"You're ready to confess?" asked Detective Rojas.
"Yes," admitted Shewman, biting his nails. "I committed those robberies."
"Okay. And you understand your rights? You're confessing without the counsel of a lawyer."
"Yes, I understand."
"Okay, I'm going to need a written statement with your signature."
"Do I have to?"
Rojas insisted. He handed Mr. Shewman a sheaf of papers and a pen. Shewman hesitated, took a deep breath and, hand shaking, reached for the pen. The handcuffs clinked against the metal railing as he wrote down his statement in great detail. It took nearly an hour. When he finished, Rojas reviewed the statement and the signature.
"Okay, Mr. Shewman, everything looks in order. I must admit, this is very thorough," he said. "Do you mind if I ask why you did it?"
"It was easy," quipped Shewman.
"Robbery is easy?"
"Let me rephrase that. It was easier than my day job." Shewman hesitated, then he blurted out, "I'm a screenwriter."
"Like for the movies?"
Shewman nodded solemnly.
"Let me get this straight. You gave up screenwriting to commit robberies?"
"You have no idea how difficult it is; day after day, staring at the blank page, trying to come up with an original story. But it can't be too original. No, it has to be just the right combination of original and derivative. At least if you want it to sell. The lead character must have a goal and substantial obstacles to overcome before he or she reaches that goal. But he, she, or it; yes, objects can be protagonists too, must overcome a personal problem or phobia as well. Dialogue, characters, and plotting all need to be perfectly executed. After months of work, you finally turn in the script and what happens next? The notes come in. Everyone has notes: agents, producers, directors, actors, assistants, assistants to the assistants, I mean everyone. And they tell you to make major changes to the story as though it were as easy as changing your socks. Go home and rewrite Act II by tomorrow. Why not ask me to perform the seven labors of Hercules, it would be easier."
Shewman turned his gaze from the wall and now stared directly into the eyes of Detective Rojas.
"Look, I'm no slouch, I'm a professional. I went to college. I have a master's degree, but I'm treated with the same respect as a gardener. Move that hedge, plant those flowers, trim those branches. I'm told what to do. No one asks my opinion and I'm the one who created the story!"
Agitated, Shewman suddenly rose from his seat, but Detective Rojas pushed him back down.
"Settle down, Mister."
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to get so worked up, but the job is just so... so hideous."
"I still can't understand why you would take up burglary. It seems a lot more dangerous."
Shewman shrugged. "It gets me out of the house. Besides, writing is hazardous, too. Do you know how many writers have chronic back problems, carpel tunnel, headaches, not to mention long term health issues? It's a very sedentary job. Writers don't exercise; many of them smoke or drink excessively. They have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and high anxiety. I felt much more relaxed sneaking into a stranger's home."
Rojas shook his head in disbelief.
"You're going to jail."
"If you think writing's bad, don't you think jail will be worse?"
Shewman dropped his head in shame. "No."
"You're in for a big surprise," said Rojas.
As Rojas escorted him back to his cell, Shewman suddenly turned to the detective with a look of elation. "I just realized I'll finally have time to write my memoir. True stories are big right now! And this will make a great story!"
Nodding sunflowers and bobbing black-eyed Susans didn’t brighten my mood. The blue sky could have just as easily been black with thunderheads. Hummingbirds and butterflies might have been vultures or turkey buzzards for all the joy I took in their company. Trilling songbirds were indistinguishable from cawing crows. Neither beauty nor comfort reached me in the depths of my nameless despair.
Had I been younger, I’d have blamed it on hormones. Older, and I‘d have called it a depression of old age. It was neither. It was the dream.
The dream had been a good thing, once. The tunnel or corridor always had a light at the end, beckoning me past the hardships to a bright future, something better, offering distractions and detours along the way. Lately, though, the dream had changed. The passage was still there, though cramped and low ceilinged and still harboring obstacles. But it was narrow, now, and without variation. The end was black, glimpsed through shreds of gray mist.
Why, I wondered, should I continue to fight my way through if all that’s ahead is…this?
The day blurred through unshed tears. My bones ached.
I willed myself to end, to simply stop breathing and un-Be.
“Nan! Where’s the salt?” came the querulous demand across the yard from the kitchen doorway.
“On the counter next to the stove,” I called back. Where it’s been for the past 50 years.
“Where? I don’t see it.”
I heaved a sigh. “I’m coming!” Un-being was going to have to wait. Damn retirement. Can’t even enjoy a good funk in peace.
It was called an Infinity Pool. It looked, from a certain angle, from a swimmer’s perspective, like it extended into the ocean.
But that’s not why the swimming pool at the top of the Lotus Tower in Singapore was special.
It was special because every night between 1 and 2 AM, a man swam there.
Hiro Robata spent each day analyzing sales data for a Biotech software company. He worked from his home office, on the twelfth floor of the Lotus Tower. It suited him to work from home because he found any travelling difficult, due to his wheelchair.
There was a light on the answering machine. He knew what was behind the light. His daughter had asked a question of him five or ten times, and he hadn’t yet answered. A twist of guilt turned his heart.
In fact he hadn’t left the Lotus Tower in weeks. His daughter came and visited lots, and there was a small convenience store to top up groceries if he ever forgot to order them online. It was enough excitement for him.
But tomorrow night his daughter Alyssa was throwing an engagement party. Her engagement party. It was at a restaurant by the water. He felt it had been too long- he wouldn’t know how to be in a restaurant, how to speak to people. People who walk, that is.
He sighed and stared at the red answering machine light, which stared back.
There was another reason he worked from home, besides the awkwardness of travel. Hiro was never a people person. He preferred to communicate by emails. He liked to eat lunch silently, looking at clouds or rain or blue sky from his comfortable armchair in front of the window. He preferred to see only his daughter or his nurse who came three times a day to help him with ‘life tasks’.
He did well, people said, after the accident where he and his wife inexorably changed- his change, the loss of the use of his legs due to a spine injury. Well, he did pretty well- kept his well-paying, interesting job, and kept his apartment. Their apartment. The doctors were always surprised his muscles hadn’t atrophied more than they did.
Hiro would tap his head.
“Mind,” he would say. “I picture myself running on the treadmill like I used to. My legs remember.”
If he could impress the doctors, surely he could keep some cool at the dinner party.
Alyssa looked just like his wife. He should do this thing for her.
He called her, before he could chicken out of his decision. Her voice shot up high with excitement. She called him honorable father, and he felt a glow in his heart.
That night he dreamed of the sea again. He usually dreamed of splashing in the waves and swimming out into the ocean. But this time, a crowd of people stood on the shore, watching. They had dinner napkins tucked in their shirts and dresses. They were staring.
One yelled out, “Is that a fish?”
He wanted to say, “It’s me, Hiro,” but he couldn’t make a noise. He could only splash what he was horrified to see was a big tail.
He woke up in a cold sweat, and the noises from the dream faded away. He felt relieved to be in his peaceful bed. The clock read 4 AM.
The nurse came at 6:00 every morning. He could get out of bed and into his wheelchair alone, if he really had to do it. But it was so much easier with the nurse helping. He would wait. He would read a book.
Because he had been awake at 4:00, by the time he was at the dinner party seated next to his daughter, he was exhausted. He smiled and nodded at people, but barely caught the small talk. He worried they were staring at him. Mrs. Kanaka, who had been a great friend of his wife’s before she died, kept looking at him so sadly. But Alyssa was radiant, and placed a comforting hand on his arm. She was so alive. It warmed his heart.
The food was good, and thankfully he could share a few words about its excellence. He became surprisingly talkative. Mrs. Kanaka gave him an encouraging grin. Food was a topic he knew.
Afterwards, they all went for a ramble on the boardwalk. The night was bright, and he could smell the ocean. The thought occurred to him that he should get out more. The fresh salt scent lifted his spirits.
There was splash, and Hiro was in the water.
He didn’t know how he had gotten there. He was sure he had slipped into a dream. But he was looking for someone. Looking, looking …
There, the tangle of hair, wet hair, bobbing up and now gone. He swam hard to the location, dove down precisely and felt his hands close around the small body. Kicking hard, he came to the surface. He made sure the boy’s face was turned to the sky, so he’d breath air.
The boy kicked feebly. Good, he was alive! Hiro remembered then- yes, the boy had fallen in with a yelp. Hiro had dove in after … but his legs. He couldn’t have dived.
It must be a dream. The party of people gathered on the boardwalk stared at him. Some of them looked like they still had dinner napkins. It was just like last night’s dream.
Hiro swam to them with the boy. He handed the boy up to his grateful parents, who kissed the child over and over. A hand helped Hiro to the boardwalk. It was Alyssa.
“Dad!” she said as he stood beside her. “Dad!” Then her face crumpled, and she threw her arms around him and wept such tears.
His wife was so passionate too. So full of feeling.
Still, he did not wake up.
He was glad.
I asked him again. "You're not going?"
Rob shook his head.
"Even though it's free?"
"And it's because...?"
"I'm afraid," he answered.
