Search This Blog

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Part 5 - Cellar Door

Adam felt as if he were being watched.  Even in the darkness of his basement nest he could feel someone’s eyes on him.  The last grocery day he’d left the house and felt as if his movements were being traced.  It was a point of pride around this neighborhood, nobody watches anything anybody ever does.  Nobody knows anything.  So he felt eyes on him and he wondered.  That was the day the new kid at the liquor store talked to him.  Bad day.
The next grocery day he’d slowed down a bit, allowed himself to reach out a little and observe his surroundings.  He thought he’d caught a glint of something from across the street.  He walked down the street to the liquor store and picked up his groceries.  This time no incidents.  He thought he saw movement as he walked back home.  He walked nearly the whole way to the house before leaving the cart in the sidewalk (nobody would touch it, of that he was certain) and walking back to the liquor store.  He watched the young man go into the liquor store.  He watched him talk to the clerk.  He watched him walking out empty handed. 
He went back to the house, retreated into it, drank his vodka, slept and thought.  By the time he was ready for his next grocery day, he felt calmer again.  More himself.  He left the house for groceries.
* * *
Eddie stepped into the house and pulled the door shut behind him.  He set the timer on his watch for twenty minutes.  The way he figured it that gave him more than enough time to look around, take what he could, or just get the hell out if he needed to.  The foyer of the tenement was a shambles.  Stairs leading to upper rooms were unusable.  They way Eddie figured it, that was a blessing.  Fewer places to look.  Carpet had been pulled up from the floorboards.  It was rolled up and stacked in the corner of the foyer next to shredded carpet pads.  The exposed floorboards were warped and water stained, the tack strip curling slightly away from the floor.  There was a door in the hall that appeared to be a bathroom room.  Eddie pulled it.  The door resisted, the wood frame swollen and warped.  He wrenched at it and it gave way with a shower of dust from the ceiling.  Inside it was dark, and he unslung his backpack and pulled the flashlight from it.
The beam crossed the floor and illuminated an old tub.  The smell of mildew was thick and Eddie could see the black blooms of mold growing on the walls and the ceiling paint sagged and blistered.  In the tub was shredded wallpaper and insulation.  A rat’s nest.  No sign of the rat family but a few stray pellets.  The sink and toilet that should have been next to the tub were missing, the pipes were exposed, hot and cold, and the wax ring lay where the toilet must have rested.  Eddie shone his beam down the pipe.  It stunk of urine.  He backed out of the powder room and pushed the door shut.  It shuddered and caught on the floor and the door frame then slammed shut.
He glanced at his watch.  18 minutes left.  He saw the basement door and checked it.  It swung open easily.  The reek of rot wafted out the door and he fought the urge to gag.  He looked down the stairs and swept them with his flashlight.  They looked intact.  He started slowly down the steps, testing them.  The creaked only slightly and he quickened his pace. 
At the bottom of the steps the smell was even worse.  He fought off the nausea, breathing only through his mouth.  The beam of the flashlight swept the basement.  It was mostly empty.  A cellar door on the far end stood slightly open.  Near the stairs was an old mattress it was stained nearly black.  Hundreds of empty bottles lay around it.  He hurried over to the mattress, scattering bottles as he went.  He peeled the corner of the mattress off the floor and looked underneath.  Nothing.  He dropped the mattress again and it thumped against the concrete.  He looked again at his watch.  16:20 left.  He swept the beam across the floor and noticed the space under the stairs.  It was crowded with old boxes that said, “Karkharov Super Premium Vodka”.  A red falcon graphic was printed on the side. 
He walked over to the stairs and started looking through the boxes.  Most of them had nothing in them.  A few had empty evelopes.  Eddie puzzled over this briefly.  The rest of the boxes had garbage in them, empty Slim Jim, pop tart and twinkie wrappers, Dorito bags.  Eddie combed these with his fingers before dumping the boxes on the floor and kicking them away from him to look in the next box.  It was all garbage.  He remembered the cellar door and walked over to it.
He illuminated his watch face.  13:00.  He pulled open the cellar door and looked inside.  Not thinking, he sniffed, and nearly threw up.  The smell of rot hit him.  He stood still for a minute, trying to quiet the revolt in his stomach.  Inside the cellar were a dozen stain blackened duffel bags.  Next to them and against the wall was a nightstand.  He pulled open the drawers and looked in each.  Inside were envelopes.  Eddie picked one up and looked inside.  Hundred dollar bills were pressed inside it and a single slip of paper.  He pulled the slip out curiously.  It was someone’s name and address.  He stuffed the envelope in his backpack and looked in the next envelope.  More money, and a new name and address.  He pulled the drawer from the nightstand and upended it into his backpack before opening the next drawer.  More envelopes.  Out came the drawer, in went the envelopes.  Eddie tossed the drawers aside.  He had more than enough to pay off his debt.  He turned to leave, the beam crossing one of the duffel bags.  He stopped and glanced at his watch.  9:30.  Plenty of time for a peek.  He was still giving himself plenty of time to get up the stairs, out the door and out of this sewer. 
He knelt down next to one of the bags.  He pulled at the zipper.  It was stuck, the teeth coated in black grime.  He yanked harder and the zipper released slowly.  He played the beam over the mouth of the bag and found himself staring into the eyes of bodiless human head.  He shuffled backward, losing his balance and landing on his butt.  The flashlight clattered to the floor and shut off.  In the blackness he pushed himself away from the bag.  His back was against the cellar door, still partly closed.  His questing fingers found the strap of his backpack in the dark and he pulled it to him.  Above him the stairs creaked. 

