And so continues the saga of down-and-out private eye Harry Jome in this noir penned by a favorite of ours in Michael Peck. Check out more of his work out in our 10th-anniversary anthology, out last year (including the short that was the seed for this serial novel/novella). In the last installment, Jome was commissioned by Sue Longtree to investigate the suicide of her brother, Ben, in a session spied on itself by one if not more of the resident rats in Jome’s office, among other haps. He also met the deceased Longtree’s wife, Carol, in a drunken stupor. The plot thickens herein…
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Beside the entry in my notebook marked Carol Bergen I wrote, drunk, uncooperative, enticing. Underneath Sue Longtree I jotted nuts and couldn’t conjure anything more definitive about her. It was quite an extant list that could have easily meant nothing at all.
I propped the window and rested my elbows on the sill. In the jumbled fog of the distant hills a despondent spot of blue sky was intruding; within seconds it was not there and the gray was everywhere and everything in view. Short, angular skyscrapers glinted insipidly. Further off to the east the bridge over the river was spindly and delicate, far away and no more than a future tense, or a past one. Straight down below on the street a dog scurried by trying to catch the raindrops in his gaping mouth.
I dialed information and the operator connected me to the Sutter Falls Police, which was probably two guys in straw hats arguing heatedly over who is going to sit shotgun in front of the desk fan. A breathy woman breathed that no one was available to talk. I gave her my office number and she hissed that someone would return my call later that afternoon or tomorrow. If she said goodbye I didn’t hear it.
I put the recently un-hocked pistol in the drawer, wondering if I should keep it with me but resolving that I probably wouldn’t need it for quite a while.
I acted like I was locking my office and headed for the stairs when I noticed the stationary shadow around a bend in the hallway with grimy loafers. I slammed the stairwell door and the shadow recessed, dragging a man out of the darkness. He was at least 45, obese and panting, taller than me by a couple of inches. The only hair on his head beneath a loud porkpie hat was coming out of his nostrils. A flamboyant green silk shirt was unbuttoned to the collarbone beneath a plaid suit.
He saw me fast but not as fast as he would have liked.
“I’m lost,” he stammered, his hands supplicating.
I took a step toward him. He replicated my movement backwards.
“What’re you looking for?” I asked.
“Not here you’re not.”
“You mean there isn’t a tobacconist’s here?”
“Not in the slightest.”
“I guess I must be in the wrong building.”
“As far as I know there isn’t a tobacconist’s shop in a three-mile radius. I’m actually not confident that they exist anymore.”
“What’s the address here?” he asked.
“The wrong one,” I said.
“Is it 227?”
“You look like you’re not looking for a tobacconist’s,” I said.
“Is this 227?”
We stared at one another until integrity was inescapable.
“Go ahead,” I said, cocking my head at my office. “It’s unlocked. It’s never locked. Not sure what you expect to find.”
“What is?” he asked, mock confusion staining his reddish jowls. “What is unlocked? You joking or just kidding?”
“The office, you worm.”
Anger and sweat dripped from his big chin.
“Just leave your card on the desk in case something’s missing,” I said.
He was so flabbergasted he was amused. Following me to the stairwell, he said, “You have some dire problems, friend, and I’m not sure that they can be fixed.”
“You muddled or something? You’re blushing like a virgin. You want to search my office, so search my office. I saw you waiting out there for me to leave. Now I’m leaving.”
Between landings he said, “Fuck you.”
“Sue doesn’t trust me? She had to hire another dick?”
“You always treat strangers like this?” he asked.
“Only ones who are trying to get friendly and like to hide in the shadows where they don’t belong.”
“I’ve had tougher people than you,” he said.
“I bet you have, and you like to hang out with girls who like to get lost.”
“Why don’t you get a new shirt?” he said.
“I’d borrow yours but I think the Navy is using it to do maneuvers.”
“Fuck you,” he said.
“Come back and see me sometime. You impress me with your vocabulary.”
“Fuck you again,” he said, louder and gentler. The man was making a Broadway hit out of two syllables.
We took the stairs abreast of each other, throwing small insults wordlessly back and forth. In the rain he scampered away like a frightened nocturnal animal.
Thursday morning was a long, unvaried stream of curt phone calls and abrupt answers that didn’t lead anywhere. It was imperative that I speak to Bergen’s widow before anyone else. Sometime after nine I dialed Mrs. Bergen — it was a lovely number and I had it memorized. A slab of meat was sizzling in the background, a bubbling close to the phone.
“Yeah?” Mrs. Bergen hollered, then, cupping the receiver: “Dot, you stop it, goddamnit. What do you think you’re doing that for?” and back in my ear. “Hello?” A kid started crying.
She sounded relatively sober. I hung up and rushed over with an umbrella.
Daylight was a premature baby as it dangled in the trash-filled crevasses of the city and did nothing but be gray and forbidding. Frightened hobos rooted around in garbage bags left on porches, unsuccessfully warded off by stingy proprietors and the rare, intrepid patrolman. The cab I was in stopped at a light change and I was hypnotized by the freak show outside that replayed anywhere your eye wandered. I loved hating the city, and I hated myself too, for carrying it around with me. Every city is alike, and the people living in it, too. Only thing that varies in an urban ditch like this one is the amount of traffic on a weekday.
The Bergen residence was in the same condition as I’d left it the day before, golf clubs glinting in the short grass, a Mercedes stuffed halfway in the garage. Now the pink bicycle was orphaned on the walkway. I knocked instead of pressing the buzzer.
Carol Bergen pulled the door back and let out a draft of steaming air from inside. She was in tan slacks and her brown wig was properly on. Minus a glass of liquor in her hand she looked naked, wholly depressed at having nothing for her hands to do. Her crazed eyes were apparently not the product of booze at the moment, but something much older and deeper.
“It’s possible,” she said lackadaisically, “but I’m not convinced we’ve met.” She eyed me like I was a boulder that had just rolled onto her doorstep.
I introduced myself for the second time in so many days.
“Feeling any better?” I asked.
“Why shouldn’t I be feeling any better?”
“Your sister-in-law hired me to look at Mr. Bergen’s suicide. I mentioned this to you yesterday, but I’m not sure you were here yesterday when I talked to you.”
The little girl, Dot, was at the door now and stood looking at me with big, wondrous brown eyes that were not curious eyes. In her left hand she had a ratty, discolored blanket, and in her right she was holding a highball glass poured to the lid with milk.
“Go play somewhere,” Carol said.
Dot watched me for another ten seconds and slinked off, leaving her blanket in the alcove.
“She’s a good person,” Carol said of her daughter. “Quiet, though. It’s scary sometimes.”
“Would she have anything to say about Ben?”
“Ssh,” she said harshly, turning to glance down the hallway. “My daughter is minding her business and she doesn’t want to hear about her father.”
Carol Bergen shut the door quietly and crouched on the uppermost of the front steps, protected from the rain by an overhanging, shingle roof. Huddled, arms-crossed, she seemed more petite when not drinking, 5’2” or 5’3”, less than a hundred pounds. I stood where I was on the porch, wondering if she would try to suck my lips away again, desiring somewhat that she would and knowing that she would not.
The breeze messed up in her hair.
“Why is Sue prying?” she asked.
“This seems important to her.”
“Ben hated her. All the time she kept trying to come around, but he really hated her. Ben didn’t hate anybody. But he hated her. Of course, you must have noticed that she isn’t normal.”
“In what way?”
“In every way.”
Nearby a swing set creaked on busted hinges. Obnoxious voices of bird and human mounted in unintelligible tandem, and the rain was hitting the tips of my shoes.
I said, “Whatever Ms. Longtree is, she’s curious about Ben’s death and that’s all I’m doing here.”
“Is it?” Carol asked suddenly, as though asking us both. “She cares about herself and how much other people’s problems could affect her.”
“That’s fine. I was hoping you could tell me why she’d care about those things?”
“Is that what she asked you to find out?” Carol gave a fake laugh.
“So why do you think Ben smashed himself?”
“You talk like your ideas were put through a meat grinder,” she said, lighting a cigarette. The wind blew the smoke into my nostrils.
“He was happy,” she said in a low voice.
“How happy was he?”
“Is there a measurement of happiness?”
“In this example, yes.”
“And what’s this an example of?”
“Whatever you tell me it is, I suppose.”
She inhaled and peered at the lit tip of her cigarette for a few seconds.
“He was fine.”
“That’s the extent of it?”
A curl of her wig hooked into a doleful eye and she swiped it away with the pinkie of the hand waving the cigarette. She puckered her lips in an attempt to refrain from saying anything important or insulting, and then resumed.
“That’s the extent of him,” she said.
“That’s a profound question.”
“Sometimes they need to be asked to illustrate just how stupid they are.”
