A winking bit of flash under the dead leaves that still littered the walking path through the old cemetery caught Aleson’s eye. She stepped off the trail, kicked at the leaves, her toe daintily avoiding a small pile of deer pellets, and bent over to pick up the gum wrapper. “People”, she huffed, slipping it into her pocket.
Straightening, she noticed a new deep pink headstone standing out from all the dull weathered gray ones just before the hillock. She didn’t remember ever seeing it before. She ventured further from the path and carefully made her way closer to read the inscription. It was for Larry Jollie, apparently a local man, who back in the 50’s spent four years in the Air Force and enjoyed it so much that, according to the stone, he was interred at Jefferson Barracks Military Cemetery in St. Louis.
Huh, she thought. That seemed somehow inappropriate; taking up two plots in two separate cemeteries for what was probably by now a box of bones. Unless he’d been cremated which would have made it worse. Probably not though-back then they wouldn’t have. Not as readily as now anyway. Seems she can’t hardly go into someone’s apartment for a visit or a cup of coffee these days without being joined by an urn or a box on a shelf or some other place of prominence. She paced off the space of the plot feeling less queasy about marching around on top of a hole that wasn’t and held nothing. It was the same size of the others, which bothered her even more.
She remembered her Granny Akers saying that when she went, they should “shove a bone up my ass and let the dogs drag me away.” Aleson had been six or seven when she first heard that and wondered how such a thing might work. Her neighbor at the time, Dottie was her name, had a dog. A big romping mutt named Randy that would run into the woods after balls that they threw. They could never throw them far enough for the dog to lose. She wondered if he could drag her Granny away by the ass bone. But then, would he drag her back like a game? The things kids thought!
It didn’t work out that way for Granny though. She was over in Hayes Memorial Park with a handsome if flat plaque-no upright stones in Hayes-laying next to her husband, Pap Akers. His plaque mentions that they had been together for 59 years which was true if you didn’t count the seven years they weren’t and he lived with Phyluria over in Mon City.
After her dalliance with Pap, Phyluria took up with Old Man Watson who lived on the edge of town and kept a pack of beagles that had fascinated her as a child. All kept in cages along with cages of rabbits! He had a fenced area in the back of his property that looked like an old field with bushes and such. He would release the rabbits into that fake field then train the dogs in the art of finding them rabbits. Which, looking back, Aleson thought was pretty simple. Didn’t beagles do that naturally? He must have been good at it though because the one time she’d been in their trailer she took note of all the ribbons and trophies lining the shelves he had probably built there just to hold them.
Phy beat them all into the dirt having gotten real sick with cancer and dementia, to the point that her husband took pity and shot her with his hunting rifle, which he then turned on himself. Which would have been fine but somewhere in there he’d shot his dog too. Which everybody damned him for. Phyluria, sure, bless her. Himself, definitely. But not the dog! “People”, she huffed.
It doesn’t take many words to end a thing. Sometimes one. One measly word. Maybe two or four if they’re the right ones or many times, none at all. He sat on the edge of the bed thinking about putting on pants. There was plenty of time for that. The morning sun-somehow different here in the city-sliced through the rheumy window spotlighting his feet which he always hated-short and square and now with bright purple starfish bursting spidery on his ankles. She has them too! Don’t for a moment think he was the only one getting old. Had she ever seen the backs of her own knees? She’s not special-time marches on for everyone regardless of what anyone thinks. Standing, he gazed at the rooftops around him. He’d done business in this part of town back when. Just couldn’t remember with who. And it wasn’t because he was old! People forget things, that’s all. They had to-there was too much new stuff every minute of every hour of every day. Things had to be jettisoned to make room, that’s all. Were the water towers on the buildings new? Couldn’t be, they looked older than fuck, he just had never seen them that he could remember. He wished he had a cigarette. He’d given them up years ago but they would at least give him something to do with his hands. His old man wielded a cigarette as a maestro did a baton-directing, punctuating, prompting: allegro, lento-the smoke leaving whirling white trails drifting to the ceiling. He wondered if he could smoke in here. These rooms weren’t bad by the week, considering. He’d have to think about it. For now though, checkout was at ten. It would be no problem. He could leave earlier if he had anywhere to go.
