Book: Snapshots of Modern Love
Snapshots of Modern Love
Copyright 2009 Jose Rodriguez
Like a wanted man, I' m leaving Youngstown, Ohio. The Greyhound station reeks of hot rubber and oily fumes and pulses with strange life: a skinny old Nigger in white cowboy boots and a red Stetson nervously moves around the other awaiting scum who hides into the anonymity of their winter coats with collars drawn high. Mud and grease splatter under my feet and dad' s as we walk to the platform. The droning of an idling diesel engine shields our conversation from prying ears but we don' t have much to say to each other.
Fred and Tony got busted, and I should have been busted too, but my quick thinking saved my ass, bolting out of Fred' s car on my fours and hiding behind a pile of farm machinery. The cops got them both; I heard the cuffs snapping around their wrists. At least they kept their mouths shut and didn' t say something like "Hey, where' s Ken?" Believe me, that wouldn' t be beyond their stupidity.
Anyway, I was the stupid one by agreeing with them to go into the District looking for Christmas trees to sell. We dragged those sorry looking pines for miles of knee deep snow, heaved them over a chain link fence and hog tied them on top of Fred' s car – which is still sitting at the police lot. Just as we finish strapping the loot, we see a flashlight beam moving up the railroad tracks, sniffing the snow. "Cops!" screams Fred and the light beam connects with us. Thanks Fred.
Cops and a tow truck chased us all over town. The pine trees clung to the roof of Fred' s car for dear life as we bounced between snowbanks and frozen sidewalks. Fred and Tony are going to see the judge in a week, and my dad, who knows people at the D.A.' s, advised me that it would be a good time to pursue an out of state education. A friend’ s loyalty is sorely tested when the D.A. promises sweet deals in exchange for accomplice’ s names. I know Tony’ s mute stubbornness is beyond the reach of leniency offers, but I’ m doubtful about Fred’ s loyalty. As they say, there is no honor among thieves; not among the likes of Fred.
My dad agrees with me, so here we stand, huddled shadows expelling frozen breaths under cold and anemic lights.
The old nigger is the first to board the bus, cutting through the line, obviously in a hurry to skip town. We all have our reasons, I suppose. I' m heading for Florida, Daytona Beach, to learn to be an airplane driver, and to get out of this cold and mud and the pathetic sight of abandoned steel mills and unemployed drunks.
From my seat I scan the station for cops rushing toward my bus, but only dirty slush and snow and a darkness jagged by the spillover of electric lights lie under the cold air. My dad waves good bye as the bus departs and I reciprocate. He turns his back to me and starts for his rusted pick up, sloshing through the station under his burden of incoming solitude and college tuition.
It' s a heavy load for the old man, but he didn' t hesitate when he offered to help me. Tough old Polack, he would eat his own old boots to save money to feed me. It' s not stinginess; it' s just that every penny he earns adds a layer of rough skin to his already too callused hands.
The bus accelerates, and lurches and continues to accelerate, and I look in the direction where the old nigger sits, and his grin full of white teeth greets me, glowing in the semi-darkness like a half moon, and he says," It' s good to be outta here. Yes sir."
Debbie' s bus heads north on Interstate 95, leaving south Florida behind, maybe for good. At least that is what Debbie wishes. Her window' s tinted glass reflects a translucent outline of her young face with hard lips caught between a smirk and a frown. Outside the tinted glass the orange groves bloom with myriad white specks spread like white caps against a green sea of orange leaves. She can not smell the blossoms but she can remember their fragrance, strong and sweet, and she remembers how that fragrance used to pervade the otherwise stale air of the apartments and rooms and shacks and trailers and holes in the wall where she grew up.
The fragrance came through the apartment' s window riding on shafts of dusty light. The slanted rays filtered in through the interstices in the Venetian blinds to prove to twelve year old Debbie – who had slept on the worn out couch – that the morning was still young, turning from orange to yellow, preparing to turn into intense, blinding white. Snorts slid underneath the closed door where her mother and her mother' s boyfriend shared their hangover. Boyfriendsare what her mother called them, mostly alcoholics and white trash, one nighters, good for nothing. She got up from the couch, used the toilet and went to visit with Franky, the next door neighbor who was always nice to her.
Debbie cannot smell the scent of the blossoms inside the bus, but she remembers it anyway, and the memory of that smell brings with it the links of memories as if by pulling one in, the others would follow, like pulling a chain out of a dark, bottomless well.
Franky' s face comes to her somewhat diffused, like her own reflection on the bus' s window, but much more distorted. Memories fall apart after so many years, just like a newspaper left on a water pond, and that' s fine with Debbie because, like old newspapers, who needs old memories? It' s his face all right, but she cannot make out the line sunder his eyes or the stubs on his cheeks. They sat and smoked together because that' s what they always did, smoke, and Franky always gave her cigarettes for free. Now, looking at the groves hurry pass her window, she realizes that even then nothing came for free.
First, he gave her cigarettes if she touched it. The more she touched, the more cigarettes she got, and she liked, likes, smoking, so touching it was not a problem for her. Putting it in her mouth took some money, the first money she ever earned, and the longer she kept it in her mouth, the more money Franky gave her.
The moment she felt Franky' s body wince at the touch of her lips, she discovered that she had the means to make men do things for her, like give her money and cigarettes. A revelation flashed inside her young head and she understood why her mother did the things she did, unashamedly, without remorse, and with business shrewdness.
Too many problems at home with mother, and her boyfriends who wanted her to do tricks for free. And drugs. And money. And cops. To hell with everybody, she had decided, and she had taken the first bus to Daytona Beach where the spring breakers were having a ball.
Tall southern yellow pine forests flank the highway in a blur of greenery slashed by brown trunks, and she cannot connect those tall, gaunt pines to any smell in particular. She cannot even remember what a Christmas tree smells like. They never had one.
I don' t like picking women up on my old motorcycle; it' s too obvious, and even the most retarded of passersby knows what you are up to. Picking prostitutes up is a very private matter, at least for me. This is my first free night in a long, long time. Classes and flying during the day keep me busy. Damn, it gets awful sweaty in those airplanes when they make you hold on the ramp or the taxiway. At night things don' t get easier, working as a bouncer until two o' clock in the morning, you know, trying to stretch that student loan and dad’ s and my own money as if they were a piece of bubble gum. But tonight I' m free, and horny, and cash is burning a hole in my pocket. It doesn’ t take but a few dollars to put a hole in my rather thin pockets. Getting a girlfriend is cheaper, they tell me, but at least doing it this way I don' t have to put up with any bullshit, and God knows I don' t need any.
The boardwalk simmers with tourists, mostly fat kids and even fatter parents, all bitching about how hot and muggy the night is. No pussy in sight. Atlantic Avenue is a good bet, so I head in that direction, and in my way I see her for the first time: blond, kind of, nice figure with small breasts, and the working girl trade mark cigarette pack in her hand.
"Hi hon. You looking?" she asks me as I stand beside her as if I were waiting to cross the corner. I’ m incognito.
"Yes, I am," I answer, still looking at passing cars.
I face her. She smiles and pretty dimples form on her cheeks. She is not beautiful; she is cute instead, and outgoing, I can tell.
"Fifty bucks," she says in a pleasant voice.
"I only have forty," I say, which is the honest truth.
Her smile and her dimples seem out of place in a hooker; they belong on some goody-goody commercial. "O.K. You' re kind of cute," she says.
We walk side by side to her room, blending with the crowd, and make small talk. And then we make love, or have sex, or make sex and have love, I don' t know which one it is. But it was well worth forty bucks.
A summer sun hammers the long line of tourist-packed vehicle strickling by in their way to the beach ramps. The street boils with Yankee cars loaded with old farts dressed in polychrome polyester, and rednecks driving pick-ups that blare Lynyrd Skynyrd tunes out onto the hot sidewalks. The sundry procession goes by, inching its way to the Atlantic with its rewards of overcrowded beaches and piss filled surf.
Debbie stands by the corner, clutching a pack of cigarettes in one hand, her other hand resting on her hip, her rump haughtily shoved to a side and well defined under her light summer dress, a brief dress that exposes the two masks tattooed on her right shoulder just below her hair line. One mask smiles and the other one is sad. She chose that particular tattoo out of the fat and dog eared book a scroungy looking biker artist had given her to pick from; to her it spoke of life' s good and bad times.
Men stare at her with a fixation that would make any woman blush, but she stares back with cold brown eyes and a Mona Lisa smile. The sea breeze tousles her dress and dark blond hair; her small breasts push their hard nipples through her dress' s light fabric. It' s too hot for a bra; besides, she doesn' t own any, an advantage of having small tits, the only advantage she can think of.
Women also stare at her. Some turn their noses up as if offended by an unknown smell; a few laugh among themselves; and others become angry at her sight: she' s giving away for cash what they cherish as a God given treasure, that hair covered slit between their legs that holds the promise of good husbands and happy families. Debbie' s is for sale by the side of the road like a hot dog or a T-shirt, and their men look at it, so easy, reachable and cheap, and their own slits, sitting on upholstery bought with five year loans, drop a notch in value.
She saunters on the sidewalk and trusts her rump in the air with practiced provocation, holding the cigarette pack in one hand, a lit cigarette on the other. She stares at the men in the passing cars, never deflecting her hard eyes from their own scrutiny. It' s hot but breezy and she enjoys the air blowing between her naked legs, carousing her exposed crotch.
She gets a kick out of lifting her dress and showing her triangle to some nerd looking guy, watching his eyes grow big and his brows arch like a cat' s back. It' s amusing to her what the slight sight of a tuft of curly short hairs can do.
Two Chinks in a rental car gaze at her from the curb with their mouths held open in a frozen ooooh. She boldly approaches their car and sticks her head and shoulders through the passenger side window making sure that her dress sags enough to show them her brown nipples.
"Hi hon. Looking for a good time?" She smiles and runs her tongue' s tip over her lips in a long, circular motion. The Asian men remain frozen on their seats, the ooooh fixed on their lips. "For fifty bucks each you can have some good American pussy." She brings the cigarette to her lips, takes a heavy draw and blows the smoke against the wind. The men talk to each other in Chink; she sees smiles crossing between them, and before they can reach their own decision, she opens the rear door and gets into the car, sliding over the seat to a stop, sitting with her legs purposely spread apart. The two men are now staring into her inviting slit resting over the upholstery. Their car joins the traffic stream and heads for her motel.
Through the window a light sea breeze comes in to tangle with the curtains. We both lie naked on bed. I rest on my back and Debbie' s head is leaning on my stomach, and she has my member in her mouth, slowly working her lips up and down its length with smacking sounds. The TV is on and she is watching the Lucy Show, and I don' t know what' s more important to her, my dick or Lucy; but that doesn' t matter. I gently run my fingers through her gossamer hair and feel the warmth of her face on my belly. Her lips give me a deep and intense pleasure. Life has stopped at the window unable to violate our cocoon of hired intimacy. Life' s Problems await for us out side while the living present belongs to us, Lucy, and the sea breeze. Our universe is nothing but the space inside this cheap motel room. Is this love? Who cares?
My days are long and filled with heat and the drone of engines. I fly with the cowling and the doors off but the wind behind the propeller is still warm and humid. My back sweats and my wet skin sticks to the vinyl seat; I can' t say enough about the glamor of flying. Truck drivers have it easier, with their air conditioned cabs and the ability to stop anywhere they want for a piss and a cup of coffee. All I can do is sit, sweat and buck the wind all day long; long periods of boredom dotted by the stress of picking up banners, rising the nose at full throttle while the banner refuses to leave the ground, hoping the damned kite won' t stall in this tug of war with me sitting in the middle. I get out of the cockpit only to refuel and to take a piss behind the fuel pumps. I hurry back into the airplane where now the odors of gasoline, airplane and sweat are mixed in a sickening cocktail.
I quit my bouncer job because I got tired of dealing with drunks and the late hours. I got to take a chick home now and then but I quickly learned that drunk broads are not much fun in bed. I had one pass out and piss on my bed. Another puked in my bathroom but missed the porcelain throne (how, I don' t know) and I had to clean the mess the next day, a rather unpleasant affair when it is done inside an old cramped trailer in the middle of summer. Girlfriends and one nighters are nothing but trouble so I' m still sticking to professional pussy and I don' t mind paying for what I could get for free.
From the heat of the cockpit I jump to the heat of the kitchen in a greasy spoon, Al' s Dinner, on US 1, by Port Orange. Being a short order cook is not that bad; I get breaks to use the bathroom and Johnny, the proprietor, is quite a character, and old Yankee from upstate New York that has more tales than a convention of liars and who speaks like James Cagney in one of his gangster movies. But Johnny is not liar or make believe poser; his honest straightforwardness doesn' t allow him to bull shit anyone. It is just that the man has enough wild stories of his own to keep me flipping burgers and washing dishes with a smile on my greasy face, and for that I' m very grateful. Johnny has been beaten, arrested, fooled, abused, and generally treated like a dog through his colorful life full of odd jobs but his up beat disposition doesn' t seem to have taken a dent and all his misfortunes are now nothing but jokes to laugh at. And laugh we do.
"Never got into a knife fight with a Porto Rican?" he asks me while I' m scrubbing the hot plate.
"Never, and I' m not looking forward to it." And there goes Johnny, with a new tale and how he ended throwing two Puerto Ricans over the side of a bridge into the river below. He also shows me the scar on his left arm…
"One of them ' coons cut through my coat that I had wrapped around my arm to use as a shield. A sharp knife that was." His dark blue eyes shine as a kid' s looking at a train toy and he laughs as if the six inches of scar running along the top of his arm we retickling him. Despite his joviality, I wouldn' t like to get into a knife fight with him on a bridge, or anywhere else.
The nights go fast and the usual customers come and go. They sit at the counter, mesmerized by Johnny' s tales and eat my food with far less enthusiasm. They come to Al' s to be entertained, not to eat; they buy food and coffee as the admission ticket to a friendly conversation. We got drunks, former drunks, bikers, vets, rednecks, mechanics with dirt packed under their fingernails, and divorced women who are way past their prime and who only got wrinkles on their faces as compensation for putting up with losers and their lousy marriages. All are welcome at Al' s and we make merry company. I have learn more about life standing behind the counter next to Johnny than I ever did behind my desk at school.
It' s late at night and the clock' s hands are approaching closing time. Our routine is to close and then Johnny and I have our meal. After, we clean up and Johnny does the cash register then he pays me before we leave the place and go our different ways home. I' m washing the last pile of dishes when somebody enters the joint. I don' t bother to look back because I' m up to my elbows in dirty water, scrubbing a big pot. Johnny and the double barrel shotgun under the counter can cover my back.
"Hi handsome," a female voice comes from the other side of the counter. I pay no attention because I think the voice is talking to Johnny.
' Hey fly boy! Too busy to say hello?" The voice is now louder and with a hint of annoyance.
I turn around and there is Debbie in a flimsy summer dress with her little nipples pushing the thin fabric out.
"Debbie…! What are you doing in this side of town?" My smile comes upon my oily face. I can see myself wearing a food stained and dirty apron and a white paper cap. I' m both glad seeing Debbie and I' m embarrassed at the same time. Soapy water drips down my fingers onto the greasy floor.
"A customer drove me to his place and afterwards didn' t want to take me back to my motel, so I started walking and passing by I decided to have a cup of coffee and something to eat." Her dimples, her damned dimples with her smile make me feel like a dupe.
"It' s gonna take you all night to get back to your place," I say.
"No really. I will get another customer on my way back, or more than one, but I will eventually find a john to take me home."
During this time the unflappable Johnny just stood behind the counter and smiled. It was obvious that having a whore in his reputable establishment was of no consequence to him. He walked to the door and flipped the sign from "Open" to "Close" and came back to his place behind the counter. I just stood where I was, water now just a trickle running down my fingertips.
"Well," says Johnny. "Are you gonna offer the lady something to eat or are you just gonna stand there like a dummy?"I snap into action, dry my hands while Johnny asks Debbie, not really asks, but tells her what she will have for dinner. While they made small talk I got dinner going for the three of us: double cheeseburgers with bacon and onion rings for everybody. Once done I placed the three servings on the counter and before I had time to say anything, Johnny grabbed two of the dishes and took them to a little corner table by the window.
"You two can eat here," he said, a devilish smile on his face. "I will eat at the counter while I close the register."I knew Johnny long enough to know that he was full of it. Closing the register meant grabbing all the money and giving me my cut. He never counted anything, he just grabbed the cash in a bundle and put it in his pocket and went home. But there he sat, counting bills and eating alone while I had to sit with Debbie by the window. Right after we sat he had come over with a pair of beers and had placed them on our table.
"No beer license in this joint but we are closed so… who gives a damn?" His boyish smile in his wrinkled face made me go along with his idea of a joke. I knew he had a joke up his sleeve some where, but he didn' t seem too keen to go for it, at least not yet.
"He' s so cute," says Debbie after Johnny walked back to the counter.
"He' s nuts," I say aloud so Johnny can hear me. "And he knows it." Johnny smiles behind the counter and ignores me, chopping down on his dinner.
We sit across from each other and start to eat in silence. It was obvious she was hungry. I chew and watch the traffic go by US 1. I picture Debbie walking alone on the dark sidewalks, waiting for a john to stop to either make more money or get a ride back to her place, or both. Late at night and waiting to be picked by strangers, maybe some crazed nut, and her only defense is her cute dimples. I shake my head in disbelief, still looking out of the window.
"What?" she asks. Her eyes are inquisitive, as if trying to see beyond the expression on my dirty face and right into my mind.
"I don' t want you walking back alone tonight. It' s too dangerous. I' ll take you home." She smiles but doesn' t contradict me and lowers her gaze as if embarrassed. She chews for a few seconds, swallows and then says in a soft voice," Thank you. You' re an angel."
Behind me Johnny speaks.
"Good night. I' m going home. Your money is on the counter."
"Good night," says Debbie. "And thank you."
I turn just in time to see him winking to Debbie, the old coot.
"See you tomorrow," I say. "I' ll lock up for you."Johnny' s stocky frame disappears through the door and he ambles away, probable thinking of the fun he was going to have at my expense the next night.
Alone we eat. We make small talk and drink our beer in short seeps. There is no reason to hurry but there is no reason for us to bedinning together either but somehow it feels right to be alone and together this night. I' m filthy with kitchen stains and smell like onions, and she is also dirty in a way that hurts me when it shouldn' t because it is not my business. At least she doesn' t stink like I do. The dirty cook and the prostitute; this ain' t the Lady and the Vagabond; this ain' t fucking love story but two losers eating together, probably a joke in the making if Johnny has his way.
I take her home in my jalopy. I' m free of the apron and the hat but the onion stench still hangs around me. She doesn' t seem bothered by it, but why would she? Her line of work requires a strong stomach. We talk, we laugh and have a good time. I drop her on the sidewalk in front of her place. I can see another girls sitting on lounge chairs, smoking and waiting for their johns to drop by. I know a few. Before she got out of the car she kissed me on the cheek. Her tender touch still burns. She smiles and the darned dimples make me look like a fool again. She walks away, says hello to her coworkers and before entering the lobby she turns around and waves at me, blowing a kiss with her hand. I smile and wave back. What a fool I' m.
Next night Johnny says nothing to me about Debbie. Not even one question or remark. Maybe, after all, it had not been a joke.
Pencil on legal size yellow sheet
April 27, Daytona Beach.
How are things out there in Youngstown? Any steel mills left? Anybody left in town? Every pizza man in Dayton a is from Ohio, union men working for tips. I haven’ t finished school and I already have a huge student loan to pay back, and the Old Man is broke. I have been flying banners for an out fit in New Smyrna beach. The pay is crap but at least I get to put lots of hours in my logbook. It' s hard on your ass when you spent all day sitting in a plane. It' s hot, noisy and when you have a head wind the damned thing barely moves, but at least I' m getting the hours. A few many more thousands of hours and then I can get a job with an airline (by then I will be forty at least).
You know, if you want to come to Florida you can stay with me until you get your shit together. My trailer is small and I don' t have air, but you' re welcome to stay. I don' t know how you can stand those winters out there. Once you get used to this weather there is no turning back. How is your job bagging groceries going? I tell you, you could make better money around here shucking oysters.
Did you go to court yet? You haveto be fucking stupid to take on three cops at once. I suppose there is nothing better to do up there than beat on cops. If you see Pam, tell her that she can give you the fifty bucks I lent her the last time I was there. The bitch is playing dumb. You take care of your self.
No doubt about it, the old man is a Yankee; he talks with that adenoidal accent, like a gangster from a black and white B movie. Fat gold rings peppered with jewels shine on his dried fingers dappled with liver spots. Debbie sits with her back to the passenger door, one leg bent under her body, the other stretched in front of her at an angle. The angle increases and her golden crotch flare sunder the strong sunlight. The old man almost loses control of his big car when he catches a glance of her genitalia. She giggles like a mischievous child caught stealing cookies would.
"What' s your name?" she asks knowing well he is going to give her a false one.
"Art. Name' s Art," the old man says while trying to both drive and look between her now closed legs, his bloodshot eyes nervously darting between the road and her groin.
"What you have in mind, Art?" She carefully pronounces Art, as if it were a super hero' s name, mocking the old man, but he doesn' t catch on. The old fart tries to speak but his Adam’ s apple get stuck in his wind pipe and words cannot come through his dried up lips. Debbie knows what he has in his mind but she asks just to see him choke in his own embarrassment. She finds delight in making her customers pay more than money for her services.
"I don' t know. You tell me," answers the old man, obviously nervous.
"What about half-and-half, you know, half head and half fuck," her voice rings as pleasant and natural as if she were talking about the weather.
The old man' s grip on the steering wheel tightens. His eyes are now fixed on the road and looking out of a drawn and blushing face. No words come out of his lips even though they quiver as if grasping for sounds.
"It' s gonna cost you," she continues in a relaxed voice. "Fifty bucks." She can do it for less, but it never hurts to ask for more.
"Fine," he manages to say.
"O.K. On the next block, hang a right," she says.
"Where' re we going?"
"I have a place; it' s safe," her legs open briefly, then close again; she enjoys making the old fart sweat. The big cart wists and turns through narrow streets inundated with sunshine while the old man silently follows her directions.
The cushy ride, the gentle and cool conditioned air and the isolation from the outside world relax her; smoothly gliding through reality with a well tuned suspension is such a fine feeling, and she enjoy sit while she can. Fifty bucks for screwing an old man with a pencil dick ain' t a bad deal, she thinks. She doesn' t see the man holding his wilting member in his sickly colored hand, his hairy back, sagging chest, and varicose veins. Seeing things is not good for business. She only sees fifty bucks, easy fifty bucks.
"Right there, that green building, you can park over there," she commands. The car slows down, pulls into a parking space and stops; its engine remains idle.
Debbie has no time to waste," Let' s go. Come on." She tries to get out but the electric locks are down. The old man stiffly grips the steering wheel and his stare into the distance turns void and far. The veins in his throat bulge, his lips quiver, and his voice roars," You whore! You damned whore!"
She is still trying to get out, her body leaning against the unyielding door," Of course I' m a whore! Who the fuck you think I am? Mother Teresa?"
"You whore, you will burn in hell! Repent from your sins or you will burn in eternal hell!" The old man' s voice roars with a raspy and trembling power. His angry eyes burn a path to hers and his face twitches as if electricity were flowing under his mottled skin.
She struggles with the door," Come on, man! Let me go, you asshole! Open this fucking door!" Her voice is angry but firm.
"Repent and He will save you!"
"Fuck you! Let me out!" She pounds with her fists on the window. "I' m gonna scream, you asshole! Open!"
"Your soul is lost! Pray with me and repent from your sins!"His eyes close in religious fervor. She screams as loud as her lungs allow. His eyes open. Passersby are looking into the car. She screams again, still pounding on the window. His trembling hands reach for the unlocking master button on his door. The lock snaps free with a click, and she bolts out of the car.
"Asshole!" She slams the door shut and speeds away from the car. "Fucking nut!"
The old man is gone. After a cigarette Debbie goes back on the street because she has to make rent money. The sun shines with pristine opulence; thunderstorm clouds simmer over the ocean line.
Our feet sink into the wet sand and foam bubbles between our toes. The surf is brownish and frothy. An aircraft' s laboring engine comes overhead. It' s Seven Two Papa, and Ron is probably flying it. The old Champ flies in a crab, fighting the stiff wind trying to push it inland. The banner behind it, Reggae at the Beach Pub, makes a sound of its own, like a plastic bag tied to a car' s door handle while speeding down the highway.
"You working tomorrow?" Debbie asks me.
"Yeah. Another long fucking day," my eyes are still fixed on Seven Two Papa. "I hope the wind is not so strong. Bucking the wind all day long is n' t fun."
"It must be pretty neat to fly up and down the beach,."Debbie says. Her eyes follows the little airplane that continues to fly north defying the wind and earning a living.
"At the beginning it is; later on, you get sick of it."
She walks into the surf, knee high, and the waves' crests kiss her dress' s hem. "This is fucking great, isn' t it?" Facing the ocean, she brings her arms high over her head and spreads her fingers as if trying to catch breeze and sunshine. I stand beside her. The rolling waves slap our legs; yes, it is great. The past and the future don' t matter; but right now it' s fucking great.
With the cops cracking down on prostitution – no good for family vacationers and business, preach the city leaders – things become difficult on the beach side. Now Debbie works Ridge wood Avenue. Glaring sunlight adds brightness to the scandalous and shabby storefronts of biker and tittie bars, and to the huge yellow, dirty movie theater. It is a subtropical colorfulness that masks the harshness of a life lived from day to day, from minute to minute, devoid of any plausible future, or expectant with such a sordid one that there is no point to think about it. She doesn' t think about hers.
Her eyes are half closed, in part due to the glare, in part to the downers she has taken. A sedated drowsiness has a hold on her body. Her gait is slow and at times staggering but she doesn' t know that. She stands by the corner, wrapped inside the Mandrax bubble she has created for herself. Outside the bubble things move at the speed of light, in a blur of intense light and motion; sounds are far distant and muffled, but she is happy inside her bubble where life exists at a more peaceful pace.
A beat up station wagon pulls in front of her and stops. Automatically, as if reacting to a surviving instinct, she approaches the passenger door window and leans her body through it. A small and dark young man smiles at her, his sharp teeth shining like ivory daggers.
"Hello. How arre you doing?" He drags his r' s with a powerful accent. He' s got to be one of them foreigners who goes to the school by the airport, she thinks, then she forgets she thought of that.
"Hi babe," she manages to open the door and get in. The wagon rolls over the hot asphalt, flanked by traffic on all sides.
"What' s your name, hon?" she asks from inside her bubble, her voice reverberating from invisible walls. He says a name but she doesn' t get it. Hon will do. She props her legs over the dashboard, lifts her dress and pulls her pink panties down, exposing her crotch to Hon whose jaws drop almost to his chest.
"This goddamned thing is giving me a fit," she tugs at her panties and pulls them off. Her legs stay over the dashboard; the mat of hair on her groin exposed to the world with a delightful indifference. A truck driver on her side, enticed by the erotic view, almost rams an old lady in front of him.
"Pleaase, coverr up. No good to show thing like that," says Hon with one eye on the road, the other on the thing. She giggles in pleasure and runs her fingers through her mat, rubbing hard the bulges around the slit.
"What' s the matter, Hon. Don’ t you like it?" Her body becomes heavy and sluggish. The bubble starts to close on her.
Somehow she succeeds at showing Hon the right motel. They enter her room. She takes his money, heads for the bed and lies on her back with the money clenched in one hand. Her dress rests high up her waist and her legs are spread. Then the bubble crashes on her, heavy and solid. Her senses sink into the crevasses of her tired body, weighing it down with such a burden that she sinks into the mattress like a heavy marble statue. Reality bursts like a bubble to be replaced by nothingness.
