18
Oct
2012

YOU DREAM OF BIRDS, by Sonya Maizell

Maizell lives and writes in New Jersey.

1. In which you dream of birds
Four nights before your birthday, you dream of birds. There are a thousand of them perched in a great tree, their white wings drooped elegantly down their sides and their feathers trailing behind them like wedding veils. They sing a thousand beautiful songs each night, and you know this because they are singing them to you now. But one of them has no beak, and you know that if you catch it, it will grant you a wish.

When you wake up the sky is like frosted pearls, and you know that you must have a bird.

2. In which there are ants in the walls
You have no idea why you didn’t think of purchasing a bird before. It is easily the best idea you have ever had. You can hang out with the bird on your shoulder and feed it crackers and teach it foul language and you simply must have a bird.

But there is one small hurdle to leap before you can get one, and that hurdle is your roommate.

Your roommate’s name is Narandal and she is from Mongolia. You didn’t know that was even still a place that had people in it, but apparently it is because every time you come home she’s right there in your apartment being Mongolian. Narandal is a sweet girl with a round face and dark hair, but she has obsessive compulsive disorder. You think it’s a little weird, but you guess you’re OK with it. You try not to make a fuss out of anything she does. Besides, her OCD means the apartment is always clean, and as far as you’re concerned that is swell.

But it’s also why a bird may be a problem. You will need to go about this proposal very delicately.

When you get home, your roommate is sitting on the living room floor, peering earnestly at the couch. It is white and spotless, as is the carpet she is sitting on. There is a length of yellow measuring tape in her hand.

“Oh! Hello,” she says.

“Hey Nina,” you say. You call her Nina because you do not know how to pronounce her real name. “What’re you doing down there?”

“Oh, the couch, it needs to be two inches away from the wall.”

“Why?”

“Well! You know, there could be ants in the walls,” she says, looking at her hands.

“Neat,” you say. Narandal smiles at you and continues her meticulous calculations. You pause for a few moments before continuing. “So I was wondering, do you mind if I get a bird?”

“A bird?” she asks. Her expression does not look promising. You grapple for a way to get her to agree. You must have a bird.

“Yeah it’s uh, it’s not my bird. It’s for … my friend. She’s going to … Canada. She needs me to watch it.”

“Oh,” she says, “How long will your friend be in Canada?”

“A while,” you say.

Your roommate looks uncertain.

“I’ll keep it out of the way in my room! And she says it’s like really quiet.”

“Well, all right,” Narandal says. Your heart explodes into multicolored confetti.

“OK, cool. You need any help with the couch?”

“No, no. I’m fine,” she says, eyes fixed on the cushions. But you barely hear her. You are already in your room looking up pet stores.

3. In which you have waking dreams
That afternoon you head out to purchase your bird. The pet store you decide on is called Basically Birds, which you think is a bit silly because how could anything be Complicatedly Birds, but you are just an accounting undergrad so what the hell do you know about bird stores anyway.

You park your car in a drab shopping plaza filled with sidewalk cracks and angry mothers. Basically Birds is nestled between a thrift store and an Armenian bakery. The smell of burnt sugar wafts over you as you head inside the shop.

Basically Birds turns out to be a very self-explanatory name. It is basically filled with birds. There are cages of birds on the walls and hanging from the ceiling and standing on the floor and just about anywhere a cage could possibly go. The birds that fill them are multicolored and numerous. Tufts of their feathers wander through the air like flecks of prismatic ash. Some of these birds you immediately recognize: a fat, ruby-red macaw, a slim ivory cockatiel, a shy brown finch. Yet others seem strange to you, the patterns on their feathers complicated and alien. They regard you with wide black eyes when you draw close. You can see your face, awkward and flat, reflected in their eyes’ glassy surfaces, so you stare at the floor instead. The carpet is some kind of brown, and dust puffs out from it in tiny A-bomb clouds whenever you shift your feet.

Eventually the owner of the store shuffles sleepily through the corridor of cages to greet you. With your nose still saturated with the scent of sucrose from the bakery outside, you immediately compare her to a cake. She moves toward you, large and lumbering, as though she may tilt too far and topple over at any moment. Her face is framed by lazy curls of russet hair that spill out from her scalp, her clothes candy-colored and puffy. Her eyes, deep and tired, examine you skeptically before she welcomes you to the store.

“Hi! I’m, uh, I’m here to buy a bird,” you tell her. You find yourself raising your voice to compete with the squawks and chirps around you.

“Obviously,” she says, moseying over to the counter near the door. You note disappointedly that her voice is bored and gray and not very cake-like. “What kind?”

This question, though simple, catches you a little off guard. You didn’t really think about what kind of bird. You just want a bird. You are going to feed it crackers and teach it foul language and train it to bring you tiny objects that you are too lazy to fetch across the room. Who cares what kind it is?“Well, maybe one that can talk?” you venture, “And … that’s friendly?”

“Parakeet,” the store owner responds before leading you over to a tall gray cage filled with small, flashy birds the color of almost-ripe bananas. They flutter excitedly from perch to perch at your approach, chirping pleasantly and preening their feathers. A few of them hop closer and turn their heads to the side to view you with one eye before scampering away again. You decide that parakeets are adorable.

“Which one?” the owner asks.

You lean forward to give the flock a closer examination. They all seem pretty wonderful, but pretty identical too. How does she expect you to choose? You spend a few moments watching them quietly, trying to see if there are any personalities that stand out, but none do. They nibble at their yellow-green feathers and climb up the walls and squabble with each other for rights to the food bowl.

And then you see it.

Hidden away at the very top of the cage, above your head, is a bird the color of a pale summer sky. It is the sort of blue Aztecs wore in beaded flecks in their hair. It’s the indigo-gray that swallows up the sky after a deep storm. It’s the kind of sapphire that splashes up from the sea when it meets an ancient cliff. It is the innocent cobalt of a fresh-picked berry. It is the brilliant cerulean of a cloudless dawn. It is all of these, and yet none of them at the same time. It is beautiful. It is perfect.

“That one!” you say, pointing up at it.

“Huh,” the owner says, “You sure?” You nod enthusiastically.

She shrugs and reaches over your head to open a small latched door at the top of the cage. Several birds scatter out of the way of her hand, but the blue bird does not seem to mind the invasion of its space. She gathers it up in her palms and, holding it gently, removes it from the cage and places it into a small box. You hand her several crumpled bills from your pocket, take the box, and head for home.

4. In which there are two thousand eyes
Three nights before your birthday, you dream of birds. They circle their great tree as a flock. Their fluttering sheds the small, fluffy feathers beneath their wings and these fall around you like snow. You call up to them, asking them to come down and sing for you, but you cannot hear your voice above the discordant ruffling of their wings. They do not land. One thousand white feathered heads turn to look at you from above.

They watch you until you wake up.

5. In which you speak to the wings beneath the sun
Your roommate is not interested in seeing the bird. She is incredibly busy. When you wander out into the kitchen to give your new bird some quiet time, you find that she has removed everything from the cabinets and has set to lining them with very precisely cut lengths of cardboard. She’s good at it, and you wonder where she learned to cut cardboard for lining cabinetry. You speculate over what she did when she lived in Mongolia. Sometimes you hear her speaking in Mongolian over the phone, and you wonder if she is talking about you.

Narandal never speaks to you about her old home, which is probably because you never ask. The one time you did, she told you that her mother had abandoned her when she was very young, and you weren’t sure what to say about that, so then she told you her real name.

“My mother chose it,” she explained, smiling and patient.

“How do you say it? Narndle?”

“Narandal. Roll the R,” she said gently.

“Narrrr-andle,” you said, butchering it as much as is possible.

“Nina is fine.”

“What does it mean?”

Narandal paused a few moments before responding, looking thoughtful. “Sort of like … a pair of great wings spread out beneath the sun.”

“That’s beautiful.”

“Yes. I think choosing it is the one thing she did right,” Narandal said with a frown, and it was then you decided not to ask again. At the time you meant you’d never ask her about Mongolia, but somehow not talking about Mongolia became not talking about anything at all. You don’t ask her why she thinks there are ants in the walls, or why covering the cabinets in cardboard will keep them safe, or why she scrubs the counters even when they’re already glittering.

You leave her in her life and you stay occupied in your own.

6. In which you wait for silence
After sitting silently for an entire day, your new bird has begun to move. It slides slowly across its perch to examine the toy on one end, and then back to the other side, over and over. It does not seem to be doing anything similar to the excitable fluttering you observed at the pet store, but you are sure that it will take up more entertaining behavior in time. It is cute with fluffy feathers and you are going to teach it foul language and feed it crackers and take it for walks in the bird park, if that is even a real thing. You just need to be patient, as the woman you bought it from suggested.

So you leave the bird to get comfortable. While it settles you work on knitting a hat for your friend’s new baby. You can’t remember if it’s a boy or a girl, so you make it green. You work on a paper for your Auditing and Corporate Governance class. You pick up your room a little while Narandal washes the living room walls. You check your work schedule for the coming weekend. You quietly, and patiently, wait for your bird to notice you.

And that patience is rewarded with a shriek.

There is no other way for you to describe it. Suddenly, without provocation, your bird has begun to scowl and scream. The noise is high-pitched and unpleasant in every possible way. It flaps its long, beautiful wings and clicks its tiny orange beak and shouts and shouts and shouts.

This is not what you expected at all.

You phone the owner of Basically Birds, and she answers in a manner that suggests a recent nap. You picture red velvet cupcakes in the place of her hair as you speak to her.

“Hi, I bought a parakeet from you the other day and it’s making this really loud, squawking kind of noise,” you tell her.

“Yup,” she says. “They do that.”

“What do you mean, they do that?” you ask.

“They do that. They make all sorts of noises. That’s one of them.” She sounds bored with you.

“Well, you didn’t say that before,” you say, confused and worried.

“Yup, well, they do that,” she says again.

“Is there a way to make them stop?”

“Just give it attention and don’t stress it out. Should shout less. But they still do that. It’s one of their sounds.”

“OK. Thanks, I guess.”

It takes another 10 minutes for your new bird to calm down. Its vocal chords exercised, it takes to sitting silently once more. You are left feeling nervous and unsure, and you do not even think about feeding it crackers.

7. In which something is wrong
Two nights before your birthday, you dream of birds. They funnel into the sky like a glorious waterspout, but something is wrong. They are not beautiful and elegant. Instead, they are ragged and afraid. They flee their great tree as though it will bite. “What’s wrong?” you ask them. “Where are you going?” One of the birds lands on your shoulder.

“We have seen one thousand silver suns in the sky,” it says, “and they light the way to freedom.”

“But where?” you ask, watching the cloud of wings above you. “Where are you going?”

You turn to look at the bird and it is gone. The bird with no beak has taken its place, and it cannot speak to you. It turns its head to face you with one eye. It is wide and black and deep, like a chasm that falls down to the center of the earth. You shiver, and find that you can wish for nothing but for it to leave.

8. In which you take the bad luck
Your roommate is too nervous to drive anywhere, so the next morning when she tells you that she needs groceries you are the one to take her. You’re happy to go this time. Your new bird is still having shrieking fits about once an hour and you would be lying if you said it wasn’t a little annoying. You wait quietly as she examines the expiration dates on every item she selects, sometimes rifling through a shelf for several minutes to find a specific one. She blinks nervously at the shelves as though they are plotting to kill her.

When you get back to the apartment, Narandal refuses to go inside. There is a white cat lounging near the door. “We have to wait,” she tells you, grasping your upper arm. “We have to wait for someone else to go near to take the bad luck, or it will be ours.”

“That’s black cats,” you tell her.

“No,” she says, her dark eyes fixed on the animal’s fur. “No, it is white.”

You walk up to the door and shoo the cat away. You don’t think OCD makes people superstitious, so it’s probably just one of those Mongolian things. She probably has all kinds of crazy foreign ideas about bad omens and spirits and junk. Your roommate smiles cautiously at you as you walk inside together.

While Narandal spends the next hour putting her purchases away in carefully measured rows, you go to check on your new bird. It screeches at your approach.

“Hey, shh, shh, relax. It’s OK, little bird. It’s all right,” you say in a voice that could be soothing. The bird only shrieks some more. “Shhh, shhh,” you say. You promised your roommate that it wouldn’t be noisy, and you know she can hear it screaming from your room. You have to get it to quiet down, but it won’t. The more you try to assure it, the more it yells and flutters and squawks.

