Brunetti commands a special section in our 10th-anniversary anthology, released in 2011, All Hands On: THE2NDHAND After 10.
“There is something that I must say. That I want to do this to you, the clown lips. That’s my only goal now — is that you let me paint the clown lips. You will always be sad. You will always feel broken without me. But please, let me paint the clown lips.”
She said nothing. What could she say? She backed off a little bit. We were in my dressing room. I was a nobody but I had a dressing room. I can’t even say how I ended up there, in the dressing room. It had a broken wooden chair, a slipshod greasy mirror and blown-out track lights. A single sad bulb dangled from a wire, 40 watts. There was also a desk, a coat rack, and Marla. That was her name.
“Marla I’m a depraved man,” I went on. “I have no idea why you ended up with me or what you see in me. But this is the last tango, the last dress rehearsal for us. After this, I’ll leave forever and you’ll stay with the upturned clown lips. Do you understand that that’s what I want? That I just want you to have those upturned clown’s lips and I’ll be satisfied for eternity.”
Marla said nothing.
Forty-five minutes later we were in the tattoo parlor down the block. A poorly lit street corner was outside the plate-glass window. We sat in ink-stained, strawberry-red seats with metal armrests. The armrests felt cold. There was a man there with a tattoo needle. He was dabbing on a piece of paper — testing it out. The ink dripped. He ignored us for a while. Then he turned to us and said, ‘Next.’
‘Marla,’ I said. I told the man that Marla was a clown. That she and I were in showbiz. That we were the greatest partnership since—Brangelina. The man waited for me to shut up. Then I said, ‘Listen, it’s over. Marla will be suicidal from here on out. I want you to tat some clown lips on her. I want you to red-band her lips but put the upturned corners at each end. That’s most important: the upturned corners. If you don’t tat the upturned corners on her lips, Marla may die.”
“That what you want?” he said, turning to Marla, who said nothing. She stayed sitting in her seat. She looked like a girl who’d had a grapefruit mashed into her face, sour and damp.
“Get up,” I said. Marla got up.
“Listen, man,” the tattoo guy said. “This doesn’t seem consensual. I mean, it doesn’t seem like her idea. Anyway, she’s got to sign a waiver.”
“She’ll sign it,” I said.
“I’ll sign it,” Marla said. “I like clown lips.”
He did the tattoo. Halfway through I went across the street and drank a beer. When I came back, Marla had the clown lips but they weren’t ruby red — they were baboon’s-ass blue. It was magnificent.
“That’s better,” I said. “That’s better than I could ever have asked for.”
“I’m a genius,” the tattoo man said.
“So you are,” I said. “And so is Marla.”
We were all looking in the mirror. Then Marla took a needle from the counter and jabbed me in the eye. It plunged in straightaway like a bee stinger into a bare butt. I screamed a little and dripped some blood around. “Motherfucker,” I said. I dropped into one of the red chairs. The tattoo guy stood there looking at me. Marla stood beside him and put the needle back on the counter. There was some blood on it. “Motherfucker,” I said again.
Marla picked up the needle again. I looked her in the eye — with my good eye. Then the tattoo guy came over with some balled-up paper towel. I took the ball from him and pressed it into my eye socket.
“I’ll call 911,” he said.
“No,” I said.
“No,” Marla said.
She came over and sat in the opposite red chair. She reached out and took the paper ball from my hand and pushed the ball into the socket lightly. Then with a little more force. I grunted. The tattoo man sat down on a high stool behind the counter and lit a cigarette. I looked at Marla’s bright blue lips, the upturned corners of her mouth. She was smiling.
The poetry and fiction of Kara Carlson, based in New Orleans, has been published in Travel Magazine, Blood Lotus, Denver Syntax and various other venues.
My girlfriend had one of those smiles you wanted to pray to. She went to the museum for an early evening event. The last thing I wanted to do was talk to people I didn’t know about things I didn’t care about in a museum I couldn’t name. I caught the MUNI to the cemetery. I walked among the graves of those fine and faceless people who had gone before me. I smoked a joint under the trees and walked on the bodies. All that mattered was that I was alone.
The girlfriend was the artsy type, and that frightened me. But we had sex and we smoked and we drank and we breathed, running high in our artificial perfection of life.
I lived with Larissa and two of her friends on the corner of Geary and Masonic above a restaurant bar and below crack-dealing brothers. Our trash accumulated outside the front door like bad breath and rats the size of pigs lived under our staircase, the wood of which seemed something less than functional. The kitchen floor sloped and our black, spiked front gate gleaned with spit and blood. San Francisco was the kind of city where you forgot that something was wrong with you but you remembered that you didn’t know what it was.
When I had money, I drank Jack Daniels. When I didn’t have money, I drank Old Milwaukee and paid with dirty change. This was one of those times when breakfast was a half pint. I had a job because Larissa told me it would make me happy. I worked at some organic green grocery joint that the girlfriend referred to as a specialty retail grocery store. We used my employee discount to buy twenty-two-dollar cases of wine. The name was Trader Dan’s, maybe Tom’s, something like that. My friend Catfish called it Trader Slaves.
I was just coming down from an all-night bender and had been stocking lettuce longer than forever. I went out back into the alleyway with the dumpsters, swallowed some pills, and lit up a cigarette. The black door banged open and banged shut and Catfish was next to me asking for a smoke. I handed one over as if it didn’t belong entirely in my mouth.