She wakes up with the money still in her hand. A flaky and sticky film of dried semen is stuck to her belly. Her judgment is still muddled, but she thinks of a new meaning for self-service. "Help your self, Hon," she says aloud to herself. The ceiling fan above spins with a blurred motion, and she gets dizzy.
Tonight I' m getting the special treatment. I don' t know why, but Debbie is trying to be sexy and romantic, or romantic and sexy. Whatever. The many candle lights create soft dancing shades on the walls. A tawny light floods her room and keeps the outside world at bay.
"What' s going on?" I ask. "Is this going to cost me more?"
"No. It' s not going to cost you more," she says, and I can sense a very brief animosity in her voice, but it vanishes in a moment. "You' re a special customer."
"Me? I' m a cheap skate. What' s so special about me?
"You' re nice."
"So, what' s the big deal? Everybody is nice when they get what they want."
Her smile and her small dimples look beautiful by candlelight. The needle marks on her arms are not so noticeable under the soft light. "You' re nice and you know it." We embrace and her warm body makes me stronger and protective. I can feel her heartbeat on my chest; I feel femininity and flesh and desire under her dress. Her nimble waist nicely fits the crook of my arms. We make love, touching, sensing, pressing, baiting, smelling, tasting. We fill our senses and block life. Sensuality, as solid and real as the air we breathe, grows between us like the lights precariously dancing wrapped around the wick of the fast burning candles, destined to die and melt into a puddle of wax, ready to disappear at the slightest of breezes. But that will be the future. Now is ours, sensual and soft.
An unctuous sea spray film covers the windshields of the cars parked along the street. The moisture laden air irradiates heat, and Debbie walks through it, her skinny body displacing that humid air, absorbing its heat, sweat wrapping her as a pasty shroud. The humidity shows itself under the streetlights as a diaphanous and diffused glow where bugs leave traces of their dashing paths. A cigarette pack is in her hand, and she walks with a trained disdain that proclaims her free and guiltless spirit, and she unashamedly stares into passing cars with a direct and defiant gaze. She can see through those faces above the steering wheels: the lust, the desire, it' s all there; if they only had the guts to stop and pick her up.
A dark and rusted utility van cruises the street. It' s the third time it goes by, and the driver has been checking her out. Maybe it will stop the next time around. She lights a cigarette and waits. There it comes. Both the driver and Debbie look at each other, and then she moves between parked cars and waits at the edge of the open street. The van stops and the driver leans over to unlock the door with his tattooed arm, strong and vascular. In a dash she climbs into the van which speeds away.
"Hi hon. What’ s up?" Her greeting is casual as if she were in a familiar van with an old friend.
"Lookin' for some fun, if you know what I mean." His voice is also very casual.
"Fifty bucks, half-and-half, my place," a long plume of smoke comes out of her mouth and nostrils as she speaks, and she smiles, small, cute dimples forming over the corner of her lips.
"Fifty dollars!" exclaims the driver. "You ain' t the last fuck on Earth, you know."
"How much you got on you?" Another dirtbag she thinks, wants to get laid for nothing, like pussy grew on trees.
"Thirty bucks." His unsmiling face needs a shave, long and dirty hair cascades from underneath a Harley Davison cap.
"A blow job is all you gonna get for that much."
The man drives in silence, pondering the offer, or looking like he' s pondering over something," Alright, but we don' t go to your place." He arches his thumb over his shoulder. "Back there will be fine." There is a bench seat at the very back, and no windows. Rusted tool boxes, empty fast food bags and Styrofoam containers litter the floor. The van takes one of the ramps and lands on the beach. The rising tide and its effervescent surf lick the van' s bold tires. They park on an unlit and lonely spot facing the murky ocean where traces of white foam ride, barely discernible, atop the darkness of the waves. Both move to the bench seat and sit.
"I want my money first," Debbie requests with firmness, and throws her cigarette to the floor and steps on it, rubbing her sole over the squashed butt.
"How I know you' re any good?" he asks in a gruff voice.
He is starting to get on her nerves, the jerk," I' m good, probably the best you' ll ever have."
Solid and unexpected, his fist squarely lands under her left eye and knocks her from the bench seat. The metallic edge of a toolbox gives her another bruise on her left hip when she hits the floor. Before she has time to gather her senses, he jumps on her, tugging at her clothes, his dirty hands searching her dress, her panties, her body.
"Where is the money! The money, you fucking bitch!" His hands grope for the crispiness of paper, searching for a flash of green.
"Get off me!" She screams. His open hand lands on her face with a clapping, numbing sound. Her head twists and hits the side of the van.
"Fucking shut up!" He turns his attention to her cigarette pack. Tearing it apart he finds a small square of neatly folded bills. His smile flowers through his crooked teeth. He leans over her and reaches for the door handle above her head, opens the van' s sliding door and shoves her out with a kick.
"Mother fucker! Mother fucker!" Her cussing has not diminished since she hit the sand. The door slides shut. The van starts and disappears into darkness, two small red dots gliding over the sand and escaping from her. Her face burns in pain and her eye is swelling shut and feels like it' s ready to explode, and her hip pains her. Lying supine, she vainly screams against the breeze and cries to the night and the surf. The waves continue to break against the sand, unabated.
"You get two for the price of one," Debbie says to me. She is leaning over my new old car' s window with a cigarette nervously burning between her fingers.
"What' s the catch?" I ask. Debbie doesn' t give it away for nothing, and I understand; hell, I don' t fly for free either.
"Well, I need to see this guy tonight, you know, we have some business," she puffs on her cigarette. "It' s not far, by Volusia Avenue." Her smile is working at its best. "I just need a ride."
I have nothing better to do tonight, so I agree. Two for one. I don' t know if I' m going to be able to deliver. Shit, I' m the one who should get paid; after all, I' m doing all the work.
We drive inland, on Volusia Avenue. Traffic is light tonight, probably too hot and muggy for the old farts to leave their condos. Lowlifes without air conditioning like Debbie and I go out anyway; it doesn' t make a difference to us.
"What' s that bruise under your eye?" I had noticed it while talking to her through my window.
"Some mother fucker hit me on the face and ripped off my money," she answers in a calm voice, almost a whisper although her body language is one of jitters.
"You called the cops?"
She takes the last draw from her cigarette and throws the butt out of the window. "Sure I did; basically, they told me to fuck off." She pauses to light another cigarette. "They said it was my own damned fault for working the streets."
"That wasn' t nice."
"Fuck' em all."
Her mind is tuned to a different frequency tonight. It' s going to be a wham-bang-thank-you-ma' am night, two in a row – maybe. I give her the money in advance after she pleaded for it," Man, I need that money to pay that guy, or he' s going to get mean." Her pretty smile brings her dimples back. "You don' t want anything bad to happen to me, do you?" It' s amazing how she can switch moods to fit her needs, like flipping frequencies in an airplane radio, back and forth.
She takes me right into Nigger town. I park between two junked cars(a perfect disguise for my old clunker). She sneaks into a house using the backyard gate. I slide downwards in my seat and lay low, waiting for her, keeping an eye on my mirrors, just in case.
Time passes by and I start to get uncomfortable. Buying drugs should not take this long. I' m pretty sure they don' t give free samples. Something is wrong. I wait for a while and nothing, no Debbie. Damned, I got ripped off tonight; she pulled a fast one on me. Noway in hell I' m going into that house looking for her. After a long wait I conclude that I have been taken. "Two for one," I say to myself. "Sure, there is one born every minute."
The Trailways station on Volusia Avenue is next to Nigger town. I took Debbie here once so she could get her fix and for that I got a free blow job and she let me play with her tits. I wish dating respectable women were that easy. The station is dusty and the parking lot reeks of diesel and rubber, not different than any other bus station anywhere else. I have no idea why my mind links what I see to Debbie; it' s getting kind of annoying. My annoyance gets pushed aside when the bus arrives. The door opens with a clang and passengers start to descent the steps: matrons holding small children in their arms or dragging them out by their hands, Metallic a types with cheap sung glasses and just an overnight bag for luggage, soldiers eager to go home, and the last to come down is Tony, big Tony, dressed in a brown suit with padded shoulders, a skinny dark blue tie and steel toe working shoes on his feet. In his hand there is a gym bag with our high school colors. I' m sure he has at least one gun in there. He' s wearing a pair of sunglasses that make him look like John Belushi in the Blues Brothers; the only thing missing is the hat. The man likes to be stylish but doesn' t know how and can' t afford to. Style is not something you pick up in the rough Youngstown neighborhoods. What he had picked off the street is a tough guy look, and it is not just the look but it is the real toughness in him that shows up on his face. His nose is crooked to his left. Tony doesn' t remember which fist fight gave him that crooked nose, and he doesn' t remember the details of his broken ribs and fractured jaw and other scars. To him, all those scars are what happens when he tries to live his life, something as elementary as breathing to stay alive.
But I love the big fella. He' s a stand up guy and will never go back on his promises. He spent time in the slammer after that Christmas tree fiasco and told the D.A. to stick it up his ass when he came around with promises of leniency if he would testify against his partners in crime. Fred took the deal and Tony got the book thrown at him. I' m sure Fred didn' t give me up because he didn' t want to face a really pissed off Tony after he got out of jail. Just the same, Fred left for California right before Tony was due for release from the county jail. Distances keep your bones unbroken.
"Ken!" Tony drops the gym bag on the ground and hugs me. He bangs his fists on my shoulders. I can feel his strength through his cheap suit and on his affectionate beating of my back.
"How you doin' " I say.
"Glad to be here, out of that shithole."
We wait for his bag to come out of bus' bowels. When his worn out duffel bag is out, he picks it up with one hand and we walk to my car parked outside next to the sidewalk.
"How' s my old man doing" I ask.
"As always, working his ass off and keeping to himself, but he seems fine."
"And your parents?"
"Well," he seems to be looking for the right words before he continues. "Their livers are holding up amazingly well."
I say nothing. Some things don' t change.
The door to her place is open, and she knows some thing is amiss; she always locks her door before leaving. A closer look confirms her fears: somebody has kicked the door in and the flimsy lock lies on the floor surrounded by bits of wood. Her stuff litters the floor. She rushes to the bathroom and lifts the toilet' s tank cover. Taped to the inside of the cover is a plastics and wich bag bulging with cash. Relief lights up her thin face, and she places the cover back over the tank. Her pot is missing. Somebody went through her drawers and took a bag half-full with goodsin semilla. Her TV is missing too. From the pay phone at the corner she calls the cops. Being ripped off really pisses her off, and the cops may as well now about it; after all, they give her enough grief, let them catch some shit now.
A young rookie shows up looking like a spring breaker disguised as a cop, his dark Ray-Bans failing to hide his baby face. She doesn' t know him, yet. He' s trying to be all business with his new clipboard on hand. The radio perched over his shoulder keeps on transmitting unintelligible words.
"How much was that TV worth?" he asks from behind his sunglasses.
"Three hundred bucks," she quickly answers, even though she only paid fifty and didn' t ask Charley where he got it from.
"Do you mind if I look around?"
"Look as much as you want, hon," she says, puffing on a cigarette.
He walks around her room, his radio still going, and she wonders how he can stand that constant clatter. He' s now hunching over her coffee table. With his pen he pushes to the center of the table a syringe that had been half hidden under a TV guide. His pen is now searching into her ashtray where a metal roach still holds a tuft of white paper and weed in its teeth.
"What' s all this?" he asks and stands erect behind the shield of his glasses suspended over his serious baby face, and his radio turns mute at last.
"I don' t know," she expels a long plume of smoke on his direction. "My friends come here to party when I ain' t home." She knows that he knows her answer is bullshit.
He approaches. "Put the cigarette out and turn around; place your hands behind your back." The cold handcuffs snap around her too thin wrists.
On the way to booking she thinks that it was good to get busted. Things were getting out of hand. Heroine is a good friend, but a demanding one, more than coke. "I need to gain some weight back", she thinks. "Being too skinny is not good for business."
The band shell looks pretty under the glistening sun. The congested sidewalk doesn' t bother me. At the beach access ramp behind the band shell there is a gathering of onlookers. An old flatbed truck loaded with watermelons sits on its rear bumper with its front wheels high in the air at the foot of the steep incline.
Among the onlookers is Debbie, cigarette pack in hand, cheap mirror sunglasses shielding her eyes. I haven' t seen her since the "tw of or one" deal, and that was over six months ago. As if by magic, she has gained weight on all the right places. Her body is full and curvier; her hair shines with a healthy brilliance. I stand behind her, imagining my fingers running through her hair, just like the wind is doing now. She finally looks back and I see my own eyes reflected on her shades. Smiles and dimples flash as bright as Florida sunshine.
"Hi there!" she exclaims.
"Hi," I say, still sulking from the "two for one"deal. "Long time no see."
"You never came to visit me." Her smile goes into a reproaching mode.
"Visit you where?"
"In jail. I got busted. Didn' t you know?" She speaks with a happy voice. The watermelon truck watchers hear her and automatically move a few steps away, as if her criminality were to rub off on them.
"No! I didn' t know!"
"I was sure that any of the girls would have told you."
"Well," I say. "I was being truthful to you, so I didn' t screw any other girls." The watermelon truck watchers now move a step away from me. Debbie' s smile is delightful, so full now.
"Sure as hell. You cannot keep your pecker in your pants even if you life depended on it." The watermelon truck watchers are now paying more attention to us than to the truck. We both laugh. I grab her hand (it feels so warm and sensual) and pull her away from the crowd. A few envious eyes follow us as we go to my car.
"You want to go to Ponce Inlet?" I ask. Never before had I asked a working girl to come with me just for the fun of it. The question came out without thinking, as if I were a dummy through which an inner voice talked nonsense.
"Sure, if you buy the beer." Her quick acceptance further surprises me. I find myself driving to Ponce Inlet with Debbie, clueless about both my asking and her acquiescence.
We leave the car by the side of the dirt marina road. Six-pack in hand, we walk to the dunes, go over them and descent into the jetties. The tide is receding and the jetties spread in front of us like water mirrors reflecting strikes of sunlight. We pick a jetty that looks like a big jacuzzi. We strip and get in with only our necks sticking out of the water. The cold beer tastes good under the hot sun. Banner planes fly overhead, some heading back to New Smyrna, others going to Daytona Beach.
Debbie caresses me under the water. Her feet rub my legs; her toes play with my crotch. We make love under the water, our heads above it, our bodies submerged in the salty water, its fluidity becoming one with us, and we kiss, and this is the first time we kiss and by that I mean a really wet one, full of flavor. It is Debbie' s rule that she never kisses a customer. She can blow and screw the most disgusting of men for money, but she will never kiss anyone; that' s too personal.
Touching her feels good. Knowing she is with me feels good. Having her feels good. Her smile makes me happy. Is this love? Or is this craziness?
The gages are in the green. R.P.M. is well below red line and the engine churns with that so familiar monotony. Ponce Inlet is coming up under my left wing. The high tide covers the jetties under a cloak of breaking waves, and my mind tries to cover the memory of making love to Debbie on that spot. Nevertheless, my mind is clear, and the memory appears visible underneath the surf, shiny and undistorted.
The old lighthouse grows abeam of my left wing now. My nose points towards Daytona. The banner behind, Tonite Rock & Roll; at the pier, tugs at my tail with a persistence that reminds me of those thoughts that refuse to leave us alone regardless how fast or high our minds go.
Anybody can have sex, good sex. But sex with strings attached is love, isn' t it? I wonder if I' m falling in love with a prostitute and a junkie (she swears she completed a detox program, but that' s Debbie talking), or is it just a passing whim, or it' s just plain good sex. She sells her sex for money; I sell my flying for money. Are we not the same thing?
Human figures populate the beach. Who has the answer down there?Nobody probably. Flesh is such a powerful thing; its smell, and texture, and warmth, and Debbie' s flesh is so… so… free. No games, no pleading, no promises. Her flesh is available to all just by asking and paying. Other women make such a big deal of going to bed, as if having sex were a religious experience, but for Debbie it is like breathing; in and out, that easy.
A whore and a junkie, human trash with a beautiful smile drawn upon a face marked by cute dimples. Small breasts and needle scarred arms, warm skin touching mine, unconditional sex, or love, or affection – I don' t know – to be taken as it comes, without questions or promises, without spelled or implied guarantees.
Atlantic Avenue surges abeam of my left wing. Debbie' s favorite corner is empty. She may be sleeping it off, or she may be servicing a paying customer. It' s not my business and I don' t want it to be my business. Can this be jealousy? Do love and jealousy come hand on hand?
"Dad, I want you to meet my fiancé, Debbie The Whore. Debbie, this is my dad."
I can see my dad grunting; that short and raspy grunt that denotes surprise, and his clear blue eyes squinting to penetrate through the bullshit.
"Yes dad, she' s a social worker, fifty bucks a pop, some times two for one."
I start to laugh aloud. A flight of unsmiling pelicans goes under my plane.
We lie naked on her bed. Sex was good, of course. Debbie purrs on top of me, breathing with a somewhat heavy cadence, her face resting on my chest. Working girls always get out of bed as soon as they are finished and run for the bathroom to cleanup, but Debbie is just resting on my chest, docile as a contented cat. My hands caress her body, warm and sweaty, curvy and delicate, female and lusty, all mine, right now. Dad, I want you to meet my fiancé, Debbie The Whore, that thought does not go away from my mind, and I don' t find it amusing anymore. She smells good, and it' s not perfume; it' s her own odor. Respectable women pay big money to smell good, to have nice skin, to have pretty smiles, to be desirable. Debbie just lives from day to day, from high to high, but she has all those things. God gives bread to those who don' t have teeth. My hands continue to caress her body with delicate, whirling motions.
A deep sigh escapes from her. As if suddenly she had remembered something important, she gets up and runs to the bathroom, sits on the toilet and grabs the douche bottle, and starts to clean herself up. We look, really look at each other, and the world around us fades and only our knowledge of each other remains tangible.
Debbie, who are you? Why do I desire you with such force? She knows my thoughts. The empty distance between us is no barrier; my closed lips are no obstacle. My hands told her how I feel and my eyes scream to her with desire, and her eyes tell me what a fool I am.
I' m back at the Trailways station. I wonder if I will ever go the airport to pick somebody up. My dad decided to take the bus because he had doubts about his old pick up truck making it all the way to Florida. Hell, he had doubts his rusted truck would make it out of Youngstown.
It is dark and I can smell fried chicken. I must be downwind from the Bojangles across the street. The scent makes my stomach growl with desire. Maybe the old man will also be hungry and we both can dine on some fine spicy chicken and biscuits. No fancy restaurant for us.
Graduation is in a couple of days. I’ ll get a piece of paper that says I' m a college man and the F.A.A. gave me more papers, little rectangular cards, wallet size, that say I' m an aviator, you know, commercial, instrument, multi engine, flight instructor kind of aviator. After all the money and effort I, and my dad, put in the sepapers you would think they would be good for something. So far all I can think of is that they are good for wiping my ass. The student loans need to be paid and I have no idea how, and my dad, dear God, I almost didn' t recognized him when he came out of the bus, so old and tired, as if the burden of my education and his solitude had turned his hair white as snow and the sag under his eyes had become one with the sag on his cheeks. I felt guilty for his premature aging, of his burdens at an age when he should be enjoying some peace and some money in his savings account.
Life dealt him a bad card when mom died. At times I felt he just wanted to fold and leave for good, no reason for going on living, but the tough Pole hung in there. Maybe he did it for me, to be there for me even though he didn' t care much to be there for living his own life. He never had anything worth stealing; the only thing worthwhile in his life had been mom. He loved her beyond measure and when the big C took her away, well, he didn' t fall apart – that wasn' t in him- but the future ceased to be a thing of much importance. Since then he has lived from day to day, doing what was required of him, living a mirthless life where only memories brought a smile to his lips. And I feel guilty because I have nothing in my power to make the old man' s life less painful. I' m a college man, the first in the family, but what good is it? All I can do is treat my old man to some fried chicken and biscuits.
We carry our plastic trays full of chicken and biscuit and soda and sit in a booth by the window. Volusia Avenue is busy. I don' t know what to say to my dad. I wish I had good news, like I got a real flying job that paid a decent salary and not a few dollars by the hour. Our conversation covers the initial and mandatory inquests about how relatives, friends and acquaintances are doing, as if knowing about other' s crappy lives would make ours look some what better.
"Any luck with a job" my dad asks.
"I got the degree and the licenses but I don' t have the hours," I apologize. "Nobody will hire a young pilot with the few hours I have."
"What are you gonna do?" My dad talks without really looking at me, his eyes moving from his dinner to Volusia Avenue. There is no anger or excitement in his words. He knows what it is like to want to work and not to have a job.
"I' ll keep on towing banners until sores grow on my ass, you know, fattening my logbook." I stop to drink. "But eventually I need to start flying multi engines and turbines if I' m ever going to get a job with a commuter."
"How you gonna do that?"
"Catch twenty two." I say. "You need the hours to get a job but they won' t give a job because you don' t have the hours."
My dad laughs, thank God. He is looking straight at me.
"Someday you will be flying for Delta or Eastern and then these days won' t seem so bad."
"Amen to that." My dad and Johnny, beaten by life but not down, standing on two legs with bloodied noses and black eyes and not giving up, still optimists to the end. I know he is proud of me being a college man and an aviator, and he would be prouder if mom could be here. All I pray for is that I won' t disappoint the old guy.
Sitting atop a dune, among sea oats, I can see the jetties in front of me. I cannot tell where the river ends and where the ocean starts. A school of dolphins frolics on the silver waters, their dark and sleek bodies intermittently flashing on the surface with amazing speed. Sex and love, I cannot see where one ends and the other starts. Maybe it' s all the same waters and we, like dolphins, swim back and forth without noticing the difference.
Debbie is gone for good. The other girls told me. She packed her few things, said she was tired of Daytona Beach, and left. Just like that. Nobody knows where. I will always wonder if my hands and eyes scared her. I was scared. Dad, I want you to meet my fiancé, Debbie The Whore, somehow I know she read this thought right out of my mind, like a giant banner flapping in the breeze, and she got scared.
Other cities, other men, life continues for her as a heaping of time to be lived as best as possible, without strings. I stand and raise my arms over my head as I deeply breathe trying to fill the emptiness that swells inside me.
I can either say that Tony is a well connected man or that he is a magnet for trouble. I know he has tried the honest work for honest money route and has come up empty handed. Empty handed means making the kind of money I' m making working two jobs and still not being able to afford anything but food and rent, barely. The tried and tired wisdom that if the sucker keeps at it, somehow, like magic, things will get better, ain' t happening, at least not fast enough. Tony gave it up but I' m still trying.
Look at my case: I' m no longer flying fabric covered, made out of tubes, tail dragger antiques; now I' m flying worn out aluminum cans that leak oil by the quart. Lucky me gets to fly at night through thunderstorms with half my instrument panel in the dark because the gages are out of service, with a few duffel bags of bank checks in the back. The job pays better and I can afford to eat at Bojangles more often, and instead of flying up and down the beach I now fly between cities.
Still, the money sucks, and the student loan monkey is as big as before and doesn' t want to get off my back, and my dad needs a new truck.
When I don' t fly at night I stop by Al' s to help Johnny and to make a few extra dollars. Between orders I say to him," Hey Johnny, you' re a respectable business man now."
"Sure I am. Look at this coolinaryempire. Even the roaches are respectable." He winks an eye and laughs.
"I know you have worked your ass off all your life, just to keep food on the table but…"
He is now looking at me with a straight face. I don' t know if heal ready knows what I' m talking about or if he is just thinking another joke up.
"Haven' t you ever got tired of it? You know, working like a nigger and having nothing to show for it."
"Many a time, more than you can imagine." He is not joking this time.
"Well, I got this friend, from up north… he is a hard guy, connected, always on the move, making cash under the table and not too legally. You know what I mean."
Johnny nodded, his eyes fixed on me with an intensity I had never seen before.
"Well, he' s always offering to cut me in, and I know it is the stupid thing to do, but there are days when I' m so flat ass broke, his offers look mighty good." I don' t know why I' m asking Johnny these questions. I think it' s because I respect the man, as peculiar as he may be. He didn' t get to be this old and hard by accident.
"I did time for listening to friends like yours," said Johnny. "Easy money comes and goes the same way. I tell you, keep doing your honest work. I' m dumb and hard headed and this joint is the best I could do but you are smart and you can and will do better."
A couple of customers walked in and sat on the stools. Before taking their orders Johnny looked at me one more time and said "Don' t listen to fools. I' m an old crank and un-educated but ain' t a fool."
When I left Al' s that night my mind was made up. I would follow the old coot' s advise and stay out of any funny business. If I didn' t get killed flying aerial junk I may eventually get a job that would pay a living wage. Maybe.
Of course, good intentions, nothing but mental hogwash, cannot stand against the hard facts of reality. When I pulled into the trailer park Tony was waiting for me on the steps of our dilapidated hovel. His things stood next to his second hand Camaro. I got out of my fifth hand wreck and walked toward him.
"Moving out?" I asked.
"Yes," he said, then smiled and added," We are."
"Yes man. Pack your shit and let' s go to my new place."
"I cannot afford a new place. I can' t barely afford this dump."
"Don' t worry. It’ s on me." Tony grinned like a devil.
There are those decisive moments in your life that mean the difference between what it is and what could have been. You know them, you recognize them years later when you look back and wham! It hits you right between the eyes. Then you say to yourself," if I only had done this, or that" and you know that your life would have been quite different. I don' t want to say it would have been better, I just mean different. I gave up long time ago trying to second guess missed opportunities and how good things could have been. That' s bullshit. All I know for sure is if I had acted differently at those decisive moments, things would have been different for sure, but I dare not to say they would have been better, or worse. I leave that to God or whoever is in charge.
Standing in front of Tony, looking past him and through the door of the trailer at the squalor inside, that was a decisive moment in my life. At the time it looked like just a decision between living like white trash or like white people, between sweating between wet sheets or sleeping in air conditioned, a choice that bore not much debating. Today I know it was a choice between minding my own business, like Johnny had told me, or getting dragged into Tony' s.
I packed my things and went with Tony. That night I slept in a dry bed without a big fan at the bottom of the bed blowing hot and humid air through my toes. Man, that was life. It was the beginning of anew life, for better or for worse; up to this day I don' t care to debate which one. Like the Catholics say, it was God' s will.
"And now!… from Miami!… here she is on the center stage! Deboraaaaah! Please gentlemen, give her a hand!"
Booming music stifles the D.J.' s stentorian voice. Nobody claps. Debbie in high heels ambles on stage wearing a translucent negligee and a G-string stippled with sequins. The pumps chafe her feet and her crotch flares in a rash of too many close shaves and sweat. But she smiles and her dimples, so wholesome and cute, form above her thin lips.
Money sits in front of her, inside the pockets of drunks and on the counters beside drinks and smoldering cigarette butts. Eyes, dazed, bright, drooling, and indifferent follow her. She bends over and grabs her heels exposing her derriè re to a fat, bearded guy, the one with drooling eyes. She knows by instinct which one will let go of his money; it' s just a matter of showing the right part, of playing the perfect slut.
Drooling Eyes smiles and flicks a dollar bill in his fingers. Debbie turns around and squats in from of him, wide and inviting, and runs her hand from her crotch along the inside of her leg to the garter where a couple of crumpled greenbacks await company. She lifts her belt and Drooling Eyes slides the dollar bill in a long and slow path along her thigh, rubbing his wedding ring on her skin, and his eyes brighten as his hand inches toward her belt.
"Thanks honey," Debbie says.
"Anytime babe," he says.
She kisses him on the cheek, stands and does a complete turn on stage, dancing as she searches for more tips. She wishes she had big tits, then she could shake those babies like Cynthia on the left stage does, round and round, like udders under a running milk cow. But she knows a few tricks of her own, like splits and bending over far enough to touch her forehead on the floor, and undulating her pelvis in provoking ripples.
The flashing overhead lights bring a sweat to her skin that takes after the juice exuding from a meatball under a heat lamp. That' s right, a meatball, a piece of meat, she thinks. She still has three more hours to go. She smiles and her dimples, so wholesome and cute, form above her thin lips.