Part 4 - Casing the Joint

Eddie learned a lot in his five days of house watching.  One thing it had taught him, for example, was that his morning coffee ritual, though satisfying, was impractical, since he had to piss almost immediately after he and driven, lost and in the dark around countless blocks of blackened buildings, flood-stained, windows shattered, front doors missing, past alleys where withered men slept under rag blankets surrounded by rain warped boxes or shopping carts.  He’d gotten his bearings and parked his car a few blocks away, approaching on foot.  A tenement across the street offered him a good view of the house (another tenement house), and later that day he paid a ridiculously small amount of money and rented himself a room there for the week.  On a whim he had signed his name “Tony Sporano”, the name of his apartment neighbor and car pool partner, but later felt guilty, as if he’d betrayed a trust.
He had arrived the first morni
He watched all day that first day without any sign of movement.  The house itself was a two story tenement not unlike the one he was watching from.  Weeds pushed through buckled sidewalk three feet high and choked the yard.  All the first floor windows were covered in sun bleached plywood boards.  The wood slat siding had fallen away in places giving the house a hollow look, like you could punch holes in it.  In some places weathered slats, pealed of paint hung from rusty nails like loose teeth.  On the second floor faded yellow paint chipped and pealed from the siding, the windows on the second floor were all boarded save one.  The glass in the uncovered window was shattered.  Vines grew up the side of the house and across the face of it, through the open panes.  Two plywood-covered doors led in from a landing that was no longer there, the absence noticeable only by the lack of chipped yellow paint outlining the missing structure.  When he returned to his car the window was shattered and his car stereo was gone.
The second day he saw the man leave.  He had marked down the time, noting that he had drawn a length of chain through the loops of the front doors and padlocking them in place.  Eddie waited.  He returned thirty minutes later, pushing a shopping cart, emptied it, and dropped a box and bag on the front stoop before unclasping the padlock and drawing it back through the handles, slinging the chain over his shoulder like a scourge before bending over to retrieve the bag and disappearing into the darkened building.  He emerged a moment later for the box, bringing it inside before dragging the shopping cart around the house where he dumped its side out of sight in the tall weeds. 
Eddie left then, but returned the third day with bolt cutters that he hid inside a jacket as he went up to his room.  There was again no movement that day, and, Eddie noted, no light from within either.
The fourth day the man had left again.  Again the door was padlocked.  This time Eddie waited until he was almost out of sight, then followed him, sweating with anxiety, his hands habitually running through his hair, nervously glancing about to see if anyone was watching him.  A liquor store proved to be the destination.  In and out in a minute or so he waited until he was gone and then crossed the street, pushing open the doors.
“Whew!  What is that smell?”
 The clerk glanced up from his magazine, shaking his head back and forth in disgust.  “You should have been here a couple minutes ago.”
“You get all the A-listers in this store, I guess.”
The clerk chuckled.  “Yeah, that one’s a regular.”
“Lucky you,” Eddie said, looking around the store.  “You guys sell beer in here?”
“Nah, just booze.”
“Shit, I was looking for beer.  What’s the guy before me drinking?  I wanna steer clear of that!”
“Vodka, man.  By the case.  You would not believe how much.”
Eddie wandered over to the counter.  “Yeah?”
“Yeah, a couple cases a week we sell that guy.”
“Jesus!  Drowning his sorrows, I guess.”
“Yeah, well he isn’t takin’ a bath in it, that’s for sure!”
“Wonder what his story is. . .”
“I don’t know man, but he’s bad news.  We buy groceries and booze and keep them on hand for him.  He comes in, drops a couple hundreds and goes out.  I don’t ask too many questions.
“Hundreds?  That guy can’t afford running water and he’s dropping hundreds here?”
“Yeah, a couple times a week, no less.  I’ll bet he spends four or five hundred a week in here on booze and junk food.”
Eddie shook his head.  “Is there a place that sells beer around here?”
“Yeah, man, walk out of the store, make a right and head up the street a few blocks.  They sell it at a little grocery store up there.”
“Alright, thanks for your help.  Invest in some air fresheners or something for this place will ya?”
The clerk chuckled and Eddie pushed out the door.  It chimed as he left.  The clerk looked back down at his magazine and didn’t notice when Eddie turned left and went back the way he’d come.
The fifth day of watching there was more darkness, more silence, no movement.
On the sixth day, the man pushed open the door to the building and stepped into the sunlight, and Eddie slung his pack around his back, waited for him to disappear, jogged across the street, cut the chain across the door, and disappeared into the ruin.

