20
Aug
2012

THE LAST ORCHARD IN AMERICA, by Michael Peck — Part 9

In the last installment of Peck’s noir, private eye Harry Jome cases the identity of two fellow businessman who have been following him for the better part of the tale — goons hired by his client’s husband as part of divorce proceedings. As of the beginning of this installment, one of the goons is dead, and Jome’s intimacy with the client, Sue Longtree, continues. After this: only two installments remain — stay tuned.

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

 

Chapter 30

There was a circus of Longtrees in my dream, some in period costume and others current, segued and dark-eyed, ready to slaughter one another at the drop of a glance. I was ignored by them all. They’d congregated in a vast, dead field where indeterminable fruit was being harvested, packed into crates lain waiting in the rears of white trucks, and driven off with a groan of antique engines.

I wandered among them, searching for Sue, wholly lost in the enormous, apparently endless orchard that had borne every single goddamn one of them and looked to be in some kind of golden age.

One youthful Longtree drank vinegar from a clear glass cup.

Another was plucking grass and eating it.

And a third, a woman, watched me longingly from the restive spot under a tree.

I counted the rough patches of cloud overhead. The horizon in every direction — a blisteringly red sunset — was obviously as fake as a Hollywood backdrop. Brushstrokes could be seen clearly, and streaks of paint dripped down from the convex sky, forming puddles at the base of this fake world.

For a dreamscape, it was the work of a dilettante craftsperson with not a whole lot of expertise.

On the other side of the field a figure of stooped shoulders mourned inaudibly. It was Sue. I approached her and saw that she was cutting desperately into the skin of a dull red apple with a razor-blade. Her grin fairly jumped off her face. Then her lips compressed and her frown was as dismal as a trench.

“Does the breeze have a kind voice?” she asked.

She kept slicing through the flesh of the apple but there was nothing inside and soon she was empty-handed, pouting, counting something in the air, and then she was pointing at my throat with a look of horror.

Liquid was spilling across my neck towards the back of my head. I blotted the spot, trying to make it ebb, but the warmth was relentless.

Then something happened.

I woke panicked. The ceiling was drifting away into a recklessly speeding fan that I could not follow. I tried to keep my eyes fixed on a single rotor but lost it in the distant whirring motion.

Sue Longtree was straddling me; her eyes were shut tight, mascara and tears staining her cheeks. I felt the razor digging into my neck, gliding effortlessly towards my adam’s apple. I was in shock, more from the disturbingly tranquil expression on her face than the fact that she was cutting my throat open. A rush of hot blood streamed around me, wetting the sheets. She was parting me very slowly and carefully. I shifted but she wouldn’t budge, then I tried pushing her away, but her dead weight was immovable.

I had her wrist and slapped her with my free hand, and then I slapped her harder. Weakness was slopping all over me like a newly bathed animal, subduing me totally. I thrashed and I yelled and stammered. Still she slept and used the razor-blade. Soon I was only gagging and sputtering epithets.

Dying is just the fear of dying. I savored and chewed my breath as though it were poisoned oatmeal.

The final image that would throw me into the Questionable would be a somnambulist woman carving her initials in my neck and the ceiling fan like a cryptic halo above her red-hair.

Finally I socked her so densely in the side of the head that my knuckles or her cheekbone cracked, and she toppled off the bed with a flicker of green eyes, giving me another valedictory swipe of the blade as she was pushed off and landed on the floor with a thud and a little shriek that was uttered in a voice that didn’t belong to her.

I rolled onto my stomach, stanching the wound with the pillow. Things once clear in the room were becoming disconcertingly imprecise. The clock was a tiny explosion of numerals, the furniture just billowing wooden figures, the whole room a rotating womb with no solution. Trying to stand I fell into the nightstand, stuttered a few mumbled phrases, and was out well before the hardwood floor caught me.

 

Chapter 31

While I napped in the comfy embrace of dying Sue had tied one of her husband’s monogrammed handkerchief’s around my cut neck. The bleeding had temporarily stemmed, leaving behind a lacerating pain that killed any urge to wonder very lucidly. Fifty-one percent of that pain was from rage. With her unwanted help I staggered into the bathroom, bowed my head into the spotless sink, and washed my face with miserably cold water.

“Go away,” I told her when she put a hand on my shoulder, “This is not a good time,” and she went away. In the mirror I watched her getting back into her bathrobe, and her body was all lust for a second, and then it wasn’t anything.

Carefully, I unwrapped the tourniquet so that the clinging fabric didn’t jerk my skin off. I soaked the grinning gash with a cupped hand. The agonizing tang of water lasted awhile. I gripped the faucet with my other hand to steady myself. I stood at the sink for five minutes, my mind amok, trembling, unable to think well.