With such a smile she ought to be working down the road at Disney, Helen told her, wearing a polyester suit and greeting tourists in to the monorail. Grandmothers in flowered sack-like dresses and screaming brats wearing rat ears are not her bag though, Debbie knows.
She leans back until her palms rest flat on the floor. Her legs spread and her belly pulsates in waves of flesh. The money is right there in front of her, twisted around the fingers of a hand yearning to touch her.
"My feet are killing me," Debbie says to Helen as they both step into the parking lot after closing time, gym bags under their arms.
"Them bunions gettin' too big girl."
Neon signs along O.B.T. glow through the veil of a sultry ground fog. Red and Blue lights flash across the road where cops and paramedics gather like vultures around a figure lying on the ground.
"Damn, I' m parked right there," complains Helen.
They cross the street and land on the sidewalk just as the paramedics push a gurney into the ambulance. Drooling Eyes lies on it, wrapped in bandages and tubes stuck in his arm and up his nose.
"What happened?" Debbie asks a deputy.
"Got mugged," says the deputy. "Where' re you two going this late?"
"We' re parked right there," says Helen, pointing to her beater.
"I' ll walk you to your car. Who knows where that mugger is hiding."
"Thank you sir."
They drive north on O.B.T., right through Nigger town where the black whores stand on the corners flagging cars down, and Debbie is grateful that she is not working the streets, but has a nice, legal job instead.
First thing, Tony and I would fly around the countryside in a Cub or a Champ, low and slow, put-put-put. You cannot believe the amount of shit growing out there. A forest fire would get the whole county high; I ain' t lying.
We would find the shit and then Mike would plan the snatching operation a lacommando, decked out in camies, faces painted, you know, the whole nine yards. Mike had been a Marine, one of those reckon guys, and he knows his stuff pretty well. We would get maps at the county office showing all the farmland and swamps so we knew where to go and hide, and how to get the hell out. I tell you, it was a real military operation, nasty work but fun.
Waddling in swamp water up to your armpits, watching out for water moccasins coming at your face, or a damn gator biting you in the ass, that wasn' t fun. The fun was getting to some Redneck' s pot and stealing it right from under his nose.
We got found out a couple of times, but by then we already had the shit and we were on our way out. Here we were, back in the swamp with a bale of green pot on our heads and the water around us would explode with a sharp crack, you know, fucking bullets aimed at us hitting the water. Damn, they came close. I suppose had we had antlers them rednecks wouldn' t have missed. I can picture my ugly head hanging on some shack' s wall," Yup, I got them Yankee mahself, stealin' mah pot."
We made good money selling the stuff to college students and bikers. I' m walking on money right now, two hundred and fifty dollars worth of it; these fancy snake skin boots are so damn soft they won' t stand straight when you get out of them.
It was hard and risky work, and my skin looked like a pepperoni pizza' cause I had insect bites on every square inch of my body, but when there is money in it you don' t think about stuff like that.
You want money? Forget about pot. Coke is it, but then you aren' t dealing with Bubba anymore. Stealing pot meant undercover work in the wilderness, sneaking in and sneaking out, hush-hush, you know, we looked like walking bushes. Pot was a game of cunning and smarts. But Tony and Mike decided to go after cocaine. That shit doesn' t grow in the Florida swamps. Junkies have it. Dealers have it, so they went after them. Now it' s a game of confrontation, of big guns. I don' t like it. Would you shoot some asshole for coke? No way… I just drive, and keep my head low and my fingers crossed.
The vacuum' s hose inhales dirt after digesting Mr. Twonbly' s two quarters; down the silver slot they went, one after the other. It' s Sunday morning; bright and deeply clear with an intense blue sky that stretches from horizon to horizon. Mr. Twonbly climbs on his minivan armed with the hose, and he twists his middle aged body between the seats and the console while wrestling with the vacuum, mechanical serpent of electrical sibilance, and he, Laocoö n of modern age.
He doesn' t like going to church in a dirty vehicle. Rise and shine, clean your soul of mortal sin, wear a good suit, eat a hearty breakfast, clean the van, because it is Sunday, the day to be good. These thoughts flash in his mind like the Fasten Seat Belts signs in an airliner.
A clump of candy wrappers ("Good for your breath," says Mrs. Twonbly), a few crumpled balls of tissue paper ("The seal lergies are killing me," says Mrs. Twonbly), and a sheet with directions to go to somebody' s home ("You' ll love meeting them, they are such a nice people," says Mrs. Twonbly), this harmless hodgepodge of trash collects in Mr. Twonbly' s small hands which carry the neat pile to the big fat barrel sitting beside the Vacuum' s steel armor. His hands part and turn face down, and the barrel swallows the paper jumble.
What' s that?
Mr. Twonbly sees a flash of color coming thorough his own trash. He parts the trash and exposes the color. Oh mighty. His eyes bounce inside his eye sockets, right and left and back. Nobody is looking. His hands roll the colorful magazine into a tight paper cylinder, and he pulls it out of the barrel in a swift motion:from barrel to under his arm to the van.
Mr. Twonbly' s van idles under the shade of an oak tree, by the Dumpster behind the car wash. His eyes dance once more in his face, and he unfolds the magazine, or what' s left of it.
A naked blond with two faces tattooed on her right shoulder, one sad and one happy, is on her fours with her genitalia staring at Mr. Twonbly' s taut face. The same blond is now on her back, her shaved slit exposed with a caption under the picture that reads "Diana likes it hot in Atlanta." If Mr. Twonbly could take his eyes off her crotch, and stop fantasizing about Mrs. Lubkemann own' s (the choir lady), he, perhaps, would notice the blonde' s cute dimples above her smile of thin lips.
Ken circles around the block in Tony' s car, his fingers sticky around the steering wheel. A cold sweat slithers between his back and the worn out vinyl seat cover. He is not used to this kind of sweat. He goes around once, twice, three times, every time in a different direction, never approaching through the same street. The house sits at the corner, light green, cinder block with an open carport sheltering a black Trans Am. Lights are on. Is that good or bad? Damn, where are they?
On the fifth pass, Ken sees Tony and Mike walking on the side of the street like two guys going out for a night stroll. He stops the car, doors open and they hop in. Before the doors close Ken hits the gas. Easy… take it easy. They drive by the green house where normality doesn' t seem bothered. Nobody speaks.
"How did it go?" Ken asks, unable to contain his curiosity any longer.
"Fine," says Tony. His burly figure shifts on the passenger seat as he opens his coat. A small package comes out in his big hand. "About half a kilo."
"Let me see," says Mike from the back seat. Mike leans forward to grab the package. Ken can see the glitter of Mike' s glasses inside the frame of the rear view mirror. Tony opens his coat again and pulls a black revolver that looks huge in his big hand. He opens the glove compartment and throws the revolver in.
"I tell you what," Tony says. "The bigger the piece, the less shit those mother fuckers give you." Tony laughs in short snorts, and Ken feels Tony' s weight pushing on the bench seat as his chest heaves.
From the back seat Mike speaks," That bitch got hysterical when you put that thing in her face. I was ready to whack her on the head. Jesus, screaming like that."
"I bet you she doesn' t think that her boyfriend' s coke business is so cool anymore," Tony says. "She fucking shut up when I stuck that barrel down her mouth." Tony' s and Mike' s laughs reverberate inside the metallic darkness of the car.
"Tony," Ken almost whispers," what' s gonna happen the day some dealer or his bitch pulls a gun on you?" Ken' s voice chills the air and the laughs drop frozen and shatter into silence. "Are you gonna shoot them dead?"
Mike sinks back into the shadows deep inside the view mirror, and Tony' s countenance becomes as rigid as pavement.
"You know, shit happens," says Tony in an unconvincing voice, like if he had never thought of that possibility.
"Yeah, shit happens," says Ken in a whisper.
Sparrows, dozens of them, a whole flight; yes, a flight. Debbie remembered that much from school. Fishes swim in schools; animals run in herds; wolves hunt in packs; sea gulls fly in flocks; helicopters fly in gaggles (where did she learn that one? She couldn' t remember). Airplanes fly in flights, and she remembered that one from watching CNN. Now she was confused. Is it a flight of sparrows, or a gaggle, or a flock? Whatever it is, the sparrows stood outside her window jumping over the serrated fence top and bouncing like Mexican jumping beams among bare, spidery branches, so happy and so carefree.
Her face hurt. Bruce' s hand had left her skin blue and bruised. No good for business. Her head hurt with a deep and pounding headache, like a pulsating beach ball trying to pop out of her head. She had tried not to mix drinking and drugs, but she could never resist.
She closed her eyes and tried to remember last night. Dance, dance, lights and heat, dance, dance, money and touching hands. Coke in the bathroom, coke in the dressing room, uppers at the bar, nicotine in the vending machine, alcohol in customer' s glasses. The rat standing in the hallway.
Of course she remembered the rat just outside her door, waiting for her arrival, dirty, filthy thing. And Bruce too, drunk and all fucked up.
"Hon, I' m dead tired. Can we do it in the morning?" she asked. He grabbed her by the hair and slammed her on the bed. His hand felt hot on her face, more times than she cared to remember. "Don' t you tell me what to do!" he yelled. His breath slathered over her sweaty skin, a breath like the smell of stale beer in a hot can abandoned on a parking lot, and she felt his penis proving, bending itself into inconceivable shapes, penetrating.
Debbie opened her eyes and tears fell, one by one, warm and humid they rode down her swollen cheek. The sparrows danced outside her window in a bliss of cold morning sunshine. Her sphincter flared in burning pain. The bastard had done it again. Her body shriveled in to a tawny parchment and her skin dried up into cracked tissue, and then shed into pieces that landed on the sheets to turn into dust. Her bones turned black and her whole skeleton dropped flat like the armature of an old cage. Her spirit hissed out intact through the window mesh and joined the sparrows on the branches, so warm under their coat of fluffy feathers.
The sparrows took her high above the roofs, high above Atlanta and its trees, and a new country showed itself to her, so big and so free.
Debbie jumped out of bed in an outburst of pain and anger and tears.
"I don' t have to put up with this crap!"
New cities awaited, new pains too. She filled her one bag in a hurry. Put the clothes in, leave the memories out.
Her body tilted to the side holding the luggage as she walked towards the bus station. Under yellowing maples, her feet kicked brown dead leaves like parting waves in front of a steamer carrying a miserable cargo in its hold.
The topless girl lay by the pool, and her taut breasts stood straight as if attracted by Coral Gables ' sun. This represented a conspicuous example of the gravitational pull between bodies, thought Ken; but again, it also remained Ken of other things.
"I bet you, you can tell time by looking at her nipple' s shade, just like a sun clock," said Ken with a Jack Daniel' s on the rocks turning into water in his hand. Clink-clink went the ice cubes around and around.
"To hell with time," said Tony. "I bet you she knows better tricks than that."
Foreign voices came from behind, and to Ken they sounded like"Vengaporaqicompadreyakitiyakyakitiyak." A handful of rough looking characters sporting jewelry that beamed glints of opulence tailed a dark, bold and mustached man in a white suit. Ken and Tony put their drinks down and stood facing the arriving party.
The rough characters surrounded them at a distance with hands crossed on their laps. The bold man advanced, smiled and stretched his hand to Ken," You must be the fly boy that Tony told me about."
"Ken, my name is Ken, sir." They shook hands. A strong handshake.
"Raú l Ortega," the bold man said with a polite smile. "You can call me Mister Ortega." Ortega pointed to the chairs and with a grand sweep of his hand said "please." They all sat down and Mister Ortega said something to one of his minions. Ken heard him saying yakitiyakwishkeyatikiyak, so he figured Mister Ortega had ordered some whiskey, or maybe he had said "stupid Americans." Ken couldn' t tell, not that it really mattered either.
Ortega' s lackey returned with a golden drink full of ice cubes. No napkin, no coaster and no little umbrella, but of course, Ken figured, what' s to be expected from a guy hired to bust heads?
"Your friend Tony says you want to fly for me," said Ortega, all business now. The waiter-bodyguard stood two steps behind Ortega with hands crossed on front and a bulge under his Hawaiian shirt. The rest of the lot was checking out the sun clock. Yakitiyak sounds came from that direction carried by the breeze that whirled around Ken' s face.
"Yes sir, Mister Ortega," Ken said, and then he paused to check his words before they came out of his mouth. "I just want to hear from you what' s the scoop. I know there are risks, and I can take risks, but I' m not suicidal."
"The scoop," said Ortega pronouncing it tet escop," is straight. We give you a plane, you fly south, we load it, you fly north, we unload it, and you go home with your pockets full of cash."
Ken looked Ortega right in the eye. "Mister Ortega, let me ask you this," said Ken and then he paused again to carefully pick the right words. "How many pilots and planes have you lost?"
Ortega smiled and took a long sip from his drink, gold and diamonds sparkling from his thin, brown, manicured fingers. "I don' t care about the planes. They are paid for, or we just borrow them." He laughed and his bodyguard echoed him.
"The only pilots I have lost are the ones that tried to screw me," said Ortega, a cynical smile spreading under his lust mustache. "They all went for a swim in the gulf, and now are heading for Canada." His bodyguard laughed like if it were meant to be a joke.
Ken put on his poker face, unreadable, even though his stomach got squeamish. He missed stealing pot from the rednecks in the swamps, being up to his chin in brackish water among snakes, predictable snakes.
"Of course," added Ortega. "One of my pilots got caught. What a dumb ass he was. If you' re smart, the Feds will never lay a hand on you." Ortega didn' t mention that the dumb ass pilot had also jumped in the gulf while on bail.
Ken lay back on his chair to think about his future, or lack of. The villa' s stucco walls radiated pure whiteness under red tile roofs and the sea breeze tousled the umbrella' s overhang. Comfort everywhere.
He was falling behind on his student loan after he had quit driving Tony and Mike around on their excursions. He had decided armed confrontations were not his calling after Tony couldn' t sit for a week because his ass was full of bird shot; he had to pull it all out with tweezers and then had to patch the mess with Band-Aids and a bottle of peroxide while having to look at Tony’ s hairy ass crack…
Flying bank checks for a living was a losing struggle: long hours, bad pay, shitty airplanes. His last 206 had landed on a cow pasture with oil smeared over the windshield and the propeller standing frozen in front of him like useless metal. He knew the worn out engine was going to give up, and so did his boss, but the bastard was too cheap to overhaul it. Then he wanted Ken to fly the 182 that had a gas leak so bad the smell was enough to make anybody sick; a flying firecracker is what it was. He had enough of that crap. Now Ortega sat across him with the promise of money and sunshine by the handful.
Easy money. It' s not a job, it' s an adventure. Be all you can be. A few good men. Aim high. But the money was the real lure, lots ofit, enough to pay his student loan and give some to the old man who needed a new truck.
The sun clock lady stood and her tanned skin stretched like a horse' s hide, smooth and shiny. She knew Ortega' s men were watching her breasts, and her balloon shaped ass cheeks squeezing out from the sides of the narrow stripe of her g-string bikini. She let her jet black hair unroll down to her shoulders as she watched Ortega hugging and patting a cute Gringo on the back. The other Gringo looked clumsy and was too big for her. But the cute one, he had nice buns.
West ward rides the bus
Full of people and their things,
It glides along I-10
Rushing to meet New Orleans.
From its smoked glass window
Debbie' sown reflection looks back at her
With cute dimples over thin lips,
The bruises from the last beating
Don' t show on the translucent screen.
Humming of tires on the road below
Comfortable grunt of a Diesel behind
The cold blue sky comes through her own image,
uninvited, and Debbie' s eyes open wide,
Look at the bayou!
Look at the sweet gums in circles stand,
Look at your face, you whore!
Where is your life going to end up?
She doesn' t know.
Going away somewhere, anywhere,
Is her best and only plan.
Pack your meager things
And leave the memories behind.
Westward rides the bus
with her things inside
And so does Debbie
With demons in her mind.
"What' s your name, honey?" says Debbie into the receiver' s speaker from behind the unapproachability of her glass cage.
"Aleksei," says the young man on his end of the receiver, his sea blue eyes staring at Debbie topless behind the glass. "I am Aleksei. What is your name?"
"My name is Deede." Debbie' s free hand reaches under her panties and her fingers dance under the fabric. "If you put more money into the slot, I' ll take this thing off, honey."
She smiles and her cute dimples make Aleksei' s own shine on his pink face. He takes a couple of dollars out of his jacket, rolls them in to green, thin cylinders, and pushes them through the slot beside the glass pane. Debbie' s eager fingers pick the money on the other side. Controlled, deep breaths come through the receiver, both ways.
Her panties come off and her bold slit greets Aleksei under the red light. Debbie sits back on the stool and spreads her legs to expose her merchandise. Aleksei smiles.
"What you call that?" asks Aleksei in his strong accent, pointing at her crotch.
"No, no," laughs Debbie. "Pussy. Just Pussy. Say it."
"Good boy," says Debbie, and Aleksei smiles as his cheeks turn beet red making his blonde hair brighter under the dark light.
Silence flows through the glass and through the receiver' s line. Smiles flash across the void like light signals between ships at sea, and Aleksei' s face blushes so red that Debbie thinks he' s going to get dizzy and pass out.
"You want to see more?" asks Debbie; her own free hand caresses her bony body and her small breasts in sensual strokes, small and circular like a magical rubbing to force pleasure to surface on her skin. Aleksei is too fixated on her breasts and long neck to answer.
"If you want, you can wait for me after work," she says. He now looks at her, eye to eye. His lips don' t move but Debbie knows what he desires.
"I' m out of here at midnight. Wait for me at the corner of Bourbon and Toulouse."
"Yes," he says nodding. "Midnight."
"And honey," Debbie says and pauses. "This is gonna cost you, you know that, don' t you?"
Aleksei looks down as if ashamed and murmurs into the speaker," How much?"
Past midnight a chilly air blows through the old balconies. Decrepit buildings lean against each other as if trying to warm each other up. Like dominoes, if one falls, the others will follow. Debbie wonders what' s inside her that is holding her whole life together. Is her own strength laced with steel cables like these old buildings? Debbie sees over stressed rusted and frayed cables holding her insides from disintegrating into a miserable jumble.
Music booms at a distance from lighted bars and open balconies. Bar patrons stumble by. No Aleksei in sight. Damn. She is ready to go to her room when Aleksei comes running across the opposite corner, his jacket opened to the cold wind.
"Sorry, I late," he apologizes.
"You' re gonna catch a cold," says Debbie as she closes his jacket over his breast.
"Cold?" he laughs. " Siberia cold. This nothing."
They go to her tiny room. Cash up front because this is business after all. Debbie lights a black voodoo candle and turns the light off. She disrobes in a second but Aleksei' s shyness slows him down. His white body shines like snow under moonlight. And they make love, gentle and slow.
Debbie closes her eyes under the cover of his warm and strong body, and she caresses him as if he belonged to her.
Where is Ken?Comes the question from nowhere. Where is Ken? She repeats to herself, and she holds this stranger closer to her, dreaming about how things could have been and not how they were.
"Where are you from?" asks Ken, leaning back on the booth' s leather, so smooth and lavish.
"Right from here, Miami," says Sonia, and smoke escapes from her crimson lips. Her fingers capped with matching crimson fingernails hold a Virginia Slim slowly dissolving itself into the conditioned air. "Where did you think I was from? I' m as American as you, honey."
The "honey" raises a faded memory in Ken' s mind, but he quickly gets over it. Sonia' s nipples stand like rivets under a silk dress that duplicates the smoothness of her sable hair. He feels taken by her thick and dark eyebrows arching over her deep brown eyes, and that cleavage, exuberant and pleading to break loose, right on his face. Damn it. What would Ortega say if he knew she was with him in this stylish restaurant, Ken wonders, having a nice dinner paid for with his own money?
"Don' t you worry about Ortega," she says.
"Don' t you worry about Ortega," she repeats.
"Do you read minds?" Ken gives her a baffled look, and she laughs, her bosom trembling in ripples of tight flesh.
"I don' t read minds, only faces, and your face was wondering about me and the boss. I can go out with anybody I please as long I' m available to him at the snap of his fingers."
"Oh," said Ken, not knowing how to answer. He wishes he could be as cool as Bogart in Casablanca.
"Just like you, honey, ready to jump when he asks for it."
"Hey, I just fly for the guy."
"I just spread them for him," she says in a whisper mixed with smoke. "What' s the difference?" Her tongue' s tip goes around her lips once, a slow and provocative motion. An indecipherable signal as far as Ken went.
Ken takes a sip from his drink – not a mug – but a fancy glass with ice cubes in it. Even the little cubes look expensive. "You have a way to screw any body' s evening up, you know."
"Yes, I do. But I' m also good at making up for it," she says with a smirk. "If I feel so inclined," she adds.
"How do you feel tonight?" asks Ken, one finger in his drink chasing an ice cube around the glass' s rim.
"I feel willing."
They made love in his place, on the rented couch, listening to Chuck Mangione' s Feels so good in the rented stereo. Rent to own. Pay now, don' t need to buy later. Everything is for rent for a price. Her dark and hirsute pubis intrigues Ken the most, rising like shadowy smoke up her navel. Her dark and huge nipples stand like hubcaps over her breasts, quite a mouthful of flesh, of woman.
After doing it twice, she returns from the bathroom and gets dressed in silence.
"Where’ re you going?" asks Ken from the floor, lying between the couch and the coffee table where he had landed after his last orgasm.
"Have to go, honey," she says and smiles.
She picks her Newman-Marcus purse up and leaves, turning before going out of the door to say "Will see you again; it was good."
"Yeah, right," says Ken sitting on the floor naked, his hard on still up, and confused about how things happened so fast. Expensive women, and plenty of money, and a new truck – paid for – for his dad. And flying big iron between Colombia and Florida. Money coming out of his ass like farts after a chili and beer dinner. Damn.
Ken reclines his head on the couch and laughs. He connects the"honey" to Debbie, like if his mind were a pinball machine and the little ball had finally made it all the way to the bottom. Debbie, that cute whore from Daytona Beach, and he thinks that he knows what she felt when he used to slip a twenty dollar bill up her dress and into her panties, if she happened to be wearing any.
Traffic on LBJ became the customary four-lane parking lot at rush hour. Hordes of commuters inched out of downtown Dallas on their way home to fan into the northern suburbia like ants leaving their nest, and Debbie got caught in the middle of it. But she didn' t mind it too much; the minivan had a nice stereo and the A/C worked real well, so well she had goose bumps and her nipples had turned hard.
The child seat behind her had been a clever touch. John had bought it at a pawnshop to give the van that wholesome mom look. She smoked with great panache, blowing the smoke out through the small slit between the door' s frame and the window glass, the stereo playing Stevie Ray Vaughan' s Life by the Drop. Another easy few grand. No more whoring. She only had to screw John, her boss, which wouldn' t be so bad if it wasn' t for his fetishism for anal sex. Debbie shifted in her seat. It felt like hemorrhoids, she thought. Why do men like that more than pussy? She couldn' t figure it out. Maybe it is because they cannot do it with nice girls, so here comes Dee, all greased up like a fair pig – and they want her to squeal like one too.
Good money anyway, each trip, plus free coke. Sometimes more if the load was good. The traffic along the Loop unplugged itself and now hundreds of cars moved in a loose formation over the asphalt. The I-20 Shreveport exit sign appeared across the windshield, and Debbie smiled. She was on her way to Atlanta to pick a load; sometimes it was a kilo, sometimes as much as five, neat little bundles wrapped in shiny tape full of bitter dust. She would drive all day and night, straight. A couple of lines would keep her going strong. She felt like a million bucks, and she knew she could drive to New York if she wanted; well, maybe with the help of a couple of more lines along the way, just in case.
Cuba ' s Eastern tip sneaked under the golden clouds that half hid the sinking sun. After circumventing Guantá namo base' s radar, the old Twin Beech followed the surf towards the yet invisible airstrip planted somewhere past the palm trees, right at the foot of the sierra. An open map laid spread on Ken' s lap and his eyes bounced back and forth between the coast and the paper, looking for the turn, the curve, the landmark that would give him his bearings.
Tony sat in the copilot' s seat, attired like Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark, minus the whip. He had pleaded, like a little brat, with Ortega and Ken to come in this trip, just for the kicks of it. Dead weight is the last thing an overloaded smuggling plane needs, but both Ortega and Ken had agreed to let him have his way, poor big child.
"What the hell is that?" had asked Ken when he saw Tony getting ready to climb into the door less plane in Colombia with a black and boxy looking gun in his hand.
"I' m a sucker for these things, you know," had said Tony with a mischievous smile, like a kid trying to sneak a pet armadillo into the house. "It' s a MAC10."
"You ain' t taking that. All I need is you blowing a hole in my plane."
"Shit, man, don' t be such a party pooper," had pleaded Tony, all droopy eyes. Ken could have sworn he was ready to burst crying.
"O.K., but I don' t want you horsing around with that thing."
Now the end of their first leg of the trip appeared in sight over the nose. The Twin Beech had followed the coast line almost at coconut tree level until meeting a finger of land that showed the way to the airstrip, three clicks inland. Two parallel lines of sparse lights -homemade runway markers – titillated ahead against the background of darkening hills.
Mixture full rich, props forward, throttle back, flaps down, gear down, Ken greased a three point landing on the dirt strip, all done in a steady, coordinated ballet of pulling, twisting, reaching and manipulating of what looked like gizmos to Tony, who just sat with his toy on his lap, his fingers tapping its lock in nervous expectation. Cuban soldiers should be waiting.
A light flashed on one side of the runway. The black hills blocked the last flare of sunlight coming from the west, and neither Ken nor Tony could make out who was behind the light.
As the Beech taxied towards the light, Ken said to Tony," I' m gonna hit the landing light when we get closer. Keep an eye open for anything strange."
"What' s not supposed to be strange, anyway? Said Tony. "This is god damned Cuba."
"You know, something like the McDonald' s clown."
"Or Ed McMahon."
They both laughed until the landing light came on. It bathed in white halogen light a fatigue clad figure holding a flashlight in one hand, a rifle in the other. The figure brought one arm against its face to block the light.
"You blinded him," said Tony.
"And probably pissed him off," said Ken shaking his head.
The Beech came to a stop and the engines cut with a couple of pops. The runway lights, oil fires burning inside cans, shone against the unfathomable darkness of the sierra crowned by the scarlet remnants of the sunset to the west. A dark, inky blue sky suffused itself with the sea to the east.
Ken got up from his seat and squeezed past the bales of coke that formed a narrow corridor along the sides of the fuselage. Tony came behind, barely fitting through. First outside, Ken greeted the soldier, a young kid, eighteen at the most. Tony followed him, gun in his hand. Ken noticed Tony' s gun, and almost shit his pants.
The soldier and Tony sized each other up, and their guns. Tony walked to the soldier and said "buenos dí as" in a bad Spanish.
"Buenas noches," responded the soldier.
Tony reached into his front pocket and pulled a pack of Winstons and offered one to the soldier, who took one with a smile. Now Ken started breathing again.
The soldier stood at a distance, AK-47 shouldered and smoking Tony' s American cigarette without any trace of socialist remorse. Tony gave him the whole pack," hell, the poor kid probably is smoking some shitty Russian stuff." While Tony pumped gas by hand into the Beech from a drum, Ken added oil to the oil tanks. Standing on the wing, Ken saw headlights approaching the runway.
"Mira, mira," said Ken to the soldier while pointing in the direction of the approaching lights. The soldier looked under the airplane in the direction Ken pointed. He extinguished, very carefully as not to damage it, his cigarette, put the butt in his pocket and stood facing whatever was coming, rifle in hand.
A small Army truck stopped a few yards away and a mustached man wearing a pistol holder came out followed by the driver, a tall, black soldier armed with a rifle. Ken didn' t like their looks, and neither did Tony who kept pumping gas with one arm, the other holding onto his gun.
