After a long series of silences and polite dismissals, often accompanied by jarring though ultimately appreciated words of high praise, from publishers numerous – some of the writers among you will no doubt feel the sentiment — I decided to take a collection of short stories long evolving and under way to publication myself via THE2NDHAND’s sometime book-publishing endeavor. Ebook only, but available in a host of formats to fit most of the devices — Kindle, iBooks, Nook, etc. — including our trusty desktops and laptops, out there.
The book’s called Triumph of the Ape, and, written primarily between the years 2000 and 2008, chronicles my scribbling tour through the go-go dark days of the first decade of our 21st Century — the triumph of course less jubilant than a matter of course here in America. The stories, riffing on various styles and genres from New South satire to end-of-days dirge, by turns reach back into the past of my native South Carolina and forward into grim and/or not-so-grim futures where love — and no shortage of laughter — nonetheless remain our best hopes.
Find more about it via this link, including some slightly less biased descriptions of it all from some very kind, awesome people. (A-and what about print, you say? Well, hold on — time and money, but of course. Any wonderful editors, agents, publishers, patrons looking for something keen, a partnership, etc., I’m all open ears and saucer eyes.)
If you can blog about it and/or are interested in a copy for review, writers among you, for certain be in touch: email@example.com.
Below find one of the stories, one of the few to have not seen prior publication outside of my own erstwhile blogging, where portions of it originally appeared in the year 2005, I believe it was.
While I’m at it, here’s a shoutout to the editors of the mags/projects that took on one or more of the stories in Triumph long before this release. Roll call: Red Mountain Review (Birmingham, Ala.), Lumpen (Chicago), Featherproof’s mini-books series (Chi), Chicago Noir (Akashic-released anthology, Neal Pollack edited), Hair Trigger (Chi), Knee Jerk (Chi), Kiss Machine (Toronto), and Holiday in Cambodia (limited-run chapbook put out by Annalemma).
In any case, enjoy the story:
High winter and Essie Mae Washington-Williams was on TV promoting her memoir, Dear Senator, about her semi-clandestine life as the illegitimate African-American daughter of the United States’ most notorious former segregationist. A picture of myself and said segregationist — he must’ve been in his 70s at the time, I was perhaps three — sits atop the mantle above the fake fireplace in my Chicago apartment. The old man looks happy enough, I guess, without a thought in his mind about any possible justification for his past, an interpretation I would make again and again, in my teenage years, meeting him repeatedly at various functions and being presented with the unfortunate opportunity to shake his limp, liver-spotted hand.
In the picture, the only one that I have from my prepubescent Carolina life, I am engaged in an activity whose legacy would follow me far into adulthood, a nervous fidgeting of hands. Strom Thurmond holds my three-year-old body high, and I’m doing my best, goddamnit, just to avert my eyes, I think, my baby hands poised in front of me, fingers half interlocked, nothing to hold on to but the old man’s face but God help us if I reached out for that. I leave the picture on the mantle to remind me the enemy is out there.
Visitors to my apartment get a kick out of it, too. Essie Mae wasn’t the only news item that season — it was a winter of repeat presidential inauguration for the done-up-and-come son of a Connecticut Yankee turned Texas cowpoke, a season of hurrah and hooray and guttural and disgusting huzzahing to the man’s evermore false message — America an economic ivory tower underpinned by a veritable caveman outlook, beset upon by the moral equivalent of club-wielding barbarians and responding in kind. Apropos, I wanted to do something dirty. I wanted to throw eggs at limousines on inauguration day as many of my upstanding Neanderthal friends were planning. That was the answer, I’d determined upon returning to Chicago from my folks’ home after Christmas, eggs that would crack and whose insides would dry on the black paint job, and woe to he or she who attempted to remove the dried remnants — a heinous fated awaited. Some kids hit my own American sedan once, and two weeks later, when finally the Chicago snow that had buried the bottom half of the vehicle sufficiently melted to grant access to the car’s driver-side door, I realized the calamity, proceeding to scour the spot with the heinously smelly sponge with which I commonly washed my dishes at the time. A mere five minutes in I’d ruined the paint job — the frozen egg remnants came off with application of hot water, but so did the color — further even than the numerous long key scratches on its flank already had, which is to say, irreparably.
Today I smoke. A lot. I like having something in my hands. If they’re empty and I find myself in a situation where things are expected of me — say I’m on the job, editors are asking questions about something I was supposed to do (maybe I did, maybe I didn’t) — my first instinct is to roll and light a cigarette and blow the smoke into the interlocutor’s face. Essie Mae Washington-Williams’ much more deferential personality manifested itself on the radio program, and I’d assume in the book though I’ll most certainly never read it, in a reflex action to continually apologize for the segregationist senator. Again, I wouldn’t have been so charitable. I walked out to work that day fuming a little, laughing all the while, at the preposterous history of the recently dead century-old man, to happen upon every window in my car shattered and a note scrawled on the back of a Spanish leaflet for a local grocery, whose edges fluttered in the slight winter breeze and which read, “motherfucker my chair bitch I know u.”
Chickens coming home to roost. Karma. I’d been on something of a crusade since the last snowstorm. In the time-honored American tradition of the citizenry’s utter lack of participation in anything resembling a community or society, my neighborhood’s denizens were using old lawn chairs and bits of board and other urban detritus to reserve “their” parking spaces in the public way while their cars were parked elsewhere — at work, for instance, or the grocery. To be fair, some street spaces were absolutely immaculate, having been shoveled dry by said denizens, while others, like the one where I’d been parked, were still buried a foot deep in snow but for tire tracks angling in and out of the street’s center right of way. But I had indeed shoveled, if only a little, and after digging at four or five different spots over the course of days and seeing said spots quite presumptively claimed later by someone’s ragged chairs, I began to take corrective action.
For three nights, I went out at 3 a.m. and furiously, however methodically, moved every chair or old bucket or, even, ironing board from my block, deposting each in the alley off my side of the street. I sat in my apartment in the dark till the break of day in hopes of catching the looks on the faces of men and women seeing their parking spaces taken, their chairs magically disappeared. My real hope in this, you see, was that they’d beam happy faces into the cosmos, see the ultimate error of their ways and chalk their losses up to experience.
Such, though, had not been the case. I’d yet to catch anyone. And each following day, miraculously, different chairs would be pulled out and used on different parking spaces and the cycle would repeat itself, three nights on.
On the fourth, I came home extremely late after a small get-together with a fellow South Carolinian, an old friend who, over drinks, brought up the subject of our late senator’s daughter. My friend thought it all quite laughable, really. He convinced me for the moment. Let us say, then, that my spirits were thus extremely high upon arrival home, so high that a measly wooden chair was not about to block my path to the glee of destruction.
There was nowhere to park, you see, with the exception of a space eight inches deep in snow and in the middle of which was placed, absurdly, its legs deep in the unshoveled snowdrift, a red wooden chair. I wasted no time in harnessing the inertia of my four-door sedan and backing in, tipping and then shattering the chair into a myriad pieces. I panicked — the cracking of the wood had been extremely loud, shattering the Chicago night — and pulled out immediately, rolling down the street to find another space, luckily only a half block from my apartment. I assumed now the chair’s owner saw me in the act, that or the big red splotch on the bumper from the contact, prime evidence.
Retribution is sweet release, I thought, standing on the street staring through the empty space where my windshield once was, the dashboard littered with small shards ofglass. I scanned the windows of the three-flats lining the block. Might the culprit bewatching me just now from an upper window? I pondered my options, ultimately deciding to call off work, after which I visited an auto-glass shop on Western Avenue (driving the few blocks with a 15-degree wind in my face) and spent a heinous amount for the replacements.
We pay for our actions — dearly. Most of us, anyway. Strom Thurmond, with respect to his illegitimate daughter, may have gotten off the hook entirely — at least emotionally. Essie Mae Washington-Williams tells stories to television talk-show hosts of traveling yearly to Atlanta from her various northern and/or west-coast homes to meet a representative of the senator who always bore an envelope of cash meant, it can only be assumed in my mind, to keep her quiet. She doesn’t quite see it that way. She interprets the cash as “his way”of caring for his estranged child, though Thurmond never actually made the delivery himself, nor did he ever come clean about his siring Essie Mae (who was now in her 70s and no longer any kind of “child” in the literal sense).
During the senator’s last days — you remember those times, full of mocking news reports of his many gaffs in the U.S. Senate, the man clearly around early adolescence on his journey back to infancy as he flirted with young Capitol interns, even going so far as to grab an ass or two, likewise using the old nasty epithet for the African-American men and women he employed — he saw fit to send only a single birthday card to Essie Mae, signed “Affectionately, Strom Thurmond…” on Senate office letterhead, maybe. I can’t remember. The journalist interviewing Essie really wanted to make a big deal of this letter, though I couldn’t see that it was, considering that the old man could hardly even put a sentence together during the entirety of his last term, much less a pen to paper. The television journalist must have asked the same question of Essie Mae four or five times in slightly different phrasing — “Do you resent his indifference?” “Does this make you feel slighted?” — trying to get a rise out of her, get her to lay all the hatred out on the table.
She wasn’t going for it. The old lady was promoting a memoir: her own emotional investment in the ordeal was little at this point; she’d take the money and run on back home, as she’d always done. This was somehow admirable, I thought.
My windshield replaced, I wrote my own note on a piece of hefty cardboard — “Happy, motherfucker?” it read. “We live in a society here!” I even signed it “Affectionately, Strom Thurmond,” just for kicks, and camped in my apartment into the wee hours, to the chagrin of my emotionally boxed-in girlfriend, once again to await the curious window breaker, the inevitable “return to the scene of the crime” of urban lore and television cop shows. As I sat through that afternoon and evening, lots of people walked by my car, strategically placed below my third-floor front window. Lots of people read the very large piece of cardboard stuck under the windshield wipers. But none had the look of a window smasher, I figured, and none lingered very long. I fell asleep at an uncertain point propped in the window, the advent of what would be a short, surgical war,but more importantly, a war of shadows, a murky war of words.
