There’s a series of blog posts all answering the same set of questions going around like a chain letter — in part, it will see something of a tentacle-end here, as I have been less-than-diligent about making certain friends and associates were lined up after me. There are two, however, folks perhaps more interesting than myself who will be taking part fairly soon, one a longtime T2Her who may or may not be living under an assumed name wherever he happens to be these days and the other a newer acquaintance/coconspirator living close by here in Guitar Town, as the highway haulers call it (find them at the end of what follows, a self-interrogation regarding my “long thing” long in the works). Gretchen Kalwinski gave me the big hand-clap over the turnbuckle to set me out on this, fyi — her addition to the “Next Big Thing” blog chain (whose name perhaps strokes my elementally narcissistic tendencies very nicely, thank you) you can find here. Well worth the time.
What is your working title of your book (or story)?
Shining Man, not that guy up there (yeah, that’s me)
Where did the idea come from for the book?
A couple places:
The extremities of bright light and darkness, the wild metaphorical possibilities of the activity of standing in traffic as a life’s pursuit, the character’s somewhat misanthropic but ultimately vulnerable and empathetic nature — all of these stuck with me through the years as I went about other business and watched a near-decade of war, greed, etc. takes it toll on the people and places around me. As the toll was becoming readily apparent in 2007, I was living in Birmingham, Ala., and picked the story back up for a long-ish amount of time before other projects intervened.
What genre does your book fall under?
Literary fiction, I believe, though Amazon at one point not so long ago had my first novel, Sons of the Rapture, categorized as “Men’s Adventure” or something similar — I suppose that might fit too!
There are some elements of mystery/noir, but they’re utilized to either satirical or character-building purposes, ultimately.
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
Are you serious? OK, I guess you are. The only actors who could potentially play the narrator that I can actually think of and name are way too old to do so by now, which may tell you a little about my connection with a lot of U.S. popular culture at this point. Actually, on second thought, the gent who played junkie/brit rock’n'roller/budding father figure Charlie in Lost I can sort of see as physically resembling my mental image of the character. Eh…
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
A young man, learning of his father’s disappearance and possible death, flies off on a series of goose-chases to which he is unwitting, works without meaning at one gig after another and ultimately drops out of the mainstream of American life when he’s able to see with clarity the very simply reality that he’s not the only one dealing with the many barriers erected in front of his pursuit of meaning, happiness. (Long sentence, I know — I need to work on that. Gretchen did much better.)
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
Are you serious? OK, once I finish it I’ll deal with that — the last two book projects I’ve undertaken (click through the image at the right for the latest) have been entirely self-driven (with pro bono help, of course — thanks again, everybody), and it’s very time-consuming to get all the pieces of a quality project together. If I can get help, I will take it.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
Technically, I haven’t finished the first draft. But much of the material with this one has been rewritten over and over as I slowly move forward with the story. I’ve been working off and on since 2007 with this material, after the original short in 2000. The six years have been interrupted by those two book projects (in terms of writing, editing and producing), a full-time job writing for a couple magazines, and more, so saying I’ve been working on it for six years is not telling the whole story.
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
As noted earlier, Invisible Man is a definite structural/broad-thematic inspiration. It will have some similarities to a number of first-person-told novels of coming of age or, rather, late coming of age and adjusting badly to adult life. Barry Hannah’s Geronimo Rex, maybe.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Cf. “where did the idea come from”/similar question above. Much of the inspiration these days is self-propelled, a matter of will, you could say, and creating the time to do the work. The Occupy phenomenon got me back into it in earnest a year and a half back, actually, supplying a sort of real-life corollary to a plot/thematic element I had long been struggling with how exactly to approach. Life is more interesting that fiction, reality catches up with fiction, all that.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
It involves in its latter half or so a NASCAR driver and his team — Turner Bascombe is some senses intended as a contemporary version of wildman stock-car circuit pioneer Curtis Turner, one of the old driver-owners active mid-last century. Bascombe is something of an impossible figure in the reality of top-level stock-car racing today, being a successful driver-owner in an era of big-money multi-car teams and what-have-you, but I find the notion compelling and the potential for such a character great. I grew up near Charlotte, N.C., after all, home of most of the NASCAR teams, and a good bit of the novel is set there (the narrator spends a part of the book on the pit crew of the team after a chance meeting with Bascombe during a freeway traffic stand in Alabama on the eve of the Talladega race). I have an old affection for the racing pastime/sport/waste of perfectly good oil.
Chuck Beard is the proprietor the East Nashville-based East Side Story bookshop, dedicated to Nashville-based writers, primarily, and artists. He’s also the author of the novel Adventures Inside a Bright-Eyed Sky.
King lives and writes in Nashville, Tenn.
Last night I dreamed that I was back in Germany, but this time I was stationed near a massive city, instead of in the midst of the charming and quaint town of Landstuhl I loved so much. Landstuhl always was something of a comforting reminder me of home in a strange, unfamiliar universe.
In fact, for this tour of duty, I truly had no conception of where I was stationed, and didn’t really care. I had been stationed on the post for weeks completely indifferent to my surroundings, and one day during work when everything was slow, the entire unit piled into an enormous camouflage van and headed for the mystery metropolis. We were all in uniform, and technically still on duty, so there was to be no drinking, of course. And also of course, I was demoralized.
But the moment we arrived, I felt that total sobriety would be preferable. I mean, who could get a beer down in a place like this, where the noise and the swirl of disorder was so crippling it choked the soul and made the throat close up, purposely denying itself oxygen as to head for the grave, away from the madness? I was seated next to Van Heusen, an actual old roommate of mine, and I had to scream into the side of his face to ascertain where we were.
“Say, what is this hell-hole we’re in?”
“WHAT IS THIS HELL-HOLE WE’RE IN?!”
“Oh, it’s called Bad Hamburg. You didn’t know? What rock have you been stationed under?”
I didn’t offer him any explanation, because frankly I didn’t feel like talking, much less roaring like a grizzly bear to get across a single sentence. I just sat back and watched, weeping internally.
