“Last Orchard” is a short noir that began its life as a Peck short story, published via THE2NDHAND’s pre-txt online magazine — it’s now being serialized in one installment per week via THE2NDHAND txt here. Keep your eyes open for future installments. Peck lives and writes in Missoula, Mont. Find more from him in THE2NDHAND archives or in our 10th-anniversary book anthology, All Hands On, released in 2011.
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Let us practice every imaginable grimace. –Arthur Rimbaud, A Season in Hell
Let me begin before everything got all cockeyed and deadly and confused. Before Sue Longtree and Daddy Longtree and the orchard and Cowper and that bridge out of this despicable city. I blame a lot of this on my tailor, especially on that suave suit he never did finish.
But I suppose if I wanted to go back before any of this began I’d end up starting just after the dinosaurs were hacked to death by the wind and the earth and rotted away into fuel and dirt.
And where do you begin a story, anyway? Do you select some random point, or is there a tangible place that can be flipped over and fingered? “This is where everything started,” you would like to say. But any moment is random. There’s not a definite beginning to anything. The idea of a beginning is a turgid con. There can’t be a beginning when everything is at an end.
I’m not a writer; I’m something more like a transcriber of degeneracy and hatred. Had I any poetic talents I would be talking about something better: Birds in migration, the pleasantries of intoxicated guests at a cottage on the Cape, beautiful women having a picnic on a rooftop, flowers peeling back to let in the morning.
Instead, I’m talking about rotting dinosaurs and wretched people who have built this city with their capricious greed and startling cynicism.
I should say that nothing about this makes any kind of sense: there’s no solution, I don’t really know who’s responsible, whether anything criminal has been committed by others, what my involvement in the Longtree situation really consisted of, or even if it consisted of anything other than a psychotic redhead’s unquenchable love of her own self. And what I remember about Sue Longtree: the wave of her red hair, a smile that had in parted lips a riddle with no punchline, a scent, a stupid hope, a hand grasping my arm at a symphony performance.
“Why’d you do it, Jome?” Cowper says.
I say, “I haven’t slept too well lately.”
And that should have been enough but it wasn’t and it isn’t.
The river is down below like a dark, wavering sheet and the men are closing in for the big squeeze, Cowper leading them, his face a featureless blank in relief against the massive spotlight behind him. I swing a leg over the metal railing, and then the other leg, balancing on the parapet like some mad acrobatic fool. The men’s hard-bottomed shoes pound the concrete behind me and they’re breathing heavily and I can almost feel their arms pulling me back.
It’s funny, but the water below is so flat it looks like I could bounce right off the surface and carom back onto the bridge and find it empty of these animals in uniforms, replaced by daylight and a view of the city that has been erased by the rain. And maybe that’s exactly what I will do, when I am ready.
The river is getting closer, its contours in the night like an approximation of what I imagine the afterlife to be like: black, trembling and not nearly deep enough. I put a foot out and my shoe drops off. I don’t hear it plop into the river.
So where do I begin when there’s nowhere to begin?
The morning I found Sue Longtree in my office I’d spent listening to a record of the adagio from a Mozart piano concerto, and I’d thought to myself that it was the simplest interpretation of innocence I’d ever pried out of the world. That sound — a soft piano fading — would be a halfway decent beginning, except that I’ve forgotten the tune it belonged to.
But anywhere, any place, anybody is at least a halfway good beginning, if such things exist.
I was at the window looking out over the intersecting bridges spanning the city. Great hulking sculptures of metal and steel, able to withstand the fleeing and the returning with equal ease, layered on top of one another like a crazy staircase. Bridges are the strangest of modern conveniences, a street with no land underneath, a nowhere boulevard that can carry you across seas and lakes and rivers, transporting you to the elsewhere you yearn so vaguely to be. A bridge is the beginning and the end of any journey.
The river beneath the the webwork of bridges was sleek and consoling in its dangerous malaise, condemned to thrash, like all good rivers, against the encroachment of civilization.
A drop of rain struck the glass and eased down reluctantly. A siren yearned and careened three stories below in the street for a while, found its miserable destination and became a loose, fragile memory among a thousand others that one soon forgets. Then another siren joined in from somewhere beyond the first and the duet spun off to opposite fringes of the city, a cacophony of parting goodbyes in a town that is built of them.
It had just begun to rain and the buildings out the window were becoming coated in a slick mirror of water that reflected the fading sky and the buildings within reach. I studied a calendar on my desk, trying to intuit what day it was, but the calendar was from last year and I’d never been keen on math. Or anything else. I sat back in my chair and grimaced at the ceiling.
I yawned, trying to surprise myself.
There was a blue and white marble on my desk that I began to roll back and forth on the uncluttered surface. The ninth or tenth time I was too slow and it bounced against a copy of a dog-eared Dominic Early novel and that I’d been meaning to read. The marble dribbled onto the floor like any other sad, useless thing. I peered closely at the little round speck dreamily, urging it to keep rolling, but my momentary optimism wouldn’t take. I left myself alone.