“Let’s leave,” he said.
It was September, the sun looked like it had been cooked by God, and the beer I drank tasted like bottles of heat. The bar was the type with wet walls, scary seats, and a beer menu with imports from places like Germany and Belgium. Catfish pulled his rubber band out of his hair and some pills out of his pocket.
“I forgot I had these,” he exclaimed. “It’s like Christmas when I was twelve.”
Catfish’s mouth was too long, his eyes were too small, and his whiskers hung off his face in strings. I believe I trusted him. The beer removed everything ravaging us, and the pills ferried us to the kind of glory that felt like a lifeline. Nowadays, all those afternoons and all those nights and all those pints fold together in erroneous versions of happiness. But who knows what true happiness is, anyway? Beautiful women with their big, flawless lips and brilliant breasts? Men that I glance at and can’t help feeling inferior to? (It’s like if I were to talk to them, the words would disintegrate in my mouth and eat my imperfect tongue.) Those people are more messed up than I am.
An hour or a minute later we were on 6th Street with the earth fogging at the edges. As we walked through the crosswalk, an extraordinary mass of a person marched toward us pushing a baby stroller. The person had to have weighed 300, 350 pounds. It had a triple chin with some stubble, one earring, massive breasts, and shoulder length hair, the bottom two-thirds of which had been dipped in burnt orange paint. It wore a Giants shirt 10,000 times too small. The baby in the stroller was truly the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. It looked like a celestial being, radiating with the majesty of innocence. It sat, satisfied and sucking its thumb. I wanted to be that baby.
“Oh wow oh man oh Jesus, is that a she-man? And how does it have a baby?” Catfish asked.
I couldn’t tell if he was whispering or screaming. Without saying a thing, the person swung back a fist that might as well have been a hammer and hit Catfish right in the middle of his face. Blood rained down on the sidewalk and Catfish collapsed with his eyes open and a smile like the echo of grace solidified on his face. I kept expecting the baby to turn around and stretch out its little fingers to heal the hurt. I wanted it to come back. I wanted it to repair me.
Catfish’s arms were above his head and his shirt halfway above his stomach. Hot red sticky blood dripped all over his life. It was one of those moments that stand alone and stand still. Catfish broke a nose and cracked some teeth. He didn’t die, but at that moment he was a crucifix in a street, martyred for the thoughts of the plain and ordinary. That night, when Larissa and I made love, I exhaled her name but thought of the baby and the blood and the inconsistency of life.
Years later, when I barely recalled Larissa’s name but definitely recalled her smile, I woke up with my face right in the dirt. I was in the cemetery, and a homeless man two steps away had woken me up. I just looked at the guy.
“You’re alive,” he said.
It wasn’t a question.
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.
In the first installment, we met protagonist Harry Jome, down-and-out private eye nowhere near work of any sort until a surprise ghost asks for him in his building’s diner. In Chapter 4, we meet her more fully in Jome’s rat-infested office, and she proves something of a bizarre taskmaster. “Last Orchard” is a novel that began its life as a Peck short story, published via THE2NDHAND’s pre-txt online magazine — it’s now being serialized in one installment per week via THE2NDHAND txt. Keep your eyes open for future installments.
Download “Last Orchard” .doc for your eReader (check back periodically — the file will be updated as new installments become available).
I took the elevator to the fourth floor, bracing myself against the claustrophobic walls. The burnt, grimy taste of coffee swam in my mouth. I was getting a little sleepy.
The building that confined my office to its cement purgatory was one of the last authentically nasty establishments in that section of the city, a historical site of depravity and Prohibition-era vice. Reputedly it was due to be torn down any day now and I didn’t blame whoever was doing the tearing. The Santos Building had once been renowned as a haven for desperate call girls, and the basement, which I’d never dared look at, was said to have been a hub for all kinds of debaucheries.
The hallways of each floor had been gutted of any personality: a chair leaned in a corner, the windows covered with cardboard, pipes gurgling and hopeless under your feet and in the walls. All in all, it was so seedy you had to plant your shoes when you stumbled in.
Adjacent to my stenciled, fogged-glass door was a vacant space I’d never been curious enough about. Sometimes a light was on inside, and I could distinctly hear a man singing in a foreign language, but otherwise, I’d never seen anyone milling around the vacant halls. The landlord himself was just a telephone number that led constantly to a phone being hung up.
My office was unlocked. I hadn’t bothered to replace the knob I’d yanked off on a tortured Monday in the throes of my second marriage. Not much to steal, anyway, unless there’s high demand for peeling wallpaper and bent paperclips. The carpet that covered half the center of the floor was deeply green, paint flecked.
The redhead was already there, seated with her back to me in a chair that, 45 minutes ago, had been behind my desk. I made some noise coming into the room but she didn’t seem to notice. You can figure out a lot about a person by how unimpressed they are with your presence.
I sauntered cooly over and sat on the edge of the desk, made a production of crossing my ankles. She was prim to the point of being blatantly indifferent, hands clenched in her lap as though she were engaged in pondering the squiggles on a Pollock. Up close, her face was too wide and too hard, cheekbones prominent — the face of a film star who doesn’t get too many parts. Her glasses were off now and her eyes were green, wide-set and unyielding; the rest of her attempted to prove them right.
“Remember me?” I asked.