“Ben worked four days a week at the club,” she said, exhaling a laborious plume of smoke. “We had arguments over money, the color of the carpet, the worthlessness of the maid. Never when Dot was in the house, though. On Saturdays the three of us went shopping for groceries — you know, apples, tomato sauce, salted butter. Our sex life was ordinary, since I suspect that’s one of your forthcoming questions. Ben voted in major elections. He loved swimming at the Y and talked about the area near his father’s place. Vacation twice a year, usually to the family’s cottage in North Carolina. Sometimes to Key West. In fifteen years of marriage we experienced approximately ten months of misery from each other. And that’s adding up every second. Not so bad, huh?”
“Sounds like you’re reciting from a movie treatment.”
“I thought that’s what you wanted.”
“I do. I wasn’t complaining. Ever meet his father? Daddy?”
“Once about eight or nine years ago. I remember the old man was dirty and condescending at the same time. I didn’t like him.” She shook her head and straightened the wig. “I didn’t like him for a second.”
“What did Ben think of him?”
“He hardly mentioned him unless he was drinking, and that was rare. When he drank wine he told stories about the orchard and his sister and all that.”
“What about the orchard?”
“Nothing about. Ben was happy up there, and when he visited Daddy for the last time…” She broke off and plucked nonexistent dirt from the knee of her pants, then continued. “From what I can tell he liked it up there, but his relationship to Daddy I couldn’t tell you much about. There was something weird between them, but I wouldn’t guess what it was.”
“Something to do with Sue, you think?”
“All of Ben’s problems had to do with Sue or Daddy Longtree in some way.”
Carol Bergen extinguished her cigarette on the sole of her black flat and tucked the butt in her pants pocket.
“Then he behaved as always?” I asked.
“You’re kind of callous, aren’t you?” she said, a hint of a reprimand in her voice.
“This isn’t complicated,” I said.
“It was nice of you to stop in,” she said, rising to her feet. “I have to go check on Dot, make sure she hasn’t started taking after me.”
“Maybe I can help you,” I said, and it sounded dumber than I imagined it could.
“With whatever you need.”
“You’re cute,” she said. “You’re so cute you make me wheeze. Go bother somebody else now.”
“Perhaps you wouldn’t mind telling me something truthful about your late husband,” I said.
She had her hand on the knob.
“He’s not late. He’s dead. He’s been dead for a long time.”
“Not that long,” I said.
“Long enough,” she said.
She burned the end of a fresh cigarette and took a short, nervous puff.
“It’s not that I care overly much,” I said. “Don’t worry about me getting too close to anything.”
“You couldn’t get close to a balloon. And I don’t care either. I have to go inside now.”
The kid was standing there as she swung the door open and closed it. Another squandered nice afternoon. I was lethargic and didn’t know where to go with this business. No one could tell me anything important, except for the fact that approximately everyone I was dealing with was crazy or learning how to be crazy.
From within the house I could hear Carol yelling at Dot, and the kid not replying. Must have been hard co-habitating with a quiet child. Somewhere buried in me there was an almost nostalgic fondness for people, and that’s what I was feeling towards Carol Bergen.
It was warm, and the rain sprayed my wrists and ankles. A fancy silver car idled by as I was expanding my umbrella and stepping away from the house. The driver’s hand waved out the open window at me, mistaking me for a friend or at the very least somebody who would wave back at him.
I waved back.
I went to the office for a while and thought and the thinking didn’t amount to much save to exhaust me. I sprawled on the sofa in the dark. Sounds came from the building, from below me, and I tried picking them apart and locating their origin. One sounded like someone trying to push a statue out of his way, and another — a grating echo — was the noise of a thousand hurrying ants amplified. I was shortly sleeping a sleep that wasn’t really sleep, but more like a shutting down of awareness, and each time I snapped awake I was hyper and ready.
Dreams that night were wayward and sick. Men positioned on rooftops carried small toy knives and shotguns, their presence threatening, fearful. Garbage bags hurtled from tall windows, the inhabitants of the city unseen. And the balding fat man who’d tried to creep into my office appeared at every intersection.
“Can you spare a mink?” he asked confidentially. “Or can’t you.”
“What do you want a mink for?” I asked him.
“Or can’t you?” he repeated nastily.
Then the nightmare turned fine: I was horizontal on a bed in Sue Longtree’s boudoir, engaged in a euphemism that is typically followed by childrearing. Sue was quiet and kept morphing into all the women I had known and had over the years. Frankly, it was distasteful, but succubi rarely behave like ladies. Just before culmination I was alone, the shouts of the women ringing in my ears. I was sprawled on a dirt highway and the orchard was on the horizon. The place was in black and white, charcoal and ink, exactly as it was in the drawing at the Bergen place. I rarely recalled my dreams, but this one was especially memorable. I was stirred awake at dawn by a mis-timed alarm clock in the next office that wouldn’t shut off. I banged the walls with my fists and the noise finally subsided and someone on the other side of the wall groaned and let out an irritated, “Okay. Jesus.”
Grappling with consciousness I had a great desire to sock my id in the jaw. Hot air stirred in the office. There was a presence in the close room that I attributed to the garbled dreams that hadn’t felt like my own.
“Who is it?” I said to the emptiness.
I was still in my coat and the rain from the folds had seeped into the sofa. Without many prospects I grabbed the Dominic Early novel from my desk and staggered out into the hallway. I listened for the others I knew must have been in the building — where had that alarm clock come from? — but the only sound was of my heightened listening.
I took a cab to my apartment and leaned my head into the icebox to cool off, peeling back a bountiful bunch of twenty-dollar bills. The money was frigid, the way money ought to be.
I called Sue Longtree and told her to meet me at the bar around the corner, Hank’s, in about a half hour.
“Why?” she asked. “You have something?”
“I don’t like eating breakfast alone,” I said. “And you need to tell me some more about this.”
“I’ve told you everything I can.”
“Then make up some stories and tell me those.”
I stripped in the bathroom, showered, lathering myself with a bar of soap I’d been saving for the occasion. The hot water was good and I was starting to lean into a wakefulness. I had two black suits in my wardrobe, one with a button missing and one that was too narrow at the shoulders. I chose the button missing variation. A new suit was the epitome of what I needed right then, and I decided to pay a visit to Cramm, a cheap tailor who wasn’t too bad with thread.
I clicked a record onto the player in the corner, Bartok I think it was. Violins screaming in lonely synchrony, but it discomfited me and I took the Early book with me when I left. I had a few minutes to spare.
As I came down the stairs someone scurried out the door, but I didn’t think much of it. I put $900 in the landlord’s slot. It was raining like the sky had gone mad, and maybe it had, and I stuck close to the awnings of buildings as I went.
Hank’s was a bare, 24-hour restaurant and bar that was well-known for serving homemade fruitcake in all seasons and for hosting underground poker marathons. Three gamblers, not counting the guy face-down, were playing hands of Texas Hold-Em, and they looked to have not rested in four or five days, and in Hank’s, it was probable that they had not.
I ordered sausage links and toast from Hank, a droopy-eyed Austrian who could play anything on the accordion except a right note. He was in a red shirt and tan trousers covered in variegated hues of paint. He took my order and didn’t say anything.
Early’s book was called An Incidental Murder, and it was a supremely silly tale about a private detective who tries to shoot himself, misses his head by an inch, and accidentally kills the guy in the next apartment. As far as plots went it was muddled and fragmentary, and by Chapter 12 I was glad to pick up my head and see Sue hurry by the window, close her umbrella as she came into the restaurant, and glance around for me.
All of the gamblers but the unconscious guy perked up quickly at her entrance, eyes prowling her curves, and immediately deflated when Sue sat across from me. Her hair was tied back with a ribbon, nails freshly painted red, and her smile was one I could have sucked out of a straw.
“You like that nonsense?” she asked of the dog-eared novel in front of me.
“It’s daft,” I said. “Pointless. Drab.”
“You should be a critic.”
“Who says I’m not?”
“What isn’t pointless and drab?” she asked.
I shrugged and pushed my plate to the side.
“Nothing, I guess. One thing isn’t.”
“What’s that one thing?”
“I haven’t found it yet.”
She stuck a tuft of hair under the ribbon.
“So what do you want, Harry?”
“I wanted to have breakfast with you,” I said.
“You’ve already eaten and I’m not hungry. I told you how busy I am with the divorce and everything else.”
“What everything else?”
“Everything else,” she said.
“I keep forgetting you’re married.”
“So do I. That’s why it didn’t last too long.”
“I’m wondering what I’m supposed to be doing with this.”
She took a card from her purse and jotted something on the back.
“This is the address of the golf club where Ben worked,” she said. “The manager is a slippery asshole named Montero. Maybe he can tell you something, but when he does just be aware that the truth is probably the opposite of what he’s saying.”
I looked at the card, back at her serious face. I yearned to say something, to straighten her out, but I got lost in her frown.
Sue said, “I have to be somewhere.” She slipped out of the seat, her umbrella dripping rain onto the floor. “Thanks for the breakfast,” she added.
“Let’s do it again sometime.”
She turned, then stopped. The gamblers were studying her studiously.
“What do you really want?” she asked.
“I suppose I don’t know. I suppose I’ll tell you some day. I suppose I won’t know then just as well I do now.”