There was the sharp, metallic sheen of modernity everywhere; of glass and steel and diamond-like glinting rushing from everywhere at once, unlike at a lake when the sun is dropping, and the glinting tends to stroll across the surface of the water as to be savored, or at the least pinpointed. In fact, Bad Hamburg, its name’s introduction fitting, hardly resembled Germany at all; it was more like Tokyo had been surgically implanted and, as a kind yet futile gesture, a cathedral or two and a few small buildings of timeless European descent were preserved to cower among the skyscrapers and the rip-off outlets. The entire community (could it be called that?) was comprised of imitation jewelry, ten-dollar Nikes and tax-breaking corporate manufacturing outposts. Christ, there were even neon Coors and Budweiser signs in the windows of the bars, in the middle of Germany!
Finally the van was parked, and I stepped off, disoriented and nauseated and with a splitting headache. We snaked through the narrow corridors off the main strip, dodging thousands of people, as the vendors at the stands shook five-dollar watches and necklaces in our faces while belting their haggles, and I ducked into a bar with a girl from our unit. I’d been dead wrong; complete sobriety could never be endured in a place like this. So I ordered a beer, a fucking Miller Lite; the Army could send me home if they wanted for having a watered-down beer; be my salvation, I beg of you.
Once again I could hardly hear myself fart or think, but at scattered intervals, when the techno stopped, I talked to the girl I once knew from my second duty station, but whose name I couldn’t place. She had short black hair and generous eyes, was kind and outgoing — that’s all I knew. You see, my brain and all its memory had been made molten by Bad New York or Hong Kong Hamburg, whatever the place was called.
But I remembered Landstuhl all too well, and I re-created it for the girl.
“I miss everything about Landstuhl,” I told her.
“We could walk from the barracks and get anywhere we wanted — no voyages needed in green, tank-like vehicles, and the train station was open-air. I mean, you could still see trees and grass and hills in the distance as the trains cruised by; the trains weren’t crammed into crowded, subterranean tunnels.
“Speaking of tunnels, there was one small tunnel leading to the train station in Landstuhl, passing under some streets; it also led to a couple of nightclubs on the outskirts of the town. The stones of the tunnel, like gems in a ring, were set in the perfection of ancient masonry, and weathered to that poetic dark-gray only time can execute. Between each stone was some kind of moss; it was green and bright, like landscapes in Ireland at sunrise.
“Once, my friend Adam and I ran into a couple of skinheads in that tunnel on the way to a disco. They pulled switchblades on us and started shouting in German, an unspeakable act for Landstuhl. But what’s funny is this — they didn’t have the gall to get too close to us. They were actually trying to rob us or tell us to go back to America from 30 yards away, so Adam and I picked up a couple of chunks of rather large rubble, jarred loose from a walkway platform, and assumed NFL quarterback passing positions. The skinheads de-switched their blades, pocketed them, turned and moved along at a deliberate pace, and shut their mouths, too, before letting loose one or two cursory final outbursts as if to appease their pride. That was the only incident remotely even close to a crime we ever encountered and/or heard of in the town of Landstuhl.
“The bar Adam and I usually went to was called the Kasade, and the owner was Rhiner. He had a couple of rotting front teeth, but it didn’t detract from his friendly nature. He used to bring us ‘meters’ of cola-beer; they were long, handmade wooden boxes, with the smaller glasses of beer on the outside, leading up to two large beers in the middle. The idea was to drink the smaller beers first, working your way to the center, where the last two big beers served as the toast, a kind of icing applied to the finished meter. On the meter boxes and the wooden tables were people’s names, carved in countless languages; each patron of The Kasade for the last 300 years, it seemed. I carved my own name into one of the tables after finishing the final meter of my life, possibly, the night before I left Landstuhl for my next duty station.
“By the spiraling stairwell leading down into the perfect half-darkness of The Kasade was a large, petrified tree, rising up through a flawlessly-crafted hole cut into the floor. There was a ring of bright red bricks decorating the circumference of the hole, encircling the roots. The tree was the color of snow or a birch, and names through the ages were carved into the tree, too.”
I finished my beer; that last bitter drop of watered-down dog piss, as the girl and I stepped out into the locust-like bellowing of the big city traffic and I yearned for a cola-weissen from one of Rhiner’s meters or a small-town fest on a Sunday afternoon.
She took one glance at the chaos and her usual jovial smile transformed to instant sadness and that distant sting of alienation, and so did mine.
Just one customer sat in the shadowy bar, late afternoon.
So what’s new, said the bartender. You still working?
Tina gripped her beer. Nope, she said. I’m retired. You know what that means?
He smiled as he wiped dry a glass. No I don’t — what does it mean.
It means death — no, I’m only kidding –
He smiled as he picked up the next glass.
Good. You had me worried there.
Yeah — this is good beer.
We try, he said.
How come you never ask me what kind of beer I want?
Because I know what you want, he said.
But I’ve forgotten.
Tell me what brand of beer this is.
You should know. You ordered it years ago.
I’ve forgotten, I told you.
You don’t need to know.
She smiled and took a drink. Oh — hey listen, she said, resting her chin on her hand. What are your plans for today?
I’ll be here.
No. I mean after that?
After that I’ll be going home. Marty is taking over from me at five.
Marty? I don’t think I’ve ever met Marty.
Oh! He’s quite a guy. You’d like him.
In what way?
I don’t know. That would be up to you –
She waved a hand. Please!
But really — you ought to stay long enough to meet Marty. You ought to stay until five. It’s four already.
She looked at her watch. It’s five after four, actually.
So it is – anyway — Marty’s got a speedboat. You ought to go out with him on it.
He must have money –
Yeah and he drives a Mercedes convertible — a flashy sporty one.
What color is it?
That sounds cute –
It is — Marty’s got a plane too — he keeps it out at Kupper airport.
God — a speedboat, a Mercedes, a plane — how’s he do it on this salary?
Oh this is just a side job for Marty. He’s got several businesses.
What kind of businesses?
I’m not sure. He never really explained — but he rakes in the dough. He just works as a bartender to decompress.
Is he married?
What’s he look like?
Oh, handsome — very very handsome. Tall, built well, nice hair. He wears expensive clothes too. You should meet him. He used to work for an escort service — lord god he’s got the looks for it.
An escort service?
Yeah. And — he’s a skydiver — he jumps out of planes. Has been doing that for years.
And you say he’s single?