I took another drink and slammed down the glass because the fool was making me angry.
"It's a free trip! She's paying for it!"
"I don't care," Rob replied. He reached for my now empty glass and carried it into the kitchen. I thought he was getting me a refill, but he returned empty handed.
"No drink?" I asked.
"I think you've had enough."
I laughed, but he looked serious. "It's root beer."
"Do you know how many calories are in each glass?"
A cheap shot. He knew I was sensitive about my weight. I gained quite a few pounds after my second divorce, but why was he trying to hurt me? I realized that he wasn't; he was deflecting. But why? Why was he being so pig headed? And I knew that if I was frustrated, Shayla had to be irate!
"Keep my weight out of this, we're talking about you."
"There's nothing else to discuss," he said. "I'm not going. That's final."
I'd only been to Hawaii once, but I absolutely loved it. I had dreamed of returning for years, but a string of low paying jobs kept me from going anywhere beyond Vegas.
"Rob, it's beautiful. Some people call it paradise."
"Some people are stupid."
"Are you afraid someone's going to slip you a cursed lava rock?"
"Don't be ridonkulous." It was one of his favorite sayings. He knew it annoyed me.
"What's the worst that could happen?" I asked.
He counted off on his fingers: "Sharks. Riptides. Jellyfish."
"So stay away from the ocean."
"Why go to an island if you're not going to enjoy the water?"
"Go hiking. There are beautiful trails where you can see waterfalls and bamboo forests. You could climb into the hills where no tsunamis will get you."
"I guess you didn't hear about the two hikers who disappeared last year."
"No, I canceled my subscription to Paranoid Fears and Delusions. What happened?"
"One afternoon, two twenty-somethings took off down a trail and never returned. When a search party of fifty volunteers went to look for them, one of the volunteers disappeared. No one's seen any of them ever since."
"There was no sign of them?"
"You're making this up."
"Here." He handed me the article which he had conveniently ready. I skimmed the ending where the author speculated they must have fallen through the vegetation into the rocks below where they were mostly likely claimed by the sea. It was horrible to imagine. Still, I'd be on a plane in a second if I had the chance.
I handed him back the article and asked, "You showed this to Shayla?"
"She can't be too happy about this," I continued.
"I'm sure no one's happy about missing hikers."
"I meant your decision. She must be sad that you're denying her her dream trip."
"I told her she could go without me if she wants."
"I'm sure she really wants to go to Hawaii alone."
"She could take her sister."
Bewildered, I threw my hands in the air. "It's romantic, dummy! She doesn't want to take her sister, she wants to take you so you can watch the sunset and snorkel and spend an amazing time together so you'll have these amazing memories to..." and then it hit me. I suddenly realized Rob wasn't afraid of riptides and sharks, but something else entirely.
"You're not afraid of Hawaii. You're afraid of Shayla! She wants to take your relationship to the next level." He wrinkled his brow in confusion, but I could tell it was an act. He knew exactly what I meant so I said it. "You're afraid of commitment."
"That's not it at all," insisted Rob.
"I saw the way she looked at you at your cousin's wedding last fall. She had that expectant dreamy gaze in her eyes--"
"That was vodka martinis."
"--picturing your future home with little Rob and Shayla junior prancing about."
"That's not funny."
"She's tired of waiting. It's been what? Almost four years that you've been together, right? She wants to go to Hawaii so you can pop the question." I roared with triumphant laughter. "It all makes sense!"
"You're wrong!" He slammed down his fist and I stopped laughing.
His face turned red and his hands were shaking as he stood. "That's' not it at all and I told her just like I'm telling you -- I'm not going and that's final!"
Rob stormed into his bedroom, slamming the door. I went to the kitchen and poured myself another glass of root beer. I returned to the living room and turned on the TV figuring he would come out in a few minutes, but an hour later I realized he was being childish so I decided to leave. I turned off the TV and then I heard it: he was quietly sobbing into his pillow. It was muffled, but the sound of despair is distinct. No marriage meant their relationship was over. And he'd made his decision.
I left my glass on the coffee table and quietly let myself out. I'm not sure when the idea hit me, but only a few minutes from home, I turned the car around. I drove past Rob's house and headed to Shayla's. I figured she'd want to talk; maybe she'd need some comforting. She wasn't bad looking, and if Rob wasn't going to marry her, maybe I would. Hell, I'd do anything for chance to return to Hawaii.
Johnny glanced up.
The girls paused halfway up the fire escape and stopped on the second-floor landing. There were eight of them, all wearing white blouses and pastel skirts. Except Becky Castex. She had on her usual skin-tight jeans. The girls shuffled about the staircase, vying for position. Mary Alice settled on the landing, her feet on the step below, looking in Johnny’s direction.
There were all pretty, but Mary Alice’s apple-pink cheeks gave her smile a special brightness.
“Johnny,” Boogie said.
“I saw Crazy Jerry this morning.”
Johnny’s attention jumped back to his friend. Boogie sat on the low wall surrounding the school playground, a grass stalk protruding from the left corner of his mouth.
“I haven’t seen him in more than a year. How does he look?”
“Just the same. Crazy Jerry’s looked the same for a long time.”
Johnny scrabbled a piece of tree bark from beneath his knee.
“I didn’t see him. Where was he?”
“When we were heading for class. Looked like he was watching us.”
“Yeah. He was just standing there on the sidewalk holding up his bike.”
Johnny didn’t reply. His attention shifted back to the girls on the fire escape. A sudden gust of spring breeze flipped Mary Alice’s skirt over her knees and she pushed the hemline down with both hands. In that instant flesh tones beneath the fabric and a flash of pink captured Johnny’s eyes.
A harsh breath escaped his throat as a knife-sharp sensation leaped from his abdomen to his throat.
He looked up and caught Mary Alice’s eyes focused on him as the rush of an aging memory painted itself across his mind’s eye.
He had been, what? Seven, eight? It was his first year at the old red-brick three-story school. The sharp dinging of the recess bell sent him and the dozens of other first and second graders pounding down the wooden-floored halls in route to the playground. The new slide was one of the closest pieces of equipment in the playground, set well away from the merry-go-round, the hanging ladder, the see-saws and the swings.
Johnny wanted to be the first to try the newly installed steel slide. He had watched the workers setting it, anchoring its feet in concrete in the dusty soil. It was the tallest slide he had ever seen. He reckoned its height at ten, twelve feet. But he stumbled and fell going through the classroom door and when he picked himself up he was no longer at the head of the pack. He wouldn’t be first in line.
Miss Rita, the teacher who had the morning playground duty, stood in the shade of a sprawling live oak tree adjacent to the new slide. She held up her hand and brought a quick halt to the pandemonium.
“Okay, kids,” she said, her voice sharp. “I know you all want to try the new slide. And you will. But I want some order here.”
She paused, looking over the milling assemblage.
“Okay,” she repeated. “Looks like thirty of you. So, I want three lines of ten kids each, starting here.” She pointed to a spot about a dozen feet from the foot of the slide ladder.
Pick me, Johnny thought, almost thrusting his hand in the air. But she pointed to the tall blonde boy standing next to her.
“Richard is number one,” she said. “You can all see him, so line up behind him, then start another line to his left, and then another at the tenth person.” She watched as the moving bodies hurried to find appropriate positions.
Despite some mumbled bickering the lines quickly resolved to Miss Rita’s satisfaction.
“Good. You did well. Now Richard is going first, then next in line will follow him, but not until I say. This is how I’ll tell you to go.”
Miss Rita had a long black pencil in her hand. She pointed it at Richard.
“When I point at you, it’s your turn. Is that clear everyone?”
“Sure,” Johnny almost shouted. His response echoed through the group. He guessed he was number seven in the first line.
“Nuts,” he mumbled.
“Did someone say something?” Miss Rita asked. She hesitated, looking around. No one answered.
“Okay.” She pointed the pencil at Richard. He dashed for the slide.
“Slow down before you hurt yourself.”
But Richard grabbed the ladder’s rails and bounded up the steps. He hit the top of the slide with a whoop, flashed down the slick steel bed letting out a “Yahoo” as he flew from the end, staggered then caught himself.
Johnny watched Miss Rita. She had already leveled her pencil at the next in line and Bobby Dance took off.
That’s when Johnny looked at the person in front of him and realized it was a girl; a pretty little girl with blonde pig-tails, wearing a white blouse and a blue pleated skirt. He felt a questioning twinge he didn’t understand. He looked up and realized the girl was looking at him over her shoulder.
Miss Rita’s voice surprised him.
“Mary Alice, are you going?”
The girl in front of him jerked her head around.
“I –I didn’t see you point at me,” she said. “I’m going now.”
Johnny watched her sprint toward the slide, her hair and her skirt flying as she ran. Johnny looked at Miss Rita. She held her pencil before her face watching, then turned toward Johnny. Anticipating the pointing pencil, he dashed for the slide.