Part 3 - In the Dark

Adam woke in the dark.  He always woke in the dark.  His house (technically owned by a family by the name of DiLuca) was less house than lair, less home than den.  There was no electricity.  No running water.  He played no music, read no newspapers.  He lay down in the basement of the old tenement.  What little light might have been cast by the windows was choked off from the sun by weeds and debris or boarded over.  His sole homage to his lost humanity was the alcohol he used to help distance himself from it. 
His dark-adapted eye picked out the shapes of the bottles around the mildewed mattress he rested on.  He pushed past a couple empties with his hands and hooked a vodka bottle by its neck, dragging it across the basement floor with a fluted scrape of glass against concrete .  He swirled the bottle and felt it slosh before propping himself up on the mattress and unscrewing the cap to the bottle.  He tilted it back and pulled deeply from the bottle.  He cleared his throat, coughed, and drank deeply again, finishing off the bottle.  He put the bottle down and turned over on his stomach feeling around the mattress for other bottles, scattering them with his hands.  All empty.  Grocery day.
He pushed himself up and got shakily to his feet.  He kicked empty pop tart wrappers, liquor boxes and vodka bottles out of his way and put on his jacket.  Inside the pocket was the slip of paper and an envelope with $5,000 in it. 
The steps were wooden and creaked as he climbed them.  He opened the door and was momentarily dazzled by the wan light streaming in from the cracks in the wood slat frame, or around the plywood covered windows. It was hot, and the air was wet.  His shirt felt tacky on his skin, but he left the jacket on for the extra pockets, the pockets of his jeans long since worn through.  He stepped into the light and closed the door.
The main floor of the tenement was rain-rotted and smelled of mildew.  The steps leading up to the second floor rooms were mostly missing.  Weeds vined through the moisture-gapped slats and climbed water-stained and mold-black walls to clutch broken light fixtures in green tendrils.   He could hear the cicadas shrilling outside the building.  He picked up a length of chain from behind the door where it lay coiled and cold like a slumbering serpent.  A padlock dangled from the end of a link, and he unhooked it, pulling the key from the lock and pushing it into his pocket before opening the front doors, and walking out, trailing the length of chain.  He squinted his eyes from the sun and the yard grew silent, the cicadas stilled abruptly for a moment before resuming their song.
He pushed the chain through the door handles and pulled it shut tightly, leaning back and pulling on the ends of the chain before bringing them together and hooking the links with the padlock.  He snapped shut the hasp and tugged it.  He walked down slanted steps and around the side of the house, retrieving a weathered shopping cart, and drug it out into the street.
* * *
The clerk looked up from his “Hot Rod” magazine.  He saw the bum shambling across the parking lot, barefoot and black with filth, pushing a shopping cart with a wobbling front wheel.  He was new, only been in the liquor store for a week, but he’d received “informal training” on this.  He rushed to the back of the store and grabbed the case of  Karkharov Super Premium Vodka and carried it out to the counter.  Karkharov Super Premium vodka differed from gasoline in only one major category:  it was cheaper per gallon.  At least that’s the quip the clerk had heard as his manager had helped him prepare the “Care Package”.  He bent over to pick up a plastic bag of groceries (if poptarts, Slim Jims and Twinkies can be called groceries) and put it next to the cardboard box.  The ‘groceries’ were purchased by his manager from another store and stockpiled in the back, bagged in advance, then replaced behind the counter as needed.
“He comes in every two days or so,” he’d been schooled.  “Pays in hundreds and leaves.  Don’t talk to him, don’t offer him change, don’t ask for more money, don’t do anything but put the box and the bag in that shopping cart and get him the fuck out of the store as fast as you can.”
“What if he asks for something else?”
“He won’t.”
“What if he doesn’t pay?”
“He will, but if he doesn’t don’t worry about it, just let me know.”
The door chimed warning and the clerk shook himself from this recollection to see the bum pushing the cart in the front door.  His stink preceded him to the register.  His hair was matted and greasy, his hands and feet were black with dirt, crusted with something that almost looked like dried blood.  He was staring down at the floor.
The clerk hurried around the counter, breathing through his mouth, and grabbed the box, dumping it into the cart.  He pulled the grocery bag by the straps, sliding it over the counter and swinging it in beside the box.  From the pocket of an oil-stained jacket, the bum was pulling an envelope.  He reached two fingers inside and pulled out two one hundred dollar bills and handed them without looking to the clerk, who was looking inside the envelope.
“That’s some wad o’ cash you got there, buddy,” he said.
The bum growled something and his hand shot out and grabbed him by the throat before pushing him back against the counter.
“You don’t fucking talk to me. . . EVER!” his voice rasped like a smoker’s, at once hoarse and guttural.  He was pushing up against the clerk, his eyes burned inches from the clerks, his lips pulled back in a feral snarl, fingers clutching at his throat.  His breathing rattled heavily in and out as he advanced on him.  The smell of him was in the clerk’s nose and it made him want to retch.
“Y-yes. . .,” he offered haltingly.
The bum pushed away from him, and the clerk fell back against the counter, knocking over a lottery display.  Shaken, he stared after him as he pulled the cart out the store, not looking up from the ground where his blackened feet walked over gravel and small pieces of broken glass alike as if he wore shoes. 
He walked back behind the counter and breathed heavily for a minute, collecting himself.  He badly wanted to bathe.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Part 2 - Eddie