She came into the mirror in her bathrobe looking worse than I did, her left cheek a wheel of greenish brown, top lip cracked and bloated. Red strands of hair stuck to the glib sweat on her brow.

“You could have at least used shaving cream,” I said. She was crying now and trying to hold back the tears skittishly.

“I’m sorry, Harry,” she said, sliding two arms around me. I slipped out of her reach and into the bedroom, scrutinizing her disconsolate reflection from a freakish angle and pretended that I wasn’t going to pass out from the pain, from perpetual lack of sleep.

“I’m sorry for how you must be feeling right now,” I said. Neither of us were dazzled by my clever parlance.

She was all pinched up, scowling like a dog. I hunched forward on a footstool, gathered my shoes on. I tied the laces as though I were focused on some algebraic problem that had been baffling men for centuries.

“I was sleeping when I did it,” she breathed. “I couldn’t know what I was doing. Now you know why I hired you.”

I got my shoes laced and realized that they were the only clothes I’d put on. My ratty suit and trousers were scattered in the sheets and I quickly untangled them and dressed brusquely.

“That’s no excuse,” I said. “And I only half believe you. I knew you were a bitch. I didn’t know why. I still don’t know why.”

“I can’t help it,” she said. “I had a dream that I was doing it and I awoke and I was doing it.”

“I’m through,” I said, zipping my pants. “With you, I mean.”

“Keep the money.”

“I wasn’t considering not keeping the money. But I’m not quitting yet. This scenario is going to be solved whether you like it or not.”

“There isn’t any solution,” she said. “It’s gone on long enough.”

“What’s that mean?” I grabbed her roughly by the arm and shook her. She wrenched free and sat on the bed, head bowed, hands splayed on her knees.

“I don’t mean anything,” she said. “I’ve never meant anything.”

“What’s gone on long enough?” I asked.

“Everything.”

“You’re not making any sense, Ms. Longtree.”

Sue burst into a crying fit that lasted a few seconds. It was strange not to feel remorse or a pang of sympathy for the woman, but I felt neither. Not even curiosity.

“So now you know about yourself,” I said. “You like to murder people in their sleep after sex. Like the rest of the Longtrees, apparently.” I paused and gave her my worst scowl. Her sobs were coming in short huffs. “So you know. So now what?”

Sue raised her head, searching my face for some kind of reassurance. She found none.

Her crying grew soft, but persistent, like she’d been saving a lifetime’s worth of stifled reactions for the right moment and just realized it wasn’t the right moment but couldn’t shove it all back in. With her knees pulled up to her chest on the disheveled bed Sue suddenly looked tiny and far away. Perhaps I should have forgiven her, consoled her, told her untruths about how screwed up she was, at bottom a kind woman with nowhere to shove her kindness. Something, however, about how afraid she looked made me even more merciless.

“You can always tell,” I said, “whether you’re crying for someone else or for herself because a woman always cries for herself.”

My brain was clumsy and it took me two minutes to button my shirt.

“I haven’t been really sad in a long time,” she said.

“I believe you. You’re making advances.”

She clutched the neckline of her bathrobe together, eyes just a muted, watery green, mouth weak and closed. She hadn’t died her hair in days, and for the first time I spotted brown roots thrusting at the red. The cute nightlight lay submerged in its own coy glow, knocked off the table by our grim choreography.

Sue was sobbing my name.

“Harry, I have to tell you something.”

“I don’t want you to tell me anything because nothing you say is worth listening to and I’ve heard it anyway.”

I knotted my tie, forgetting the condition of my neck, and a searing stab of pain shot to my chin, reinvigorating my indignation.

On a shelf in the bedroom there was a row of colorful books, and on a few of the bindings was the big name of Dominic Early in goofy font.

“Who the hell is this goddamn Early guy?” I shouted at her.

She looked up, and when she did, I couldn’t look at her. Without difficulty I opened the door. For a second I glanced at her in the middle of the bedroom, lost in her own mind, bruised, childish, shaking. The hallway was demure, wider than I recalled, splattered with calm hues of blues and whites, of figures and round shapes and a tinsel ceiling. I eased the door closed soundlessly.

I waited for her to follow me out so that I could leave her again. Soon the sobbing stopped and another door clicked shut.

There was a drawing of the orchard, this one unframed, stuck to the wall with two strategic pushpins. It was sloped to the left. I felt the need to straighten it. A radio somewhere was playing opera. Cherubini, I thought. I’d never liked Cherubini much, never less so than now.