“Just shut up!” you eventually hiss, but it does not.

9. In which you dream of nothing at all
The night before your birthday you dream of nothing at all, and this is because you do not sleep. The bird will not stop screaming. You are sure that at any moment Narandal will come in to confront you about it, but she does not. Why won’t it stop screaming? It seems to you that it barely even pauses to breathe. It just shouts and shrieks and screeches. You resolve the next morning to take it back to the pet shop. Thoughts of teaching it foul language and feeding it crackers are far behind you. You barely think anything at all. It’s too loud to think.

Your fingers clutch at the quilt of your bed and the sweat of your palms rubs off on the blue-gray pattern of the fabric. Why won’t it stop screaming? You turn your head and yell back at your bird, but it is too loud to hear yourself above its shrieks. It’s too much. You leap out of bed and hurry to Narandal’s room. You need to apologize. She spends her life worrying about ants and cats and dirt and now she has to listen to your new bird and you just can’t stand it. You shove her door open and you are startled to find that she had been asleep. She sits up and asks you something. You know this because you see her mouth move, but it is too loud to hear what she is saying. She gets out of bed and clasps your hands, asking again. But you cannot hear her, and she cannot hear you when you respond. The bird isn’t just screaming now, it’s wailing and howling and squealing and roaring and you just can’t think at all.

You tear back into your room with the sun rising on your back and to your new bird’s cage. Its wings are the blue of old midnights and cold stars. You scream back at it to stop, to shut up, to keep quiet, but still you can hear nothing.

You rip open the door of the cage and seize the bird, its small beak open wide in an unholy outcry. You shake its tiny feathered form, begging it, pleading with it to be quiet, and it is only when small splotches of red begin to dye its indigo feathers that you realize it is dead.

But its screams do not go with it. They cling to your ears and rattle at your ribcage and leap down your throat and you begin to realize that the shrieks are coming from you and it is just too loud to think, so you think of nothing at all. Every sound begins to amplify itself in your mind’s emptiness. Your heart beats staccato rolls of thunder against your chest. Your blood pulses in ocean waves, crashing and roaring on the surf of your veins. Each ear-splitting exhalation that rushes through your teeth comes as a monsoon melody, dripping down into the cavernous bellow that is boiling in your stomach. It reverberates in a harrowing cacophony of sound, jumbled together and leaping from wall to wall, breath to breath, and ear to ear. Your eyes are filling up with the red of disharmony and your hands are filled with blue feathers and hollow bones.

You sink to the floor, surrounded by the remains of your new bird.

It all stops when you run out of air. The sound dwindles into the emptiness of your lungs, shirking away like a scarlet shadow.

There is no noise, now.

And that silence, quietly deafening, is the loudest of all.

Post to Twitter

12
Oct
2012

ON THE POROUSNESS OF CERTAIN SKULLS

A brief debate about debates, complete with all that you would expect. The brevity of the entire affair the most interesting part. Our firm A1 narrative consciousness — or its owner, as it were — is the last to realize that behind the exchange lies a grim bit of reality, that a lack of self-knowledge is no excuse for prevarication, that the quality is one not unlike its own progenitors’ overreliance on jokes.

How did the dog skin the cat?

Post to Twitter

03
Oct
2012

SPIT VALVE, a choose-yr-own-adventure by Quincy Rhoads

You sit on a concrete slab awaiting your mother and the drive home following a day of middle school — broken reeds, mathematics, nameless anguish. A truck that is not your mom’s pulls up along the edge of deadened grass. Do You:

A. Keep sitting against the fire door?

B. Go see who it is?

A. You sit. The August sun beats hard upon your saxophone case. A bead of sweat rols down your brow and you wait for fall. B. You stand. The truck seems to stretch toward you to come closer. A woman, haggard, leans her head out the window and gazes off. Your mother pulls up behind the rusted-out pickup. Do you:

C. Press on?

D. Get into your mom’s car?

C. You continue toward the truck, its red-rust dust flaking off in the light August breeze — more like asthmatic breathing than wind. The truck stinks like stale oil and your grandfather’s tool shed; in the bed lies what could be a pickaxe. You smell old cigarette smoke, like the home your Great Aunt lives in — stagnant. The woman spits brown. Do you:

D. Turn around?

E. Advance?

 D.  You walk towards your mom’s van. “How was your day?” she asks, but you don’t hear her; you’re too distracted by the woman with the crushed-hay hair, waiting — perhaps for you. In some ways she’s the most striking woman you have ever seen. You won’t forget her leather-brown skin even after 12 long years. On the ride home you will ask yourself what draws us to these grostesqueries? Why the fascination with the hideous? You shall do this for the rest of your adult years. You will yearn for the wild and far-fetched. All the while wondering: did you make the right choices today?
E. As you approach the driver’s side window, the lady looks up at you and smiles a smile lack 12 of 32 teeth. Right where her eyebrows knit together is a hole. It could be a deep pore. Perhaps. But “hole” seems a more apt way of describing it. You cannot help but stare into this concrete example of infinity. Like sand on a beach, this is the closest you will come to witnessing perpetuity. She says, “I’m waiting for Ryan.”And:

F. You tell her you are Ryan. 

G. You tell her you know him.

F.  “I’m right here,” you say to her. You climb into the bucket on the passenger side, all the while transfixed by the hole in your new mother’s eyebrows. Did a needle pierce her face as a child or is her skin swelling to burst with dimness? It does not matter for you as long as you may revel within her misshapenness — enthralled by true loveliness.

 

 

 

G. “I know him,” you say. “He sits behind me in band. He plays trombone,” all while transfixed by the hole. You turn away as envy burns within. Ryan know true beauty for it is entangled in his double helix, inherited brilliance.

 

Quincy Rhoads lives and writes in Clarksville, Tenn. Find more from him here. 

Post to Twitter

10
Sep
2012

THE LAST ORCHARD IN AMERICA, by Michael Peck — Finale

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).

 

Chapter 37

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.

“What night?”

“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?”

“No.”

“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.

 

Chapter 38

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.”

“I figured.”

“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?”

“Earlier.”

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.

 

Chapter 39

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.”

“Is it?”

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 haven’t?”

“No.”

“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.

 

Chapter 40

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.

 

END

 

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.

 

Post to Twitter

13
Aug
2012

THE LAST ORCHARD IN AMERICA, by Michael Peck — Part 8

In this latest installment of Peck’s serial noir, our private eye hero Harry Jome wakes after a night of debauchery with his client, Sue Longtree, only to continue the picaresque and grotesque mystery his latest case has become. Get caught up on the last installment here, or:

Download “Last Orchard” .doc for your eReader (check back periodically — the file will be updated as new installments become available).

 

Chapter 26


The engine was off, and when I tried to turn it over there was only a click like you might hear in your jaw. It was 6:30 when I poured myself out of the car. Pressed under the wipers, two unassertive parking tickets flapped. Sue was gone and the headache throttling my temples caused the rain-slick street to spin vertiginously.

It had been my first drinks in 20 years, and now it was another scarcely tenable day.

I left the car where it was and walked around a minute on the sidewalk to regain my legs. Then I crumpled down near a hydrant and deposited last night’s overpriced dinner and the drinks along with the meal.

I disliked Sue for making me dislike myself so much. She’d abandoned me and I couldn’t make out why. I was on 15th Street, a couple of buildings up from the bus station. As far as I knew it was Tuesday. Rubbing my face I was straightaway enraged.

A squat man in a derby paused to squint at me disapprovingly, as though he’d just finished sweeping the entire city and was now forced to do it all over again because of me.

“Really?” the man asked.

I loped down to the corner of 8th and 9th. Probably I should have checked that Sue had returned safely to her house, but instead I compelled myself painfully to my office in an ugly shuffle. The air outside was ruined by stifling garbage, and the burning vomit in my nostrils stank of cumin and asparagus. I was a sick, troubled hubris not good enough to drop dead on a crapshoot’s veranda. Even my metaphors were deteriorating.

When I arrived at the Santos Building  I was wearing a coat of rain on my back.

Before entering my office I heard two pairs of hands rummaging through files and drawers. Peeling the door back, I could see Parker and Porter bent in fat, dumb postures of searching. They didn’t notice me right away. Both of them were in bright seersucker outfits with not enough starch in the collars, their hats aligned on my desk and they were passing around a cigarette as they labored. Porter looked to have acquired a tan recently.

Parker turned his big head and saw me glaring at him.

“He’s right here,” Parker said to Porter, snapping his fingers.

Porter’s jowls were glistening and he puffed the cigarette, handed it to his partner and breathed out the smoke with a question. “Where is it?” he asked.

“It’s somewheres in here,” Parker said, giving the cigarette back.

Watching them fumble sent a nostalgic twinge through my body over the death of vaudeville. “You two are real bit players,” I said. “So what’s the comedy?”

“Ain’t no comedy, Jome,” Porter said.

Parker quipped, “More along the lines of a drama.”

“Hi, Harry,” Parker said. He pointed to Porter with a giant thumb. “Porter, you remember Harry Jome. I was telling you about him.”

“Oh yeah,” Porter said. “You were saying he’s nothing much.”

“Good to see you fellows,” I said. I took off my coat and draped it on the back of the chair. I was absent my pistol and there was nothing to be done save try to reason with these funny baboons. But I wasn’t in the mood to reason with anyone. My head was splitting. All I wanted was to lie on the floor and groan.

“We were just making sure,” Parker said. “That we hadn’t forgotten anything.”

“And what is your hypothesis?” I was edging toward the filing cabinets.

“That we hadn’t missed anything,” Porter said.

Parker and Porter were standing close together, their wide bodies nearly wall-to-wall. Porter’s suit was missing every single button and he’d tried to offset this by keeping the flaps of his suit-coat back with his elbows.

“It’s getting more cloudy,” Porter said, glancing out the window. “And I’m going to get dark in a minute.”

I laughed and Parker laughed too. “So what am I laughing at and what am I looking for?” Parker asked.

I shrugged. “Could be anything.”

“OK,” Porter said. “So what do you think we’re looking for, because we are looking for something or else we wouldn’t be here.” The light caught his face and there was a furrowed dimple in the center of his chin. “Would we?” He continued, “Fact is I don’t want to get any darker than I have to.”

“Or the situation, too,” Parker added.

“What is the situation?” I asked.

In tandem they were coming out from either side of the desk like two lunatics just signed out. Parker’s big hand looked as though it were eating the gun it held.

“See?” he said. “Now I have a gun. And this gun is your gun. It was in the drawer.”

“I know,” I said.

“Whatever the situation is, a gun changes it,” Porter said.

“You still haven’t told me what the situation is? What’re you looking for?” I asked.

Porter rested his ass on the desk, tilting it forward. Then he straightened up as though his mother told him not ever to sit on furniture.

“The situation,” Parker said, scratching his neck with the barrel of the gun, “is what you’re going to tell us it is.”

“You working for Sue Longtree?” I asked.

“Why would we be working for her?” Porter said. I stared at his dimple until it formed into a second dimple and this one winked at me.

“Because she’s a woman and a woman likes to complicate her own intentions,” I said.

Parker came in close to me and jabbed me on the shoulder with the metal. I grabbed at the bruise and swayed.

“I wish you wouldn’t do that,” I said. “I was out drinking last night and I’m feeling pretty lousy today.”

“I thought you like problems,” Porter said, staring at Parker.

“I like problems when they’re not my problems.”

“Open the window,” Parker said. “It’s getting complex in here.”

Porter heaved the window up. Dainty clods of rain tiptoed onto the sill. Porter stayed by the window to dry his sweat and blink in the wind.

“This is no Ritz-Carlton,” Porter said.

“What’s so great about the Ritz-Carlton?” I asked.

“You ever stayed at one?”

“No.”

“Then how would you know?”

“We just need some air for thinking,” Parker said. “You going to tell us what we’re looking for?”

“Hopefully a couple new suits,” I said. Parker slammed me in the shoulder again and the pain swelled. Compared to the hangover, it was almost an intercession.

“It doesn’t look good, does it?” he asked.

“No,” his partner said. “It doesn’t look good for someone in particular.”

Parker took a few steps back and forth and planted himself once again in front of me.