Be sure to start with Part 1:
Part 2 – Eddie

“Watch where you’re fucking driving!”  A scornful voice with a hint of panic.
Eddie glanced over at his passenger then back at the road.  His right tire was well over the rightmost stripe of the road.  He overcorrected across the other stripe, then recorrected, the cars to his left honking.  A man in a black Mercedes flipped him off then accelerating past him in the left lane.
“Jesus, Eddie, what the fuck?”
“Sorry, Tony, I was just trying to do the math.  How much do you figure I owe?”
“I don’t know, Eddie,” the man to his right sounded exasperated, “but I don’t need to know.  You know?  You need to know.  You should know this kind of stuff.”  Tony sat up straighter in the passenger seat of Eddie’s Toyota Sentra, relaxing his right leg where he’d involuntarily pushed it into an invisible brake pedal.  He was beefy, the body of a 6’5” offensive lineman stuffed into a 5’9” frame.  His was not the body of an athlete gone to seed.  His was the body of the seed germinated, sprouted and cultivated, milled into flour, then combined with yeast and allowed to rise.  He breathed loudly, as if his girth somehow was creating a restriction in his airflow by choking off its supply to his lungs.  He had black hair peppered with gray and slicked back over a bald spot in the back.  He wore an orange reflective vest over his powder blue work shirt.  He turned and looked at Eddie with coal black eyes.  A hard look. 
“This is important, okay?  You need to figure this shit out.  Get paid up.  These are not the kinda people you pay in installments.  You’re probably at least fifteen grand to the red, and if you owe fifteen you might as well owe twenty.”  He looked meaningfully at Eddie, overpronouncing his next word, “Capiche?”
Eddie chuckled nervously at this but answered, “Yeah, I capiche, Tony.  I do.  I’m just trying to figure it out in my head.”  He glanced up, momentarily excited, “Hey, Tony, you think they’d take my car as down payment?”
“This piece of shit?”  Tony laughed.  “No offense, but these guys, Eddie,” he paused and wiped his nose with his finger, sawing back and forth and sniffing loudly, “these guys steal nicer cars than this to bury people in.”
Eddie sighed worriedly and they drove in silence for a few minutes.  For someone in his mid-twenties, Eddie’s face carried a lot of worry on it.  Maybe it was just that he was an expressive guy, an earnest-looking fellow.  More likely however, it was the result of sleeplessness caused by fear of mortal peril.  His dark brown hair, cropped short and pushed forward was in perpetual disarray resulting from frequent habitual nervous hand combing.  Eddie looked taller than he really was. Naturally wirey with long legs, he had his driver’s side seat pushed back as far as his Sentra would allow, still for all that he was only 6’2, and, as the expression goes, 170 pounds soaking wet. 
Tony looked back at him across the car.  “You need to do more than figure it out in your head, Eddie.  I’m not fuckin’ around here.”  He paused a few seconds and continued more quietly, “I like our morning commute.”  He gestured at the median, “. . . near death experiences notwithstanding.”  He started to say more then exhaled and sat in silence.
“Yeah, okay, Tony.  I get it.  I do.”
The rest of the drive neither man spoke.  Tony eventually leaned forward and switched on the stereo, searching across the band until he settled on a Classic Rock station, then he relaxed back into his seat and exhaled audibly. 
Eddie pulled smoothly into the parking lot of the cement plant.  They passed the sign, “Conti & Diluca Construction”.  The hum of the Sentra’s tires on finished asphalt gave way to the crunch of gravel and he slowed to a stop just outside the front door.
Tony unfastened his seat belt and reached in front of the seat to grab an insulated lunch bag.  He levered open the door and shoved it open with is foot before sliding off the seat and out the door. 
“Thanks for the ride, Eddie,” he said, easing the door shut.
“Sure thing, Tony,” Eddie replied, the door already shut.  He sat for a moment in silence and ran his fingers through his hair, scratching at an itch on his scalp before a rap on his passenger side window startled him.  He looked over to see Tony still standing there.  He made a sort of stirring motion and Eddie depressed the button to open the passenger side window.
Tony leaned down, resting his elbows on the window frame and spoke conspiratorially.  “Listen, Eddie, I know the economy sucks, and I know you’ve had a rough patch.  But there’s a rumor.  Well, there’s more than a rumor, about this homeless guy in the city sitting on a load of cash.  Doesn’t spend it.  Doesn’t do nothin’ with it.  I don’t know how much of an effort it would take for an enterprising youth such as yourself to convince this guy to part with some of it, you know?”
Eddie looked at him, “What are you saying?  Fucking rob this guy?”
“Jesus Christ, will you keep your fucking voice down?”  He looked around nervously.  “Look.  I wouldn’t say anything but I’m worried about you, man.  I know you aren’t the kind of guy that takes stuff from people.  But the way I see it, you’re never getting a loan for that kind of cash.  You’re never going to make that kind of cash in a legit job in the time you need to make it.  You’re sorta stuck.  And this guy. . . scum of the earth, you know?  Just one of the unwashed masses, completely checked out mentally, and just sitting on tons of cash.  He’d never even miss it.”  He stopped and looked down at the seat.  “Fuck, never mind man, forget I even mentioned it.”  He started to stand and Eddie reached his hand out and grabbed his wrist.
“No, man.  I’m sorry.  You’re right, I’m in a tight spot.  Look, you know anything else about this guy?  Can we talk about this tonight after you get off?”
“If you want, Eddie, if you want.  I’ll see you around.”  He thumped the window frame twice with a meaty hand and spun in the gravel lot, walking away. 
Eddie nodded to himself and closed the window, putting the car in drive and pulling slowly away.
Tony looked over his shoulder at the departing car and shook his head.  “Fucking flake.” 
* * *
That night Eddie pushed opened the door of his apartment and crossed the hallway to knock on Tony’s door.
“Who is it?”
“It’s me.”
The door opened, and jerked to a stop, tethered by the lock chain.  Tony’s face appeared in the crack.  “What’s up?”
Eddie gestured with his right hand, two beer bottles held by the necks from his fingers clinked dully.  “Can we talk?”
Tony sighed and nodded, shutting the door slightly, and Eddie heard the slide of the chain from its keeper before the door swung lazily inward.  The lock chain swung slowly against the door frame.  Eddie pushed it open as Tony sat down at his kitchen table.  Across his chair back was the orange safety vest.  Tony was wearing a t-shirt and boxers.  The apartment smelled vaguely of cheap cologne and shampoo. 
Eddie twisted the cap from a bottle of beer and it hissed open.  He pushed it across the table at Tony, who took it wordlessly and held it to his lips to drink while Eddie opened his own bottle.