Meanwhile, the repeat ascendancy of George W. Bush to the abstract imperial throne approached, and at last the next day my urbane coworkers were engaged in snarky conversations about impending trips to D.C., about their own plans, or lack thereof, for the inauguration upcoming. I remembered my eggy design. But a quick search revealed last-minute ticket prices to have soared if they existed at all, and more importantly I picked up a copy of the Sun-Times in a café now just days before the celebration to find a picture of Mr. Bush blown wide across the front cover, the man predictably thin-lipped, his mouth gaping, and I couldn’t help but note looking quite like a particular chimpanzee I often visited at the zoo in Lincoln Park, a beast whose name I still can’t remember but whom I like to think of simply as Gilbo.
Gilbo likes to stand on his concrete perch and throw things at me when I’m there. Things like banana peels, which the zookeepers give him, I guess, preposterously, and which bounce very anticlimactically off the glass barrier between us. Among Gilbo’s other eccentricities are a penchant for addressing visitors such as me as his “fellow citizens,” after which he’ll go on and say things like “for the last nine days, the entire world has seen for itself the state of our union — and it is strong.” And then Gilbo will launch into diatribes in which he very clearly lies to me in every word. He once told me, for instance, that even though his pen in the brand-new Ape House smelled like feces — or more exactly “like a toilet with a large turd floating in it” — things were going just as he expected they should, that the workers, you know, they may have missed a pile here or there, and maybe even failed to spray some of the urine from the corner he used, but you’ve got to expect these kind of misapprehensivesions.
That word, misapprehensivesions, I don’t even think it exists, but it’s definitely the kind of word Gilbo uses. If you didn’t know better, you’d take him for a real smartypants.
At the terminus of his verbal bobbing and weaving I usually point the fact out to him that he is lying, and that I know it, but he just says it’s hard work sitting there all day and watching the people come and go on the outside making little baby faces at him when he’s got so many grand plans for his followers. “It’s hard work being President,” says the big ape, using the self-appointed title, as it were. Yes, Gilbo claims dominion over the lot of the zoo’s animals. I tell him, typically, to keep thinking, Butch Cassidy, it’s his strongsuit.
Gilbo doesn’t much like it when I come by.
I didn’t visit him this day. I had a long night ahead of me at the bar on a stool, where I worked a night a week as doorman. My car had sat all day while I was at the office downtown — apparently the message had not been received. I removed the cardboard from beneath the windshield wipers before driving to the bar, right on glorious Western Avenue, where I spent the night trying to read and getting much of nowhere, my recent battles holding on to a much more prominent position in my mind.
Western Avenue contains absolute mysteries. The road, purportedly the longest perfectly straight road in the nation, bisects my small street just a block and a half to the east of my apartment. The bar where I occasionally work sits on it far south of where I live, as well, and during my late-night trips back north on the road, I have become acquainted with the wonder of an old gentleman who stands at the red light I always catch at Lake Street — he washes the windows of passersby, a gentle wave of the hand is all it takes to wave him off, no need to get angry. But it’s what follows that is the ultimate discovery. Try it sometime if you’re in the windy city. When the Lake Street light turns green and your vehicle lurches forward down the nearly empty avenue, Western ceases her normally teasing ways and opens wide, each traffic light flashing to green as you approach just in time for your arrival so that it’s possible to end the mile or two north of Chicago Avenue at speeds in excess of 100 mph, if you like, while breaking only a single traffic law. I rarely take it much above 50, and even that’s beyond the legal limit — though I figure Chicago cops at 3 a.m. have more important things on their agendas.
I wonder if Strom Thurmond ever had the pleasure of a drive north on Western at 3 a.m.? Certainly my nemesis has never heard of the old man. That next morning, I woke propped in my window, having replaced the scrawled cardboard message and waiting for the interloper to see it, my gaze instinctively drawn to the specter of my car, whose windows had been spray-painted over in black. Again, there was a note. “hey storm fucku,” it read. I shelled out more cash to have the windows stripped of the paint, filed a police report, and left my own note then in further retaliation, scrawled on a piece ofcardboard and secured under the painted-over and nearly destroyed windshield wipers — by then they weren’t even needed, though, as the weather had improved to the point that the street was almost completely devoid of snow. My note read, “What do you look like? Sincerely, Strom Thurmond.”
The reply came promptly the next morning. “i have brown hair,” without this time any retaliatory damage or invective. A dialogue ensued, myself the interrogator, my nemesis the detainee. “Are you fat? Sincerely, Strom Thurmond.” And the answer, in the trademark all-lower-case: “yes very.”
“Do you enjoy breaking chairs over your knees like, say, Hulk Hogan or the NatureBoy Ric Flair?”
How quickly simple communication renders warring parties reconciled! I spent my spare time for a few days on the streets of my neighborhood, looking for a pro-wrestler-type, fat, brown-haired man or woman, even, all the while leaving messages, he/she Essie Mae to my Strom Thurmond. Then the final reply came with an attendant blow to the hood of the car, which was dented in. The note, answering my question, “Why do you continue to live? Affectionately, Strom Thurmond,” was “i love motherfucker.” And that was it. Every further request for elaboration, every further question, went unanswered, and the roles had shifted, the silent treatment the moral equivalent of a prison hunger strike. The Thurmond identity I could no longer claim with any wit or confidence, maybe. I don’t know, I got down a little and took a walk down Western all the way to the expressway, by the projects where boys threw rocks at me — I thought all the while of mystery, of the quality of mystery we can expect from our piddling lives. I smoked half a pack’s worth of hand-rolled cigarettes on that walk to keep my hands occupied, my fingers freezing in the cold wind where I rolled the last one, on the bridge over the freeway, cars streaming by below, wind blowing in great gusts to the west. The cigarette smoked, I tossed it finally into the traffic. I wrung my hands in the loud silence.
On returning to my apartment, I caught sight of the three-day-old newspaper: George W. Bush on the front page of the Sun-Times reminding me of my “friend” Gilbo the chimpanzee. Newspaper photo editors seemed to love running pictures of Bush mid-bark, right when he delivered some backhanded threat to one of those exotic Middle Eastern countries, his tiny lips pooched out in the middle of a word, his mouth a little open. I was filled with rage, fear, and hilarity at once. The inauguration scheduled for the morrow, I quickly tramped down to the corner grocery and cleaned out their egg case, then to the copy shop, where I got the Bush head enlarged to a full five-by-five-foot monster poster,which I took home and hung above my fake fireplace.I stacked the egg cartons along the mantel, where they would have rested through the night until, just at the inception of the oath of office, I would commence hurling egg after egg after egg right into the nose of his enlarged image. But the temptation, I’m afraid, of that imperial or imperious head in half-scowl proved too much to resist.
“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?”
This was my girlfriend, walking in at the end of the second dozen — admittedly, the grandiose effect of the Bush-head image was considerably lessened at that point, what with the now-smeared toner, the mess of egg whites and yolks running down the President’s chin and oozing slowly off the edge of the mantel, down into the fern in our fake fireplace.
My girlfriend’s next words: “Get the fuck out.”
She meant it literally, which was unfortunate to say the least. I’d been in the midst of a cathartic release of energy that, cut short, left me feeling quite glum. I made my way with a backpack to the zoo, where I found Gilbo in a state similar to my own, atop his perch picking idly at his nose and muttering to himself when I walked up to the glass.
When he saw me, though, he affected a stately bearing, pushing out his chest like a soldier at attention, and intoned, “After the shipwreck of communism came years of relative quiet, years of repose, years of sabbatical.”
“Tell me about it,” I said. “I just got kicked out of my house.”
Gilbo nodded. “We have seen our vulnerability and we have seen its deepest source. For as long as whole regions of the world simmer in resentment and tyranny prone to ideologies that feed hatred and excuse murder, violence will gather and multiply.”
“And what of your keepers?” I heckled. I pulled a banana from my pocket and teased him with it from this side of the glass. “Do you proprose an insurrection?”
Gilbo let fly a terrific scream, jumped from his perch and banged a fist hard against the glass, then beating his chest once and yelling, “We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.”
I grinned. “That might be two conclusions,” I said. He was a sly ape, he was. And freedom, sure, I thought, freedom for all. But I could not discount his implicit specific message, his desire to rid himself of his keepers. It was the first time his talk had chimed with anything close to the truth. Maybe the time of the great ape’s grand flourishing, in his walled-off world, was nigh. He banged on the glass again, harder this time, then going down on all fours and menacingly pacing back and forth in front of the slowly rising crowd of onlookers.
Gilbo wanted more.
“The great objective of ending tyranny,” he intoned, “is the concentrated work of generations. The difficulty of the task is no excuse for avoiding it.”
And the ape went on for over a quarter hour, an astounding outpouring. One man, also accustomed to Gilbo’s rants, remarked that it wasn’t like the chimp to be so eloquent, so lucid. I remarked that that was partly true, but this was a great gale of wind as well. Gilbo spoke beyond his mettle, of vagaries, “core values” common not only tohis oppressed zoo clan but to all living things, a surely preposterous notion.
“We go forward with complete confidence in the eventual triumph of freedom,” he said. “Not because history runs on the wheels of inevitability; it is choices that move events. We have confidence because freedom is the permanent hope of all beings, the hunger in dark places, the longing of the soul.”
And then he stopped his lurching back and forth and leveled a great stare, solely at myself — yes he picked me from the crowd of gawkers with his eyes, isolating me with the intensity of his gaze, the hair on his back and arms beginning to rise until it would stand fully extended from his body. “And,” he finished, raising a fist, “we will never, ever, underestimate our enemies.”