“You’ve got a sense of humor,” she said. “Meet me at Clover’s at six, six-thirty tonight and we can have a real talk, like people.”
After she left the gamblers grumbled and ordered coffee and one of them scooped the cards into his breast pocket. The game was over. One of the fellows jabbed a finger into the sleeping man’s shoulder and he rose up, startled. Then he lay on his crossed forearms once again. As one of the gamblers was passing me, he paused and slapped his palm amiably on my table. His eyes were opening and closing slowly, regularly.
Talking fondly he said, “That’s some dame, huh?”
“Yeah,” I said. “She is some dame.”
“You can always tell,” he said.
“What kind they are.”
“What kind is she?” I asked him.
His head twitched. “That one I can’t really tell,” he said.
I agreed with him.
I arrived at the country club where Bergen had been employed at around 11:30, my stomach heaving with the six or seven cups of bad coffee I’d drowned at the restaurant. The receptionist was a priggish woman in white pants and shirt, with a bad case of glowering. She told me that I could wait while she inquired after Mr. Montero, the starch fairly discernible on the edge of her tongue.
“Mr. Montero might very well be preoccupied,” she said.
“I’ll wait for him.”
“Who shall I tell him is waiting?”
“Jome,” I said. “Just inform Mr. Montero that it’s about an employee of his. If you don’t mind.”
“Of course I don’t,” she said.
“That’s good of you.”
The club’s lobby was posh and decorated with veiny plants that touched the ceiling, a few cigar boxes with tees, five or six bright caps. I sauntered around a minute while the receptionist went into the back. Another man was seated alone at a card table, staring ahead as though in the throes of a remarkable dope addiction. Dull jazz peppered out of invisible speakers and struck the brown and burgundy walls. I felt flattered just to be in the rich cigar-fumes the club exuded. Outside some laughing men were spinning manically around in little golf carts, carousing through puddles and getting soaked. I didn’t understand the appeal. But to be fair, I didn’t understand the appeal of anything, really.
The manager, Montero, was lean and tan and had long arms. He came out from a back-room of blue lockers and coat racks, probably sixty years old, and grinned as though he meant every inch of it. He was dressed like the other golfers who’d been passing chattily by — khakis, floppy cartoon hat, white spiked shoes — but his attire was slimmer, the kind of fit that makes you want to snap your fingers rhythmically. There was a moment of hesitation after the the receptionist pointed me out.
“Mr. Jove,” he said, jerking his hand toward me. His accent was strange and I couldn’t quite place it.
“Jome,” I said.
Montero’s grin eloped from his eyes when he glanced at the vacant man at the card table.
“That’s Corviss,” the manager said in a whisper. “He cannot be communicated with when he goes into these trances of his. Occasionally he is incapacitated for an entire two days, and we sometimes have to simply leave him when we close at seven. His wife is dead and that may have something to do with his condition. Still, it is unfortunate and we are hopeful,” here Montero lifted his eyebrows, “that Mr. Corviss will find another location to do his fretting.”
Montero had an uncluttered way of talking. English was doubtlessly his third or fourth language, and he went about trying to prove that it could be good enough even for him.
I followed him into the rear of the club, where several wealthy men were lounging with their backs against the wall, exchanging inane anecdotes that were about as humorous as nicotine. Those same gigantic plants were sprouting everywhere.
“What’s with the forestry?” I asked.
“It regards cleaner oxygen. Better for the health of our members. I’m glad you appreciate our botanics. I bred them myself.”
“Must have been uncomfortable.”
He smiled tightly at me over his shoulder, the joke lost or not very funny or both.
His office was equal parts dingy and clean. Ill-lit, stained glass lamps suffused the niche in partitions of uneasy light, as though the room had been specifically graphed to provide the least amount of illumination. An extravagantly red desk, bare except for an expensive fountain pen and a box of note-cards, separated us. Montero slapped a pair of white gloves on his thigh and placed them gingerly off to the side of the desk. I could smell that it was nice wood.
“I collect Tiffany lamps,” Montero said as I contorted into the upright chair. “That chair that you are sitting in was designed by William Morris. Do you know William Morris?” Montero looked at me thoughtfully. “And this table – I’m terribly sorry, but please do not touch your hands on it, thank you, Mr. Jove — this table belonged to William James, who was apparently fond of sniffing at the variegated odors of the oak. Do you like it somewhat?” He nodded at me for approval and kept nodding until I approved.
“It’s fine as far as William James’s desks go. I’m here about Ben Bergen,” I said. “One of your former instructors.”
Three unique alterations of a scowl fleetingly tugged at his thin, tan face.
“If I remember correctly he was not a gifted player,” Montero said. “But he was an erudite teacher, if I may so use that term.”
“Use whatever term you like. What I’m most interested in is Mr. Bergen’s psychological state towards the end of his job here.”
“It was a long time ago,” Montero said. “And why is Benjamin curious to you?”
“He killed himself and now his sister wants to know why.”
Montero was put off by my bluntness and partly scoffed.
“I didn’t know,” he said.
His eyebrows twitched, but they’d been twitching since I got there.
“Ben was a cordial fellow,” Montero said. “I was not so acquainted with him to offer an evaluation of his character. He was a good teacher and that’s all I needed to know. Ben, of course, had his intense bouts of silence near the culmination of his time here, and he would often not talk to any of the staff for days.”
“Did he ever mention anything to you?”
“I remember that I was shocked when he offered his resignation.”
“Why shouldn’t he have resigned?”
“I didn’t ask him.”
“Ever hear the name William Florence?” I asked.
Montero shook his head, then stopped shaking his head, and shook his head some more. “It does sound familiar.”
“Somehow familiar, but not so familiar, Mr. Jove.”
“What else? There must be something else. Bergen’s sister had me come over here for some reason.”
“Frankly, Mr. Jove, I have nothing to add but what I have already mentioned,” Montero said. His brows lifted, and his eyes suddenly glinted in the semi-darkness. “I do have this.”
He pulled on the white gloves and slid a drawer back open. He held a four-by-six frame up to his eyes and studied it for a moment. When he handed it over I saw that it was a drawing, the same one adorning Mrs. Bergen’s wall.
“Perhaps this is something. Ben gave it to me quite a while ago, for my birthday. I can’t fathom how it would help you, Mr. Jove, but it’s really a nice piece, don’t you think?”
I scanned the blurred contours of the gray and black orchard. There was no difference that I could tell between the two copies.
“Who drew it?” I asked.
“I haven’t an idea,” Montero said, and I believed him. “But you may keep it. Perhaps I will need a favor from you some day,” he said, in the cadence of a schmuck feigning inner knowledge of the underworld.
“Perhaps you won’t get it,” I said. “I could be ungrateful.”
Laughing for the both of us Montero rose like a bird from a feeder. I put the drawing on the desk. Just to be radical I ran a forefinger over the surface of William James’s desk and heard Montero gasp at the air. In the anteroom the golfers were giggling at a joke a newcomer had just told. They looked at me and stopped giggling.
I took one glance at the clubhouse as I headed back to the street, now optimistically inclined to find a cab. The course beyond the formal building was little more than a flat green monotony interrupted with sand traps and carts — elegiac and quite foolish. I unclasped my umbrella and started back downtown, the rain tickling my back. After five minutes a cab pulled to the side without me waving it down. I told the driver to take me to my office. Though he didn’t appreciate the suggestion we did have a lengthy and enterprising discussion on the wealthy and on the weather.
TO BE CONTINUED…
PECK is among more than 40 writers featured in our 2011 10th-anniversary anthology, All Hands On: THE2NDHAND After 10. Order via this page.
Michael Fournier we met on tour last fall with our All Hands On anthology, at the Amherst event. You may remember him for his contribution to the 33 1/3 series of books about records — he authored the tome for Double Nickels on the Dime, by the Minutemen, and for 1980s/early 1990s punk culture and history and its place in the American arts pantheon, you’d be hard-pressed to find a writer who gets it more. He’s touring with a new novel, Hidden Wheel (click through the cover image to order at Three Rooms Press’ site, or better yet, pick up a copy at the show!), after the classic Rites of Spring song of the same name, and will be joined in Nashville by local T2H editor Todd Dills and Clarksville, Tenn.-based master-in-waiting Quincy Rhoads and Nashville-based art-book maker and writer Amelia Garretson-Persans (check out the stop-motion animation she completed recently for Nashville’s “By Lightnin” band in the vid below), among others TBA:
@Portland Brew, 1921 Eastland, Nashville
June 6, 6 p.m.
Here’s a great description of the new novel from the 33 1/3 series blog:
The novel focuses on the art and punk scenes of the Midwestern city Freedom Springs, where an opportunistic trustfunder named Ben Wilfork starts an all-ages art/show space names Hidden Wheel. Max Caughin, who tags under the name Faze, gets famous quick with a series of paintings on CD covers. His buddy Bernie Reese donates sperm to raise money for a new drum kit so his two-piece noiserock band Stonecipher can record. Bernie’s romantic interest (and former chess prodigy) Rhonda Barrett does dominatrix work by day and paints her life, sixty words at a time, on giant canvases by night. Their fates intertwine in a story reconstructed by William Molyneux, a 24th Century scholar reconstructing the Hidden Wheel scene after a solar flare erases all digital data in his era.