Sitting in the same position for hours, romanticizing the days you wasted in the gutter, you tend to disremember that the street exists, that there is something beyond the flicking wall clock in the berserk simplicity of a familiar room. That maybe you’re a self-propelling organism with the nerve to feel all right; your body an urban development project and the brain a ticket-window to a carnival that is always vacant, though some silly bastard keeps the hallucinatory rides well oiled and moving along.
I was coming down with the initial chills of a cold is what I’m trying to spell out. Lousiness doesn’t achieve much more in one day.
That morning a middle-aged woman visited my office and offered me $400 to investigate the death of her husband. She was a babbling matron, barely able to subvert a speech defect that slurred her words, with the physique of a sack and lips purpled by wine. The husband was decapitated by a train as he attempted to switch the tracks at some remote outpost beyond the suburbs.
“It was mysterious,” the woman said. “In a week he was going to blow the lid on the Switchmen’s Union and some people — and by that I mean some people — didn’t like the idea much. And so you can imagine what I think.”
“Why was he going to blow the lid on the Switchmen’s Union?” I asked, and the woman must have heard my stultified tone, because she looked like she was going to spit on my desk.
“Roger said something about,” the woman paused, recalling, “black market goods being loaded onto freighters by certain squalid switchmen.”
“What kind of black market goods?”
“He never mentioned.”
She gave a harrowing account of the switchman’s life, replete with dinner routine, the hour his alarm sounded each morning, his Sunday yard work. Finished and breathing hard, gray hair clinging to her forehead, she expostulated some more and fell silent. Perspiration slithered on her exposed skin like she’d just enjoyed a bath of turgid lake water. It was disgusting to me.
“Any witnesses?” I asked.
“Just the engineer.”
“What does he say?”
“He was asleep.”
“So he wasn’t really a witness.”
“He was there,” she spat.
As bluntly as I could I told her that her personal grief was not a good enough reason to suspect assassination. People get in the way of trains sometimes. “Basically I don’t like or trust people who sweat profusely,” I said aloud without really meaning to.
“You have the mouth of a dog,” she said.
“Not every freak death is a conspiracy,” I said. She tore into a plastic bag of tissues. “Stupidity is extremely under-appreciated as a transport to the afterlife.”
“Roger wasn’t stupid.”
“I’m sorry, but anybody who gets his head knocked off by a slow-moving train is challenged in some special way. Wouldn’t you agree?”
I could have taken her dollars and done nothing but sit around and stare at it for a week, then report to her that I’d been unable to uncover anything conclusive. Maybe I was feeling lazy; possibly, I simply did not care. From Malthus one learns that the cause of all evil and crime is overpopulation, and ever since Pinkerton it has been good private policy for someone in my line of work never to meddle with unions.
“I thought you did this kind of thing,” she said, rising with tissues clasped in each hand.
“Honestly, I don’t know what it is I do anymore. It’s not your fault. I’m disillusioned, is all.”
“And it certainly isn’t mine,” she hissed.
She sobbed out to the hallway. As the elevator descended her whelps grew distant and stopped altogether, then resumed through the open window. I watched her hustle across the street against the light.
The office was chilly but I left the window open a crack. I tucked in my once-white dress shirt and propped a suit coat on my shoulders. A year and a half ago I’d nailed a portrait mirror to the backside of the door. Intended as security to inspect every angle of a client, it served mainly to distribute my deflation of vanity. Not a handsome man, perhaps, rather plump and grim under the eyes, the kind of looks certain women appreciate from a distance and realize, on closer scrutiny, they are very mistaken. But I wasn’t out for any woman. I’m sure they’d had enough of me, too.
Well, Harry Jome, I said to myself, stepping into the plank-floored corridor, whose walls were painted in indignant swipes. Let’s you and me get a couple of eggs. It’s about time we had some excitement.
May was humid so far.
The people walking the streets were dressed too warmly, and a collective grimace was growing wider by the inch, not at all helped by the pattering rain. Maybe it wasn’t the weather but the fact that unhappy people were steadily coming to understand their condition. But at least in the city you don’t have to be yourself 24 hours a day. Crowds of nobodies surge and swallow you in a great gulp, hustle you along to their nowhere, suck you into a civilization of aimless people attempting to appear busy. If I ever decided to long for friendship I could start talking to god or get a membership in a secret society.
At the 12th Street diner all the booths were taken. Eager employees and unperturbed excecutives were hunched together feasting on over-told stories about a certain cubicle, a shady bookkeeper, hoary bosses with a penchant for meanness. Beside me at the counter was a midget in a mustard yellow cardigan with a guitar case leaning on his leg, so that whenever he shifted, which was perpetually, he had to keep a hand on the case to straighten it.