With both fists forward he came crashing through the glass and right for my throat, for the world, for us all.
Herein the final installment of Peck’s long-running serial noir. In the previous installment, private eye Harry Jome was running off the rails in pursuit of an elusive truth. At the orchard itself, he was about to meet the proprietor and father of the woman whom he can blame, maybe, for the pursuit — or at least this iteration of it. Things were getting Shakespearean, and they continue thusly…
Download “Last Orchard” .doc for your eReader (available for a limited time).
I pulled up to the mud outside the cottage. Trees had collapsed all around the square pasteboard building, badly-fitted planks covering holes where windows should have been, and there were hints of light in the cracks. The grass was four feet high except in those spots where some heavy-farming implement had been abandoned. I wasn’t sure why I was waiting for darkness to come. I was drained and tried closing my eyes, but I was too tired for rest. I was too tired for anything, especially this.
Night fell in sharp checkerboard dividends around the branches and squat hills. A playful moon and a timorous solitude made the orchard look quaint and innocent. I waited until the horizon was dark, the motor humming me back to childhood. I noticed streams of chimney exhaust blankly descending into the gravelly sky above.
The orchard brought a feeling I had experienced at my worst moments. Maybe it was a metaphor, but I didn’t think much of metaphors. Besides, the presence of death everywhere doesn’t beg poetry to have much of an imagination. The orchard was a symbol in a drawing, and I was entering that place where a symbol and a reality were difficult to tell apart.
I shut off the motor and got out, immediately breathing in the dread that seemed to have constructed the place. From somewhere near the main road I heard the acceleration of a vehicle, and perhaps the creak of a door opening and not closing. And I heard nothing else but my own footfalls crunching on dead leaves.
I let myself in to the cottage without bothering to knock. The stench of dead fruit had me incapacitated for an instant. I felt at the grip of the pistol tucked into my waistband.
The space was nothing but a wasted accumulation of old tools and sacks full of spilling apples, a compact fusion of kitchen, living room and bedroom. Daddy Longtree blinked at me from behind a table that was really just a long door propped up by concrete blocks. He was eating an apple pie with a butter knife, and there was a lantern in the middle of the makeshift table, providing only enough light to find the lantern itself.
“I heard you out there in your car for about an hour or so. Hope you aren’t scared of me.” Longtree groaned. He had a strand of gray hair combed toward his eyebrows, slight gray stubble that rose high on his prominent cheekbones and close-set dark eyes that were like bubbles on the surface of a swamp.
“I was thinking of being afraid,” I said. “But I decided against it. There’s enough fear in you for the both of us.”
“I’m not afraid of you. I just met you.”
“Right now I’m a little afraid of me. And not to get on a tangent, but what’s that kid’s problem out there?”
“He’s just mean. He’s an orphan. Orphans can be mean.”
I grabbed a chair by the sink and brought it over to face him. He munched contentedly on the spoiled, mold-green pie. Moving things rummaged in the crust.
“They’re going to build a lunatic asylum on my land,” Longtree said. “What should I think of that?”
“They won’t have to look far for inhabitants.”
Longtree smiled, then grew serious and smiled wider.
“I’ve been thinking,” he said.
“That doesn’t sound hopeful.”
“It isn’t.” He scooped a large helping, bending his head and using his free hand to scrape a rogue apple slice into his mouth. Something pried its way from between Longtree’s lips and skittered away.
“We all of us,” he said, “have one day to go back into the dirt. I’m getting a head start.” He scraped what remained of his brown teeth with the butter knife. “It’s around that time when I should ask who you are,” he said.
“Whoever I am doesn’t matter.”
“Are you selling something?” he asked.
“I’m not selling anything.”
“Everybody is selling something.”
“What are you selling, Longtree?”
He lifted his eyes to the ceiling and contemplated the tears in the plaster. “I honestly don’t think I’m selling anything.”
“Who were you with that night at the bar?” I asked.
“That night you were there. Was it Florence?” The overpowering stench of vinegar was becoming familiar and less noxious.
“Who?” Longtree asked coyly. “Who is that? Florence?”
I was beginning to doubt someone and it wasn’t me. “What about Ben Bergen, your son.”
“I don’t have any son,” he said wistfully.
I stared at him as he plunged back into the pie.
“You think that’s a good angle?” I asked.
He peeked at me above a scoop of pie. “I’m not being cagey. I did have a son. Now I don’t have a son. He died off a few years ago.”
“How?” I blurted.
Longtree only shook his head. Frustration was getting a clawing at me. I pulled the pistol out of my pants and put it on my lap.
“And what about your daughter?”
“I do have one of those. Sue. She’s a belligerent girl. Sue has problems. It is a Longtree trait.”
“Sue’s dead too. Drowned herself in a tub.”
Longtree had nothing in his face. “I sort of supposed that,” he said.
“William Florence?” I said. “And I’m not really kidding. Who is he?”
“Yes, Will is an insurance man. He was digging in the Longtree family — something about a policy taken out on Sue by her sleazy husband. It’s possible that he discovered more about the Longtrees than anyone ever had and was planning something. He was coming here to grease his hands. Which is probably what you’re here to do as well.”
“Ever read the papers?”
“I think Florence was the guy in the motel with the bullet in the back of his head.”
“Does that concern me?”
“That depends on whether it concerns you. So Florence got something on you and you paid him.”
“I didn’t pay him.”
“What did you do?”
Longtree breathed and his breath was stale and wretched. “I didn’t do anything.”
“Somebody did something.”
Connections were piling into my head faster than I could sort them out. If Sue was lying about Ben she’d done a nifty job of covering it up by changing the last name and making sure I couldn’t trace it here. Which I did anyway.
Longtree reached under the table and I tensed. The object in his hand was a book and he set it down between us. One apple-encrusted thumbprint was visible on the cover. He sighed. I looked at the flap: A History of Death. By Dominic Early. Of all people.
He said, “It’s loosely based on the history of my horrific family, which you might know something about. All the names are changed, obviously, but it’s a thrilling work. My father was a murderer, as was his father, and his father, etc., etc.” Longtree belched. “There’s no reason in it. Just inheritance of very bad genes, I guess. Every Longtree is a monster. You should be careful, Mr. Jome. They say that whoever struggles with monsters is likely to become one.”
“Who says that?”
“My dead wife, actually. That’s why I’m alone up here. I like being alone up here.”
I crushed a beetle that was climbing up my pants leg and said nothing because there was nothing to say.
“I am the commonest man,” Longtree said. “Aren’t I? Wouldn’t you say that I am the commonest man?”
I put the gun on the table and pointed it at him.
“Sure,” I breathed. I couldn’t stand his frazzled smirk any longer. Longtree only cut another dollop of bug-infected pie and pretended that the gun and I weren’t there. Finished, he bent over and took something off the floor and handed it to me. It was the drawing of the orchard, although in this one the charcoal had been scratched off in places.
“That’s the original,” Longtree said. “I’d like it if you had it. I used to give copies of it to people I respected.”
He paused and licked crumbs out of his facial hair with a wide tongue, laying the drawing on the table.
“I’m glad you’re here though,” he said. “Just to remind me why I’m here.” He gazed longingly at the pie. “I am awfully glad you’re here. I made the discovery long ago,” as though reciting from a fairy tale, without pausing, “that I was a murderer. What made me kill Ben? I had no option. He told me how hard it was for him to function without the urge to kill someone. I don’t think he ever did. But before I stopped telling him it was going to be OK my hands were around his neck and I had no control at all and he just let me do it.” Longtree stared off calmly. “When he was dead I hung him in his garage. First time I’d been away from here. Everybody was sad for me. I was sad for me. Even now I don’t have any guilt or anything. I wonder why that is?”
I slumped back in my chair. He continued to sputter on as he ate.
“I couldn’t have anyone suffer. Ben was going to be a murderer like the whole course of his ancestry and I had to prevent that. And then I did prevent that. I was thinking of his little girl. I was also thinking of everybody else too.”
Now he didn’t use his utensil, but just dug into the pie with his hands and stuffed a mound of apple and insects into his unperturbed grin.
“So now you are aware. You probably would have figured it out sooner or later,” he said. “So how much do you want?”
I stared hard at Longtree.
“You know about farming?” he asked me, pricking up his eyes to meet mine. “First you have to care for each tree like it was a part of your own body. That’s why my orchard is so successful,” he said. “I got 50 pickers at least. I make such a nice apple pie. Mm hmm,” he mumbled. He tapped his ring finger twice on the pie tin. On the third tap his hands and his head dropped at the pistol’s retort. I was mildly surprised that I had shot him. A billow of acrid smoke erupted to the rafters and stayed there. Longtree’s legs twitched, kicking out an absurdly fast dance. He had one last breath to say something pithy, but it came out in a whisper that I couldn’t hear and smelled rankly of bitter almonds. I hadn’t thought death would smell of bitter almonds. There were a lot of things I didn’t know.
On my way out I had to laugh. Because of the Longtrees and my role in wiping the rest of them out, directly or indirectly. Except for the daughter, Dot, who was the last of them. But she couldn’t be a part of this grisly tale. My laughter fell flat in the cramped and anguished room, dying the split-second it pushed off my lips. Head turned to the ceiling, still seated at the table, Daddy Longtree was just a shadow, and not an imposing one either.
For a minute I stared at the drawing of the orchard up close to the lantern, a hint of something important tugging at me, just off the border of the picture. What was it in the dark shapes and swirls that was I missing? My mind was all puckered, waiting. It seemed that it was all right there; the problem was that I couldn’t be sure what “it” was supposed to be, “all” signified, or “there” was. The upturned furniture and the apples were starting to bother me, and so I folded the drawing and brought it with me. I imagined a voice coming from somewhere nearby, looked at Longtree, as inert as an ice sculpture.