The kid snapped a big salute and stood at attention, but the new guys past by, ignoring him. The pistol man stood behind the wing and motioned Ken to come down. The rifleman stood behind the pistol man, his weapon at the ready across his chest. Tony kept on pumping gas, his gun hidden behind his big chest.
"Si," said Ken, and the pistol man started talking Spanish, fast.
"No españ ol. No comprende," said Ken.
The pistol man became agitated at Ken' s answer. "Money," he said and his thumb and index rubbed each other in greed. "Dollars. Much dollars."
According to the Colombians, everything was taken care of. Why was this guy asking for money? wondered Ken.
"No money, no pesos," said Ken shaking his head vigorously from side to side. Ken put his hands into his jeans and pulled the pockets out. Only lint and used ticket movie stubs came with them.
The pistol man' s unfriendly face became angrier. He reached for his holster and had started to pull his pistol out when a hammering of automatic fire passed Ken by his side and struck both the pistol man and the rifleman. Blood splattered on Ken' s face as the Cubans fell dropping their guns. Ken looked back and saw Tony holding his gun at the hip. He saw him pointing his gun at something further to the right, behind him. Ken looked that way and saw the kid with his rifle in his hand with a face as surprised as his own.
The kid dropped his rifle and put his arms up. Tony ran toward the Cubans on the ground, still wriggling like worms, and kicked their guns out of their reach.
"Quick! Get his gun!" yelled Tony while gesturing towards the kid. Ken ran, picked the kid' s rifle and returned.
"Take the damn thing!" Ken yelled half scared, half angry, giving the rifle to Tony. "What in hell did you do this for?"
"Do you want to rot in a Cuban jail?" shouted back Tony.
Bouncing headlights now approached from the same place the two greedy Cubans had come, three or four trucks, who knows how many soldiers, a beehive buzzing with Tony' s gunshots.
"We need to get the fuck out of here!" shouted Ken. In a frenzy they pulled the fuel hose from the tank, closed the tank and rolled the drum out of the way.
"Get in there and crank that mother!"Yelled Tony. Ken jumped into the Beech, ran sideways towards the cockpit and sat on the left seat. Shit… shit… where' s the fucking flashlight?… Here…Fuel on… Mixture rich… Master on… Fuck the check list… Shit… Throttle, not much, don' t want to flood it…Come on, come on…
Sweat dribbled down Ken' s forehead. The small flashlight stuck in his mouth shone a red light over the instrument panel where his quick fingers bounced from switch to switch to the center pedestal were the prop and engine controls were. The left prop started to turn agonizingly slow. Ken felt in the marrow of his bones the strain in the starter as each prop revolution went by under his red light shining through the Plexiglas of his side window. The starter hummed and the prop spun, faster and faster.
Shit… Come oooooon…
The engine popped and fire shot out from the exhaust pipes. Give it power, slowly. Oil pressure is up. Right engine now… Comeooooooooooon baby.
"Let' s get the fuck moving!" Ken heard Tony shouting from the tail section. At that moment a distant cracking noise came over the noise of the running engine, and tracers started to draw paths of fire in the humid night. A report of automatic fire came from the tail section. Ken figured it was Tony hanging out of the door returning fire into the incoming headlights.
The right engine caught. Ken advanced the throttles with full brakes applied; once the engines reached full R.P.M., he released the brakes and aimed the Beech' s nose straight ahead between the marker lights for a take off that would have to use only over half the available runway. The tracers converged on the plane until the airframe shuddered and clinked with the impact of bullets striking aluminum.
Shit… Ten degrees of flaps… The old Beech roared down the runway heading into a solid darkness filled with unknown obstacles, but Ken had no time to ponder that; they were taking fire from the Cubans, and all that mattered was full power. Balls to the wall, now!
Twice Ken tried to lift off, but the heavy plane settled back on to the ground as the runway lights quickly and forever disappeared behind him. At the third attempt the plane remained airborne. Ken retracted the gear and kept the airplane in ground effect, rushing towards a darkness he remembered contained a line of palm trees beyond which awaited the ocean. He flicked the landing light on just in time to see the trees growing bigger by the second. He pulled on the joke gritting his teeth and praying for enough speed to clear the palms. The scrapping noise of vegetation came through his feet but the old plane cleared the tree wall in one piece. Ken lowered the nose and skimmed the top of the waves at full power, heading for Florida followed by a whirl of sea spray that rose on his wake.
A few minutes passed before he could release his shaky sweaty hands from the yoke. He thanked God it was a clear night and the horizon had a sharp edge to tell him which way was up. He climbed to 500 feet, throttled the engines back to cruise power, trimmed the aircraft, and checked his instruments. All needles stuck in the green. Fuel gages read almost full, so he was not leaking fuel, at least not in huge amounts. Fucking luck.
"Tony?" Ken yelled in the direction of the tail. No answer.
"Toooony!" Ken shouted many more times, but no answer came from the rear. The airplane felt tail heavy, so Ken knew that Tony was back there. No autopilot; not even an old fashion win-leveler; the instrument panel had an empty space where the autopilot was supposed to be. Flying the old plane at low altitude demanded Ken' s constant attention, and he could not release the yoke to check on Tony.
It would be a long trip, and Ken felt sicker by the mile.
Debbie' s van rides westward on I-20, flanked by flat expanses of cotton fields. Her windshield is dusty, and the sunset diffuses its rays into a fan of golden light slathered across the glass where the wiper' s path is demarcated by a lighter hue. The road stretches and shows the way to a dying sun, and Debbie tries to catch up with it, but she can' t.
Like many other things she had always tried to catch up with, this one also slithers out of her reach, she thinks. But not to worry; tomorrow, the same sun will pop on the east, then it will vault to its zenith and will catch up with her. Things always turn out fine, one way or another, she tries to convince herself.
She does the speed limit, no need to attract nosy cops. A big Buick stands still on the freeway' s shoulder. A white haired old man, dressed in his best Polyester, is looking under the hood. A white haired old lady stands beside him, and both look lost, like if they were gazing at some incomprehensible riddle that had usurped the engine' s place.
Debbie pulls off the highway, stops, and backs up to where the old couple stands like shipwrecks on a raft in the middle of the ocean.
"Hi there," says Debbie as the old man approaches her window. "What' s the problem?"
"The darn car died on us," says the old man, tall and skinny like a pole.
"If you want I can give you a ride," offers Debbie, her cute smile a flag of friendliness and good intentions.
"We would really appreciate it, ma' am."
The van is back on the road. The old lady, Edna, sits on the bench seat behind Debbie, beside the empty child seat. The old man, Bob, seats on the passenger seat at front. By the time they reach the next exit and a gas station, both Bob and Edna have concluded that Danielle is a delightful young lady, so perky and generous, and they thank her and wish her the best of things as they get out of the van.
"Such a nice girl," says Edna.
"God bless her," says Bob.
Debbie continues towards Dallas, happy of having helped the old couple, thinking of the money she will get after she delivers the five kilos hidden inside the sliding door' s cavity. Her butt hole itches when she recalls John' s damned habits, also awaiting, but pain is bearable when the money is good.
The shuffling of feet and the whispering of condolences fills the rented chapel. Steel and U.A.W. workers and their wives in their Sunday' s best pay their respects to Tony' s parents who stand unconsoled in front of the open casket. Ken stands beside them, thankfully wearing a one hundred dollar suit from Sears, and not some expensive double-breasted number ala Dave Letterman. He has the money for it, but not the courage to show it.
Explaining things had been very hard. More than explanations, they had been excuses. More than excuses they had been lies. Plain lies, maybe white lies, but lies, fucking lies.
Big callused hands shake his. "I' m sorry," echo dozen of lips. Ken shakes hands and bows his head at each "sorry."
After the plane stopped, he hurried to the back. Tony lay dead in a pool of black blood. A pungent smell of fluids and shit filled the cabin, and Tony' s open eyes looked into his. He got hit in the gut; the Dade County Coroner found three bullets lodged in his burst intestines.
"What the hell happened?" asked Ortega. Ken sat on the dirt in front of the plane' s door, waiting with puffy eyes and a sickened face.
"Fucking Cubans, they wanted money, and Tony got into a fight with them."
"Bastards. I never trusted them. Fucking bastards," said Ortega. He turned to his men and motioned them to remove the body and unload the coke. "I' m dealing with the Panamanians from now on."
Ortega' s men dumped the body under the tail, complaining about the smell and the mess.
"Mister Ortega," said Ken. "I want to ask you a favor."
"Tony' s parents are Polish, and very Catholic. They will want his body back for a church burial. Can you dump the body where it can be found in good shape?"
"Tony was not too bright, but he had guts," said Ortega. "I will take care of it."
"Thank you, sir."
Ortega did as promised. The cops found Tony next day leaning against a Dumpster like a wino suffering from a hangover. The cops came around asking questions. "This guy Tony, he had a belly full of thirty caliber bullets, East German, you know, AK stuff. How do you suppose he got them?
"I have no idea."
The detective looked into Ken' s eyes," Yeah. No idea."
Ken flew back to Youngstown with the body as luggage in the belly of an airliner, and he brought the cleaned up, ready-for-display body to his parents in a nice coffin, the best one money could buy on a short notice. Ken paid the undertaker to put Tony’ s best suit on him.
Questions with impossible answers had taken Ken' s time since the first moment. Why? Why? Some asked. Many others suspected. But nobody said anything out of respect for the grieving parents. Times get tough and young men get into trouble; that' s the way it was, and is, and will always be. Damned mills closing down and laying off people; they have to make a living somehow, whisper the gruff, tired voices of union men inside the chapel. It was drugs. No, it was stolen cars. No, it was a Mafia thing. It was a hit. The Colombians did it. It was bad luck. Poor Tony.
Ken stands in front of the coffin, and wishes he were somewhere else. The jetties in Ponce Inlet surface in his mind, and Debbie naked under the water, and he feels ashamed of such thoughts.
"I' m sorry," he mutters to himself, and tears slide from under his gold rimmed Ray-Bans.
" Dee, I want you to meet a buddy of mine," says John. "We did business together out west."
A twelve string guitar bounces notes between the old Deep Ellum' s warehouse fronts. Some broad on a street stage sings about boy friends. Debbie thinks it is a cool song.
" Dee… are you with us?"
Beer and ecstasy give Debbie a hell of a good buzz. Her hips undulate with every chord. Smooth turn to the right, slow twist to the left, knees down a bit; yes, flow with the music.
"Yes honey, I heard you," says Debbie with a frolicsome smile, her eyes hidden behind mirrored sunglasses where a magenta sky shines its dying lights.
John and his buddy look at each other and laugh.
"She is royally fucked up," says John and adds after a pause," this is Erich."
"Nice to meet you, Erich."
"We wanted to talk business with you, but you won' t remember shit by tomorrow," says John.
"Probably no," says Debbie and she burst into a silly, uncontrollable giggle.
Johnny and his buddy leave her alone on the street corner to go their own way. Debbie watches them disappear into the partying crowd wondering who was the guy with John. Rick?Lorenzo? She can’ t remember either where she was going before the music had enthralled her to this corner.
A heavy mugginess presses on the crowd and the odor of sweat and fried foods drifts in slow eddies around her. The sun hides behind the downtown buildings, the signal for the winos to come out of the gutters and underpasses to make a living off the ones coming to down town seeking pleasure.
Debbie drifts shrouded in street aromas past biker bars, tattoo parlors, clubs, avant-garde furniture stores and trendy eateries. Debbie floats through the crowd using alcohol, ecstasy and coke asher magic carpet.
Later that night Debbie gets herself a new tattoo. She lies on the reclining chair, almost flat on her back while this Ernie guy, or was Randy?Whatever, draws a red rose where her pubic hair met her leg. The prickling pain excites her, that pain concentrated down in her middle, and she so detached from it, like a foreign observer watching her own pain from a far away tower, but feeling the physical strain moving up and down under the skin, and her juice gates open to a flood.
"I think I wet my panties," says Debbie with a giggle.
"Some people get excited," says the Tattoo guy running his index fingers in circles around her belly bottom. "Care for another one?"
Freedom of choice is what it is all about, thinks Debbie as she enters the loudest and raunchiest club with the dumpiest facade she could find open that late at night. The music booms and bodies writhe under dark lights. She carries her new pricking pain as she carries her small purse, right there at her fingertips, but not areal part of her, like something going just for a ride.
The bathroom' s counter is a mess of wet paper and butts but she manages to clean and dry a small section. From her compact devoid of make-up she pours a long line of coke on the counter. With a razor from the compact she aligns the white powder in a narrow ridge. Reflected on the mirror Debbie see faces that ignore her doings, and faces that wish they had what she has.
"Nice line," says a voice from the mirror as Debbie prepares to snort her coke. Debbie smiles and snorts half the line.
"You want some?" offers Debbie.
The face comes over the counter with Debbie' s straw, snorts the rest of the line and licks the counter clean. The pretty face belongs to a red hair of good body and hairy armpits. Debbie finds her armpits intriguing; they are like two more crotches, but real close to her freckled breasts.
She – Debbie couldn' t remember her name – kissed her first, just like that, and she let her do it. They ended up in a stool kissing, touching, caressing. Tongues rolled over damped skin and fingers got wet, and Debbie continued to live life by the drop.
Youngstown drifted in and out of Ken' s mind like a miasma rising from a sewer. The drab factories, the rusted clunkers on the road half eaten by winter salt, the shuttered stores downtown, and the lines at the Social Security office, what a shit ass place to remember. And the cramped cemetery full of concrete crosses where Tony was laid, what a human dump ground it was. Smokeless stacks reached to the sky like cold fingers poking at the curly clouds' bottoms. Psalms came mixed with the noise of trucks from the nearby highway. Down the hole Tony went in his shiny coffin, probably the most expensive thing he ever owned.
But those things now belonged to a past that Ken had been able to extricate himself from, the hard faces, the questioning faces that expected no answer but somehow understood. Ken sipped his piñ a colada and contemplated the blue and green water surrounding Ortega' s yacht now moving steadily over the waves. Splash, splash, its hull parted the waves, so nice to be away from that shit ass place. Tony, why in hell didn' t you come up front with me? Dumb ass. No, you had to fight it out like some fucking cowboy, like Rambo. Damned coke bales were like sand bags, stopped every bullet behind me. But there you were, sitting behind thin aluminum, shooting at the Cubans like if you were Mr. T in the A-Team. I pity the fool.
It was all over with. Life continued. Again. Ken slurped his piñ acolada and let the rolling and pitching of the boat cuddle him into a pleasant numbness fueled by alcohol. He heard somebody arguing at the stern in Spanish. He looked down in that direction and saw Ortega giving Sonia hell about something. He had no idea what the fuss was about.
Ortega and Sonia were at each other' s throat, yelling insults – at least they sounded like insults to Ken. Ortega pulled a nickel plated pistol from behind his waist and pointed it at Sonia' s head. An orange flash and a crack made Sonia' s head explode in scarlet. She fell to the deck shaking in jerky contortions while her blood tinged the wooden deck.
Ken dropped his piñ a colada between his feet. Two of Ortega' s men showed up with a short but heavy iron pipe and a rope that they tied to Sonia’ s still kicking legs. They heaved Sonia' s body overboard, still exuberant but now just a heap of fish bait. Ken saw her head go under followed by her hair leaving a bloodied spot soon diluted by the ocean water and the distance.
Ortega' s minions remained silent, neither celebrating Sonia' s fate nor showing any discomfort about it. Ortega said something in Spanish, still angry. He looked up and saw Ken looking at him from the upper rear deck, and he saw Ken' s ashen face. Ken couldn' t hold his stare and turned away.
"Am I next?" Wondered Ken. He figured Ortega had whacked Sonia because she was screwing him. Now was his turn to go for a swim. Ken though of jumping overboard. And then what? Swim to Miami?
Ken stood with both hands on the handrail, his knees trembling, looking at the waves, wondering what would be better, swim or stay. Ortega came behind him and put a hand on his shoulder. Ken started to turn around, expecting to see the black hole of his pistol' s barrel, right on his face. Instead, he met Ortega' s smiling face standing in front of him.
"No good woman, was getting too friendly with the cops."
Ortega held a glass full of Bourbon, which he offered to Ken," Have a drink. You will get over it, plenty of pussy out there."
Ken drank his bourbon in one gulp, his throat burning in a slide of fire. He watched Ortega' s crew wash Sonia' s blood away by splashing bucketfuls of seawater on the deck. Youngstown with its parade of wrinkled, weathered faces didn' t seem so unsavory now.
Erich breaths in short gasps. In and out. Debbie moans in pain as Erich goes in and out. Another round of forced anal sex, no Vaseline either. Bastard. In and out. Debbie wishes she had diarrhea so she could explode all over the bastard. In and out faster and faster.
Two days with Erich, and she has hated every minute. Erich from Arkansas, an inbred bastard, for sure, thinks Debbie sitting cross legged on the passenger side of Erich' s Seville, miles going by, country music rising from the radio to fill the smoky interior.
"I' m gonna make some good money in this trip," says Erich.
"So happy for you," says Debbie staring straight over the hood. She smokes in long puffs.
"First thing I' m gonna do when I get back West, is get my self two young China whores, you know, real nice and tender like chicken nuggets." He laughs at his own wit.
"I thought that you people would rather fuck your own relatives, like little nieces," says Debbie. "Or you don' t like fighting it out with your brothers?"
Erich pulls his nine-millimeter Glock from under the seat and points it at Debbie' s head. "You' re fucking funny, aren' t you?" He pokes the muzzle at Debbie' s temple, every time saying "Aren' t you?" Poke," aren' t you?" Poke," aren' t you?" Poke.
Debbie remains cool, staring straight. It didn' t matter one way or another. Erich puts the pistol back under the seat, then leans over her side and slaps her face. It burns but Debbie shows neither emotion nor pain. Been there, done that.
"I' m gonna dump your skinny ass once this deal is done. Fuck John and fuck you, you hear me? You' re riding the bus back little miss. I can get my own pussy." He pauses. As he looks away he mutters," If I haven' t killed you by then."
Debbie feigns hearing nothing, but her muscles tense and her already heightened survival instinct kicks into high gear.
"This mother fucker is up to no good," she thinks. John had asked her to accompany Erich in this trip so she could introduce him to his dealers. Erich showed them a briefcase full of money, from "West Coast investors," so the money part didn' t seem like bullshit, but the bastard, ponders Debbie, wasn' t right in the head, like he had watched too much TV or he had been dropped when he was a baby. Maybe it was the way his crooked smile seemed to hang from his face as if ready to spill from one side; and playing around with his gun. He couldn' t get a hard on if he didn' t have that thing pointed at her while she was giving him head.
She would be glad when they reached the end of this trip. Let John' s friends handle the hick bastard, bring him down a couple of notches, the hard way.
Her cigarette grows too short. She sticks the smoldering butt in the ashtray under the dashboard and squashes it by turning it in her fingers like if she were trying to drill a hole through the metal. From her purse she gets her pack and lights another one.
"What a fucking trip," she says aloud, as if speaking to herself. Erich ignores her, too busy picking his nose.
As Ken' s pick up crossed the Florida-Georgia line northbound on I- 75, a slight relief came over Ken. But he knew the relief would never be complete until he delivered the Adidas bag sitting beside his own bag on the floorboard.
"I need you to do me a favor," Ortega had asked back in Miami.
"Si," said Ken. "What is it?"
"I have a little bag of merchandise that needs to be delivered in Atlanta."
"Have one of your guys do it."
"I need an honest, white face like yours," had said Ortega. "Cops are too suspicious of us, more if we are driving expensive cars, or rental cars."
"Get yourself an old car."
"It' s good money. Easy work."
Ken took the job, but it wasn' t for the money. He had plenty of that. This job gave him the opportunity to pack his things and leave town without suspicion, for good. The good part Ken kept from Ortega as Ken didn' t want to get in an argument with him, like Sonia did.
Ken didn' t want Ortega chasing after him either, so he would do as told, deliver the bag, collect the money and deliver it to Ortega by FedEx, and then disappear for good. No hard feelings.
Ken slowed down as he looked for the right house. The maples aligned on the street made it hard for him to seethe numbers over the porches. A blue house with white trimming, Must be that one. He slowed down because a delivery van in front of him had stopped in front of the blue house, blocking the road.
Ken was ready to blow the horn when the van' s side door opened and a S.W.A.T. team rushed out and stormed the house.
The house’ s door went down and cops burst in. It was over in seconds. Ken found himself surrounded by flashing red and blue lights that had poured from every alley and side street. The cop driving the van came out and motioned Ken to go around the parked van. Ken smiled, maneuvered his truck around the van and waved to the cop as he drove away. His hands trembled and his butt hole strained, ready to pop. Enough of this shit.
"I have a message for Mister Ortega," Ken said from the pay phone. "He needs to call me at this number." Ken gave the pay phone number to the old Cuban guy on the other side of the line, wondering if the old cog understood a word he said. Ken repeated the number in his mauled Spanish. "It' s important, im-por-tan-te, O.K?"
After three hours of waiting in his truck parked beside the phone booth, the phone rang. Ken reached across the window and picked the receiver up.
"Ken! So happy to hear from you!" came Ortega' s voice across the hissing line.
"Hey Mister Ortega, that little place of yours… it' s out of business, you know."
"Yeah, shit happens, you know."
"I got your stuff. What do you want me to do with it?"
"Let me make a couple of calls and I will call you right back, O.K.?"
"I' m at a pay phone, middle of Nigger town."
"Don' t worry. I' ll call you right back." The line went click.
Ortega didn' t own a phone, too risky he said. He used a network of pay phones and friends' phones scattered all over Little Havana. He had an almost psychotic fear of wiretaps, and he relied on his men to deliver his messages around town, or to make calls for him from pay phones. So Ken knew he would be sitting in his truck for hours with a bag full of coke while black faces looked at him with mistrust.
Two hours later the phone rang.
"Ken, I want you to take the stuff to this guy, and get my stuff from him," said Ortega without hissing noises on the back ground this time.
"Ortega, I' m not a muscle man to be delivering this crap and collecting your shit. Jesus, they are going to roll me."
"You' re all I have, so just do it."
"Fuck no! Listen, I' m giving this shit back to you. Better, I' m gonna dump it somewhere and your guys can come and collect it," said Ken without any sense of carefulness left in him. "I' m out of this business! Almost got busted this morning, you know!"
Silence came from the other side of the line. Ken heart was beating to break from his chest. Ortega' s voice came again, smooth and jovial.
"Hey Ken, I think it' s in your best interest to help me out. After all, your dad in Youngstown, and that dog of his, what' s his name? Rufus? Yeah, Rufus, cute little fellow." Ortega let his words sink in. "He needs the money as much as you do, you know, to pay for the new pick up and to finish fixing up that old house in Maple Street."
Ken stopped breathing and his face turned white. Fucking bastard. "Let my dad out of this," said Ken in a whisper.
"Hey, we are all family, and I don' t want to see anything bad happening to the old man."
"Fine, what the hell do you want me to do with this crap?"Ken’ s heart ran near red line.
Ken jotted Ortega' s instructions down and hung the phone with a loud bang. Fucking bastard. Ken called his dad and go this answering machine. Shit. "Listen dad, very carefully…" and Ken had to explain in short minutes what he thought he would never be able to explain in a lifetime.
The Atlanta map showed the way to Tech wood, by North Avenue. Ken drove up there and didn' t like it. Damn Federal housing project; fucking place looks like Beirut. He parked his truck in front of a building whose first floor looked like it had been fired bombed. Trash drifted in the wind and new black faces followed him and the bag into the building. A white face also watched him, keenly, from inside the building.
Ken had it figured out. Drop the stuff, pick the cash, get his cut, and drop the rest in a rental box at Harts field, then mail the key to Ortega with a nice fuck you note. Fe Dex would be too easy, let the bastard sweat it out for a few days. End of the story.
Ken knocked on the door, his knuckles white with apprehension. Soon it would be over.
"Come on in," a white voice with a twang answered from inside. Ken opened the door and saw a white guy and a white girl standing behind a table with a briefcase on it. He stepped inside and checked around with a nervous gaze, trying very hard to look cool, but not doing a very good job of it.
"Howdy," said the white guy.
"Hi," said Ken. He looked at the girl, and his jaw dropped. Debbie winked an eye and said," Hi stranger."
"You got… got… the money?" Ken asked with a nervous voice. For once in his life he wished Ortega' s men were at his back, or Tony with that square looking gun. But here he was, practically naked in front of this guy with the crooked smile, and Debbie. Ken couldn' t make any sense of what was happening. He placed the bag on the table and looked at Erich who kept on smiling.
Erich pushed the brief case to Ken; Ken reciprocated by pushing the bag to him. While Erich inspected the merchandise Ken opened the briefcase. He saw a bunch of money, but he had no intentions of counting it. He wanted out of there, soon. Debbie and he changed stares across the table, and Ken replicated Debbie' s aloofness.
"This is good shit," said Erich.
"It sure is," said Ken, closing the briefcase.
"But I will keep the money anyway."
Erich pulled his gun from behind his waist and pointed it to Ken, and laughed. "Good bye, sucker." Erich had observed that Ken had no back up and no gun.
Ken put the briefcase in front of him as Erich fired the first shot. The shock sent Ken backwards onto the floor, the bullet lodged into the money. Debbie jumped over Erich' s arm holding the gun and bit him on the hand as hard as she could.
"You bitch!" Erich screamed in pain and punched Debbie in the face with his free hand, over and over, but Debbie wouldn' t let go. Erich looked up just in time to see Ken coming over the table ready to swing the briefcase in his face. He tried to shoot again, but his shots went into the table instead. The briefcase landed on his face with a numb thud and split open.
Money and screams floated in the room. Erich was on the ground struggling with Ken. Debbie bit Erich' s finger with such viciousness that Erich opened his hand, the gun falling to the floor. At that moment Erich kicked Ken in the groin and sent him on his back. Before Erich could get up, Debbie was on top of him.
One, two, three, four, five, six, seven. Good Lord, how many bullets does that gun carry? wondered Ken still grabbing his nuts. Debbie fired until the gun ran empty, then she proceeded to kick the bloody mass.
"Fucking inbred bastard!"
Ken stood and looked at her bloodied face in amazement. She finally looked at him and stopped kicking and cussing the corpse.
"Are you O.K?" asked Ken. The bruises in Debbie’ s face had started to swell.
"I' m fucking fine. What the hell are you doing here?"
"Same thing you' re doing, I suppose."
Both stood panting, the corpse still seeping blood between them. Seconds went by before anybody could say anything. Ken expected to hear sirens, and cops coming through the door yelling "Freeze!"But nothing happened. His ears continued to ring and a slight breeze fingered the curtains beside the open window where the top of the Coca-Cola building stood against an azure sky.
SNAPSHOTS OF MODERN LOVE
"An End Like the Movies"
An Original Screenplay
José R. Rodríguez
INT.F.B.I. OFFICE, DOWNTOWN DALLAS – DAY
Ken and his lawyer sit side by side. Across the table sits an F.B.I. Man. His briefcase is open and legal papers are strung over the desk. Ken signs a paper, turns it around and slides it, with the pen, back to the F.B.I. man.
F.B.I. man (studying the paper)
Well, this does it.
Do I have to face Ortega in court, or just my deposition will be enough?
Depends. If he cuts a deal, you will never see his face again. If he decides to go to court, then you will have to testify.
He won' t be that stupid.
The State of Florida is charging him with the murder of this Sonia woman. He could get the chair if convicted.
His lawyers will go for a deal, life in prison.
What about drug charges?
We aren' t interested at this time. If Florida can lock him up for life, or fry him, there is no need to spend taxpayers' money trying to nail him for smuggling.
Ken (sighing with a worrisome look)
I hope you' re right.
F.B.I. man (rising and extending his hand)
Ken and his lawyer rise, shake hands with the F.B.I. man.
EXT.F.B.I. BUILDING – FULL SHOT – DAY
Camera moves from the building' s top to the entrance and finds Ken and his lawyer standing on the sidewalk.