“You’re doing something with the female Longtree.” He raised the gun to his cheek and scratched a red, splotchy razor-burn. “Our client is inquisitive about that.”

A stealthy breeze took some of my papers out the window and shuffled more that were on the desk.

“Maybe,” I said. “Would you mind shutting the window? I’d like to keep my office in here.”

The two men glanced at one another, not knowing how to proceed. Tension was so heavy you could have cut it with a tablecloth.

“Maybe,” Porter said. “But probably definitely.”

“Why have you scooped out Ben Bergen?” Parker asked.

“He killed himself in a motel room upstate.”

“What he’s asking is why you’re looking at it, if I’m not mistaken,” Porter said. He came away from the window and moisture was still running down his face.

“Because he killed himself in a motel room upstate.”

Parker itched his face again with the muzzle.

One swift thrust and my toe caught him in the shin. His left foot rolled over on the marble I’d dropped a few days beforehand and he flailed like a goon, clutching at the air. The gun startled his finger and the blast took away a part of the right side of his head. His gaze stayed intact and dumb. Porter grappled with slippery hands past the desk, tripped over his partner’s toe and lunged for the open door.

“Wait a minute,” Parker said crisply, stunned and numb and dying. He toppled over backward and landed with an explosive thud similar to the gun’s yell. I could hear Porter frantically descending the staircase, followed by a pitiful moan and a crash below. And then there was just the breathless calm of a man deciding what the hell he should do. Murmurs wafted chorally throughout the building.

I poked through Parker’s second-hand wardrobe, extracted his billfold to find the miscellany of a pretty stultifying guy in a struggle with mid-life. Creased dollar bills. Photos of nieces and nephews. A playing card with a nude woman and the phrase “Everybody Ends Up in St. Louis” on it. In one pocket there was a penknife and a tiny flashlight, and the other held a scrap of expensive stationary with the words Find It. Throughout the excavation I did my best not to look at Parker’s face. The room was splattered with what I didn’t want to notice.

Digging into his breast pocket I unearthed a cheap memo book, clamped with a rubber band. The first entry in his adolescent shorthand was just a name and an address: Richard Longtree, Melancthon Hotel, 1st Street, Room 304.

Underneath that: Evidence for Divorce Proceedings Detailing the Extra-Marital Affairs of Susan Longtree.

A few pages later I came to a transcription of my wayward discussion with Sue at the diner.

I flipped to the last bunch of text: Going to confront HJ for information. Richard is getting impatient with the case. Will terminate contract if nothing in three days. I ripped all the pages out of the notebook that referenced me and littered the remnants out the window. I left the long passages containing laundry lists and grocery reminders. Stuffing the data back into his pocket my finger fell through the hole of a wedding ring. I shook it off. Stains from underneath Parker spread in all directions, like a flower or like what it was. I should have called somebody, but since I’d never had a dead guy in my office before, I wasn’t too sure what the protocol was supposed to be. I did know, however, that if I was almost sure not to have gotten any sleep before, it was a granite certainty that I would not be sleeping now.

A jumbled scent of disgusting sweetness filled the room.

I didn’t know what to do so I didn’t do anything but stare at the blood and at Parker’s buffoonish suit and the recently colored wall-paper. Rain was soaking my back and I let it. Even indoors I couldn’t get away from the rain.

This was all Sue Longtree.

It was times like these I wished I’d taken up ballroom dancing and stuck to it.

 

Chapter 27

A half-hour later the detective came in with two lock-stepped uniforms that were stuffed with young brutal men, and a crooked trilby set squarely on his sloping forehead. His eyes and movements were shy or calculating, and a fine buzz cut gave his gray hair a spectral quality when he removed the hat, as though he were going to mutate into a black and white image of himself at any second. I gauged him at about 50 or a little older. Hand tailored, his gray suit was tight-fitting and he had a green stem in the breast pocket without a flower attached. A gray mustache was on his lip, one tapered end longer than the other.

He ordered the officers to stay on the other side of the door, then he prodded Parker’s head with a pencil. The detective didn’t acknowledged me as he poked around the room.

He sniffed at the barrel of the pistol, stuffed the pistol in his pocket.

“That’s my property,” I said. The detective didn’t answer but he did shake his head imperceptibly, no.

“Did you touch anything?” he asked, and his words came out in a monotonous stream that had a bit of tremulous excitement in it. The kind of voice you’d hear broadcasting financial updates.

I was exhausted and hungover. Now would be an unparalleled time to say something stupid and I did my best. “Just my hands.”

“Jome, I’m Leslie Cowper — lieutenant right now — and I hate my job, so if you make it difficult for me I’m going to make me difficult for you. Go ahead and sit down.”

“I’m already sitting.”

“Why don’t you close that window?” Cowper said.

I got up and closed the window and returned to my chair.

For a while longer Cowper prodded Parker’s head.

“You got a chair?” he asked.

“No. There’s only one and you told me to sit down and I’m sitting down.”

Cowper thrust his face into the hallway and called for one of his boys to bring in a chair and one of his boys brought in a chair. He put his hat back on when he eased himself into the seat across from me, reposed like he didn’t care. White socks were revealed as he crossed his legs. His round jawline pumped up and down.

“So,” he said. “So explain this to me.”

He had a pencil behind his right ear and no notepad.

“Well,” I started, and the throbbing in my head began, not quite as insistently. “The guy on the floor is Parker — not sure about the first name but you’re a cop for some reason — and this Parker guy was scratching the side of his head with the gun when it went off and that’s the cause of his malaise.”

“Guy doesn’t usually itch himself with a bullet.”

“I’ll agree with you there.”

“What was he doing here?” Cowper asked. He removed the pencil and let it frolic across his knuckles, keeping his eyes on it.

“Just itching,” I said.

“That your gun in his hand?”

“I think so, judging by the initials.”

“Who the hell keeps their initials on a gun? Are you a child or something?”

“I was kidding.”

“Don’t.” Cowper strained forward. “Any decent idea how your gun ended up in his hand and your bullet in his head?”

“If I recall correctly, he picked it up before I got here.”

“When did you get here?”

“About 40 minutes ago.”

“How long had they been here?”

“Can’t say. Maybe fifteen minutes before that.”

Cowper steadied his gaze into mine, still playing with his pencil.

“I think you’re being difficult,” he said.

“I wouldn’t.”

“What you’ve said doesn’t sound like a good defense at all.”

“Am I defending myself?”

“I don’t know. I just got here.”

Suddenly he pointed the eraser tip at me. “If I were you,” he said. “I’d hire somebody better equipped to handle your legal business, and while I’m on the topic, what is your business?”

“And if I were you I’d be sitting obliviously in that chair wondering why this appears so obvious when it is, actually, pretty obvious.”

“Private dick, I guess. Not too many of them around. You got a license, Jome? From the county? To practice what you’re doing?”

“I’m not practicing; I’m actually doing it.”

“No license, huh?” Cowper grimaced emphatically. “That’s too bad.”

“I have a driver’s license,” I said.

“Don’t use it until this is all cleared up, and if you do use it, use it real well.”

I put my hands behind my head. Cowper had hardness in brown, doughy eyes that were just a little terrifying. He pulled a bent cigarette from behind the ear without the pencil and stuck it in his mouth without lighting it.

“I believe you, Jome,” he said, the cigarette tottering. “Don’t ask me why.”

“OK. Why?”

“Because I said so and I tend to like people who are in a lot of steam. I don’t like anything self-apparent because what looks that way typically isn’t.”

He tried blanking out a tar stain on his fingernail with the worn eraser. He got bored and studied the blood-patterned carpet, then trained his attention on Parker.

“What do you think?” he asked Parker. As Cowper stood he tossed the pencil into the wastepaper basket in the corner. “This have something to do with a case?” he asked, taking the pathetic cigarette and sticking it in back of his ear again.

“I couldn’t really say.”

“Something about a Longtree?”

I flung my hands up.

“If I knew anything,” I said. “I wouldn’t be doing this.”

“Ever hear the name Dean Bruckner?” he asked.

“Not even once.”

“Since I can’t tell when you’re lying or not, I’ll just be an idealist and assume you never are. Bruckner called this minor massacre in from a pay-phone next door. He wouldn’t say what he was doing hanging around here, but he’s a private dick like you. Are you working with him?”

“I don’t know this fellow but I’m sure he’s good.”

Cowper nodded and he kept nodding. “He is good. Better than you, I bet.” His sweet, boyish face was sweating and placid, like somebody who’s just found what sex is for.

Cowper was at the door, his shoes making squishing sounds from the rain caught in the soles.

“Oh,” he said over his shoulder. “There’s another dead fellow down in the front hall. Seems you shouldn’t jump down stairs thirty at a time.”

“His name is Porter,” I said.

“Why do you suppose he jumped down all those stairs? You think he was pushed?”

“Maybe he was in a hurry.”

Cowper got up, tugged the brim of his trilby. “See you again soon,” he said. Leaving, he took hold of the chair and brought it out with him. His outline was in the glass door as he motioned to someone and then it wasn’t and the elevator was groaning with too many bitter men.

 

Chapter 28

I was doing nothing but thinking of Sue Longtree and her pretentious shit, Richard, the crumb who’d hired the guys I’d now done away with. It was all too bad. Not to mention the rain and the corpse on the floor who’d fulfilled nothing more insidious than a mindless routine divorce job.

“If only you understood,” I said to Parker, “just how much of this I don’t understand.”

The meat grinder drove up outside and two burly asocial types stamped into my office bearing a gurney between them. One of the kids was wearing a sailor hat, tattoos running up and down his arms. They zipped up the obese body and heaved it in the gurney; the outlines of the former Parker bulged as his remains were hurried away. The boys lingered a moment foreseeing a tip, and I ignored them conclusively.

The loneliness was harsher than a desert in winter. Nothing especially looked promising except that the two dicks were off my back, which was a relief. Now I had to contend with the Longtrees, and that was not even in the proximity of a paradise.

Sue didn’t answer when I called. I was stuck and rather dizzy. This would have been a perfect moment to contact my attorney, if I had one. Maybe even a prostitute or an acupuncturist. Some kind of small dog to keep me company in the enveloping folds of a stiff hardship.

The stain on the carpet wasn’t going anywhere. I reached the elevator starving, afraid that food would disrupt me completely. My stomach fell as the elevator clanked down. Watching the thin floor leisurely ascend I was reminded of the two private eyes who wouldn’t be molesting elevators anymore.

My two immediate options for the day were to either whine about it or buy some mineral water at the store around the corner.

The first evidence I could see of him on the ground floor was his tennis shoes. Then corduroy pants and a blue sweater. At last his face was there, a gray goatee and matching short hair.

“Jome?” he asked before I could pry apart the grate.

“Some other time,” I said.

“I’m on a job for somebody and I need to talk to you about somebody.” He spoke fast and his shirtsleeves were too short and rode the tops of the wristwatches he had on both wrists.

“Who’s that?”

“A guy by the name of Wald. My client is interested in him about something important. And maybe about you, too, as you’ve become rather important as well. OK? So where does that stand us? Wald has been on me and I’m a little less than positive that it has something to do with you.”

“Who’s your client?”

“You know I can’t tell you that, but I know that you know what I’m talking about.”

“You know a lot.”

“I know what I need to know. I know I need to have this wrapped up fast. In case you’re wondering, my name is Sid Lewishom.”

“I wasn’t wondering.”

“My name is still Sid Lewishom.”

“And I still wasn’t wondering.”

I started past him, but he kept sidestepping in the way.

“I’m busy,” I said.

“I am too. It’s a private matter. And this other guy has been stuck on me and I don’t like it and I thought maybe–”

“Yeah,” I interrupted. “You thought maybe.”

“I thought maybe it might have to do with a few other people.”

“I don’t know anything about a few other people.”

“No one does. It could benefit the both of us is what I see. Join up and settle this puzzle.”

“Now you’re being interesting. But you’re still not being too interesting.”

“I’ll buy you a drink and you’ll see how interesting I can be.”

“Another night you can buy me a drink. I’m not in the mood to see how interesting anybody is.”

“Lookit,” he yelled.

“No,” I said. He didn’t follow me into the street, and when I came out of the store with a bottle of mineral water he wasn’t in sight.