The night was warm with the musty smell of imminent rain. Just outside in the grass I unfolded the drawing and peered at it some more. There was still something I was not getting but that was spelled out plainly in the charcoal smudges. Again I heard the muttering voice, the way someone might talk on the telephone from the other side of a thick wall, coming from a batch of tall trees to the east.
I waited with the drawing in my hands, not certain how to handle my delusions, or if they were delusions. For the third time I wound the drawing into a tube and simply stood there listening.
There was no moon, and I was forced to go by what scant noise there was. Owls fluttered and sang, the trees soughed, animals moved about. It took a lot of effort not to think about anything. Underfoot the dirt crackled, and when I had my hand on the car door I heard something I shouldn’t have heard, namely a man’s voice starting to sing a lovely song and then instantly halting the lyrics.
“Jome?” the man said from the trees. “I was just thinking about you.”
I swiveled, fearing for a second that the voice was my own and then fearing more that it wasn’t. I was so sleep deprived I could no longer tell whether or not I was talking.
“Jome,” the person said again from a copse of trees surrounded by a clearing of fallen saplings.
“Who’s asking?” I shouted.
“I am.” The man’s tone was high-pitched, recognizable, though I couldn’t place the cadence, and possibly drunk. “I heard what you did. What’d you do anyway? In there with Longtree? You gone lunatic or something?”
I squinted through the twisted foliage, raising the pistol towards the sound. I couldn’t make the man out.
“Longtree killed his son,” I said. “So I killed him back. The story has a happy ending for everybody.”
“Not for Longtree it doesn’t.”
Neither of us said anything for a minute.
“Which one are you?” I asked.
“I’m Walt Wald.”
“Do you have it figured, Jome? What do you think you’re going to do now that you have it figured?”
“I haven’t really gotten to that part yet. I was planning on getting in my car and driving back to the city.”
“Tonight? That’s a long drive. Maybe you should stay somewhere and start fresh in the morning.”
“Are we talking about something, Wald? This has lost some track.”
“Look, Jome. I’m a private investigator and Sue hired me to watch Lewishom and I just came upon him after you killed him in his car. Not very nice of you, Jome. I know what it probably looks like in Longtree’s and I won’t argue. But I thought you’d let me take you in because you’re going to be in regardless and it would be nice if I could be the one to do it. That’s two dead people. Knowing you I’m sure there’s more somewhere else.”
“Lewishom killed himself.”
“That could be claimed about everybody in a way.”
“That doesn’t sound convincing.”
“That Sue is a crazy bitch,” he said. “Can you believe it?”
“She was,” I said. I crouched low, aiming into the darkness. The moon was sneaking coyly out from a cluster of clouds now and when it did the clearing would be illuminated.
“Why the past tense, Jome?”
“She drowned herself,” I said.
“When did she do that?”
Ahead, the spot where the man was concealed was being slowly lighted.
“I just talked to her little while ago,” the voice said. “That’s too bad. How am I going to get the money she owes me for this?”
“I’m not sure, Wald.”
“I’m not either.”
“She told me she was going to Florida after all this.”
And the moon flared, revealing the clearing and the tall, upright figure that was just a glancing silhouette and nothing more.
“What do you mean Florida?” I asked. “And what do you mean, all of this? What is this?”
“I mean,” he started to say, and just then my gun interrupted him and the silhouette dropped hard with a scattering of twigs. I stood and got into the car. On the way back my headlights swept over the stoned kid from the office. He was wide-eyed and he was running for the cottage. I rolled the window down.
“Kid,” I yelled at him. “It’s a real mess up there.”
His mouth said something and he kept running.
The strong breeze was invigorating and I was suddenly awake.
I returned through the wreckage of trees, all mold and utter sorrow. Nestled into a turnaround off the path a green sedan was parked, belonging, I guessed, to Wald.
I drove too fast, skimming into culverts and narrowly missing a few trees. Maybe I’d killed Longtree to offer some kind of resolution; then again, I could have simply not known what to do. I blamed it on fatigue and confusion. But killing Wald couldn’t be rationalized. Maybe it could.
Additionally there seemed to be a gathering of private dicks out for me. Why had Sue hired all these people and had them follow me and each other? Nothing made sense.
Sue Longtree, I thought, probably deserved everything that she did to herself.
Why anything anymore.
And so Ben Bergen was what he’d always been: a name, and a face I’d never seen.
I was coming down with a rotten head cold, and endured a bout of sneezing while I drove.
I really wished the suit was done already.
Coming into view of Sutter Falls and back on paved roads I was overlooking the lake and the moonlight dinging off the surface. I braked and for five minutes I admired the water and the air, and then I felt stupid and kept driving. It was just past nine.
I passed fields and lonely farmers on tractors inching through the fields.
I was sure that I was being followed, and a moment later I was sure I wasn’t. Then I wasn’t sure. Cars appeared and reappeared in my rear-view with inconstant regularity. I was convinced that both Wald and Lewishom were behind me somewhere in the night, still tenaciously on the case. I couldn’t shake them. Every few miles I pulled off to the side. Twice I thought their respective cars had bypassed me when I was stopped. I learned to stop looking behind me.
The drawing was on the seat beside me and I repeatedly held it to the dome light, looking into the amateur lines for some kind of meaning. Finally I stuck it out the window and let the rush of wind have it.
The wipers were on the whole drive. Twenty minutes away from the city and it was pouring again. At each off-ramp into town I kept driving, until there weren’t any more exits and there was just the highway and the static lights of the highway.
Eventually I turned back. I was obsessing over my tailor and getting mad that the suit wasn’t finished yet.
The city, suddenly — the things and places that were familiar — felt somehow foreign.
At the office a legion of dust stalked the air and settled over the ruins of furniture. The reddish shadow from Parker’s head had dulled to a milky relief, like the pigment you’d see in a Rothko.
An hour and 20 minutes to midnight. Sleeping would have been the right thing to do, but I was too exhausted and too haunted for the idea not to seem like a nightmare. Instead I stretched out under the window like a cat. Ants bustled on the wood near my face, and I felt like drowning some of them in my saliva. The gash in my throat was still bandaged and the sting had gone away but I could feel my heartbeat throbbing in the wound. I pried myself off the floor without any ants being harmed and gobbled a handful of aspirin. From a desk drawer I pulled a tissue, the cold now filling my head and eyes.
I was finished.
In a lunge of exotic dread I was suddenly emptying the contents of the filing cabinets one by one, yanking bygone cases and files and items from the drawers and just piling it all on the floor in a mania I couldn’t explain but for an odd reason enjoyed.
I blamed it on the Longtrees, along with everything else that was wrong.
After 20 minutes I’d tired myself out and sat and watched the neon city bounce around inside the room. The office was now a tangled mess of clutter, a broken mug scattered in the midst.
Maybe I was looking for something and by not finding it I was coming closer to realizing that there was nothing to find. The Longtree fiasco was itching me and I couldn’t do anything about it. What had it been about?
I stood and tried to shake off my brain.
Rain smeared the windows and the lights outside. Then lightning flattered the night in an afternoon glow.
I smiled at the man in the window. He didn’t smile back.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” I asked.
“I got a cold or something.”
“That’s too bad.”
And then I punched the window, but it didn’t shatter and I tried again. Then I tried again and it still wouldn’t shatter.
I looked at my knuckles. At the wall. At the dust. At the broken mug. Everything didn’t feel right.
I was drifting off into a black-and-white dream when the call came in. I thought I recognized the soft-spoken, uneasy voice. “Harry Jome?” the man asked.
“I think so. Let me check.”
“Could you meet me right away? I’m at the diner near your building?” He said it like a question.
“I’m a little busy here just now.”
“It’s not unimportant. It’s about Sue Longtree and some other things.”
“I don’t care about Sue.”
“You might care about these other things,” the man said and wasn’t there. I pried myself into the elevator and got to the diner a minute later.
At a far booth inside the diner a skinny teenaged couple were necking with every part of their bodies except for their necks. Both of them pimpled and as carefree as quantum physics. The place was drenched in artificial warmth. Behind the counter the waitress who’d caused the commotion a few days ago had returned to her job, obviously pregnant and obviously angry about it. The teenaged boy glared at me as though I was his girl’s uncle come to take her home.
The man at the counter was in a gray tweed suit and brown spats. He had a stoic profile. He was too poised and pale to belong there. His salt-and-pepper hair was long and parted and hadn’t been touched by a barber in months. A mustache fit perfectly on his upper lip. His umbrella had fallen underneath his stool, and near his elbows there was a stack of stapled papers.
I wedged into the stool beside him and shook my head when the waitress asked me what I’d have.
“Jome, isn’t it?” the man asked. When he turned his eyeballs were crystals, very blue and very careful.
“You Florence?” I asked back.
“No, but it’s still nice to know you. Sorry about the circumstances.”
“I don’t know what the circumstances are.”
He shrugged. A cup of coffee was pushed off to the side.
“Are you Florence?” I asked. “Or Bergen or some other asshole?”
“I should be somebody,” he said, using his fingers to taper his mustache.
“Whoever you are you’ve caused a lot of stupid dying and I’m the one going to be chained up for it.”
“People sometimes die,” he said casually. “Isn’t it better that it’s for a reason?”
“What’s better for a reason?”
“What I’m telling you.”
“So far you haven’t told me anything.”
“I thought I had. Well, I’m saying that those deaths were kind of not my fault. By the way, how many people have you killed in the past couple of days?” His mustache twitched like it was trying to leap away from his mouth.
“OK. So I don’t know what you have or if you have anything,” I said. “Ben Bergen is dead but used another name and I can’t track down Florence, which is the name he used. And Sue is dead and a couple of nerds called Parker and Porter,” I realized that I was counting the dead on my fingers. “Lewishom. Wald, I think. Maybe even somebody I’ve never heard of.”