He was the kind of idiot who bought the “European Berets for $20” advertised in the glossy magazine because “one size fits all”, never accepting that nothing fit his oversized dome. He’d stubbornly wear it for days, laying atop his head like a cow pie. “See”, he’d say, “It fits fine.”
She’d smile and put up with it for as long as it took to find it sitting alone on the bench in the mudroom like a discarded black flapjack. Over the course of an hour, she cut it into small pieces, some of which she flushed, some of which she buried out beyond the fence, marking the spot with a mossy flat stone, and some she burned in the fire pit.
“No, hon”, she would answer when asked. “I haven’t seen it.” And he’d believe her.
Billy Ragg hurried up the street both hands shoved deeply into the pockets of his unlined leather coat. Back in June, when he’d stolen it, the coat had been real sharp-worth about two hundred bucks. Wasn’t worth a shit today what with winter deciding to blow in a couple of months early. Moving kept him warm. He only slowed to adjust the pistol in the belt at the small of his back. It seemed like a good way to carry it-nobody could see it-but it was uncomfortable as hell. Felt like it was going to fall down his pants.
He was going to have to get himself a new coat. Something for winter. It was easy enough. Dress nice, go into some happy hour bar, order a beer or two and scope the place like you wanted to hit on somebody but just keep on the lookout for a coat or jacket tossed over a chair or some such. That nobody was keeping tabs on. Hang out long enough you can usually find one that almost fit. Wait for the guy to take a piss to try to chase down a lady and walk off with it. Just walk. Smooth and cool, like it was yours. Plenty of time to run, if you had to, when you hit the street. That was the kind of small-time shit he wanted to put behind him. After today he’d be able to buy anything he wanted.
He stopped at the corner of Van Braam and Wharton and looked up the street toward the Showboat. It was a little after noon and the matinee crowd was probably just getting settled. A bracer would help. Not much, it’s not like he wanted to sit in there and drink the day away. Not today. Just something sweet to push this friggin’ cold out and a couple of beers to pry his tongue from the roof of his mouth. It would settle him for what was coming. For a moment he actually leaned in the Boat’s direction then remembered that his hands were the only things in his pockets. He grudgingly turned away then hustled shivering, down toward the river.
He didn’t see anyone he knew. Seemed that the population down here on the ward turned completely every couple of months. Here and there was somebody familiar, but only because he’d seen them hanging around the last time he came down. Not because he knew their names or ever spoke to them. If it was a little warmer he would probably have had to nod to someone that knew him in passing but the cold front had moved most of the derelicts under cover for awhile. That was fine with him. He liked the anonymity of this end of town. It wasn’t like the old days, scoring down on Walnut Street when he was the only white guy for blocks.
He stepped into a doorway across from Geezer’s building and tightened his belt a notch wincing at the .38 dug into his spine. He was looking up at the fourth floor winder where geezer lived and not paying attention to the street so he missed the blue Chevy that stopped about a half block away.
“What’s he doing down here, ya think?”
Connie didn’t answer right off, his eyes on his quarry, trying to get a handle on what he was up to. Ragg was a real gem. Connie had played high school football with him twelve , fifteen years ago. One helluva lineback with no more brains that a side of beef. After a couple of junior colleges gave up on him he came home to settle into the life of a small town hustler. Mostly petty stuff, some strong arm work. Nothing major. Ragg got into the kinds of shit that Connie wouldn’t mess with except for slow days when there was nothing else to do. Like today.
“Doesn’t that guy…big spook…Geezer something or other, live down here somewhere?”
Jimmy Proffo took one hand off the steering wheel and pointed across the street. “Fourth floor, corner apartment. Busted him for grass coupla years ago. Deals some. Mostly grass, some coke. You think that’s what your friend’s after?”