Oh yeah — and I’ve seen him with women — he pours on the charm — he really knows how to treat a woman — money is no object. I’ve seen him buy thousands of dollars worth of jewelry and other gifts — he bought one woman a Mercedes like his. For cash.
Nope — it’s true.
Were these just — women that he met here?
Yeah. Pretty much. I could see him going for you though.
Yes — hang around until five. I’ll introduce you.
What’s Marty’s last name?
I’m not quite sure.
What do you mean you’re not quite sure — you know everything else about him.
You get to know all about people who come in here — but you don’t always know their last names.
But he works here. He’s not just a customer. He works here, and you don’t know his last name? Isn’t this your place? Didn’t you hire him?
He shook his head and pushed out an arm.
No, no, no, look — I’ll be honest with you. I know his last name. He just wouldn’t want it shared.
Wouldn’t want it shared?
Right. He values his privacy. After all, when you’ve got that kind of money — you’ve got to be careful.
Because people will try and take advantage of you. I’ll tell you what — when you meet him, ask him his last name. If he wants you to know it, he’ll tell you. Like I said, hang around. It’s four thirty now.
OK — say what are your plans for tonight? Anything special?
Nope. Home to the wife, and kid — and a big dinner.
What’re you having for dinner?
Oh it’s a surprise — my wife always surprises me.
Is she a good cook?
Oh yeah — and as a matter of fact, so is Marty — he’s a real gourmet.
Yes. Cooks all kind of exotic dishes — squab, and like that.
Yeah. That’s a little bird.
Are you sure?
Oh yeah. Perfectly sure. Maybe Marty will cook a dinner for you. He’s done that for other ladies he’s met here. He’s had them over, had some wine, a good dinner –
And what else?
Oh nothing else. Marty is a perfect gentleman. He would never impose himself on a lady. And believe me — there are plenty of ladies who wish he would. I mean, with his looks, his clothes, his body, his way of speaking — oh when you meet him you’ll be impressed.
Sounds like you’re pretty impressed with him yourself.
I am. He’s someone a man can look up to. A good example. You should see how they’ll flock in here after he takes over — everybody will try and be near Marty — he’s got that — that charisma. And as a bartender, he’s superb — he knows every drink there is. Nobody’s stumped him yet. Wait until you meet him you’ll see — try and stump him.
I don’t usually go for exotic drinks –
Oh, but here’s something else — he’ll talk to you a little bit, size up your personality, then make you a special drink mixed just for you. He does that for all the ladies. Those are usually on the house.
On the house? How do you feel about that?
Oh, it’s fine — he draws such a crowd that in the end it’s all worth it. And here’s something else many people don’t know — he’s a war hero.
War hero? What war –
Gulf war. Silver Star. I tell you, he’s an interesting guy, worth meeting — oh look, it’s quarter to five. He could show up any minute. I tell you, when he comes in the whole place will light up.
I — I can’t wait to meet him.
I figured — and wait until you hear the way he talks — he knows how to talk to a lady — trust me, you’ll never have felt so much like a lady as Marty will make you feel.
How do you know all this? How the ladies feel –
They tell me how he makes them feel. They can’t help but want to talk about Marty. There’s never been another guy like him.
I’m a little bit nervous.
Here’s a fresh beer.
It’s eight to five — he will be here any time now. Oh — and you know what else?
He’s a great dancer. He’s won several dancing competitions. You ought to get to know him and get him to take you out dancing — why, I’ve heard that out at the Willows, when he goes there dancing, the people just gather around in a big circle and watch him and his partner dance, that’s how good he is. Are you a good dancer?
Well — I think so.
Dancing with him will make you twice the dancer you already are — take it from me — I’ve seen him. He’s like a Fred Astaire — hey look — it’s four to five. He will be here any time now. Be ready, though. Sometimes he comes in a little bit early. Likes to freshen up in the men’s room before he starts his shift — he always looks fresh pressed and sharp, hair perfect — and you ought to see his posture — it’s better than a Marine’s. He carries himself like a king.
Wow — you really think a lot of him, don’t you –
Why do you say?
You go on and on like this –
I can’t help it but go on and on about Marty — hey — it’s two minutes to five. That door might open any second –
What kind of cologne does he wear? That’s about the only thing you haven’t told me –
It’s a minute to five. Watch the door.
My God. You –
It’s thirty seconds to five. Look — Marty’s always on time, on the dot.
It’s 15 seconds to five.
It’s eight seconds to five –
She drank from her beer.
It’s four seconds –
It’s half a second to five.
It’s a quarter of a second to five –
An eighth –
A sixteenth –
She sat open-mouthed.
A sixty-fourth –
A one hundred twenty-eighth –
A two hundred sixty-fifth –
And they sat frozen waiting forever in the dim-lit late afternoon bar for Marty, because the time turned out to be always half of a half of a half of a half of the time until five. They waited and they waited and five o’clock never came — and the closer it got to five o’clock the less time there was to speak, to think, to act, about Marty. The less time there was for their hearts to pump and their blood to flow. So they ceased to exist. They froze. They shrank to nothing — trapped in Marty time.
1) Russell sat in the driver’s seat after saying goodbye to his father for the last time. The idling engine sputtered out curls of exhaust fumes that wafted like ghosts through the tunnels of the hospital parking structure. He punched the steering wheel four times and feared a fifth might cause the airbag to deploy, which would probably break his nose, definitely his glasses. He waited until all the other cars were gone before he cried.
2) Demolition of The Berlin Wall started this morning and best friends Ben and Kristi decide to celebrate. Tonight, Ben parks his car on Lakeshore Drive, overlooking Lake Michigan, just north of Navy Pier. The beige car is nearly hidden in the hairy spine of sand dunes and fireweed. They listen to coverage of the destruction on the radio. Ben pulls a flask from his coat pocket, raises it as high the car’s roof will allow and toasts, “To the death of communism.” He takes a quick drink, winces tightly, then passes the flask to Kristi. She drinks without making a toast. The radio continues: crowds shouting We want out! and the thunderous boom of brick turning to dust. Kristi looks out at the ships rising and falling on the water. Like shooting stars, the lights bloom then disappear into the darkness. She thinks about all the families and estranged lovers of East and West Germany reuniting in one another’s arms. She looks at Ben and smiles. She thinks there is hope.