This is our last meeting. Once you and your dad go into the Eyewitness Protection Program, we will be cutoff for good.
Thank you for convincing them to let me keep my F.A.A. licenses.
No problem. (He extends his hand). Good luck to you both.
Camera pans out as they shake hands and goes for a full shot of downtown Dallas.
EXT.EAGLE CREEK STATE PARK PARKING LOT, OREGON – DAY
Ken sporting a goatee and one earring awaits by the side of his Harley-Davidson. The chilly morning makes him keep his hands in his leather jacket pockets. Camera pans out and shows a red convertible Corvette with the top down driving into the lot. The Corvette parks beside Ken. Camera moves over Ken' s shoulder as he approaches and finds driver. Debbie is at the wheel, her hair cut short and dyed black.
I was sure I would never see you again.
Why? Don' t you trust me?
Ken (also smiling)
After that two for one deal, I don' t know. There was a lot of money in that bag.
You don' t forget, do you? We deserve that money after all the shit we went through.
Ken (looking at the ground, hesitant)
The Atlanta thing… what the cops said?
They blamed it on crack head niggers, you know, a white dude trying to buy shit from them, and getting ripped off.
Ken (looking straight at her)
Debbie (tapping her fingers on the wheel)
I' m gonna give you your cut, of course. A deal is a deal.
That' s fine. My business can always use some money.
No, hell no. Flying hunters and fishermen around. Fish and dead bears are safer than coke.
Debbie (tapping on the empty seat)
You want to come for breakfast? I know a cool place by the river.
Ken jumps into her Corvette. They look at each other and hesitate. Camera moves over the hood and pans in through the windshield as Ken and Debbie kiss, a long and passionate kiss.
EXT.ROAD PARALLEL TO COLUMBIA RIVER – DAY
Debbie' s Corvette moves over the road. Bird' s view of Corvette as if followed from behind by a helicopter, with a full shot of gorgeous mountain view, the Columbia river glittering like a golden snake by the side of the road.
Ken (voice over)
By the way, my name isn' t Ken anymore.
Debbie (voice over)
What the Feds named you?
Ruper. Ruper Korpolinski.
Oh my God! You' re kidding me, aren' t you?
I ain' t.
Well, my name ain' t Debbie either.
Ken (in a cynical tone)
What a surprise. What is it? Bertha?
Kathy. Pretty, uh?
Nice to meet you, Kathy.
Nice to meet you, Ruper.
Both laugh. Camera stops following the Corvette and watches as it drives away until it disappears beyond a curve into the postcard perfect landscape.
Of course, life is not like a movie; it is more like a dark comedy or noirfilm with a sad and ridiculous end where a lot of people die but it sure in hell is not like a Mary Poppings movie. After the incident Debbie and I took off with a gym bag leaking dope through a couple of bullet holes and a briefcase full of money with blood splattered on it. Since then I have never been back in Atlanta and I don' t even want to be anywhere near the state of Georgia. I needed to get rid of the drugs so a few ideas crossed my mind: dump the shit somewhere and never go back to Florida – probably not a good idea. Mail the stuff back to Ortega with a note telling him… well, there was no need for a note, the bullets stuck in the dope bags would be enough of a hint. Mail or UPS, I didn' t care, the only thing I was sure of is that it wasn' t going to be a personal delivery. I wanted out of the life; I didn' t want to end up like Tony, buried in a expensive suit in a grave among defunct smoke stacks, or like Sonia, as shark bait. Debbie' s idea was to keep the money in the briefcase and go to Texas and sell the stuff to her friends and then split.
" Split? What do you mean by that?" I asked. We were sitting in my truck. She smoked a cigarette held by shaking hands and mine shook empty over the steering wheel. We were parked at a McDonalds, not knowing where to go next.
" Split, you know, take off with the money." She smoked hard, consuming her cigarette in minutes.
"And live the rest of our lives waiting for Ortega to show up? I don' t think so." She didn' t answer but lit another cigarette.
"Let me ask you," I said. "The money we get, do we go half and half and then each of us split each way?" She looked at me and for once the smoke out of her nostrils came out slowly, in along draft that lasted forever. I knew she had hinted at us running away together and now I was putting the ball back in her side. Lether answer that prickly question.
"If that is what you want, yes," she said, almost a reproach. And there was that look, the same look she gave me sitting on the toilet that day, that scared look as if I had that something that would make her life end like a movie, as if it was up to me to give her the elixir that would right all the wrongs and give her peace. The money and the dope went out of focus. Debbie looked frail, scared, in need, and I didn' t know what to do.
"What do you want?" I asked in a whisper. She swallowed hard and looked straight ahead.
"Does it make a difference?"
She started crying.
My everlasting awkwardness with women manifested itself and I just sat like a frozen stick, unable to do a thing. After a few minutes of sobbing I managed to say I was sorry. I was not sure if that is what she wanted to hear or what I was sorry for but it did the job. She stopped crying and wiped the tears off her bruised face.
"I' m sorry too." She looked away from me.
What was she expecting me to say? Let' s split together, go to Las Vegas and get married? She a whore, a junkie, a killer? The derisive terms against her turned against me when I realized that I wasn' t much better than her: a drug smuggler, a soldier for a drug king, the one who buried friends and lied to their families. My head spun. I didn' t know if I was angry, or happy to be alive, or worried to death, I just didn' t know if I should crawl under a rock or grab Debbie and kiss her in the mouth, and I didn' t know if I wanted to kiss her because I cared for her or because she had saved my miserable life. But at the end I did nothing, I just sat there and waited for the turmoil in my mind to settle and let my head cool because a cool head is what I needed to stop getting deeper into the hell I was getting sucked into.
"These people in Texas, can we trust them?" That was a stupid question, when it came to drugs, and could I really trust Debbie? Of course I could, to a point, she and I were emotionally tight beyond comprehension and reason. Some fools may call this unseen bond love. For me, it was just some spiritual link that I could not describe. If it were love, I wouldn' t know, such thing had never happened to me. But she was a dope head, and that chemical pull had no loyalties and recognized no master but itself. Be aware, I reminded myself.
"Yes, we can. If you don' t try to screw them they won' t screw you."
Mailing a gym bag leaking coke was not a good idea. Shipping a bag full of money wasn' t as dangerous. An idea started to form, a workable idea that perhaps might work and might let me off the hook with Ortega.
"Listen then," I said to Debbie. "We sell this shit to your buddies, fair market value. That money is ours. The money here, ” I patted the briefcase between us, “ is Ortega' s, and I' m going to mail it to him."
"Go on," she said, knowing well that there was more to the story.
"I will take my cut from his money, what he had promised me for the delivery. It seems like a fair and square deal to me."
"You want to cover your back, don' t you?"
"I do. I' m not sure if that will keep Ortega from coming after me, or my dad, but it is worth a shot."
"It' s your shit honey. Do what you think is best."
"What do you think?"
She shrugged as if money was not the issue. Splitting with me was, but what did I have to offer to a drug queen and a prostitute? I had nothing. A promise for a better life as thin as a razor blade and as liable to hurt her.
I cranked the truck and we headed west with our drugs, money, fears and hopes. I kept on looking in my view mirror for blue lights chasing after us. It would be a long trip. Lost in my selfish thoughts I didn’ t bother to ask Debbie if she wanted any Ibuprofen for her swollen face until we were almost out of Louisiana. Sometimes I can be a prick.
Debbie had not bullshitted me and the deal went down as a transaction among gentlemen. I took Ortega’ s money, took my cut plus a little bit more, put Ortega' s cut in a box – mostly all of the money- and special delivered the damned thing through the mail. The Postmaster General bitches about sending cash in the mail, but out of all my latest crimes, this was the lesser one. The money from the sale of the hick’ s dope I’ ll split with Debbie.
I stand in front of Debbie. Now that she is back among friends, her eagerness to split and go with me seems less obvious. I don' t know and I' m not sure about that. I cannot read other human' s desires. My guesses are at best somewhere near the mark when they are not completely off.
"Here is your dough," I say, and I give her a huge wad of cash, no small bills. She takes the money with one hand and holds it behind her back. Didn' t bother to count it or even look at it. She looks at me again as if I were the master of her destiny. I' m just a scared to death schnook that wants to get out of this criminal life in a hurry and for good. We are standing outside, next to my truck, under an early morning big sky dotted with lazy nimbus clouds drifting east. This is one of those decisive moments that has the peculiar and unique characteristic of showing itself as such in the present. I know that what I say or fail to say will determine the rest of my life, and her life too.
I' m looking at Debbie while my mind gets clobbered with what if' s and why nots and doubts. A whore and a junkie; she was there for me when it really mattered; a junkie and a whore and a criminal. Look who is talking. Dad, meet Debbie the hooker. She snorts coke for a hobby. She saved my life. Damn it; I don' t know what to think. Perhaps I shouldn' t think and should let my emotions take over instead, do something from my heart and not my brain. I remember Tony and my brainless decision to follow in his steps. This is not the same thing, I say to myself. Yes it is, you dummy. As the minutes go by common sense gets the upper hand over the emotions (oh God, I want her by my side; I want her to smile at me every morning of my life).Living with a junkie is not living.
She lowers her eyes. Perhaps she has seen in mine what she didn' t want to see.
"Good bye Debbie, and thanks," I say.
"Good bye," she says. "And thank you too." She is now looking at me again, with sad eyes. I resist my urge to embrace her and kiss her, kiss her on the mouth. I walk to my truck and I feel her eyes burning on my back, pleading for what I cannot deliver, for what my cowardice won' t let me do. I drive away from her and we wave good bye to each other. I see her in my rearview mirror, still standing on the street, both hands behind her back and it feels like some part of me has been left back there with her. A junkie and a whore, good God. I hit the gas and leave Dallas in a hurry, not wanting to look back, afraid of what I may see.
The narrow county roads north of Dallas are fun with so many curves. Debbie down shifts before entering one. The engine revs up and the little MG convertible grips the road on almost two wheels. Before the car is out of the turn, she accelerates and when the car is again facing a straight road, it already has picked up good speed. She up shifts and watches the speedometer go up. There is a buzz of speed in her head, mixed with a buzz of booze and coke. Life is grand.
Her blond hair flies in the air and whips around her face. The money Ken gave her has paid for the car, and the booze, and the drugs and many other things already used up and gone but she doesn' t worry about money spent because there is always more money when drugs are involved. Ken is gone and so is her idea of splitting and starting anew somewhere else. Still, despite the money and the fun, there is an emptiness inside her, a hole where friendship and love and care for others is missing. All she knows how to do is to take but to Ken she wanted to give, she wanted to run the risk of being fooled and taken for a ride because she felt that Ken wouldn' t do that to her. The thought of sharing her feelings and exposing her heart scared her to death but still didn' t stop her for wanting it.
Ken was gone. She could see why; he had enough. He has a future with his flying thing, and has a dad who needs him. She has nothing he needs, nothing he cannot find somewhere for far less headache and without complications. What was she thinking? She was not girl friend material; not even friend material. She just takes what she cans and enjoys it until it is depleted; nobody else matters because nobody else thinks she matters.
Not even Ken.
Hedgerows fly by. The stop sign flies by. A car pulls out of a cut in the hedgerow to her right. Debbie doesn' t slam her brakes; instead, her convertible smashes into the side of the car in front of her. Debbie remembers the horrified face of the woman at the wheel, her huge eyes, the mouth open in a soundless cry. There is an explosion of metal and glass and a jolt and an instant numbness before consciousness disappear.
After the Dallas affair I drove straight to Youngstown to see my dad and try to explain things. Had he ever suspected what I was doing for a living? Probably. After bringing back Tony' s body with a belly full of holes I imagine that the gossip about our business down south had reached the inconceivable and the unbelievable but somewhere among the rubbish of tales and lies many folks had probably guessed what we were up to. Even before Tony' s funeral, when I bought and paid for with cash for my dad' s new truck, the old man gave me a look of disapproval that told me he knew something wasn' t right even though he said nothing. I made stories up about how I was working for this South American tycoon and how well I was getting paid to fly him around in his big jet. From flying bank checks and flipping burgers to be the anointed driver of the jet set; that was quite a leap and I knew that my dad didn' t buy the story. Besides, I' m not a good liar. I don' t know if at the time he kept his mouth shut because he couldn' t or didn' t want to contradict me, or because he figured that I was old enough to know what I was doing. These thoughts and the fabrication of an explanation and its delivery kept me occupied while the miles went by, driving in the company of my shame and my fears.
The day I had to return back south, after burying Tony, my dad stood next to my truck and said," Son, I think you need to quit that flying job you got." His grimace showed his feelings better than his words. I said nothing. Before I could make up any excuses my dad turned his back on me and walked back into the little clapboard house that had been our home since before I was born. He never looked back. Was he crying? Was he pissed off? Both? I don' t know and I don' t want to speculate. All I knew for sure was that he didn' t approve of my flying job. I couldn' t blame him. I was forcing on my dad the unsavory task of having to face Tony’ s parents almost everyday and be ashamed that his son was still alive and theirs was not. The old man didn' t deserve that crap.
Despite knowing I was hurting my dad, Youngstown and its misery had turned my stomach; I didn' t want to live from day to day on a few dollars, ever again, to get old and haggard and have to go to a funeral in threadbare cheap suits and shoes no better than cardboard. I ran out of Youngstown haunted by the hard times I saw in its people and its buildings and sought shelter in Ortega' s open arms.
After watching Sonia get whacked, of course, my attitude reversed. There is nothing like the sight of brains on a deck to make a person see things with a new perspective. There was nothing that could have stopped Ortega from spilling my brains on that deck that same day. That, as the cliche says, was an eye opener.
My dad was staying in the basement of an old Army buddy. Together they had faced the Chinese volunteers in Korea and together they now watched for… something. Mustached hitmen wearing dark glasses and driving big black cars? Cuban killers in guayabera shirts smoking big cigars? Brown faced killers with black hair disguised as telephone repairmen? Nobody knew but just to be safe my dad had avoided being seen in public and nobody knew where he was. Paranoia is a good thing when the enemy is unknown.
I met him in the dark and damp basement. It pained me to see him hiding like this because of my own troubles that had nothing to do with him.
"I' m sorry about this mess," I said.
"How are you holding up?"
"Fine, I think. I owe nothing to those guys and I quit fair and square."
My dad could see that my expression didn' t match the confidence of my speech.
"But you ain' t sure that they won' t come after you anyway."
I sighed. "No. I' m not sure. Like in a bad gangster movie, I' m the guy who knows too much."
The old man looked at me with sorrow printed on his face, sorrow not for him but for me.
"Where you some kind of capo for those guys?"
"Dad! You know me," I protested. "I was just the driver of drug smuggling airplanes, a gofer. I don' t even have agun!"
"What about Tony?" he asked.
"He? Well, he wished he could have been a big shot, but he was just a small time hustler…" and I proceeded to tell the old man the tale of the dismissal of Tony Szpiganowicz and how he came to die in my airplane. It felt good to let that off my chest.
"That one," my dad said after I was done," he died happy."
I had never thought of that, of Tony dying happy, shooting it out with truckloads of Cubans, going down in a blaze of glory and bullets. I was not cut out for that kind of glory. I wouldn' t feel too happy to see my blood pooling on the floor of an airplane flying a few feet above the Caribbean, with more blood on the floor than inside me.
"After a long silence I said my words of wisdom," I fucked up dad."
"No kidding. Live and learn, you dummy," said my dad. He showed neither anger nor disappointment. He was ready to move on, more willing than I was. I could picture Johnny in his dirty apron sitting next to my dad and winking at eye at me. I told you so, you dummy.
The sun beats down on McCarran airport and a wind coming from the desert across runways and taxiways blows through the buildings that shimmer behind the dancing heat. Inside the pilot' s lounge things are cool thanks to the miracle of air conditioning, a miracle dwarfed by the miracle of Las Vegas sprouting in the middle of what should be a death valley devoid of water and flora. A miracle within a miracle within a miracle, thinks Ken, sitting at the lounge in his black tie and white shirt with three-bar copilot' s epaulets. He is thankful for having landed a real flying job. It isn' t an airline job but it is close enough, as they say, for government work. Flying sightseers over the Grand Canyon is an auspicious beginning. His logbook is fattening up with multi engine turboprop time under Part 135, his springboard to the jet cockpits that roar in and out of Las Vegas day and night.
Leaving his past behind feels like getting out of the suffocating darkness of a burlap sack, emerging like the Great Houdini from his confinement into a bright future with his defeated shackles dangling harmlessly from his wrists and ankles.
His dad had refused to leave Youngstown and had even refused to move out of his old house to somewhere else in town.
"I built this house for your mother and I' m gonna die in it," he had said, and Ken had believed him. There was no point in fighting the old man' s stubbornness, plus his dad wasn' t a dummy; he was rather capable of taking care of himself with the help of a sawed off double barrel shotgun and his old.45 pistol.
Ortega had not shown any signs of displeasure, not yet, about the way they had ended their businesses relationship, and that was rather comforting; still, Ken can' t help waking up in the middle of the night, his nerves touched by the live wire of a noise or a shadow coming from the darkness. He sleeps behind a dead bolted door with a revolver under his pillow. Time, Ken thinks and wants to believe, will remove the ghosts that still haunt him. The memories of Sonia' s head exploding and Tony' s blood in his hands will fade into just a discomforting and sporadic thought, not to bother him in his sleep anymore.
"Kenneth Banaczyk!" a voice commands behind Ken. He turns around on his chair to face a group of men in suits. The one that spoke is holding a badge in his open hand.
" U.S. Marshals. Please stand up."
The sound of the handcuffs snapping around his wrists in the pilot' s lounge, under the eyes of his fellow pilots and chief pilot, the unsavory degradation of being escorted out like a criminal, like the criminal he was, to the waiting cars outside, the surprised faces of his coworkers behind the windows, that humiliation will haunt Ken for the rest of his life.
Inside the car, between marshals, Ken sees himself inside a thick and oppressing burlap bag, hands and feet tied by the strongest of steels and a heavy chain choking his neck, and he ready to be dropped into a cold and bottomless sea.
The clock radio goes off at six o' clock in the morning and the DJ' s familiar voices fill the room. Debbie stays in bed while a song plays and gets up with the commercials. She shuts the radio and goes to the tiny bathroom in her one bedroom apartment. She hops on her one right leg. The left one is missing from the knee down. She flops on the toilet and the sound of piss falling on water is long and strong; She is not the one to get up in the middle of the night for a bathroom break because her sleep is steady and she has learnt to leave her worries in the threshold to her night rest. She knows that there is plenty of time during the day to worry about bills and money and the minutia that somehow manages to grow into a spawn of evil, ready to cut her down to pieces.
Her two cats, Munch and Ernie, come to greet her and both try to push each other away from her one leg. She scratches their heads and they meow. Debbie knows that those sounds of pleasure are also demands for breakfast. Having cats is like being married again, some hairball always in need of something from her. At least Munch and Ernie are honest in their affections.
She wipes, stands and flushes, and with a short hop she is in front of the basin. The face in the mirror has sunken lips because her dentures are still in a glass full of water and cleanser. The accident in Dallas had taken her leg and her front teeth, plus three years of her life at the Gatesville State jail after she was convicted of vehicular homicide, reckless endangerment and reckless driving. She had gotten five but served only three. It' s hard for a cripple to be a troublemaker so the parole board had let her go without much fuss.
After washing, putting make up on and gluing her dentures to her gums she hops to the bedroom where her prosthesis waits standing next to her bed. With great deftness she readies her stump and fits the artificial limb, a hinged marvel of plastic and titanium, a far cry from the cheap peg leg she got at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Hospital in Galveston as a courtesy of the State. At least the peg had been better than crutches. Later on a charity got her a better, second hand – or as she had joked, second leg – prosthesis that had not fit her well but at least had looked like a leg, with afoot to put a shoe on.
At the beginning of her jail sentence she didn' t have any teeth because the State of Texas considered dentures a luxury and not a medical need the taxpayer had to pay for. She limped through corridors and yards and halls in her wooden peg and with her mouth sunk over her jaws, her head slung low and avoiding talking to anybody so her gapping mouth would not make them laugh. Those were hard days; her body still reeling from pain, both from her scars and from the chemical withdrawal she was going through. Drugs could be had like in any other jail she had done time in before, but this time she had decided to go cold turkey, the hard way, without counselors, support groups or nurses.
Her mangled body and the presence in court of the husband and the two little girls of the woman she had killed had made an impression on her. Suicide had been in her mind many a time during her stay at the hospital, handcuffed to bed, like as if the law were expecting her to stand up on her still whole but broken leg and hop away to Mexico, toothless and banged up beyond recognition. Suicide had flashed through her consciousness like a lit highway message board many occasions afterward but time and her innate will to survive had made such appearances less frequent and duller. Twenty years more or less, and still counting, and she had managed to stay clean. Alcohol and cigarettes don’ t count as such in her list of past and present addictions.
The same charity that got her the leg paid for her first set of dentures. Her toothless reflection in the chromed plastic panels that passed for mirrors at the jail disgusted her beyond measure so that first donated set of dentures felt godsend, like gold teeth instead of the cheap composites they were. They ill fitted her even after the jail dentist had fixed them up the best way he could. She had to watch them or they would come flying out of her mouth and she had to be very careful when chewing, but at least she could smile and talk without feeling like she was showing her wind pipe to the person she was talking to.
Since then Debbie has measured her life improvements by using the quality and fit of her dentures and prosthesis as a yardstick. This morning they were her most priced material possessions. The cats were her most priced emotional ones.
Debbie in jeans and a polo shirt walks into the kitchenette followed by Munch and Ernie. Her steps are firm and there is no trace of a limp. She stands in front of the sink and the sunlight alights her face and her pretty dimples. She is not a young girl anymore but an attractive middle aged woman, a little bit worn out in places and on the scrawny side. Her pony tail is a natural dirty blond color and there are a few white strands by the exposed roots around her face. Her attractiveness is not bought at a beauty parlor but comes from a natural, girlish look and her big brown eyes, and the dimples, of course. But she smokes and her skin has a dried up and eroded texture, and Denver ' s altitude and dryness doesn' t help it. She is cutting back to five smokes a day. She has her first after eating a bowl of cereal on the couch while watching the early morning news.
The cats are fed and now lie satisfied on the sill of the living room window under a shaft of sunlight, licking their paws. "Bye guys," she says to her pets before closing the door and stepping out into the breeze way. She descends the stairs and a keen observer could have noticed the slight and odd way in which she bends her left knee. She gets in her Geo Metro, cranks it up and puts her dark glasses on. A few minutes later her little beater merges with the rush hour traffic in the street. Another day, another buck.
The high road or the low road, the path of righteousness or the path of perdition, the fork in the road, and on and on the cliché s go, some of them as ancient as humanity because since there was such thing as humanity, its members had found the way to screw up their lives by making the wrong decisions at those points in their lives when making a different decision would have meant a good or a bad life. Here is the rub though, that good and bad distinction; who can tell one from the other? Monday quarterbacks can look on Sunday’ s game and explain blow by blow what went wrong or right, but at that point, who cares? The game is over, finito, done with.
Has my life been good or bad? God damned if I know. After my arrest In ever flew an airplane again… On the other hand, neither my family nor I have ever been hungry either, and we have a decent roof over our heads, and clothes, and health. So I fucked up big time and it bit me in the ass, but my life was not over with and I got my shit together and now I own a landscaping business and a few rental properties and can afford to live the American dream, even if it is in installments.
Dwelling on what it could have been breeds bitterness. Dwelling on my mistakes feeds my self pity. Playing the blame game exhausts my mind and such obsession won’ t let me see what needs to be done to continue on living. These things I learned right after my passage through the Department of Justice and the Florida halls of justice. It was a swift passage, but not uneventful.
From Vegas they hauled me to Jacksonville, Florida. Here I sat in a cell, waiting for the big foot of the Federal government to come down on me and squash me like a roach. It’ s funny how people make jokes about lawyers, how they mock them, that is, until they are in the hole and need somebody to pull them out. The joke turns on you and the despicable lawyer becomes a white knight, for a handsome fee, that’ s true, but a knight nevertheless. Nobody else is going to stand up for you, by you.
My knight for hire was Adrian Rubenstein, a rotund Jew whose bald head and droopy face made him look like a man with the social skills of a loner living with his mother. His clear baritone voice articulating flawless legal arguments dispelled such erroneous first impression and left not doubt about his brilliant legal mind. Besides a good brain for legal matters I believe that a good lawyer has an attribute that cannot be learn in law school. That attribute is the ability to deal, and to deal hard and long for his client, to deal until the prosecution gives up, to be stubborn and play the other side until the best deal possible is on the table, and then know when it’ s time to lay the cards down, call the game off and take the deal. That kind of eager stubbornness and good timing doesn’ t come from the classroom, I know that much. I’ m sure that Mr. Rubenstein would have made a successful career of selling used cars.
“ I need a lawyer, ” I told Agent Ramirez as they hauled me into the Jacksonville Federal building. “ Do you know any good ones?” I had asked as a joke because I figured that Federal agents were not in the habit of telling criminals where to get a good lawyer. Agent Ramirez didn’ t look surprised at all by my question.
“ Call Rubenstein, Rubenstein and Cohen. He’ s in the book.”
So Mr. Rubenstein ended up on my side. I doubt that Agent Ramirezever collected a referral fee. It is amazing how after all these years his name is the only one I remember of all the agents involved in my case. Another quality of a good lawyer is the ability to gauge how much the client is worth and to get every penny of that worth out of the client. If the client has a half million dollars, the defense will cost half a million dollars. If the client has a million dollars, the same defense will cost a million dollars. Again, such uncanny ability didn’ t come from a classroom but perhaps from working on a used car lot.
I paid without complaining; after all, it was blood money, you know, the one that easy comes and easy goes. There was too much at stake to try to be cheap. Sitting in a cell, I rotted alone because I knew too much and Ortega would put a price on my head if I were to be housed with the rest of the criminal population. From my confinement I deducted that the Feds wanted me for what I knew, not for what I have done.
Crime doesn’ t pay but punishment can be bargained with, and at this bargaining game Rubenstein excelled. Many times I sat at the table across the D.O.J’ s minions who spoke of nothing but the evil that would fell me if I didn’ t bend over and let them stick it to me. I said nothing, as instructed, and let Rubenstein argue with the Justice men, and argue they did, with me as a bargain chip. On one side of the table were the years of imprisonment that for sure were mine to suffer; on the other side was what I knew about Ortega and his business. I was just a gofer; it was Ortega whom the Justice men wanted. Rubenstein job was to see with how much I could get away with in exchange for what I knew.
At the end all came down to Sonia’ s murder. A good chunk of her body had washed out on the shore, half eaten by sea creatures but still identifiable, so the State of Florida had a corpse to argue for murder. I was the witness they needed to have Ortega tried for first degree murder in state court. The state would prosecute because then Ortega would face the chance of sitting on Ol’ Sparky, which was a lot more colorful that just a plain lethal injection if he were convicted in Federal court. Frying somebody alive is always more spectacular than putting them to sleep, and is more apt to loose tight tongues when used as a threat.
I ended up with a twelve year suspended sentence with no time to serve, ready to testify in court, the State of Florida vs. Raú l Ortega in the murder of a Sonia Aguilar. This meant having to enter the witness protection program after taking the stand against Ortega, and ending up like a washed out mobster living in Arizona and working in a car wash. I wouldn’ t be able to contact my dad, and that was the hardest part of the deal.
While it was true that my plans to become a hot shot airline pilot had fallen apart, the lesson learned about how the best laid plans can go to shit repeated itself right in front of my eyes when the grand plan of the Feds to nail Ortega blew to pieces with him. A bomb went off in his car and bits of Ortega blew all over Hialeah… Bang!There goes the whole enchilada. I don’ t know why Ortega got whacked but I surmise that he knew more than I knew and powerful associates got wind of what was coming to him and wanted him to be quiet, for good.