Dead Trend started as a fictional band in Hidden Wheel, Freedom Springs’ biggest musical export. As I wrote the book, I also wrote Dead Trend songs — short blasts of punk focusing on 1986 topics like Reagan, the Berlin Wall and Chernobyl. Some friends and I put the band together this summer, with me playing drums and doing backing vocals. We have a 7″ coming out soon on Baltimore’s Save vs. Poison Records. In the meantime, our music is available via cassette tape — demo versions of our songs recorded this summer, as well as a live set recorded in Orono, Maine.
In the first installment, we met protagonist Harry Jome, down-and-out private eye nowhere near work of any sort until a surprise ghost asks for him in his building’s diner. In Chapter 4, we meet her more fully in Jome’s rat-infested office, and she proves something of a bizarre taskmaster. “Last Orchard” is a novel that began its life as a Peck short story, published via THE2NDHAND’s pre-txt online magazine — it’s now being serialized in one installment per week via THE2NDHAND txt. Keep your eyes open for future installments.
Download “Last Orchard” .doc for your eReader (check back periodically — the file will be updated as new installments become available).
I took the elevator to the fourth floor, bracing myself against the claustrophobic walls. The burnt, grimy taste of coffee swam in my mouth. I was getting a little sleepy.
The building that confined my office to its cement purgatory was one of the last authentically nasty establishments in that section of the city, a historical site of depravity and Prohibition-era vice. Reputedly it was due to be torn down any day now and I didn’t blame whoever was doing the tearing. The Santos Building had once been renowned as a haven for desperate call girls, and the basement, which I’d never dared look at, was said to have been a hub for all kinds of debaucheries.
The hallways of each floor had been gutted of any personality: a chair leaned in a corner, the windows covered with cardboard, pipes gurgling and hopeless under your feet and in the walls. All in all, it was so seedy you had to plant your shoes when you stumbled in.
Adjacent to my stenciled, fogged-glass door was a vacant space I’d never been curious enough about. Sometimes a light was on inside, and I could distinctly hear a man singing in a foreign language, but otherwise, I’d never seen anyone milling around the vacant halls. The landlord himself was just a telephone number that led constantly to a phone being hung up.
My office was unlocked. I hadn’t bothered to replace the knob I’d yanked off on a tortured Monday in the throes of my second marriage. Not much to steal, anyway, unless there’s high demand for peeling wallpaper and bent paperclips. The carpet that covered half the center of the floor was deeply green, paint flecked.
The redhead was already there, seated with her back to me in a chair that, 45 minutes ago, had been behind my desk. I made some noise coming into the room but she didn’t seem to notice. You can figure out a lot about a person by how unimpressed they are with your presence.
I sauntered cooly over and sat on the edge of the desk, made a production of crossing my ankles. She was prim to the point of being blatantly indifferent, hands clenched in her lap as though she were engaged in pondering the squiggles on a Pollock. Up close, her face was too wide and too hard, cheekbones prominent — the face of a film star who doesn’t get too many parts. Her glasses were off now and her eyes were green, wide-set and unyielding; the rest of her attempted to prove them right.
“Remember me?” I asked.
“Do you have a cigarette?” She had a habit of speaking with her mouth compressed, as though she were training to be a ventriloquist.
“At the diner?” I said. “Remember? About five minutes ago?”
“Because I left my pack at home. And it would be kind if you had one so I wouldn’t have to go crazy.”
“Sitting at the counter and you came up–”
“Do you or don’t you have a cigarette?”
“I quit a month ago.”
“That’s admirable of you,” she said, going through the purse between her heels.
“It doesn’t feel too admirable.”
“Admirable things usually don’t.”
Very casually she extracted a plain white envelope that was being used as a book marker in a pamphlet-thin pulp novel. On the front my name had been written in tiny cursive symbols.
“Won’t you lose your place?” I asked.
“I already read it. You know Dominic Early?” she asked.
“Maybe, but for some reason I don’t really think you care what I have to say.”
“Crime writer. He has a lackluster grip on the way people actually behave. Entertaining, though.”
“Let’s start a book club later. What’s this about?”
She batted her finger on the envelope and said: “This concerns my brother Ben and needless to say it’s confidential, if that means anything to you.”
“Information is overvalued,” I said. “Some jerk once defined hell as an infinite stream of details and possibilities. If that means anything to you.”
She flung the envelope on my lap. It slipped onto the floor and I bent and grabbed it.
“There’s a check inside for eight thousand dollars,” she said.
“I don’t like surprises anyway.”
“Do you like personal checks?”
At that point I would have accepted muskrat hides. I unsealed the envelope with a greedy finger and greeted the digits inside.
“That’s a little insulting,” she said. “I’m good for it.”
“I was simply trying to find out your name. It seemed less superfluous than asking.”
Susan K. Longtree looked at me over the tip of her pert nose.
“Just don’t call me Susan,” she said. “Nor think of me using that name.”
I loosened the knot on my black tie, peering like a creep at her ringlets of red hair held rigid with pomade.
“My brother, Ben,” she started. “He killed himself two weeks ago in a motel up north.” She related it in a mechanical spurt, the way you might tell the plumber that the faucet is broken. Something tugged at her lips now, not tears but the opposite of tears. “Ben was married to a woman here in the city and had a kid with her — a girl, Dot. So what I’m saying, Mr. Jome, is that Ben did not lead a miserable life. He worked as a golf instructor in that club outside of town then quit to take care of the wife and the kid. House. Family. Job.”
“Sometimes all three in collaboration can ruin anyone.”
“That’s very wise,” she said.
“The wife was not troubled by his mental state?” I asked.
“Ben’s wife and I haven’t ever gotten along. For that matter, neither have Ben and I. He was always happier than I was.”
“I take it you never noticed anything foul?”
“Not so much. He was a quiet kid from the day he was born. Like there was something inside of him gnawing away. He loved the lake up at the orchard.”
I let the tension stir the room until she was forced to look at me again. “What exactly, Ms. Longtree, is it you’re here for?”
Sue Longtree looked at me with blank eyes.
“Ben didn’t leave a note,” she said. “Is that strange?”
“Not really. The ones who hope to live are prodigious with their words; all they want is someone to listen. But some suicides believe in the act, not as some stunt to get mommy’s love, but as a serious decision. Believe me, I’ve tried writing in suicidal desperation. It’s all romantic slop and not very grammatical.”
She glared at me, not completely sure whether I was being facetious or sincere. In fact, I wasn’t quite so sure myself.
“So I would like to hire your services for a few days or a week and hopefully find out why Ben did it. Could there possibly be a note somewhere?”
“Is that all there is?” I asked.
“Just like the song says.”
“I feel insulted.”
“You must feel that a lot. The eight thousand is a down payment. Essentially, I don’t care how he died and we weren’t close. I want you to shred his death and use the pieces to solve his life. If a person kills himself for no reason, a sister is likely to get worried. Genes and whatnot. Believe me, I’m not paranoid. If Ben killed himself for a bona fide purpose, all right. As I said before: Find out why. And it’s Mrs. Longtree,” she said. “That’s why I’m not able to research for myself. I’m going through a divorce that ought to be settled in a trench.”
I scribbled in an unlined reporter’s notebook. The shorthand looked like a screwed-up association game, the hasty marks of a messy hieroglyphics.
I poured myself a soda water I’d been saving and asked the woman if she wanted some.
“I’ll take some rum,” she said.
“I don’t have any rum.”
“What do you have?”
“I have some soda water.”
I paced and drank while she talked. The story of her brother wasn’t terribly riveting stuff. Sue and Ben were both born upstate, the only offspring of Daddy and Mrs. Longtree.
“What’s your father’s name?” I asked.
“His name is Daddy.”
“I don’t think you’re being serious.”
“If he had any other name we never knew it.”
Their father ran a once prosperous orchard four or five hours north. Soon after Sue was born, Mrs. Longtree took the kids to live in the city away from Daddy and the isolation.
“My mother loved the city and my father loves the orchard,” Sue said. “So it caused some conflict. We visited the orchard sometimes. I couldn’t stand the place. Ben and I spent a lot of time together up there when we were kids, sneaking around, ducking out at night.”
“What about Daddy?” I asked.
“He was always holed up at the orchard. Daddy wasn’t anything more than a presence for me. After a while we stopped going to see him because he was getting weird. Nobody really missed him.
The fast crack of Sue’s voice was somehow transfixing, like being punched in the face with a peppermint leaf.
“At seventeen,” Sue went on, “I traveled awhile, thinking myself some kind of itinerant writer. I met my currently estranged husband at a lounge in Chicago. He manages and conducts a big band. They’re called The Boys and the music is so bad it’s demeaning for me to stoop to criticize it.”
“Well, you did marry him,” I said.