“So tell me about this guy.”
“I don’t know, Eddie,” he temporized.
“Come on, seriously, I’ve got nothing here.”
Tony looked up from his beer.  He belched.  “Alright. . . he’s a flood squatter.”
“A what?”
“Well, he’s a homeless guy, right?  But he actually lives in a house.  You know how after the flood everyone sorta evacuated all their homes and a bunch came back?  Well in the shittier neighborhoods, they really never did.  So there are all these abandoned homes and people squat in them until someone scarier muscles them out or the cops do.  This guy has been squatting in an old abandoned house for years.”
“Why hasn’t anyone chased him out?”
“I don’t know.  I guess nobody gives a shit about the house.  The only reason I know about it is because he leaves the house and buys booze and food.  Every week booze and food, and the place he goes to buy booze happens to be a family-owned business.”  He looked up at Eddie and caught his eye.  “You know what I mean?”
Eddie nodded. 
“So anyway, you might be thinking, how is this even noteworthy?  Who notices some homeless guy buying booze?”
Eddie shrugged.
“He’s filthy, dude.  Completely filthy.  Smells like something the world ate and then shit out.  Wears no shoes. . . not ever, from what I understand.  So he sorta stands out, you know?”  He paused to take a pull from his beer.  “But the thing that really stands out is and what is of most interest from your standpoint is that when he buys his booze he peels his cash from a roll of hundreds.  Thick roll.  I seen it myself.  And smelled it.”  He made a warding gesture with his free hand as if waving away fumes.
“So why not you?  Why are you telling me about this?”
“I’m no fucking thief!  Hey no offense, Eddie, but I’ve got a job.  I pay my bills.  I don’t gamble and if I did gamble I sure as shit wouldn’t borrow money from the mob to do it.  I’m not like you, Eddie.  You need this.  I don’t.”
Eddie looked down at his bottle.  Beads of moisture condensed on the chilled glass of the brown bottle and trickled down the side, leaving tracks across the haze.  Eddie wiped the neck of the bottle with his finger and took another drink.  He combed nervous fingers through his hair.
“Yeah, alright,” he said quietly, after a long silence.  “Where’s this guy live?  When’s he leave the house?”
Tony tipped the beer upside down, finishing it.  He stood up and tossed the bottle into the garbage.  He reached inside a drawer and pulled out a notepad and a pen.  He stretched and then sat back down at the table, putting the pad and pen down before replying.  “I’ll write down the address.  I don’t know when he leaves the house.  I just know he does it a couple times a week.  Same days every week, but I don’t remember when.  You’ll have to just go and check it out for yourself.”
“You mean like, case the joint?”
“Case the joint?  What are you a 50’s safecracker?  Yeah, ‘case the joint’.”  He chuckled at this.  He opened the pad and began to write the address.  “Take something to protect yourself with cause it’s a bit of a rough neighborhood.  Go to this house, and watch.  See when he leaves, see how long it takes him.  Go inside, take a look around.  Hell, I don’t know.  Maybe you’ll get lucky and he keeps stacks of hundreds in the bathroom for toilet paper.”
Eddie finished his beer and stood up.  A watermark in the shape of wet grin puddled where the beer bottle had been.  Eddie reached across the table and got a napkin, wiping the smile off the face of the table. 
“Where can I toss this?”
Tony gestured toward the sink garbage where he’d tossed his own bottle.  He ripped the paper from the notepad holding it out for Eddie to take. 
Eddie’s empty joined Tony’s with a loud clink.
“Alright, Tony.  Thanks.  I really appreciate this.”  He took the paper from Tony’s fingers, folded it and slid it inside his jeans.
“Alright Eddie, good luck man.”
“Thanks.  Hey, I won’t be able to give you a ride to work the next couple weeks, alright?”
“Yeah, alright.”
Eddie stood there a moment longer, looking a little lost.  Then like a diver perched upon a precipice, he leaned slowly forward and opened the door into the hallway shutting it quietly behind him and went back to his apartment.
Behind him the lock slid home.  Tony rested his fingers against it for a minute then went into his bedroom and picked up the cell phone from his nightstand.  He thumbed through his contacts before selecting one.  He pushed ‘talk’ and let out a long resigned sigh.  The phone rang twice before it was answered.
“He’s in.”
“That’s good, Tony.  That’s really good.  Keep your eyes open and let me know if it looks like he’s backing out.”
“And Tony?”
“If this all works out, you can consider your debt paid in full.”
“Alright, thanks.  I really appreciate this,” Tony replied, his voice shaking with emotion, an eerie echo of Eddie’s own words a moment prior.  But the other man had already hung up.
* * *
At 3:00 a.m. the alarm went off, but Eddie, whose thoughts were anchored fast in the anxiety of his upcoming “caper” was already awake, staring at the red L.E.D. clock face, his finger probing dumbly across the unseen clock controls.  He switched the alarm to “Off” and threw back the covers of his bed.
He showered but did not shave, put on jeans and a navy blue t-shirt, socks and some running shoes.  He walked out into the kitchen and poured himself a bowl of Cheerios.  The cold coffee carafe was a third full from the previous morning.  Eddie poured himself a cup of cold coffee and microwaved it until it steamed, then carried it all out to his table and sat down.  He spooned Cheerios into his mouth and stared at the backpack he’d filled the previous night.  He reached across the table and grabbed the shoulder strap of the pack, sliding it toward him and off the table to the tile floor.  He unzipped the pack and looked inside.
Inside the backpack was a flashlight, a bottle of water, a pair of binoculars, a long kitchen knife, a notepad, and a pencil.  He got up from the table and went to the refrigerator.  He pulled the insulated lunch bag from the wire shelf.  Inside it was an apple and a ham and cheese sandwich.  He closed the refrigerator door and added the lunch bag to his backpack.  He zipped the backpack shut and slid it across the floor with his shoe, standing up and finishing his cheerios as he walked to the sink.  He dumped the last of the bowl into the sink and ran water into it.  He finished his coffee in gulps, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand and added the mug to the sink before returning to the table.
Eddie stooped and caught the loop of the shoulder strap before standing and slinging it over one shoulder.  He walked to the door, removing his car keys from a doorside hook and shaking them open in the palm of his hand before switching off the light and opening the door into the hallway.  He closed the door silently behind him and padded softly down the hall to the stairwell and out the front door, swallowed by the darkness.