3) You’re alone in your car, speeding out of your neighborhood. Your mother is having him over again, and walking downstairs to that used piece of bubblegum wrapping his doughy arms around her is about the last thing you need right now. You wonder if you should drive to your dad’s house, but immediately you decide not to. It’s already dark and the drive from Waukegan to Cicero is almost two hours. Nearly crying, you pull up to a stoplight and rummage through your backpack for your cigarettes. You think you get your hands around the pack and pull them out, only to find it’s not your cigarettes. It’s a cassette-tape case. Jules, play me. ♥ James. You open the case and put the tape into the car’s player, still mildly concerned that you are unaware of the contents of your own backpack. “Julia” by The Beatles begins to whisper through the speakers. You push the seat back and close your eyes, pretending John Lennon is stroking your hair and singing you to sleep. The light turns green and cars start honking behind you. But you won’t move, not until the mixed tape winds to an end.
4) “Christ, Evelyn, the whole world is changing without us,” Carl grumbled as he threw this morning’s copy of the Tribune down on the coffee table. Evelyn saw the headline and mouthed words Chicago’s – Oldest – Drive-In – Closed – Permanently. “It’s like I told you. First they change the Sears Tower to the ‘Willis Tower.’ Then they close our drive-in. Next they’ll be wanting to change the name Chicago to ‘Idiotsville.’
“I’d like to go there, Carl.”
“The River-Walk,” Evelyn said, looking at her husband with sad eyes. Carl nodded silently, as if out of respect, and they left.
Their Corolla rolled to a stop in front of the large white wall of the River-Walk Drive-In. Only days after its final showing and already the cracked grey asphalt had given way to invading knotweed and peppergrass. There were still buckets of half-eaten popcorn strewn about the parking lot with a few lucky pigeons getting their fill.
“It’s a damn shame.” Carl tugged on the hair below his bottom lip, making a suction sound like sticky feet from a hardwood floor.
“Do you remember our first date?” Evelyn asked with a smile.
“You bet little lady. It’ll be 40 years this summer, God smiled down on this lucky sailor and gave him a trip to the drive-in with a gal prettier than Sophia Loren.” They both laughed.
With the sun going down and the world slowly becoming a sad mystery, Evelyn laid her head on her husband’s shoulder and they both stared at the wall in front of them, as if it were show time.
Francis lives and writes in Nashville, Tenn., but may be destined for Hamburg, as it were.
Except for when you are here.
No longer will I resemble a dead
asterisk viewed from outer space
or that vagrant sprawled out naked
in the middle of the town commons
resting my head on Justice’s scale.
There may be differences between
your side, my view –
but we are alive and beating, and
these figments of our imagination
are far from dead. Tonight the sunlight may be
deafening, tomorrow it’s stuck in your throat.
I order another watered down whiskey,
toss down my last 10 bucks and throw it back,
some piss on the rocks.
We head down to the water.
Polluted beach, swimming
prohibited, so we take a walk,
the fanfares of dusk, sirens –
it all floats away into something. Whatever.
Back to Mission Hill,
back down Guerrero to 24th.
Now that I’ve seen you bookended
between Alcatraz and Golden Gate
I don’t feel so sick anymore.
But I’m still a bit queasy. Even now, the next day.
It’s just a little different. I search my coat pocket
for my boarding pass as I head toward the gate.
The writing’s on the wall:
A fool, who writes more than
he reads. A fool, who thinks
more than he loves.
Many people throughout history
have fallen victim to the concept
of perfection. I start counting and
soon I get bored and want to do
something else. Eat a cannoli
for example. I am tired of my
small empire and want to expand.
I decide to set up a drum kit
to drive out the neighbors, but
quickly realize this probably
won’t lead to the desired
effect. Instead I lie in bed,
roll up in my blanket and smile,
say Cannoli. For a second, even,
I am laughing.
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.”
“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.”
“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.
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?
|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.
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…
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I pulled up to the mud outside the cottage. Trees had collapsed all around the square pasteboard building, badly-fitted planks covering holes where windows should have been, and there were hints of light in the cracks. The grass was four feet high except in those spots where some heavy-farming implement had been abandoned. I wasn’t sure why I was waiting for darkness to come. I was drained and tried closing my eyes, but I was too tired for rest. I was too tired for anything, especially this.
Night fell in sharp checkerboard dividends around the branches and squat hills. A playful moon and a timorous solitude made the orchard look quaint and innocent. I waited until the horizon was dark, the motor humming me back to childhood. I noticed streams of chimney exhaust blankly descending into the gravelly sky above.
The orchard brought a feeling I had experienced at my worst moments. Maybe it was a metaphor, but I didn’t think much of metaphors. Besides, the presence of death everywhere doesn’t beg poetry to have much of an imagination. The orchard was a symbol in a drawing, and I was entering that place where a symbol and a reality were difficult to tell apart.
I shut off the motor and got out, immediately breathing in the dread that seemed to have constructed the place. From somewhere near the main road I heard the acceleration of a vehicle, and perhaps the creak of a door opening and not closing. And I heard nothing else but my own footfalls crunching on dead leaves.
I let myself in to the cottage without bothering to knock. The stench of dead fruit had me incapacitated for an instant. I felt at the grip of the pistol tucked into my waistband.
The space was nothing but a wasted accumulation of old tools and sacks full of spilling apples, a compact fusion of kitchen, living room and bedroom. Daddy Longtree blinked at me from behind a table that was really just a long door propped up by concrete blocks. He was eating an apple pie with a butter knife, and there was a lantern in the middle of the makeshift table, providing only enough light to find the lantern itself.
“I heard you out there in your car for about an hour or so. Hope you aren’t scared of me.” Longtree groaned. He had a strand of gray hair combed toward his eyebrows, slight gray stubble that rose high on his prominent cheekbones and close-set dark eyes that were like bubbles on the surface of a swamp.
“I was thinking of being afraid,” I said. “But I decided against it. There’s enough fear in you for the both of us.”
“I’m not afraid of you. I just met you.”
“Right now I’m a little afraid of me. And not to get on a tangent, but what’s that kid’s problem out there?”
“He’s just mean. He’s an orphan. Orphans can be mean.”
I grabbed a chair by the sink and brought it over to face him. He munched contentedly on the spoiled, mold-green pie. Moving things rummaged in the crust.