“Do you have a cigarette?” She had a habit of speaking with her mouth compressed, as though she were training to be a ventriloquist.
“At the diner?” I said. “Remember? About five minutes ago?”
“Because I left my pack at home. And it would be kind if you had one so I wouldn’t have to go crazy.”
“Sitting at the counter and you came up–”
“Do you or don’t you have a cigarette?”
“I quit a month ago.”
“That’s admirable of you,” she said, going through the purse between her heels.
“It doesn’t feel too admirable.”
“Admirable things usually don’t.”
Very casually she extracted a plain white envelope that was being used as a book marker in a pamphlet-thin pulp novel. On the front my name had been written in tiny cursive symbols.
“Won’t you lose your place?” I asked.
“I already read it. You know Dominic Early?” she asked.
“Maybe, but for some reason I don’t really think you care what I have to say.”
“Crime writer. He has a lackluster grip on the way people actually behave. Entertaining, though.”
“Let’s start a book club later. What’s this about?”
She batted her finger on the envelope and said: “This concerns my brother Ben and needless to say it’s confidential, if that means anything to you.”
“Information is overvalued,” I said. “Some jerk once defined hell as an infinite stream of details and possibilities. If that means anything to you.”
She flung the envelope on my lap. It slipped onto the floor and I bent and grabbed it.
“There’s a check inside for eight thousand dollars,” she said.
“I don’t like surprises anyway.”
“Do you like personal checks?”
At that point I would have accepted muskrat hides. I unsealed the envelope with a greedy finger and greeted the digits inside.
“That’s a little insulting,” she said. “I’m good for it.”
“I was simply trying to find out your name. It seemed less superfluous than asking.”
Susan K. Longtree looked at me over the tip of her pert nose.
“Just don’t call me Susan,” she said. “Nor think of me using that name.”
I loosened the knot on my black tie, peering like a creep at her ringlets of red hair held rigid with pomade.
“My brother, Ben,” she started. “He killed himself two weeks ago in a motel up north.” She related it in a mechanical spurt, the way you might tell the plumber that the faucet is broken. Something tugged at her lips now, not tears but the opposite of tears. “Ben was married to a woman here in the city and had a kid with her — a girl, Dot. So what I’m saying, Mr. Jome, is that Ben did not lead a miserable life. He worked as a golf instructor in that club outside of town then quit to take care of the wife and the kid. House. Family. Job.”
“Sometimes all three in collaboration can ruin anyone.”
“That’s very wise,” she said.
“The wife was not troubled by his mental state?” I asked.
“Ben’s wife and I haven’t ever gotten along. For that matter, neither have Ben and I. He was always happier than I was.”
“I take it you never noticed anything foul?”
“Not so much. He was a quiet kid from the day he was born. Like there was something inside of him gnawing away. He loved the lake up at the orchard.”
I let the tension stir the room until she was forced to look at me again. “What exactly, Ms. Longtree, is it you’re here for?”
Sue Longtree looked at me with blank eyes.
“Ben didn’t leave a note,” she said. “Is that strange?”
“Not really. The ones who hope to live are prodigious with their words; all they want is someone to listen. But some suicides believe in the act, not as some stunt to get mommy’s love, but as a serious decision. Believe me, I’ve tried writing in suicidal desperation. It’s all romantic slop and not very grammatical.”
She glared at me, not completely sure whether I was being facetious or sincere. In fact, I wasn’t quite so sure myself.
“So I would like to hire your services for a few days or a week and hopefully find out why Ben did it. Could there possibly be a note somewhere?”
“Is that all there is?” I asked.
“Just like the song says.”
“I feel insulted.”
“You must feel that a lot. The eight thousand is a down payment. Essentially, I don’t care how he died and we weren’t close. I want you to shred his death and use the pieces to solve his life. If a person kills himself for no reason, a sister is likely to get worried. Genes and whatnot. Believe me, I’m not paranoid. If Ben killed himself for a bona fide purpose, all right. As I said before: Find out why. And it’s Mrs. Longtree,” she said. “That’s why I’m not able to research for myself. I’m going through a divorce that ought to be settled in a trench.”
I scribbled in an unlined reporter’s notebook. The shorthand looked like a screwed-up association game, the hasty marks of a messy hieroglyphics.
I poured myself a soda water I’d been saving and asked the woman if she wanted some.
“I’ll take some rum,” she said.
“I don’t have any rum.”
“What do you have?”
“I have some soda water.”
I paced and drank while she talked. The story of her brother wasn’t terribly riveting stuff. Sue and Ben were both born upstate, the only offspring of Daddy and Mrs. Longtree.
“What’s your father’s name?” I asked.
“His name is Daddy.”
“I don’t think you’re being serious.”
“If he had any other name we never knew it.”
Their father ran a once prosperous orchard four or five hours north. Soon after Sue was born, Mrs. Longtree took the kids to live in the city away from Daddy and the isolation.
“My mother loved the city and my father loves the orchard,” Sue said. “So it caused some conflict. We visited the orchard sometimes. I couldn’t stand the place. Ben and I spent a lot of time together up there when we were kids, sneaking around, ducking out at night.”
“What about Daddy?” I asked.
“He was always holed up at the orchard. Daddy wasn’t anything more than a presence for me. After a while we stopped going to see him because he was getting weird. Nobody really missed him.
