
“Just asking.” Nico’s voice raises another octave.
“Hey, your dog is a Rott, right? Raider, right? I hear they can get vicious. My neighbor had a Rott once. Scared the shit out of me. Thought it was going to bite at any moment. One day it got loose…”
“Shut up and drop the last card.” I say as calmly as possible, with just a hint of annoyance.
Nico tosses the seventh card and wipes the sweat off his palms onto the felt table. Shit.
“What the fuck was that!?” Benji says.
“What!? You know exactly what, you mothafuckin’ cheat.” Snaps Benji.
“It’s nothing.” I casually respond in an effort to try to calm everything down before it explodes.
“Nothing!? Let me see what you got.”
I have a fat, sexy, beautiful full house. Benji can’t even slap together a pair.
“Hold on.” Benji says. He gets up and stumbles drunk into the back bedroom. Nico wants to run and is staring at me for the go-ahead. Nothing is said between us. I sit there with a dumb smile and shrug my shoulders.
Benji walks back into the room holding a fistful of something in his right hand. Hanging from his left hand is that big ass gun I never caught the name of. What kind of gun was it? I don’t know and I don’t care. The only thing I want to know about any gun is the direction of its barrel.
“I can’t believe you guys cheated me.”
Benji opens the revolver, places six bullets on the table, and finishes half a beer in one swallow.
“We didn’t, Benji. That’s how the cards came.” I say, trying to deliver the line without the tipping him off to my rising fear.
“WHY?” Benji screams. “I trusted you boys” he then says quietly into his chest.
Benji then picks up a single bullet, loads it, and clicks the revolver to an empty chamber.
“We’ve played before and I took your money before. I didn’t cheat then…
Load and Click.
“…and I didn’t cheat tonight.”
Load and Click.
“I took you into my own home and you disrespect me like this.”
Load and Click.
I look over at Nico and it appears he is about to cry.
“Benji, stop fuckin’ with us. No one cheated. You know I’m stand up.”
Load and Click.
“All those signals, back and forth, all damn night, you were cheating me out of my hard earned money. You know I got a baby on the way…”
Load and Click.
“WHY DID YOU DO THIS?” Benji screams. His eyes are bloodshot and begging for violence. I look over again at Nico who is now crying.
“Benji, listen, for the last time before you shoot my pretty face off. I took your money clean. Nothing dirty about it. So put that big ass gun away and get me a beer before I call Tess and tell her that you didn’t use the coasters.”
He cracks a smile like daybreak and lazily drops the gun to his side. He gets up and sits next to me, placing the gun on top of my stack of twenties. I gently push the barrel away from me. Nico gets up slowly from his seat, pauses a moment, and then runs out the door. I light two cigarettes, hand Benji one, and we sit there staring at the overflowing ashtray in front of us for a few minutes. No one says a damn thing.
It is about 8a.m. and Bozo’s is about to open. Benji wants to apologize by keeping me drunk until noon. To tell you the truth, I need that type of apology. We walk into Bozo’s as Sue is plugging in the Pac Man Pinball Machine. A sad jazz song fills the dead air. We stroll over to the pool table and put two quarters in. Benji racks. Scotty walks in asking Benji if he can crash on his couch, Rochelle kicked him out again. With their backs turned, I pull out an Ace of Spades from my sleeve, fold it in half, and stuff the card in my back pocket.
“Hey Benji, you want to play for a drink? I’m feeling lucky.”
The way it starts, the fragment of memory that forms the shadow of my rebirth, is hurt. I keep coming back to that; call it ground zero. A searing sort of pain, not the fleeting kind, the kind that puts unexpected tears in a grown man’s eyes and makes him smile quickly, embarrassed. Nor the kind that gets his blood up and sends a shock to his heart that he—that I—actually get a kick out of.
No—just a monotonous pain some quarter-million years old; an angry sneer twisting the crimson face that mocks me in the rear-view mirror of my concussed brain. When I hear the slurred words elbow their way through the hurt I see a dim movie show flickering in the shadows of my shaken skull. I’m watching an old Driver’s Ed film I sat through one time in High School, stomach dancing with squeamishness and hee-haw adolescent nerves again: a tragic Midwesterner in a buzz cut and plaid shirt, late 1950s, flip-flopping gently in the front seat of a crushed Edsel; jaw crushed in too, agonal respiration, nervous system on auto. Signal 30. The narrator, a State Highway Patrolman in mirror-lens aviators (I like to think), speaks with authority, each word coming with less echo distortion. Comforting in the absence of anything not slick with blood or oil:
‘Are you tired, Josh? We can stop. You need rest; you’ve come a long way.’
I’m reborn and the pain is all but gone. I’m dressed in a hospital gown and when my fingers reach up to explore the band of tightness around my head they find an eye patch over my right eye and, beneath it, the rough, inflamed tracks of scarring all down my cheek. If I pushed my finger against the soft fabric of the patch, the whole thing would sink inwards into the empty socket. I can’t get used to it. I think only how I must resemble the commandant in an old POW escape movie, and then my remaining eye darts back to the little glass sphere resting on the bedside table, watching me right back—a lonely glass eye with a sad, blue iris. I click my Zippo lighter open and shut in my other hand because the brassy coldness and the solid clicking are reassuring. The Highway Patrolman, who is actually a Doctor (I know he’s a doctor because there’s this stethoscope hanging over the collar of his white coat, see), says ‘You know you can’t smoke in here, Josh?’ and I snap back at him…
‘The sound … Something about it helps me remember.’