“Yes,” she said. “Marriage definitely is an institution.”
For Sue the rest was lawyers, estate debacles and a third-rate future of uncertainty and reliance in despised money. She glossed over the personal details diffidently, and though there was some pain in her voice it was the suffering of being snapped with a rubber band at close quarters.
Meanwhile, Ben Longtree packed off to university. Before he received his degree in biology, however, he suddenly quit and continued his career as a golfer. He won some high-paying tournaments and was interviewed a few times on the radio. At thirty-five he stopped competing and got himself a job at a country club outside of town. It was there that he met his wife, Carol Bergen, a tobacco heiress. That was five years ago.
“He took his wife’s name,” Sue said scornfully. “Bergen. I don’t understand how he could be so weak.”
“Maybe he loved her,” I offered
“I didn’t change my name when I got married.”
“Maybe you didn’t love him,” I offered again.
“Anyway,” she said.
Ben and Carol had a daughter before they were married, now six years old. Dot, Sue remarked, was silent like her father and mean like her mother. I agreed that it wasn’t a suitable disposition for a child.
“Carol is an abomination,” Sue said.
So Ben Bergen drove north into the halls around Sutter Falls to drop in on their father’s sixty-seventh birthday. A day later was found in his motel room, the radio blaring (the maid recounted), a neat hole through the roof of his mouth, out the top of his head and embedded in the crook of the plaster ceiling. Immediately the slaying was ruled self-slaughter and no one doubted the verdict, especially not Sue Longtree.
“They didn’t so much as dust the door handle,” she said. “It might have been quick, but these are the sorts of towns that have nothing to do except cart away suicides and bargain with housewives not to send two barrels into their husbands.”
“What about Daddy? You said Ben was up there to see him.”
Sue took a long look at her red-painted fingernails.
“Nothing that I know of. We’re a deranged family.”
“And your mother?”
“Dead. She was sleepwalking one night and tossed herself out a hotel-room window in St. Louis.”
“Another suicide,” I said.
Across the room a rat poked its slick head from a fissure in the baseboard. Saw me, froze, and disappeared back into the hole.
“So,” I said to impede the silence, squinting at my chaotic notation. “Bergen leads a fulfilling existence. Underwhelming job, wife and daughter. And so on. One night he just kills himself. It’s definitely not murder, and nothing so far as you can tell is nefarious about the incident. You’d like me to look at the death for any indication that it could be the result of a destructive tendency in your family, some horrifying gene.” I paused, drank, and let the soda water fizz under my tongue. “Okay. Why not do this yourself?”
“Two reasons,” she said abruptly. “One, I’m not close to any of these people. I don’t like any of them. They need a stranger to feel comfortable. Carol won’t even speak to me. Two, I’m actually scared at what I’ll find, that there could some lingering symptom of some kind of … ingrained problem.”
“That’s more than two reasons.”
“The last one is free. And finally, it’s not your job to pry into my reasons. Are you always so nosy?”
“Absolutely. And why should you be worried about why your brother killed himself?” I asked.
“I’ve just noticed things in myself that I don’t want to notice.”
We engaged in a clean silence that wasn’t very clean.
“There’s one other important thing,” she said. “It could be nothing. But Ben signed in at the hotel under a different name. William Florence.”
“That’s not so crazy,” I said, walking behind her so that she had to twist to follow me.
“Why isn’t that so crazy?” she asked.
I shrugged. “People rarely behave like they should when they’re about to shoot themselves. It probably doesn’t mean anything.”
“So you’ll look into this?” Sue asked.
“I guess so, until it leads nowhere or somewhere.”
“I appreciate that,” she said. She clasped the mouth of her purse and slipped it over her shoulder.
We shook hands; her palm was as dry as a whale bone.
I handed her one of my last business cards. A ring of coffee encircled the upper left hand corner.
“I like your logo,” she said, nodding at the stain.
“I had it specially made.”
“I can’t show any emotion. People tell me that all the time. It doesn’t bother me anymore.”
“That’s okay. Some people are born like that and others have to learn it.
Going out the door, Sue glanced at me in the mirror.
For a while I thought about her artificially red hair; in some sick way I liked her lack of concern and expensive rancor. When you begin to care is when the war marches and the beach guns start.
Gently, I folded the check in equal halves, drooling. I was thinking of nothing but the money and how it touched me just right where I needed to be touched.
I put a hat on my head and flicked the light switch. The hall was soundless and barren, some of the ceiling plaster floating onto the carpet. The rusted grates of the elevator clanged shut, the heap descended and I counted my check in a better light. The paper was crisp and impersonal and modern. The feeling it induced, however, was positively prehistoric.
After cashing the check and stuffing the fifties and twenties in my pants pocket I went to a pawnshop that specialized in my hocked goods. The metallic guts of the shop were congested with unwanted silverware and thick dust. I purchased back the pistol that I’d brought in a week ago, when my pecuniary status had been drastic. The proprietor was a smart-ass Hungarian with a beard that would have made fungi jealous. He had one of the largest collections of harmonicas in the store, as though a wandering harmonica orchestra had passed through town. The Hungarian wished me a happy death when I was exiting his shop. “Which is all that life is for,” he elaborated.
I wasn’t sure exactly why buying back my weapon was so important, only that I felt bereft without it, a man deprived of his art. Plus, I loved the weight of the .38 in my trouser pocket, and how lovingly it responded to the briefest touch.
The sky was pondering the rain, which was due to last a few days or so. I walked to 20th as excited as a dumb child at a horse race. My newfound cash was rolled into my right fist, my free hand caressing the gun in my pocket. Around 30th I started perusing shop windows, the way saps do when they’ve just received a modest sum of dollars and need to consider how it should be squandered.
At a delicatessen I bought a wheel of cheese and a yardstick of Italian salami. The rain was starting to come down forcefully as I reached 48th Street.
My apartment complex was a series of three plain buildings designed around an uncared-for park. The grass hadn’t been cut in months, the trees gnarled and perishing. No one wanders the unappealing, graffiti-stained path. As for the architecture of the buildings, it could be characterized as frigid Bauhaus in its charmlessness. My neighborhood is somewhere in limbo, a people of no extreme inclinations or ambitions, drifted along by a son of a bitch of a god whose idea of fun is leaving us to writhe and argue and die. Just like anybody else anywhere else and everywhere else.
The mail slot for 201 housed three Chinese take-out menus and a letter that had been there for three years, from a girl I didn’t want to remember and a time I didn’t want to forget. She was a short, dour girl who’d left me in a phone-booth waiting for her for three hours. Later I found out that she’d gone to San Francisco and married a yacht and the guy who owned it. She could have been the only dame I cared anything for.
Inside my apartment I stored the cheese, the salami and the money in the ice-box. It was a little after four.
A row of bookshelves was arranged chronologically on one wall in the living room; mostly the titles were related to late medieval philosophy, Aquinas’ works, the collected essays on magic by Bruno, Eckhardt’s surreal dreams about creepy angels who visited him during the night.
The furniture in the room was sparse, an armchair with a leather footstool, a sofa under the bay window, glass-topped coffee table scattered with shabby magazines. Likewise, the kitchen’s utility was based solely around an oblong table and one oak chair. As for the bedroom, it was a place where I slept. It held a big bed and a closet hung with suits that have not seen a dry cleaner in two presidential elections. It was so practical I could have been denounced as a communist.
I checked on the money in the ice-box, where it was chilled and hardening, the way money should be. I drew a bath and soaked awhile, pondering Sue’s hair and other attributes. Afterwards I ran a razor over my face and sprinkled on some minty lotion. I laid on the crumpled sheets of the bed. A poplar brushed the window sympathetically. Poplars do that.
The unlikely suicide of Sue Longtree’s brother was still a shapeless, random event that had no meaning. I liked Sue Longtree a bit, but probably the more I enjoyed her ruthlessness the less I would enjoy her ruthlessness.
The pillow was terribly inviting and dreams were fitful; in them I died at least twice. I awoke, having slept all of twenty-five minutes.
Later that evening I had dinner in solitude, joined by the sputtering static of a black and white television set rambling on in an idiotic advertisement. I got one channel. Better than silence.
As I polished off a cheese and salami sandwich I flipped the pages of my notebook, decoding the unintelligible script. Very little actual information to go on, but it was enough for the moment.
The heading of the first page was printed: Sue Longtree, client and underneath that:
Ben Bergen (used the name “William Florence”), suicide, no note, motel in Sutter Falls
Carol Bergen, wife of BB, call on immediately
Dot Bergen, daughter, 6
Shady Palm Country Club, BB employed, interview manager (Montero)
Contact Pol. Dept. in Sutter Falls
Mrs. Longtree, killed self in sleep (the immortality of dreams?)
Daddy Longtree, father of Sue and Ben, hermit, BB visited shortly before.
Below that, in the margin of the page, I had misspelled the word Orchard and even when I had it right, the word looked off.