The fast crack of Sue’s voice was somehow transfixing, like being punched in the face with a peppermint leaf.
“At seventeen,” Sue went on, “I traveled awhile, thinking myself some kind of itinerant writer. I met my currently estranged husband at a lounge in Chicago. He manages and conducts a big band. They’re called The Boys and the music is so bad it’s demeaning for me to stoop to criticize it.”
“Well, you did marry him,” I said.
“Yes,” she said. “Marriage definitely is an institution.”
For Sue the rest was lawyers, estate debacles and a third-rate future of uncertainty and reliance in despised money. She glossed over the personal details diffidently, and though there was some pain in her voice it was the suffering of being snapped with a rubber band at close quarters.
Meanwhile, Ben Longtree packed off to university. Before he received his degree in biology, however, he suddenly quit and continued his career as a golfer. He won some high-paying tournaments and was interviewed a few times on the radio. At thirty-five he stopped competing and got himself a job at a country club outside of town. It was there that he met his wife, Carol Bergen, a tobacco heiress. That was five years ago.
“He took his wife’s name,” Sue said scornfully. “Bergen. I don’t understand how he could be so weak.”
“Maybe he loved her,” I offered
“I didn’t change my name when I got married.”
“Maybe you didn’t love him,” I offered again.
“Anyway,” she said.
Ben and Carol had a daughter before they were married, now six years old. Dot, Sue remarked, was silent like her father and mean like her mother. I agreed that it wasn’t a suitable disposition for a child.
“Carol is an abomination,” Sue said.
So Ben Bergen drove north into the halls around Sutter Falls to drop in on their father’s sixty-seventh birthday. A day later was found in his motel room, the radio blaring (the maid recounted), a neat hole through the roof of his mouth, out the top of his head and embedded in the crook of the plaster ceiling. Immediately the slaying was ruled self-slaughter and no one doubted the verdict, especially not Sue Longtree.
“They didn’t so much as dust the door handle,” she said. “It might have been quick, but these are the sorts of towns that have nothing to do except cart away suicides and bargain with housewives not to send two barrels into their husbands.”
“What about Daddy? You said Ben was up there to see him.”
Sue took a long look at her red-painted fingernails.
“Nothing that I know of. We’re a deranged family.”
“And your mother?”
“Dead. She was sleepwalking one night and tossed herself out a hotel-room window in St. Louis.”
“Another suicide,” I said.
Across the room a rat poked its slick head from a fissure in the baseboard. Saw me, froze, and disappeared back into the hole.
“So,” I said to impede the silence, squinting at my chaotic notation. “Bergen leads a fulfilling existence. Underwhelming job, wife and daughter. And so on. One night he just kills himself. It’s definitely not murder, and nothing so far as you can tell is nefarious about the incident. You’d like me to look at the death for any indication that it could be the result of a destructive tendency in your family, some horrifying gene.” I paused, drank, and let the soda water fizz under my tongue. “Okay. Why not do this yourself?”
“Two reasons,” she said abruptly. “One, I’m not close to any of these people. I don’t like any of them. They need a stranger to feel comfortable. Carol won’t even speak to me. Two, I’m actually scared at what I’ll find, that there could some lingering symptom of some kind of … ingrained problem.”
“That’s more than two reasons.”
“The last one is free. And finally, it’s not your job to pry into my reasons. Are you always so nosy?”
“Absolutely. And why should you be worried about why your brother killed himself?” I asked.
“I’ve just noticed things in myself that I don’t want to notice.”
We engaged in a clean silence that wasn’t very clean.
“There’s one other important thing,” she said. “It could be nothing. But Ben signed in at the hotel under a different name. William Florence.”
“That’s not so crazy,” I said, walking behind her so that she had to twist to follow me.
“Why isn’t that so crazy?” she asked.
I shrugged. “People rarely behave like they should when they’re about to shoot themselves. It probably doesn’t mean anything.”
“So you’ll look into this?” Sue asked.
“I guess so, until it leads nowhere or somewhere.”
“I appreciate that,” she said. She clasped the mouth of her purse and slipped it over her shoulder.
We shook hands; her palm was as dry as a whale bone.
I handed her one of my last business cards. A ring of coffee encircled the upper left hand corner.
“I like your logo,” she said, nodding at the stain.
“I had it specially made.”
“I can’t show any emotion. People tell me that all the time. It doesn’t bother me anymore.”
“That’s okay. Some people are born like that and others have to learn it.
Going out the door, Sue glanced at me in the mirror.
For a while I thought about her artificially red hair; in some sick way I liked her lack of concern and expensive rancor. When you begin to care is when the war marches and the beach guns start.
Gently, I folded the check in equal halves, drooling. I was thinking of nothing but the money and how it touched me just right where I needed to be touched.
I put a hat on my head and flicked the light switch. The hall was soundless and barren, some of the ceiling plaster floating onto the carpet. The rusted grates of the elevator clanged shut, the heap descended and I counted my check in a better light. The paper was crisp and impersonal and modern. The feeling it induced, however, was positively prehistoric.
After cashing the check and stuffing the fifties and twenties in my pants pocket I went to a pawnshop that specialized in my hocked goods. The metallic guts of the shop were congested with unwanted silverware and thick dust. I purchased back the pistol that I’d brought in a week ago, when my pecuniary status had been drastic. The proprietor was a smart-ass Hungarian with a beard that would have made fungi jealous. He had one of the largest collections of harmonicas in the store, as though a wandering harmonica orchestra had passed through town. The Hungarian wished me a happy death when I was exiting his shop. “Which is all that life is for,” he elaborated.