I remember. I have my own two eyes, thank God, at the wheel of my lust red soft top roadster on the Campo Road stretch of State Route 94. Lucy is alongside me, wrestling with a road map, wearing red teashade granny glasses and, behind her, luggage is crammed in with my Spanish guitar. My arm is rested on the door frame soaking up the sun and the radio hums gently. Blissful. My blue eyes (which Lucy adores) flick up to the rear-view mirror to study the road behind intensely, and it shimmers there in the glass, wide and sleepy. Lucy grows bored of the unwieldy map and its confusing circuitry of interwoven roads, and she holds it outside the car where the real road zooms past and lets the whole thing disappear, whisked back behind us to take flight then tumble along the empty asphalt. ‘To Hell with it,’ she says with a cute/crazy giggle and instead puts her bare feet up onto the dash and lets the wind catch strands of her hair. We both break into laughter and the speedometer slowly creeps up as if in measure of my contentment. The Doctor speaks again and I’m back in the hospital, half-blind. Not contented.
‘Wake up Josh … You’re alive.’
‘Lucy?’ I ask faintly, as I reach up and feel the rough gauze of the bandages which cover half of my face. A nurse dressed in white, a fleshy out-of-focus blob as she peers at me, steps to my side and gently eases my arm back down, whispering reassuring hush words, and all I can do is groan the word ‘Hurts,’ as the stale air escapes my lungs. I hear the Doctor say, ‘Give him another shot,’ as if he’s underwater. I settle.
The medical light box flickers on and reveals the blue-grey horror of my x-rays: skull, ribcage, leg bone. The Doc sits opposite me and I can tell my incessant clicking on the Zippo lighter bugs him more than ever. He hands me a photograph, black & white, and I struggle to judge the distance with one eye, missing my reach by inches. Adjusting, I seize the photograph and see that it—and the others like it on the little coffee table below—are of the scene of the road accident.
‘They’ve withheld the more graphic ones,’ he says, and it’s almost as if he’s trying to make me snap.
‘Can I see my fiancée?’
‘That won’t be possible.’
‘I don’t remember the … impact. Just … whiteness … a blank—like I short-circuited.’
‘They moved what was left of the car from the pound to a junkyard. Sporty little thing,’ the Doc tells me. ‘You’re lucky to be alive, Josh, try to remember that.’
‘I want to see her body,’ I say.
‘No you don’t, Josh.’
I look at the images of twisted metal and black stains on blacktop and I break down, bowing my head and blubbing like a tired kid.
I prefer to sit up, awake, do stuff. I get nightmares at night. When I lie in bed I stare up at the ceiling and I hear screeching brakes and tyres, shattering glass, twisting metal; the kind of sounds that cut me up.
I’m pleased when the Doc comes around, closer to getting out. My good eye is fixed to the TV mounted on the wall on which a Coup de Ville has just swerved, speeded up, through a barrier and off a San Fernando hillside. It rolls and explodes, disintegrating. I’m sitting on the edge of my hospital bed and the Doc, oblivious to the clumsy entertainment in the background, is cutting and peeling off my bandages with the kind of scissors that jut up at the ends so he doesn’t stab me in my already tattered face, which I guess is kind of thoughtful of him. ‘Apart from your eye, the physical injuries were minimal. Bruising mostly. The medication kept you under…’
Not content, I ask, ‘Did you really have to take my eye, doc?’
‘The accident did it for us,’ he tells me. ‘You’ll adapt to using just one, adjusting your sense of perspective.’
‘When can I speak to the police?’ I ask him.
I can see the Doc frowning. He ignores me. ‘Any flashbacks yet? Nightmares? Weird déjà vu feelings?’
I think back a little before I say, ‘I sold up and hit the open road with my future wife. We were driving cross country. There was an accident, now she’s dead. I’m just filling in gaps.’
‘Give it time,’ he reassures me.
‘I had a lifetime ahead of me… with her.’
He removes the last of the bandaging and lets it drop to the floor, a tad too disgusted for my liking. He examines my face close-up—what I can only imagine to be the black, empty socket of my squished-by-blunt-trauma right eye.
‘We can give you an artificial eye, the glass kind. Match it right up to your real colouring.
Until then, you might like to wear this…’
I take the black eye patch he’s offered me but I don’t thank him.
I put on my dressing gown and the eye patch too, then I head out to the payphone and call the police. A bandaged, wheelchair-bound patient rolls past me, others ambling zombie-like along the corridor. I quickly get agitated as I try to make a case: ‘Just put me through to a detective. I was involved in a road accident… My wife … my fiancée … was killed three or four weeks ago. I’ve been out cold in a hospital bed. The wiring of my brain is out of whack.’
I plead with them but I get nowhere. Forget it. After I slam the receiver down I take out the bottle of pills the Doc gave me and swallow a few dry.
