“Those losers are killing you. You know, maybe you should lay off a week.”
“Fuck that,” Landolfi said, his smile as fake as his Rolex. “I’ll get it back next week.”
Sweeney palmed the wad of bills Landolfi laid on the bar, and snorted his contempt as his answer to that.
Landolfi’s smile turned into a crooked zipper; his heart filled with black rage. That tight-fisted bastard Sweeney. He still had his first dollar taped to the bar’s mirror next to a couple Doberman puppies, the tape yellowed with age. Landolfi’s theory that losing teams don’t cover their spots as often as winning teams was not panning out. The Niners weren’t the only ones going 0-for-nine; he was winless, too.
Between the Niners and the Browns, he was cleaned out, everything but the car gone: savings and checking accounts, IRA, house and furniture. He was sleeping in the sole downtown motel with the cracked sign advertising X-rated films with letters missing like absent teeth in a meth-mouth’s head.
Just like my old man, Landolfi thought. His father was a degenerate gambler too who left the family and wound up dead at 47. His 5’ 8” frame had packed on 150 extra pounds from a diet of cheeseburgers from the diner across the street from his efficiency apartment. The tiny room stank of methane and sulfur gas so badly one of the paramedics called in vomited on his shoes as soon as the sulfurous, rotten-egg odor of constant farting had overpowered him at the doorway.
Landolfi signaled Sweeney over with a wiggle of his finger.
Bastard sees out of the back of his head . . .
“Top shelf,” Landolfi replied. “JW Black.”
“I assume you can pay for it,” Sweeney said, his tone halfway to a real question.
“I just handed you six hundred dollars.”
“No,” Sweeney said; “you paid up, and I ain’t extending no more credit. It’s money up front from now on.”
The word was out, thanks to those bar flies at the end of the bar.
Landolfi had been canned from his job and his supervisor scheduled an immediate internal audit; several hundred was missing from accounts receivable, the same amount he’d just paid off his gambling debt with.
The barkeep’s insult produced a red mist clouding Landolfi’s vision, but it evaporated and left behind an inspiration. He must have been thinking about it for weeks, ever since he watched Sweeney in the mirror, crouched over the computerized safe beneath the bar, punching in numbers.
Landolfi’s brain reverse-imaged the sequence in correct order. His genetic inheritances from his father were all bad—tendencies to obesity and addiction, a loathing for work with a taste for the good things of life—except for one: he could read anything upside-down.
Sweeney kept his bookie cash in that safe. Hours spent in this run-down, cement-block joint across from the town’s factories told him that; Sweeney’s lousy joint was the only place in this burgh you could lay down a big bet without involving mafia goons or exorbitant vigorish.
I’ll get my money back tonight, Landolfi mumbled to himself with an eye on Sweeney reading the paper down at the end of the bar–and everything else you got in there, fucker.
Fifteen hours later, Landolfi looked like a squat ninja. He left his motel at three in the morning and made the short drive to Sweeney’s bar.
He parked under the single pole light. Better to let a passing sheriff’s cruiser, he thought, spot it than try to hide it.
Both doors were rigged to alarms, but the storage room behind the building had a single window with a metal screen cover bolted over it. Landolfi had collected big on the Pats win in the Super Bowl and Sweeney gestured for him to follow him into the back to get paid. A couple off-duty state troopers were sitting at the bar. “No point in rubbing their noses in it, right?” He remembered glancing at the filmy light streaming through the white-wash staining on the window.
His crowbar popped the four bolts easily and he tossed the screen aside. Strips of blanket from the motel were wrapped around the business end of his rubber mallet to baffle the sound of glass breaking.
Next came the hard part: Landolfi had to hoist himself up and squeeze his bulk through the opening.
He’d gained weight since the Super Bowl and the struggle to get inside left him with sweat streaming down his face and his shoulder muscles aching. His black windbreaker was shredded, and the lumberjack shirt torn at the sides. Beneath the fabric, his fingers found the crisscrossed welts raised on his skin where he had wiggled to get his fat stomach through.
He used his hands to guide himself to the floor and lay there gasping for air unable to move. When he finally rose to his feet, he staggered a bit and felt dizzy in the blackness, but he was OK.
Using his hands to feel along the paneling, he avoided the stacked cases of beer and liquor lined on both sides of the wall.
Only the two red EXIT signs provided lighting inside the bar—Sweeney too cheap to leave a light burning.
With his penlight in his mouth, Landolfi pressed the sequence of numbers and the safe door opened. He pulled out stacks of banded bills, separated into denominations of twenties, fifties, and hundreds, all secured by rubber bands. Twenty of them, several thousand easily. He stuffed ten each into the pockets of his windbreaker.
The sudden stereo effect of low growls coming from both ends of the bar made him jump to his feet. He flashed his beam down one end of the bar and saw glistening, bared fangs; whirling around, he caught a duplicate image of white pointed teeth bared against pink gums. The dogs, as if on cue, approached, hackles raised, ears flat against their heads. His pen light had dropped from his hand the moment he’d lit up the second dog’s snout and its razor-tipped canines.