Early on Wednesday morning I showered and threw on a white shirt, brown suit and black wingtips. I polished the shoes while they were on my feet, spending a good five minutes on each one. I’d owned them since a senior dance in high school, and the area just in back of the toes was as creased as a cutting board. Some Beethoven quartet was winding down on the record player.
In the bathroom mirror my reflection had drastically improved over the past day or so. My hair had changed over to gray when I was twenty-two, a semester into medieval studies, and had not recuperated since. Sometimes it lent a grave dignity to my poor, sullen face. Frankly, I was exhilarated to be working again, and the case fascinated me because it made no overtures to being eventful. I smiled at myself in the bathroom mirror, and the smile was nearly authentic.
I scrubbed the dishes in the sink while my toast burned. Sang off-key at the radio, had a couple bites of cereal. I brought the toast with me into the taxi, wrapped in a napkin. The bald, unhealthy-looking driver scowled at me in the rearview, muttering at the steering wheel in a volley of whispered complaints that I believed were directed at me.
Whole parts of the city were nothing but trash. Clenched in the early rush of vehicles, I looked at the streets heaped with unappealing black bags. People were hurling refuse indiscriminately onto the sidewalk now. Wrappers, beer cans, egg cartons, all manner of comestibles, soaked from the rain and strewn in parking lots and in lawns. Rotting meat was prevalent, its sunset-pink juices draining into the gutter. Some folks had attempted to drive their trash to the public landfill outside of town but were turned back: the big stinking crater in the ground was filled to capacity. Further digging had commenced. They would never be done digging. Maybe that’s the end to all outwardly impressive cultures.
The driver and I made a few snide quips at the extravagant neighborhood. He beat a fast left onto 3rd to outpace a light.
Carol Bergen’s house was near the middle of the wide, poplar-lined boulevard, number 113, with a cast-iron woodpecker for a mailbox. Two brawny bushes guarded the driveway.
I handed the driver fare plus a ten.
“You ain’t got to be cocky about it,” he said.
Compared to the ultra-modern monstrosities that formed the rest of the block, the Bergen residence was almost Victorian. Lattice-work ran the length of the flaking brownstone facade, shoots of vine grappling at the white criss-crossed planks. The walkway was red brick, the air infused with the dense sweetness of wet, freshly-mown grass.
I rang the bell and a dull chime flirted out of tune with a standard hymn. A white, monotonous sky held an airplane. Before I could press the bell a second time a woman had the door ajar, swaying in a liquored, stumbling dance.
“Come on in,” she said, the woman’s eyes puffy, drowsy.
“Mrs. Bergen?” I removed my hat and paused on the mat.
“Come on in,” she repeated lightheartedly. “Whoever you are you can’t be any worse.”
“I might be a little worse. And look at that, you’ve even cleaned up your shoes for me.”
“Do you live around here?” she inquired, emphasizing each word.
I said I didn’t live around here.
“Then you can’t be any worse,” she said. “Something happens to people around here. They get brutally dull and must find petty ways to hurt one another. I’m from Minneapolis originally.”
“Decent town,” I said.
“Is it really?” she asked gravely. “I don’t remember much about it. I lived with an evil aunt who collected these hideous monkey figurines she claimed were from Egypt. Why do you ask?”
“I didn’t ask.”
Carol Bergen was a short, scrawny woman in a white linen shirt that fit her like a drape. Somewhere embroiled in her forties, unmistakably shaken, a person who is born twitchy. The lines in her sallow face were an ideal slope for tears. Her breath was a high percentage and to whichever label it belonged it appeared to be working.
“I’m Harry Jome,” I said.
She pronounced my name familiarly, as though we’d gone to middle school together or had been recent neighbors.
“You sister-in-law contacted me to see what I could make of your husband’s suicide.”
Mrs. Bergen winced at the mention of her husband, muttering only, “Oh,”, and a beat later, “Why?”
“I’m not awfully sure. But sometimes it pays to not be awfully sure. Mrs. Longtree essentially wants to know the reason for his demise, whether it’s in the blood or what it is.” I shrugged. “So, now you know as much as I do.”
Downcast and confused, she offered to take my coat and hat, and when I declined, she insisted on helping me out of my coat and hat and clutched my coat and hat in her bony arms. She tottered into the walls as she led me through a foyer. Blank, faded spots were on the walls, where photographs or watercolors had once been.
The kitchen at the end of the hallway was a cluttered mess of grimy dishes, blackened pots, cabinets disarrayed. Mrs. Bergen plunked my coat and hat on one of the chairs and poured herself clear liquid from an unmarked bottle. Turned, I could see that the seat of her tan pants was patterned in coffee grounds. With her back to me she looked healthy and almost sexy. When she turned and seemed to guess my thoughts I found myself mourning the last eight or so years of her life with her. Every movement she made was desperation disguised as movement.
Her body swayed clownishly as she tried to find the chair that I was positioning under her. She grimaced at me as though she had just swallowed half a decanter of melted plastic. Taped to the refrigerator was a finished crossword puzzle.
“Nice work,” I said, pointing at it.
She slid into the chair inch by inch.
“Ben and I did that the night before, I guess, and by the way what’re you doing here?”
“I’m here about Mr. Bergen — Ben.”
“Ben’s not here.”
“Ms. Longtree sent me over.”
I noticed that Mrs. Bergen’s exuberant brown hair was a wig. It slipped forward over an eyebrow, revealing close-cropped gray bangs.
“Bitch,” Mrs. Bergen mouthed.
“Sure,” I said. “She just wants to know why he did it. Whether it’s a family tic. I suppose that’s not too unreasonable.”
“No, not too unreasonable…. It’s as fucking stupid as a…” she tried to compare it to something but failed and grinned like I was meant to infer what she was alluding to.
“How did Ben act towards the end?” I asked.
“Same as normal. Ben had a fabulous character.” She looked at the tabletop — a swathe of fine cigarette ash — as though it were an hallucination. Her eyes were a triumph of cynicism.
“Let me apologize,” she said. “And pour you a whiskey or gin or something?”
“I don’t drink.”
“What, were you raised by Quakers?” she snarled as though I had just insulted her first cousin.
“No,” I said. “Alcoholics.”
She laughed and hissed at the same time. “I’m better than everyone else in the world,” she said, “except for myself at my worst.”
She blinked and looked confused.
“You’re as fucked-up same as me,” she said.
“Who isn’t, Mrs. Bergen?”
“Sure he was.”
Instead of getting angry she smiled that belligerent smile, at the point where sobbing is inevitable. She came up close to my face and the smell of booze mixed with a lingering fruity shampoo was a sickening combination. Before I could resist she grabbed the back of my head and pulled my mouth to her mouth. Pulling sloppily from me she said, “I don’t know why I did that. I didn’t mean to do that.”
“You thought I was somebody else,” I said.
“I guess you’re right,” she said. “Excuse me while I go away for a moment to compose myself.”
She oscillated into the next room. My stopping by was worthless and sorrowful. An untoward kindness came over me and I put her glass in the sink, then lifted my hat and coat on. Passing by the living room I saw that she had fallen asleep on the orange corduroy sofa, her restless body twitching in a nightmare that would be right where she’d left it. One of her sad eyes opened and she murmured, “I’m better than everyone else in the world, except for–” and didn’t finish plagiarizing herself.
High above the couch there was a drawing of an orchard that I barely glanced at and would have forgotten had it not been so strikingly out of place in a room with no other pictures. The style was expressionistic and influenced by twilight, similar to a Goya print or a print by a friend of Goya’s.
So far the only thing I knew about Ben Bergen was that he had been alive and now he wasn’t alive.
I shut the front door silently behind me just as Carol Bergen belched in her sleep.
Considering Mrs. Bergen’s overall condition, it suddenly hit me that Sue Longtree’s inquiry was absurd. What was she expecting me to find out? Why? Did it make any difference if you knew with definitiveness that you were crazy and that you’d been crazy from the start? Plus, Sue didn’t care a lot about the fate of her brother, only how it impinged on her. Still, four grand was a tidy sum I couldn’t pass up, even if I wasn’t too sure what I was passing up and what I holding onto.
I picked up an umbrella for $15 at a corner vendor’s on 10th. The umbrella was red and blue, the vendor telling me it would last through a hurricane. Strong winds were racing in from the east and I had to wrestle with the umbrella all the way to the Santos Building, sweating when I reached the downstairs lobby. As usual, nobody was around. The stairwell was gray and dank, haunted by a scent that was deathly stale. A puddle had formed on the second-floor landing and I hopped over the little pool.
I rummaged through my drawers for nothing in particular. I was anxious, confined; the euphoria of the morning had been beaten to death by Carol Bergen’s pathos. I kind of felt bad for her because I knew what it was like to wage a fruitless struggle against the bottle. And maybe a little affectionate, too. Mrs. Bergen was a pathetic cliche, and cliches are dangerous because generally so appropriate.