As he reached out and grasped the ladder rails, he heard pounding feet on the ladder, and he glanced up. Mary Alice was stepping from the ladder to the slide’s platform and Johnny found himself staring up her skirt at her pink legs and round, white-panty-clad bottom. Somehow, he knew what he had just seen would stay with him for the rest of his life.
“Johnny, stop!” Miss Rita yelled. “Let her finish her slide.”
Johnny could still feel a burning flush on his face. He held onto the ladder rails until he felt Mary Alice fly from the foot of the slide, then ran up the stairs and threw himself down the warm steel.
“Johnny.” Miss Rita walked up to him, frowning. “That was mean and arrogant,” she said. “It was dangerous. And I’m sure you embarrassed Mary Alice. You go apologize to her right now, then go inside. You’ve had enough sliding for today.”
“I’m sorry, Miss Rita. I didn’t mean to ….”
“It doesn’t matter what you meant to do. You go inside and sit by yourself until class starts again. “
Johnny looked around. Across the playground, kids swung along the jungle gym, pumped the swings high and fast, and laughed on the see-saws. Mary Alice stood with several girls near the playground wall.
“What did I do that was so bad?” he muttered, shuffling toward the school and stopping at the knot of girls around Mary Alice.
“Mary Alice,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
She looked him in the eyes but said nothing.
“You should be,” Becky Castex said. Johnny glanced at the jean- clad blonde. He shook his head and walked on to the empty classroom.
How many years ago had that been?
Would Mary Alice ever forget? Reliving the glare she had just flashed at him, not likely.
When next she spoke to him she would say “You were looking up my skirt again.”
“But it wasn’t on purpose.”
“What,” Boogie asked?
“Oh, nothing. The wind just blew Mary Alice’s skirt up, and I got a look.”
“So, what? She is pretty, ain’t she?”
“She’s the best-looking girl I know.”
Boogie appeared to think about it.
“The Castex girl’s awfully pretty,” he said.
“Miss blondie blue Jeans?”
“Yeah-uh,” Boogie replied. “Ever wonder if she’s blonde everywhere?”
“Don’t say things like that Boo. That’s not nice.”
“Ain’t you wondered about it? “
Johnny didn’t answer.
“Her brother says she is,” Boogie added. Johnny looked hard at his friend.
“How would he know?”
“He says his parents are naturalists- or naturists- or something like that. They don’t wear clothes at home. They all run around the house naked. They get dressed up just to go to work or to church. Ain’t that something. Wish my folks did stuff like that. My folks are so dull. ‘Course I don’t know if I want to see Daddy naked. Ugh.”
“Boogie, shut up. I don’t want to think about stuff like that.”
Boogie stared at Johnny then looked away and spat the grass stem from his mouth.
“’Bout time for the fourth class bell. We didn’t get much lunch.”
They had skipped the cafeteria line and bought Cracker Jacks from the concession window. He knew his mother wouldn’t like him going without lunch, but who would tell her? Not Boogie.
“I think the girls were who Crazy Jerry was watching,” Boogie said.
“I told you. When we were going to class this morning. I told you Crazy Jerry rode up on his bike and was watching us going in. I think he was really looking at Becky Castex in her tight jeans.”
“Why would he be doing that.”
Boogie looked at Johnny, then shrugged.
“I dunno. ‘Course, they were right behind us, so he might have been watching us.”
Johnny felt a shiver run up his spine.
“Nah, Boogie, he wouldn’t be watching us. You’re right. There was a whole knot of girls in front of us. He was just looking at the pretty girls.”
Even as he said the lie, he felt the hackles on his neck rise.
Why didn’t I see Crazy Jerry?
Mary Alice had been right in front of them too. Was Crazy Jerry watching her?
She doesn’t even know Crazy Jerry exists.
That’s not true. Everybody knows Crazy Jerry. He’s been around this school since I first got here, even before. Mary Alice knows about him. But I’ll bet she’s never talked to him. And I’m the only one who’s ever been to his cabin.
“See you later,” Boogie said. “I’ve got Mrs. Lusk for the next two hours.”
“Okay Boo. See you at the drug store when we get out.”
“Yeah, I’ll need a coke and some more Cracker Jacks. See yah.”
Johnny knew Crazy Jerry sometimes hung out after school at Hopkin’s Pharmacy where he tried to sell old and worn comic books, horror and mystery stories featuring pages of creatures and beautiful girls. He had bought a couple just for their cover pictures and kept them hidden beneath his mattress.
He had seen Crazy Jerry now and then in the past five years and always questioned how this hunchbacked, partially crippled old man in the dirty black jeans and ancient overcoat could be the man he saw in the cabin in the swamp. That man had towered over him on that ramshackle porch and didn’t have a hunchback. He was tall, and light on his feet. How could he be the half-crippled, half-insane creep everyone called Crazy Jerry? But the few times he had managed to look into Crazy Jerry’s eyes he knew he was the person who had chased him from the cabin’s front porch that evening.
Could he be a threat to Mary Alice, or the other girls?
When the bell on St. Gregory’s Catholic Church a block up the street began tolling 3 PM, Johnny hurriedly shoved his grammar book, pencils and pad into his battered leather school bag.
“Johnny,” Miss Rita said.
She stood in front of her desk watching her English glass students parading from the room.
“Slow down. You know rushing always gets you in trouble.”
Five minutes later he jumped across the ditch to the sidewalk in front of Hopkins Drug Store. Boogie sat on the cement facade beneath the building’s big picture window reading a comic book.
“Hey, Boo,” he said. “Where’d you get that.”
Boogie looked up.
“Crazy Jerry’s just around the corner. Got another bunch of comics he’s peddling. Got this one for a nickel.” He held up a shopworn cover displaying a scantily clad blonde running across swamp-like terrain pursued by a creature half man and half wolf.
“Ain’t got a nickel. Don’t need no more comics right now anyhow. But I think I’ll go look anyway.”
Boogie folded the comic book lengthwise and stuck it in his back pocket. He picked up the small open box at his feet and stood. “Want some Cracker Jacks?”
Johnny held out his hand and Boogie poured a handful of the coated popcorn into his outstretched hand. He tilted his head back and tossed the sticky mass into his mouth. “Good,” he mumbled as they ambled past the corner of the building to where they could see Crazy Jerry a couple of car lengths up the street.
Jerry stood next to his bike, leaning on it and holding up a brightly colored book, glaring reds and dirty yellows on the cover.
“Sell this one cheap,” he said, his words barely distinguishable in his low-pitched growl.
Johnny could see little difference between the cover Crazy Jerry displayed and the one Boogie had been reading. “Mr. Hopkins sells this one for 15-cents,” Jerry said, turning toward Johnny and Boogie as they stopped near the grouped boys.
“Here,” he said holding it out at arm’s length toward Johnny.
Johnny stared at the cover where a blonde girl who looked for all the world like Becky Castex stared down at a slobbering saber-toothed cat, a red tinted sunset in the background.
Johnny looked up at Crazy Jerry’s face, a face that seemed unfamiliar yet summoned another face from his memory. It was the face that had chased him from the porch deep in the swamp; the same face, but somehow different.
“I-uh—I don’t have any money.”
“Just a penny…. it’s a terrific book,” Jerry muttered.
“Don’t have one,” Johnny said, trying to avoid looking into Crazy Jerry’s eyes.
“Huh. Not even a penny? Tell ya what. This one’s a gift. You can pay me next time…”
Jerry broke eye contact with Johnny and turned away pushing his derelict bike ahead. He swung aboard, pulling the blanket that he used as a cape up across his hunch.
“But!” Johnny yelled after him.
Crazy Jerry half-turned on his saddle.
“Read your book,” he yelled pedaling away.
Johnny looked down at the garish red and yellow cover, then up at the hunched figure disappearing down the sidewalk, then back at the comic where bold type proclaimed the title, THE ROUGAROUT.
“Can I see it?” Boogie asked, pointing at the comic.
Johnny stared at the cover, then thumbed it open. There he saw a full-page drawing of a hunchback man in a black cape addressing a silver wolf. The caption balloon said, “You know where I live. Come see me.”
“So, here’s the deal, Pops,” Otto Armoire said, trying to give me the stink-eye through his squinty, beady peepers while puffing out his overdeveloped pecs for extra effect. “Five gees. You end it with our Mom and disappear for good. You take your opportunistic ass on to the next vulnerable, trusting, gullible, sweet, loving old broad and never darken her doorstep again. Pepe.”
His brother Pepe, a matched block of granite, pulled a thick stack of greenbacks out of his too-tight dinner jacket’s inside pocket. These fellas need to scale back on the supplements. He held the dough out to me.
“Boys, boys,” I said not reaching for the cash. “You’ve got me all wrong. Your mother and I are in love. We’re very happy and looking to share our golden years…”
“Bullshit!” Otto barked. “She’s got a dozen years on you! Hell, you’re only about ten years older than us! There’s no way you’re in love.”
“We’re soul mates!”
“Double bullshit!” Pepe snarled. You’re a fucking fortune hunter like the rest of them.”