I wasn’t sure exactly why buying back my weapon was so important, only that I felt bereft without it, a man deprived of his art. Plus, I loved the weight of the .38 in my trouser pocket, and how lovingly it responded to the briefest touch.
The sky was pondering the rain, which was due to last a few days or so. I walked to 20th as excited as a dumb child at a horse race. My newfound cash was rolled into my right fist, my free hand caressing the gun in my pocket. Around 30th I started perusing shop windows, the way saps do when they’ve just received a modest sum of dollars and need to consider how it should be squandered.
At a delicatessen I bought a wheel of cheese and a yardstick of Italian salami. The rain was starting to come down forcefully as I reached 48th Street.
My apartment complex was a series of three plain buildings designed around an uncared-for park. The grass hadn’t been cut in months, the trees gnarled and perishing. No one wanders the unappealing, graffiti-stained path. As for the architecture of the buildings, it could be characterized as frigid Bauhaus in its charmlessness. My neighborhood is somewhere in limbo, a people of no extreme inclinations or ambitions, drifted along by a son of a bitch of a god whose idea of fun is leaving us to writhe and argue and die. Just like anybody else anywhere else and everywhere else.
The mail slot for 201 housed three Chinese take-out menus and a letter that had been there for three years, from a girl I didn’t want to remember and a time I didn’t want to forget. She was a short, dour girl who’d left me in a phone-booth waiting for her for three hours. Later I found out that she’d gone to San Francisco and married a yacht and the guy who owned it. She could have been the only dame I cared anything for.
Inside my apartment I stored the cheese, the salami and the money in the ice-box. It was a little after four.
A row of bookshelves was arranged chronologically on one wall in the living room; mostly the titles were related to late medieval philosophy, Aquinas’ works, the collected essays on magic by Bruno, Eckhardt’s surreal dreams about creepy angels who visited him during the night.
The furniture in the room was sparse, an armchair with a leather footstool, a sofa under the bay window, glass-topped coffee table scattered with shabby magazines. Likewise, the kitchen’s utility was based solely around an oblong table and one oak chair. As for the bedroom, it was a place where I slept. It held a big bed and a closet hung with suits that have not seen a dry cleaner in two presidential elections. It was so practical I could have been denounced as a communist.
I checked on the money in the ice-box, where it was chilled and hardening, the way money should be. I drew a bath and soaked awhile, pondering Sue’s hair and other attributes. Afterwards I ran a razor over my face and sprinkled on some minty lotion. I laid on the crumpled sheets of the bed. A poplar brushed the window sympathetically. Poplars do that.
The unlikely suicide of Sue Longtree’s brother was still a shapeless, random event that had no meaning. I liked Sue Longtree a bit, but probably the more I enjoyed her ruthlessness the less I would enjoy her ruthlessness.
The pillow was terribly inviting and dreams were fitful; in them I died at least twice. I awoke, having slept all of twenty-five minutes.
Later that evening I had dinner in solitude, joined by the sputtering static of a black and white television set rambling on in an idiotic advertisement. I got one channel. Better than silence.
As I polished off a cheese and salami sandwich I flipped the pages of my notebook, decoding the unintelligible script. Very little actual information to go on, but it was enough for the moment.
The heading of the first page was printed: Sue Longtree, client and underneath that:
Ben Bergen (used the name “William Florence”), suicide, no note, motel in Sutter Falls
Carol Bergen, wife of BB, call on immediately
Dot Bergen, daughter, 6
Shady Palm Country Club, BB employed, interview manager (Montero)
Contact Pol. Dept. in Sutter Falls
Mrs. Longtree, killed self in sleep (the immortality of dreams?)
Daddy Longtree, father of Sue and Ben, hermit, BB visited shortly before.
Below that, in the margin of the page, I had misspelled the word Orchard and even when I had it right, the word looked off.
Early on Wednesday morning I showered and threw on a white shirt, brown suit and black wingtips. I polished the shoes while they were on my feet, spending a good five minutes on each one. I’d owned them since a senior dance in high school, and the area just in back of the toes was as creased as a cutting board. Some Beethoven quartet was winding down on the record player.
In the bathroom mirror my reflection had drastically improved over the past day or so. My hair had changed over to gray when I was twenty-two, a semester into medieval studies, and had not recuperated since. Sometimes it lent a grave dignity to my poor, sullen face. Frankly, I was exhilarated to be working again, and the case fascinated me because it made no overtures to being eventful. I smiled at myself in the bathroom mirror, and the smile was nearly authentic.
I scrubbed the dishes in the sink while my toast burned. Sang off-key at the radio, had a couple bites of cereal. I brought the toast with me into the taxi, wrapped in a napkin. The bald, unhealthy-looking driver scowled at me in the rearview, muttering at the steering wheel in a volley of whispered complaints that I believed were directed at me.