“They’re going to build a lunatic asylum on my land,” Longtree said. “What should I think of that?”
“They won’t have to look far for inhabitants.”
Longtree smiled, then grew serious and smiled wider.
“I’ve been thinking,” he said.
“That doesn’t sound hopeful.”
“It isn’t.” He scooped a large helping, bending his head and using his free hand to scrape a rogue apple slice into his mouth. Something pried its way from between Longtree’s lips and skittered away.
“We all of us,” he said, “have one day to go back into the dirt. I’m getting a head start.” He scraped what remained of his brown teeth with the butter knife. “It’s around that time when I should ask who you are,” he said.
“Whoever I am doesn’t matter.”
“Are you selling something?” he asked.
“I’m not selling anything.”
“Everybody is selling something.”
“What are you selling, Longtree?”
He lifted his eyes to the ceiling and contemplated the tears in the plaster. “I honestly don’t think I’m selling anything.”
“Who were you with that night at the bar?” I asked.
“That night you were there. Was it Florence?” The overpowering stench of vinegar was becoming familiar and less noxious.
“Who?” Longtree asked coyly. “Who is that? Florence?”
I was beginning to doubt someone and it wasn’t me. “What about Ben Bergen, your son.”
“I don’t have any son,” he said wistfully.
I stared at him as he plunged back into the pie.
“You think that’s a good angle?” I asked.
He peeked at me above a scoop of pie. “I’m not being cagey. I did have a son. Now I don’t have a son. He died off a few years ago.”
“How?” I blurted.
Longtree only shook his head. Frustration was getting a clawing at me. I pulled the pistol out of my pants and put it on my lap.
“And what about your daughter?”
“I do have one of those. Sue. She’s a belligerent girl. Sue has problems. It is a Longtree trait.”
“Sue’s dead too. Drowned herself in a tub.”
Longtree had nothing in his face. “I sort of supposed that,” he said.
“William Florence?” I said. “And I’m not really kidding. Who is he?”
“Yes, Will is an insurance man. He was digging in the Longtree family — something about a policy taken out on Sue by her sleazy husband. It’s possible that he discovered more about the Longtrees than anyone ever had and was planning something. He was coming here to grease his hands. Which is probably what you’re here to do as well.”
“Ever read the papers?”
“I think Florence was the guy in the motel with the bullet in the back of his head.”
“Does that concern me?”
“That depends on whether it concerns you. So Florence got something on you and you paid him.”
“I didn’t pay him.”
“What did you do?”
Longtree breathed and his breath was stale and wretched. “I didn’t do anything.”
“Somebody did something.”
Connections were piling into my head faster than I could sort them out. If Sue was lying about Ben she’d done a nifty job of covering it up by changing the last name and making sure I couldn’t trace it here. Which I did anyway.
Longtree reached under the table and I tensed. The object in his hand was a book and he set it down between us. One apple-encrusted thumbprint was visible on the cover. He sighed. I looked at the flap: A History of Death. By Dominic Early. Of all people.
He said, “It’s loosely based on the history of my horrific family, which you might know something about. All the names are changed, obviously, but it’s a thrilling work. My father was a murderer, as was his father, and his father, etc., etc.” Longtree belched. “There’s no reason in it. Just inheritance of very bad genes, I guess. Every Longtree is a monster. You should be careful, Mr. Jome. They say that whoever struggles with monsters is likely to become one.”
“Who says that?”
“My dead wife, actually. That’s why I’m alone up here. I like being alone up here.”
I crushed a beetle that was climbing up my pants leg and said nothing because there was nothing to say.
“I am the commonest man,” Longtree said. “Aren’t I? Wouldn’t you say that I am the commonest man?”
I put the gun on the table and pointed it at him.
“Sure,” I breathed. I couldn’t stand his frazzled smirk any longer. Longtree only cut another dollop of bug-infected pie and pretended that the gun and I weren’t there. Finished, he bent over and took something off the floor and handed it to me. It was the drawing of the orchard, although in this one the charcoal had been scratched off in places.
“That’s the original,” Longtree said. “I’d like it if you had it. I used to give copies of it to people I respected.”
He paused and licked crumbs out of his facial hair with a wide tongue, laying the drawing on the table.
“I’m glad you’re here though,” he said. “Just to remind me why I’m here.” He gazed longingly at the pie. “I am awfully glad you’re here. I made the discovery long ago,” as though reciting from a fairy tale, without pausing, “that I was a murderer. What made me kill Ben? I had no option. He told me how hard it was for him to function without the urge to kill someone. I don’t think he ever did. But before I stopped telling him it was going to be OK my hands were around his neck and I had no control at all and he just let me do it.” Longtree stared off calmly. “When he was dead I hung him in his garage. First time I’d been away from here. Everybody was sad for me. I was sad for me. Even now I don’t have any guilt or anything. I wonder why that is?”
I slumped back in my chair. He continued to sputter on as he ate.
“I couldn’t have anyone suffer. Ben was going to be a murderer like the whole course of his ancestry and I had to prevent that. And then I did prevent that. I was thinking of his little girl. I was also thinking of everybody else too.”
Now he didn’t use his utensil, but just dug into the pie with his hands and stuffed a mound of apple and insects into his unperturbed grin.
“So now you are aware. You probably would have figured it out sooner or later,” he said. “So how much do you want?”
I stared hard at Longtree.
“You know about farming?” he asked me, pricking up his eyes to meet mine. “First you have to care for each tree like it was a part of your own body. That’s why my orchard is so successful,” he said. “I got 50 pickers at least. I make such a nice apple pie. Mm hmm,” he mumbled. He tapped his ring finger twice on the pie tin. On the third tap his hands and his head dropped at the pistol’s retort. I was mildly surprised that I had shot him. A billow of acrid smoke erupted to the rafters and stayed there. Longtree’s legs twitched, kicking out an absurdly fast dance. He had one last breath to say something pithy, but it came out in a whisper that I couldn’t hear and smelled rankly of bitter almonds. I hadn’t thought death would smell of bitter almonds. There were a lot of things I didn’t know.