The man nodded and bit both his lips at the same time.
“Maybe I’m the guy you’ve never heard of,” he said. “Dean Bruckner. We’re in the same line of work.
“How did that happen?”
“The Longtree lady needed somebody good to follow you and the guys following you and to keep eyes on how it was going.”
“I never noticed you.”
“Because she needed somebody good. I just told you. And I’m a little proud of that.”
“You shouldn’t be.”
“I am though.”
“So what?” I said. “What about Bergen and Florence.”
“I don’t know anything about them but I do know that neither of them has anything to do with this.”
Bruckner’s troubling eyes were mellow with the intensity of brooding over intense things. The light in the room was all crooked, like an origami construction of shadows.
“Ever hear the name Dominic Early?” Bruckner asked.
“I know all about Domoinic Early. He and Sue are the same person. A hack writer of juvenile stuff.”
“I’m glad you know Early is Sue because that’s the big explanation.”
He slid the stack of pages over to me. I flipped the manuscript over. The title was big and blatant and contained five words: The Last Orchard in America. And below that, A Novel by Dominic Early.
“Jome, you were just research for Sue’s latest dumb potboiler and I was the researcher,” Bruckner said. “She hired me to track you around town. She was all blocked up, she said. The case was only for a plot of hers. All she wanted to do was stir things up by hiring a bunch of investigators and see what popped out of the disorder.”
“Is it any good?” I asked without knowing why I asked.
“She’s not a good writer and it has no ending. It does include her suicide though. Maybe you can conclude it if you want to.”
Somewhere within me everything halted. The answer I had was to the question I hadn’t asked. I was so enraged I felt almost weightless.
“So what do you want?” I asked. “You and Sue got away with something. I was a character in her book. I’m not sure what she got away with, but something happened and you must have been causing something to happen. Or else you wouldn’t be here with my phone number in your pocket. So what about Bergen? What about anybody? What the hell went on?”
“The answers are all there Jome. Your problem is that there are no questions.”
“So what do you want, Bruckner?”
Looking at me, he puzzled over how he was going to phrase it. “I thought you should know about her manuscript,” he finally said. “And I also wanted to tell you how bad of a private investigator you are.”
He curled his mouth into a smile that didn’t spread to the rest of his face.
Halfway out the door, yanking up his umbrella, he turned and asked too pleasantly: “Is it ever going to stop raining?”
The horny couple was staring at me and they were frightened at what they saw. I followed Bruckner out to the drenched street. Lightning burned the sky a crimson blush.
It was never going to stop raining.
I had Sue’s manuscript in my hands, and I raised it above me to shield off some of the downpour. I wasn’t going anywhere, if I ever had been.
Another flash of lightning exposed Bruckner conferring with someone under an archway. I couldn’t see who it was. I took a handkerchief out of my pocket and daubed my cheeks and forehead. I looked at the handkerchief and saw that it was moistened with wet gray ink. The manuscript’s print was dripping all over me and I choked a little on the ink as it swept into my mouth.
No, it wasn’t ever going to stop raining.
Standing there soaking on the stoop of the diner I imagined the oceans and the rivers and reservoirs outside of town that nourished the city all breaking loose and ripping apart and absorbing the brick facades and the embellished cornices and the stairwells and small sports cars and vending carts and street signs and deck chairs and expensive dresses. I realized that I hated everything that had ever been. Because it was not going to stop raining.
I conjured an image of my suit and the image wouldn’t leave me. It was a flawless suit, and in my pondering it fit me better than my skin. I wanted that suit.
I walked and walked and there were low voices all around me in the night. Soon I was in front of my tailor’s and my rage was ballooning. His basement shop was brightly lit. I let myself in through the front door and descended the stairs. The room was inhabited by five or six faceless mannequins in various postures. Cramm had his back to me in a monogrammed bathrobe, his black hair disheveled.
“Where’s my suit, Cramm?” I asked, startled by the ferocity in my voice.
He spun around and backed up into one of the mannequins, dropping a piece of chalk. One of the figures was wearing what I imagined my gray suit to look like, white lines running up and down the sleeves and pants.
“It looks pretty done to me,” I said.
“Almost, sure,” Cramm said, fear set in his dark eyes. After a second he said, “The cuffs aren’t sewn on yet.”
I advanced toward him. “I don’t give a damn about the cuffs. I never figured you to be this kind of person, Cramm. I’m disappointed.”
“Sorry,” he said. “But the suit is not done.”
Cramm was shaking when I went by him and tilted my head at the suit. The fabric was satiny. I hadn’t seen a better suit, even considering the white tracings. This suit was the clothier’s version of a ballad.
The tailor was crying and going for the staircase slowly. I pulled the pistol and fired, and the shot caught him in the hip and he fell behind some cardboard boxes.
I lifted the three-piece job off the mannequin and stripped, putting the rain-blanked manuscript on a stool. Removed my pants and jacket and slipped into the smooth seersucker I’d been waiting for. The fit was grand. I took the manuscript and passed Cramm clawing at the bottom stair.
“What’s all this for?” he said.
“For not having my suit done faster.”
“The cuffs still need to be measured,” he said weakly, and then I think he died.
“I like it how it is,” I said.
Soon I was under a streetlight and some men were scurrying around the dark buildings. I turned down an alleyway, glancing back to see some fellow entering Cramm’s shop and gesturing for others.
I felt better with the suit on.
A sirocco wind had sprung up and the bridge swayed over the river, and the river smelled of beached fish and that peculiar lachrymose pungency that water gives off before dawn. It was 4:20. I hadn’t been to my apartment. Hadn’t slept in how many days I couldn’t remember.
There was a barge somewhere off in the night. Foghorns throttled out every few seconds like a slow, dense clock. The bridge was empty of pedestrians and vehicles, the parapet below shaded by trees, the starless-ness of the sky jumpy with accumulating storms. I put two hands on the metal supports and whistled. I hadn’t whistled in a while. The resonance across the harbor was like some lost lullaby repeated from someone I’d never met. I whistled and whistled, a whistling maniac standing on a bridge. Wearing a fresh suit.
I held out my palms. It wasn’t raining anymore. I was glad. I was so glad I upped the volume of my dirge.
And then I wasn’t whistling anymore.
The same is true for the end of a story as it is for the beginning: where do you say it’s done? At the moment all of the various stupid actions make fate inevitable? That moment, however, could have been all along.
Endings are always the same because they’re usually not the same.
Below me, the river clashed with the pale banks, flooded onto the grass of a park. The night was a everywhere.
The ending could have been a batch of spotlights from the north side of the bridge, and the anomalous quietude of daylight shining through the darkness.
Could have been the silence of the men holding the spotlights steady and the displaced whispers of their supervisors.
Or Cowper materializing out of the spotlight, the way you can tell by his posture that he’s serious. Bent cigarette held in between his lips that looked as though he’d forgotten about it since last he’d visited me.
Any ending could be what he said to me on the bridge.
“Why’d you do it, Jome? All those people? Any reason whatsoever?”
Could have been my response, that maybe I was just frustrated with the whole goddamn idea. “I haven’t slept too well lately,” I said. “If only you understand how much of this I don’t understand.”
The end could have been the rain slaloming off Cowper’s hat or the men behind Cowper who were giving themselves shapes in the spotlight.
Suddenly I felt the great thrill of feeling nothing and the feeling was good. And that would have been a partly decent ending.
Cowper approached casually, as though we’d planned to meet here. Some of the men were close behind him. Now that I had my suit on I was ready, and it didn’t matter that the suit wasn’t finished. I pulled myself onto the bridge’s railing, head lowered to the clamorous river.
The end could have been that I didn’t care, or it could have been something as simple as a nod, because these kinds of things usually end on a bridge.
PECK is among more than 40 writers featured in our 2011 10th-anniversary anthology, All Hands On: THE2NDHAND After 10. “Last Orchard…” is his first book-length work of prose.
In this the penultimate installment of Peck’s long-running serial noir, things get, well, Shakespearean, for lack of a better term (if they hadn’t already — in the last installment, our private eye hero Jome’s client took a somnabulatory swipe with a knife at his jugular).
Download “Last Orchard” .doc for your eReader (check back periodically — the file will be updated as new installments become available).
Always the rain. Carol let me borrow the bottle for the night when I left her place around 4:30. Hot and achy, I was also febrile and on the verge of being totally delusional. I’d refused Carol’s offer to call a taxi service. To steel myself for the trek to my apartment I drank tiny gulps from the bottle.
It was already impinging on darkness. Over to the east through a crook in the sepulchral buildings the river was just a sound that carried meekly. Streetlights were snapping on, threw crooked lights onto the pavement. A woman with stringy hair propositioned me in front of the county clerk’s office. I shook my head. Looking back after her I saw that she was not there, recollecting her face as the face of one of my ex-wives. Sure, I was demented.
At 12th Street I leaned against a statue of a city founder that had been erected before the city he founded realized he’d embezzled thousands and had drunk himself to death in one of those stories that keeps getting retold. The same stringy-haired prostitute came back and inquired again if I might like to have a lot of fun. I dug my hands into my pockets and walked on. She walked alongside me for three blocks and receded off with the other phantoms that stalk a man at his lowest.
It took me two hours and 30 minutes to go 30 blocks, regularly a 40-minute jaunt. Where had I been? Walking had become another dream, along with the city, the past and the Longtrees. I buried myself in the bed. Of course I did not sleep. An hour later I was up.
I did what I usually do on a Wednesday night: I boiled three eggs and for minutes I watched them crack and bubble up to the surface. I was jittery, on the border of becoming completely anxious, and my neck ached bad. I was still drinking, but the liquor had ceased working.
Of all people it was Richard Longtree who called to give me the news.