When I sleep I dream of the road and the sun is shining so brightly it makes my eyes water. Lucy is bored and looking through a cheap souvenir slide viewer—the kind shaped like a TV set and which houses miniature picture postcard slides, faded and already thirty years old. The clicking bugs me. She stops and notices a chip in the windscreen caused by a stone kicked up from the road. She touches the fine, blood-vessel crack in the glass.
When I wake the Doc asks me, ‘Ready to try the new eye?’
I stall, nervous and more than a touch queasy at the thought. ‘What if it rolls around backwards and I don’t notice?’
‘Then you’ll scare little kids in the street and you won’t win any beauty pageants.’
Wise ass. ‘I think I’ll need a cigarette first.’
‘Twenty-a-day man, are you Josh?’ he asks me and, strangely, I can’t quite recall. I search for even the most fleeting of memory, but they don’t seem to be there. Not when I’m awake at least.
‘I have nightmares … about Lucy,’ I tell him. ‘In the crash, her head is taken clean off. Is that true, doc?’
He tilts his own head, firmly attached to his neck, and shrugs giving me a grim feeling that makes me glad I don’t remember more.
I do remember one thing, at least. ‘There was another car that night, tried to overtake but ran us off the road. It wasn’t my fault, Doc.’
‘There was no other vehicle, Josh. This is natural—you’re shifting feelings of guilt to a figment of your imagination, a phantom. Face the reality and heal.’
I shake my head. ‘No.’
‘The police report concluded that the hazardous glare of the low-angle sun had made you swerve off the road. Others have perished there too—it’s known as the Devil’s Elbow, damn dead man’s curve. The police won’t take it further.’
‘But they must…’
‘I mean they won’t charge you, Josh.’
I stare him down as best I can, outrage in my single wide eye. The Doc hands me a small cutting from a newspaper, which I take and read, holding it closer to my face to compensate for the lack of vision. The newspaper print headline reads, “BLINDED BY THE SUN: ROAD TRIP COUPLE IN WRECK, ONE DEAD”
‘Face the reality,’ he whispers.
I read their choice of words again bitterly: Blinded. I gather my thoughts, try to be practical. ‘When’s the funeral, Doc?’
‘You were unconscious.’
‘Why wasn’t it me?’ I wonder out loud.
‘It was her time.’
It’s not at all bad, the phony eye. Maybe a chilly stillness to it if you stared too long; a certain deadness, but … Hell, what do you expect.
The reflection of my face stares back at me with two eyes and I tilt my head back and forth, up and down, to test the glass one. I’m on the road to recovery, maybe off-road. Enough to get out of bed though, to pull my own trousers on and zip my jacket over a green hospital scrub top. Too cocky, I remove the eye and look at it in the palm of my hand as if it’s a weird sea urchin I’ve caught in a rock pool. I blink first. I glance momentarily up at the reflection again and when I see the empty blackness of my socket it disturbs the crap out of me and damned if I don’t drop the puppy dog eye on the floor. It rolls across the room and I have to chase it, thankful it’s harder to break than the original.
On the bed, I lay out the things they salvaged from the wreck. Holiday photographs, some burned around the edges. There’s a small old suitcase made of leather with stickers on it, the trendy kind, and Lucy’s John Lennon glasses, their lenses shattered. I cradle the broken glasses in my hand gently and take care not to drop them like I did my stupid eyeball.
I checked myself out of the hospital and I’m heading south, thumbing a ride by the side of the road, flinching every time a truck roars past.
The suitcase feels heavy and impractical and I hope someone picks me up soon. When a guy stops I eyeball him apprehensively, then climb in and sit quietly, staring out of the passenger window and daydreaming while the guy watches the road, equally silent. He takes me only part of the way and the rest I walk. I get lost a few times, take a few wrong turns, but eventually I find the place. It’s a pretty little rural cemetery with rows of graves, patches of colour from floral tributes here and there. I walk slowly through the maze, plot serial numbers counting up as I search for one particular grave—Lucy’s. 145… 146… 147… I stop at 148. Lucy.
Beats me what I do now, I hadn’t planned that. I stare at it for a long moment, a simple wooden marker over a mound of fresh earth. I don’t have any words or thoughts so I light up a cigarette with the brass Zippo, cough violently, then open the suitcase and take out the holiday photographs. Leafing through the snapshots I see Lucy carefree, relaxed, young and beautiful; happy images of her in the sun, clowning around and posing with the guitar. One photograph of Lucy is burned, the emulsion melted and blistered. What a price she paid.
When I look back to the grave I have some words. ‘I didn’t kill you.’
I leave the photograph propped on the grave and hitch-hike away from there; another vehicle, another reticent journey. I almost climb out as I lean through the side window, hair blowing in the breeze, face directed up at the vast pale blue sky. Spots of rain begin to patter on the bodywork of the car and that’s the only reason I don’t jump.
By the time I get to the junkyard the rain is lashing down, wet and warm, hitting the junked vehicles stacked six high in sharp white sheets. It splashes off twisted spare parts, cubed cars, bald tyres and flows down a wall covered with hubcaps. Along a miry aisle I pass twisted metal frames in rust brown and charred black. I see the wrecked sports car on my left, sandwiched between two other write-offs. I see the crushed bodywork, scorch marks and flaked red paintwork, jagged broken headlights, and spider web patterns on the windscreen.