I went around to Cramm’s for a quick visit. The tailor was sitting on the front stoop of the building that housed his shop, roofed from the rain by his awning. He was leafing through a sewing machine manual when I came up to him and knocked the book onto his shoes.

“Where’s the suit?” I snapped.

“I’m working on it,” Cramm said. He retrieved the manual and flipped to find his page.

“Right now you are?”

“Well, I’m thinking about working on it,” he said.

“It doesn’t look like you’re working on anything.”

I kicked Cramm’s wingtip with my own wingtip. “Cramm,” I said. “This has been a bad week for me and that suit would come in handy about now.” His sunken eyes took nearly 30 seconds to rise and meet mine. “I’m going to come back in a day or two and that goddamned suit had better be stitched together by then.”

Cramm was nonplussed and closed his sewing book.

“I have nine pairs of pants that the Elks Club want hand-done for a conference they’re having this week. So it’s kind of a position to be in.”

“You can deal with the Elks Club or you can deal with me.” I scoffed and turned away. “I’ll see you soon, Cramm. If not, then before that. I hope that you get the point of me really wanting that suit.”

“I get that feeling,” Cramm said. “I get that feeling all over me.”

I had to see Sue. Bitterness and frustration welled in me, conflated by the rain and building into a nasty rage. Added to that, I didn’t have my umbrella.

I walked the drenched streets for the remainder of daylight, observing the sky shift from gray to black to a color that was neither and both. Imagining what I would say to Sue Longtree and how I would quit her.

 

Chapter 29

On 3rd Street the branches of indistinguishable trees fluttered in the windswept odium of befouling rain. The headlines of a gusting newspaper bellowed that the trashmen’s union hadn’t yet reached a compromise on their strike.

I wasn’t very curious about this Lewishom fellow but I was about Perle and how he was involved — and why. I assumed that since the guy had only shown up after my visit to Perle, the big insurance man had only brought him in since my visit. But what did Perle and his expensive hair have to do with it? Or Wald? For that matter, Sue Longtree herself, the tentacled nexus from which all else was being somehow jockeyed?

There were too many people in this town, and they were all aiming at me. The cast was bloating, and not a single sympathetic role in the whole lousy production.

I rang the bell at Sue’s. The ivied walls looked sad, and the place had the extended quiet of being uninhabited. Twice I rang the bell and watched the wet leaves swirl around my ankles on the dry porch.

A boy rode by on a bicycle, colorful cards in the spokes clipping peacefully, constantly in the act of wiping the water from his eyeglasses.

An airplane cut noiselessly through low clouds, and soon its twin engine was audible in the darkening veil of clouds.

I was thinking of the Longtree family, a domestic unit of murder and suicide that would have compared quite well to Leopold and Loeb on any day. Sue Longtree was nothing but the closest representation of how secluded we really are in the defiant madness lying uncontrolled just behind what we think we are or what we want others to think we are.

And more importantly, why was I standing here wasting time when I could have been somewhere else wasting time?

I was feeling worse than my conception of awful.

I turned and was heading down the stairs when a magnified cigarette lighter sputtered in a car window across the narrow street. It was a white Ford two-seater in extreme dilapidation. Behind the fogged driver’s side window a man with a long head was looking at me. It wasn’t Wald or Lewishom, but that’s as far as I got on his identification before the door behind me clicked.

“Hi,” Sue said to my back..

At once I ascended the stairs and slapped her terribly on the cheek, the slap ringing and torching my hand. Sue touched the blushing spot.

“You didn’t have to do that,” she said, her eyes watering.

“I had to do something, didn’t I? It was the first thing that came to mind. I didn’t know what else to do.”

Partly clothed in a light blue bathrobe and unnecessary heels, Sue’s hair was done up in a pink towel, a stray eyelash on her cheek.

“You look like you’ve been up for weeks designing a submarine,” she said, trying to lighten the atmosphere.

“Who’s the guy in the Ford?” I asked. “Who the hell is Wald? Why’s this Lewishom trying to corner me? You know what I’ve been doing this morning?”

“Come inside and apologize,” she said. She led me inside and latched the door behind us. “Why don’t you take off your jacket and act like a person for a minute?”

“It’s hard for me to do that around you. I asked a second ago if you know what I’ve been doing this morning.”

“You don’t seem like you can do much around me,” she said. “And I’m not causing any of these problems.”

I wanted to slap her again.

“How about Dean Bruckner?” I shouted out. “Or Cowper, or Perle? You know the game.” I must have resembled a lunatic, because Sue’s eyes widened. “Tell me.”

“No,” she said.

Before I could do the opposite of protest, she was practically inside my mouth, gnawing on my lower lip and drawing the blood out, pressing herself against me like a horny leech. Sue’s body smelled of cocoa butter and sweet shampoo.

I loosened the knot on her robe and used my hands, clumsy on her lower back, spine, hips. It had been a while and I was hungry and I tried having her entire body at once.

“You’re so sad,” she breathed.

“I’m not sad,” I said into her mouth. “How could I be sad?”

Her eyes were misty and unfocused, as though she were in two places at once and couldn’t figure out how to reassemble.

The robe sank around her feet and onto my shoes. I was being dragged up the ornate staircase toward the darkened hallway, an amateur in the business, my hands behaving as though they’d never touched anything soft before. I gently rubbed at the prickly stubble between her legs and we lost our balance and had to grab at the oak balustrade. I shoved my index finger inside her and she twitched, putting one rigid hand onto my pants to unbuckle my belt while the other rubbed at my face brutally, simultaneously pushing me back and drawing me in.

We zigzagged into the hall, leaving extraneous clothes behind, knocking into a table, slamming into an oil-painting of a woman sunbathing. A flash of gaping doorways, a bathroom cupboard, a statue on a glass pedestal, a full-length mirror, rummaging into each other’s bodies like imbeciles at a bank run.

“Let me make you less sad,” she whispered. “You’re so sad it hurts.”

“All right.”

“You’re a sad man and I’m a sad woman.”

The chenille drapes weren’t drawn in the bedroom and the view was of the tops of spruce trees and the sparkling lights of the city’s tallest buildings washed in the manic rain. It was a plain room with a four-poster bed, an unlit vanity set with a black typewriter and a page wavering. We stumbled over a footstool, plopped onto a love-seat for a moment, and finally located the outline of the bed.

She was astride me, knees tight around my chest, her face pale, her head thrown back like she was faking the laughter that proceeds a bad joke told by someone you sort of like.

Somewhere in the house a radio was going softly, an impressionistic piano trio. I unfastened her red bra, but she snapped it back on and I didn’t argue.

“Tell me what makes you so sad,” she kept whispering.

“Not being here with you.”

“Please, tell me.”

I gasped and then she gasped. When she came she hiccuped and covered her mouth with her hand. Then our bodies were as immobile and unapproachable as curdled milk on an expensive porcelain saucer. She rolled onto her side away from me and pulled the blanket over her head. I had a desire for words, but I did not act on it and kept myself quiet.

 

TO BE CONTINUED…

 

PECK is among more than 40 writers featured in our 2011 10th-anniversary anthology, All Hands On: THE2NDHAND After 10.

 

Post to Twitter

04
Aug
2012

THE BOCOCURRO DUCK, by Marcel Francis

Francis lives and writes in Nashville.

 

One day I decided that what I really wanted was
a fedora, so I went out and bought one. When I got
back to my house my friend Paul was there and
after seeing my fedora he was immediately struck
with hat envy. “Well I guess we could go back to
the mall. It is right around the corner after all”, I said.
So we drove back to the mall. The moment we stepped
into the hat store, Paul immediately dove right in.
He must have tried on 40 different hats. “Hey,
check out the peacock feather in this one,” he said, just as
a man in a grey suit entered the store. He seemed a little
peculiar, which upon closer examination was probably
less due to the fact that he was wearing a grey suit,
and more to the fact that he was holding in his
right hand a dead duck. Now, ducks don’t really have
very long necks, so at first it looked a bit like he was
holding a small, though heavy, tote bag. But then I saw
the tiny head with its beak, and the paddles for feet
dangling from the bottom. This was most certainly
a dead duck. I turned around in search of Paul,
but he was lost in the hat collection, on to the top hats.
The man must have noticed me staring at him,
because he turned around somewhat concerned to remain
at least slightly inconspicuous. “Don’t worry about him.
He’s just takin’ a time out.” Some humor, I thought. The man
turned around again and in a whisper added, “He’s a
sleeper duck. He comes from the magical order of
Bococurro ducks. This is just how he sleeps. It’s what
he does.” I scratched my head in bewilderment. “Okay,
so he’s a magical duck. But seriously: who sleeps
hanging by their neck?” “I don’t know. He just likes to
hang loose, I guess. What do you care?” I backed
away and headed back over to where Paul was. Once
there, I nudged him, probably a little too hard, because
he kind of jumped. “What’s up?”, he asked. “You look like
you just saw a ghost.” “Well not really,” I said. I motioned
in the direction of the man, but he must have been in a
hurry, because he was nowhere to be seen. Paul
finally narrowed down his choice, and soon we were
on our way home, but I couldn’t seem to get the duck
out of my head. I even started believing I’d read a look
of sadness in its face. The only place I had ever seen
a duck hung by the neck was in a cartoon. Perhaps
it was Daffy Duck — how his neck would stretch forever
and constantly be subject to some kind of deformation.
One time I remember him being strangled and then
getting up, dusting himself off, announcing: “I’m leaving
showbiz. For good.”

Post to Twitter

23
Jul
2012

ON OYSTERS, by Amelia Garretson-Persans

Amelia Garretson-Persans lives and writes in Nashville, Tenn. This short is selected from her original text-and-image collection House Stories. Find more from her via her website: http://www.ameliagarretsonpersans.com.

Download “On Oysters” .doc for your eReader.

Down by the bay,
Where the watermelon grow,
Back to my home,
I dare not go.

Long, spindly, dancing legs, jumping and shaking, carrying them forth, but this time it isn’t out of fear for the Walrus — it’s a celebration! The oysters are delicious and they’re the first to know it. My uncle Steve compiles sheet music from the ’20s, the ’30s ­–­ even the ’40s — all in the service of proving that oysters have always been and always will be delicious. The faceless animals, they put spats on over their boots, they balance top hats on their craggy foreheads, and oh, the pearls! Their fingerless hands are adorned to bursting. Shimmering, iridescent pearls blast forth from red, sagging gloves with visible stitching. Now they are doing the conga! They bump into one another heedlessly and laugh and scream when one of their number falls. The irregularities created in the path by fallen dancers create a kind of stage where others thrive. There is jumping and twirling and a kind of guttural, wordless — not unmusical — din. Anticipation pushes the march forward — they have been waiting for this day for as long as they could dream and praying for their legs – praying that they wouldn’t get two left feet! Oh they have waited for the eyeless, uncomprehending gaze of their shallow water neighbors, neither surprised nor jealous, only feeling the automatic twitch of phantom limbs, as they — the blessed oysters! — surged out of the water. Into the pot, into the stew, into the cauldron! They are part of a madwoman’s spell — they will live forever! My grandmother is arranging the recipe in a book of lined paper. It is the 1940s and people don’t have time for much, but they still have time for — ragtime! She is in Manhattan in the already declining Tin Pan Alley district, and she is being paid by the hour to realize someone else’s crazy fever dream. This dream is like a phoenix, jittering and lilting up out of the ashes with a clownish, fooling smile. It spreads itself thin and then tightens itself back up like an accordion, floating above and mocking without language — without reason — the winter smog below.

Oyster Bay! Oyster Bay! If only it were that simple! But they were always watching, peering up out of the murky bay water providing a constant, silent commentary. They thought they were so smart! The idea is a house — so simple! — a house where my mother will someday buy all of my grandfather’s pipes, unused since the ’70s, since people had the first inkling that their pleasures might be killing them, where an unlucky frog finds himself encased eternally in unforgiving, yet empathetic cement and the topic of much heated debate, where a rebellious teenage daughter begins a life of crime snipping squares out of department store dresses and ironically ends up scrawling lurid details into a small, black notebook, donning only a minimally altered pillowcase. But the idea is not only a house! It is also a labyrinth! Un labyrinto! A house within a house within a house. A sister within a sister within a sister, like a Russian doll. There is only one brother and he is the prize. There are parts of the house that no one even knows about: an art deco and bejeweled bathroom tucked away behind a set of stairs that could completely resolve all of the family’s financial troubles, an upstairs bedroom triple the size of anyone else’s room with two small children’s cots for ghosts, and a billiard room where the pool balls play themselves, and quite well at that. The idea is generally a house set apart from the woods, guarded by bewitched, tame animals, but sometimes it is just easier that the house is actually a part of the woods, that its swimming pool be fed by underground, naturally occurring iron pipes, that unfinished steps or lampposts rise up out of the earth like weeds, or that the floorboards never creak, their cracks filled with damp, springy moss. When mostly everyone leaves – except of course the oysters and Uncle Steve – the houses continue to run themselves. In some ways they are tidier than they ever were filled with people and aspirations.