Fueled with a burst of adrenalin, Landolfi scrambled atop the bar just as the dogs raced to him, lunging, one raking teeth along his left calf muscle before he pulled himself free. Crazed with fear, he ran blindly down the bar top, alerted to the sound of dog claws hurtling across wooden floor boards.
His limbic brain kicked in to save him, those countless hours on that same bar stool, looking at the same rows of bottles and beer spigots, the same cheap paneling on the walls and the cracks in the cement floor. He instinctively knew how much room he had before he would drop into the slavering mouths of those running dogs.
Landolfi leaped across the void, landed on his feet, and hoped with every fiber of his being he could muster the speed to make it to the window in back.
Made it! O thank you, Jesus!
He careened into the right-side wall, but he was through the passageway, his short fat legs churning as tunnel vision took over. He was aware of nothing else but that smeary, wobbling rectangle of light bouncing in his vision, drawing him like a magnet to safety.
The dogs were so close he did the only thing possible: he aimed his body like a missile for the opening.
Going from an all-out dash to an abrupt halt knocked all the air from his lungs. It took him a second to realize he was stuck in the frame, half his body outside, the other half pinned tight.
The stacks of money had added just enough bulk on either side to prevent his whole body from going through. The full catastrophe of what was happening came roaring into his consciousness like a fist striking him in the face—his body wedged tight, the stabs of white-hot pain in his sides where the metal frames squeezed his midsection in a vise-grip; for the briefest moment, he was aware of the night breeze rustling the fronds of the cattails and the pungent smell of marsh gas.
Landolfi squirmed. Nothing. His lungs screamed for more air. Then a thought: Where are those damned dogs?
As if a diabolical prayer was just being answered, each one clamped its jaws around a leg and began yanking Landolfi backwards, their bunched shoulder muscles rippling their sleek physiques.
Landolfi screamed as his body’s pain sensors exploded the circuits; a single message flowed like touching a live wire to his brain and back down to the nerve endings. The dogs’ teeth punctured his pant legs, his skin and the soft tissue beneath.
Landolfi howled into the open air, a wounded wildebeest on the Serengeti with a pair of hyenas attached to its back legs. Warm blood ran down his legs to his shoes. He tried kicking the dogs off, but the effort took more air from his tortured lungs.
The dogs wouldn’t stop biting as if they had to keep finding fresh meat for a better purchase to pull him back inside. Landolfi’s hands were useless; he couldn’t reach back to get at the money in his pockets to give more leeway to go forward; equally, the dogs were unable to pull him to them; he seesawed a few inches with every jerk.
The growls of the dogs and his own howls of pain were a rhythmic counterpoint that rose and fell. Landolfi focused on a single thought: inch forward, get his body to the tipping point. He didn’t dare think about the damage happening to his legs.
The pain was everywhere and all around him now. The dogs like greedy guests at a buffet went for everything; they bit deep into the meat of his thighs and buttocks in their frenzy. At any minute, his pants shredded to rags, his genitals were exposed. If he were in the ocean being savaged by sharks like this, he’d have gulped sea water and drowned. But there was nothing he could do.
Things were blurring too fast. He couldn’t make out the edges of anything in front of him. He tried talking to the dogs—good doggies, good doggies—but the sound of his voice stirred them to a greater frenzy. The same thing happened when he involuntarily urinated; the dogs didn’t cease their attack for a single moment.
His last decision was to evacuate his bowels. A rush of warm diarrhea gushed from his sphincter, the foul odor even penetrating the night air around him.
Just like my old man . . .
Landolfi was thinking of his father’s death in the motel the moment he died.
Sweeney found him like that when he opened the bar for the first shift of factory workers heading his way from the industrial park. Cain and Abel ran up to him and licked his hands the same as they did every morning. That’s when he realized their muzzles were soaked in blood. He kept a fish bat under the bar and retrieved it before checking the storage room. The backside of a man’s body sticking through the window made no sense to his brain; the dangling form obstructing light from the window made him pause; ribbons of flesh hung from the right femur and pungent smell of blood and feces left no doubt what had happened.
The first paramedic on the scene threw up when he saw Landolfi’s hind quarters. A week after they cut through the brick to free his body— over Sweeney’s loud objections about damage to his building—a sheriff’s deputy who bet on baseball told him Landolfi’s death was officially listed as heart failure owing to suffocation and blood loss as contributing causes.
“He was always picking losers,” Sweeney told him.
“He shoulda drunk lo-cal beer instead,” the deputy said. “He might have made it through.”
“I don’t serve that shit,” Sweeney replied; then, as if a mystery had revealed itself in the skies, he said, “Wonder why the dogs let him get inside the place.”
“Maybe he should have been a cat burglar instead of a gambler.”
They both laughed.