On my way out I had to laugh. Because of the Longtrees and my role in wiping the rest of them out, directly or indirectly. Except for the daughter, Dot, who was the last of them. But she couldn’t be a part of this grisly tale. My laughter fell flat in the cramped and anguished room, dying the split-second it pushed off my lips. Head turned to the ceiling, still seated at the table, Daddy Longtree was just a shadow, and not an imposing one either.
For a minute I stared at the drawing of the orchard up close to the lantern, a hint of something important tugging at me, just off the border of the picture. What was it in the dark shapes and swirls that was I missing? My mind was all puckered, waiting. It seemed that it was all right there; the problem was that I couldn’t be sure what “it” was supposed to be, “all” signified, or “there” was. The upturned furniture and the apples were starting to bother me, and so I folded the drawing and brought it with me. I imagined a voice coming from somewhere nearby, looked at Longtree, as inert as an ice sculpture.
The night was warm with the musty smell of imminent rain. Just outside in the grass I unfolded the drawing and peered at it some more. There was still something I was not getting but that was spelled out plainly in the charcoal smudges. Again I heard the muttering voice, the way someone might talk on the telephone from the other side of a thick wall, coming from a batch of tall trees to the east.
I waited with the drawing in my hands, not certain how to handle my delusions, or if they were delusions. For the third time I wound the drawing into a tube and simply stood there listening.
There was no moon, and I was forced to go by what scant noise there was. Owls fluttered and sang, the trees soughed, animals moved about. It took a lot of effort not to think about anything. Underfoot the dirt crackled, and when I had my hand on the car door I heard something I shouldn’t have heard, namely a man’s voice starting to sing a lovely song and then instantly halting the lyrics.
“Jome?” the man said from the trees. “I was just thinking about you.”
I swiveled, fearing for a second that the voice was my own and then fearing more that it wasn’t. I was so sleep deprived I could no longer tell whether or not I was talking.
“Jome,” the person said again from a copse of trees surrounded by a clearing of fallen saplings.
“Who’s asking?” I shouted.
“I am.” The man’s tone was high-pitched, recognizable, though I couldn’t place the cadence, and possibly drunk. “I heard what you did. What’d you do anyway? In there with Longtree? You gone lunatic or something?”
I squinted through the twisted foliage, raising the pistol towards the sound. I couldn’t make the man out.
“Longtree killed his son,” I said. “So I killed him back. The story has a happy ending for everybody.”
“Not for Longtree it doesn’t.”
Neither of us said anything for a minute.
“Which one are you?” I asked.
“I’m Walt Wald.”
“Do you have it figured, Jome? What do you think you’re going to do now that you have it figured?”
“I haven’t really gotten to that part yet. I was planning on getting in my car and driving back to the city.”
“Tonight? That’s a long drive. Maybe you should stay somewhere and start fresh in the morning.”
“Are we talking about something, Wald? This has lost some track.”
“Look, Jome. I’m a private investigator and Sue hired me to watch Lewishom and I just came upon him after you killed him in his car. Not very nice of you, Jome. I know what it probably looks like in Longtree’s and I won’t argue. But I thought you’d let me take you in because you’re going to be in regardless and it would be nice if I could be the one to do it. That’s two dead people. Knowing you I’m sure there’s more somewhere else.”
“Lewishom killed himself.”
“That could be claimed about everybody in a way.”
“That doesn’t sound convincing.”
“That Sue is a crazy bitch,” he said. “Can you believe it?”
“She was,” I said. I crouched low, aiming into the darkness. The moon was sneaking coyly out from a cluster of clouds now and when it did the clearing would be illuminated.
“Why the past tense, Jome?”
“She drowned herself,” I said.
“When did she do that?”
Ahead, the spot where the man was concealed was being slowly lighted.
“I just talked to her little while ago,” the voice said. “That’s too bad. How am I going to get the money she owes me for this?”
“I’m not sure, Wald.”
“I’m not either.”
“She told me she was going to Florida after all this.”
And the moon flared, revealing the clearing and the tall, upright figure that was just a glancing silhouette and nothing more.
“What do you mean Florida?” I asked. “And what do you mean, all of this? What is this?”
“I mean,” he started to say, and just then my gun interrupted him and the silhouette dropped hard with a scattering of twigs. I stood and got into the car. On the way back my headlights swept over the stoned kid from the office. He was wide-eyed and he was running for the cottage. I rolled the window down.
“Kid,” I yelled at him. “It’s a real mess up there.”
His mouth said something and he kept running.
The strong breeze was invigorating and I was suddenly awake.
I returned through the wreckage of trees, all mold and utter sorrow. Nestled into a turnaround off the path a green sedan was parked, belonging, I guessed, to Wald.
I drove too fast, skimming into culverts and narrowly missing a few trees. Maybe I’d killed Longtree to offer some kind of resolution; then again, I could have simply not known what to do. I blamed it on fatigue and confusion. But killing Wald couldn’t be rationalized. Maybe it could.
Additionally there seemed to be a gathering of private dicks out for me. Why had Sue hired all these people and had them follow me and each other? Nothing made sense.
Sue Longtree, I thought, probably deserved everything that she did to herself.
Why anything anymore.
And so Ben Bergen was what he’d always been: a name, and a face I’d never seen.
I was coming down with a rotten head cold, and endured a bout of sneezing while I drove.
I really wished the suit was done already.
Coming into view of Sutter Falls and back on paved roads I was overlooking the lake and the moonlight dinging off the surface. I braked and for five minutes I admired the water and the air, and then I felt stupid and kept driving. It was just past nine.
I passed fields and lonely farmers on tractors inching through the fields.
I was sure that I was being followed, and a moment later I was sure I wasn’t. Then I wasn’t sure. Cars appeared and reappeared in my rear-view with inconstant regularity. I was convinced that both Wald and Lewishom were behind me somewhere in the night, still tenaciously on the case. I couldn’t shake them. Every few miles I pulled off to the side. Twice I thought their respective cars had bypassed me when I was stopped. I learned to stop looking behind me.
The drawing was on the seat beside me and I repeatedly held it to the dome light, looking into the amateur lines for some kind of meaning. Finally I stuck it out the window and let the rush of wind have it.
The wipers were on the whole drive. Twenty minutes away from the city and it was pouring again. At each off-ramp into town I kept driving, until there weren’t any more exits and there was just the highway and the static lights of the highway.