Sheet music is no longer hand-typeset, though it is still winter. My father plays children’s songs on the trumpet from a book perched on the same music stand he used in high school, and I wonder at the words I cannot read spoken by the trumpet. I like to eat eat eat eeples and baneenees. These are fruits I cannot imagine but would not eat anyway. The music staff in its unerring regularity and its careful, tacit watch of notes that soar or dive above and below its confines reiterates a promise of protection with each turn of the page. I like to oot oot oot ooples and banoonoos. I imagine a whale with a polka-dotted tail. Rhymes form the basis of a more realistic, more ordered and understandable reality. They have more weight, more plausibility than facts. The house is riddled with rhymes and the rhymes are its history and its future. I stack them on the shelves and save them for later:

“Four other Oysters followed them,
And yet another four;
And thick and fast they came at last,
And more, and more, and more –
All hopping through the frothy waves,
And scrambling to the shore.”

 

 

Post to Twitter

15
Jul
2012

THE LAST ORCHARD IN AMERICA, by Michael Peck — Part 7

Things heat up between our private eye hero, Harry Jome, and his client in this segment of Peck’s noir serialization. For the last installment, follow this link.

 

Download “Last Orchard” .doc for your eReader (check back periodically — the file will be updated as new installments become available).

 

Chapter 23

Immediately in my office I phoned Cramm, my tailor.

“Is it done?” I snapped over the line, right in the space where most people say hello. “The suit. This is Jome.”

“I know,” he said. He took a moment to collect his response.

“I’ve gotten backed up,” he said.

“How backed up.”

“Pretty far backed up.”

“You aren’t a good tailor,” I said. I slammed the phone down.

The taxi I called for was late in coming and dropped me at the corner of 3rd and 4th at around 8:15, right by a defunct flower shop whose roses and sunflowers and poppies were rotting in their planters out front. When the cab pulled away another cab drew up and a man gazed out and quickly turned away. His cab was followed by a green sedan with its lights on. I noticed this because the guy in the cab had his window down, and I heard him say in an urgent voice, “Keep going. Just keep going.”

I crossed the intersection and walked up the cobblestone walkway. I was wearing a natty black raincoat and spats, but the rain had lessened to a dull patter.

Sue’s place was close to the street, and brick and mortar all the way up to a blue shingled roof, quaint chimney. It was utilitarian and imposing, without any of the squeamish platitudes of a happy home. Some thick bushes obscured the windows on the side and I could just make out a corner of the swimming pool, lying on which was a tarp currently being slapped at by raindrops. For a raw second the moon glimmered noncommittally and then didn’t glimmer any more and the rain shunted harshly off the eaves. Two sleek cars were parked in the drive, one a wine-colored Peugeot, the other a Jaguar with mud on the rims and on the bumper.

I stood on the shag mat and clanged the brass knocker, shaped like a huge ring in the nose of an unsmiling and rusted frog.

I clanked the knocker again. Almost immediately the door was pulled back by a wiry, sallow-faced man on his way out. He was entirely too short and his bald head was tapered like a lemon. Craziness was in his movements and eyes. Behind him in the foyer an oval Victorian mirror displayed his back, and below the mirror on an antique bureau covered in white silk tulle were the strewn fragments of a broken vase.

“Dear,” the man yelled in mock singsong. “The whore is here.” Casually he flung a brown trench coat suavely over his arm. “I must be the lady’s husband,” he said by way of an introduction.

“You should know.”

“And you are Jome, is that right?”

“You remind me of a publicist,” I said. “Not the good kind because there isn’t any such thing.”

The little man grinned as though I’d given him a compliment.

“I’m not a publicist. But I do have a couple of them. I’m actually just leaving.”

“I like the way that sounds when you say it.”

“I hope you enjoy the concert,” Richard said. “I’ll be there myself. I despise my wife and I am confident that someday you’ll feel the same towards her.”

“She seems fine to me.”

“Who was it that said romance is the false notion that one woman is different from another.”

“Sounds like something you might say.” Richard contemplated me rudely.

“You seem exemplary of a certain type of louse who wants money and somewhere he can get more,” the man said cheerily. “I’ve been around your type and they’re usually busy attempting to be smart and look alluring.”

Later I’d regret — a little — bashing him in the nose, but at the time there seemed no better alternative. Sue’s husband was thrown back into the bureau, a chaos of khaki and churlishness; transparent slices of the mirror skittered around him, getting snatched in his hair. Even before he landed he was already dusting himself off.

Sue’s heels echoed across the tiled floor. She hovered over the mess, peering from me to her spouse, and finally stayed on me.

“If I had a penny for every time Richard was bounced in the foyer I’d have a nickel and a penny,” she said.

The dress she had on was dark and glittery. In the precise light of the place it matched her eyes, and seemed to have been molded onto her body by a master ceramicist. Silver earrings with diamond inlays dangled just above her shoulder blades, and she held her green clutch like it was going to scamper off. Her red hair was pomaded and slicked to the side.

Then I remembered that there was a guy in the room whom I’d just slugged a good one.

“I’m really glad you did that,” Richard Longtree said, shaking glass off himself. “I’m really very glad.” He started toward the door, leered at Sue and then at me, and walked solidly out. Climbing into his diminutive car he shouted, “I am glad he did that.” The Peugeot’s engine blared and Richard Longtree yelled something out as he drove off.

“What’s his problem?” I asked.

The yellow specks in her eyes glowed like goldmines from a thousand feet up.

“Me,” she said.

Her car was the green Jaguar, one hue off from her dress and two from her eyes. It was a four-seater affair and the leather upholstery was like reclining on the sounds a clarinet makes when it’s blown well. She squealed out of the driveway and made a few sharp turns. Less than a quarter of a mile brought us to the baronial, Deco-trimmed cultural center that appeared to have been borrowed from Rome and took up one entire city block on 5th Street.

Our seats in the symphony hall were three rows from the podium. Nauseously rich people pattered around in tuxedos and long gowns, doing what they could to appear smug and secure. Beside me an old guy with his mouth open was fanning himself with a single leather glove. I stared around at the round ceiling emblazoned with Renaissance art, almost missing Richard Longtree sitting in a private box overlooking us and muttering.

I nudged Sue.

“Your husband is up there in the wings glaring at you.”

She just shook her head.

“He does that. And he hates classical music, so you can imagine how much more he hates me if he’d come here.”

“What’s he trying to accomplish?”

“He’s trying to be more like himself every day,” she said as the lights dimmed.

A sprightly quartet bounced into the stage lights and bowed, followed by a deep silence of coughs and sighs.

Someone a few rows back was talking in a loud tone. The first violist turned and stared severely at the person until somebody near him must have pointed out that he was being obnoxious.

“I hate people,” Sue whispered. “I’ve always tried to hate people before they can hate me. The worst kind of people come to these things to show off how cultured they are.”

The low, hungry growls of Schubert’s 15th String Quartet grunted out into the soaring acoustics, the slow and frantic opening bars leading abruptly into a sweet lament, which turned, impulsively, into the unhinged outbursts that drew me to Schubert. His music was the stillness and the wildness of pure insomnia. Schubert had always done something to me, all that rambunctious wandering and sociopathic fixation on the elusive theme. Like walking along a path alone, where the moon is everywhere, and the path is dangerous and infinite. It’s the innocence of sleep, interrupted by the most agitated dreams. The feeling was one I knew well.

Playing the slow, throbbing second movement, the musicians struggled, tippling from side to side like they’d just alighted from a cruise ship and didn’t know how to act on land.

“You like this stuff, don’t you?” Sue whispered.

“Of all the things I don’t like it would be an example of something I can stand, sure.”

“What about it do you like?”

Sue’s face was inquisitive, but even then it did not lose its derisive smirk.

“I like how anybody can make anything they want out of what they hear,” I said.

“Is that it?”

“No, but I couldn’t be articulate enough to explain and you’re not eager enough to understand.”
“That might hurt my feelings,” she said, aiming her attention back at the stage and the quartet, who were tuning in preparation of the final movement.

“You don’t have any feelings,” I said. “I’ve been searching for them since I met you.”

“Maybe you’ve been searching in the wrong places.”

I shut up and listened, yet now I wasn’t hearing the music as exclusively. I glanced at Sue. She was absorbed or was trying to be absorbed. She had a way of shifting a guy’s attentiveness away from whatever is holding his interest and attaching it to her.

Sue had been clasping my arm and I sniffed at her hair — citrus, mint, honey — throughout the 20 or so minutes of the quartet performance, tightening her grip at dramatic moments.  When the music ground to a stop Sue was motionless, her hand trembling against my leg. I assumed that perhaps Schubert had affected this un-affectable woman as he did me. Schubert made every thought I’d ever had or action I’d ever taken trivial, meaningless or both simultaneously.

But Sue leaned in very close to my ear and said, “I’m thirsty.”

I stared at her. “That all?” I asked.

“Is there supposed to be something else?”

She’d let go of me and was putting lipstick on.

Richard was leering down comedically, even leveling a pair of flashing binoculars at us.

“Anyway,” Sue said as the orchestra prepared for the next piece. “They’re doing something modern next. Ligeti. Do you know him? I don’t know him. And I don’t like the way the modern stuff makes me feel.”

We slipped out during the opening notes. I didn’t check to see if Richard was behind us, but I was sure he was. “Does he usually do that kind of thing?” I asked.

“Who, Richard? Yes,” she said. “For someone who can’t be passionate he certainly has a way of pretending to be infatuated.”

We were outside and Sue had her arm entwined with mine.

“When’s the divorce?” I asked.

“Any day now,” she said, and we ran the rest of the distance to her car and sat a minute in silence while the wipers labored.

 

Chapter 24

“Where are we headed now?” she asked.

Straight out the parking lot we were going 65 miles per hour. The faster she accelerated the more relaxed her muscles became. In silhouette her features were grim and implacable, set hard into that masculine line I’d recognized on first meeting her — focused on something, it seemed, just beyond the city and just beyond anywhere else.

“I don’t care,” I said.

“How about Maury’s?” she asked.

“Never been.”

“Too ritzy, huh?” and she did that smirk.

“Amusing, isn’t it? How drab I am.”

Her eyes flashed something nasty at me.

“I’m not that rich, Harry,” she said. “I might look like I am, but what does that signify?”

“It’s Harry now.”

“It’s whatever you want it to be. I don’t think you like me very much, although earlier I thought you liked me quite a lot.”

“I don’t like anyone, and why would you say that?”

“Well, maybe for a few minutes we can be friends.”

She drove the car through an alleyway that cut between 7th and 9th Streets. Disgruntled faces flitted by, screaming out epithets I couldn’t hear, men and woman loitering behind their desperation. On 4th Street Sue gripped the wheel tight and spun into a vacant space.

Outside, Maury’s was faintly lit with paper-covered bulbs and little illuminated ponds, where bleak fish cavorted unenthusiastically with artificial seaweed and tiny plastic divers that swayed and looked to be actually diving. Customers squirmed through the bronze doors in two and threes, and once they were in the gaudy mauve interior they bunched together in confused groups and demanded tables.

The silver-haired maitre d’hotel took Sue’s arm and noted her reservation in a gold-embossed registry. He took both of our arms and led us to the rear of the loud, golden dining room. We were relieved of our coats and informed that the waiter would be along shortly. Then we were shown to a corner niche that resembled a message parlor, with a pink tulle drape furnishing us with a mask of privacy. It reminded me of a pun but I couldn’t think of the set-up.

“You come here often?” I asked.

“Often enough, I guess,” she said.