Whole parts of the city were nothing but trash. Clenched in the early rush of vehicles, I looked at the streets heaped with unappealing black bags. People were hurling refuse indiscriminately onto the sidewalk now. Wrappers, beer cans, egg cartons, all manner of comestibles, soaked from the rain and strewn in parking lots and in lawns. Rotting meat was prevalent, its sunset-pink juices draining into the gutter. Some folks had attempted to drive their trash to the public landfill outside of town but were turned back: the big stinking crater in the ground was filled to capacity. Further digging had commenced. They would never be done digging. Maybe that’s the end to all outwardly impressive cultures.
The driver and I made a few snide quips at the extravagant neighborhood. He beat a fast left onto 3rd to outpace a light.
Carol Bergen’s house was near the middle of the wide, poplar-lined boulevard, number 113, with a cast-iron woodpecker for a mailbox. Two brawny bushes guarded the driveway.
I handed the driver fare plus a ten.
“You ain’t got to be cocky about it,” he said.
Compared to the ultra-modern monstrosities that formed the rest of the block, the Bergen residence was almost Victorian. Lattice-work ran the length of the flaking brownstone facade, shoots of vine grappling at the white criss-crossed planks. The walkway was red brick, the air infused with the dense sweetness of wet, freshly-mown grass.
I rang the bell and a dull chime flirted out of tune with a standard hymn. A white, monotonous sky held an airplane. Before I could press the bell a second time a woman had the door ajar, swaying in a liquored, stumbling dance.
“Come on in,” she said, the woman’s eyes puffy, drowsy.
“Mrs. Bergen?” I removed my hat and paused on the mat.
“Come on in,” she repeated lightheartedly. “Whoever you are you can’t be any worse.”
“I might be a little worse. And look at that, you’ve even cleaned up your shoes for me.”
“Do you live around here?” she inquired, emphasizing each word.
I said I didn’t live around here.
“Then you can’t be any worse,” she said. “Something happens to people around here. They get brutally dull and must find petty ways to hurt one another. I’m from Minneapolis originally.”
“Decent town,” I said.
“Is it really?” she asked gravely. “I don’t remember much about it. I lived with an evil aunt who collected these hideous monkey figurines she claimed were from Egypt. Why do you ask?”
“I didn’t ask.”
Carol Bergen was a short, scrawny woman in a white linen shirt that fit her like a drape. Somewhere embroiled in her forties, unmistakably shaken, a person who is born twitchy. The lines in her sallow face were an ideal slope for tears. Her breath was a high percentage and to whichever label it belonged it appeared to be working.
“I’m Harry Jome,” I said.
She pronounced my name familiarly, as though we’d gone to middle school together or had been recent neighbors.
“You sister-in-law contacted me to see what I could make of your husband’s suicide.”
Mrs. Bergen winced at the mention of her husband, muttering only, “Oh,”, and a beat later, “Why?”
“I’m not awfully sure. But sometimes it pays to not be awfully sure. Mrs. Longtree essentially wants to know the reason for his demise, whether it’s in the blood or what it is.” I shrugged. “So, now you know as much as I do.”
Downcast and confused, she offered to take my coat and hat, and when I declined, she insisted on helping me out of my coat and hat and clutched my coat and hat in her bony arms. She tottered into the walls as she led me through a foyer. Blank, faded spots were on the walls, where photographs or watercolors had once been.
The kitchen at the end of the hallway was a cluttered mess of grimy dishes, blackened pots, cabinets disarrayed. Mrs. Bergen plunked my coat and hat on one of the chairs and poured herself clear liquid from an unmarked bottle. Turned, I could see that the seat of her tan pants was patterned in coffee grounds. With her back to me she looked healthy and almost sexy. When she turned and seemed to guess my thoughts I found myself mourning the last eight or so years of her life with her. Every movement she made was desperation disguised as movement.
Her body swayed clownishly as she tried to find the chair that I was positioning under her. She grimaced at me as though she had just swallowed half a decanter of melted plastic. Taped to the refrigerator was a finished crossword puzzle.
“Nice work,” I said, pointing at it.
She slid into the chair inch by inch.
“Ben and I did that the night before, I guess, and by the way what’re you doing here?”
“I’m here about Mr. Bergen — Ben.”
“Ben’s not here.”
“Ms. Longtree sent me over.”
I noticed that Mrs. Bergen’s exuberant brown hair was a wig. It slipped forward over an eyebrow, revealing close-cropped gray bangs.
“Bitch,” Mrs. Bergen mouthed.
“Sure,” I said. “She just wants to know why he did it. Whether it’s a family tic. I suppose that’s not too unreasonable.”
“No, not too unreasonable…. It’s as fucking stupid as a…” she tried to compare it to something but failed and grinned like I was meant to infer what she was alluding to.
“How did Ben act towards the end?” I asked.
“Same as normal. Ben had a fabulous character.” She looked at the tabletop — a swathe of fine cigarette ash — as though it were an hallucination. Her eyes were a triumph of cynicism.
“Let me apologize,” she said. “And pour you a whiskey or gin or something?”
“I don’t drink.”
“What, were you raised by Quakers?” she snarled as though I had just insulted her first cousin.
“No,” I said. “Alcoholics.”
She laughed and hissed at the same time. “I’m better than everyone else in the world,” she said, “except for myself at my worst.”
She blinked and looked confused.
“You’re as fucked-up same as me,” she said.
“Who isn’t, Mrs. Bergen?”
“Sure he was.”