Ah, that’s what it’s all about. The family fortune. These knuckle draggers could give two shits about their mother’s happiness. It was all about fewer assets for them. Assets that their mother, Stella, now controlled since the fatal jailhouse shanking of her husband, convicted Wall Street inside trader Seamus Armoire.
I was expecting some kind of scene from these guys. Stella had warned me about their testy dispositions. I’d successfully dodged them for the first three months Stella and I had been dating, but now with the holidays upon us, it was time, as Sinatra would say, to face the music and dance.
We were at a big holiday party at Stella’s sister’s huge, ostentatious house. Lots of folks. Lots of food and booze (top shelf!). It was pretty easy to move around and keep a low profile. Stella had made a quick intro between the guys and I, which involved an attempted crushing of my hand during the handshake portion which I had successfully been able to neutralize with my own unexpected grip strength and jamming my hand in tight so they couldn’t get my fingers. Disappointed, they mumbled half-assed nice to meet yous and lumbered off towards the liquor.
But now, after a little liquid back-bone, they were back. I was milling around the foyer, while Stella went to pull the car around when they had cornered me.
“Fortune hunter?” I said calmly. “Nonsense. I have no desire for your mother’s money. I’m perfectly capable of making my own way in the world.”
“Oh, yeah,” Otto said. “Doing what?”
“Well, right now, I’m kind of in between things, you know, with age bias being epidemic in this country, so I’ve picked up some seasonal work at Bloomingdales, working the floor. You know men’s accessories, jewelry, wherever it’s busy. Plus I have my small government pension from my years in the, uh, State Department.”
“And you think that will keep our Mom comfortable in a style she’s accustomed, too?” Otto sneered. “Hah! You’re gonna live it up and you’re gonna use our inheritance to do it. We’ve had your type sniffing around since Dad’s been gone. Well, we tried to do this the nice way.”
He reached over with his right hand, clamped a vice-like grip on my left arm just above the elbow and began backing me towards the door.
“Now get lost and stay lost!” he said.
I was about five steps from the door when I reached up with my right hand and grabbed his hand on my arm, pressing my middle finger on top in the soft spot between his thumb and forefinger with my thumb directly underneath on the palm. I pinched hard, compressing the nerves in that area. Otto screamed like a kneecapped howler monkey as I pulled my arm free. I stepped back, pulling his arm out straight away from his body. Using my left forearm as a fulcrum behind his elbow, I pivoted to my right. He bent over at the waist, unable to rise out of the hold without having his arm broken by the downward pressure. I swung him around 180 degrees and let go like the hammer throw in track and field. He crashed head first into the door and dropped to his knees.
Pepe was on me in a flash, grabbing me from behind and trying to put a sleeper hold on me. I reached up behind his back and grabbed his left ear and tugged with all my might. He yelped like a gut-shot coyote and let loose the hold before his ear was ripped from his head. I stepped behind him and swept my left leg behind his as I tugged him backwards. He landed on his back with a giant thud, the vibrations knocking hats and coats off the nearby rack as the front door opened.
“Otto! Pepe!” Stella said. “What are you doing on the floor?” She glared at me. “Slate, what is going on here?”
“Lost a contact lens,” I said. “Your sons were kind enough to help me look for it. Oh, here it is.”
I made a gesture of pulling something off my jacket lapel and pretended to insert it in my eye. “It was stuck on my coat the whole time. Thanks anyway, fellas.”
“Well, we need to be running along,” Stella said as Otto and Pepe groggily got up on shaky getaway sticks. “I promised the Gorgonzola’s we’d stop by for desert.”
We hopped in Stella’s’ vintage Cadillac and drove off.
“Well, that wasn’t so bad,” Stella said. “I was all worried about you and the boys not getting along, but you seemed to really hit it off.”
“Yeah,” I said, feeling the weight of Otto’s Rolex in one jacket pocket and Pepe’s fat designer wallet in the other. “We should do this again.”
As I picked up my shovel in the backyard during a warm early summer Saturday afternoon, I thought about how I always wanted to dig a grave. I leaned the shovel into the ground, pulling up sod, gazing into the worm-infested dirt, then turned my head to the old plastic bag that held the body. Thinking I needed to dispose of this corpse before the kids returned from soccer practice, I remembered how my wife was dead-set against burying the body in the backyard.
But Lucky was more than just a cat to me.
Yes, Lucky did live up to his name, having walked this earth nearly 20 years. I received him as a Christmas gift when I was only 15 and I feel as though we grew up together.
I guess in many ways we did. He was there when I was grounded for organizing a school-wide walkout to protest shorter lunches, when I was home from college for a semester after my motorcycle accident, when Julie and I consummated our relationship and when I took each of our two boys home from the hospital. During his last few years I always joked that Lucky will die the way I want to die: old age.
Lucky didn't like the kids much, though, I thought as I scooped another small pile of dirt in my shovel and dumped it next to me. They say a kitten is better to have around babies because they’ll grow up together, so Lucky was probably too old by the time the kids came around. Toby and Kenneth, now ages five and six respectively, would chase Lucky around the house, pulling his hair or tugging at his tail whenever they caught him. They’re nice boys, and didn’t mean any harm, but they like to roughhouse too much, especially for an aging cat.
It made me happy we never had Lucky declawed because he could defend himself when the boys teased him. They’d come running up to me with a scratch on their hand or arm telling me Lucky got them and I’d just sit back and smile then ask, “What did you do to deserve it?” Then I’d patch them up and let them go play some more.
But if the kids went to my wife with the scratch, boy did I hear about it. I learned to keep my mouth shut about her “little angels,” but inwardly I couldn’t help but give a little chuckle every time one of the kids got scratched.
Lucky was a domestic short hair, mostly black with a white left paw and one white toe on his right. He also had a white splotch on his lower tummy into his crotch area that went down both hind legs and small white spot on the side of his nose.
As I scooped another pile of sod, I remembered every Sunday when he would sit next to me while watching football as though we were watching together. Actually, Lucky slept most of the time, but it was still a male bonding time. I read somewhere that cats do bond. But when my wife saw me scratching his head or rubbing his belly she’d say something like, “You’re not doing anything right now,” then assign me some household chore.
Suddenly, my reminiscing was broken by the voice that’s antagonized me over the past few years. Perhaps antagonizing is a little strong, but we’re very gruff with each other these days. Maybe it’s the added stress of two young boys who get into everything running around the house, but we’re hardly ever civil to one another anymore. From the back kitchen door Julie called, “Honey, you’d better hurry if you want that cat buried before the kids get home.”
“Okay,” I yelled back, then went on shoveling.
My wife has also changed since I first met her. I always found Julie quite attractive, but somewhere along the line she turned into Donna Reed, and I was no Fred MacMurray. Even now she wore a dark blue flowered sun dress that swayed whenever she walked. She would never have worn such an ugly thing before we had kids. We used to go out a couple of nights a week, too, but now all of her time is taken up by the kids, not that I blame the kids for that.
I suppose I haven’t been the best of husbands either. I sometimes grow distant, even detached from those around me, particularly when I’m unhappy. I work late to avoid coming home, although Julie thinks it’s to help support the kids. I let her continue believing that just like I let her continue believing a lot of things.
I’m not sure what makes a man shun everything he’s ever dreamed of having. It’s the American dream, isn’t it? To have a wife, two kids and a cat in the yard. Yet, there seems to be something, perhaps primeval, even prehistoric in the psyche of men that once these things are achieved, we grow restless, nomadic.
“Honey,” my wife disturbed me again as my shovel scraped loudly on a rock. “I baked some blueberry muffins for you and the kids when you’re done.”
“Okay,” I answered back. When I looked up I saw her standing at the screen door holding a muffin tin in her fuzzy oven-mitts. I thought of how ridiculous she looked in those oven-mitts.
“Dear,” I called to her, struggling to get that rock up through the dirt. “When the kids get home, have them come back here for a few minutes.”
She opened the screen door and walked out to the backyard. “What on earth for?”
“I just want them here while I say a few words about Lucky. You know, sort of a cat eulogy.”
“Oh, you and that old cat.” That’s what she always said about my relationship with Lucky. “Well you’d better hurry because the kids will be here any minute.”
“I know.” I grunted muscling that rock up through the soil. I realized she probably thought I was crazy for wanting a eulogy for a cat, but it was my way of saying good-bye to an old friend.
Just then Julie looked down to see the job I had done. “Honey, you’re not going to bury that cat there are you?” The large, heavy rock slipped off the shovel and fell to the side, then I picked up the plastic bag, looking down at the hole wondering what the hell she could have been thinking all the time she watched me dig. “I think it’s too close to my flower bed. That plastic bag might interfere with the roots, you know.”
I looked down at the flowerbed admiring its wonderful beauty, yet noting the sharp thorns.
“Besides you don’t want me to have to walk over a cat grave every time I weed my flowers, do you? Why don’t you bury that cat someplace else? Also, I know how much you loved that cat, but I don’t think it’s such a good idea to involve the kids in your eulogy. They might be too young to be exposed to death already.”