Eventually I turned back. I was obsessing over my tailor and getting mad that the suit wasn’t finished yet.
The city, suddenly — the things and places that were familiar — felt somehow foreign.
At the office a legion of dust stalked the air and settled over the ruins of furniture. The reddish shadow from Parker’s head had dulled to a milky relief, like the pigment you’d see in a Rothko.
An hour and 20 minutes to midnight. Sleeping would have been the right thing to do, but I was too exhausted and too haunted for the idea not to seem like a nightmare. Instead I stretched out under the window like a cat. Ants bustled on the wood near my face, and I felt like drowning some of them in my saliva. The gash in my throat was still bandaged and the sting had gone away but I could feel my heartbeat throbbing in the wound. I pried myself off the floor without any ants being harmed and gobbled a handful of aspirin. From a desk drawer I pulled a tissue, the cold now filling my head and eyes.
I was finished.
In a lunge of exotic dread I was suddenly emptying the contents of the filing cabinets one by one, yanking bygone cases and files and items from the drawers and just piling it all on the floor in a mania I couldn’t explain but for an odd reason enjoyed.
I blamed it on the Longtrees, along with everything else that was wrong.
After 20 minutes I’d tired myself out and sat and watched the neon city bounce around inside the room. The office was now a tangled mess of clutter, a broken mug scattered in the midst.
Maybe I was looking for something and by not finding it I was coming closer to realizing that there was nothing to find. The Longtree fiasco was itching me and I couldn’t do anything about it. What had it been about?
I stood and tried to shake off my brain.
Rain smeared the windows and the lights outside. Then lightning flattered the night in an afternoon glow.
I smiled at the man in the window. He didn’t smile back.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” I asked.
“I got a cold or something.”
“That’s too bad.”
And then I punched the window, but it didn’t shatter and I tried again. Then I tried again and it still wouldn’t shatter.
I looked at my knuckles. At the wall. At the dust. At the broken mug. Everything didn’t feel right.
I was drifting off into a black-and-white dream when the call came in. I thought I recognized the soft-spoken, uneasy voice. “Harry Jome?” the man asked.
“I think so. Let me check.”
“Could you meet me right away? I’m at the diner near your building?” He said it like a question.
“I’m a little busy here just now.”
“It’s not unimportant. It’s about Sue Longtree and some other things.”
“I don’t care about Sue.”
“You might care about these other things,” the man said and wasn’t there. I pried myself into the elevator and got to the diner a minute later.
At a far booth inside the diner a skinny teenaged couple were necking with every part of their bodies except for their necks. Both of them pimpled and as carefree as quantum physics. The place was drenched in artificial warmth. Behind the counter the waitress who’d caused the commotion a few days ago had returned to her job, obviously pregnant and obviously angry about it. The teenaged boy glared at me as though I was his girl’s uncle come to take her home.
The man at the counter was in a gray tweed suit and brown spats. He had a stoic profile. He was too poised and pale to belong there. His salt-and-pepper hair was long and parted and hadn’t been touched by a barber in months. A mustache fit perfectly on his upper lip. His umbrella had fallen underneath his stool, and near his elbows there was a stack of stapled papers.
I wedged into the stool beside him and shook my head when the waitress asked me what I’d have.
“Jome, isn’t it?” the man asked. When he turned his eyeballs were crystals, very blue and very careful.
“You Florence?” I asked back.
“No, but it’s still nice to know you. Sorry about the circumstances.”
“I don’t know what the circumstances are.”
He shrugged. A cup of coffee was pushed off to the side.
“Are you Florence?” I asked. “Or Bergen or some other asshole?”
“I should be somebody,” he said, using his fingers to taper his mustache.
“Whoever you are you’ve caused a lot of stupid dying and I’m the one going to be chained up for it.”
“People sometimes die,” he said casually. “Isn’t it better that it’s for a reason?”
“What’s better for a reason?”
“What I’m telling you.”
“So far you haven’t told me anything.”
“I thought I had. Well, I’m saying that those deaths were kind of not my fault. By the way, how many people have you killed in the past couple of days?” His mustache twitched like it was trying to leap away from his mouth.
“OK. So I don’t know what you have or if you have anything,” I said. “Ben Bergen is dead but used another name and I can’t track down Florence, which is the name he used. And Sue is dead and a couple of nerds called Parker and Porter,” I realized that I was counting the dead on my fingers. “Lewishom. Wald, I think. Maybe even somebody I’ve never heard of.”
The man nodded and bit both his lips at the same time.
“Maybe I’m the guy you’ve never heard of,” he said. “Dean Bruckner. We’re in the same line of work.
“How did that happen?”
“The Longtree lady needed somebody good to follow you and the guys following you and to keep eyes on how it was going.”
“I never noticed you.”
“Because she needed somebody good. I just told you. And I’m a little proud of that.”
“You shouldn’t be.”
“I am though.”
“So what?” I said. “What about Bergen and Florence.”
“I don’t know anything about them but I do know that neither of them has anything to do with this.”
Bruckner’s troubling eyes were mellow with the intensity of brooding over intense things. The light in the room was all crooked, like an origami construction of shadows.
“Ever hear the name Dominic Early?” Bruckner asked.
“I know all about Domoinic Early. He and Sue are the same person. A hack writer of juvenile stuff.”
“I’m glad you know Early is Sue because that’s the big explanation.”
He slid the stack of pages over to me. I flipped the manuscript over. The title was big and blatant and contained five words: The Last Orchard in America. And below that, A Novel by Dominic Early.
“Jome, you were just research for Sue’s latest dumb potboiler and I was the researcher,” Bruckner said. “She hired me to track you around town. She was all blocked up, she said. The case was only for a plot of hers. All she wanted to do was stir things up by hiring a bunch of investigators and see what popped out of the disorder.”
“Is it any good?” I asked without knowing why I asked.
“She’s not a good writer and it has no ending. It does include her suicide though. Maybe you can conclude it if you want to.”
Somewhere within me everything halted. The answer I had was to the question I hadn’t asked. I was so enraged I felt almost weightless.
“So what do you want?” I asked. “You and Sue got away with something. I was a character in her book. I’m not sure what she got away with, but something happened and you must have been causing something to happen. Or else you wouldn’t be here with my phone number in your pocket. So what about Bergen? What about anybody? What the hell went on?”