An hour earlier Sue Longtree slid into a relaxing bath with a hairdryer, wearing a shower cap, etcetera. The hairdryer was plugged into a socket and the shower cap was a mystery.
“I pulled her out of the tub,” Richard said in his refined lisp. “She was still twitching. There was soap all over her body if you can imagine that.”
“What was she wearing a shower cap for if she was planning to kill herself?”
“I didn’t inquire.”
“Why are you calling me, Richard?”
“Because I’d like to talk to you.”
“Is that a threat?”
“You were employed by her,” he said sourly.
“I know. That was my third mistake.”
“And I’d like to show you something and maybe you can figure it out.”
“Drop by the office. If you’re hungry I have a few extra hardboiled eggs.”
“Thank you, but I am not hungry. Come by my hotel. The Melancthon. I’ll be the one in the lobby grieving.”
The fact that Sue was dead sunk in when I put the phone down. Too bad. I liked her and her red hair. I liked her red hair a lot. But at the moment I was too transfixed by my own grief to weep over her. Women like her are exquisitely tuned to self-annihilate at a definable point. You don’t have to know when it will be. Just that it will be big and loud. Why I wasn’t able to feel anything for a woman I’d slept with so recently was the real dilemma. I honestly hated her.
I had some more whiskey, emptied out the bottle and stumbled around in the kitchen.
I thought a bit about Sue as the windows cried rain, shucking the eggs and eating them out of the pan.
I stared at the moist yellow yolk in a bitten egg.
Then at the turgid sky.
And back at the egg.
Absolutely no connection.
I threw on a raincoat.
Cowper and a bland-looking uniformed officer were sitting in the hallway on two folding chairs I’d never seen in the building before.
“You bring those chairs with you for the stake-out?” I asked.
“You have egg on your face,” Cowper said in his weary voice. Even his suit looked bored. Bored and wrinkled. And clean.
“Why didn’t you just knock on my door.”
“We wanted to surprise you, Jome. And you having egg on your face is not an expression. There’s egg on your face.”
I wiped the egg away.
“Did Sue leave a note?” I asked.
“Aren’t we investigating you?” Cowper asked. His ever-present bent cigarette was held behind his ear.
“She leave a note or not?”
“You’re kind of forward, aren’t you,” the officer sad.
“Progress tends to go that way.”
“There was a note,” Cowper said, shooting the officer a look.
“What did it say, if you don’t mind.”
“It didn’t say anything, and I do mind. Left on the edge of the tub and the water erased the ink.” Cowper paused, glancing back at the officer scornfully. “There’s something not quite right about anything,” Cowper said. “Why am I thinking that?” he directed at me. “I’m not sure why I’m filling you in, but I suppose it’s because I’m soft. Would you like to explain any of it? Weren’t you with her recently?”
“Where’d you get that?” I asked.
“I’m cursed,” I said, opening my arms wide. “Both my mother and father died during my birth. A few distant cousins, too.”
“You should have been a fucking colonel,” the officer said, and Cowper looked at him like he was going to hit him in the stomach.
“Yeah,” I said. “Or a little compelling.”
Cowper lifted his small frame off the chair and then picked up the chair. The officer followed suit, none to pleased by the act of moving.
“What are we going to do now?” the officer asked Cowper.
“Just shut up,” Cowper said. “Some people would like to know,” he said to me, “what you’ve been doing with the Longtree business. By some people, I mean me. And by business I don’t mean business. How about a chat?”
“I don’t think I have the time right now. I’m going to meet an idiot.”
“Did I mention that the Longtree broad’s hands were tied behind her with her own bra?”
“The woman was indescribable and it wasn’t beyond her to tie herself up. And no, you didn’t mention that.”
“You don’t really care about her, do you?”
“I never claimed to.”
They carried their chairs behind me and down the stairs and watched me from the front steps as I hailed a cab.
The effeminate bandleader was mopping his brow in the hotel lobby, hand resting on a Persian rug draped over the back of the plush couch. Around him frightened bellhops, eager for tips, bustled like billiard balls on a hustler’s table. Wealthy vacationers chatted nearby about how much money they had. Dark red was the theme of the Melancthon Hotel and there were no variations on that repetitive theme.
Richard was wearing a wrinkled tuxedo that did his short stature and shining head no favors. His bow-tie was completely upended, as though it were threatening him.
“Well, Jome, here we are,” he said, rising lugubriously. “Just two thoughtless jerks in a motel lobby somewhere.”
“Good introduction,” I said. “Is there anything else on your mind?”
“How’s my dead wife doing?”
“Have a seat, Richard. You’re going to get upset.”
“Did you get what I just said?”
“Yeah. And I replied that you should sit down probably.”
“It’s isn’t easy to sit down at a time like this.”
“Try it. Sit down, Richard.”
He straightened his bow-tie without any improvement and plunked back onto the couch.
“OK,” he said. “I’m sitting.”
I lowered myself beside him and crossed my legs. Drawn deeply into the tux Richard looked like he was striving to spontaneously combust.
“You look bad,” he said.
“I feel bad. Last time I slept was for a few moments right after your wife tried to kill me.”
There was no surprise in him. “Why’d she do that?”
“She didn’t mean to. I was just nearby.”
“I should feel something, shouldn’t I?” he asked himself, then answered: “But I don’t. I’m too lazy to have emotions of any kind.”
“Are you going to tell me you loved her or something?”
“If by love you mean I liked to see her suffer, then yes, I did love her.”
People were stomping out of the lobby for an evening stroll or a dinner engagement. Whenever the revolving doors moved you could hear a blast of hammering rain. The guy I knew as Sid Lewishom entered the lobby in his blue sweater and corduroy pants, saw me and blushed. Immediately he sequestered himself in one of the phone booths.
“What day is this?” Richard asked.
I thought and I couldn’t think. “I don’t know.”
“Neither do I.” he said. “But here’s something interesting. I loved Sue, I guess, but I really loved her money and I was always faithful, while she was alive, to her money.”
“What money?” I asked. “I thought she was buying fruit with your money?”
Richard laughed a cheeky laugh, separated his lips to say something and let them flap open without talking. I hated him for his weakness and for everything his wife had represented.
“I think I did love her,” he said. “Can I show you something, Jome?”
Richard held out his hand like he was going to escort me to a dance.
“Some etchings?” I asked, getting to my feet.
We rode the elevator to the ninth floor. Neither of us spoke. Smells of cleaning chemicals, deodorizers, wet laundry and Richard’s eau de cologne hugged the air inside his suite. He showed me the bathroom first. A tub full of water.
“I was in the tub when the call came that she’d drowned,” Richard said. “I can’t bring myself to drain it. Isn’t that funny.”
“It depends on what you think is funny.”
“I suppose it does,” he said. “I have never appreciated irony as I should.”
On the desk by the curtained window there was a stack of records on a portable record player and a carton of cigarettes and some keys. Then I noticed the serpentine woman on the bed. She was tall and fair-skinned, with explosive blue eyes and legs that could have touched the bottom of the ocean.
“Who’s she?” I asked.
Richard squatted down beside her and ran a handed through the girl’s auburn hair. “She’s just a whore,” Richard said.
“He likes to watch me have sex with myself,” the girl said in a cute, sighing voice, the voice of a sweet girl trying too hard not to be a sweet girl. “I’m trying to be an actress and he says it’s good practice to have people watch you doing embarrassing things.”
“She’s trying to be an actress,” Richard explained. “And I did tell her that once or twice. She listens and she’s a good girl. Aren’t you a good girl?”
“I’m a pretty good girl,” she agreed. Richard’s small eyes shone when he stared at her.
He went to the sideboard and poured bourbon into two glasses and dangled one in front of me. His hands trembled and some of the whiskey splattered onto his black loafers. It was painful to swallow but I drank it down regardless. Richard lit a cigarette and wedged it in the ashtray he was carrying. Then absent-mindedly he lit another, set aside the ashtray, and loaded the second one into a fancy pearl holder.
“I may quit the music business,” he said.
“That sounds like it would be to the advantage of the music business,” the girl said and turned over on her side away from us.
“You’re being rude,” Richard said to the girl.
“You never let me leave this room. How am I going to become an actress if I can’t leave this room?”
Richard smoked daintily, like a puppet would. He stared into his bourbon.
“So what is it?” I asked him.
“Just this. You asked about Sue’s money. Where she got it.”
“Have you ever encountered the name Dominic Early?”
I wasn’t used to being surprised. “Constantly.”
Richard puffed in a self-satisfied manner on his cigarette. The smoke was enveloping the room. The girl on the bed waved her arm to disperse the evasive clouds.
“Sue is Dominic Early,” Richard said. “That must be worth something to you.”
“It would be if I knew what you were talking about.”
“Early is a pseudonym. Sue’s a mystery writer. It’s actually pretty bad stuff but people like pretty bad stuff and it sells well. That’s why I hired those fools to tail you. Thought you and Sue were cavorting, if you know what I mean.”
I set the glass down on the table.
“You’ve known it for a while?” I asked dumbly. “About Sue being Early?”
“Quite a while,” he said. “I thought maybe I could use it against her. There must be some money involved in the information.”
Something shipwrecked inside me. In one motion I snatched the cigarette from his confused mouth and stuck it in my own, and as his eyes glazed over in stupidity I hauled back and caught him in the nose and heard a snap. Contorting for a soft place to fall, Richard tottered and I got him again and this time he brought the radio to the carpet with him, switching on a Beethoven sonata, one of the late ones that I especially adore. I pressed him deeper into the floor and I hit him in the back of the head, again, and then again, and he was limp under my weight so I hit him again, so rapidly it sounded like someone was urgently knocking on the door. And I hit him again.