Looking down I thought this hole may be dug for the wrong body.
Shortly after, I told all the neighbors Julie left me with the kids to live with her mother out of state. The kids ran around the house as usual, breaking things daily. And I sat in my favorite chair watching television, stroking the soft remains of an old friend, waiting for them to find me.
Someone had poisoned Felix Garibaldi’s toothpaste! The toothbrush fell from his hand as this horrible possibility dawned on him. He held his head under the tap and rinsed his throbbing tongue and gums. Compounding the pain and concern, some of the poisonous toothpaste had spattered into his right eye which, in reaction, had swollen shut. How it burned! He splashed water on the eye to flush it. Someone’s trying to poison me again, he thought. This wasn’t the first time. He grabbed the toothpaste tube, examined it with his unaffected left eye, and after clueing in that it was actually Voltaren, a topical gel for muscle aches—he concluded that no one had poisoned him that morning.
But just because no one had poisoned him that morning didn’t mean someone wouldn’t try to poison him later that day. He had enemies.
He had to meet Cass for lunch and was running late. Cass would be irked. He always showed up early for appointments. Cass and Felix had been friends for more than ten years. They used to walk their dogs together. Felix had a husky named Tony who died a year ago from an obstructed bowel. God he missed him. Tony had been a superb dog, handsome, loyal, eager. Cass’s dog Rolo was still around, a growly little thing, with a tiny head, but quite fearless. Felix missed those walks to the dog park and the frolic of the dogs. Dogs could be so much fun. That is, until they got sick. Then the grief killed you.
Felix grieved harder for Tony than he did for his own father when he died a few years back from cancer. Felix never thought about the old man, one way or the other. But he always thought about Tony. He planned to get another dog one day, but only when enough time had passed for him to feel good about it.
He hailed a cab and told the driver to take him to Rosie’s Diner in the west end. The driver’s head, which sat directly on his shoulders, was the roundest Felix had ever seen, shaved as smooth as a flesh-toned bowling ball.
“Nice weather we’ve been having,” the driver said.
“Thought I was being poisoned this morning,” Felix mumbled, his mouth still feeling the numbing effects of the Voltaren, his right eye severely bloodshot, his overall appearance suspect.
“I see,” said the driver, peeking into his rearview, then discreetly engaging some Persian folk music on his earphones.
They drove wordlessly the rest of the way. This suited Felix fine. Talking to strangers taxed him. For one thing, he didn’t trust anyone he didn’t know, and some people he knew enough not to trust. You couldn’t win, really. Every time you interacted with someone, you risked being deceived, manipulated, or, yes, poisoned. He knew he was targeted. It was obvious. The question that plagued him was why? It was easy to offend folks these days, that was certain. A wrong look could summon hatred and violence, or, depending on the context, land you in prison. Felix knew he had offended people in the past. A quick temper and quicker tongue had opened him up to the negative winds coursing through the big city—which today looked gold-leafed and ready for a jamboree, everyone all spruced up and showing teeth,
spring-heeled, ebullient. Good weather does that. People feel merry. People let their guards down. October thus far had been cloudless and mild. An almost festive atmosphere prevailed. But Felix had not let his guard down. He never let his guard down. Such circumspection had served him well thus far. He was still alive, wasn’t he?
At Rosie’s Diner, Cass had already grabbed a booth and sat there folding and unfolding a paper napkin, his knees shaking. He hadn’t shaved in a while and his salt-and-pepper bristles made him look bummish. Adding to this impression, he had on a threadbare Chicago Blackhawks Jersey and a black ball cap that needed tightening.
“All things considered, you’re a very ugly man,” Cass said when he saw Felix.
“And I mistook you for a male model, to be honest.”
Cass checked his watch. “A minute more and I was ordering, man.”
“You were ordering man? On a bun? My mouth’s tingling.”
“And look at your eye. Someone poison you this morn?”
“Funny you should say that. I almost poisoned myself.”
The waitress appeared at the booth, a lank-haired slip of a woman, arms so thin they looked like overcooked bucatini. Her face reminded Felix of a lemur, but an attractive one, perhaps lacking the musculature required for smiling.
“What can I get you fellas?”
“I’m going to have a BLT, hold the mayo,” Cass said. “And a pickle, please.”
“I need a minute,” Felix said, “but bring me a coffee meantime.”
“I’ll have a Coke,” Cass said.
The waitress departed. Her arms rippled fluidly behind her as she walked.
“What do you think of her?” Felix asked.
“You have a bad memory.”
“Hold on,” Felix said, sniffing the air. He thought he detected electrical burning. Never a good sign. It meant someone had tampered with the wiring or the fuse box.
“What is it, man?” Cass asked.
Felix looked at Cass but said nothing, the little voice in his head wondering if they’d use a bomb to get to him. He didn’t think so. They had more subtle ways of messing with him. It takes a month to die by toothpaste poisoning. Or they radiate your cellphone and that also kills you in a month after your brain gets repeatedly bombarded with X-rays. How did he know this? He knew, he knew.
“Buddy,” Cass said, “you okay?”
“I’m, uh, fine.”
“You don’t look fine.”
Felix didn’t particularly like Rosie’s Diner. The kitschy art, worn upholstery and banged-up wood gave it a tired, degenerate ambience not redeemed by the quality of the food, which on the whole never failed to disappoint. Food is only as good as the chef’s degree of passion—or the cook’s in this instance—and he must have been a real bum judging from his work. He’d seen the guy once, lurking in the back in a hairnet, tattooed, censorious, menacing.
“So are those dudes still after you?” Cass asked.
“Of course they are,” Felix snapped.
“What are they, Russians?”
“Russians? Ha. I wish.”
“Why don’t you go to the cops?”
“I did. I did go.”
He didn’t elaborate.
Cass had doubted the existence of these shadowy figures, whom Felix claimed to be tailing him, surveilling his flat, and plotting his destruction. The cops must have also been dubious, or saw him for who he was. Why would anyone want to surveil or mess with Felix, of all people? He was the very definition of a putz. Unless he had some gambling debts he was loath to discuss or had gotten mixed up with some online hanky panky—he was an unlikely mark for criminals or government agents. But paranoia can be compelling. Felix had lost a lot of himself when his wife Teresa left him for his next-door neighbour, a Captain Highliner lookalike who designed costume jewelry for a living, and whose creativity and self-made status had been too enticing for her to resist. So went the story.
The waitress delivered the drinks.
“Decided?” she asked Felix.
“I’ll have the banquet burger. No onion.”
“Banquet burger no onion. Copy. Haven’t see you boys in a while.”
“Keeping tabs on us, are you?” Cass quipped.
“Not really. I just remember your friend got sick last time you ate here, ha. He said we poisoned him, ha.”
Felix bowed his head, embarrassed by the episode. It turned out he hadn’t been poisoned by the diner food that day. After being rushed to hospital, and getting checked for every conceivable toxin, he was declared poison-free though questioned about his mental health.
“Yeah, and he’s really sorry about that,” Cass said. “He was a little cuckoo.”
“We lost a lot a business on account of that. It was in the papers.”
“Look,” Felix said, “I’m really sorry. I was having problems.”
“How can we make it up to you?” Cass asked.
“Don’t think you can. That’s a month’s worth of tips thereabouts. I wouldn’t ask you for that. Nah, that would be terrible customer service.”
The waitress stalked off. Felix didn’t like her tone. He locked eyes with Cass.
“What is it?”
“I screwed up, eh?”
“Buddy, you are a screw up. No biggie. All of us have our peccadillos.”
“Why are you using a fancy word like that right now? Are you trying to make me feel stupider than I already feel?”
“Don’t think I can do that,” Cass said dryly.
An older couple entered the diner holding hands, the man wearing a beige jacket, the woman a red shawl with white stitching. The sight of them made Felix sigh. He had loved his ex-wife, and thought things had been going okay, if not great. He’d always imagined growing old with her. How lovely it must have been for them, stopping by a diner after a balmy autumn stroll, the conversation as gentle as the weather.
Felix appreciated Cass’s friendship, but a friend can only take you so far in this life. For true happiness and fulfilment, one needed a partner, a soul-mate. He thought he had found his in Teresa. He was mistaken. He feared he would never again find a partner, never again love with his entire heart, and so saw his future as a lonely walk in the woods. Unless he got another dog, of course, and he planned to when more time had passed.
The food arrived. Cass dug into his BLT like a man who hadn’t eaten in three or four days, lips peeled back, teeth gnashing bestially.
“Take it easy,” Felix said. “I’m going to ralph if I have to watch you eat like that.”
“I’m hungry,” Cass said, spewing crumbs.
“Close your mouth, at least.”