“Dunno. Why don’t you let me get in the backseat then pull up. Have a talk with him.”
He rolled down the window as Proffo pulled the car up to where Billy was standing in a doorway. “Hey Sunshine”, he called out, “You’re outta your neighborhood, ain’t you?”
Billy Ragg was never known for his quick wit but immediately upon realizing he had let the cops walk right up on him,his brain pounded out a chorus of “For Christ’s sake! How in hell could this happen? What the fuck does that pinhead Connie Rucker want with me? Since he busted me he thinks he’s my caseworker! Not now! I don’t want to talk about no old football games or shit like that now. Son of a BITCH!”
That was what he thought. All he could think to say was “Hey Connie.”
“What the hell brings you down here?”
“Just a change of scene, Con man. Shit up the ‘Boat gets old after awhile, you know?”
“Shit up the ‘Boat gets old after ten minutes. But here? What’s here?”
“Don’t know yet. Just starting to know the place, you know? New scene. Used to be a pool hall down here. Little this and that.”
Connie gave him The Face. Like a doctor needs a bedside manner all cops need a Face. He’d perfected his years ago where everything above his neck goes frozen-dead-just like gray stone while his eyes burn with something that he thought approached menace. The first couple of years when he was putting it together it didn’t always work. It took alot of practice-in the mirror, on chicks, other cops, juevies-until it became something he could throw out and actually use to some effect. Let people know he meant business.
Jesus Christ, thought Ragg, now he’s throwin’ that stupid fuckin’ look at me. Why can’t cops just look at you and talk like normal people without all the mysterious faces and questions? Anyway, he didn’t like the way this was going. Not one bit. Ok. So he stopped and did his cop thing. Let him know he was always watching, small talk bullshit that was just trying to trip him up. So that was done. Alright. Message received. Now just say so long and take off. Almost unconsciously he was leaning away as Connie opened the back door. “Why don’t you get in out of the cold”, he asked. “Let’s talk.”
Suddenly that little .38-that tiny gun with a two inch barrel jammed tightly into the back of his pants-felt like a cannon. He could almost feel the barrel growing down between the cheeks of his ass. What the fuck did he put the gun there for? Anybody on the street could see it! Shit man, even a dense like Rucker saw it. That’s what this was all about. SHIT!
Without hesitating Ragg moved toward the car. He knew enough about cops to know that whatever they wanted you to do out on the street: stand on your head, eat dog shit with a plastic spoon had better be the best idea you’d heard in years. Especially with Rucker.
The detective slid across the seat and Ragg got in gently, careful not to let his jacket ride up in back. He pulled the door shut behind him.
“I’m a motherFUCKER!”
“What’s the matter Geez?”
Geezer was standing at the window looking down into the street. “That sonuvabitch just got in the car!”
“You sure they’re cops?”
“Sure I’m sure. I don’t know the one riding shotgun, but that big Dago driving busted me two years ago. Fuck!”
“Whattaya think they want with him?”
Geezer turned slowly, away from the window. Giving himself over to his thoughts, he moved mechanically, long head first, like a swinging crane, not wanting to get ahead of himself. Judy was sitting on the daybed in just her panties, taking a stab at brushing her hair which always did what it wanted anyway. She was a looker, there never was any denying that. Tits, legs, the tightest rounded ass a guy could want-the whole package. And she knew how to use it all, sixteen years old or not. In fact, being so young, without the cautioning stains and scars of a lifetime, gave her a more singular focus on getting what she wanted in the moment. But someday, he was going to have to just pitch it all and get him a smart chick. One that could look around and see things. Know things the way that he did. One that he didn’t have to explain everything to.
“Look”, he said, trying to be patient as he pulled on his shirt. “I don’ see the asshole for a year right? Then one day he pops up on my doorstep to buy a quarter gram. Outta nowhere. Right? What is it? A week ago? Sell him some blow, he goes away. Now-BAM!-he’s across the street with the cops.”