I stare at the wreckage for a long time before stepping in closer to examine the damage. Without thought, my hand runs along the once-smooth fender and I peer in through the letter-boxed driver’s window. I see blood on the windscreen, a single blonde hair glued to it despite the best efforts of the rain.
I wave off the driver of my third ride and I’m left alone, the road off the turnpike winding along behind and ahead of me. A flat patch of red and grey fur lies at my feet, old roadkill. The sun is setting and the sky is a candyfloss mix of yellow, orange, pink and deep black, making the toll booths on the horizon appear like blocky teeth in a lower jaw. Beside me, flowers have been left under a rusting road sign and they’ve since died themselves and turned brown. The sign above reads: ‘LAST YEAR: 59 ACCIDENTS, 12 DEATHS.’
The surface of the crooked road carries thick black tyre skid marks cutting across from the middle of the lane and the yellow thermoplastic stripes, off the side of the road and continuing as double tracks of churned-up scrub and earth. I look over my shoulder nervously before following the tracks to the edge of a steep verge and, looking down, I see exactly where we came to rest. I struggle down to the foot of the bank and then look around me.
This is where she died: ground zero, near the turnpike, off the Devil’s Elbow.
I slip the cigarette lighter from my pocket and begin clicking the lid, anxiously. Happy, I suppose, that the Doc isn’t here to bitch about it at least. Wandering around the scrubland below the road, searching the grass with my foot, I see a small patch of red hidden in the grass. Hesitant at first, I crouch and pick it up and see that it is Lucy’s little red TV-shaped slide viewer.
The light is fading and the rain has passed. I stumble farther from the main road, between tall trees, swing the suitcase and throw it into the undergrowth, thinking Screw it. I fall to my knees, get back up and walk a little more, steadying myself against a tree trunk which feels cold and damp. I have to hold my head in pain before taking out the pills the Doc gave me and swallowing several, spilling the rest to the forest floor. The fleshless lips on the impish crimson face peel back into a wicked smile, mocking my torture.
‘That maniac took everything from me; I’ve paid with my future…’ I mumble in despair.
I dream of hypnotic sunlight on the windscreen. Lucy speaks to me, ‘Are you tired, Josh? We can stop. You need rest; you’ve come a long way.’
When I look up at the rear-view mirror, the road behind me is empty, except for a bouncing blur which resembles a jelly fish under water, trailing tendrils of blonde and pink hair: a severed head tumbling across the hot road, splashing scarlet.
I wake up half dead as well as half blind, on the forest floor with my back against a tree. My glass eye has been open the whole time, keeping watch. Aching and groggy, I get to my feet. Minutes later I’m hitch-hiking again, not fancying my chances with my clothes and hair in such disarray, but a truck pulls up for me nevertheless. The driver leans across in his cab to look me up and down, then flips down the sun visor on his glasses, saying helpfully, ‘You look like you got hit by a car, buddy.’
We stop at a gas station in the middle of nowhere and I remember that we stopped there before. Lucy got out to stretch her legs and buy a soda from the vending machine, while I pumped the gas. She popped the cap with the machine’s bottle opener, drained it and spun the bottle in the gravel, watching it make four or five revolutions amid a little dust cloud. When the bottle had slowed to a halt and the dust had settled, she saw that the neck was pointing back where we’d come from. A disappointed look appeared on her face and she headed back to me.
The truck pulls into the gas station and we open its two doors simultaneously like elephant ears flapping at troublesome flies. I climb down from one side, the trucker from the other, and just as Lucy had done, I stretch my stiff legs, kicking around at the ground as I wander over to the vending machine. When I look into the glass front I catch a brief, imaginary reflection of her face there, before I turn back to the truck, where the trucker is checking his rig.
Idly I watch a man fill the petrol tank of his car. I forget that my bladder is half-full too. I crouch down beside the front bumper and stroke my fingertips over chips of red paint scraped there after some prang. The owner at the pump looks at me, frowning, until I back away. I find Lucy’s glass bottle, still there in the dirt, pointing just where Lucy had left it. Back.
A kid on a skateboard is in front of me, staring bleary-eyed. I stare right back, then lift my hand to my right eye, fumble with it for a second and hold out the fake to show the boy. He yelps and flees back to his family’s station wagon, terrorised.
‘Keep your eye on the road!’ I call out after him, and when he’s gone I drop the nettled goofball act, stupid and angry, putting the glass eye back, and looking down at the bottle again…
The trucker mounts up and I hear the engine cough to life. Back on the road, I silently take out Lucy’s miniature slide viewer, hold it up to the light and look through it, clicking the lever. My lips twitch into a faint, bitter smile and I lower the viewer and clench it in my fist as I did her glasses.
I remember looking over at her and smiling and I am wearing those round spectacles myself which give everything a vivid red tint. Lucy is bathed in lust red. She holds the viewer up for me to see before returning it to her own eye: a beautiful Mexican sunset over the ocean and a white sand beach. I smile some more. She lights up a cigarette with her brass Zippo lighter before she reaches across and takes the rose-tinted sunglasses from my eyes and puts them on herself. The dying, orange sun shines right into the windscreen, all dazzling bright white and flare.
The trucker holds a packet of cigarettes towards me, offering me one, and I think about it, even taking out the brass lighter. Eventually, I tell him, ‘I don’t smoke. She did.’