In the drawers I picked out a bullet that had been mailed to me by an incapable man in the heat of his divorce; a counterfeit $100 bill; antacid tablets; a candy bar that had liquefied and solidified so frequently that the silver wrapping was more edible; $1.27 in loose change; the degree I’d earned at a stuffy haven of higher learning; one shelled cashew; and nine street maps of the city. A snooping biographer would have all the details he would ever need to write the life of Harry Jome, and then he’d quit and tell his publisher it didn’t amount to much — an article if he was lucky, and could he have a few spare bucks for the work, to keep things genuine, because anybody who would write about me would necessarily be the kind of person who was often broke. I dusted out the lint, replaced the junk, and was squeezing myself into a mild depression when the phone rang.
“You sound a bit down,” Sue Longtree said into my ear. “Must be all the hard work you’re doing.”
“Your sister-in-law is a six-a.m. drunk. There’s not much I can do with her. That’s the big lead I unearthed this morning. She doesn’t know whether to applaud or sob. She even tried to seduce me, I think.”
“What do you mean, you think?”
“She’s a trite mess of a lot of problems.”
“I wonder if she’s still my sister-in-law,” Sue said musingly. “With Ben dead and everything.”
“Would you like me to find that out too?”
“Saying something dumb isn’t the same as wit.”
“Wit is too profound for me. I usually just bounce my head against the wall for kicks.”
Sue cleared her throat.
“You know,” I said. “You haven’t really confided in me why you suspect this preposterous theory concerning your family. What’s actually the point?”
“Both my grandparents were suicides. At the same time.”
“Double suicides are as rare as twins.”
“Just as hard to feed, too.”
“Ms. Longtree, I think maybe–”
“You’re going a little short on my prefix, Mr. Jome. Did I tell you I’m married?”
“I must not have been listening. There was a lot to look at and I might have ignored that knowledge.”
“I have a creeping sense that you’d be slightly intelligent if you thought it wouldn’t hurt your business.”
“There’s no business to hurt. I act this way because I enjoy the bewilderment of others.”
“You must be enjoying yourself a lot.”
I held the phone in the crook of my shoulder and took it for a walk to the window. Another dreary, pitiable day that had no ambition, the kind of sky that made you want to build a better one.
“But you hate your husband,” I said.
“That’s true,” she said, as though she’d just found out. “So you can understand why I’m concerned.I haven’t traced the genealogy far, but what I know is that there is cause to worry.”
“What you need is only someone to let you talk and cry.”
She laughed and it was horrendous. “Everybody has a shrink nowadays,” she said. “You give him a problem and he gives you some cute little yellow pills.”
I thought of her hair draped lugubriously over the phone. Red hair always bothered me and by that I mean it has never bothered me.
“Besides,” she said. “What would you do if you were me? It’s possible that I’m a threat to myself or other people. If you can get evidence I’ll check myself into the nearest blue ward a second later.”
“Maybe you should think about doing that right away.”
“A happy person does not kill himself is all I am saying, and from what I know my family has a tendency toward killing themselves.”
A taut silence ensnared itself on the line.
“Well,” I said.
“Goodbye, Mr. Jome.”
Sue Longtree was pretty, dedicated, endearingly eccentric. She reminded me of someone I’d like a lot. She was nuts, but she wore it well, and she was also smart, but smart is an acquired trait.
Down below in the rain-puttering street a person shouted as loud as he could, as though the shrill message was intended solely for my edification, and perhaps it was.
TO BE CONTINUED…
Michael Peck lives and writes in Missoula, Mont. Find more from Peck in THE2NDHAND archives or in our 10th-anniversary book anthology, All Hands On, released in 2011. More about it below.
“Last Orchard” is a short noir that began its life as a Peck short story, published via THE2NDHAND’s pre-txt online magazine — it’s now being serialized in one installment per week via THE2NDHAND txt here. Keep your eyes open for future installments. Peck lives and writes in Missoula, Mont. Find more from him in THE2NDHAND archives or in our 10th-anniversary book anthology, All Hands On, released in 2011.
Download “Last Orchard” .doc for your eReader (check back periodically — file will be updated as new installments become available)
Let us practice every imaginable grimace. –Arthur Rimbaud, A Season in Hell
Let me begin before everything got all cockeyed and deadly and confused. Before Sue Longtree and Daddy Longtree and the orchard and Cowper and that bridge out of this despicable city. I blame a lot of this on my tailor, especially on that suave suit he never did finish.
But I suppose if I wanted to go back before any of this began I’d end up starting just after the dinosaurs were hacked to death by the wind and the earth and rotted away into fuel and dirt.
And where do you begin a story, anyway? Do you select some random point, or is there a tangible place that can be flipped over and fingered? “This is where everything started,” you would like to say. But any moment is random. There’s not a definite beginning to anything. The idea of a beginning is a turgid con. There can’t be a beginning when everything is at an end.
I’m not a writer; I’m something more like a transcriber of degeneracy and hatred. Had I any poetic talents I would be talking about something better: Birds in migration, the pleasantries of intoxicated guests at a cottage on the Cape, beautiful women having a picnic on a rooftop, flowers peeling back to let in the morning.
Instead, I’m talking about rotting dinosaurs and wretched people who have built this city with their capricious greed and startling cynicism.
I should say that nothing about this makes any kind of sense: there’s no solution, I don’t really know who’s responsible, whether anything criminal has been committed by others, what my involvement in the Longtree situation really consisted of, or even if it consisted of anything other than a psychotic redhead’s unquenchable love of her own self. And what I remember about Sue Longtree: the wave of her red hair, a smile that had in parted lips a riddle with no punchline, a scent, a stupid hope, a hand grasping my arm at a symphony performance.
“Why’d you do it, Jome?” Cowper says.
I say, “I haven’t slept too well lately.”
And that should have been enough but it wasn’t and it isn’t.
The river is down below like a dark, wavering sheet and the men are closing in for the big squeeze, Cowper leading them, his face a featureless blank in relief against the massive spotlight behind him. I swing a leg over the metal railing, and then the other leg, balancing on the parapet like some mad acrobatic fool. The men’s hard-bottomed shoes pound the concrete behind me and they’re breathing heavily and I can almost feel their arms pulling me back.
It’s funny, but the water below is so flat it looks like I could bounce right off the surface and carom back onto the bridge and find it empty of these animals in uniforms, replaced by daylight and a view of the city that has been erased by the rain. And maybe that’s exactly what I will do, when I am ready.
The river is getting closer, its contours in the night like an approximation of what I imagine the afterlife to be like: black, trembling and not nearly deep enough. I put a foot out and my shoe drops off. I don’t hear it plop into the river.
So where do I begin when there’s nowhere to begin?
The morning I found Sue Longtree in my office I’d spent listening to a record of the adagio from a Mozart piano concerto, and I’d thought to myself that it was the simplest interpretation of innocence I’d ever pried out of the world. That sound — a soft piano fading — would be a halfway decent beginning, except that I’ve forgotten the tune it belonged to.
But anywhere, any place, anybody is at least a halfway good beginning, if such things exist.
I was at the window looking out over the intersecting bridges spanning the city. Great hulking sculptures of metal and steel, able to withstand the fleeing and the returning with equal ease, layered on top of one another like a crazy staircase. Bridges are the strangest of modern conveniences, a street with no land underneath, a nowhere boulevard that can carry you across seas and lakes and rivers, transporting you to the elsewhere you yearn so vaguely to be. A bridge is the beginning and the end of any journey.
The river beneath the the webwork of bridges was sleek and consoling in its dangerous malaise, condemned to thrash, like all good rivers, against the encroachment of civilization.
A drop of rain struck the glass and eased down reluctantly. A siren yearned and careened three stories below in the street for a while, found its miserable destination and became a loose, fragile memory among a thousand others that one soon forgets. Then another siren joined in from somewhere beyond the first and the duet spun off to opposite fringes of the city, a cacophony of parting goodbyes in a town that is built of them.
It had just begun to rain and the buildings out the window were becoming coated in a slick mirror of water that reflected the fading sky and the buildings within reach. I studied a calendar on my desk, trying to intuit what day it was, but the calendar was from last year and I’d never been keen on math. Or anything else. I sat back in my chair and grimaced at the ceiling.
I yawned, trying to surprise myself.
There was a blue and white marble on my desk that I began to roll back and forth on the uncluttered surface. The ninth or tenth time I was too slow and it bounced against a copy of a dog-eared Dominic Early novel and that I’d been meaning to read. The marble dribbled onto the floor like any other sad, useless thing. I peered closely at the little round speck dreamily, urging it to keep rolling, but my momentary optimism wouldn’t take. I left myself alone.
Sitting in the same position for hours, romanticizing the days you wasted in the gutter, you tend to disremember that the street exists, that there is something beyond the flicking wall clock in the berserk simplicity of a familiar room. That maybe you’re a self-propelling organism with the nerve to feel all right; your body an urban development project and the brain a ticket-window to a carnival that is always vacant, though some silly bastard keeps the hallucinatory rides well oiled and moving along.
I was coming down with the initial chills of a cold is what I’m trying to spell out. Lousiness doesn’t achieve much more in one day.