“You think he’s a snitch?”
“Jesus Christ! Sure. Come on, you don’t see that?” She looked at him blankly, still brushing her hair as if nothing he’d said affected her at all. Patience was a wonderful thing, but anger’s hard edge was scraping it away. Anger at himself. How could he have been so stupid?
“Here”, he tossed her jeans into her lap. “Get dressed.”
“I thought you said the cops knew about you. That you had friends and they wouldn’t hassle you.”
“Maybe they got bored, I don’t know. Needed something to do. Probably sent that guy up here last week. To check me out. See what I was dealin’. Set it up, you know?” Not a deep thinker, Geezer didn’t bother to wonder why they would go to all the trouble to set him up when they could walk in any old time and bust him for the butts in his ashtrays. Or pat him down anytime on the street and find something. “We gotta clean this place up a little”, he said.
It was quiet inside the car. It wasn’t Ragg’s dance; he wasn’t about to lead. Proffo sat in the front seat staring straight ahead through tinted shades. All he wanted was to get through this fucking day and get to work on another hangover. Make him forget the one he was carrying now. Connie got tired of the silence first.
“I like this weather, you know? The first blast of winter coming in always takes people by surprise. Leave ‘em bitching and moaning about the cold…not me though. Opens my head-makes me want to breathe deep in big gulps.” He swallowed a deep breath and slapped his chest. “You know what it reminds me of?”
Here it comes, thought Ragg. “What?”
“Come on man! Football! Doesn’t it get you?”
“Oh yeah…especially in the evening. Like when we would be practicin’ and sweatin’ but the sweat would dry and you’d chill down every time you hadda stand around awhile, you know?” He leaned, wanting a reply.
“Sure were some times…”
“Sure were. Just think. Then you were the cock of the walk, huh, boy? Big shit. Superstar with all the girls and all the fun huh? That was you. Hmph! Sure was something. Now you’re just a punk-hanging out on the streets looking to score drugs from some nigger.”
The detective sat back waiting. He wanted to get a rise out of him-prod him into something. But there was nothing. Ragg just sat there, eyes on the lives passing on the sidewalk. It’s not like Connie needed any information or anything. He just couldn’t resist digging into Billy Ragg whenever he got the chance.
“I mean, that’s all you’re doing down here ain’t it? Superstar? There was a pause, then Connie said, “wait a minute. I’ve got something to show you.”
Proffo glanced into the rearview in time to see his partner lean away from Ragg, as if he were reaching for something, then twist his body back hard, driving his right elbow deep into the man’s ribs. He followed that blow immediately by rising in the seat and delivering a left hook solidly into the solar plexus. Shit, thought Proffo, if the big sonofabitch fights back we’ll have to shoot him and I won’t get out of the office till midnight.
Proffo wasn’t the only one thinking about shooting just ten. Bent nearly double by the punch Ragg tried to recover his breathing. He was conscious of the pistol. He could straighten quickly and have it out before either of them knew what was going on. Shove the barrel into Rucker’s eye and wait just long enough to say “Surprise!” before blasting him. Then put a hole in the back of the Dago’s head before he knew what was what.
Maybe he would have done it had he not been distracted by Ruker’s voice . Close up. The cop was right in his ear hissing through his teeth. He sai things like, you were always a piece of shit, go on-make a move-I’d love to break your legs, stay the fuck offa my streets, big shot, you see me coming you better cross the street, tough-shit cop stuff like that. It wasn’t the words that froze Ragg as much as the tone. The venom. What I ever do to him?
Connie reached across and opened the door. He was dismissed. Without a thought or word, Ragged stepped out and straightened, trying hard to look unhurt. His breath was coming in little puffs. The door slammed and the Chevy pulled away.
“What was that all about?” asked Proffo as he drove away.
“Fuck him. Let’s go get a coffee.”
Geezer was back at the window. “He’s coming up.”
“By himself?” she asked from the bathroom.