“The answers are all there Jome. Your problem is that there are no questions.”
“So what do you want, Bruckner?”
Looking at me, he puzzled over how he was going to phrase it. “I thought you should know about her manuscript,” he finally said. “And I also wanted to tell you how bad of a private investigator you are.”
He curled his mouth into a smile that didn’t spread to the rest of his face.
Halfway out the door, yanking up his umbrella, he turned and asked too pleasantly: “Is it ever going to stop raining?”
The horny couple was staring at me and they were frightened at what they saw. I followed Bruckner out to the drenched street. Lightning burned the sky a crimson blush.
It was never going to stop raining.
I had Sue’s manuscript in my hands, and I raised it above me to shield off some of the downpour. I wasn’t going anywhere, if I ever had been.
Another flash of lightning exposed Bruckner conferring with someone under an archway. I couldn’t see who it was. I took a handkerchief out of my pocket and daubed my cheeks and forehead. I looked at the handkerchief and saw that it was moistened with wet gray ink. The manuscript’s print was dripping all over me and I choked a little on the ink as it swept into my mouth.
No, it wasn’t ever going to stop raining.
Standing there soaking on the stoop of the diner I imagined the oceans and the rivers and reservoirs outside of town that nourished the city all breaking loose and ripping apart and absorbing the brick facades and the embellished cornices and the stairwells and small sports cars and vending carts and street signs and deck chairs and expensive dresses. I realized that I hated everything that had ever been. Because it was not going to stop raining.
I conjured an image of my suit and the image wouldn’t leave me. It was a flawless suit, and in my pondering it fit me better than my skin. I wanted that suit.
I walked and walked and there were low voices all around me in the night. Soon I was in front of my tailor’s and my rage was ballooning. His basement shop was brightly lit. I let myself in through the front door and descended the stairs. The room was inhabited by five or six faceless mannequins in various postures. Cramm had his back to me in a monogrammed bathrobe, his black hair disheveled.
“Where’s my suit, Cramm?” I asked, startled by the ferocity in my voice.
He spun around and backed up into one of the mannequins, dropping a piece of chalk. One of the figures was wearing what I imagined my gray suit to look like, white lines running up and down the sleeves and pants.
“It looks pretty done to me,” I said.
“Almost, sure,” Cramm said, fear set in his dark eyes. After a second he said, “The cuffs aren’t sewn on yet.”
I advanced toward him. “I don’t give a damn about the cuffs. I never figured you to be this kind of person, Cramm. I’m disappointed.”
“Sorry,” he said. “But the suit is not done.”
Cramm was shaking when I went by him and tilted my head at the suit. The fabric was satiny. I hadn’t seen a better suit, even considering the white tracings. This suit was the clothier’s version of a ballad.
The tailor was crying and going for the staircase slowly. I pulled the pistol and fired, and the shot caught him in the hip and he fell behind some cardboard boxes.
I lifted the three-piece job off the mannequin and stripped, putting the rain-blanked manuscript on a stool. Removed my pants and jacket and slipped into the smooth seersucker I’d been waiting for. The fit was grand. I took the manuscript and passed Cramm clawing at the bottom stair.
“What’s all this for?” he said.
“For not having my suit done faster.”
“The cuffs still need to be measured,” he said weakly, and then I think he died.
“I like it how it is,” I said.
Soon I was under a streetlight and some men were scurrying around the dark buildings. I turned down an alleyway, glancing back to see some fellow entering Cramm’s shop and gesturing for others.
I felt better with the suit on.
A sirocco wind had sprung up and the bridge swayed over the river, and the river smelled of beached fish and that peculiar lachrymose pungency that water gives off before dawn. It was 4:20. I hadn’t been to my apartment. Hadn’t slept in how many days I couldn’t remember.
There was a barge somewhere off in the night. Foghorns throttled out every few seconds like a slow, dense clock. The bridge was empty of pedestrians and vehicles, the parapet below shaded by trees, the starless-ness of the sky jumpy with accumulating storms. I put two hands on the metal supports and whistled. I hadn’t whistled in a while. The resonance across the harbor was like some lost lullaby repeated from someone I’d never met. I whistled and whistled, a whistling maniac standing on a bridge. Wearing a fresh suit.
I held out my palms. It wasn’t raining anymore. I was glad. I was so glad I upped the volume of my dirge.
And then I wasn’t whistling anymore.
The same is true for the end of a story as it is for the beginning: where do you say it’s done? At the moment all of the various stupid actions make fate inevitable? That moment, however, could have been all along.
Endings are always the same because they’re usually not the same.
Below me, the river clashed with the pale banks, flooded onto the grass of a park. The night was a everywhere.
The ending could have been a batch of spotlights from the north side of the bridge, and the anomalous quietude of daylight shining through the darkness.
Could have been the silence of the men holding the spotlights steady and the displaced whispers of their supervisors.
Or Cowper materializing out of the spotlight, the way you can tell by his posture that he’s serious. Bent cigarette held in between his lips that looked as though he’d forgotten about it since last he’d visited me.
Any ending could be what he said to me on the bridge.
“Why’d you do it, Jome? All those people? Any reason whatsoever?”
Could have been my response, that maybe I was just frustrated with the whole goddamn idea. “I haven’t slept too well lately,” I said. “If only you understand how much of this I don’t understand.”
The end could have been the rain slaloming off Cowper’s hat or the men behind Cowper who were giving themselves shapes in the spotlight.
Suddenly I felt the great thrill of feeling nothing and the feeling was good. And that would have been a partly decent ending.
Cowper approached casually, as though we’d planned to meet here. Some of the men were close behind him. Now that I had my suit on I was ready, and it didn’t matter that the suit wasn’t finished. I pulled myself onto the bridge’s railing, head lowered to the clamorous river.
The end could have been that I didn’t care, or it could have been something as simple as a nod, because these kinds of things usually end on a bridge.
PECK is among more than 40 writers featured in our 2011 10th-anniversary anthology, All Hands On: THE2NDHAND After 10. “Last Orchard…” is his first book-length work of prose.
In this 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).
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?”
“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.
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.
“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.”
“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.
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.
“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.
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.”
“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.
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.”