Continued in Part 3:

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

"What Comes Around" Part 1 - French Toast Jesus

Adam James had taken the call that informed him of the death of his wife and daughter at work.  He had gently replaced the telephone in its cradle.  He folded his laptop closed, powering it down, and slid it into his bag. He slung the bag over his shoulder in a daze and grabbed for his keys with shaking hands, knocking them clumsily from his desk. He bent to retrieve them, and the messenger bag slid around in front of him, unbalancing him slightly so that he stumbled before straightening, keys in hand, sliding the bag back around his waist and striding from his office. He moved mechanically, woodenly, his face a mask of repressed anguish. And somehow, though he couldn’t remember the particulars, he found himself in his car at home in the garage, the engine idling with no clear memory of having gotten in nor of driving it home.
The funeral arrangements passed in a blur. He had help, of course, and if he allowed himself to be taken along for the funereal ride (not terribly unlike the departed themselves), he can perhaps be excused just this once. Having no one left in his life to be strong for, Adam allowed himself the luxury of weakness. When the funeral ended, and the cars (magnetic “Funeral Procession” flags efficiently removed by stealthy funeral home staff) cleared slowly from the cemetery, Adam allowed himself to be helped to his feet and chauffeured home. There he sat on his loveseat in an attitude not unlike that which he’d exhibited graveside, hunched forward, forearms resting on his thighs, hands crossed slightly, staring blankly ahead. He fell asleep in that position.
While he slept he dreamt of Helen and Abby. They were at the pool together. Helen, his wife, and Abby, his 5 year old daughter, were wearing their swimsuits. He was wearing the suit he’d worn to the funeral. He was frustrated by his failure to pack his swimsuit when they’d left for the pool and tried to convince them to wait for him while he found something suitable to wear. In the dream he left the pool to find his swimsuit. And he woke up in the morning of a new day on the loveseat, his suit crumpled and damp with sweat. He allowed himself, at last, to weep. The disappointment of waking to find them still dead overmatched him.
What happened the next two days was. . . nothing. The phone rang and went to voice mail. A knock at the door went unanswered. He neither showered nor ate. He moved from the loveseat only to use the bathroom or get a drink. He left the lights off. He wore his crumpled suit. He stunk of sweat. Adam had checked out.
The phone rang on the morning of the third day, rousing him from his slumber on the loveseat. Voicemail announced his absence, then beeped.
“Adam, it’s Mom. Honey, I know you’re hurting. We’ve left messages. We’re coming over tonight to check on you. We love you, baby. Hang in there.” The receiver clicked and the phone beeped once.
He glanced up at the answering machine and saw the red L.E.D. “12” switch to “13” then strobe insistently. He ran his fingers through his hair.
“Just my luck.” His voice rasped hoarsely. He coughed into his fist and cleared his throat, then lifted himself up from the loveseat tugging at the knot in his tie to loosen it. He walked to the foot of the stairs, slowly pushing himself up the carpeted steps. At the top of the stairs he turned and went directly into his room, not allowing himself to look down the hall to Abby’s bedroom. Not allowing himself even to think of the existence of such a room. Not allowing himself to remember the joyful music of her girlish giggle.
He pulled the tie from his collar, unthreading it from around his neck, the silk hissing against the cotton collar, and began to unbutton his shirt, kicking the toe of his right shoe into the heel of his left, and levering it off, before doing the same with his right. His jacket and shirt he tossed across the bed. He pulled his belt through the loops of his pants and tossed it on the bed too, allowing his pants to bunch at his ankles before stepping out of them to remove his socks. He sighed heavily and walked to the bathroom naked, turning the water in the shower to "Hot" and examining himself in the mirror. Medium height, brown hair, matted and messy, light brown eyes set in whites so networked and bewebbed with blood vessels they looked pink, two days' growth of patchy beard on his chin. In all other ways, forgettable. He lost himself in his reflection and the steam from the hot water began to haze the mirror. He pulled the lever and the shower sputtered to life. He stepped into it, letting the scalding water baptize him painfully before he surrendered and turned the temperature to something more comfortable. He shampooed and washed and shaved, then stood facing the water, letting it run down his face like tears, and for a long time he didn’t move.
When he’d finished the shower, he shut off the water, and stepped, naked and dripping from the tub. He toweled himself off and walked out of the bathroom, pulling a clean black t-shirt from the drawer, a pair of boxer briefs, and jeans. He dressed, then walked back downstairs barefoot and went to the kitchen.
Pulling open the refrigerator door he scanned the shelves, selecting the carton of eggs, a milk jug, and some butter before closing it again with his hip, his hands full. These ingredients were joined by a loaf of bread, some vanilla extract, and maple syrup retrieved from the pantry. He turned the burner of the stove on, and heated a greased pan while he beat eggs and milk together with vanilla extract. He dipped bread into this and slapped it wet into the pan where it sizzled and spit. He repeated this for three other pieces and pulled a spatula from a drawer. He stood over the pan, pushing against the sides of the bread, loosening them and testing them, until he judged them sufficiently cooked, then he slid the spatula underneath each and expertly flipped them.
He made coffee. It steamed in his cup and he cooled it with cream and sweetened it with a little sugar. He turned off the stove and put two pieces of the French toast on his plate. He carried the plate, his coffee, the butter, and a knife and fork over to the kitchen table and sat down heavily.
And that’s when he saw it. Or Him. Jesus Christ himself enthroned in browned and crisped beaten egg in toasted bas-relief there upon his plate. Upon his brow a crown of thorns, his hands were joined as if in prayer. His eyes were cast heavenward.
A sign. Clearly a sign. Adam was no fool, he knew it was a sign just as he knew every sign can be interpreted more than one way. Acceptance or rejection. Blessing or condemnation. Good or ill. And Adam gazed into the Lamb of God’s eyes and spoke aloud, “You’re too fucking late.” And he cut French toast Jesus asunder and ate him, unblessed and without ritual, “this is my body, take this and eat it in remembrance of me.” He finished his unholy eucharist with a belch. A fist to his heart as he stifled another burp, standing with his plate a mass of maple syrup godsblood smeared across it. He walked it to the kitchen sink and threw it in heedlessly. The plate broke on impact. Adam watched it angrily.
“Fuck you,” he said, and walked, still barefoot, out to his car. He drove out of the garage, down the driveway, and never returned.
What Adam didn’t know was that the face on the piece of toast was NOT in fact that of his rejected lord and savior Jesus Christ, Lamb of God. . . but a dead ringer for 1936 Greek Olympic Fencing Champion, Leonidas Pyrgos, who had the Christ-like beard, of course, but the more European, less Hebrew features. Adam, saw the blue eyed Nordic Jesus of Adolph Hyla’s famous painting, never knowing it wasn’t Jesus at all. Never had been. The crown of thorns was merely the victor's laurel wreath.
Why Leonidas Pyrgos should appear on French toast is perhaps no more baffling than why Jesus of Nazareth would choose to do so, and perhaps less so, since Mr. Pyrgos’ gold medal in the 1936 Games would come against a French opponent. All of which is irrelevant because the true explanation is, if the same infinite number of monkeys on their infinite number of keyboards would take an infinite break from their duties rewriting all the great works of literature, doubtless they could etch the random visages of every man woman and child whoever lived in egg based paint upon a canvas of toasted bread. Which is to say that it was neither the visage of Mr. Pyrgos, nor the Prince of Peace, but an inkblot interpreted by a tortured mind as the sums of all his experiences has best prepared him to interpret it. Regardless, an objective viewer would still give the nod to Pyrgos.
And so pushed by a perceived sign from God, Adam made a choice, just as Job had once made a choice when faced with similar circumstances (French toast notwithstanding). Adam’s choice, however, differed from Job’s entirely. He rejected God utterly. Having lost his wife he instead made a bride of murder and consummated his wedding in the blood of innocents. After a series of slayings that stretched seemingly at random from Pennsylvania to Louisiana (but actually just provided bloody punctuation marks on a map that told the story of his path South), Adam found himself homeless in the streets of New Orleans, accepting money from the mob to end people's lives.
One day, a man with clean black shoes and a tidy suit pressed a thick envelope into Adam’s filthy outstretched hand. He opened it and riffled the bills inside perfunctorily then stuffed it inside his jacket. He reached out, still without lifting his eyes from the clean black shoes and snapped his fingers impatiently. A folded slip of paper was placed in his hand. He unfolded the slip of paper, "the black spot" as he had come to think of it and read his mark’s name. It said simply, “Eddie”. No last name, no address. He glanced up questioningly, but the man with the clean black shoes and the tidy suit was gone.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Tough Love