The waitress was a mild teenager with braces and rubber bands in her shortish black hair, long unpainted fingernails and a demeanor so shy it would have made a pimp blush. She got my whole order wrong: the eggs were sunny-side up, the meat was ham. To her credit it was a highly unorthodox order. The coffee, at least, wasn’t ginseng tea.
Next to me the midget had his head in a newspaper and I found myself contorting to read the headlines as I ate. Suddenly he shot me an eye and hopped off the stool, taking the paper as he jumped away. There was nothing so attractive in the headlines anyway: death, mutilation, disease, an escalating crime rate, the subtle menace of germs and defeat, rape, pillage, genocide. It was too dirty to look at.
“I come here every day,” the midget said to me, folding the paper twice. “I sit in the same place and I don’t trouble anybody.”
I chewed my ham, watching him shake his head.
“Sorry,” he said. “I’m just in the mood for talking. You want to talk?” he asked.
“Talk about what?”
“You know what’s funny?” he said, and answered his question, “Nothing. I can’t think of a single thing that’s funny.” He straightened the guitar case. “Isn’t that funny?”
Depressive inclinations arose as I shoveled sopping egg onto unbuttered toast. At the end of the week I would be losing my office and shortly thereafter my apartment on a sunny avenue in the 4800 block. Letters had arrived from the respective invisible landlords, warning ungrammatically that I was three months behind. If I did not pay by May 15 I would be dragged into a courtroom and divested of my car and whatever else was reputed to have some value.
I was planning to leave town as soon as I could pay for gas. Now I wished I’d accepted the railroad widow’s money and fled, which wasn’t too chivalrous, but poverty isn’t chivalrous either. I scraped the plate clean and dusted off the driblets of food on the formica countertop.
“I mean,” the midget went on. “That’s only the funniest thing anymore. People are different everywhere, though. Some people think I’m funny just sitting here. I don’t know. I guess I am. But everybody’s funny in some way. Do you agree with that?”
“I’ll nod to that,” I said.
“Well, see you later if you come by again.” He grabbed his guitar case. “I’m here every day, so if you’re around I’ll be around.”
Another cup of coffee and a slice of cherry pie. I watched the waitress open a rotating glass case, cut the pie, balance it on a plate, rush it over, slam it down, hurry back, close the glass case, wipe her hands on a dishtowel, start the process anew for some other tired louse.
Before I had a second to lift the fork someone sidled in between the stools, touching my forearm with a bony elbow. In a churlish, clear voice, a woman asked the harried waitress where she could find Harry Jome. I was so taken aback at overhearing my name that I almost fainted.
Brilliant red hair was the first thing I noticed. The questioner was a slightly attractive, narrow-faced woman of around 35 or 40. Big dark sunglasses covered what were purportedly her eyes. In profile she had slightly masculine features that lend themselves gracefully to women of a particular attitude, and she certainly had that attitude. She was in black slacks and a matching turtleneck; the pinkish tint of her skin indicated that she hadn’t been in the sun for a few decades. By her subtle perfume, plush leather tote and air of astute arrogance, she was either wealthy or very wealthy. “Do you know where the office of a Mr. Jome would be? I believe it’s Henry Jome?” she said.
“Who?” the waitress said over the head of a customer at the end of the counter.
“Harry Jome,” I corrected.
“I’m sure it’s Henry Jome,” the red-head repeated. “He apparently has an office nearby.”
“Excuse me,” I said.
The redhead squinted at me from the corner of her frames and said, pouting her lips, “I was speaking to her if you don’t mind much.”
“Yes, and I’m talking to you if it’s not an inconvenience.”
“Well, I wish you wouldn’t.”
“You’re asking about Harry Jome?” I said.
“I was asking the girl about Henry Jome.”
“I’m doing you a favor, lady.”
“Well, stop it.”
Once again she tried to flag the waitress’ attention, but the young girl was too busy arguing with the cook to notice. The waitress screamed at the beefy man in white and blushed; she pulled the apron off and hurled it onto the grill. The stench of charred cotton brought scowls among the patrons. The former waitress took advantage of the furor in the kitchen to calmly open the register and clean out the contents.
It was my first smile in nearly three weeks.
“You see what you did?” I said to the redhead.
“I thought maybe you’d like a job.” She was backing away.
“Everybody knows Harry Jome,” I said incredulously. “Try the Santos Building. 3rd floor. If he isn’t in just wait a minute.”
“You his agent or something?” she asked.
“Harry is the kind of guy who doesn’t even need an agent,” I said.
She was out the door. Behind me two paunchy men in matching suits and porkpies were close behind her, pointing and hushing each other. One of them turned and winked.
The chef was cursing madly, his staff wreaking chaos and the diners all filing out in search of another diner. My coffee was drained but for a splatter of half-and-half at the bottom of the cup. I felt lonely.
TO BE CONTINUED…
PECK is among more than 40 writers featured in our 2011 10th-anniversary anthology, All Hands On: THE2NDHAND After 10. Order via this page.