Felix looked at his banquet burger. He lifted the top of the bun and examined the condiments. The tomato looked fresh-cut, the mustard and relish uncorrupted, and no onion presented itself. He picked up the burger and sank his teeth into it. He chewed, paused, then recommenced. It tasted okay—although the bacon could have been crispier—and he felt no adverse reaction upon swallowing. As far as he could tell, the waitress and the cook had not monkeyed with his food. Not that he thought they would actually poison him in revenge for the lost business and tips. Certainly, there were people who wanted to see him suffer. But his gut feeling told him the waitress, at least, wasn’t one of these people. And he didn’t think the cook would be so monstrous as to defile his own handiwork to get even with him. You had to trust your gut feeling, people said, and this time Felix trusted his.
Cass devoured his meal in minutes. He saved his pickle for last, crunching it with zeal. Cass, a small man, ate like a large one.
“Why don’t you order something else if you’re so hungry?” Felix asked, opening his bun and inspecting it again.
“Meeting Emma in an hour. Taking her to Dairy Queen for her birthday. Need to leave some room.”
Emma, Cass’s daughter from his first marriage, had just turned twelve. An engaging and humorous girl with a wonderful singing voice, she made Felix regret not having children. He and Teresa had planned to have children. That didn’t happen. Last he heard she was pregnant with Captain Highliner’s child, an outcome he could not dwell upon without frying a mental circuit. In addition to Emma, Cass had managed to father Barney, a strapping three-year-old, with his second wife, Gabriella, a young Filipino woman who had once served as Emma’s nanny. It happens. Emma’s mother Sara had remarried a millionaire so everything worked out in the end.
“So tell me, Garibaldi, what’s going on? How’s your head these days? Have you been looking for work?”
“Work? Are you kidding? You know I can’t work. Not now. Not like this.”
“Thought you were getting better, the therapy and so on.”
“It takes time, Cass. Not enough time has passed. I’m not ready.”
“Still collecting disability benefits?”
“Yeah. And I cashed out some retirement savings. Don’t plan on living
to a ripe old age.”
“Nonsense,” Cass said, though he’d wondered on occasion if Felix was
capable of self-harm. Sometimes it happens with paranoids.
Felix’s tongue felt thick. When he tried to speak he almost bit it.
“What’s the matter?” Cass asked.
He said nothing. He drank some coffee and swished it around in his mouth. He passed his tongue under his top teeth. His heart sank. He wasn’t imagining it.
“Don’t tell me,” Cass said, pushing his plate away.
Concern washed over Felix’s face. He looked at his banquet burger then looked at Cass. He grabbed at his throat: he felt it constricting. This couldn’t be happening, he thought, not here, not again. Either the waitress and the cook had conspired to actually poison him in retribution for the costly false alarm, or his true pursuers, the shadowy figures surveilling him and seeking his demise, had solicited the waitress and the cook to do their dirty work, or had independently slipped something into the food—the banquet burger’s bacon had tasted off.
“Felix, drink some water,” Cass urged, his own concern escalating. They’d never be able to eat there again, Heaven’s sake. Felix was right—he wasn’t ready for work, he wasn’t even ready for the real world. Cass hadn’t realized the severity of his friend’s condition until that moment.
Reddening, Felix gasped and clutched his throat. His eyes looked like they might pop out of his face. He tried to speak, but his vocal chords were seized. He abruptly stood to his feet and reeled toward the kitchen, bumping the old couple’s table, his shoulders swaying side to side, arms flailing, shoes scraping the linoleum floor.
Last thing Felix saw before he blacked out was the waitress, standing by the kitchen doors, hands in her money apron, smile a work of art.
Johnny Duplantis put his foot down carefully near the cypress knee. He couldn’t see past the gnarled stump, and he feared the brambles where he knew cottonmouths held sway. He was following the prints of Crazy Jerry’s boots and Jerry couldn’t be far ahead.
The prospect of snakes piqued his attention. He estimated he was a quarter mile behind Jerry—Crazy Jerry as everyone at school called him. That meant Johnny was almost a mile deep in the Lacrosse Swamp.
Don’t think I’ve ever been this far.
Uncertain he looked up.
Should be close to the bridge now.
He scanned the tree line, but there was no bridge.
He hadn’t had a glimpse of Crazy Jerry in the last half hour, but his boot prints stood out in the swampy sections even in the dense underbrush and sweet-water marsh. Everyone at school said Jerry lived somewhere in the swamp, but nobody knew where.
Johnny looked over his shoulder. The sun still cast shadows to his right. He was going north. He knew he was getting closer to the stands of massive cypress trees that bordered the spillway and the lake.
Jerry can’t go much further.
A sharply etched picture, the memory of when he first met Crazy Jerry, erupted into his consciousness. He hated that memory and the image. He still couldn’t believe he had been so cruel. The other kids had been telling him the whole school year about Crazy Jerry, the bike riding hobo from the swamp, who often stopped by to bum candy and cokes and tell stories about catching snakes and eating turtles. But Johnny had never witnessed one of Jerry’s visits.
Then one morning as they gathered for the pledge of allegiance on the school’s front lawn, Jerry showed up. He came rattling up on a big, rusty blue bike. He wore a bulky, black coat covering a hunched spine. Jerry jumped off, dropping the bike, and limped toward the nearest group of kids who greeted him with cheers and high-fives. In a moment they were all laughing, and Jerry was the loudest.
“He’s kind of scary,” Johnny whispered to Sam Carpentier, his closest buddy seated alongside him on the grass. Johnny pointed at the still laughing knot of boys. “I don’t like him. Watch this.”
Johnny stood up slowly and walked toward those gathered around Jerry. He moved carefully, approaching behind Crazy Jerry. Then in three quick steps, he reached for Jerry’s shoulders, leaped up and planted his knee in the center of the man’s hunch. The big black coat puffed dust, and a high-pitched “umph” burst from the man’s mouth as he collapsed.
At that moment the school bell shrilled, and the American Flag rattled up the pole. Everyone except Crazy Jerry went silent as the national anthem blared across the yard. Jerry writhed and uttered “umph” again, then dragged himself to his feet and struggled to his bike.
Johnny, his hand over his heart, mouthed the Pledge as he watched Jerry ride away. He knew then that he had done something terrible, something wrong and he would have to atone for it. He would find Crazy Jerry and apologize and hope the big crazy man wouldn’t hurt him.
That fear – that one of Crazy Jerry’s big hands would send him to his grave -- kept Johnny from completing his apology for the remainder of the school year- a year in which Johnny managed to pass, barely. His grades suffered, and he knew why but his parents didn’t. And his mother’s exasperation drove him to resolve that the new school year would be better. But to make it better, he had to apologize to Crazy Jerry.
He couldn’t do that at school.
“Don’t be a weenie, Johnny,” his buds said. “It’s just Crazy Jerry.”
I thought I’d feel that way too, but I don’t.
He resolved that before the new school year grew old, he would complete his apology to Crazy Jerry. But he would do it where none of his friends would see. The only way to do it was to find out where Jerry lived and go there.
That proved more difficult than he expected. After his appearances at school, Crazy Jerry would mount his bike and lumber off. No one ever saw him around town.
Johnny looked up, noting that the sky wasn’t as bright as when he had begun to track Jerry.
But there are no clouds. Must be about four o’clock. Mom’s gonna get worried.
Johnny peered ahead. Young cypress trees grew more numerous as the trail neared the dense woods that, Johnny knew, bordered the lakefront. Looking carefully at the growth ahead, he could see an old cabin on a hillock among the taller trees. There was still crushed grasses and an occasional boot mark ahead, and they did indeed lead toward the cabin.
Fear clutched Johnny’s heart.
God, if he kills me out here, nobody’s ever gonna find me.
He swallowed hard, reset his resolution, and walked ahead. The hillock on which the cabin rested stood about two feet above the surrounding marsh, and seemed about a quarter acre across. The house looked ancient: old cypress lapstrake boards, a high-pitched roof and a full-length gallery across the front.
A set of five steps led up to the porch at the closed front door. An empty padlock loop above a carved wooden door handle suggested it wasn’t locked, although it had been. Indeed, a large steel padlock rested on the porch floor alongside the door.
Okay, Johnny, what are you going to do.
Johnny stood very still, calming his breathing, studying the landscape. Everything fit. A cypress cabin in a cypress swamp a mile or more from town. Everything looked right, but it didn’t feel that way.
He walked to the door and knocked. He waited but nothing happened.
Johnny strained, hoping to hear a sound. Again, silence answered.
He grasped the wooden handle and pushed gently, expecting the rasp of rusty hinges. The door swung inward smoothly, quietly. When the door stopped halfway through its inbound arc, Johnny stepped forward and surveyed the portion of the room he could see. On his right a staircase ascended toward the peaked ceiling, to a landing ten feet above the floor.
From the landing, a balcony stretched left, and a wall on the far side of the gallery held two doors spaced eight feet apart.
The wall to Johnny’s right displayed a tall, thin window below the roofline’s apex, a window that appeared shuttered.
Johnny pushed the door, and it continued its swing stopping with a soft bump against the wall. He surveyed the rest of the room, noticing a large, black-iron appliance that looked like pictures he had seen of wood stoves. A rusty dark chimney rose to the roof peak.