I shared a quiet moment with Lily.  I held her in my arms as we got ready to read her bedtime story.  Her face was very close to mine and she smiled shyly up at me.  I bent my head forward and gently bumped my head against hers and said, "I love you, Lily."

She giggled at this.  She likes when i conk her head.  Then she looked up into my eyes, reared back and head butted me in the bridge of the nose.  Stars exploded across my vision, and she said, "I wub you too daddy."

A couple days later i was rubbing the bridge of my nose weerily and it felt sore, like I'd bruised it, but I couldn't remember why that might have been.  I thought about it a bit and smiled, remembering.  That was a good night.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Baby Steps

At four, Lily has decided she doesn't like my musical selections. Even when they're hers she doesn't like them. So when we drive to daycare in the mornings, she and her older sister take turns, and sometimes we (Emma and I) call Lily's turn, "The Sound of Silence". But it's not a reprise of the ol' Simon and Garfunkel ditty, it is instead, no song. Despite telling me she'd like the Backyardigans, "no song" on the Backyardigans album was deemed acceptable as I scrolled through them. So this morning at the conclusion of her perseverative "I no like dis song eeber!" as I switched off the stereo and we pulled silently up to the entry of the daycare to my comforting "okay, Lily, no more song. . . ", she settled back into her car seat to wait for me to unbuckle her.

Directly behind me, Emma unbuckled her seat belt and climbed out of the car as I got out and walked past her around the back to open Lily's door. I reached in and took Monkey from her. Monkey is one of those vecro-palmed clingy stuffed animals that Lily alternatively calls monkey or "Brownie" (he is, in fact, brown). I held Monkey between my legs and unbuckled Lily from her car seat.

"Let's go find your sister, Lil", I said.

"Go fin' sisser!" she responded, happily, rising from her seat.

Lily is uncomfortable with big steps, she has some visual attentiveness issues on top of some developmental challenges, so that first step out of the car is a doozy for her. She really has to marshall her resources before she moves ahead with the whole. . . door-egress operation.

She put one hand on top of the open door and got ready to step off. She hesitated at the brink, and put her other hand on the car door, then stepped uncertainly, but didn't let go of the door. She swung over to the door, dangling from the frame, suspended by her hands, grasping, white-knuckled at the door frame. She stared up at her hands questioningly as if to say. . . "what the hell just happened?" Her feet were no more than an inch above the ground, but still she clung, hanging on as if in mortal peril.