When the waiter arrived and pulled the curtain aside, Sue ordered pale beer, a bottle of thirty-year-old Scotch and snifters. I was fine with soda water. The waiter kept arching his eyebrows and it was starting to bother me. As he was pulling the curtain back, I saw a man dressed all in denim gesturing madly at the maitre d’hotel and getting nowhere. He kept pointing at our table, the half-closed palm of his hand displaying some kind of currency.

“What do you want?” I asked her when the waiter had departed.

Sue rested her chin on a jeweled fist.

“We’re just celebrating how well the case is going.”

“Is it going well?” I asked. I played with the napkin ring.

“I guess it is if we’re here celebrating it. Also, I don’t drink alone, so I suggest you cease this teetotaling crusade you’re been on and have a drink with me.”

“Someone will come along and join you, I’m sure.”

“I don’t want someone to come along and join me. I want you to come along and join me. Why won’t you drink with me?”

“Because I won’t stop until all the fireworks are over.”

“I like fireworks.”

“I wasn’t talking about fireworks.”

I put the napkin ring down and looked at Sue’s low neckline, the motion of her small muscles and her long, upright neck.

Eyebrows returned with our drinks on a silver tray, alongside two waters. Sue ordered salmon in a honey mustard dill sauce for the both of us, a couple of salads, chilled lemon and dill soup.

“It probably would have been cheaper to buy a fisherman,” I said. I parted the curtain. The guy in denim was sitting miserably on a divan in the waiting lounge.

“Tell me who Harry Jome is,” she said, handling the beer.

“Sure, but first tell me who the guy in the jean suit is.”

Sue dribbled beer on her chin.

“I don’t know him,” she said.

“You didn’t even look.”

“I don’t know anyone who wears jeans. Now drink your Scotch like a good boy.”

I touched the snifter and released it and while we ate I kept touching the snifter and releasing it.

“Go ahead,” she said. “I won’t tell anybody.”

“I haven’t had a drink in a while,” I said. “I don’t remember how to do it. I want to drink bad. But I know how bad I am when I drink. And so the answer is, not right now.”

I knew I was going to drink that night, and I could have chosen a moment to do it, but her game was inflating her interest, and so I waited until I couldn’t wait.

She smiled at me and then she winked and I capitulated hard and fast, and the liquor was redemption on the back of my throat, washing me with warmth, the earlier pricks of fatigue draining away.

“My first drink in a while,” I managed to say through the wonderment. The feeling in my body was the equivalent of wearing a glorious wool shirt.

“I’m sorry,” Sue said. “For making you do that.”

“No, you’re not. And neither am I.”

I was so soothed by the booze that I didn’t need to have Sue there at all, however nice it was. It was mostly like a mundane revelation you’ve been expecting for years, and I welcomed it, feeling a small amount like myself, whoever that was, like being an extra in the movie of your life, and so having none of the pressures or awareness of the main character.

Sue was studying me like an experiment at the zoo. Around us the restaurant wasn’t so fast-paced.

“I forgot how much I like drinking,” I said. I sipped to the bottom of the snifter and we ordered more.

Clarity was smeared everywhere when I pulled the curtain aside. The meeting of businessmen at the next table, swearing confidentially under their breaths, undoubtedly on the verge of bankruptcy; a family eating in silence across the room — the wife not even glancing at the husband or at the kid in the high-chair, a family that soon wouldn’t be a family; waiters scampering with trays and beakers too busy to have any emotions of their own.

“You look nice with a glass in your hand,” she said.

Sue was missing that ridiculing expression I knew so well, relaxed now into a curiously erotic gleam I hadn’t noticed before the drink, but assumed had been there always.

“You look nice when I have a glass in my hand, too,” I said.

She reached out her glass and gently clinked mine.

“What shall we drink to?” I asked.

“Nothing,” she said earnestly.

“To nothing, then.”

In fifteen minutes I had her filled in on the history of the Longtrees, some of which she already knew, and also all the facts of the case so far. I couldn’t stop talking and I couldn’t stop drinking.

The last time I parted the curtain the guy in denim had his head back sleeping.

Two and a half hours later, five or ten glasses of Scotch in my gut and head, I’d babbled everything I knew to Sue Longtree and I didn’t even know what I had said or didn’t say. She paid a tab that amounted to the gross domestic product of a small South American capital.

I stopped when we were climbing out of the seat, peering at a table near the exit, where Carol Bergen was peering starkly back over the flame of a candle. She was alone. She saw Sue immediately and started to get up, but gravitated back into her seat.

Carol was as drunk as we were. The collar of her black polo shirt was wrenched underneath the collar of her black sweater. The two women stared at each other horrendously as Sue and I approached. Some of my drunkenness fell away just watching the hate stirring between them. Then Sue put a hand out and straightened Carol’s collar. Carol slapped her hand away, but Sue showed no indication that her hand had been slapped away and walked, grinning and sauntering, past the maitre d’hotel, who for some odd reason did not look in the least surprised.

“Sorry,” I slurred at Carol. “She’s having it rough.”

“Take your sorry ass and that woman somewhere else,” she said, her voice so loud in its whisper that the candle’s flame was blown out. I tried talking to Carol for a minute, my words inarticulate and probably mixed up. Carol didn’t look up. “I don’t know what you think she is,” Carol said. “But whatever it is I hope it’s at least half of what she really is. Because if it’s that much, you’ll smarten and find another someone.”

I waited for her to go on, but Carol Bergen simply ignored me.

And then Sue and I were on the sidewalk, arm in arm and I was swaying wildly in the warm rain, trying to find the car parked seven feet away.

 

Chapter 25

The radio was playing Body and Soul, and the singer’s husky, haunted voice slyly hinted that perhaps there was a bottle of rye stowed somewhere that could make all despair seem like a summer jubilee. I believed her.

I was drunk and the yellow line weaving in the road was flying toward me as we drove the sordid streets, throttling uptown. Through the rain and the fog rising from the pavement, figures could be seen. Everybody looks the same in a downpour. I was concentrating on the road, how it veered when you least expected it to. Yes, I was very drunk and my head lolled side to side, like a marionette’s in the wind.

“Richard and the Boys used to play this all the time,” Sue said, turning the music low. “It’s a terribly sad song if you listen close. When they did it it sounded joyful.” She grimaced and was more attractive than ever. Some women are better looking the more grim they feel. “Those goofy cocksuckers,” she said.

Sue sped up, plowing through the pockets of fog and periodically sideswiping a pile of trash bags. Few cars were on the road; those out flashed their lights and sat on the horns. She was jerking the wheel back and forth, once onto someone’s lawn, where a sprinkler washed the windshield as we passed. My brain was sloshing around in my head like a tiny man in a large rain slicker and every pothole felt like an invitation to explode from the inside.

“You want to keep me company tonight or should I grab my toothbrush and bubblegum and come over to your place?” she asked. I made out three words and left the rest to logic. I was so plastered the idea of forming sentences was the same as the idea of forming a republic.

Then I said something indiscernible and brazen.

“You’re so sad, Harry. What’re you so sad about?”

I tried explaining and realized I wasn’t saying anything.

Ahead of us a patrol car coincidentally spun around and turned into a side street. Hands that had once belonged to me clumsily wiped moisture off my face.

“You’re a fun drunk, Harry,” she said, tickling my forearm with her fingertips. Had hair not been growing out of my gums I would have leaned over and undressed her thoroughly and quickly and got down to business. As it was I could barely talk accurately.

The slanted lights of a small car had been in the mirror since we’d left the restaurant, and I kept checking. Soon, however, I couldn’t even manage that.

For a second I thought I was going to be OK. Then I wasn’t OK. When I closed my eyes I saw a buzzing, monochrome structure tailing me in a shade of red that can only be called frantic. I snapped my eyes open. She was peering at me and ever so negligently eyeing the yellow lines ahead of us.

“Nice night for a drive,” she said. Her voice was low and there was sadness in it.

“Where are we anyway?” I asked.

“Who knows.”

We were passing an old factory, and beyond the factory there was only the sheet of rain that was filling in for the sky, ambiguous fields, moving south with no vehicles around.

“I’m stuck, Harry. That’s why I got you. I’m really stuck. You like mystery stories, Harry?” Sue jabbed a cigarette into her mouth and offered me one. I declined, but she was looking at the road and so I had to push her hand away.

“Is this a mystery story?” I asked.

“I wish it was a love story. You know about love?”

“I read about in a dime-store romance once.”

“Then you know all about love.”

The darkness was far away and too close. Pinging on the roof of the car the rain sounded like gunfire. There was a smell and it was licorice. We passed a large dog with his paws on a guardrail and a field of refuse where corn had once been. There was a deep gulf right behind my eyelids and a nausea that roamed freely over my body and acrid cigarette smoke and the girl smoking beside me, the one who needed a friend to lick the arctic bitterness off her mouth. We were south, just outside of town, and when the city limit sign appeared Sue cut a U-turn on a dirt road lugging off into the hills, and we drove back toward the unsettling lights of the city, a blinking cosmos of heat and waste.

“Harry, what are you thinking about?” she asked.

“Nothing much. The road. The hills. The rain.”

“Why? You don’t like me?”

“I’m not so sure if I do if we’re being honest.”

“We’re not being honest.”

“In that case I do like you.”

“You’re very ambivalent,” she said.

“A lot of people have told me that.”

“A lot of people are right.”

“Maybe,” I said. “But maybe everybody’s wrong about everything. And then where are we?”

“We’re right here.”

Sue smiled and then the smile fell off her mouth like it had been borrowed.

“You’re just sad,” she said. “You need to be less sad.”

“When was the last time it wasn’t raining?” I asked.

Sue turned to me as we went around a bend.

“I don’t know,” she said with an awful gravity in her voice.

“I don’t either,” I said.

Puddles glistened in the street, and all the shops were closed. Still, the city was lit up like it was a magnificent and sunny morning. The houses started to hurry by and I knew we were in the city because I could sense myself vaguely hating, though I couldn’t pinpoint what exactly. I watched the rain flitting down the windows like it would not pause, enervated by a thought I could not place on the very tip of my mind.

“I can’t find it, Harry,” Sue suddenly whispered desperately. “I can’t find it and I don’t know what I’m looking for because it’s gone and I’ve never had it.” Her forehead was on the steering column, hands still clutching the wheel. Maybe she was crying. Maybe after a while all that’s left is tears and you drain out and wash away from yourself. Maybe I didn’t care about her tears because I had my own. And maybe I cared more than I would have liked to care. The car swerved, and she picked up her head.

“I can’t find it anywhere,” she said, yanking at her dress and neck. “Goddamnit, Harry. Where is it?”

“What?” I blurted.

“I don’t know what.”

And then she broke apart and started taking off her clothes while she was still driving. The car bounced onto a curb beside an abandoned, fenced-off lot. Some tall lights shone on an unpainted carousel in the middle of the lot. The grounds were where they plunked the circus when it came to town.

“Dominic Early wouldn’t have written it this good,” she scoffed through her sobbing.

She needlessly pumped the brake and removed the rest of her clothing, except for her heels and stockings, and piled herself on top of me. Her sweat smelled fresh and luxurious if sweat can smell that way. After a moment of groping and kissing and tearing at one another she stopped and I was eating the iodized water of her tears.

“I just want to tease you,” she said. “I’m not good enough to do what I want to do and what I want to do is die. You ever feel that way?” She climbed back into the driver’s seat and nodded at my lusting face.

“Is this what this is?” I asked her.

“More or less,” she said. “No matter what, you’re a good man.”

“I don’t feel like a good man.”

“The best ones never do.” Wrenching the door back she got halfway out into the rain and turned back to me. “Harry, I’m sorry but I can’t be here with you right now. I just can’t right now.”

She loosed the car door and fell onto the sidewalk. In my stupor I only gurgled. The door slammed shut and the radio was just a mess of sound. I sat and obtusely regarded the headlights and the enticed mosquitoes shifting in and out of the rain and the digits of the dashboard clock. A car parked alongside and a man’s shape was scrutinizing me, his chin barely appearing above the bottom of the window. Whether or not he was a delusion he was nonetheless wearing a blue sweater and he was worried. But the head jerked away and the car’s brake lights glinted.