I hastened out like a nihilist at a village choir practice. Torrents of rain slapped the pavement, slapped my aching body, the pain radiating down from the smile in my neck as I ambled across the lawn, avoided the spitting sprinkler that sounded as though it were wishing me a loony farewell.

I stumbled through the vacant neighborhoods of the dusky morning, oblivious to the dimwitted paper boy in green hauling a sack of early editions over his shoulder, the delivery trucks, past the overnight factory men pulling dismally into driveways to sleep badly until the next shift, the knocked-down lawn ornaments and the weeping willows, the crows nibbling at overflowing garbage bins. Wives closed mailboxes with pops and sorted through letters and coupons. Bending into someone’s garden I plucked a larkspur and studded it into my breast pocket.

The handkerchief was coming undone and I had to continuously keep from handling it as a shot of mad torment shook me. I knocked into brick walls and telephone poles, wanting to vomit like I had never wanted anything else in my life.

I don’t know why in hindsight, but I was making for the Bergen residence. Other than not dying, the money in my freezer was the only claim I had, and Carol Bergen seemed the best person to feel sorry for myself with. I no longer had any idea what I was doing. What’s more, a mean notion hit me over and over — I hadn’t known what I’d been doing for quite a while.

My aspirations dwindling like a pack of geese at a skeet shoot, the great big clumsy solution struck me. A second later the enlightenment was lost in my creaking thoughts, and I couldn’t be sure what I had grasped.

At the Bergen place the little kid, Dot, met me on the porch. She was a fragile, brown-haired child eating apple sauce out of a blue plastic bowl with her hands. Her eyes were deeper and grayer than a child’s should have been. I was swaying on the top step. The street was too wet and too glistening and all of a sudden too hot to stand in.

The kid screamed. I patted my throat. The handkerchief was lying on my shoe, the rain rinsing it clean. Dot ran behind the screen door, small and dark against the interior of the house. Carol was shouting for her from the backyard.

“It’s OK,” I said to the kid. “Jome is OK. Just give him a minute.”

While I was stooping for the handkerchief, I toppled onto my head and heard, briefly, five million pairs of heels marching toward me. The sidewalk was moist and agreeable and I could have lain there for days. Hands prodded me, voices yelled, and all I could think of was my tailor’s extraordinary incompetence and how upset I was that the suit wasn’t finished yet.

 

Chapter 32

I was floating in an airless vacuum and then I was tumbling back to earth, but maybe I didn’t want to be tumbling back to earth. I might have screamed out, or sobbed and spasmed, but I knew it was a delusion and I knew it was fleeting. It was that static elsewhere I recalled from my alcohol-induced fever days, a particular kind of location that doesn’t have any geographical location or depth. I just didn’t know how to get rid of it until something cold was splashing into my eyes.

Carol Bergen was daubing my head in gentle circles with a wet washcloth. Her brown eyes were concentrated and nurturing.

I reached for my neck, but she swatted my hand away. Carol handed me a bottle of whiskey that was nestled into the sofa-cushions between us and I took a long cool sip and let the liquor ooze onto my lap. She grabbed the bottle away.

“Don’t touch it,” she said. “I just wrapped it. It isn’t so bad, but you’ll have a pretty fever for a while, and you might think your head is going to fall off. But that’s probably a familiar sensation.”

Carol’s free hand was glued to a glass of bourbon floated with ice.

“I hate to mention it right now,” she said, “but I told you about her.”

“You didn’t tell me everything.”

“I didn’t know everything.”

She folded the compress in halves and continued to dampen my skin.

“Let me have some more of that bottle?” I said.

“Be quiet and don’t move,” she said.

Dot came into the living room trailing an anemic doll. She sat down cross-legged next to her mother on the floor. The kid stared at me uncomprehendingly, exactly the same way I would have looked at me if I were a child.

“Did Ben smoke?” I asked. The words echoed around in my head as though emitting from a sound-proof chamber, like I might have been communicating in rebuses.

“Never,” she said.

I closed my eyes and grinned inwardly, but the grin slipped onto my lips and the tightening brought a wave of discomfort.

“There’s something,” Carol said.

“It isn’t anything.” I took the bottle from its perch, brushed it lovingly on my cheek to soothe the heat emanating from my wound. Then I drowned the booze and handed the bottle back.

“I thought you didn’t drink,” she said.

“I don’t unless there’s some occasion.”

“This is no occasion.”

“I didn’t say it had to be a good occasion.”

“You’re funny, Mr. Jome.”

“I’m a few good laughs.”