I was breathing hard and he wasn’t breathing at all. Setting him gingerly on the bed I saw that the girl was looking at me. I picked up the radio and brought it down on his head and the radio shut off. The girl wasn’t afraid. She was turned towards me, frowning at Richard’s crumpled head.
“Richard?” she said. Noticing that he wasn’t going to be getting up again, she swept the hair out of her eyes and said, “Are you a producer or something?”
“Sort of, yeah,” I said. “What’s your name?”
“Gwenn,” she said.
“I’m sorry you had to be here.”
“I’m sorry wherever I have to be. But I’ve seen worse, so don’t expect me to be shocked.” She got off the bed wrapped in a transparent sheet and slipped on underwear with the sheet still around her. I watched, transfixed by her slim, senseless body. I was thinking of Sue, but not too much. “If you knew how much worse I’ve seen you’d be sorry for believing I feel bad about this.”
“You look good,” I said.
“I have to,” she said.
“How long have you been here?”
“Couple of days. Five, I think.”
“Did you like him?” I asked.
“The man on the floor.”
“He was OK,” she said. There were bruises on her back and some on her arms.
I told her to finish getting dressed and she went into the bathroom with a bundle of clothes. After five minutes of watching him intensely, I was confident that Richard was dead. Also that my fever had returned. I poured another glass of bourbon and swallowed it fast.
The girl reappeared in a light blue dress with white polka-dots, hair pulled back with a clasp, black heels that displayed her hardened calf muscles. Clothed, holding onto a white purse, she had the bearing of a depleted wife. Pretty, but not so pretty as to be annoying. I liked her instantly.
“This was a good meet — cute,” she said.
“I guess,” I said.
“Thanks for what you did,” she said.
I nodded and she nodded back.
It was too soon to feel anything other than an escalating calm that nudged me light-headed to the elevator, the girl clasping my arm. A porter was reading some financial reports inside and he was doing his best not to notice me or the girl and maneuvered the buttons without looking up.
In the lobby I turned to the girl, who was oddly satisfied. “You have a place?” I asked.
“I’ll find one,” she said.
I left her in the lobby.
I didn’t pack anything except for my pistol. Before I left I called my tailor to yell at him. The suit wasn’t ready yet. I went down to the parking garage below my building — the kind of place you have to sneak into to retrieve your car. Some trivial gangland characters in torn leather jackets were exchanging money and handshakes and ignored me.
The antique Buick was dark blue, highlighted with motifs of rust. I sank in behind the wheel and the engine woke fine. I wanted a quiet drive; sadly the radio wouldn’t shut off, and only tuned to a big band station. I blew a layer of dust off the dashboard and put the heap in reverse. Getting to Sutter Falls would take about seven hours. Now it was just hitting on 10:30 a.m. on a plain Thursday.
The morning was chilly and alien. I’d rarely left the city to fend for itself, and I worried about it for a minute. Outside of the city there were hardscrabble houses buried in junk and mounds of wheels and general debris. An hour after I left the rain snapped off and the sky was bluer than I had ever seen it. I was dozing and swerving off the dirt shoulder of the back road, windshield wipers waving extraneously. I stuck my hand out the window and cranked the radio, some over-the-top Benny Goodman stuff. Gearing onto the highway the world abruptly changed from coarse gray to brilliant gray. There were trees and grass and surprises like those. Hills tapered off into valleys and the valleys into mountains.
I couldn’t explain it. I didn’t like the change. Nature had always made me feel the anonymity that the city hides in noise and spectacle.
Sometime before five I was passing the billboard: SUTTER FALLS WELCOMES AMERICA, set in furious yellow print, as though the invitation hadn’t been reciprocated.
The hamlet was clenched in a hushed valley. Distant church steeples pointed at an innocent sky, competed with the exorbitant number of water-towers. Even in advance of reaching town there was a languor you could have sprinkled on cold chowder.
Behind me a green sedan slowed when I did. I couldn’t remember whether it had been there since I deserted the city. I was tired and paranoid, but especially I was tired. Soon, the green sedan wasn’t behind me anymore.
The first establishment I met in Sutter Falls was a low bar with a dirt driveway and one pine tree, called The New Place. On its sign was an oversize moose, its tail mechanically wagging in neon. But the town’s nucleus was a row of storefronts evacuated of any buyers or any marketable charm. There was a pawn shop that doubled, as if on second thought, as a grocer’s, and a barbershop and another barbershop right beside the first barbershop.
No traffic even at that early hour, and the three stoplights in town were all blinking yellow. A family of five was rocking in rocking chairs on a porch stoop, watching me as though I were the World Series. Farther down, a black dog wandered into the street.
The difference between Sutter Falls and a ghost town was a flimsy interpretation.
My motel seemed to be the only one around, wedged in between the bus depot and an ambiguous stone structure that was either what the local masons did for a joke or some site of dubious worship. In comparison, the neon glitter of the motel looked to have been dropped there on a flight to Atlantic City.
The Belgian manager was glaring angrily at a pornographic magazine as if the model was his daughter’s best friend. Long gray hairs sprouted from the unbuttoned parts of his print shirt. Underneath the desk he grappled for a second and I heard the sound of a zipper, standing at the same moment as his pants were pulled up and belted.
“Room?” he asked skeptically. He was broad and appeared to be either slightly dumb or very smart. His graying mustache drooped as though it were wilting. One huge ringed finger employed the hunt-and-peck method on a clipboard clamped with sign-in forms. From the pocket of his tan wool cardigan he produced a cheap ballpoint pen.
“We had a conversation,” I said. “I need the room that William Florence stayed in.”
“I recall explicitly our talk.” He tended to his mustache while he unhooked a key from a little peg. I handed him some twenties.
“Sixteen,” he said, “will be your room. My favorite number. One night?”
From somewhere behind him I could female giggling. He smiled at me deviously.
The staircase was a black crisscross of lines and railings. I wasn’t exactly sure why number 16 would be on the third floor. I heard footsteps above me, but when I halted the footsteps did too.
Room 16 was stuffy and cruelly decorated. A big rectangular reproduction of an 18th century fox hunt hung behind the bed, its lowermost frame hidden by the headboard. Someone had obviously gone through a lot of trouble to scour Sutter Falls for misused furniture and unload it fast. A rickety white card table was unfolded and circled with coffee-cup stains. Out the window there was a clear view of the bus depot and the people waiting there. I snapped the curtains shut. Somebody had left their dark suit in the closet.
Random filaments lined the bedside drawers: a Gideon Bible, unfinished scraps of love letters, a black, balled-up sock, one bottle of antacid tablets and a green, hardened slice of white bread. The telephone and the radio were chained to the lamp and neither worked.
I tried lying in the bed without touching the bed. One of the pillows had the scent of having been used as a hobo’s death shroud. I closed my eyes and suddenly sprang up to see that I had been asleep for less than two minutes.
Around seven I unwound the bandage in the bathroom and soaked it in the sink and wrapped it back on. The mirror was grimed with what appeared to be an erased message written in lipstick. Bergen might have studied himself in the mirror before hefting the certainty of a fully loaded gun.
Pacing the terrible room I leafed through the Bible, that first, monstrous piece of detective fiction. Those dead prophets were all trying to uncover the biggest clue, god, and when he couldn’t be found anywhere they imagined him everywhere for the sake of simplicity. I lifted the painting off the wall and traced the cloudy, badly painted splotch beneath it that was the end of Bergen and his promising golfing career. I stayed in bed for half an hour, listening to the pipes of the motel and the craven whisperings of an emptiness that wrapped tightly around me.
How long had it been since I’d slept?
I needed a drink so bad my hands were going clammy.
Down by the front desk the sounds of heavy intercourse were a zoological event. Walking to the bar I’d driven by earlier I was aware of someone behind me, as though the person were wearing metal-bottomed shoes and was proud to be in them. Every time I doubled back I spotted no one.
The New Place was well abandoned when I got there. At the far end of the bar there was a tall man with a red beard. His fancy cowboy boots were next to his stool. I sat at the bar and after five minutes the barman toweled off the counter in front of me and I ordered a coffee with a little whiskey thrown in.
“Really?” he asked.
Off in a corner a slick-haired dwarf was playing a guitar very low, just brushing the strings like he didn’t want anyone else to overhear, gently tapping his foot to get the rhythm right. After a few moments a couple of tall fellows showed and set up drums and an upright bass and started to fool around with the dwarf’s melody. The small guitarist glared at the men, stuck his guitar in a black case and hopped onto a stool near me and pouted. He started haggling with the barman about the prices and wouldn’t relent until the barman shouted at him to quit pouting. Then the man apologized and left.
Bringing me the concoction, the barman said, “This looks a little harsh. Our coffee is terrible and our hard liquor warps wood.”
“I’m feeling a little harsh tonight.”
“You’re entitled to your feelings.” The barman was a short guy in a sailor’s white coat. When he turned I asked what he knew about Daddy Longtree, and he shrugged helplessly.
“He came in here a while ago often enough.”
“Yeah. Two or three weeks ago, I guess. From what I heard he wasn’t too social.”
“And what did you hear?”
“That he wasn’t too social.”
“What’d he come in here for?”
“To drink with another guy.”
“When was that?”
“A week or two ago.” He slung the towel over his shoulder. “You seem interested,” he said.
“I’m only pretending.”
“Longtree is a weird one.”
“Why do you say that?”
“He acts funny. He wouldn’t drink his beer when the man he was with bought him one. He wanted hard cider and we don’t sell hard cider so he didn’t drink anything.”
“So what did he do?”
“He didn’t have any hard cider.”
The barman started scrubbing the counter with a blackened cloth. I ate a handful of stale pretzels from a paper bowl.
“Why’re you asking?” he asked.
“I was hoping you’d tell me.”
He mopped the counter some more.
“He just acts funny,” he said. “I know who he is because he used to come in here all the time. Lately he’s just a stranger.”