Partly craning around I looked for her in the brake lights. She was nowhere on the street. Not even the street was there with all the buckets of rain that were coming strong. The warmth of the car was like an embrace and I couldn’t imagine disentangling myself from it. I started smiling at Sue, but with a woman like that a smile isn’t something that stays around.

Clumsily I thumbed at the radio but it wasn’t working and I noticed that it wasn’t because the volume was down and I was in no condition to turn it up. Listening to the rain I languished there on the comfortable seat, drifting into intermittent sleep.

It was quarter to two in the morning.

Four-thirty.

And finally dawn.

 

TO BE CONTINUED…

 

PECK is among more than 40 writers featured in our 2011 10th-anniversary anthology, All Hands On: THE2NDHAND After 10.

Post to Twitter

10
Jul
2012

PATRICK SOMERVILLE ON ‘TALK OF THE NATION’ | Wing & Fly

Longtime THE2NDHAND contributor Patrick Somerville (author of Trouble, The Cradle, The Universe in Miniature in Miniature, a couple of T2H broadsheets — 24 and 32 – and, most recently, This Bright River) was on NPR’s Talk of the Nation today telling the story (and more) of the bizarre and hilarious and sad and terrifying consequences of his latest book’s panning in the New York Times. If you’ve missed his “Thank You for Killing My Novel” essay, published on July 5 at Salon, go read it.

Then tune in to his segment on Talk of the Nation that aired this afternoon. It’s well worth it.

After reading the thrashing the Times gave River, Somerville couldn’t help but notice that the critic had misread a character’s identity in the first few pages of the book, and which in some senses colored her entire reading of it. At once, after the book review had been out for a couple days, Somerville logged into an email address he’d created for the character she’d misidentified (and which he’d been encouraging readers to email questions to, etc., having gotten just one) to find an email from a Times editor seeking to clarify the mistake, which a Times reader had pointed out to him. (How’s that for after-the-fact fact-checking, eh?) In any case, definitely check out the Salon piece, which details some of the email conversation that ensued, with Somerville writing in the voice of his character with the Times editor to the point that the two developed a “ghost friendship,” the subject of the NPR segment.

And hey, I don’t believe the Times. Pick up Somerville’s new one — though I haven’t read it myself yet, I’m certain, from everything I know about him and his past work, that you won’t regret it.

You can find three rather long-ish shorts of Somerville’s (some of my faves among work we’ve published) — among them the exclusive-to-the-book “The Tale of the Time I Accidentally Fell in Love With a Girl Across the Bay” — in our 2011 All Hands On: THE2NDHAND After 10 10th anniversary collection.

Post to Twitter

28
Jun
2012

THE LAST ORCHARD IN AMERICA, by Michael Peck — Part 6

In the last installment of Peck’s noir, published in serial here in THE2NDHAND txt, private eye Harry Jome was making good progress on identifying the private eyes/goons tailing him, all as his “case,” the suicide of Ben Bergen and the curiosity of the Longtree family, gets ever more murky. Herein we learn something significant about Jome’s past — from none other than Sue Longtree herself…

Download “Last Orchard” .doc for your eReader (check back periodically — the file will be updated as new installments become available).

 

Chapter 20

Illustration by Vinson Milligan

There were a few worthless characters in Daim’s, ensconced in the crosshatched shadows surrounding the nine or ten tables. Felt and leather pockets shone in the meager light, and the floors were scrubbed with blue chalk and talcum powder. Behind a glass-topped counter that wasn’t filled with anything a grizzled guy in coveralls was playing with a penknife. He snapped the knife closed when he saw me and picked at his beard.

I’d been inside Daim’s three or four times for a couple of games on a job once, a minor marital squabble that netted a few dollars and not much else. Wes Daim, a stagnant guy in his mid-fifties who had done nothing but smile constantly and looked like he might implode at any moment from some inside joke. What impressed me about the place was the enigma of the farthest table in the rear. It was roped off and marked with a sign that read Do Not Touch. Only four balls were on the table, the eight ball, a solid and a high stripe, all lined up against the same rail, with the cue near the center of the red felt. I’d asked Wes about the unfinished game and he had mumbled something about an interruption eight years ago, and had walked into the bathroom and come out red-eyed, not wearing the fake smile he had gone in wearing. I didn’t pry anymore into it, nor had I been in there since.

Wes didn’t own the joint anymore, and the guy in coveralls was not nearly as friendly, or friendly at all.

“Someone named Lewishom comes around here,” I said to him.

The old guy pried some glue off the glass.

“You came in here just to tell me that?” he asked, not looking at me.

“It was more like a question. His name is Lewishom.”

Out of the shadows a glum kid of eighteen or less sidled up to the old man with a pool stick.

“Lewishom isn’t here just now,” the kid said.

“You have good ears,” I said.

“People at school tell me that all the time.” The kid relaxed his grip on the stick.

“You know Lewishom pretty well?” I asked.

“Yeah, he’s my uncle,” the kid said. “He’s a good guy. I think he would wonder what you want.”

“He would wonder that,” the bearded man agreed.

“I need to tell him what I want.”

Pool balls clanked together behind me, whispers coming from the back.

“He won’t be back for a few days. He’s away,” the kid said.

“Where is he away?”

The kid and the beard glanced at one another.

“We’ll tell him you stopped by,” the beard said.

“Who should I tell him was looking for him?” the kid asked.

“I’ll tell him myself,” I said. “Where do you suppose I can get to your uncle?”

The kid let his eyes wander over to the proprietor’s and the bearded man gave a slight nod.

“At the burlesque club,” the kid said.

“Which one?”

The bearded man said, condescendingly, which didn’t seem to be his nature, “The only burlesque club in town.”

The kid gave me an address on 27th Street, and I hustled over, soaking my ankles in a series of puddles as I ran. I was going to get something fresh out of Lewishom.

The joint was called Shays Burlesque and would have been a useful definition of chintz. Polished dance floor covered with tables and chairs, booth-lined walls with candles running the length of a built-in shelf, and a dark wood bar that could accommodate nine or ten individuals. Dangling above the bar was a chaotic fixture of jagged, translucent shards that filtered a reddish light onto the rows of upscale liquor. For all of its glitter Shays was the opposite of dazzling. Besides Lewishom, easily identified by his tattered blue sweater and sitting in a booth close to the stage, the place was deserted.

I pulled up a stool and sat at the bar, ordered a club soda from a bartender who was obviously drunk. “We used to have 12 girls doing five shows a night,” he said, holding my five dollar bill out and scrutinizing it. On his forearm a violin was tattooed.

“How many girls you got now?” I asked.

“Still 12. But it ain’t the same.”

“What’s that symbolize?” I asked, pointing at the ink on his arm.

“A violin,” he said, and went to the mirror and started disarranging the bottles there.

By the stage Lewishom was bent at his table; he pinched out the candle’s flame in front of him, relit the candle with a lighter at his elbow and snuffed it out again.

At five after five the show started. Twelve girls pranced onstage wearing black corsets and white stockings and garters. Their moves might have been burlesque, but they just looked disordered and tired. A stocky man to the right was beating on a piano and a tall blond fellow was behind, wearing a dumb expression, and slapping his upright bass like he’d had a long-standing grudge against the instrument. The whole thing was amateur and the routine just made me sadder than I could have ever been at the moment.

All the while Lewishom was twisting his head, apparently following one of the girls with his eyes. From where I sat I couldn’t tell which one, and even if I could, the garish spotlight drained every girl of any personal features.

The show lasted a half hour with no break and the girls danced off the stage while the musicians struggled to finish the song.

Lewishom stood uncertainly and headed out a side door marked THIS IS NO EXIT. I went out the front. On my way the bartender raised his arm and showed me his tattoo again. I circled the building, grappled through a wet crowd and reached the alleyway. Lewishom was already talking to one of the girls while he shed the ash of a cigarette onto his shoe, and finally dropped the butt and stamped on it forcefully.

The girl was in a tan raincoat and I could see by her visible stockings that she hadn’t changed after the act. She was olive-complexioned and plump, a red silk scarf on her head.

I crouched beside a dumpster, close enough that I could hear Lewishom’s frantic talk and the girl’s coolly supercilious replies. In a couple of minutes it was so rainy I was getting used to being wet.

“Must be cold in that,” Lewishom said softly.

“What do you want?”

“I want to buy you a drink and take you somewhere warm.”

“I already told you no. I tell you every night and you keep not listening. You’re here every day.”

“But you haven’t told me no tonight yet.”

A pause.

Lewishom continued. “I’ve never seen you in the daytime, you know that? I bet you look good over a plate of toast.”

“You’re creepy,” she said after a minute. “I’m going to have a drink all right, just not with you.”

“I’ve got some money and I’m going to leave her once this thing is taken care of.”

“I don’t want you to leave her; she’ll be almost upset or something.”

“She’s always almost upset. But I’m telling you, the second this thing is over we could travel away somewhere.”

Silence.

“I don’t understand,” Lewishom said, much louder now. “How you can be so–”

“Because it’s fun,” she said and giggled.

“It’s not fun for me.”

“That’s why it’s fun for me.”

All of a sudden I heard the door creak open and someone exit the club. A few distraught whispers ensued. The girl and a blond man wheeling a huge music case went by me without noticing that I was there. She had the musician’s arm.

Leaving my spot behind the stink of the dumpster I saw that Lewishom was still rooted to the spot, shaking the rain out of his cuffs and just looking miserable, illuminated by a spazzing bulb above the door. He looked at me and walked back inside the club without bothering to look at me again and I decided to let my questions drop for the moment.

 

Chapter 21

I was exhausted all over but couldn’t fall asleep till about five on Sunday morning, on the semicircular sofa in my living room. I was staring at the ceiling like it was etched with some of the answers I wasn’t getting, falling into dumb dreams about childhood and snowfalls and Sue Longtree, waking every few seconds in a sweat. My dreams were taunting me. I dreamt of everything but it was all the same. I was ready, alert. Sounds that didn’t bother me now bothered me. The quiet yearning street beyond the window with the infrequent car horn. The off-kilter ticking of the clock. The interminable tapping of faucets competing for annoyance.

When I came out of the last menacing dream I was on the floor and Sue Longtree was bending over to shake me. I tried pinching the ceiling. Sue replaced a pillow that had tumbled off the sofa.

“Don’t leave your door unlocked,” she said.

“What the hell do you want? I haven’t been sleeping too well.”

We sat next to each other on the sofa. I ironed the fatigue out of my eyes with my thumbs. I was morose and hot.

“You leave a trail of cynicism wherever you go,” she said.

“And so what do you want?”

“Nothing much. It’s Sunday.”

“What’s so great about Sunday?”

I saw that she was wearing a nice-fitting pencil skirt, her lipstick hyper-realistic against the  rest of the picture.
“I know you’ll tell me how you found me,” I said.

“A phone book.”

“Rich people don’t own phone books.”

“I do, and that’s how I found you.”

“I’m still not convinced you own a phone book. Invite me over sometime and prove it.”

“Do you own a phone book, Mr. Jome, or do you just dial women at random?”

“I can’t afford luxuries.”

“You can now.”

“Now it’s too late.” I started to get up but she put a hand on my thigh, enough to quit thinking about getting up ever again.

“Too late for what?” she asked, digging around in her purse for a cigarette.

“All the numbers I need belong to people I don’t need. Mostly them, or their ex-wives or my ex-wives.”

“At least they’re in the plural.”

“Most awful things are.”

She tapped the cigarette on her right knee, or rather the stocking that covered it. Her hair looked good. Indecent snapshots of her body kept me busy while she lit the cigarette: slim breasts, protruding bottom, a swath of pubic hair kept neat and trimmed like a railroad track. A gold Zippo flicked in her palm with a little ruby lodged in the side.

“I don’t believe,” she said, “that you can be so dramatic.”

I crawled out of the gutter in my mind and said: “Anyway. What are you here for?”

“I’m here to have a conversation with you.” She blew smoke off to the side. “What is it exactly you do?” she asked.

“This.”

“What else? Where’d you come from?”

“Well, I was young and pretty soon I was older and what happened in between makes no sense to me and won’t to you either. I studied medieval philosophy in college, learned just enough to twist any thought I could ever have, married twice and divorced twice. I spend at least three hours a day wishing I was doing doing something else than what I’m doing.” I leaned closer to her and she didn’t object. “I have a deep, almost religious disinterest in everything and the world treats me the same.”