Rubenstein, being a smart cookie, had already gotten the deal approved by a judge and in writing, so the Feds couldn’ t go back on their deal and sock it to me thus I got off the hook by a stroke of luck, good for me and bad for Ortega. Again, what is good or bad depends on where you are standing at the time, or in the case of Ortega, sitting.
Still, I got a felony conviction on my record, and that meant the end of my flying career. I would never be able to pass a security check and as per FAA regulations, I wasn’ t a man of good moral character so I could never qualify for an ATP rating. Being a convicted felon is not small peanuts; even when filling a job application at McDonald’ s the impertinent questions, “ have you ever being convicted of a crime?” and “ If yes, please explain” appear. Good luck explaining in a couple of sentences that you are a reformed drug smuggler, the type that used to smuggle coke by the ton.
I ended up on the street, a free but poor man who got to keep his original name, a convicted felon, and off the hook for the Atlanta incident; the Feds never connected the dots that would have put me in that mess. Debbie probably died of an overdose before she had the chance to get into trouble with the law and use me as a bargaining chip in her own deal.
Debbie, still in my mind after so many years. I often wonder whatever happened to her. An overdose probably did her in, or a crazy john, or a whack job of a boyfriend, or an inmate in a jail fight. Now, knowing how unpredictable life is, perhaps the woman is happily married with a minivan full of children and a fat husband who dots on her. Her smiling face still pops into my head for no reason, like a prehistoric fish emerging from the deep to take a quick breath of air and then diving back into the darkness it came from, leaving a small ripple on the surface.
My men are at work finishing the landscape outside another dot com company. I’ m in charge of a small Mexican army of gardeners and landscapers, all of them depending on my business acumen for a living. The drone of airplane engines overhead never goes away. Small planes tow gliders through the Air Force Academy sky. I hope that those wanna be pilots don’ t screw up like I did.
The catering van speeds through I-25 southbound for DTC. Debbie drives and Ana sits in the passenger seat. Maria sits on the back, on the floor among coolers and boxes full of warm food. They reach their destination in front of a glass and marble building, a fortress of commerce, a business bastion among the other towers that house the engines that propel the new economy. They have done this gig before and like a well trained squad they deploy their boxes and tables and trade utensils fast and efficiently. With few words among themselves they have everything set up right before lunch hour.
A small group of men and women in casual office attires comes into the room and queue for their chance at free food. Debbie knows that there is no such thing as free lunch. Somehow the powers above will extract that lunch from these people, plus a little bit more. There is going to be a return for this investment. She smiles like a good hostess and slices cuts of beef and plops them on plates loaded with side trimmings. This is better than serving the slop in the jail’ s cafeteria, and she doesn’ t have to use a hair net either.
Debbie serves young women who have manicured hands and a college degree. At their ages she was walking the streets to snare a john, looking to score dope, living from day to day, from minute to minute. She serves beef with a polite tenderness. Debbie knows she is a survivor of sorts, still standing on her one leg and her prosthesis, flashing a smile of artificial teeth, but she is not bitter. She holds no grudge against these young women who came from good families and had their college and their first car paid for by loving parents. She had nobody, but hey, that’ s life; you do what you can with what you got. She made it this far, not in one piece, but made it this far and the future… well, no point to worry about it.
But she does worry about it now and then, like when she went to Ana’ s sister wedding. Debbie felt lost among the wall to wall crowd of relatives that made Ana’ s family, and there was a bunch missing that couldn’ t make the trip from Chihuahua. Sitting at the table, surrounded by noise and people linked by blood and marriages, she felt like a ship wreck at sea floating on a coconut sack in the middle of the ocean. She didn’ t know were she was drifting to, and it didn’ t matter because whatever the direction the currents might carry her, there was nothing but emptiness.
After two failed marriage she had no intentions of boarding that boat again. The first one had been to Nicky, good hearted but dumb as a rock and lazy. She got tired of working two jobs seven days a week while he slept on the couch all day long complaining about his back, a back that didn’ t hurt when it was time to go fishing or drinking. Marriage to her had seemed like an opportunity to share things but Nicky had been interested only in taking, taking her money, her time, her life, never giving anything back in return.
The second one had been to Billy. Debbie still cannot figure out how she ended up with such a loser. Sometimes she blames her eagerness to find a companion overriding her common sense. At other times she blames her innate ability at picking up losers despite their defects being as visible as the sun in a cloudless day. Billy the biker, the macho man, the wife beater, the ecstasy and meth dealer, the philanderer, the one that got caught cooking meth and distributing drugs and was still sitting in jail, where Debbie thinks he belongs. It had been a miracle that she hadn’ t been dragged into his mess. The cops had come around their shabby apartment with a search warrant asking questions, probing, looking for a way to send her away with her husband; after all, she already had a good size rap sheet.
They could prove nothing because there was nothing to prove. She had always made sure that none of Billy’ s crap was stashed in the house and her vigilance had paid off. The cops went away empty handed. The close call had scared her to death and she had filed for divorce right after his conviction. For once the courts had been on her side and she got a quick divorce. Listing in the sworn affidavit the occasions in which Billy had struck her had also helped her motion.
Debbie finds it unbelievable that she had put up with his abuse. At the first beating from a boyfriend she had always packed her bags in a hurry and left destination unknown. But that was when she was young and had nothing but her body to trade with and her addictions. Back then packing and moving was a matter of putting her few clothes in a gym bag and getting her money stash from under the toilet’ s tank lid. Boyfriends were nothing but a blip on her journey to nowhere. A husband had proven to be a little harder to get rid of because of the emotional investments, all false pretenses, poured into the marriage.
Still, there was no excuse. It was true she had been afraid of his bad temper and his mean streak that would flare with just a little bit of priming from alcohol or for no reason at all. Fuck him and the Harley he rode in, Debbie says to herself when she thinks of Billy.
After lunch the women pick up their things, clean up and load the van. Debbie drives through streets flanked by professionally landscaped grassy areas, all so perfect and yet so cold, as if there were not human beings to soil things and to litter the clean sidewalks, strips of bright clean concrete that look as if nobody ever walked on them. Ana and Maria talk to each other in Spanish and the radio plays a Mexican radio station. The gibberish doesn’ t bother Debbie because it gives her a excuse to keep to her thoughts.
Ana and Maria will go home to houses full of children and husbands. She has two spoiled cats waiting for her. When she gets sick nobody comes knocking on her door to see how she is doing. If death comes for her in her little place only the stench of decay will tell the landlord that she is no more.
But that is the price to pay to be free, free of love and commitments and passions that yield bitterness and disappointments. Free of assholes like Nicky and Billy. Even Lucy and Ricky Ricardo got divorced in real life. Nothing ever lasts; there is no such thing as perfect love. Love is nothing but a memory, like the most powerful and destructive of thunderstorms the day after when puddles and mud are the only witnesses to its passage. She had plenty of bad weather in her past, and only dried mud sticks to her memory, stuff that when examined closely, it crumbles into dust.
The things she remembers, that still hold a shine and a freshness that doesn’ t die with time are few, and she treasures them even if she doesn’ t quite understand why those memories keep their youth. She stands in the beach, looking at that frothy seam where sea and sand meet. The seam goes far down, as far as the horizon, and Ken walks next to her. Such a silly memory. Or the time they were in the jetties, naked under a pool of sea water, or having dinner, a cheeseburger, onion rings and a beer, at that little place in Port Orange. Every thing had been, and still is, so silly, so unreal. She feels ashamed of the memories at the same time she relishes them. She sees Ken as a creature of her imagination, not as a flesh and bone man, but the memories of him making love to her are too real; he had to be real. Making love? He was a john, a paying customer; still, she had made love to him even if he didn’ t know it at the time.
“ Debbie? Hello?” says Ana, smiling.
“ What?” says Debbie, startled.
“ Wake up girl. You were in dreamland.”
“ Oh, sorry.”
Debbie’ s memories recede like a wave, and like a wave, they will come back again. She cannot stop them.
Somebody, I don’ t know who and where, or where I read it, once wrote that men lead lives of quite desperation. That quote has drilled deep into my head for the simple fact that it is true. Perhaps it has taken a deeper meaning as my waist has grown around me and the hair on my head has started to thin and the ones on my back have increased. It’ s my middle age crisis. There are two antidotes for this malady: divorce the wife and marry a younger broad, or buy a sports car or a motorcycle. I got the Harley but the disease has not abated; instead, I got one more payment book. Anyway, a fancy Harley is way cheaper than a young broad and a divorce.
There is a dullness, an apathy in the things I do, in my relationship with Helen, my wife. A trip to Victoria ’ s Secret won’ t kindle my interest. It’ s something that goes deeper, a tiredness that suffocates me and presses on me like a dark and gloomy day when it feels like you can reach up and touch the bottom of the dark clouds.
It is not her fault, but I don’ t think it is mine either. I, we, have walked in this path for so long to end up at the edge of a desert that offers no comfort, and we stay where we are because there is nothing worth going for anywhere else. We are stranded.
Helen and I sleep in the same bed out of habit but not out of a desire to share our lives. We try to be civil to each other and for the most part succeed at it but now and then the dryness of our relationship rubs hard and we cross words, bitter words spoken softly that hurt more than screams and flung dishes.
I have thought about calling it quits, and I’ m sure that she has had the same thought many a time. Our son, Dorman, calls from college up in Boulder when he’ s broke and when he is going to come home to visit but I’ m sure he can feel the stress between Helen and I, like cold water running unseen under the ice crust of a frozen river. So Dorman stays in Boulder as much as he can, and I don’ t blame him. Who needs this shit?
My Harley rumbles like a machine from hell as I go through the tunnels on Highway 6, riding up the canyon towards Central City. I’ m a speck against the walls of stone on each side of the road where curled up trees hang to life on rocky ledgers defying gravity and the impossible elements. You gotta be tough to make it; you gotta be relentless on your desire to survive. I like riding into old mining towns, walking through their abandoned cemeteries because the misery and hard times of the folks underground make me look like a whiner, me, fat and rich and expecting to live past sixty five, and bitching about nothing. I lay my hands on miners’ tombstones as if expecting to draw their hardness into myself, as if the will to keep on going could come from an old stone and the bones underneath.
I never ride with Helen; she won’ t get on my bike for anything. She hates the damned thing. So I go riding alone and she goes shopping or visits one of her many relatives living around the Front Range. To tell you the truth, I don’ t care what the hell she does. Sometimes I ride with my buddies and those are good times because I get to share small talk with other human beings, and that keeps me grounded. Solitude is a double edged sword; it can do you good but it can also make you insane. It is hard to tell which edge I have against my throat.
Debbie smokes behind the counter, inhaling hard and holding the smoke as long as she can. It’ s her fourth smoke and she has to make it last; she has to get as much nicotine as she can out of each precious drag. The jukebox is playing Pink Floyd’ sThe Great Gig in the Sky.A weird song for a jukebox, thinks Debbie. The female singer’ s voice raises and the vocal chords tickle Debbie’ s spine. The song may be an old one but that powerful voice is timeless. Debbie tries to guess who dropped the quarter for that song. Randy? He was an old hippie. Carl? probably not, he is more of a dead head.
The jukebox stops for a few seconds and a new song starts: Pink Floyd’ s Money.What the hell? Debbie shakes her head and smiles to herself. Somebody is going back in a time machine fueled by alcohol and music. The song goes strong and heads start to bob up and down with the beat. Some of them don’ t even know they are doing it. The old guy by the corner is either high as a kite or he’ s digging into the music, or he’ s both. Debbie would bet money he is the one responsible for the jukebox’ s unusual repertoire.
Charlie shakes his empty glass in front of his face and smiles at Debbie. She fills it up with foamy tap beer.
“ Want some pretzels hon? Here, on the house, ” says Debbie. She places a paper basket full of the salty fare in front of Charlie.
“ Thank you sweety, ” says Charlie. Debbie takes a couple of bills from the pile of small bills and loose coins in front of him, goes to the cash register and makes change. She puts the change back on Charlie’ s pile and he doesn’ t bother to check it. He never does. Nobody does at the Night Owl. They come to drink and to ogle at Debbie, not to worry about her getting them short changed, and if she did, so what? They will leave mostly all the change as her tip at the end of the night anyway. A small price to pay for some pleasant female company and for watching her pretty smile.
Two more Pink Floyd songs go by. Debbie believes that the old guy in the corner is going to have an orgasm. Glyn Preston enters the bar and smiles at Debbie right form the threshold. She reciprocates. Glyn walks to the jukebox and puts a few bills into in and starts pressing the keyboard. Debbie and all the regulars in the bar know what he is up to: blues. His broad back is stooped over the jukebox and its lights make his dark skin shine like a vinyl long play. His ivory teeth framed inside his everlasting smile glow with an electric blue hue as he presses the keys. The Pink Floyd guy is going to get kicked off his cloud when B.B. King starts belching The Thrill is Gone.Glyn is a blues aficionado, a rather dedicated one, and his personal collection holds many old and obscure records, but for a jukebox that plays Pink Floyd, Johnny Cash and Sinatra, B.B. King and Johnny Langare adequate.
Glyn sits at the bar and Debbie serves him his Scotch and soda without him having to ask for it. He will run a tab until closing time. After closing time him and Debbie may or may not got to a motel and have sex. They don’ t know for sure until they are in the parking lot and look at each other. There is no need to say a word. Some nights it feels like the right thing to do and others it doesn’ t.
The odd couple they are, mismatched in size, color, marital status, musical taste and everything else that could be of interest to a match maker but somehow their oddness is their link, knowing that their playful sexual romps cannot be become anything else. They enjoy each others company, have sex and small talk and leave each other in good spirits, without any debts standing, without issues to be solved later, without promises or guarantees.
Tonight they smile to each other in the parking lot and end up in the Lucky You motel. The pink neon lights adorning the edges of the balconies outside make their way into their room through the thin curtains and bathe their naked bodies. Debbie always has to get on top because Glyn is too big to do it the other way around. White on black glowing in pink and Debbie’ s stump ignored by both. After sex they talk for hours about nothing and go at it again. They never go to sleep together and always leave in separate ways when the sex is done with and there is nothing else to talk about.
Now and then Glyn gives her a trinket, some piece of gaudy gold jewelry that both know Debbie will never wear. She always hocks it and Glyn never bothers to ask where his gift went. It is a strange relationship, Debbie admits, but a harmless one. Glyn’ s wife must be used to him not being able to keep his big pecker in his pants, and Debbie is sure she is not his only side dish. Glyn’ s must be a truly bizarre marriage. But she loves his everlasting smile, good disposition and sincere willingness to listen to her; they make her life less gloomy, and that is worth a good fuck in return.
There is an early morning cinnamon sky to the east that casts a soft glow in the far away snow on Pikes Peak. Ken sits at the break fast nook and faces the mountains, another world so distant and different from his house. He may as well be looking at a Martian landscape. His jaws chew his cereal with listless determination. Crunch. Crunch. The noise fills the inside of his head but cannot drown his thoughts.
Thinking about last night makes him both angry and ashamed. Being rejected off hand by Helen felt like a back handed slap on his face, and his cheek still burns. Anger and shame, he swings in and out between both mind states, not sure where to stop the maddening pendulum.
How naive he had been, trying to patch up things with his wife by walking into the bedroom naked with a stiffy standing ready between his legs. Had she laughed and refused, or had she got mad and refused, that he could have handled, but the mute and disgusted look she gave him, the look she would have used if a sewer creature covered in refuse had walked into the bedroom, dripping scum and stinking to heaven, that look, that he couldn’ t swallow. Her obvious revulsion turned his stiffy into an instant floppy. The way she had turned her back to him and had hidden under the blankets had buried his hopes for a truce and reconciliation.
They had been unfounded hopes from the beginning but his stubborn and misguided optimism had chosen to ignore what now was rather obvious:Helen, the mother of his son, revolted at the idea of him touching her.
Seconds turn into minutes and cereal goes down his mouth but Ken still cannot figure out how or when or where things had started to turn bad. It had not been something you could circle on a calendar. There was no turning moment, no key event, no relevant flash of memory; things had just turned into shit as fresh snow melts under the morning sun, and Ken knew that he cannot recreate snow from a muddy spot on the ground. What was gone was gone forever.
Helen came into the kitchen and started opening and closing drawers in search of her breakfast, without saying a word to Ken. He keeps on eating, watching her ignoring him. A kernel of hatefulness inside him starts to heave and expand. His rib cage feels the pressure growing from the inside, the hate trying to sip out from between his ribs. His head tries to simmer down the rising emotions that are making his hand shake and the cereal spill back in the bowl.
This struggle is not new to Ken but today it is different because he doesn’ t want the common sense in his head to suppress the ugliness that is brewing inside him. There is a time to take it and there is a time to give it and today Ken feels like it is his time to let it out, to let that thing inside him explode and screw Helen and everything else.
His spoon drops in the bowl with a clank that splatters milk over the counter top. He pushes the bowl away from him and its contents spill out.
“ Helen!” he says aloud. “ I’ m tired of this crap!”
Helen says nothing, her back still to him, bending over and looking for something inside a cabinet.
“ God damned! Do you hear me or are you playing dumb?” Ken’ s voice is now a yell. Helen stands upright and turns to him. Her eyes are welled up with tears, and she cries when she answers.
“ I hear you. I hear you and I’ m also tired of this life.”
She runs upstairs to the master bedroom and slams the door shut.
Ken remains sitting at the nook, disgusted with himself and Helen and the world. He is not running after Helen. To do what? To say what?That he’ s sorry? Bullshit. He can hear Helen sobbing. Probably is his fucking fault that things had turned to shit; he doesn’ t know how or when or where but somehow the blame is his but he doesn’ t know how to fix things. Love cannot be rekindled like a stove after the fire is extinguished.
After their young love had died under the subtle but constant beating of boredom, they should have remained friends and stayed together for the sake of giving each other company in their old age, but instead of becoming used to each other like tired feet and old worn out shoes do with each other, they came to see themselves as a disagreeable strangers living under the same roof… Something had gone wrong and Ken cannot figure out what.
Ken tires of thinking about it. He grabs his keys and cell phone and heads out for the garage. He spins tires on the way out of the drive and sees his suburban home getting smaller in his rear view mirror.
He has to unlock one of his rental homes for a crew to replace the carpet. The last renter and their dogs left a mess. Ain’ t that funny, he thinks, his life is falling to pieces and a fucking pissed on carpet is the only excuse he has to keep on living.
Glyn ejaculates and Debbie feels his thrust pushing her high and keeping her up there, like if she were bucking a wild horse. After the orgasmic wave passes a panting Debbie gets out of bed, stands upon her one leg and hops to the bathroom to clean herself up. With each jump a few drops of semen hit the floor. Debbie is thankful that of all the crappy jobs she has had, she never had to work as a motel maid.
She comes back to bed refreshed and lays next to a tired Glyn whose still swollen but now soft penis drips on the sheets. He’ s smiling from ear to ear. She reaches over his body and grabs her cigarette pack from the night stand.
“ That’ s number seven, if I’ m counting right, ” says Glynn poking fun at Debbie.
“ Fuck it, ” says Debbie. “ I got to smoke after a good hump.”
“ Them things are gonna kill you, you know that.”
“ Honey, screwing like a rabbit is gonna kill me. Don’ t blame the smokes.”
“ Yeah, lung cancer is now a side effect from fucking too much.” Glyn laughs and the roar fills the room. He rubs Debbie’ s little breasts in a playful way.
“ How many girlfriends do you have Glyn?Asks Debbie. “ I’ m curious.”
“ You’ re the only one babe. Nobody else but you.” Glyn tries to talk with a straight face but cannot hold it and ends up giving Debbie a boyish smile.
“ You’ re so full of it, ” says Debbie, her hand resting on Glyn’ s big and dark belly. “ You’ r eprobably screwing half the women in your church plus the whole choir.”
Glyn looks at the ceiling and sighs. He’ s thinking about something, taking his time.
“ No church pussy for me. Too much gossip and too much trouble, ” he says in a half serious tone. “ Plus my wife goes to church with me, and the kids.”
Debbie tries to picture the happy and devoted family in their Sunday’ s best. The picture in her head doesn’ t look right. Her hand slides down to his crotch and grabs his penis and starts to stroke it.
“ Oh poor thing, look at him, so devoted and concerned for the missus and the little ones, ” says Debbie, mocking Glyn.
“ Hey, I have my standards.” He puts his hands behind his head and spreads his legs with a satisfied face. After a short pause he starts talking again. “ I got a few girl friends, you know, nothing serious, here and there, now and then.”
“ Are they any good?” asks Debbie. She looks at him with a pretty smile and her dimples. Her hand is still working on his member, now rather swollen and fighting to get hard.
“ Nothing like you honey. You’ re the best fuck in this town, and I mean it.” And he did.
“ What about you?” asks Glyn. “ You must have a truck load of boyfriends.”
Debbie thinks hard. Boyfriends? What is a boyfriend? Glyn is a fucking friend, literally speaking. She shakes the tree of her memory to see if any boyfriends fall down like mangoes, but nothing comes down. Ex-husbands are easy to pinpoint because there used to be a marriage certificate at the bottom of some drawer and city hall had a copy of it too. They cannot be called boyfriends. Boyfriends, are they paying johns? Are they the bloodsuckers in search of pussy and a free lunch she always had a hard time getting rid off? Was Ken a boyfriend?
Standing on that sidewalk in Dallas and watching him drive away, that had hurt. The money in her hands didn’ t mean a thing. That was the money she had used to get high and drunk and buy the car she used to kill that woman. Great good had that fucking money done. The tears that had rolled down her face, those Ken never saw in his view mirror. Like he was gonna give a damn because she was crying. Nobody ever gave a damn. But she didn’ t and she doesn’ t blame him. Who wants to be the boyfriend of a whore and a junkie?
“ Debbie…?” asks Glyn. “ You’ re too quiet.”
Debbie bends over his waist and puts his almost erected member in her mouth and starts to give him fellatio in a furious way, squeezing hard and making him moan. A whore, of course she is a whore, always been and always will be, that is the nature of the beast, she thinks, that’ s her lot in life, to please men for a few bucks or for a few hours of company, what’ s the difference?
She is sucking so hard that Glyn starts to moan in pain more than in pleasure.
“ Wow!” he shouts. “ You’ re gonna bite it off!”
Debbie stops, his large and swollen member is gagging her. She pulls it out of her mouth and looks at him over his belly. There are tears in her eyes.
“ Debbie, what’ s wrong babe? asks a surprised Glyn. Debbie shakes her head and says, “ Nothing.”
“ Did I say anything I shouldn’ t”
“ Oh, no. It’ s not your fault. It just me, being messed up tonite.” Debbie wipes her face clean.“ I’ m sorry.”
“ Come here, ” says Glyn patting the spot next to him on the bed. “ Sit next to me.” Debbie obeys. He makes her put her head on his big chest.
“ Now, there you are, cry like a baby‘ cause you got a shoulder to cry into.”
And Debbie did.
Billy exits the Colorado ’ s Department of Correction’ s van that brought him to Colfax Avenue in downtown Denver. He is greeted by sunshine and people walking without name tags on their shirts. His personal things are in a small night bag and the prison walls are miles behind in Cañ on City. Prison overcrowding and the fact that he was not serving time for a violent crime let him out before he had served one third of his sentence. Life as a parolee in a halfway house is sweeter than behind bars.
Billy has heard all the sad stories in jail, of how they didn’ t look for trouble but trouble found them. Yeah, right, thinks Billy. He likes trouble, he lives for it. He doesn’ t want to stay out of trouble; he just wants to get away with it. He walks to a pay phone and makes a couple of calls. Trouble has started to stir.
Me sleeping alone in the guest room has relieved some of the household tension between Helen and I. Sharing a bed had been for appearances, to fool ourselves and the world that we were part of a dysfunctional but still standing marriage, with physical contact being the occasional and accidental rubbing of backsides. We watch TV together and now and then make small comments about what comes through the tube while sitting on opposite sides of the couch. We are like the Japanese and avoid looking at each other.
This ain' t married life, or much of a life at all, but it' s all we have. It sounds so easy to say it: get a divorce. All undone in a swift moment and happiness recovered, just like returning unsatisfactory merchandise for a cash return. The true is, I don' t have the balls to go through it, and she doesn' t either. So we watch TV like strangers sitting in a lounge. Dinner time is fast and monosyllabic, if we happen to be at the house at the same time to share a meal. I work long hours on purpose so I don' t have to go home, and she finds excuses to spend time visiting relatives to do the same.
My biggest fear is the shame of calling my son and telling him that his mother and I are going to split. Maybe it is the Catholic in me, or the thought of soiling the memory of my dad' s steadfast loyalty to my mother, a loyalty unperturbed by her death. He kept his love for her until the day he died and I' m sure that his last thought on this earth was one of bliss, knowing that he would soon see her face on the other side.
The old man was old school. He believed in that until death do us apart bit, and beyond. I don' t know what the hell I' m or what I believe in. But the shame is there, having to admit that the last twenty years of my life are a flop, a monumental family failure. My business, the Harley, the big truck, the big house, fuck all that, I failed at being a good husband to my wife, the most elementary of things. This thought of self incrimination comes with a side dish of blame towards Helen; after all, it takes two to make a marriage work. I don' t want to dwell on whose fault it is because it serves no purpose.
The marriage has a broken leg and there it lies in the dust in silent agony and I cannot bring myself to put it out of its misery with a point blank divorce. I' m not sure about Helen' s reasons for putting up with this life. Any other wife would already have run to a lawyer to get her half of the pie. What is she waiting for? Frumpy she, the years have not been kind to her figure, and I have to admit it, She is as dull as anybody can be. Maybe she is afraid of getting fatter and older alone and me sitting on the opposite side of the couch gives her a sense of security. Maybe it is her inability to make a living. The woman has never held a job in her life because I, the provider, have always put food on the table and paid for everything.
But something is gonna give; it has to. This ain' t living right. Either we fix this marriage or we bail out but right now we are standing on no man' s land, exposed and afraid and worried, frozen by our own doubts and inaction. This cannot go on forever.
"Marriage counseling," I said aloud. We are watching Everybody Loves Raymond. I don' t look at her. I just blurt the words out, let them fly out there like a pigeon. After along pause she speaks from her side of the couch, without looking at me.
"Do you have one in mind?"
"No one in particular. There should be a few in the book."
After another long pause she answers.
And that is how it comes that we are now seeing a shrink.
Billy parks the clunker he has borrowed from his buddy outside the Night Owl, back end to the wall, just in case he has to hit the road in a hurry. Billy doesn' t shy away from trouble but he has been around long enough to understand that there is no need to make things harder than they have to be.
He sits at the darkest corner of the bar with his back to the wall and waits for the waitress to come by. There is no chance that his parole officer is going to see him in this joint; the place is too low life for such an upright citizen to show his ugly face here. The waitress comes by and he orders a Bud. Nice ass.
Through the smoke from other patrons and his own he keeps a watch on the bar counter. An old hag with bad hair is tending bar tonight. There is a big black dude cracking jokes and a few other losers sitting at the bar, laughing, probably the regulars ' cause they look too relaxed, like if they were watching TV in their living rooms and scratching their balls. Billy cannot relax. His jail mindset still runs through him, the natural mistrust of anybody and everybody. Even at the halfway house he sleeps with an eye open.
Where is that bitch, Debbie? he asks himself. His info is good. The ex works at this joint. Billy wants to talk to her, wants to get laid. The fact that she got a divorce after his conviction means nothing to him. It is up to him to decide when she has had enough of him, not the other way around. What was the little one-legged cunt thinking? Does she believe she can just dump him like a dried up dog turd and watch him crumble into dust and be blown away by the breeze?Fuck her. He came to get what was his.
His beer is gone and no Debbie yet. The nice ass waitress stops by his table.
"Another one?" she asks when she picks his empty.
"Is Debbie working tonight?"
"No. She' s off."
"Oh," says Billy. "I don' t need another one. I better hit the road."