“So far. I don’t see anybody else. It looks like they drove away. Just stay put and remember what I told you.”
Judy was sitting on the tub, right beside the toilet. She held a tray on her lap that was piled high with, what Geezer said, was uncut cocaine. Once he stepped on it a bit and put it on the streets he could nurse it for about ten grand, not counting what he’d keep for personal use. Truth be told, it was more than he could afford to lose-all his ready cash had gone into that coke. But it was only money, he wasn’t about to take a fall for it. No way! This was one man who would trade in some cash to avoid the time. She was sitting in there waiting for his signal to flush the whole shooting match if it came to that.
Ragg took the steps slowly, catching his breath. Even alone inside the building he wouldn’t rub his ribs or his gut. No way was he about to give in. Not to that psycho cop. He would deal with him sometime later. He didn’t know how, but you can be goddam sure he would. For now, he would use his anger constructively.
On the fourth floor landing he sighed with relief as he pulled the pistol from his belt. He’d have to get a holster or something. He hefted it, felt its weight, turning it over in his hand and almost shrugged. Some guys got excited about a gun, like it was a piece of ass or something. They’d hold a gun and get all tingly and short of breath like the secret of the world was sitting in their mitt. Ragg looked at the gun and saw a tool. Nothing more. You want to do a job, you need the correct tool.
The job for today was that stack of bills he had seen in Geezer’s apartment last week. A wad that wouldn’t even roll it was so big. A few grand at least. That’s all he needed. Just a stake of some kind. Buy himself a warm jacket, maybe deal some dope, Get a car. He knocked on Geezer’s door.
Ragg was surprised when the door just swung open. Last time he was here there were alot of questions and the door opened a crack against the chain while he talked his way in, but today it just swung open as if he was expected. He even thought Geezer was about to say something in greeting but his face froze when he found himself eyeball to barrel with the .38. Yessir, this gun was the right tool alright.
Ragg backed the dealer into his apartment and pushed the door closed with his foot. The place looked the same and Geezer was alone. Without a word he backed the man onto the daybed where he sat while Ragg went over to the dresser and opened the top drawer. Aside from some underwear and socks, it was empty. “Where is it?” he asked.
“What?” asked Geezer.
“The money, motherfucker!”
Geezer’s eyes widened and for an instant it looked like he was about to laugh. “Money? There ain’t no money. Is that what this is? A holdup? You in the wrong place, my man. I got no cash. “
“Don’t shit me. I saw it last week.”
“Last week I had it. I’m in business, man. I get cash, I invest it. You oughta know that. Shit! Come in here thinkin’ I got cash…” The asshole cracker was tryin’ to stick him up. Unbelievable. Stupid shit thinks he can just waltz in here and take from me…
Geezer felt the .45 digging into his bony ass through the thin daybed cushion. Asshole trying to hold me up…Now, he was going through the other drawers. He reached between his legs and actually had the gun in his grip when Ragg, seeing the movement, turned. He held his tiny gun outstretched, pointed at the man’s chest. He was careful to hold it straight and squeeze the trigger smoothly. Not like shooters in the movies, always jerking the gun as they fired.
The crash of the report startled Ragg. The only time he had fired the piece was in the alley behind the Showboat where the noise could disappear into the night sky. Here the sound was like a roar slamming loudly off the walls of the cramped apartment. Geezer sat back looking surprised as a red blotch bloomed then grew on the front of his shirt. Neither of them heard the startled cry from the bathroom as Judy jerked herself standing, spilling the tray and coke across the floor.
It wasn’t happening as quickly as Ragg thought it would. He had shot him-that should have been the end of it-but there he was, bleeding but still lifting the gun toward him. Looks like a fucking cannon, he thought as he began to squeeze the trigger again. This time it wasn’t smooth at all. He was panicking and the blast popped a hole in the bottom of Geezer’s shirt down in the belly.