The bearded man at the end of the bar moaned.
“You know anything about his son?” I asked.
“Ben Longtree?” The barman nodded, solemnly.
“Not much. Poor guy. Finished himself, I guess.”
“How about William Florence?”
The barman contemplated. “William Florence sounds like a name I should know.”
“But you don’t.”
“Yeah, but I don’t.”
I reached in my pocket and clawed out $35 and put it down. He stuffed the money in his pocket. “I’ve still never heard of William Florence,” he said.
“What’d the guy look like that Longtree was meeting?”
“Tallish, dark hair, I think. He wore a watch fob, I remember, and looked queer.”
Refilling my glass, the barman said, “I don’t know what it was about.”
“Could you guess?”
“Why would I guess?”
“Because I need to know.”
“All I can tell you is that Longtree didn’t look pleased.”
The door to the place swung out and Lewishom poked his large head in, saw me and poked his head back out. I drank the rest of my drink and went out. The guy in denim was across the tree-lined intersection on the opposite corner, where a men’s clothing store was unlit except for a man in an upstairs window examining his fingernails. I ran and caught up with the goateed man and grabbed his arm. He didn’t resist.
For about two minutes we stared at each other. The shopfront window was stuffed with mannequins in various postures of abandonment.
“Call me Lewishom,” the man said in a subdued voice. “Because that’s my name.”
“You already told me once. How about I don’t call you anything until you tell me what you’re doing around here?”
“I don’t know what I’m doing.”
“What do you think you’re doing?”
Lewishom shrugged. The neckline of his blue sweater was frayed, and his gray hair was straight back. Out in the night there was nobody around. The sounds were mostly faraway predatory animals and the creaking of old buildings.
“Sue Longtree?” I asked.
He nodded again, sorrowfully, like he’d just divulged a paltry secret. “Look, Jome. I don’t know what it is I’m supposed to be supposing. Just to follow you and keep tabs and that isn’t a whole lot of much.”
For the third time in less than a minute he bunched up his shoulders and gave me a doleful smile, lapsing into silence. A clock somewhere struck nine and when it stopped clanging I could hear a train rushing through the dark.
Lewishom was looking remotely at the mannequins, pursing his lips and then licking them.
“The wife left me,” he said, “and I’ve been in love with this unattractive burlesque dancer who doesn’t know how much, or at all. I used to go by the club and watch her and act like she was dancing just for me. I thought maybe this gig would cheer me up, but it hasn’t and it won’t and I’ll not get that girl.”
Lewishom spit on the sidewalk and gazed at his saliva. “We’re funny,” he said. He was still shrugging every other second. “I don’t know, Jome. Someone told me that everyone is like a carnival. You ever been to a carnival at two in the morning, when it’s closed? It’s the loneliest place on the earth. But I never really realized what that person meant until I went to a carnival. And even then I still didn’t really get it.” He shook his head. “I just don’t know, Jome. I’m drunk on three-dollar gin so I’m not thinking too well.”
“What are you going to tell me?” I asked.
He pointed at the window. “Those dummies have it made,” he slobbered, and he turned unsteadily to a Ford parked beside us and got into the passenger seat. I started walking back to the motel, thinking he had nothing for me and was just one of Sue’s extra men. I made the mistake of looking back at the Ford. The dome light was on and Lewishom was bent digging for something in the glove-box. I couldn’t see what it was until he raised it and pointed it at the side of his head. I waited, immobilized and expectant, for 10 minutes. Then I stuck my hands in my pocket and left Lewishom and his scene alone.
It wasn’t until I was fumbling for the room key that I heard the shot ring out. I paused for a second and let myself into my room. And I paused again once I was inside the room and leaned back on the door. I wasn’t acquainted with Lewishom, but now I felt as though I knew his every monologue.
I ran a bath later and just sat in the tub for several hours, my head rolling back into the porcelain tiles every now and then for a second or two of unintended rest.
I was up all night pacing the confines of the room. So far the whole thing was aimless. I’d accomplished nothing in the Longtree case except for driving my client to suicide, regaining my hankering for drink and managing to have been awake for the past couple of days. But I wouldn’t be OK again unless this mess could be proven to have some kind of plot, a moral for what precisely I thought I was doing. Unfortunately, real stories don’t have morals, or plots.
I puttered around the room for a few hours, conjuring any angle that would allow me to get out of Sutter Falls. It was no use. I had to push through with Daddy Longtree and the orchard.
Down in the lobby the next afternoon I had a black coffee in a cracked mug. I pressed the bell, glancing at the yawning ledger that had been opened on the front desk. My signature was second from the bottom, and facing it on the adjacent page was that of W. Florence in tidy, feminine cursive.
The Belgian manager came out of a backroom. Two female voices were berating him with foreign vitriol. A weariness had settled all over the guy and I was a little sad for him. He closed the door quickly, stood facing it pitifully for a moment, and came over.
“Know where I can get some apples?” I asked.
“Is that truthfully what you have called me out here in order for?” He pulled an unkind face. “Did you not hear those women?”
“Who are those women?”
“There’s a grocery store three blocks down on Front Street. I’m sure they will have the apples you are looking for.”
“Isn’t there an orchard somewhere around here?”
“Longtree Orchard,” he said, surreptitiously eyeing the backroom. “But it’s nearly closed. The gift shop belonging to the orchard is straight for a half dozen miles and the orchard itself is a few more, I believe.”
I put my room key on the counter. The Belgian turned and stared at a calendar tacked to the wall. February 9th had been circled and then crossed out severely and repeatedly. He hung the key with the other keys. Reluctantly he went back in with the women and I caught a better look at them: they were overweight, dark-haired twins blotched in too much eyeliner and wearing maid’s gray smocks. They were frowning in tandem, ready to pounce. The Belgian watched me as he shut the door, his eyes pleading for assistance.
I had my own troubles.
Brisk lake air hit me in the eyes. The sun was out and it was an obnoxious glare after so long without a whiff of sunshine. Sweet blossom infused the wind and had the torpor of childhood prowling about it. From the glove-box in my car I found a pair of dark glasses and strapped them on. Across the unlined road there was a restaurant with a dangling, hand-painted sign featuring a tottering farmer. I went in and had pancakes, an egg and three cups of black coffee.
For five miles I drove north under a canopying forest that shut out the sun. According to my watch it was 6:42. The gift shop was on the main road, a rustic, log facade the size of a duplex. One of the triple garage doors was slightly lifted to reveal a gaping interior. Crates were stacked in the yard in disarray, and off to the side in a small pasture was a classic red pickup truck, tailgate rusted off, the tires flat. It was either the epitome of America or its thorough derision. The lake glimmered out of the high birch trees. Paddles muscled through the water, skiffs and speedboats dotting the shores.
But the shop was about as wholesome as lice.
I noticed a set of initials carved in the butt of a log in the front yard, bearing a time and the date, February 9th, below.
The orchard was a sprawling, tangled expanse of neglected trees clutching at brown apples. A broken fence spanned the grounds, rooted by posts nailed with paper arrows pointing ahead.
The shop’s single, rustic room was decorated in framed awards from a dozen years back and canisters of spent pesticides. Little packets of seeds and wood chips were scattered across the floor. There were decomposed apples everywhere.
A young man with bristles of black hair sat on a stool behind the metal counter. He was wearing gold sunglasses and I couldn’t tell if he was asleep or just lazy. The frazzling white light of a vintage television set flashed around him, but he was not looking at the picture.
“Guess who?” I asked loudly.
He didn’t move and his soft face was inflexible.
“Is your Daddy home?” I asked.
“Daddy’s always home, motherfucker. You know,” he said warmly, “you remind me of someone I wouldn’t like?”
“There’s more of me back in the car.”
“You look tired as hell, pal. Maybe you just need to get some sleep and everything will be fine.” The kid slouched forward and licked the paper of a marijuana cigarette he’d apparently been saving for the occasion.
“So?” I asked.
“What happened to your neck?”
“I’m starting a fashion trend.”
“It looks awfully terrible.”
“They all do in the beginning. Where’s Longtree?”
“He sold the place a week ago. It’s not on the market.”
“I’m not buying.”
“It’s going to become a retreat for wealthy, almost insane people.”
“You’re repeating yourself.” He didn’t get the joke and I wasn’t sure there had been one. “Where is he?”
“At the cottage.”
“Where’s the cottage?”
“Far end of the dirt road.”
“Where’s the dirt road?”
He jerked his thumb over his shoulder.
“Did you see that dirt road on your way up here?”
“It’s not that dirt road. It’s another one.”
“Which dirt road is it?”
“The other one.”
He lit the joint with a match and the flame sputtered in the lenses of his shades.
“It’s the dirt road going north. But you’ll have a hell of a time getting up there. We’ll be out of here in a week, so you better get your business done fast.”
“Sorry to hear that.”
“Why’re you sorry?”
“These days I’m sorry about everything I hear.”
“You must hear a lot.”
“Not nearly enough. I appreciate all the work you’ve put into this,” I said. I handed him a crumpled five dollar bill. “A little something for your trouble.”
“Thanks, but I’m not going to thank you.”
“You’re welcome and you just did.”
“I didn’t mean it,” he said. “Sorry.”
I took a peek at the TV; it was nothing but static.
Back in the car I drove underneath a ratty wooden sign that had been eaten away and over a gradual incline of jutting boulders and hidden dips in the path. Dirt lanes ran the length of the orchard, intersecting, abruptly dead-ending, traversing the hills. All leading seemingly nowhere but upwards. I chose one at random. Liquefying apples popped under my tires, spraying sickening geysers at the windshield. Even with the windows down the vinegary smell of rot was pervasive.
TO BE CONTINUED…
PECK is among more than 40 writers featured in our 2011 10th-anniversary anthology, All Hands On: THE2NDHAND After 10.