I sat up. The soreness howled at me, then diminished somewhat. I couldn’t move my head side to side; every swallow was like being crucified on bamboo. The room hadn’t transformed. Still no pictures. Except for the orchard drawings.

“Where did all these awful things come from?” I asked, gazing at the drawing. “They’re all over town, for chrissakes.”

“Ben did them,” Carol said. “When he was at the orchard.

“Why?” I asked.

“Why?” she asked back.

Mrs. Bergen shuffled off to the kitchen with the bottle. The kid was leaning forward and searching my face for some token of understanding, then quickly giving up. For such youth, she had a tired gaze inherited from her mother and a worn expression that had not evaporated from her face since I got there.

“So, it’s not so bad after all?” I asked the kid.

She shook her head shyly, No.

Loaded with two glasses Carol handed me one solemnly. When she instructed Dot to leave the room the child did so obediently.

“I thought some glasses would make us more glamorous,” she said.

I drank loudly, slurping and choking down the booze and the booze was gentle and good.

“Why don’t you fetch the police?” she said in a concerto of ice-chewing. She was beside me on the couch, legs twisted under her.

“The police are too predisposed toward me at the moment.”

She blinked, lowered a glance into her drink and lapped it back. I skipped the part about the two dead investigators.

“Besides,” I said. “What are the police going to do when I tell them what happened? A crazy girl tries to murder me in her sleep.”

Carol’s eyes burned. “She was with you like that?” she asked.

I ignored her. “There’s nothing that can be done. But I was paid and I intend to see it through.”

“She’s dangerous and you’re lucky. There were many times…”

“Many times what?”

“She’s just dangerous.”

“She likes to think she is.”

“She hated Ben. She hates me.”

“Why’s that?”

Carol shrugged and took the drink out of my hand and drank it. “Some people just hate. I can’t remember if I hated her first or not. It doesn’t have to make any sense.”

We shared a drink, watching the day tumble in through the window like old substantial friends who have not had a conversation in weeks. Between lovers silence can be an eloquent description of contentment; but between everyone else it’s usually just awkward. I was getting to enjoy Carol’s company and I didn’t want to enjoy it. I wanted to leave and I also didn’t want to leave.

The creases in Carol’s tight expression cracked apart as her mind wandered. She shivered at something. The quiet was munching on the both of us. I set the glass on the coffee table.

“You’re good,” she finally said, putting a hand on my arm.

“I’m not too good,” I said.

“I think you’re better than most.”

“That’s because most are awful.”

“It was a compliment.” The liquor was starting to depress her.

“Why did you ask about that smoking thing?” she said.

“Nothing much,” I said. “Just something.”

“What kind of something?”

“The kind that might be nothing.”

Suddenly Dot trudged back into the room hugging a blanket. Now I could see that she was a severely nervous kid who would grow up to be a severely nervous woman. Big round eyes of chalky blue. Experts whose job it is to reveal the sorrow of everything say that the older a person gets the more squinted their eyes become. Because the flesh around them expands, they say. The person is slowly shutting the world out of their world. And Dot was almost at that fine line when you stop wondering how birds can remain in a perfect V and you start wondering why your husband doesn’t watch you anymore when you’re removing your stockings or where your next paycheck is going to come from.

I looked at Dot and had miserable thoughts.

Quietly, Carol called her over and plunked her down in her lap. Dot didn’t move or say anything. One of Carol’s heels slipped off, displaying a sloppily painted set of pink toenails, feet excessively dainty. And I don’t know why, but I was suddenly clear.

“When was it that Ben died?” I asked her, enunciating each word.

She considered while making a face that seemed to question my intelligence.

“Two years ago,” she said.

I stood quickly.

“Why didn’t you tell me that?”

“Tell you what?”

“What you just told me.”

“You didn’t ask. Why would I think you didn’t know that?”

The phone’s ringing pounced in my ears and I believed for a second that it was my own anger.

“I got to go anyway,” I said.

“Where?” she asked.

“Up to the orchard,” I said. “I’m tired of this but if I don’t do something I won’t be able to do anything. Whatever it is, it’s there.”

It was trite and meaningless, but now that I knew why it was so trite and so meaningless it was neither and I couldn’t really specify what it was, except to say that I was exhausted and that my neck was sore.

Cold wind numbed the gash. The street everywhere was coming reluctantly into summer, albeit with the torrential rain diligently constant. Directly ahead of me a lone, brown-uniformed garbage collector hurled a bag into the jaws of a leisurely idling truck. I resumed walking and a man in denim stepped from behind the truck and walked on the other side of the street about 20 yards behind me. And from around the corner Cowper appeared and smiled at me as I passed by him.

 

TO BE CONTINUED…

 

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

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