He tried to fire again. Honest to God tried by couldn’t for the life of him make his hand do what he wanted it to. It was like one of those damn chase dreams when, no matter how fast you run, you don’t get anywhere. That was the last thought Billy Ragg had as he actually watched the nigger’s hand tighten around the trigger.
Judy would later tell Detective Rucker that she came out of the bathroom door right then, in time to see both men frozen, like some kind of painting. Geezer was sitting sort of sideways-bent, like with one hand over his stomach-this huge gun pointed and the white guy standing there with his gun pointed and she didn’t know for a moment who was shooting.
Suddenly, the .45 roared with a flash of fire and a concussion that hurt her ears. Billy Ragg’s head exploded in clumps of red and a pink spray spattering the wall and dresser behind him. His body sailed backward and hit the floor hard. As the darkness settled around him, Geezer could hear Judy screaming. The last thing he ever saw was her disappearing out the door, her screams becoming faint.
Two blocks over, Jimmy Proffo was nursing a second cup of burned black coffee when he heard screaming in the distance and instinctively began to rise. Rucker stopped him with a hand on his arm. “Relax”, he said. “She’s coming this way.”
There’s a light on in my mother’s house that I had nothing to do with. In the year plus since we found her on the kitchen floor having taken one last fall into the hereafter, anything that happened in that house had been my doing. The same could be said of the previous two decades when I pretty much took over for the old man who checked out in a rented hospital bed in the front parlor.
The emptying of three generations of stuff from matriarchs and patriarchs who threw nothing away. Who keeps six pizzelle irons that don’t work? A stone saw from a bricklaying business that thrived during the Eisenhower years. A garage under the back apartment that once held a work truck and a Hudson Hornet now held…what the hell is all this stuff?
Then, walking the empty newly white rooms, which could recently only be navigated sideways my memories meld with theirs. Here was my great grandpa’s room (where I had Marci that night after the game) this was your Uncle Nick’s room (I hear in my grandmother’s voice, since Nick was dead before I was born). It was also later my grandfather’s then my brother’s and where Cindy and I had a memorable couple of evenings when the parents were out. The back bedroom was Amy. Jesus, she was a one and Roxanne too-who never cared that I’d been roofing all day.
Even the basement wasn’t safe as I’d set that up with a throwaway couch that had long ago been thrown away. Down there was Marie and Colleen-God bless her, she’s dead now. Most of the people who’d crossed these thresholds are dead now-which is natural enough-but it would be nice if they’d leave and didn’t crowd me so in a house that hasn’t been this empty in seventy years.
“I’m surprised you don’t want to hang onto this property”, said the new owner when I met her at the inspection. Hang onto it? I’d no more be able to shed this place than a tortorice could doff it’s shell. I’ll be lumbering the rest of my life under the weight of this place, trying to avoid stopping by to trim the hedges, have a smoke on the porch or otherwise lurk. I still have a set of keys hanging by the door in case…of..what exactly?
Maybe I’ll drive by tonight, to see if any bedroom lights are on. I could tell them about Uncle Nick’s room where one night I was sleeping with my grandfather and awoke to the sound of a nightmare’s machine guns only to find it was him snoring.
I’m sure they wouldn’t give a shit. And to be honest, I don’t either. Just can’t get out from under any of it.