A cypress log with its center carved away and festooned with numerous pillows, formed a sofa against the wall to his left. Flat-topped cypress stumps at either end held small lamps and to the right of the wood stove stood a dining table with four chairs, one pulled partially out, not far from the foot of the staircase. On the table next to the pulled-out chair sat a white coffee mug.
Johnny stood frozen, taking it all in.
This ain’t right! Can’t be Crazy Jerry’s shack. I must have followed the wrong track.
“Who the Hell are you?” The voice cracked like a whip from behind Johnny’s right shoulder.
“Oh God!” he heard himself say, the expletive escaping involuntarily. He thought his heart would follow his words. Spinning on his right heel, he stared up at the black-clad figure towering above him. “Uh-uh,” he stuttered. “Uh…”
“I can’t hear you!” the voice thundered.
“I—I—I’m Johnny Duplantis.” His voice sounded unreal to his ear, shaky and squeaking. God, he sounded like a girl!
“I didn’t mean to scare you, sir,” Johnny said.
The apparition stepped back. Johnny willed his heart to slow down. Now he could see the looming giant. Yes, he was a man, tall –more than six-feet—slim and muscular. And he wore all black, from a beret adorning his scalp to a fitted shirt and jeans and boots. Johnny studied the face and something about the visage struck a chord.
Do I know him?
“Scare me?” the voice asked, milder now. “Kid, do you think you scare me?”
“Well, I –uh…”
“Never mind. You’re blocking the door. Go on inside. It’s getting dark out here. And some of the mosquitos are huge.”
Yes, Johnny could see that the light was now fading fast. His mother would begin to worry soon. I’ll probably get a lashing when I get home.
Johnny backed on into the room and watched the man swing shut the door. It should be heavy, but it moved with almost no sound and thudded solidly into the jamb. He heard the latch clank. A light with no apparent source illuminated the room dimly. Johnny studied the man’s fluid movements and wondered why he seemed familiar. He knew few adults with such a muscular build.
He’s awfully dark. Could he be a Negro?
He remembered some of the nights when he and Boogie and Nah ventured into the black community that occupied the half-mile spread between the railroad tracks and rolled cherry bombs up under the raised shacks along Red Clay Street. They laughed and ran like Hell when the fireworks sent unseen occupants’ feet pounding out the doors, leaving evening meals cooling. Only once had he and his friends come close to being caught, but Johnny’s conscience began to prick him, and he started avoiding Boogie and Nah
Wait a minute.
He had barely seen the face of the big man who was now preparing to light a lamp on the dining table. But when he thought about that moment, he felt a tingle of familiarity. He had looked deeply into Crazy Jerry’s eyes after last year’s violent prelude to the National Anthem.
But there is no way this man can be Crazy Jerry.
Suddenly light flared from the lamp the black-clad man had placed on the table. His shadow swept across the high ceiling. The man beckoned to Johnny.
“Come here and sit down.”
Johnny hesitated. The lamp was bright, very bright, but there was no flame where the wick should be.
Does he have electricity out here? We’re miles from the nearest power poles.
Completing his task, the man seated himself on the pulled-out chair and reached for the porcelain cup. Looking up at Johnny, he took a sip and placed it on the table.
“I make my own electricity,” he said, as if in answer to Johnny’s question.
But I didn’t ask it.
“So, kid, who are you? You look familiar, but I don’t know your name?”
“I can find out who you are, but it would be better if I didn’t have to do that.”
Johnny felt the heat rising in his gut.
“I’m not afraid of you!”
“Oh yes, you are. You’re shaking in your boots.” The man glanced down at Johnny’s feet. “Your dirty boots. You’ve tracked up my floor.”
Johnny looked down, then back toward the door. A set of muddy footprints led to his feet.
“I—I’ll clean it up!”
“Yeah. Yes, you will.” The big man leaned back in his chair and took another sip from his cup. He chuckled. “Yeah, you’ll clean it up. But first, I want to know who you are and what you’re doing here.”
Johnny hesitated. The man rose slowly from his chair, and Johnny cringed.
Oh God, if he hits me….
“Do you drink coffee?”
The man reached past Johnny and drew the next chair out, then gestured toward it.
His mind flashed to memories of his mother pouring hot, black, sweet coffee into tiny cups and sitting next to him at the kitchen table, sipping from her own cup. He remembered how he and his mother chatted about what each wanted to do during the day.
The reverie broke as the man pushed past his chair, pulled a mug from a counter behind the stove, and poured it half-full from the pot atop the stove burner. Johnny saw the man’s hand resting on the stovetop.
There’s no fire in there.
The black-clad figure returned to his seat and placed the mug by the chair he just pulled out. Johnny stared at the man’s face for a moment then sat and picked up the mug. It was warm. He sipped the coffee. It was hot and sweet, with a bitter aftertaste.
“I like my coffee,” the man said. “Now, who are you and what the hell are you doing here?”
Johnny stared into the man’s eyes. They were large, so dark they appeared black and gave no hint what he might be thinking. Again, he felt the gurgle of fear welling in his gut. And the familiarity of the face grew stronger.
“Are you Crazy Jerry?” Johnny asked.
The man’s expression didn’t change, but Johnny saw a twinkle in his eyes. He didn’t say a word.
“I’m Johnny Duplantis. I….” Johnny began.
“Okay. I’m a student at LaCrosse Junior High School.”
“I thought you looked familiar. I’ve seen you at school. In fact,” his voice trailed off. His eyes narrowed. “You…”
“I’m the guy who jumped on you last spring just before they played the anthem before school. At least I think that’s true. Are you Crazy Jerry?”
The black-clad arm lifted the coffee cup to the lips in the increasingly familiar face. Johnny heard the sipping sound and felt as if this man sucked his soul with the coffee.
“I – I followed you from school, Johnny said. “I came to apologize.
"I’m so sorry for what I did. I wanted to apologize last year. But I didn’t know how. And then I couldn’t find you. And I couldn’t tell my friends what I was going to do. I’ve had tons of bad grades ever since. My parents are mad at me. I’ve felt like a louse ever since I jumped on you. So, when you left school today, I followed you. I saw you leave your bike at the police station. In that lot with all the other bikes. You were about a block ahead when you took the swamp trail. It was easy to follow you then.”
Johnny ran out of words. The eyes staring at him over the rim of the cup wouldn’t let him move. Then the mug thumped down. Jerry’s eyes swung away from Johnny’s face and Johnny felt an elation he couldn’t define.
“Are you going to kill me?” he asked.
Crazy Jerry stood up.
“Nobody knows where you are,” he said. “That would be the most logical way for me to end this.”
“No, kid. I’m not going to kill you. Get your butt home now. Your mother’s going to be worried, and worried mothers do punish disobedient children.”
Yeah, she’ll have me doing dishes for a week.
“You just gonna let me go?”
“For now, kid. For now.”
“I am sorry. I don’t know how to make this up to you Mr. uh—I don’t know what to call you. Jerry, can I call you Mr. Jerry?”
The black-clad man wasn’t smiling, but Johnny couldn’t find any anger in his countenance.
Would I be able to forgive this easily?
“You’d better get moving Johnny. You never know what might happen.” Jerry’s voice was low and soft; too low and soft.
Jerry reached behind the door and pulled out a broom. He handed it to Johnny.
“Sweep your way out the door,” he said, “and get your ass home.”
Johnny stared into the dark eyes a moment more, then grasping the broom he opened the door and in four quick strokes swept his muddy traces from the floor. A minute later he had the porch floor dirt-free as well. He leaned the broom against the wall and bounded down the steps.
A brilliant-yellow full moon topped the eastern horizon.
Thank goodness. I'll be home soon. I’ll only have to do one set of dishes. Johnny looked back at the cabin now almost invisible in the darkening swamp. Boy, he had a story to tell Boogie and his buds. They won’t believe any of this.
Maybe it doesn’t need telling.
Never stop at rummage sales with Fischer-Price toys clogging the driveway. Bargain hunting wasn’t rocket science, but there were rules and this was Rule #1. The value so-called happy families placed on faded plastic crap depressed her – memories that were too precious to give away, but easy enough to part with for a twenty. Not that she was in the market for a tricycle or a tea set. People with babies were the least interesting people in the world. How could these people – parents, as sun-bleached and worn as their children’s discarded toys – have anything worth the bother of parallel parking?
She idled in front of 1723 Doty Street, slouched in the driver’s seat, covered in Classified Ads, as if hiding were the same as being invisible. As if she needed to bother at all – she’d gone unnoticed for all of her nineteen years without having to do a damn thing. Even now in the car she was alone, which was something she’d gotten used to. Mom begged off, again, calling yard sales “garbage picking,” among other things. She preferred to stay home and sip her strong, bitter tea, unsweetened. “I’d rather not spend my time thinking about what people leave behind,” she liked to say – about a lot of things.