That morning a middle-aged woman visited my office and offered me $400 to investigate the death of her husband. She was a babbling matron, barely able to subvert a speech defect that slurred her words, with the physique of a sack and lips purpled by wine. The husband was decapitated by a train as he attempted to switch the tracks at some remote outpost beyond the suburbs.
“It was mysterious,” the woman said. “In a week he was going to blow the lid on the Switchmen’s Union and some people — and by that I mean some people — didn’t like the idea much. And so you can imagine what I think.”
“Why was he going to blow the lid on the Switchmen’s Union?” I asked, and the woman must have heard my stultified tone, because she looked like she was going to spit on my desk.
“Roger said something about,” the woman paused, recalling, “black market goods being loaded onto freighters by certain squalid switchmen.”
“What kind of black market goods?”
“He never mentioned.”
She gave a harrowing account of the switchman’s life, replete with dinner routine, the hour his alarm sounded each morning, his Sunday yard work. Finished and breathing hard, gray hair clinging to her forehead, she expostulated some more and fell silent. Perspiration slithered on her exposed skin like she’d just enjoyed a bath of turgid lake water. It was disgusting to me.
“Any witnesses?” I asked.
“Just the engineer.”
“What does he say?”
“He was asleep.”
“So he wasn’t really a witness.”
“He was there,” she spat.
As bluntly as I could I told her that her personal grief was not a good enough reason to suspect assassination. People get in the way of trains sometimes. “Basically I don’t like or trust people who sweat profusely,” I said aloud without really meaning to.
“You have the mouth of a dog,” she said.
“Not every freak death is a conspiracy,” I said. She tore into a plastic bag of tissues. “Stupidity is extremely under-appreciated as a transport to the afterlife.”
“Roger wasn’t stupid.”
“I’m sorry, but anybody who gets his head knocked off by a slow-moving train is challenged in some special way. Wouldn’t you agree?”
I could have taken her dollars and done nothing but sit around and stare at it for a week, then report to her that I’d been unable to uncover anything conclusive. Maybe I was feeling lazy; possibly, I simply did not care. From Malthus one learns that the cause of all evil and crime is overpopulation, and ever since Pinkerton it has been good private policy for someone in my line of work never to meddle with unions.
“I thought you did this kind of thing,” she said, rising with tissues clasped in each hand.
“Honestly, I don’t know what it is I do anymore. It’s not your fault. I’m disillusioned, is all.”
“And it certainly isn’t mine,” she hissed.
She sobbed out to the hallway. As the elevator descended her whelps grew distant and stopped altogether, then resumed through the open window. I watched her hustle across the street against the light.
The office was chilly but I left the window open a crack. I tucked in my once-white dress shirt and propped a suit coat on my shoulders. A year and a half ago I’d nailed a portrait mirror to the backside of the door. Intended as security to inspect every angle of a client, it served mainly to distribute my deflation of vanity. Not a handsome man, perhaps, rather plump and grim under the eyes, the kind of looks certain women appreciate from a distance and realize, on closer scrutiny, they are very mistaken. But I wasn’t out for any woman. I’m sure they’d had enough of me, too.
Well, Harry Jome, I said to myself, stepping into the plank-floored corridor, whose walls were painted in indignant swipes. Let’s you and me get a couple of eggs. It’s about time we had some excitement.
May was humid so far.
The people walking the streets were dressed too warmly, and a collective grimace was growing wider by the inch, not at all helped by the pattering rain. Maybe it wasn’t the weather but the fact that unhappy people were steadily coming to understand their condition. But at least in the city you don’t have to be yourself 24 hours a day. Crowds of nobodies surge and swallow you in a great gulp, hustle you along to their nowhere, suck you into a civilization of aimless people attempting to appear busy. If I ever decided to long for friendship I could start talking to god or get a membership in a secret society.
At the 12th Street diner all the booths were taken. Eager employees and unperturbed excecutives were hunched together feasting on over-told stories about a certain cubicle, a shady bookkeeper, hoary bosses with a penchant for meanness. Beside me at the counter was a midget in a mustard yellow cardigan with a guitar case leaning on his leg, so that whenever he shifted, which was perpetually, he had to keep a hand on the case to straighten it.
The waitress was a mild teenager with braces and rubber bands in her shortish black hair, long unpainted fingernails and a demeanor so shy it would have made a pimp blush. She got my whole order wrong: the eggs were sunny-side up, the meat was ham. To her credit it was a highly unorthodox order. The coffee, at least, wasn’t ginseng tea.
Next to me the midget had his head in a newspaper and I found myself contorting to read the headlines as I ate. Suddenly he shot me an eye and hopped off the stool, taking the paper as he jumped away. There was nothing so attractive in the headlines anyway: death, mutilation, disease, an escalating crime rate, the subtle menace of germs and defeat, rape, pillage, genocide. It was too dirty to look at.
“I come here every day,” the midget said to me, folding the paper twice. “I sit in the same place and I don’t trouble anybody.”
I chewed my ham, watching him shake his head.
“Sorry,” he said. “I’m just in the mood for talking. You want to talk?” he asked.
“Talk about what?”
“You know what’s funny?” he said, and answered his question, “Nothing. I can’t think of a single thing that’s funny.” He straightened the guitar case. “Isn’t that funny?”
Depressive inclinations arose as I shoveled sopping egg onto unbuttered toast. At the end of the week I would be losing my office and shortly thereafter my apartment on a sunny avenue in the 4800 block. Letters had arrived from the respective invisible landlords, warning ungrammatically that I was three months behind. If I did not pay by May 15 I would be dragged into a courtroom and divested of my car and whatever else was reputed to have some value.
I was planning to leave town as soon as I could pay for gas. Now I wished I’d accepted the railroad widow’s money and fled, which wasn’t too chivalrous, but poverty isn’t chivalrous either. I scraped the plate clean and dusted off the driblets of food on the formica countertop.
“I mean,” the midget went on. “That’s only the funniest thing anymore. People are different everywhere, though. Some people think I’m funny just sitting here. I don’t know. I guess I am. But everybody’s funny in some way. Do you agree with that?”
“I’ll nod to that,” I said.
“Well, see you later if you come by again.” He grabbed his guitar case. “I’m here every day, so if you’re around I’ll be around.”
Another cup of coffee and a slice of cherry pie. I watched the waitress open a rotating glass case, cut the pie, balance it on a plate, rush it over, slam it down, hurry back, close the glass case, wipe her hands on a dishtowel, start the process anew for some other tired louse.
Before I had a second to lift the fork someone sidled in between the stools, touching my forearm with a bony elbow. In a churlish, clear voice, a woman asked the harried waitress where she could find Harry Jome. I was so taken aback at overhearing my name that I almost fainted.
Brilliant red hair was the first thing I noticed. The questioner was a slightly attractive, narrow-faced woman of around 35 or 40. Big dark sunglasses covered what were purportedly her eyes. In profile she had slightly masculine features that lend themselves gracefully to women of a particular attitude, and she certainly had that attitude. She was in black slacks and a matching turtleneck; the pinkish tint of her skin indicated that she hadn’t been in the sun for a few decades. By her subtle perfume, plush leather tote and air of astute arrogance, she was either wealthy or very wealthy. “Do you know where the office of a Mr. Jome would be? I believe it’s Henry Jome?” she said.
“Who?” the waitress said over the head of a customer at the end of the counter.
“Harry Jome,” I corrected.
“I’m sure it’s Henry Jome,” the red-head repeated. “He apparently has an office nearby.”
“Excuse me,” I said.
The redhead squinted at me from the corner of her frames and said, pouting her lips, “I was speaking to her if you don’t mind much.”
“Yes, and I’m talking to you if it’s not an inconvenience.”
“Well, I wish you wouldn’t.”
“You’re asking about Harry Jome?” I said.
“I was asking the girl about Henry Jome.”
“I’m doing you a favor, lady.”
“Well, stop it.”
Once again she tried to flag the waitress’ attention, but the young girl was too busy arguing with the cook to notice. The waitress screamed at the beefy man in white and blushed; she pulled the apron off and hurled it onto the grill. The stench of charred cotton brought scowls among the patrons. The former waitress took advantage of the furor in the kitchen to calmly open the register and clean out the contents.
It was my first smile in nearly three weeks.
“You see what you did?” I said to the redhead.
“I thought maybe you’d like a job.” She was backing away.
“Everybody knows Harry Jome,” I said incredulously. “Try the Santos Building. 3rd floor. If he isn’t in just wait a minute.”
“You his agent or something?” she asked.
“Harry is the kind of guy who doesn’t even need an agent,” I said.
She was out the door. Behind me two paunchy men in matching suits and porkpies were close behind her, pointing and hushing each other. One of them turned and winked.
The chef was cursing madly, his staff wreaking chaos and the diners all filing out in search of another diner. My coffee was drained but for a splatter of half-and-half at the bottom of the cup. I felt lonely.
TO BE CONTINUED…
PECK is among more than 40 writers featured in our 2011 10th-anniversary anthology, All Hands On: THE2NDHAND After 10. Order via this page.