There was the time that cousin Jeffy came back from a morning in the fields and breakwoods out back carrying an old cigar box full of songbird eggs that he had pilfered from nests. There were different shades of blue ones, white ones, brown speckled, black speckled…a kaleidoscope of small, some round, some oval, unborn birds. His father, a birder with a long life list positively raged at the carnage. “You must take them back immediately”, he roared. “Put them back where you found them!” Jeffy, the ever obstinate, said no. Then, to perhaps appear less confrontational said he couldn’t remember where he got them all. Uncle, not a big man, sputtered, balled his fist and punched him square in the nose. Jeffy was ten or eleven at the time and took the punch well though he sat down hard on the floor as blood flowed apace. With a stunned grin, Jeffy opened the box on his lap and picked out a sky blue egg that even I knew was a robin’s. He popped it into his mouth and swallowed it whole while Uncle, roaring, reached for the belt he wasn’t wearing because it was the weekend. Then, with both of us frozen, he picked out another-a small speckled one-and held it up between pointer and thumb. “It’s a chickadee Jeffery. Put it back!” Jeffy’s low giggle was more of a growl, coming from deep within his chest. This time, when he popped the egg into his mouth he bit down with a sickening crunch then opened his lips in a ghastly smile pushing yolk and bits of shell through his gapped teeth. His father, apoplectic, screamed and pulled the china cabinet over trying to brain the boy. He missed as dishes crashed into shards across the linoleum. His voice choked with fury, he ran into the next room looking for something to beat the boy with. Jeffy looked at me with wide, wild eyes and picked another egg, this one larger than the others. With another growl he smashed it into his forehead and laughed as the yolk and slime rolled down his face to mix with the blood. Fearing finally that whatever brand of crazy was going on might have been catching, I bolted through the backdoor, knocking it off its hinges and stumbled over the garbage can. “Not the Lark!!” I heard Uncle cry as the tea kettle came crashing through the kitchen window behind me.
In this one, Bud tells how he became a boob man. He wasn’t telling it to me; I’d heard the story countless times already, usually like now, a couple of drinks in. I was watching the Three Stooges with the sound down at the end of the bar. The boys were plumbers and I was waiting for the part when Larry, digging under the yard sticks his head up through the sod, looks around in that haggard Larry way, and seeing where he is, pulls it back down like a startled turtle. The way his hat got stuck above ground and he reaches up and pulls it down always cracks me up. So I was waiting for it when Bud says something to Dot on the other side of him that I missed but then he goes, “…like the time I got hit in the head by that mannequin tit.” Shit, I hadn’t heard it coming. Had to turn away from the set. “Tell the story”, Dot says leaning back to open the story way to the woman on her right. “Tell, it. You and Prichard…” She’d heard this story a few times too. “Jim Prichard and I were shoppin’…” he starts right in. “I was what? Twelve? Waiting for Sheryll to get her picture taken at Murphy’s…with Santa Claus. And Prichard, you remember Prichard?” It was a nice touch, but nobody ever did. I mean ever. Poor Prichard had to be the most forgettable fucker you’d ever not meet. “Anyway, Prichard and I, we were over around the counter and Prichard says, “Hey, think we can lift this up? It was a mannequin. Not the whole body thing…just from here” puts his hand to the top of Dot’s thigh like a freeze-frame karate chop, “to the top of the head. A pretty redhead, as I recall. So me and Prichard we went over and lift it-it wasn’t that heavy-but when we set it back down…the damn mannequin was sittin’ on one of these pedestals-not too stable- and the damn thing went….Whoooop! It falls over and the tit hit me right on top of the head.” “DOINK!” Dot laughed. “Doink, my ass”, says Bud. “It knocked me flat, until I saw that floor manager runnin’ my way and I got up and took off. Dizzier n’ hell with a goozle on top of my head for days.” “He goes crazy over boobs now”, Dot says to the woman to her right. I honestly doubted the cause and effect of the whole deal, but it wasn’t my story.
He leaned out of the doorway toward me, just far enough for the reflected muddy glow of the streetlight to hit his hands and up his chest, leaving everything above the cigarette in shadows. By the tilt of his hat, his gaze seemed off-as if he were looking over my head, off into the distance. Where there was more nothing but stacked higher.
“What can I do for you?” he asked, voice dry and dusty.
“I’d like to be high”, I told him.
“We got you. Lotta people in your shoes.”
“Yeah, but only for a half hour or so…”
“I need to be high for a half hour.”
“Half hour. Like thirty minutes?”
“Maybe forty-five tops. Got some things to do that a buzz would definitely help with. I don’t need to tell you how long it’s been! But then, I’d like to be straight again.”
“Yeah I got shit to do later that would definitely require…a level of straightness. Like I have now.”