He shrugs, thinking maybe I am crazy after all.
In my hand, brought out from my pocket with the lighter, is the Doc’s newspaper cutting. As I read it, I think of his police photographs of mechanised death:
‘Blinded by the Sun: Road Trip Couple in Wreck, One Dead … A police spokesman reported that the tourists’ vehicle left the road, ploughed down a steep bank and settled upside down, where the engine caught fire. The driver, who suffered facial injuries and has been hospitalised, crawled free of the wreckage, while the passenger—thought to be his fiancée—was killed instantly. Police refused to comment on suggestions that she had been found decapitated at the scene.’
I remember oil and blood dripping in the heat haze; Lucy’s blood-matted hair against a metal backdrop. I am a ghoul in a Driver’s Ed film as I lie face down in the scrub, lifting my head slowly as it glistens with blood, my right eye gone. Its oozing, egg-like fluid gazes uselessly into the grass nearby and its unharmed twin sees Lucy’s souvenir slide viewer. My head drops back down and I am unconscious.
I hold the newspaper cutting out of a narrow opening in the passenger window. The paper flutters wildly in the wind, before I release it. The cutting vanishes immediately. The sun is low; the day’s time has come.
The turnpike has taken its toll.
I walked down the alleyway again, making sure that there was only one way in or out of this converted garage. If Rance actually lived in that dump, this wasn’t going to be a murder. It’d be a mercy-killing.
I stepped back into an alcove while a car drove down the narrow alley. There wasn’t much traffic – I’d been here for almost an hour and that was only the second car to drive by. No one else lived on this alley. Rance seemed to have the only garage that was made into living space.
I went up and knocked on the door. I wondered if Rance could even get out of his apartment if his door was blocked by a van or trash truck.
I heard mumbling from inside, and the door finally opened. It opened inward, which was smart – if it opened outward, a passing truck might’ve tore it off its hinges. That’s the kind of place this was.
Rance was not aging gracefully. I’d seen homeless guys who looked better. Of course, we were three times as old as the last time we met. But at least I’d kept in shape.
“Hey, buddy!” I said, grinning like an idiot. “Long time no see, Rance!”
He was half in the bag already. There was no recognition in his eyes.
“St. Polycarp High? Football? The Fightin’ Swordfish?”
He didn’t recognize me, but he remembered the team. He whispered its name, questioning.
“That’s right, buddy! You gonna invite me in?”
I pulled a quart of Jack Daniels Black out of the pocket of my trench coat. The prospect of some decent liquor forced the decision. He stepped back and waved me in.
The place was all one room, with a curtain half-concealing a toilet in the corner. There was no sign of a shower or bathtub, but from the smell, Rance rarely washed. He evidently slept on a beat-up sofa that took up one entire wall.
He slumped into the only upholstered chair in the room. It was next to a table and faced a beat-up television, which was showing a baseball game with the sound turned down.
He made a feeble attempt to act like a host. “Pull up that chair. And there should be a clean glass over the sink.”
There was only one other chair in the room, a hard-backed chair in the kitchen area. It was next to a low, built-in counter, where he probably sat to eat. The few glasses were in a shelf over the sink. I found two almost-matching lowball glasses, then brought them and the wooden chair across the table from his armchair. I noticed that the table had a drawer facing him. The drawer was half open. I guessed that he kept a handgun in there. You’d need one in a neighborhood like this.
There was an empty fifth of cheap whiskey on the table. He’d been drinking it out of a tall water glass. When I cracked the Jack Daniels open and started to pour, he held out his water glass, refusing the clean one I’d brought over.
“To each his own,” I said, as I poured his glass half full of Jack.
“To St. Polycarp!” we toasted. I sipped mine. Rance drank his down in one long swallow.
He’d been pickling himself for so many years that four fingers of whiskey had no visible effect. But he looked me over with rat-cunning. No doubt he wondered if he could get something out of me besides liquor.
“Looks like you’ve done all right for yourself,” he said.
“I’ve done OK. Lot of medical expenses lately. Old football injuries, they just get worse as we get older, right? Even if you were second string, like me.”
I’d been watching the television out of the corner of my eye. As Rance was trying to work out something to say, I shouted, “Did you see that catch? Beautiful!”
His attention returned to the baseball game as he watched the instant replay. He also reached over to a transistor radio on the table and turned up the sound. The Old School Way to Enjoy Baseball: watch the game on television, and listen to the superior commentary on the radio.
And with his attention diverted, I filled up his tumbler again. I also dropped a crushed pill into his drink, swirling the glass to dissolve it. Nothing exotic – just the sort of anti-anxiety medication that someone like Rance would be likely to mix with his alcohol.
I saw yesterday’s newspaper on the floor next to his chair. It was open to the obituaries. When I picked it up, a cockroach scurried out from underneath. I folded the paper so Minka’s obit showed and placed it on the table. Rance was draining half his glass again.
“Damn shame about Minka, isn’t it?” I asked.
Rance’s face fell, either from the pill I’d slipped him or the death of his old friend.
“That old Polack,” he slurred. “He was the best!” We toasted, and he downed the rest of the Jack in his tumbler.
I filled it up again, smiling like a shark.