"You know her?"
"Sure I do," he says. His smile is more of a sneer. "She knows me too."
Nice Ass says nothing. She can feel that the guy is up to no good, and she is happy when his back disappears through the door. She makes a mental note to tell Debbie, just in case he' s some wacko but by tomorrow she won' t remember to tell her anything.
The bastard left a dime for a tip.
Dr. D' Angelo, the shrink, seems like a smart lady and I say that because I think that she is getting the idea that my relationship with Helen is hopeless. Sure, she has talked to both of us one on one and together, probing, advising, and doing the things she is supposed to, but I' m sure we are not fooling her. The patient is way past dead and no amount of cajoling and science is gonna resuscitate the corpse. The doc got the signal and I think she is waiting for the right time to tell us that we fools don' t belong together.
Helen and I are going through the exercises that are supposed to heal our marriage, but I know Helen is doing it half ass and I' m not too far behind. I would like to make a better effort but Helen doesn' t seem to care; yet, she won' t talk about divorce. What the hell does she want from me? Am I supposed to stay by her side like some sort of wooden Indian, lip tight and expressionless but always there to…to what? I don' t get it, and I think that Dr. D' Angelo is trying to get to the bottom of the same puzzle.
I also think it is time to call it quits but I don' t want to give up without at least trying, but simulating that we are when we are not doesn' t do anybody any good. Helen and I still watch TV on opposite ends of the couch, nary a word between us, and I continue to sleep alone in the guest room.
We are not fooling anybody but ourselves. Perhaps even Helen knows that there is no hope and I' m the only one dumb enough to stay in the field holding a pair of pom-poms after the game is over and lost, the ball, the players and the spectators gone. What a pathetic figure I must make standing by myself.
Debbie is running a few glasses through the sink: dip, scrub, rinse, dry, on the shelf upside down. She is drifting into the sounds of tinkling glasses and water dripping between her arms and the anonymous conversation behind her and cannot hear the voice calling to her on the other side of the counter.
“ Yo! Debbie!” the voice says aloud. There is a hint of lost patience in it.
Debbie turns around drying her hands on a rag and freezes when her eyes connect with the face that had spoken. For a few second she is paralyzed with surprise, a feeling that turns to disgust. Billy is sitting across the counter, smiling like he were king of everything, so full of shit as always. While continuing to dry her hands Debbie tries to figure out how in hell she ended up marrying the bastard.
“ Did they let you out or you jumped the fence?” asks Debbie with a hard voice. No dimples for Billy.
“ I’ m glad you’ re so fucking happy to see me.” He sneers.
“ I’ m not. I divorced your ass, remember?”
“ Yeah, what’ s up with that?”
It is Debbie time to reciprocate with a smile of scorn. “ You almost got me involved in your mess. I don’ t need that kind of shit… and I don’ t need you.”
Billy’ s angry eyes try to bring Debbie down a notch or two but they fail. She is staring right back at him. Billy now knows that Debbie is not buying his bullshit anymore; he has lost his power over her. But he is going to try to reassert his control on her, not because he cares for Debbie, or needs her, but because the cunt is too uppity and needs to be taught a thing or two.
“ Give me a beer, ” says Billy in a commanding tone. Debbie points to a sign behind her, under the jar of pig feet, the one that says that the bar can refuse service to anyone at any time. “ Besides, ” she adds, “ if you ain’ t a escapee then you’ re on parole and shouldn’ t be drinking anyway.”
Billy leans over the counter. “ Give me a fucking beer, now.” His eyes are ablaze.
“ Fuck you Billy, I ain’ t your wife no more, ” says Debbie. The bar has fallen silent and all the eyes are on them. She is scared of the man but she is not showing it. She is tired of running from assholes and she has no intentions of running from this one. The law says she owes him nothing, and it is going to stay that way.
Every time something goes sour with a loser boyfriend she ends up packing up and moving away with her clothes and a handful of cash but this time she has determined that she is not going anywhere. She thought about Billy coming back some day, not this soon though, but someday, and he being the asshole he always was. She had already made her mind not to run away. Fuck that. She was getting too old and tired to move to a new city and start from scratch, and for what? To meet another loser and end up in a bus running away again. Not this time. Billy and his kind can fuck themselves, and she means it. She is scared and she is also mad. She has built herself a little life of her own, a little miserable life, with her two cats and her tiny place and her beat up Geo, but all hers, with nobody sponging off her, using her as a private whore, using her labors to live like bums. This time she is staying put.
Billy reaches across the counter and grabs Debbie by her hair. “ You little shit, ” he says in a low but angry voice. “ Don’ t you talk to me like that, ever.”
Debbie answers by grabbing a bottle of Don Q rum by the neck from below the counter and swinging it against the side of his head. Billy sees it coming, releases Debbie’ s hair and jumps back just in time to see the bottom of the bottle whoosh pass his face. Debbie is standing with the bottle raised over her head.
“ Come on you mother fucker! Try to touch me again, you asshole.” Debbie’ s heart is beating so hard it’ s coming out of her mouth. Her hand and the bottle are shaking but she stands her ground and her eyes are set on Billy who stands on the other side of the counter, aware that the bar regulars are now around him, and they don’ t look like a friendly bunch. He surmises that Debbie must be a popular bar wench. A half crooked smile comes across his lips.
“ I want no trouble honey…”
“ No, you don’ t, ” retorts Debbie. “ You’ re on parole. A phone call and you are back in fucking jail.”
“ Don’ t you threaten me, you…”
“ What? Get your ass out of here before I call the cops.”
Billy looks around. The regulars are around him, some of them holding long neck beer bottles in their hands. Debbie has put her bottle down but now is holding a cell phone, her thumb on the keypad. Billy knows when it is time to fold them; this is not his hand. Maybe next time around.
“ I will be seeing you, ” he says a she leaves. There is scorn in his voice.
“ I sure hope not, ” says Debbie. “ I don’ t want to see your ugly mug ever again.” Her voice is full of bravado but her knees are shaking.
After Billy leaves, followed by a few patrons that want to make sure he is indeed gone and not just sitting in the parking lot, the rest of the patrons gather at the counter in front of Debbie and ask who the jerk was and Debbie says he is her ex just out of jail. Free advice dispensed over a bar counter can cross it either way and Debbie hears all kinds of solutions to her problem, from hiring a hit man to getting a restraining order and everything in between. But not a single of the drunks and down in their luck hard cases in front of her tells her to pack her things and run. Maybe she is not off the mark in her decision to stay where she is. Or maybe that is why they sit on the other side of the counter every night, because once upon a time they had decided to stay put and fight, and they had lost the fight.
A closing time she has a few of the regulars escort her to her car. She goes home using a convoluted path, constantly checking on her view mirror for suspicious headlights. She circles the police station parking lot and stops there for a few minutes but no car with Billy in it drives by. At her place she parks under a light and then runs with a limp to her apartment, closes and dead bolts the door behind her. Ernie and Munch greet her. She grabs them and sits on her worn out couch and she cries.
She has so little, why can’ t she live in peace?
Ken parks his truck on the new parking lot. The sun has just sunk behind the Rockies and the saffron sunset lights that had been filtering through the DTC buildings and trees had gone off as if somebody had pulled a switch. The shadows to follow infuse a gloom to the surroundings as he walks into the lobby of the just built concrete and glass structure, the home of a new dot com venture.
He’ s wearing a sport jacket and a shirt with no tie. Before entering the building he turns back and inspects the grounds and the landscape that his crew and he have created. A smile of satisfaction lights his face; a job well done. Grass, shrubs, trees, sprinklers and drainage, those are the only things he looks forward to these days, and he is grateful he has something to look forward to other than going home and having to deal with Helen.
The developer has invited him to the inaugural bash. It is good for business to do some networking with architects and builders who can see his handy work right out of the window. There will be free food and drinks, and some pleasant conversation, and that may include talking to females. He is not looking for a relationship, but he feels that talking to other women is uplifting after not being able to communicate with his wife. It gives him proof that he can still talk, and be understood, by the opposite sex, qualities he comes to doubt when in Helen’ s presence.
He enters the lobby and walks through marble hallways to reach a room full of people. He puts on his best smile and jumps right in, ready to mingle, leaving his worries at the threshold. This is the time to look perky.
Time passes by Ken, a pleasant going of minutes devoid of marital preoccupations. People praise his landscaping. He knows his art is only dirt and shrubs and water pipes bundled by a carpet of grass but the good words uplift his spirit, and it doesn’ t take much to do that because his spirit has hit skid row in the last weeks. Not even Dr. D’ Angelo with her wisdom and science has been able to fix things. But he doesn’ t want to think about that so here focuses on the people at hand and relights his smile.
“ Do you want a lime with that Corona, hon?”
The female voice comes from behind him, where the wet bar is. The honchimes in his head like reverberations of things past. He turns around and there is this woman in a white shirt serving drinks behind the bar. Her hair is in a pony tail. She smiles at the man in front of her and pretty dimples form on her face. So pretty they are, Ken thinks, they make her look so cute…
And they are walking on the beach again with the surf licking their feet. The breeze blows her hair across her face and she smiles, the pretties of smiles he has ever seen. So young and so carefree both are, walking side by side as if the beach could go on forever and they could do likewise, laughing and just enjoying each other in a silly way…
There is the fear of eminent confrontation, a fear drowned by adrenaline, and a short lived fear it is. That fear is manageable as far as Debbie knows from her experiences. The fear of being jumped from behind, of being stalked like a deer in the woods, that fear doesn' t get her heart thumping like a drum major in a parade but disturbs her every minute of the day. Living looking over her shoulder is as unpleasant as living atop a dynamite factory that mayor not may blow up and the constant fear wears her out, frays her nerves and makes them hypersensitive to things that didn' t use to bother her before, like noises in the night outside her door.
She is sure that Billy is a parolee, even if he never admitted to it. Dropping a dime on him may work. Grabbing her hair and threatening her in public amounts to physical assault and harassment. That would be enough to get his parole revoked. On the other hand, she doesn' t want to piss him off and make things worst. If he runs out on his parole officer and there is a warrant for him, he will have nothing to lose and he may become more dangerous.
She is on her cell phone on her way to work. Coming out of her place and walking to her car had been frightening. She senses that Billy is up to no good. A jilted man like himself will want to reassure his manhood by force; Debbie knows the type well, but damn it, she is not going to run away this time. She has called Glyn, a thing she has never done before even though she has had his phone for months now. She doesn' t like to use the phone to chatter; if she has something to say, she would rather see the person face to face. Glyn knows it too so he understands right away that something must be amiss for Debbie to be calling him on his cell.
Debbie recites the happenings at the Night Owl two nights ago, and the history behind Billy. She swallows and says," Glyn, the shit is going to hit the fan sooner than later, and I need your help."
"Sure. I can get a few of my homies and we can roll him pretty good, if that is what you think will work."
Debbie laughs. "Oh please, don' t get yourself in trouble. He isn' t worth it."
"Listen," Debbie says after a pause. "Other than hiring a bodyguard, I have no way of protecting myself."
"Yes…," says Glyn to follow Debbie' s silence. Debbie hesitates but then speaks again.
"I need a piece Glyn. The fucker is gonna jump me when I' m alone. That' s the way the bastard operates."
"Babe, that I can get."
"I' ll pay you for it but you need to make sure it cannot be traced back to you, and I mean that."
"Hey, if you ain' t gonna stick up a liquor store with it, it will be no problem," says Glynn. "You know, self defense is a valid reason for shooting somebody."
"It' s not that Glyn… I' m a… I' m a convicted felon and I cannot own a gun. If something happens I don' t want the cops knocking on your door asking why you gave a piece to a felon."
After a short pause Glyn comes back on the phone," Good Lord girl! I knew you were a tough case and now you' re gonna be packing heat." He laughs loud and long.
"Glyn, just don' t piss me off," says Debbie, also laughing."And please, get me a snub nose revolver or a small semiautomatic but not twenty-two' s. I got small hands and I can' t shoot a big gun, plus it has to fit in my purse or under my shirt."
"Jesus, you even know your weapons," says Glyn. "Iain' t messing with you again." His laugh is the last thing Debbie hears befores she hangs up.
Debbie puts the cell phone away in her purse and prays that she will never have to use the gun, that Billy will go away and never return, that her little life can be hers again. Still, now she will have to carry an unlicensed concealed weapon on her, into a bar. Fucking Billy, she is getting set up for trouble, she thinks, but she ain' trunning again. If the shit hits the fan, let most of it fall on him, and she doesn' t mind a little splatter on herself if it comes to it.
I got up that morning thinking that my so called life with Helen was the center of my universe and I went to bed that same day with my head filled with the idea that the woman serving drinks at the DTC party was Debbie, and Helen and her bullshit took a step back and sank into the darkness where things of no consequence rot into oblivion.
But all things are relative; I’ m sure that many people got up that same morning with their own problems and by bedtime they were dead. At that point their former problems were truly irrelevant. I wasn’ t dead so I can be thankful for that. This may seem like a extreme comparison but it is one that works for me and lets me handle what seems to be unsurmountable problems by realizing that to the next guy, they mean nothing, that to the world they mean squat, that only in my head do they amount to anything.
I took a good look at her; hell, I just stared at her in a way that could be considered rude. I know she caught up with my abnormal and unprovoked attention but she did a good job of ignoring me, busy as she was doing her job.
She had to be Debbie, I don’ t know why, but she had to be.
The moment that I linked the stranger to Debbie, my life ceased to be like it had been until then and I cannot explain why. I want to say this though, I’ m not sure if she was Debbie. Come on, the last time I saw her was over twenty years ago, and she had a swollen face from the beating she took in Atlanta. but the face at the party had those Debbie like smiling dimples, and that face, older of course but yet the same, was the one that I remember from walking on the beach and cheap motel rooms and having dinner atAl’ s Dinner.
Until that moment, I could have not told a sketch artist what Debbie looked like even if my life had been at stake, and the excuse that I haven’ t seen her in over twenty years would have been a reasonable one. But seeing her that night was like the smell of old things, that smell that shocks the brain into a explosion of memories fulls of images and textures that until then had been buried so deep in the archives of time that they may as well never existed.
Seeing her took me back in time over twenty years, and there I stood at that party, skinny, long haired, wearing a dirty apron and a paper hat, flat broke but still hopeful for a good future. The last twenty years of my life disappeared like a bad dream and I was sure if I had walked to the parking lot, it would have been a hot and muggy Florida night and my old clunker would be parked under lights surrounded by a cloud of crazed bugs.
Such a brief span of time, a blink of an eye, and like stepping out of a time machine, you are who you used to be. The consequences of such a short moment still linger in me like the aftershocks from an earthquake. I got jolted into remembering things that I had given for long dead and forgotten but which now are here, thrown into my lifelike unearthed corpses, and those corpses are disturbingly alive and fresh as if they had been kept fresh in another dimension and not buried under layers of time and forced forgetfulness.
I looked at her from different angles, from varying distances. Sometimes I stared at her and other times I looked at her askance. No matter how I did it, she was Debbie all right. Despite all my observations and the constant self assurances that she was Debbie, I didn’ t have the guts to approach her.
Why not? It beats me. I can’ t figure it out. Perhaps I was afraid of finding out that she was not Debbie. Perhaps I was afraid of confirming that she was indeed Debbie. Perhaps I was afraid of making a fool out of myself regardless of she being or not being Debbie. Had she been her, what could I have told her? Would she even remember me? Perhaps she remembers the john and the drug dealer who almost got whacked, who gave her money and then left her standing on a Dallas sidewalk, but she wouldn’ t remember me as Ken.
I toss alone at night. I find myself daydreaming during the day, always mulling in my head if she was or was not Debbie, thinking about what if’ s and what could have been and then I hate myself for being such a fool, a coward, a loser. I try to forget but her image, both her images, the old and the new, come to my mind and dislodge any common sense I had succeeded into getting crammed in there.
Debbie comes from work and parks her Geo under the light next to the laundry room. It is a longer walk to her apartment but at least her car is not in the dark, and she can see what is around her. Before she leaves her car she takes the thirty-eight Special revolver out of her purse and puts it in the right pocket of her jacket.
A few days back Glyn and her had stepped out the back of the Night Owl where a rusted Dumpster stunk to high heavens. He stood in front of her, put one hand into each pocket of his over sized jacket and pulled them out at the same time. In one hand he had a small silver semiautomatic with wooden grips and in the other he had the blue snub nose with rubber grips.
“ Which one do you like better?” he asked.
Without much hesitation Debbie chose the revolver. Simplicity and reliability before anything else, she thought.
“ The lady knows her hardware, ” said Glyn with a smile.
“ Thank you. How much do I owe you, ” said Debbie.
“ Nothing. It’ s on me.”
“ Come on, this thing is not cheap.”
Glyn had refused to take any money from her, and had given her a half full box of shells.
Debbie walks through the parking lot with her hand in her pocket and her eyes scanning her surroundings. It’ s hard to live like this, she thinks, but it’ s better than being caught unaware and defenseless. She climbs the stairs and peeks around each corner before moving forward. When she reaches her apartment, she realizes something is not right.
Her door is half open, and the lock is broken amid splinters.
She freezes in place and her hand closes its grip around the revolver. She wants to run downstairs but then what? Call the cops and wait. She is not running, she reminds herself. Right before she turns back down the stairs she remembers her cats. Ernie and Munch!She cannot leave them in there. Her hand comes out of her pocket with the revolver. She approaches the ajar door and pushes it open with her prosthesis, both hands now holding onto the raised revolver.
Once inside, she cannot recognize her own place because it has been vandalized with the single-mindedness of the obsessed. Not a single piece of furniture has escaped unscathed. Her clothes are ripped and scattered everywhere. Her TV has a hole in the screen. The couch is ripped open and its stuffing lies everywhere.
She moves with slow but sure steps, revolver at the ready. There is no noise inside the apartment. Now and then she stops and spins around to check her back, then listens for any clues of an intruder or her pets. Nothing. Her cooking pots are on the floor. She smells piss! They are full of urine.
In her mind there is no doubt, Billy had been here. He had found out where she lived and had come to leave his calling card. Her stomach gets sick at the sight of what once had been sweet home, not much of a place but her place, now soiled beyond repair.
Even the toilet and the sink in the bathroom are broken. By now Debbie is sure that Billy is gone. Where are Munch and Ernie? She calls them but nothing breaks the eerie silence. She steps out of the apartment and puts the revolver back in her pocket. Using her cellphone she calls 911 and awaits for the cops while calling for Munch and Ernie aloud from the balcony, her voice falling on the parking lot. She’ s ready to burst out crying for her pets. Where are they?
Ken drives northbound on I-25 towards Denver. The raising sun appears over the horizon to illuminate grassy plains that flare in gold and roll away from both sides of the highway. A freight train like a rosary of coal beads moves south along shiny tracks. The hum of the engine and the tires on the pavement sooth Ken and he thinks of nothing; he just admires the open landscape and he enjoys the blank space in his mind.
Having decided to be on the highway had not been an easy decision. It had been an unavoidable decision but one that he had finally acquiesced with after spinning it in his head for days, always knowing he would do it but trying to fool himself into believing he wouldn’ t do it.
He had left the party at DTC without talking to Debbie, or the stranger that looked like Debbie. In his gut he knows she is Debbie but in his head he tries to maintain the logic that a stranger is such until proven otherwise. In leaving the building that night he had noticed the catering van and the name of the catering company written on it. Phone book in hand, he had searched for the name and had found out their closest location to DTC. His hunch was that the caterers had come from this location.
This was the logical part of his search. The crazy part would come next with him sitting in his truck by this location to watch workers come and go, hoping to catch Debbie. The next part of his plan did not exist. Ken had no clue what to do if he ever saw the woman again. He had made it this far and knowing what to do next would have to come to him like a bolt of lightning from nowhere because he doesn’ t have the will to think about it.
He would pull the next move out of his ass, he had thought and that had been enough for him to start his journey in search of something, a something he was not sure what it was or what it would turn out to be.
Debbie sits in a cheap motel room with Ernie in her lap. The vet said he will be OK and that the limp in his front right leg will be temporary; there are no broken bones or torn tendons. After the cops came the next door neighbor, a sour lady whom Debbie didn' t use to care much for, stopped by to say that she had seen one of her cats by the trash bin. She recognized the cat as one of the two that was always catching the sun on Debbie' s window ledge. Debbie thinks that you cannot judge people until things turn bad, then their true selfs will reveal themselves. The sour lady, Bernice is her name, went to the trash bin with her and helped her get Ernie back. He was shocked and hiding and it took a great deal of cajoling and patience to get him to come out of the hole he had escaped to. And the vet too; he didn' t want to charge her for taking care of Ernie. "You already had a shitty enough day," he had said. Debbie also thinks that for every few nice people on Earth there always is an asshole ready to make life unpleasant for others.
Her tears fall on Ernie' s fur. He purrs but Debbie can feel the nervousness still scurrying under his skin. The noise from a loud TV next door comes through the thin walls. Traffic noise filters through the windows. The lady cop had come out of the apartment and had said to her," sorry ma' am, your cat is dead." Debbie felt her hearth break and fall to the ground in pieces. "We found its body under what was left of the couch. It was stabbed." The vet hadn’ t charged her for disposing of Munch’ s body either.
Her place had been throughly destroyed together with all her belongings. She drove to the motel in her Geo with the clothes in her back, the cash she had recovered from its hidden place under the bathroom sink' s counter, Ernie, her cell phone and her revolver. The cops had shaken their head in disbelief at the destruction and the meanness behind it, and Debbie thinks that they believed every word she told them, and they should because she spoke the truth, and Debbie also believes that the cops were mighty pissed off at whoever had destroyed her place. She told them about Billy, about him coming to the bar and attacking her, and about his threats, and she also gave the cops his date of birth. She can’ t figure out why she still remembers his birthday. He never remembered hers, and nobody before Billy did either.
The cops called the dispatcher with Billy’ s name and D.O.B. And true enough, Billy was a parolee just released from jail. Now the cops and his parole officer are looking for him, and he has bolted out of the halfway house in violation of the terms of his parole. One way or another he is going back to Canon City.
That' s what worries Debbie, one way or another; the bastard know she' s a wanted man and who knows what his sick mind will be capable of doing. Debbie thinks of Billy as a cornered madman with a sharp butcher knife in his shaky hand and a heart full of hate towards her. The motel room is both a hiding place and the only roof over her head she can afford; she cannot stomach to see the shambles of what once had been her place, a peaceful oasis for her and the cats, now in ruins and profaned by Billy' s madness. The landlord said he can have the bathroom and the kitchen fixed by the end of the week but Debbie is not willing to go back to what once had been her place. Munch’ s blood on the carpet and Billy’ s piss on the kitchen is too much to take.
Tears and sobs are subdued but each one causes her great pain. She rocks back and forth on her chair, hugging Ernie with his bandaged leg. Her revolver is by her side. Dark thoughts of revenge lurk inside her head.
I wonder how long it will be before the cops show up and cite me for loitering in this parking lot. This is the third day in a row that I spend in my truck watching caterers and drivers getting in and out of the business across the parking lot. I’ m now running my affairs from the cab of my truck using my cell phone but I wonder how long I will be able to keep it up. Now and then I take a drive to the Taco Bell in the gas station on the other side of the street and walk around for a while, but then I have this urge to come back to my observation post, an urge that fools me into thinking that Debbie is going to show up just when I turn my back or I’ m having a burrito.
Sitting on my butt is new to me and the free time is rather handy at filling my head with doubts, admonitions, wild dreams and all kind of garbage that does nothing to let me think straight. For starters, what the hell I’ m doing? Even if I were to see Debbie, or the woman I think is Debbie, walking across the parking lot, what am I supposed to do?
She didn’ t recognize me at the party, or if she did she paid no attention. Maybe she didn’ t recognize me because she wasn’ t Debbie. Maybe she doesn’ t work here but somewhere else, or she quit and is now hooking on Colfax, doing what she does best.
I chastise myself for having such thoughts. I, better than anybody, should know what it is like to have made mistakes in younger years and then having to live with them everyday, and no matter how straight and trouble free your life had been since then, they still haunt you and people expect you to fuck up again because that is you, the loser that will always be a loser. But if I got my shit together, so could have Debbie. I know that my marriage is not worth the paper the marriage license is written on but I’ m not living under abridge and I haven’ t seen the inside a jail since the Feds let me out over twenty years ago. There is no such thing as a perfect life, and when I think somebody has a perfect life, that somebody ends up in rehab or committing suicide.
Day and night I ask myself why I want to see Debbie, why I’ m pursuing a woman who may not be who I think she is, and if she is, she may not be the person I used to know over twenty years ago. Perhaps I’ m not chasing after a woman but after a past that is gone, after my wasted youth, acting under the pretense that if I somehow connect with this person, I will have my wasted years back.
What a crock of shit, like if by meeting this woman, this obsession of mine, life would become what it should have been but it is not. I get exasperated with these thoughts. Bad karma I call them. I try to think positive, but what can be positive about sitting in a truck slurping oversized drinks and eating Slim Jims while waiting for…waiting for Godoth.
Her life is upside down. The way she sees it, she has two choices. Run with her cat and the few clothes she has bought in the last few days, or stay and live her life where and how she wants to. The first option is the less stressful in the short run. Debbie finds the idea of starting anew again not very palatable and as a matter of principle, unacceptable. But staying put, God, that is not easy either.
She has to toughen up, she sees no other choice. Enough of running, of cowering and crawling for the next exit. Debbie lives like a gunslinger, with her revolver by her side day and night, loaded and at the ready. She takes her showers with it inside a sandwich bag so it is next to her. She sits on the toilet with it in her lap and goes to bed with it under her pillow, her hand next to it. She bought anew box of shells with more powerful hollow point bullets; the new ammo is now loaded, and she cleans her revolver every day with an Teflon coated rag. She now has a clip holster for it and she wears it at her waist. Her life depends on her preparedness. Funny, she thinks, after all that time she had spent with drug dealers and other assorted scum, she had come to learn by osmosis how to live under the gun, a skill she once thought she would never have a use for.
There is price to pay though. The stress of sleeping with one eye closed and one open, of driving while checking every car behind to make sure Billy is not following her, of walking with her back towards the wall and her eyes scanning every shadow, her ears listening for the slightest of sounds that may warn her of approaching danger, of living like a paid assassin with a contract on her head, that stress tires her and robs her of any peace.
A detective called her, asked her a few questions about Billy, told her they are looking for him. If caught he’ s going back for parole violation plus a few new charges such as assaulting her at the bar. If they can prove he trashed her place, they will nail him for that too. Be careful and watch your back, had said the detective before he hung up. A very pleasant voice, Debbie had thought, but the message had been clear, she needed to watch her back.
She parks her car between Maria and Ana’ s. She takes a good look around before getting out and stars walking towards the catering business employee door. The revolver weighs on her waist, clipped to the inside of her pants. She wears a too long and loose shirt to hide the revolver’ s bulge and its grip. She hopes that nobody at work will notice it. If they do, tough tities. She doesn’ t want to get fired, but she doesn’ t want to be without her gun. Many times a day she wonders if it is worth staying, if it is worth living like this. Next thing she will be wearing body armor, and a back up piece wrapped around her ankle, and she is a convicted felon without a carry permit.
“ Debbie!” a voice calls from behind, an unknown voice. She turns around fast and her hand is behind her back and under her shirt, touching the revolver’ s grip. A middle age man is approaching. She doesn’ t recognize him but he’ s smiling; still, she doesn’ t let her guard down and her hand is on her piece.
“ Debbie?” the man says, asks, and he looks at her with what she thinks are weird eyes.
“ Yes?” says Debbie, squinting to see if there is a ruse behind this encounter. Her eyes dart to the side, she looks over her shoulder. Anybody ready to jump her from the sides, from behind?
The man is now standing in front of her with a stupid look on his face but still smiling. Debbie’ s hand has pulled the revolver half way out of its holster.
“ Debbie, it’ s me, Ken.”