Instead of getting angry she smiled that belligerent smile, at the point where sobbing is inevitable. She came up close to my face and the smell of booze mixed with a lingering fruity shampoo was a sickening combination. Before I could resist she grabbed the back of my head and pulled my mouth to her mouth. Pulling sloppily from me she said, “I don’t know why I did that. I didn’t mean to do that.”
“You thought I was somebody else,” I said.
“I guess you’re right,” she said. “Excuse me while I go away for a moment to compose myself.”
She oscillated into the next room. My stopping by was worthless and sorrowful. An untoward kindness came over me and I put her glass in the sink, then lifted my hat and coat on. Passing by the living room I saw that she had fallen asleep on the orange corduroy sofa, her restless body twitching in a nightmare that would be right where she’d left it. One of her sad eyes opened and she murmured, “I’m better than everyone else in the world, except for–” and didn’t finish plagiarizing herself.
High above the couch there was a drawing of an orchard that I barely glanced at and would have forgotten had it not been so strikingly out of place in a room with no other pictures. The style was expressionistic and influenced by twilight, similar to a Goya print or a print by a friend of Goya’s.
So far the only thing I knew about Ben Bergen was that he had been alive and now he wasn’t alive.
I shut the front door silently behind me just as Carol Bergen belched in her sleep.
Considering Mrs. Bergen’s overall condition, it suddenly hit me that Sue Longtree’s inquiry was absurd. What was she expecting me to find out? Why? Did it make any difference if you knew with definitiveness that you were crazy and that you’d been crazy from the start? Plus, Sue didn’t care a lot about the fate of her brother, only how it impinged on her. Still, four grand was a tidy sum I couldn’t pass up, even if I wasn’t too sure what I was passing up and what I holding onto.
I picked up an umbrella for $15 at a corner vendor’s on 10th. The umbrella was red and blue, the vendor telling me it would last through a hurricane. Strong winds were racing in from the east and I had to wrestle with the umbrella all the way to the Santos Building, sweating when I reached the downstairs lobby. As usual, nobody was around. The stairwell was gray and dank, haunted by a scent that was deathly stale. A puddle had formed on the second-floor landing and I hopped over the little pool.
I rummaged through my drawers for nothing in particular. I was anxious, confined; the euphoria of the morning had been beaten to death by Carol Bergen’s pathos. I kind of felt bad for her because I knew what it was like to wage a fruitless struggle against the bottle. And maybe a little affectionate, too. Mrs. Bergen was a pathetic cliche, and cliches are dangerous because generally so appropriate.
In the drawers I picked out a bullet that had been mailed to me by an incapable man in the heat of his divorce; a counterfeit $100 bill; antacid tablets; a candy bar that had liquefied and solidified so frequently that the silver wrapping was more edible; $1.27 in loose change; the degree I’d earned at a stuffy haven of higher learning; one shelled cashew; and nine street maps of the city. A snooping biographer would have all the details he would ever need to write the life of Harry Jome, and then he’d quit and tell his publisher it didn’t amount to much — an article if he was lucky, and could he have a few spare bucks for the work, to keep things genuine, because anybody who would write about me would necessarily be the kind of person who was often broke. I dusted out the lint, replaced the junk, and was squeezing myself into a mild depression when the phone rang.
“You sound a bit down,” Sue Longtree said into my ear. “Must be all the hard work you’re doing.”
“Your sister-in-law is a six-a.m. drunk. There’s not much I can do with her. That’s the big lead I unearthed this morning. She doesn’t know whether to applaud or sob. She even tried to seduce me, I think.”
“What do you mean, you think?”
“She’s a trite mess of a lot of problems.”
“I wonder if she’s still my sister-in-law,” Sue said musingly. “With Ben dead and everything.”
“Would you like me to find that out too?”
“Saying something dumb isn’t the same as wit.”
“Wit is too profound for me. I usually just bounce my head against the wall for kicks.”
Sue cleared her throat.
“You know,” I said. “You haven’t really confided in me why you suspect this preposterous theory concerning your family. What’s actually the point?”
“Both my grandparents were suicides. At the same time.”
“Double suicides are as rare as twins.”
“Just as hard to feed, too.”
“Ms. Longtree, I think maybe–”
“You’re going a little short on my prefix, Mr. Jome. Did I tell you I’m married?”
“I must not have been listening. There was a lot to look at and I might have ignored that knowledge.”
“I have a creeping sense that you’d be slightly intelligent if you thought it wouldn’t hurt your business.”
“There’s no business to hurt. I act this way because I enjoy the bewilderment of others.”
“You must be enjoying yourself a lot.”
I held the phone in the crook of my shoulder and took it for a walk to the window. Another dreary, pitiable day that had no ambition, the kind of sky that made you want to build a better one.
“But you hate your husband,” I said.
“That’s true,” she said, as though she’d just found out. “So you can understand why I’m concerned.I haven’t traced the genealogy far, but what I know is that there is cause to worry.”
“What you need is only someone to let you talk and cry.”
She laughed and it was horrendous. “Everybody has a shrink nowadays,” she said. “You give him a problem and he gives you some cute little yellow pills.”
I thought of her hair draped lugubriously over the phone. Red hair always bothered me and by that I mean it has never bothered me.
“Besides,” she said. “What would you do if you were me? It’s possible that I’m a threat to myself or other people. If you can get evidence I’ll check myself into the nearest blue ward a second later.”
“Maybe you should think about doing that right away.”