We talked for quite a while. I told him all the stories I knew about Minka, and a few I made up. I’d gotten them all second-hand, back then.
If Rance remembered that I wasn’t part of his clique, he didn’t say anything. Not as long as I kept the Jack Daniels flowing.
“Y’know wha he did for me? Y’know wha that Polack did for me?” Rance sniffed, holding back a tear.
“No, Rance. What did he do for you?”
“Senior year. I was gonna get cut from the team. I played on that team all the damn way through school, and they were still gonna cut me! Just ’cause I hadn’t grown as much as some of the others. Is that fair?”
“No, it isn’t fair, Rance. What did Minka do?”
“There was this egghead on the team. Nobody liked ‘im. Stand-offish, too good to party with the rest of us. So, day before coach announces the cuts, Minka comes to me and says, ‘That snot-nose is gonna steal your spot on the team, Rance. We haveta take him out, so he can’t play.”
“And did you?”
“Did we ever! In the scrimmage, I kicked ‘is knee hard as I could, twice. And seconds later, Minka tackled ‘im! Blindside! Slammed ‘im inta the ground hard enough to break ‘is ribs!”
Rance made a little noise, which might have been a laugh.
“Wasn’t Coach mad at you for injuring a fellow team member?”
“Yeah, he was mad, but he hadn’t even been watching. So what could he do? He didn’t even know who to blame, and everyone kept quiet, even the egghead. No one ratted. That egghead was out for the season, an’ I got to stay on the team!”
A tear rolled down his face. “Minka was the best frien’ I ever had!”
We were silent for a minute. Rance drained his tumbler yet again.
Then I pulled something out of my jacket.
“You know, Rance, we should send this to Minka’s family.”
I spread the cheap condolence card out on the newspaper, positioned next to Minka’s obituary photo. I laid a ballpoint down next to it.
“Sign it, Rance. Show them how you felt about Minka.”
Rance was crying openly now. Weeping for his best friend Minka, for his lost youth, for what his life had become. He lifted the tee shirt that stretched over his belly and blew his nose on it.
“What do you say, Rance? Just this once, tell Mika how you really feel?”
“Wha do I write?”
“Write, ‘I always loved you, Minka.’ That’s right.” I had to hold the sympathy card in place as he scrawled on it. “And write this, ‘How do I go on without you?’”
It wasn’t overly legible, but the cops could dope it out. I poured him another drink, making sure to slip another crushed pill into it.
“Good job, buddy.”
“Won’t they thin’ I’m a fag?”
“No. They’ll know that you and Minka were best buds.” I handed him the drink.
A few minutes later he was snoring. I took the gun out of the drawer and left it on the kitchen counter.
I quickly looked around the converted garage. Amazingly, he had some clean towels and sheets in a closet. Worn, but clean.
I draped one sheet over me. I’d brought some big rubber bands, and used them to keep the sheet wrapped around my arms. With my left hand, I pulled it away from my face so I could see. I walked over to Rance, looking like a threadbare ghost.
Then, with my right hand covered by the sheet, I picked up the gun and put it in Rance’s hand.
Then I put the barrel in his mouth and pulled the trigger.
The sheet kept the blood splatter from getting on my clothes. The result wasn’t perfect – now there was missing blood splatter in the room. But in a dump like this, maybe no one would notice. The cash-strapped local municipality wasn’t going to spend thousands of dollars on forensic tests for old Rance.
And if they did, well, it really wouldn’t matter. Not anymore.
After wiping down the bottle and anything else I might have touched, I balled up the bloody sheet and put it in a plastic bag. It was then that Rance opened his eyes.
He made a gurgling noise, trying to get blood out of his esophagus.
“Gee, Rance ol’ buddy, it looks like you screwed up your suicide. You just took out a little of your brain and your sinuses. Burned your mouth, too. They might be able to keep you alive on a ventilator for months, until you get an infection they can’t cure. I can’t imagine how much that hurts, though. Not the way I’d want to go. But, like I said, to each his own.”
I have no idea if he understood any of that, with part of his brain gone. His eyes didn’t track me, but that could’ve been because he’d shot up his optic nerve.
Whether or not he understood, I had one more thing to say before I left.
“By the way, that egghead that you and Minka sandbagged? That was me.”
“That’s why I killed Minka a few days ago.”
He turned his head towards me as I exited.
The alleyway was still deserted. I walked down it for three blocks to where I’d left my car. The trash bag with the bloody sheet went into a dumpster. My bad knee – the one Rance had injured some forty years ago – didn’t hurt at all. That was probably due to the titanium replacement.
Of course, waiting forty years for revenge would be crazy, even for me. The fact is, I hadn’t thought much about my football injury until I got my knee replacement last year. I was lying in the rehab ward after the operation when I realized what had really happened.
Call me stupid, but I hadn’t believed that Rance and Minka had injured me on purpose. Their own teammate? I was naïve about human nature back then. I’d always thought it was an accident.
Immediately after High School I was a little too busy to think about it. My knee and ribs healed just in time for me to get drafted and sent to Vietnam.
It was in the ‘Nam that I learned about the cruelty and randomness of life. And that’s when I decided what I wanted to be: a badass. Like the mob guys I’d seen growing up. Guys who did what they wanted, when they wanted. Guys who’d kill you if you got in their way.