1723 Doty Street. The address was never said aloud, never written down, never tucked away for safe-keeping, yet never forgotten. As she looked upon the house numbers – proudly displayed on glazed floral tiles – they lost all meaning, like a word repeated over and over. Her ballpoint bit through the cheap Penny Saver pulp, marking the steering column in blue ink as she crossed out this particular listing forever and all time. Mom was right. She shouldn’t have come.
She preferred those dark, detached garages so popular in older working class homes, anyway. Ones built in the suburbs of long ago – so long ago, in fact, that they now were considered part of the inner city. Untold stories hid in tiny one-car carriage houses that smelled of termite damage, spilled oil, and endless time. Sawhorse tables displaying the detritus of a generation as if in offering to a second-rate god. Where NPR droned on a transistor radio and heirlooms went two for a dollar.
How many Saturdays had she rummaged the streets of her hometown? Venturing down windy overgrown roads and potholed dead ends, finally escaping the city limits all together, only to find herself here, staring down this generic, vinyl-sided, three bedroom, two bath, ranch that provided no clues at all. There was nothing for her here. What did she expect?
Ostensibly, she went out looking for marbles. German swirls, onionskins, agates. She liked how they caught the light, how inclusions in the glass trapped the sweet air of long ago, a preserved instant in time when things were, presumably, better. Wholesome and whole, the way time gilds family values and families. Sometimes marbles contained mica flakes. Those were her favorites, the way she could hold them to her eye, the glittery specks and swirls becoming nebula, becoming entire galaxies, a macrocosm in microcosm, an entirely new universe, a fresh start, in the palm of her hand.
Nothing like that on Doty Street, Ground Zero of the advertised “multi-family sale-apalooza.” Just an unflavored sprawl of starter homes for starter families, or in some cases, second families. Young children, young wives. Typical, wide-eyed, entitled American dreams. The houses weren’t like the one she’d grown up in – the homes were too perfect, too new. Even still, they seemed like institutions of permanence and magnitude next to the ambitious, yet infant landscaping. Twiggy trees staked against the wet westerly winds. Scrubby shrubbery that would crisp the next time a Saskatchewan screamer blew in from the north. Nursery-grown turf that had been unrolled onto salvage soil and left to die.
She gave them eight, ten years, tops, before the families here outgrew their fledgling homes. Then one day, they’d realize they didn’t know each other anymore. They’d buy up, spread out. More room to breathe. More room for their hobbies, more room for their things. More room for them to ignore the distance between each other, the gulf widening until relative strangers drifted in no less than 3500 sq ft., sometimes staying together for the kids, sometimes not even that.
She went to put the engine in gear, to bust loose of this godforsaken warren of mediocrity, when a knock on the driver’s side window startled her.
“Hey, lady,” a boy of around ten said, in that over-loud “outside” voice all children have, “I’m selling lemonade. You want some?”
The kid was freckled and peeling from a week-old sunburn, his damp fingers touching the windowsill of her car like a gecko climbing a wall. He straddled his bike in the same easy way she guessed a cowboy might treat his favorite horse. She wondered where the rest of his posse could be.
She cracked her window. “You’re not supposed to talk to strangers.”
“You’re not a stranger, you’re a potential customer,” he said.
She watched an older couple walk down the drive carrying a bean pot lamp. “Speaking of customers, you’re letting those two marks get away.”
He glanced over his narrow shoulders. “They said they can’t have sugar because of their diabetes.”
“Too bad you’re not selling zucchini.”
“Would you buy zucchini?”
The couple popped their trunk and set about fitting the cumbersome, heavy yet breakable treasure inside. A moment later, they pulled away from the curb, heading her way.
“Okay. Maybe next time.” The boy pushed off on his bike, swerving into the street, directly in the path of the car.
“Jacob, watch out!” she called. Knowing his name, secretly, silently, was different than saying it, yelling it aloud. She felt the transgression, even if no one else did.
The car pulled up short with a cry of the brakes and a sulfur smell. Jacob zipped around the front end, oblivious to the danger he’d narrowly avoided. The neighbors milling around the sale table looked up. One pointed out into the street. What up until now had been an unobtrusive drive-by would become worthy of the Neighborhood Watch if she took off now.
She threw the car in park. She opened her door and climbed out, displacing air, as if to merely stand on the asphalt in the midst of this planned development of nuclear families she had to make room. The boy pedaled lazy, wobbly circles around her, like a satellite in an unstable orbit. From the growing shade cast by the house, she felt warm, curious eyes on her. She was a stranger too close to the young. She ignored the kid, trying to shake off the feeling as she made the slow and pensive amble up the drive, casting appreciative glances at the card tables of crap. Just get in and get out. Do not make eye contact. That was Rule #2.
The woman there – Barbara, the woman’s name was Barbara – wasn’t what she’d expected. She’d imagined a homewrecker, whatever that looked like. What she got was a homemaker, nothing special. Blonde hair over-run with gray, as if the dust of a decade had settled over her without her noticing. Gentle brown eyes and a large thin mouth that greeted her with the sort of smile tossed by “strangers are only friends you haven’t met yet” people.
Those kind of people. Ugh.
She smiled back, briefly, forced, and then looked away.
Up close, she could see there was far more for sale here than Jacob’s old toys. All around her in tidy, catalogued piles stood the stockpile of a decade. She ventured further into the garage, feeling like a trespasser, but drawn by the rack of used clothes. Would she recognize an old shirt? A long out of style windbreaker? A pair of dress shoes, leather cracking over the toes?
Nothing seemed familiar as she browsed, her fingers travelling over the unfamiliar fabrics. There was no sense of loss, no expectations found wanting. Granted, the luggage set that had walked out the door all those years ago had been on the small side, a relic from a much earlier, less complicated age. The suitcases only had room for necessities. Like so much else deemed unnecessary, she had been left behind.
Mercifully, she had few memories, though whether that was because clients and work functions were always more important or simply because there was nothing she wished to remember, she couldn’t say. There were no training wheels, no little league, no family vacations. Of that, she was sure.
The cars had been pulled out for the sale, parked elsewhere, leaving the garage looking expectant. The walls, still white, the concrete floor, devoid of stains. Along one side, a workbench, partitioned off, not part of the sale. Tools hanging on the pegboard had been outlined like bodies at crime scenes, at once efficient and vulgar. Everything here had a purpose. Trimmers for trimming. Hammers for hammering.
“Are you alright?” Barbara called over.
She nodded and turned her gaze to a high sliding window, a source of natural light, if not breeze. The narrow sill displayed a small bird’s nest, a muddy baseball, and an old mayonnaise jar full of marbles.
In her peripheral vision, she saw movement as Barbara came around from behind the card table, an arm outstretched. For one agonizing moment, she thought the woman meant to give her a hug.
“Here, you look like you need this.” She held a red plastic Solo cup. “It’s lemonade.”
She didn’t want anything from this woman, but took the drink anyway, thinking it less awkward to do so than to refuse. “Thank you. How much for those?”
“What, the marbles? Oh, I don’t think my husband intended to sell those. No, he wouldn’t want to part with those.” Barbara cast a glance around the driveway as if searching for her husband amid the offerings.
It was the same hopeful, despairing, knowing look she recognized in her own mother.
“Drink—you’ll feel better.”
She drank. Despite the garage’s neatness, despite the spaciousness, there was no air. Sweat broke out on her upper lip and palms. She tucked her purse tighter under her arm, steeling herself to run.
The woman was looking at her as if expecting a response of some kind. A social nicety, a –
“Sorry. How much do I owe you? For the lemonade?”
“Don’t trouble yourself,” Barabara said, her eyes narrowing.
She finished the lemonade, letting a moment pass.
“Yes,” Barbara said.
“You’re wondering if I recognize you.”
There was a red Ribbon Lutz Swirl in the jar. A couple Clambroths. Was that pale pink one, like polished rose quartz, a handmade Moonie? Clearies, opals, slags …They were all there, a collection that must have taken a lifetime to assemble, just hanging out on a shelf in the garage. Forgotten. “Surely, for the right price?”
There was a Banded Indian Swirl, identical to the one in her own collection. It had been her very first. The one she got from –
“Sorry, dear. Those marbles are the only thing he has from his father. They used to collect them together.”
Nothing was worth a damn without knowing its origins, its beginnings. Knowing, at one time, whatever it was, it had been valued. Sometimes that was all that separated one man’s trash from another man’s treasure.
“You look just like your picture. You must take after your mother.”
She’d been given so little from him. Time. Affection. Love. She didn’t even get his smile. But there were the marbles. And that wasn’t nothing.
The difference always came down to a matter of provenance.
And that was Rule #3.
Samson Stormcrow Hayes is the author of the critically acclaimed graphic novel Afterlife (YALSA quick picks selection), screenwriter of "The Deal", a ghost writer on a Steven Seagal film (advance apologizes if you've seen it, I was following the producer's instructions), and author of numerous stories and poetry. Hayes has written for Nigel Lythgoe (producer of American Idol), The Weekly World News, and his epitaph. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, he now resides in Los Angeles where the smog is slowly killing him. He can be found in old parking lots, abandoned malls, or at www.Stormcrowhayes.com.