“A happy person does not kill himself is all I am saying, and from what I know my family has a tendency toward killing themselves.”
A taut silence ensnared itself on the line.
“Well,” I said.
“Goodbye, Mr. Jome.”
Sue Longtree was pretty, dedicated, endearingly eccentric. She reminded me of someone I’d like a lot. She was nuts, but she wore it well, and she was also smart, but smart is an acquired trait.
Down below in the rain-puttering street a person shouted as loud as he could, as though the shrill message was intended solely for my edification, and perhaps it was.
TO BE CONTINUED…
Michael Peck lives and writes in Missoula, Mont. Find more from Peck in THE2NDHAND archives or in our 10th-anniversary book anthology, All Hands On, released in 2011. More about it below.
Find Chicago writer Pine’s second story for THE2NDHAND below. For more of his work, visit his site.
He’d be dead before lunch, if the mark showed up. But there were all sorts of cops in the Loop: on bicycles, on dune buggies, in squad cars, on horses, on Segways — a clash of transportation eras, downtown, at least when cops were involved. The mark was late.
The sun fell between buildings in milky strands and the air was cool, which gave the day an autumnal feel, although this happened in early spring. He wore sunglasses, a windbreaker, and carried a folded Redeye. He paced, trying to look like he wasn’t pacing. Intermittently, he took pictures on a disposable camera of the buildings he thought might appeal to tourists. The camera was out of film, but he continued to raise it to his eye, align the viewfinder with glass window grids, and press the button.
He was looking for three officers traveling on foot, two men and a woman, career friends to all appearances. Most days they walked out of the pedway beside the cultural center, laughing, twirling billy clubs, walking three abreast and entirely dominating the sidewalk. If he’d done any more planning, he’d have learned the cops’ names — or maybe he wouldn’t have, because that’d’ve meant getting close enough to read their nametags, and they might’ve read the look in his eyes, and that’d’ve spoiled everything.
But he knew their routine — hopefully that was enough — how nearly every day for lunch they cut over to Jewelers Row on Wabash, beneath the El tracks. One by one, they filled the doorway of a diamond shop, where in the back the owner maintained a falafel counter. Many times he’d watched them order three lentil soups, three chicken shawarmas, and three cans of Diet Pepsi. The male cops were white, with matching push-broom mustaches and large guts that squeezed from their bulletproof vests like frosting from Double Stuff Oreos. The female cop was also white, with a lesser gut and a fainter mustache. Most days, they took lunch between 12:45 and 1:30. But then some days they never came, and he didn’t know why, and there was no pattern to it. It was 1:35. Most days, they came.
He waited, and for a change, he was lucky. Real lucky, because just as the three cops came out of the Pedway, huffing from the double flight of stairs, a Brown Line train approached overhead going north, and a Green Line train looped overhead going south. This was too perfect! This was great luck! he thought, as he threw away the sunglasses and disposable camera. He took an X-Acto knife from his pocket and slipped off the safety cap. He crouched beside the door to the diamond shop.
It’s been 20 broadsheets and six years since Joe Meno, once a regular in THE2NDHAND’s sheets, has appeared therein. No surprise for the hiatus, really, given since then he’s put out two shorts collections and at least as many novels, in addition to becoming a father. But: our latest broadsheet features a new story that’s also part of our 10th-anniversary All Hands On collection, due within a month. Order the book and find more information about it here.
As for the new Meno joint, it’s called “In the Avenues of Airplanes and Paper,” captures the struggles of a young woman attempting to deal with a compulsive habit she has of putting “air quotes” around near everything she says — to the point, for instance, that she wears mittens on a date.
Within the peculiarity of it all Meno finds — and the protagonist locates as well, inside and outside of her self — the very essence of what it is to be human.
Take a look at it on the broadsheet’s main page or click through the front-side image below for a pdf:
Busy week at THE2NDHAND HQs in Chicago and Nashville this week, on top of festivals of hot chicken and backyard BBQ and fireworks, as well as the more not-so-backyard variety, as shown here. (Gotta love that Nashville blow-stuff-up spirit.) Tuesday night Nerves of Steel is back in Chicago after a brief June West Virginia sojourn. It ought to be a rad showing, with writer Michael Czyzniejewski on the program with the comedic duo of the Puterbaugh Sisters, band the Post-revolutionary Letdowns, and more.
In Nashville, an event I’ll be hosting, writer/comix artist Cassie J. Sneider stops off on a 48-state tour behind her new Fine Fine Music collection. She’s joined by a Nashville writer folks will remember from one of the first couple readings we put on here, in 2010, Katrina Gray. Two Clarksville-based scribes are headed in for the event as well, Amy Wright and Quincy Rhoads, who oddly enough were at one point in the distant past prof and grad student in a class at Austin Peay uni there. They’re all awesome writers, in any case — don’t miss it.
Finally, Cassie herself shared these seven reasons to come to her reading, “even though you don’t know me,” as she puts it:
1. You can tell all of your friends you ‘attended a reading’, which makes you sound really smart and superior and better than them, which you undoubtedly already are.
2. It’s like Hulu-ing Hoarders, but WITH YOUR IMAGINATION.
3. Free comics for everyone!
4. I’ll let you pet my hair and pretend I’m not creeped out by it.
5. I’m, like, a really good reader.
6. Did I mention free comics?
7. I will pet YOUR hair and you can tell your friends you went on a date with me. …