“You’re interested in me, though.”

“My interest is piqued.”

“I think something else is piqued too.”

“I also get excited when I watch a tarantula in a glass cage.”

“Is that what I remind you of?”

“No, but a tarantula in a glass cage always reminds me of you now.”

She smoked in short, abrupt puffs, holding the cigarette close to her eyes.

“Does it?” she whispered.

“I think so,” I said. “I forgot the question.”

With the cigarette she was doing something more than smoking. The pursing of her lips and the strange eyes when she inhaled were about as distracting as a kid on a tractor.

“Do you mind if I smoke?” she suddenly asked.

“Not at all. Just somewhere else.”

She grinned weakly and stood, sliding on those fat sunglasses. It was the kind of face that would make you starve to death at a buffet.

“Then I’m afraid,” she said curtly, “that I have an appointment somewhere. Why don’t you want to come over tomorrow night?”

“You say it like you’ve already asked me. Will Parker and Porter be there?”

“Who’re they?” she asked.

I grinned wide. “Nobody.”

“You’re so smart you’re almost moronic. Pick me up at 7:30 tomorrow, and if you’re late, pick me up after that. But a string quartet is playing and I’d rather not miss it. At least not the Schubert.”

She dropped her cigarette into a glass of water on the coffee-table, watching it float there with obvious pleasure.

“I wouldn’t have pegged you for a Schubert fan. More in the Wagner line or somebody like that.”

“He’s the only one I know,” she said. “I don’t have the energy for that kind of thing.”

She fired up another cigarette while she was in the doorway.

“What do you have the energy for?” I asked.

“Nothing much,” she said. “But I’m learning.”

She lingered there in the doorway, pouting at me.

“How did you find out about me, anyway?” I asked. I sat up a bit on the sofa, not taking my eyes off her for an instant.

“I wasn’t kidding about the phone book,” she said.

“I mean altogether. How and why did you find me in the first place?”

“The first place was the first place I looked.” Sue didn’t smile and if it was possible for a joke to be remorseful hers was. “I researched you,” she said.

“Am I very engrossing?”

Her answer was an ambiguous scrunch of the shoulders. “You’ve had some trouble, so I guess that makes you entangled. And sad is another of your tendencies. I’ve had trouble, too,” she said, leaning on the doorframe. “So we’re close, Harry.”

“What did you find out about me?”

Sue spent the second cigarette, mashed it on the hallway floor, and put another in her mouth. This one she didn’t ignite.

“Not much,” she said. “Just a lot.”

“There isn’t a lot about me.”

“There’s enough to get a vague picture.”

“But I don’t like being photographed.”

Sue looked beyond me. “You spent some months in an institution right after you finished college,” she said, and her eyes found me, and there was glee in them, at how uneasy she was making me. “What were you in for?”

I got up and wiped some dust off the bookshelf.

“What were you in for?” she asked again.

I kept dusting, finally said, “I flailed when I got into the world. Some people flail, and I flailed and I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. How’d you find out about that?”

She glossed over what I had said.

“And then you’re a private investigator all of a sudden.”

I didn’t appreciate the way she was talking, but she hadn’t said anything untrue.

“What happened in the madhouse?” she asked.

“Madness.”

“I know, and that’s why I hired you. Wasn’t that your question? We’re both a tad crazy.” Sue was whirling the cigarette in her hand anxiously. “There’s three kinds of people,” she went on, watching the movement. “Those who need to be coddled; the ones who want to be pushed away; and lastly, the kind you aren’t so sure about.”

“Which one are you?” I asked.

“I’m not so sure.”

“People like to make generalizations,” I said. “About other people. Not about themselves though.”

“Like that?” she asked. There was a very faint, very cute dimple on her left cheek. Our gazes were tightly fixed on each other.

“Just like that,” I said.

Sue Longtree dropped her cigarette and walked a heel over it without having lit it. I swiped away another ball of dust and when I looked at the doorway the doorway was empty.

Out the window I watched her cross the courtyard and nod at a man with no hat sitting hunched on the bench in a loud blue sweater. Her bright umbrella faded away, blurred by colorful awnings and vendor’s carts.

I returned to the sofa and sat there till 10:30, so tired I wasn’t tired in the least, wondering what I was going to wear that night and feeling sour that my suit wasn’t ready yet.

I shaved diligently, nicking myself in several spots, threw on a bit of some aftershave. According to the mirror I was not looking grand. Now that I was moving around I was more tired than ever, in that hazy limbo between sleep and wakefulness that was quickly becoming for me a disreputably sustained present.

 

Chapter 22

Iillustration by Vinson Milligan

The rest of Sunday I floated around the apartment, wasting time cleaning, drinking coffee and talking to myself. I took a short walk in the rain, but I couldn’t outpace the compulsion to see Sue Longtree. I missed her and it was peculiar, insofar as I didn’t even like her very much.

Sunday evening had no sleep for me, and the rain was a score to my insomnia — propulsive, horrible, desperate. I tossed in bed until 5:15, flopping into a dream and back out with an irregular onrush of frenetic dreams, unsure whether they were dreams or fragments, indications, of a new reality. The world outside was morphing into all the dreams I wasn’t having, as nagging as a hangover. I was down, and rather than simply picking myself up I was digging down further.

I wasn’t sure when I’d quit sleeping, nor could I recall a night where I’d slept more than an hour. The long minutes drooled by — sweating, crazy fierce things. I had no one to be upset with. Because I couldn’t sleep I was also unable to wake.

For some foolish reason I was expecting dawn, sunlight, chirping birds and all the rest. But the rain was perpetual and the external city had the veneer of polished silver and bronze. I dragged myself out of bed and dressed.

The city was hazing over and the dirty streets were becoming less populous, fog and rain determining the shapes of landmarks. It was a little after 4:30 and I was levitating alone in a hushing elevator that blew dull music and belonged to the company that employed another William Florence.

On the 29th floor the doors clicked and parted and I was standing in a reception room of the Allied Insurance Company. The outfit controlled the whole floor, and the waiting area was shiny and transparent; some designer had gone to a lot of trouble to make the place as uninviting as possible. Shards of jagged white glass hung from the ceiling. Likewise, the walls were dark and quite glossy. All in all the place was nothing but perfect lines and zero decoration.

Behind a modernist desk a pouting secretary with too much indifference and a neat bob in her brown hair was polishing her wedding ring with a tiny scrap of cotton.

“I’m here to speak with William Florence,” I said.

“Not here,” she said, continuing to scrub.

“Where can I find him?”

“Not in here,” she said.

“Another address? He’s gone for the day?”

“Look,” and her eyes swept over me quickly. “He’s not here. Is there something I can do about his not being here?”

“There is, but it’s not a nice thing to say to a woman.”

She seemed to enjoy being insulted and smiled wanly at me with a big, white mouth, and stuck the wedding band on her index finger. Before pushing at the intercom button she was already talking into it.

“Mr. Perle. Someone for Mr. Florence.”

In another room a man’s subdued voice calmly replied from two places at once. “Is this gentleman a client?”

“She looked at me questioningly. I nodded and winked at her and she nodded and winked back.

“He says that he is.”

“Seven minutes,” the man said. “No. Eight minutes and show him in.”

“This Perle is very particular,” I said, checking my watch.

“Mr. Perle is very particular.”

“That’s quite the ring,” I said, pointing at the diamonds. “You have some fellow who has you all to himself?”

“This is my sister’s ring and her husband is an engineer. She lets me borrow it when he’s working on weekdays.”

“Why would you need that?”

“It worked with you.”

“I’m easy though.”

“All fellows are easy. Just smile and pretend like they’re too smart and they’ll do anything.”

“You got it right,” I said.

“You can sit over there,” she said without specifying where. “Mr. Perle is very particular.”

I stuck my hands in my trouser pockets and circuited the room. There was no sign of any chairs, or anything remotely relevant to insurance. Diplomas were archly displayed on the black walls like carcasses in a butcher shop. Photos of company parties and outings attached with rectangular captions explaining where they were taken and who was in the picture.

Laguna Beach. Mr and Mrs. Fred Schiller on a twin paddle boat.

Juneau. Mr. Perle and Mr. Freely enjoy a discussion and a schnapps onboard the U.S.S. Scuttlefish.

Toronto. Mr. Shumley, McDaniels and Peterman at the top of the CN Tower.

Next to these ostentatious example was a list of organizations that had benefited from Ally’s money-grubbing. A few feet down the wall, frames bearing senators and actors embracing Ally spokespeople and executives in warm poses.

In most of the pictures where he appeared Perle exhibited as a sallow and serious dark-haired man keen on anonymity, unaware that he was being photographed.

The intercom crackled.

“Tell him to come in,” Perle said.

“You can go in,” the secretary said.

“Thanks, you’ve been real swell about it,” I said.

I stepped through a tinted glass door that she held.

“First door on the left,” she murmured and withdrew.

I didn’t knock.

Perle’s office was expansive and burgundy and neat. Modernist paintings and landscapes lined the wall without any distinction of style or period. Perle was sitting forward on a leather settee, his serious, uncompromising face following me across the room. Wire-rimmed spectacles sat on the top of his brownish gray head. The nickel railheads of the settee shone fantastically in the track lights. Perle’s hands were pure white, and the tight-fitting tan suit was so well pressed he looked naked.

“I appreciate you seeing me,” I said.

Perle’s solemn face didn’t do anything.

“How’s the insurance business?” I asked.

He stirred finally, and when it dawned on him that he might have to speak, he said in a clean voice: “The insurance business has been doing remarkably well throughout history.” He studied my rainy shoes. “Are you a client of ours?”

“Not in the technical sense.”

“Then in what sense, please?”

“I’m a private investigator and I’m looking into the Longtree family. Ben Bergen specifically. Know him?”

I waited for a response, or some kind of reaction but Perle was inscrutable. His expression was as undemonstrative as a sack full of drab neckties. “Is there a question in that babble?” he asked. He looked at the clock on his desk.

“You have four minutes and you can begin with a name.” His eyes roamed.

“It’s Jome and I’m wondering if a man named Florence is around.”

“He was. One of the consultants for Ally.”

“What happened?”

“He doesn’t work here anymore.”

“Then what happened?”

Perle squinted deeply.

“Let’s just say he doesn’t work here anymore.”

“All right. He doesn’t work here anymore. Why?”

“Mr. Jome, I believe you mentioned someone else’s name that you are investigating. How is William involved in that?”

“Bergen used Florence’s name?”

“And so?” What did this Bergen do? Did he rob a laundromat?” Perle grinned wolfishly, as though he’d just brought an audience to its knees.

“I don’t know why Bergen would have used Florence’s name unless they were close. Is Florence working on some assignment.”

“You have one minute,” Perle said, this time not even consulting the clock for justification.

“Why won’t you tell me about Florence? What’s the trouble?”

“Business is trouble.”

“I’m not intruding.”

“You are intruding and now since I have allowed my time to be wasted, I’m going to waste your time for a minute, Mr. Jome.” He put the glasses on and aimed his eyes at me. “Do you have insurance? Everybody in the world needs insurance.”

“I can think of one person who doesn’t.”

“Who would that be?”

“You.” I stood and shook my head. “Not going to tell me anything about Florence?”

He stayed on the settee.

“Nobody told you?” he asked.

“Told me what?”

“That everything is a game. And if you don’t know that, Mr. Jome, then you obviously aren’t winning. It surprises me no one told you that.”

“Maybe I heard it when I was researching an article called ‘How to be Condescending’.”

Perle’s tight mouth tightened more.

“I like the way you are,” he said.

“And I like the things you say. Thanks. Call me if you decide to feel right.”

I was reaching for the door when I spotted it, mixed in with the other artwork. It was the drawing of the orchard that was in the Bergen place. All the lines and sloppiness of the thing were identical; it was unsigned.

“Who did that one?” I asked as Perle studied me studying the drawing.

“I have no idea.”

“It’s on your wall.”

“When you’re rich you can afford to be ignorant of modern art. You can have it if you want,” Perle said.

I went back through the secretary’s station. The girl was still polishing her sister’s wedding ring.

“Get some fennel tea and a bottle of 90 percent,” I said.

“Does that get tarnish off?”

“No. But it might take the edge off you.”

 

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.

 

Post to Twitter