I could never be a made man or an actual member of LCN. You had to be 100% full-blooded Sicilian for that, not an Irish-Italian mutt like me.
But I knew that, if I became good at something useful, the mob guys would employ me. Sometimes they beat or killed their enemies themselves. Sometimes they employed freelancers. That’s what I became, a freelance assassin.
The Army taught me how to kill.
Vietnam taught me to like it.
But La Cosa Nostra let me make a living at it.
I’d changed a lot since I lived in this town. But there was a chance someone would recognize me, and I didn’t think I wanted to die here. When the cops catch up with me, I’m planning to shoot it out. I’ve been in prison, and I don’t want to do that again at my age. Prison was a lot easier when I was an angry, musclebound twenty-four year old. I’m slower now, my hearing is bad, and I know I can’t fight unarmed the way I used to. So no prison for me, thank you very much.
But you never know – they might come for me while I’m asleep, for instance. Better to pick my time and place, then go out with guns blazing.
I’m on borrowed time as it is, ever since Simon Pasko got himself arrested and told the cops everything.
I planned to drive far away from here, as soon as I got something to eat.
There used to be a pretty decent 24-hour diner on the interstate. Turned out it was still there. I pulled into the lot and circled the building, just from force of habit. Then I parked – front facing out for a quick exit – and headed inside.
They’d put in a closed-circuit camera over the front door. Damn things were everywhere these days. Before I came in camera range, I pulled a long-brimmed baseball cap out of my back pocket and put it on. I made sure the brim hid my face from the camera.
There were some vending machines for newspapers next to the door. The hour was late enough that one of them had tomorrow’s paper. I bought a copy, then went inside.
The place was nearly empty. In a few hours, when the bars closed, it would be full of drunks. But I needed food, to counter the alcohol I’d had with Rance. I sat myself, picking a table in the corner. Back to the wall, as always.
I took off my cap. The nuns of St. Polycarp had trained me well: don’t cuss, hold the door for others, and no hats inside.
After serving another table, a waitress spotted me and headed over. Halfway to my table she recognized me and smiled.
“Deuce! Welcome back!” she said.
That’s not my real name. But since I never give my real name, it’s what people call me.
She was a fine-looking woman, Pearl was, about ten years younger than me. I never made a pass at her – well, not after the first time – because she was a lesbian. That doesn’t bother me, although it must have made for a rough divorce. Don’t people know that they’re gay before they get married to the opposite sex?
I gave her a sincere smile, not the idiot rictus I used with Rance. Of course, I genuinely liked Pearl.
“How long has it been, Deuce?” she asked. “Two, three years?”
“Closer to four, I expect.”
“And here I am, slingin’ hash! You’d think I’d have found a better job by now.”
“Well, Pearl, the world needs waitresses.”
“I suppose. Life being sweet to you?”
“Can’t complain.” I didn’t ask about her life, because I knew it had been hard. She kept her two boys after a bad divorce, but her new girlfriend left her, her momma died of the cancer, and then her oldest boy died four or five years ago. So I don’t ask.
As for why they call me “Deuce” – well, I tip in two-dollar bills. I started doing it with strippers. It made me stand out: a roomfull of guys tipping in ones, and me tipping in twos. Then, since I always had a stack of twos in my pockets, I started giving them to waitresses as well. I tip well. That’s part of who I wanted to be – a dangerous guy who tips big, like a mobster. (A classy mobster – some of those clowns walk on their checks, knowing that no one will dare stop them. Do they care that their waitress gets stuck with the tab when someone walks? Do they even know?)
Another reason I tip big is that I’m always picking a table in back, preferably in the corner. If I have to make someone with sore feet walk further, of course I’m going to tip well. I don’t want them to spit in my food before they bring it out of the kitchen.
Pearl and I talked a while about nothing, then I placed an order. I ordered a lot of starchy crap, pancakes and pasta. When I was a kid in the army, I would put Tabasco on the lousy army chow. Nowadays, even drinking alcohol gave me indigestion.
I read the paper as I ate. I was thinking I’d dodged a bullet until I turned to the B Section and found the Pasko murder case on the front page.
Along with a mug shot of Simon G. Pasko.
And two nice, clear pictures of me, the unnamed assassin Pasko had hired to kill his wife. I even made it look like a robbery. But all I can do is confuse the issue. The cops figured out that the only person who wanted her dead was her husband.
What kind of moron films his meeting with an assassin-for-hire? Yet that’s what Simon Pasko did. Maybe he did it so he’d have something to bargain with if he got caught. Or maybe he did it because he was afraid of me (which he was, as I recall). I suppose he might have thought that, if I’d shot him, a DVD showing the act would be a sort of revenge. He was a civilian, not one of my mob employers.
Whatever the reason, the cops had a DVD featuring me, and they put stills from it everywhere – on the internet, on television, and in the newspaper.
Briefly, I wondered if I could get out of the country. Maybe go back to Thailand, where I’d had my knee replaced. Medical tourism, they call it, having operations done in a country where it’s cheap. I was sure I could have plastic surgery done there, too. Get a new face.