I watched her, a third amused, a third curious, a third concerned. The concerned part wanted to zip in behind her and lower her gently to the ground, but curiosity and amusement won out. I was not even aware she was able to support her entire body weight in that manner. And because she doesn't always play "traditionally", i've never, for example, seen her use monkey bars. Nor did I really believe in my heart of hearts that she possessed the physical strength required. So I watched her, warily, ready to rescue if required, but curious how she'd extricate herself from this tricky door dangling emergency.

She let go perhaps two seconds later, dropping lightly to the pavement. I congratulated her, giving her a big hug and her stuffed monkey and we went to join her sister on the stoop.

One small step for man. . .

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Getting the Monkey Off My Back

Probably this doesn't seem like a big deal to you. But it is.

Called into the Principal's office with my other 4th-grade confederates to explain why we had ambushed Jamel and Dessica (the truth of which amounted essentially to the ironic schoolyard mentality of "we liked them, therefore we tormented them") with water balloons in the park, I stood there, cracking my knuckles nervously as Ms. Drayson called upon each of us to explain ('testify', if you'll indulge me) what had happened.

Ms. Drayson was the first female Principal in Columbus Elementary history, and also the first woman I ever heard wishing to be referred to as "Ms." anything.  My mother explained to me that this was because Ms. Drayson (Linda to her friends. . . like my mother) was her own woman and preferred not having her identity tied to her marital status.  My father explained to me that it was possible she preferred this because no man would have her.  I don't recall whether they then (my mother and father) squared off to discuss the matter further or not.  The years have blunted the sharp edges of this memory.

I remember thinking even at that early age, "This has nothing to do with you, Ms. Drayson. It happened in the public park, after school. What authority can you possibly have to address this situation?" But Ms. Drayson played cards and drank wine with my mother, and so I stayed silent, except for the cracking of my nervous knuckles, glaring shamelessly (cheeky bastard) up at her as she admonished me.

That is the first time I recall cracking my knuckles. I remember it mostly because Ms. Drayson, annoyed with the sound commanded me to, "Please stop cracking your knuckles!" during the interview. I know it started before that. I have a vague recollection of thinking it looked really cool to clasp hands together, then thrust them out in front of me palms out, a reverse steepling of my fingers. . . stretching them out, hearing the cracks. . . before getting down to the business of kicking some ass. . . or so the movies i was allowed to watch as a youngster led me to believe (Dirty Harry was on the menu when Mom was away).
So i started TRYING to crack my knuckles. . . and when i'd mastered one, i moved to another. . . and experimented with all sorts of ways to crack them.  I could press my thumb against my index finger to crack the top joint of my thumb, for example. . . or wiggle each individual finger joint in with my other hand and get them all to pop. I could do the reverse steepling thing. . . though it wasn't as effective. . . or just push down on each finger with the thumb of the same hand to pop them. That's what I MOSTLY did. That's what I did when Ms. Drayson said, "Please stop cracking your knuckles!"

And so at the tender age of ten, i was an accomplished knuckle-cracker, but if called upon by counsel to testify as to the timeline of my first knuckle-cracking. . . i would answer "4th grade, just prior to summer vacation".  Fast forward to today. . . 30 years later. I still crack them. I know i shouldn't, but i do. I long ago left behind the idea that it would somehow "cause arthritis". It was never a true deterrent to my much matured vice anyway. But it can't be good for me. No, it took something far more serious then a rumored chronic debilitating disease to stop that snapping of my joints. It took the righteous wrath of my daughter.

Over the course of the last six or eight months, when she notices, she scolds me mercilessly. "DADDY!" she says loudly, and points a delicate little finger in my direction, "No, No!" like I might correct a two year-old.

For my part, i shame-facedly accept my due and apologize, unless i did it without thinking (which is the problem with a 30-year habit. . . it's so ingrained that you don't even know you're doing it) in which case i'll laugh and tell her, "sorry, baby, i didn't even know I was doing it."

Sometimes my joints crack without me intending them to do so, and when she scolds me then, i have to explain the process and how it doesn't count if I didn't do it on purpose, and she relaxes her beetled brows and replaces her scornful compressed lips with a smile of sweet serenity.

But i began to feel moderate panic a week or so ago when she announced that she knew EXACTLY what I could give up for lent next year. . . knuckle cracking. CAN i even stop myself, i wondered?

Yesterday at ABOUT 8:00 a.m, though I don't recall what actual time it was when i realized i was attempting NOT to crack my knuckles. I don't know exactly what time I stopped because I hadn't done it for a while, but not because I was trying to stop, but because i simply hadn't felt like it. When I found myself about to crack my knuckles. . . I stopped, and wondered how long I could continue to go without doing it. So it was early in the morning at work when I stopped, and if called upon by the same attorney who had previously grilled me on the onset of my cracking vice. . . "When did you stop cracking your knuckles?" I'd reply truthfully, "8:00 a.m. at the latest."
And that is the last time I have cracked my knuckles, reader. Currently all 24 of yesterday's hours plus today's13. I find myself considering it. I find myself flexing my fingers or clenching my hands into fists when i feel the tightness or stiffness that makes me want to loosen my joints and satisfy that sensory need. I even accidentally found myself flexing the pad of my thumb against my index finger in an attempt to crack it. . . but it didn't crack, then i caught myself and stopped.

Day 1. There's no KCA (Knuckle Crackers Anonymous). And nobody is going to give me a 1 day tag or 1 week or 1 lent. . . but I'm honestly amazed I've even made it a day.

It's just a damn good thing i never did drugs.