“Whyn’t you go do that shit now? Then come back?”
“Too early. And I doubt my ability to hold on till then without…”
“Yeah. I need it to hit me real fast.”
“Then, like that…”, he tries to snap his fingers, but instead his pointer finger snaps off at the top knuckle with a small pop. He pauses to follow the track of the top of his digit disappearing among the detritus along the curb. “…be straight again. That what you mean?”
“Yeah. Something that snaps on and off. Well not like….” I looked down to where his finger had fallen to watch the roiling under the rags and sodden papers as the vermin vied for the prize. Something must have won out as a skittering of tiny claws rattled away. “You got anything like that?” I asked, looking back up. “With switches?”
“On and off.”
“Neh, man. Our ride takes a while to get to cruising speed. And once there it lasts…a good long while. Then it takes some time to come back down. Four-hour minimum commitment. Results may vary.”
“Come back when you have a couple of seconds”, he said leaning back into the shadows. “A day…a weekend maybe. And I’ll fix you up.”
“Thanks”, I said hustling away. Who has that kind of time?
She was still telling the story about the time Laurence Fishburne tried to pick her up in the Village. How she rebuffed his savage suavity, not realizing she was dating herself when she called him Morpheus. The Village wasn’t the Village anymore and Laurence was no longer Morpheus.
It wasn’t a story she should tell everyone, but it was one she told me too often. And when she told it, she stood too close and let her hand linger on my arm just a beat too long. We were working long hours on her project and I’d fly in from headquarters for a few days at a time.
She knew I was married which probably made me safe for her fantasies but trying for mine. There was the time she had taken me to a bar for drinks, somewhere out on the Island, then for a walk down a quaint sandy street. She was working through one of her divorces. “That bar is my husband’s favorite”, she said nodding across the street. “He’s probably in there now. But I don’t see his truck.” She smiled sweetly, careful not to catch my eye.
It was the same trip, or the one after, when she came to my hotel room to use the bathroom after passing on the one in the lobby. This was after an evening of dancing and dinner. I had the knees for it then.
She was wearing a fashionable for the time letterman’s jacket that bloused at the waist. It had faux leather sleeves that she rubbed against me as I held the door ushering her from the bathroom right into the hall.
The twinge of her leaving was nowhere near the nightmare of her staying.
I watched him kill sparrows once, in the field behind his old farmhouse. This was years after Kate died, but you’d never know it because her stuff was still everywhere. He blamed sparrows for the for the loss of songbirds and his beloved finches and titmice. The trap was a box like contraption of heavy metal screen wrapped around a wooden frame. At one end of the box was a hole and just inside the hole a cantilevered arm with a screened cover. The birds would hop onto the arm which would simultaneously drop them into the box and cover the hole-trapping them inside.
This was back in the Permian Hills, which he called the place where they-he-lived. Soft hills that rolled and undulated between the horizons like waves in a washtub. He loved saying it, planting his flag in the region as if naming it made him something more than a short time caretaker. Remember the place as brown. It wasn’t, of course. Not always. It could be beautiful in the summer when everything was planted and the high sky was deep blue swept with wispy high clouds. But my memories allow it no more than the sickly greenish tinge of a catfish’s belly.
He would bait the device with millet and rough grain, not the thistle or black oil sunflower seeds that he fed the songbirds. He’d set it on the stump of an old oak out back while we went about our business. Later we’d find any number of birds milling about inside contentedly nibbling until we walked up on them and they thrashed against the screen trying to get away. He’d reach into the box and gently grab anything with color that had been trapped and toss them into the air to flit furiously away. The sputzies, as he called them, he’d drop them into an old work sock. Then he’d spin the sock over his head-said it would put them to sleep-before bashing it into the stump.
He’d toss the tiny downy carcasses into the field, food for owls or kestrels, foxes or coons. His face never changed from the lifeless and dull chore-look, the same as if he was changing a tire on the tractor. I still wonder if he did this when Kate was alive. Somehow doubt it.