Maybe I could’ve done that before 9-11. But now there were no-fly lists and TSA agents who check everyone going in or out of the country. And with cameras everywhere and facial-recognition technology, I probably wouldn’t even make it as far as an airport. My big, scarred mug was too damn easy to recognize.
No, all that was left for me was deciding where I’d make my last stand. I should be happy that I’d finished my bucket list of people I wanted to kill. Rance and Minka were the last ones on the list.
“What’s the matter, Deuce? Don’t like the pancakes?”
So much for situational awareness. I hadn’t even noticed Pearl’s return.
I put the newspaper face down, so she couldn’t see my pictures in it.
“Just not as hungry as I thought I’d be, Pearl.”
“Anything else I can get you, then?”
“No, I’m done.”
“Well, then, mind if I sit down? You’re my only table at the moment.”
“Please do. I could use the company.”
As usual, I’d picked a table big enough for four people. She sat and put her feet up on another chair. Like I said, waitresses get sore feet, especially when they do this job for twenty years.
“Got a story I’ve been wanting to tell you, Deuce, if I ever saw you again.”
“You know that my oldest boy, Jimmy, got killed just a few blocks from here. That’ll be four years ago come June.”
That was in the local paper, which I read online. “I was really sorry to hear that. My condolences.”
“Yeah, well, Jimmy was a wild one. He was always in some kind of trouble or other. But here’s the thing: when Jimmy got killed, he was still living at home with me. And I couldn’t bring myself to go through his things. I left his room just the way it was. It’s only been recently that I could bring myself to do that.”
“So, the other day, I was going through his books. Jimmy wasn’t a big reader, but he still had his schoolbooks. Don’t know if you know this, but when kids go to Catholic school, they make the kids buy their own books. Not like public school, where they loan the books to the kids each year.”
Usually I’d lie about my background, but there didn’t seem any point in it now. “I went to Parochial school, Pearl. I remember.”
While Pearl was talking, a state trooper entered and went over to the counter. The counterman poured him a cup of coffee in a go-cup. But the trooper eyed the whole room, and he spotted me in the corner.
“OK. And I know I told you several times that I gave those two-dollar bills you tip me with to my boys. They liked them.”
The trooper turned away from me and sipped his coffee. But he was looking at me in the reflection from the front window. I hoped we weren’t going to have to shoot it out right here. I didn’t want Pearl hurt.
“My youngest son, I’m sure he spent every one I gave him. He’s that way – money burns a hole in his pocket. But Jimmy, I could never tell what he’d do.”
The trooper made a decision and left the restaurant. Maybe he didn’t recognize me after all. Or maybe he decided that an assassin-for-hire required backup.
“So, I’m going through Jimmy’s books, and there’s this big atlas they made him buy for school.”
“Catholic schools still teach Geography. Or they did, when I went there.”
“Right! So I open up this atlas, and can you guess what I found inside?”
Since it was that worthless son of hers, I was thinking drugs. But I wanted to be polite, so I just shook my head.
“It was those two-dollar bills of yours. The ones you tipped me, and that I’d given him. On every page, laid out four to a page. Pressed flat like they was a corsage from the prom!”
“God damn!” That I had not expected.
“He saved them. He almost had enough to fill up the entire atlas. I don’t know why, but they meant something to him.”
“So I just wanted to thank you, Deuce. You gave some kind of happiness to a troubled boy.”
“Oh, and no charge tonight. It’s on me.”
I had no idea what to say. Thankfully, a young couple came in and sat down just then, so Pearl got up and gave them their menus.
Look, I’m a bad guy. I know I’m a bad guy. I made that decision back in Vietnam, forty-some years ago.
And I can’t ever remember doing something good for no reason. Tipping big? That was part of my image, and I expected quick service for it. Every good thing I did with the expectation of some kind of reward.
Except for this, this thing with the tips and Pearl’s son Jimmy.
I don’t believe in an afterlife. But if I did, I’d be glad that something I did was good. One simple, unselfish act.
And that’s when I spotted the lights of a police car in the parking lot. From different angles, so there had be at least two of them. That state trooper must have called for backup, after all.
I stood. Pearl had comped my meal, but I paid her, anyway. I turned my wallet upside down and let all the bills fall on the table. Several hundred dollars, a final tip for Pearl. I wouldn’t be needing money any more.
Then I hustled through the kitchen and out the back door. I held my gun out, ready to shoot. The cops should’ve had someone there, but they didn’t. Not yet. Clumsy.
All that was left was to choose the place for my last stand.
Well, the alley where Jimmy died was just a few blocks away. I’d try to make it there. On foot, since the cops were by my car.
I knew exactly where Jimmy died.
After all, I was the one who killed him.
I didn’t know that he was Pearl’s kid, of course. He was just some lone, drunk kid who decided to mess with an old man with a limp. Maybe he’d planned to rob me, maybe not. I shot him dead without a second thought. I didn’t even bother to confuse the crime scene, like I usually do. Like I did with Rance.
Can’t say I felt bad about it, either. Although I am glad that I’m carrying a different gun. It wouldn’t do for forensics to show that my gun killed Jimmy. Pearl wouldn’t like that.
My new knee felt fine as I jogged across the field behind the restaurant. This was as good a place to die as I could expect.
And the only thing I felt bad about was that the pile of cash I’d left for Pearl didn’t include any two-dollar bills.