Debbie doesn’ t recognize him, doesn’ t remember the name, not under the stressful circumstances she is living. In a better day, perhaps she would have made the connection.
“ Ken, from Daytona Beach… and Atlanta… and Dallas… the fly boy.” He smiles like a dupe, a hopeful one, as if he were looking at what cannot be real. In Debbie’ s head memories flood and whirl inside; she feels dizzy but then gains her composure although her legs feel like rubber. Her revolver goes back into the holster.
The way Billy sees it, he can get away with it not because the cops don' t know who did it, but because they can' t prove a thing. He has been through the system enough times to understand how it clicks, or it doesn' t. He doesn’ t doubt that everybody knows he trashed Debbie' s place but he is also sure he left no clues behind to tie him to the deed. Fucking cops can' t touch him. He jumped parole, that' s true, but once he' s out of the state, even if caught, Colorado doesn' t have the money to pay for his extradition so they will let him walk. A small fish like him is not worth the time and the money involved. Nothing is ever set in stone, as the cliche says, but Billy is convinced the odds are that he will never set foot in Colorado again, at least not in handcuffs.
Debbie, that stupid cunt, Billy thinks while smoking in bed, he needs to let her have it.
The place stinks of urine on the sheets and rotten wood under the bed but none of it bothers him. The parting shot has to be a good one because after Debbie is dealt with he will hit the highway and won' t stop until he’ s well on the other side of the state line. There won' t be a second chance to fix a botched job. A gloomy end of day light filters through the dusty windows. The traffic noise from Colfax Avenue comes in strong but doesn' t bother him either. It is like being in his cell in Canon City, in perfect mental isolation despite the crowded halls and corridors and their rackets. Here or there, Billy thinks, what difference does it make? Here I' m free, but free to do what?
His mind goes back to Debbie. Divorcing his ass like that, what the hell was she thinking? Getting the divorce papers in jail via a messenger, and having his jail buddies laughing at him, about how his old lady must be screwing the whole neighborhood by now, giving head for free to anybody who dropped his pants in front of her face, that had pissed him off a great deal. He had ended in a fist fight and in solitary confinement. When he came out, nobody was laughing at his face, but he knew they were at his back. For better or for worse, those had been the preacher' s words at their alcohol propelled wedding but the little bitch had bailed out on him. Now it is payback time.
Billy chain smokes. Knife. Gun. Bare knuckles. Acid. Hit and run. Rape. Steel toe boots. One thing is for sure, he wants to hurt her but doesn' t want to kill her. Murder makes the unwieldy apparatus of justice shift its ponderous weight against the perpetrator but a good beating, even though it is a felony, at the end it' s just that, a good beating, quickly forgotten by an overloaded judicial system. He will be a person of interest, he even may become a suspect, but if he leaves no evidence and removes himself from sight for a prudent time, the cops can go fuck themselves. The stupid cunt will have to live with her mangled body and her anger and he will be laughing off somewhere.
As those signs on trail heads read, Leave no trace. Gun, rape, knife, bare knuckles, too messy, too lethal, DNA left behind; they won' t work. After a while Billy runs out of cigarettes so he gets up and leaves without bothering to luck the door. He returns hours later smelling of alcohol and with a baseball bat in his hand. He drops it on the floor next to his bed. From his jacket he pulls out a ski mask and drops it next to the bat. He takes his jacket and gloves off, drop son bed face down and in a couple of minutes his snores and farts fill his hiding hole.
Debbie packs cold sandwiches wrapped in cellophane into card board boxes. Her movements are automated, her body doing one thing and her mind being elsewhere: Ken, out of all people, had to show up in the middle of her crisis. She had almost pulled the gun on him. Only after he had identified himself she had seen the young Ken of years ago, hiding under the middle aged, hair receding, love handle equipped man standing in from of her. He had that look of stunned surprise, as if he had seen a long lost dog come home when it had been given for dead. She was sure she had had that same look on her face.
There had been awkwardness and confusion in her head, in her actions, a feeling akin to stepping out of her motel room and instead of landing on the expected soiled concrete breezeway, finding herself standing at the peak of Mount Everest looking at a world of snow and mountains under a deep blue sky. She didn' t know what to say or what to do. Ken didn' t seem too assured of himself either. He, Debbie had the feeling, was standing at his own unexpected summit, his toes hanging in the air past the solid edge of a shear cliff with his back to a cold mountain.
He had taken the plunge and had stepped forward, closer to her, and his arms had reached for her, and she had backed off like a released coiled spring, more out of instinct than out of her volition, and that step backward had frozen him in place, the smile on his face transformed in pure disappointment. Why had she done that? She can' t say. This Billy thing is making her behave like a scared rabbit, a rabbit with a gun. From their stand off positions they had talked to each other.
"Ken, is that you?" she had asked. "I can' t believe it."
"Yes, it' s me," had been his answer. Seconds that stretched like long minutes had gone by before the conversation had started again.
"How did you find me?"
"You catered an evening party and I was a guest. Pure coincidence."
The awkwardness wouldn' t go away. The silences grew longer. The whirling thoughts could not be reigned upon. It was time for a truce, a time to regroup and come back with more coherent words.
"Listen," said Debbie. "I' m late for work." She rummaged through her purse and on a piece of paper wrote down the name Night Owland its address; she stopped to think for a second, then added the bar' s phone number. She didn' t give her cell number to anybody, not even to Ken, or this guy who claimed to be Ken.
"Here is my night job place. Please stop by." Debbie was not sure for what, not at the moment. Now that she is stuffing boxes with cold sandwiches, she is glad that she gave Ken that piece of paper.
"Tonight?" said Ken.
That had been it. She ran back into the building and never looked back. She was afraid of stopping, looking back and then having her rubber legs collapse under her, exposing her emotional shocked state. She had learn not to show her weakness to others because that is where they pounce, eager to draw the most blood and pain.
As the morning grows old Debbie' s memories assault her mind. She doesn' t know if to smile or to be afraid. Questions pile inside her head like fish on a dock coming out of a big trawler, heap after heap, and no answers. Whys and hows and whats come and go and she has no clue what the answers are. At times she thinks that the parking lot meeting didn’ t' happen, that her head is playing tricks on her. He may not show up at the Night Owl, or he may loose that piece of paper, or he may die on his way to see her. Stupid thoughts she thinks, but they don' t go away; instead, they multiply.
She realizes that she had acted cold towards Ken, and that he had been taken aback by her standoffish stance but she had been caught unawares, and had reacted under the rule of the gun which now controlled her life: watch your back first, worry about others' feelings later. She knew it but he didn' t. Maybe he thought he got the cold shoulder and would never bother to try to see her again. If so, what the hell does she care? But she cares; she cannot fool herself. She cares, she wants to see him, wants his arms around her, just like in the beach, just like in their cheap motel rooms full of youth and indolence.
Who is she fooling? She was a whore, and this older Ken came back for more of the same, pussy for hire, came to see if she is still available for a few bucks. She slams sandwiches into the boxes. He probably has a fat wife at home and wants some side action.
Too much trouble, thinks Debbie; Ken is going through too much trouble to just get laid. Colfax is full of young pussy for hire, why her? Maybe he' s afraid of cops, of getting nabbed as a john. She doesn' t know. At times she slams sandwiches into the boxes and other times she has a blissful smile as if she were seeing the image of the Virgin Mary reflected on the walls, smiling back at her.
"Yo, Debbie," says Maria. She is standing next to Ana and both look at Debbie with curious faces.
"You don' t seem to be all there," says Maria tapping her head. "You' re too quiet. You' re giving us the creeps, you know."
"Sorry, I just… I just have a few worries."
She is back in reality mode. She checks her surroundings, feels the gun under her shirt, its hardness, and reminds herself not to let her guard down. Ken or no Ken, she has to watch her back, always.
What was I expecting to happen? Fireworks? Fiddles playing on the background? A big wet kiss and my fucking lousy life fixed for good and for ever? All I did was scare the hell out of her, moving on her like a big and clumsy clod expecting a warm embrace and she jumping away as if I were Frankenstein reincarnated. Instead of walking away happy I did it embarrassed to death. I don' t know what I was thinking. After twenty years I' m nothing but a stranger, a fleshed memory, a memory that perhaps she wants to forget, that of a paying customer, that of a witness to the Atlanta incident, that of the jerk who left her standing alone on a Dallas sidewalk.
I look at the piece of paper she gave me, with its round and childish calligraphy. I drove by the place, just out of curiosity, and what a dump it is. One of those dives that cater to the local alcoholics and unemployed, to the spent and rat race dropouts. Well, what the hell had I expected? A damned yuppie bar in a fancy location with a parking lot full of Lexuses? That' s Debbie, a street creature, as gritty as dry coarse sand paper, and she feels at home among her people.
The day I left her standing on Dallas, I didn' t leave her because of her past, because of her capability to pull a trigger and empty a gun in a scum bag who was trying to kill me. I ran away from her addictions. A junkie is two people, the one you love and the one who tries to destroy both you and the person you love. It' s a deadly love triangle where the addicted persona has the upper hand. The only way out is to kill the addicted persona, and the one you love may not have the will to do it, and if she tries, it may cost her her life. I' m sorry, but that' s not living. I’ m too much of a coward and that day in Dallas I ran out on her. Regrets? I don’ t know; perhaps it was the right thing to do, but the what if question has never ceased bothering me.
That was over twenty years ago. Debbie is still alive and is holding two jobs that I know of. A junkie cannot last that long, cannot hold a job. Holding two, even if one is serving drunks at a dive, is beyond a junkie' s capability. She has to be clean, or maybe she has reached a compromise with her addicted side and somehow both manage to survive in the same body. That wouldn' t beyond Debbie because I have to admit, she is tough and she isn' t dumb.
I don' t know why I worry. She is not my problem and it is obvious that she doesn' t see me as anything other than a dolt who came out of nowhere to startle her. I drive my truck in circles. I stop at the gas station' s Taco Bell and sit on a booth until my butt feels the pain of supporting my fat head. The paper she gave me is getting dogeared. I ran my fingers over it as if I could feel her skin under my fingertips by doing so. I smell the paper and it smells like paper. Surprise. Still, I want to catch the smell of her hair, that smell mixed with salt and wind.
I' m a dupe. I' m not a kid anymore but here I' m, acting like a pussy whipped teenager, chasing after memories that no longer held up against reality, that never did. She is probably laughing at me now, or wondering how she can get rid of me. I think that I should head back home, but I don' t have a home. I have a house with a woman in it who is the mother of my son, but that is not home. If this thing is a joke, may as well see it to the end and maybe I can make sense of the punch line. I suspect the joke is going to be on me, but I don' t care.
She did gave me the paper, so maybe she does want to see me again, perhaps more out of curiosity than anything. Knowing Debbie, she would have told me to go to hell on the spot if she really didn’ t want to see my mug again. The more I think about these things, the more confused I get. I' m going back to the Springs to take care of my business. I will come back later tonight to stop by the Night Owl. Or maybe not. I truly don' t know what the fuck I' m doing.
Ken walks into the bar not knowing what to expect. His landscaping crew could blend with the rough looking patrons and he is not surprised at that. It is Debbie that worries him, that intrigues him. Is she going to give him the cold shoulder? Is she gonna have the bouncer kick his ass right back to the parking lot? Is she even here?That would be a good joke, give him this address and she doesn’ t working here. At least it is not a gay bar, from what he can see so far. That would have been a good one too.
The ambiance light come mostly from garish beer signs hung over all walls and the Rockolla that is now playing ZZ Top. There is no TV but plenty of smoke and subdued conversations and the occasional laugh. It has been a long time since Ken has been in such a place, too busy making a living to live a life he thought he had left decades ago.
She is behind the bar filling two mugs from the tap. Once done, she carries them to one end of the bar where two biker guys are sitting. They don' t look like accountants posing as bad ass bikers but are the real thing. Ken is sure they even smell bad, like rancid leather. So far so good; she wasn' t bullshitting him. Ken sits at the opposite end of the bar and watches as Debbie is talking with the bikers, getting their money and coming to the cash register. She sees him and her pretty smile flashes and Ken feels he' s melting on his stool. Damn, he thinks, that smile, he gets shivers up his spine. It is like he has regressed twenty years and… his common sense tries to reign upon his memories. Don' t be such a fool, he tells himself. She' s just trying to be polite.
Her back is now to him because she is giving the bikers their change. Skinny she is, and her little ass looks firm. Perhaps there is more sag to her shoulders than he remembers, but everything, even her hair, looks the same. Ken' s member starts to swell in his pants and he is both embarrassed and incredulous at his physical response. That' s what he needs, he thinks as a sarcasm, his dick doing the talking for him. He is still wiggling on his stool when Debbie turns around and walks toward him.
"Hi there," she says. Ken can now see her smiling dimples.
"Hi Debbie." He smiles too, but he' s not sure if he is doing a good job of it.
"I was wondering if you were going to show up."
"And I was wondering if you were going to be here."
They look at each other, as if double checking that they were who they claimed to be.
"Anything to drink?" asks Debbie.
"A Bud will do."
"Tap or bottle?"
While Debbie fills the mug, Ken notices that his hands are shaking. What a fool he is, he admonishes himself; she' s just an old acquaintance, one who went to bed with him many a time, one who shot a man to save him, one that looked at him with eyes that spoke of a desire he doesn' t understand. Stop, he says to himself, don' t be such an idiot. Debbie comes back with the full mug. They make small talk, what have you been up to lately, where do you live and so on, polite conversation that skirts what they want to say to each other but they don' t know how. Debbie goes off to serve customers and to take care of the waitresses. Ken is glad for the breaks that let him gather his thoughts, and Debbie is too. Ken cannot see any needle marks on her arms. Debbie noticed his eyes inspecting her for needle scars. I thurts her but she understands why; nobody wants to deal with a junkie. With a whore and a murderer it is not a problem, but with a junkie, it' s not worth the aggravation.
"Are you married," asks Ken.
"Nope. Was twice but that is history." Debbie remembers Billy and her stomach turns. "How about you?"
"Yes," says Ken. "Yes and no."
"How' s that?"
"My marriage is just in paper. We sleep in different rooms and don' t talk to each other."
Debbie rolls her eyes. She has heard this sob story so many times from so many losers, about the horrible wife at home and how getting laid by a mistress would be so good to their self esteems, and the story tellers all look at her as the purveyor of that self esteem booster. So this is what all this is about? Glyn had said to her," I love my wife and I' m very happy with her, but I like you too."And he got laid because he had been sincere. Debbie cannot stand bullshitters.
"Sorry to hear that," says Debbie in a flat voice. Ken shrugs.
"You know how it is, you try to do the right thing but it blows up on your face."
"Tell me about it."
Ken restraints his urge to reach across the counter and take her hand. She would probably jump away as if he were a leper, he thinks. Still, Debbie can see that desire in him, and she doesn' t know what to do about it, doesn’ t understand what it means. Is it just a middle age lust for an affair? Is it a true desire for her? Come on, nobody ever had such a feeling for her, and would a man who knew her as a whore and a drug queen? Yet, he looks at her like nobody else has ever done. She feels uncomfortable at the same time she feels a sort of pride, at being wanted. She is glad when the bikers ask for another round and she can move away to gather her wits.
Ken doesn' t know if he should run out of the bar back to his miserable but somewhat understandable life or to stay put and continue talking with empty words. He wants to leap over the bar and embrace her, tell her that… that he doesn' t know what the hell he' s doing or why, but that it feels right to have her in his arms, to smell her skin, to see into her eyes. Of course, he is nothing but a damned fool, he thinks, so he stays put and gulps his beer down. He didn' t know this was going to be so hard.
Debbie gets busy as the bar fills with more customers, and she' s glad for it. She wishes she could be her old self, the free lancing prostitute without a care, and she could just walk to Ken and say to him," Hon, I want you. Let' s find a room." But she' s not that Debbie any longer. She has been burnt too many times, and now she is a careful creature who protects her feelings like a mother gator does her egg nest. They continue to have short conversations where their eyes speak better than their words. There is a wall of fear, of doubt that surrounds them. Fear of being wrong, of being rebuffed, of being laughed at, of doubts about what their feelings are. Is this love? Neither can tell, They never had it in their lives before. They feel things that make them happy in a way they cannot explain at the same time that confuse them and scare them because such feelings are so foreign to both.
The skirmishing game goes on for hours, Ken drinking to drive his fear away and say to Debbie that, well, to tell her something that makes sense, that somehow he feels linked to her by invisible yet powerful ties he can neither explain nor describe. Debbie stays busy. She also wants to ask him Do you want me? Do you want me to be your whore again? For free or for a fee? What the hell do you want? But she can' t. Memories of quiet motel rooms where heat and sun shine and sea breeze imbued the air and sneaked under the sheets and under their skin fill her head. So stupid, she thinks, that was then, young and stupid, and this is now, old and still stupid, but not the same. Still, somehow she wants to believe that what has passed could be so again.
She lights her fifth and last cigarette of the day. Tonight she is sticking to it. Ken notices that she never uses the hip bag wrapped around her slim waist. Cell phone, cigarettes, lighter, tissues, everything comes out of her purse under the shelf by the back wall. What does she have in that bag? It is loaded with something. The thought comes to his mind and a second later is gone. Other more important things fill his head, and the alcohol is not helping either.
Glyn shows up and sits at the bar. Debbie already gave him a call early in the evening and told him about Ken; just enough so there are no embarrassing surprises for anybody. Glyn told her that it was about time she got herself a decent white man.
"Hi Glyn," says Debbie and serves him the usual.
"I came to see your boyfriend," says Glyn smiling from ear to ear.
"He ain' t my boyfriend." Debbie' s cheeks turn red and Glyn notices.
"He wants to be, and look at you!"
"You' re blushing like a little school girl!" His laughter raises above the crowd noise. Debbie puts his drink in front of him and slaps his hand with a playful smile.
"Where is prince charming?" murmurs Glyn. Debbie leans forward and says," At the end of the bar" and her eyes point to Ken' s end.
"Umm," says Glyn after a dissimulated look. "No bad. Go for it girl." Debbie just shrugs and answers with anon-committal "whatever."
Ken feels the alcohol loosening him up but not getting rid of his paralyzing doubts that don' t let him talk. Debbie and Ken now just look at each other and smile, but don' t know what else to say to each other. Over twenty years had gone by, and they have nothing to say to each other even if almost everyday of those long years they had thought of each other. Sometimes those memories had been nothing more than brief and unexpected shadows and other times had been long brooding sections of what if' s and what could had been but it never was. Despite their silence, their lack of verbal communication, they cannot stop looking at each other. Ken tries to be nonchalant but he cannot stop caressing her with his eyes. He' s afraid she is going to freak out; instead, she reciprocates his stares. Still, they cannot bring themselves to open up and talk. That' s not their way.
Last call for alcohol. Glyn has been gone awhile. The waitresses, Dawn and Amanda, and Debbie encourage the last patrons to finish and leave. Ken stands. His stomach is knotted. So this is it. Over twenty years of expectations will come down to a it was nice to see you, maybe a cold handshake. He feels like ripping his shirt off and yelling I want you Debbie! so hard that his throat would explode. Why not? If he is going to make an ass of himself, may as well do it with flying colors. But he can' t, too afraid of rejection. The years have changed her, and of course, he has also changed. The whole thing had been such a foolish idea to start with. His logical thoughts fail to make a dent in his feelings for her. He remains standing but his body can neither move out or sit down.
Debbie comes over and sees the fear in his eyes. That' s a feeling she can identify with it, a long time companion that comes and goes but never stays away for long. She leans forward across the bar counter top and wants to say something but doesn' t know what. She wants to reach over and touch his face, but she is afraid. She smiles instead, a soft smile that makes Ken lose his tense nerves. He slouches.
"Hon," says Debbie. Ken raises his head and smiles. Her words sooth him.
"It will take me a few minutes to clean up and close. Do you want to wait and walk me to my car?"
Ken responded with a meek "sure."
Debbie and the waitresses start to clean up. Ken snaps into action, gets on the floor and starts to help the waitresses put the chairs over the tables.
"You don' t have to help, you know" says Debbie from behind the counter.
"I' m tired of sitting on my ass," says Ken. "I' m not used to it."
After cleaning the floor he gets behind the counter with Debbie and puts an apron on with a natural easiness that both startles and pleases him. He starts washing the dirty glasses. The physical labor invigorates him and starts to clear his head of alcohol and inaction. He feels cobwebs melting away. Sitting and brooding on his ass is not for him. He would rather be shoveling dirt than thinking about life. He shakes his head at the stupidity that has preceded him until now. Little by little he gets into the washing swing, memories of Al' s Dinner come to him, doing what he is doing now, washing dishes and listening to Johnny s stories and jokes. God, he misses the old man. Johnny would have given him a swift kick in the ass long time ago and had made him come to his senses a lot sooner.
"Whatever happened to that old man that you worked for at that place in Port Orange?" asks Debbie, now standing next to him and drying the glasses that come out of Ken' s sink. Ken wonders if Debbie can read his mind.
"His name was Johnny," says Ken.
"I always thought of him as Popeye," says Debbie. Ken lets out a hearty laugh, a sincere one.
"You know," he says between laughs. "I always thought that he did look like Popeye."
He pauses washing glasses but his eyes remain looking at the sink.
"I don' t know what happened to the guy. I came by a while later and the place was closed." He sighs. "Never could find out where he went or what had happened to him."
"He was a nice guy," says Debbie.
"Weird but nice," Ken agrees, going back to washing dishes."Remember the night he made us have dinner?"
Debbie hesitates. She remembers like it had been yesterday, and it had been magic but cannot explain why.
"Yes, I do," says Debbie in a soft voice. "Cheeseburger, onion rings and a beer."
Ken stops and looks at her.
"I can' t believe you remember."
"Of course." Ken turns his face back to the sink. "like it happened yesterday." Ken is embarrassed to say those words, but they are true. They don' t speak afterwards. They just interchange glances and small smiles, but the dike of mistrust and forced politeness built during the previous hours now has a big crack in it. True feelings are already seeping through that crack. When the dike breaks, if it ever does, both Ken and Debbie wonder what is going to happen. Will they drown? Will they rise to the surface and be carried away to who knows where? It doesn' t matter, whatever happens it is meant to be.
The clean up is done, lights out and the bar' s door are locked and the waitresses go home with their tired feet and their pockets full of small change. Debbie and Ken linger in the parking lot, next to Debbie' s car. The street light above them casts their shadows on the cold asphalt as they stand in front of each other at arm' s length. Their hearts beat strong and they look at each other with eager eyes. Still, words don' t come easily.
"Debbie," says Ken. "I don' t know what to say. Well, I know what I want to say… I just don' t know how…"
A figure jumps over the hood of Debbie' s car. A ski mask cover its face and it swings a baseball bat. The bat lands on the side of Ken' s head with a thud and Ken drops to the ground as if his legs had become boneless. Debbie screams and jumps back. The assailant starts to move toward her with the bat raised above his head. Debbie knows that Billy' s face is under the mask. She is still screaming when Billy falters in his advance. Ken is holding onto his ankle, a feeble hold, but enough to make Billy look down. Billy starts to wind up for another swing at Ken' s head. Before he can bring the bat down, Debbie uses the unexpected distraction to pull her revolver from her waist.
The first shot hits Billy in the stomach and he flinches. The second shot quickly follows and it is higher, on his sternum, and Billy takes a step back. The third shot is slower to come because this time Debbie takes deliberate aim and cocks the revolver before pulling the trigger. Billy' s head jerks back when the bullet strikes his forehead. Billy falls on his back and the bat bounces on the parking lot with a hollow sound and rolls away from him and his convulsive departure from life.
The coffee from the vending machine is bitter and it tastes like disinfectant. Probably is not the coffee but the smell of the hospital itself, a smell that gets into everything. The detective has left her alone finally after asking the same questions over and over and writing the answers in his pad. Not once had Debbie given a different answer to the same question. She had stuck to her story with consistency and assuredness. She had called 911 and in a few minutes the parking lot had sparkled with bright spot lights and flashing red and blue strobes. During those minutes she had to wait for help to arrive she had kneel next to Ken and had held his hand, squeezing it and praying that his skull was not cracked beyond repair, his brain damaged forever, saying to him “ hang in there” without knowing if he could hear her. She could see that Ken was breathing but could not tell how bad he had been hurt.
Amanda had come running after the shooting and had stood next to Debbie, shaking her head in disbelief.
“ Who is that?” she had asked Debbie while pointing to the masked body.
“ That, ” Debbie had answered in a cold voice, “ was my ex.”
Amanda had witnessed the attack and the shooting from behind the wheel of her car as she was getting ready to pull out of the parking lot and she had given her statement to the cops. Debbie had seen them interrogating her out of her earshot. At least hers and Amanda’ s stories should match and nobody should doubt her own statement. Score one for her, Debbie thinks.
Billy’ s body lay face up, inert and heading for rigor mortis. Apool of black blood grew from the back of his head and his middle and Debbie could smell it but despite her aversion, she didn’ t leave Ken’ s side. The cops had come, had taken the hot revolver still gripped in her hand but had been quite polite. They had asked questions and she had answered them straight because she had nothing to hide. She had wanted them to pull the mask off the stiff so she could confirm it was Billy. They had said to wait until the crime lab showed up. When they finally pulled the mask off, the cops had looked at her and she had said, “ that’ s him alright.” Nobody at the scene had seemed surprised. Debbie recognized among the uniforms the female cop that had told her that Munch was dead.
The paramedics had come and had plugged Ken with tubes and wires and had bandaged his head.
“ How’ s he?” she had asked them.
“ Stable ma’ am.”
“ Can I go to the hospital with him?” Debbie had pleaded to the sergeant next to him and to her surprise the cop had helped her climb into the meat wagon.
“ The investigators will talk to you in the E.R., ” he had said. The doors had shut and the ambulance had taken off with a roar of diesel engine and screaming sirens.
All that now seemed a far away memory, a bad dream in another life. Debbie sips her coffee and waits for Ken to come out of surgery or X-rays or whatever they are doing to him.
“ Are you his wife?” had asked a nurse with a clipboard.
“ No. Just a friend.”
“ Do you know a next of kin we can contact?”
“ No. All I know is that he’ s married and lives in Colorado Springs.”
The nurse had asked to confirm his last name and Debbie had to shrug her shoulders in ignorance. Funny, after all the shit they had gone through together, Debbie ponders, she doesn’ t know his last name, and she is sure he doesn’ t know hers either. She knows him and he knows her yet there are so many things they don’ t know about each other, essential things, basic stuff. They share things that cannot be explained to people with clipboards, things that cannot be measured or gaged but that are as solid and strong as steel to them but that would look like flimsy excuses for a friendship or love to strangers. Love, she thinks, that’ s a funny word.
The numbness of overdue fatigue slows her down; she has been up since five o’ clock in the morning. She wonders what is going to happen when the investigators find out she is a convicted felon and had a gun in a bar. With her record, some assistant D.A. is going to throw the book at her. Well, she thinks, getting nailed for carrying a concealed weapon in a establishment that sells alcohol is far better than ending up in a body bag in a cold morgue, like Billy is right now. The shooting was clean. Debbie assures herself that the law cannot make a case against her; it would be hard to convince a jury that she was not right in fighting a crazy ex that came at her with a baseball bat and a masked faced.
Still, there are butterflies in her stomach. She is a nobody with along record and unable to afford a lawyer; an assistant D.A. may want to charge her with something and then scare her into either taking a sorry deal or face a court room with an overworked, underpaid, inexperienced public defender by her side. Debbie knows that taking the deal would be a better choice, no matter how unfair. The system is not designed to work for people like her.
At least the cops had not even handcuffed her so that was a good sign. The butterflies dance in her stomach but there is also relief in knowing that Billy won’ t be coming back to hurt anybody else. The image of the masked face in her sights as the hammer came down and then watching that head jerk back after the flash and thunder of the shot, keeps on repeating in her head, and she finds pleasure in it. He got what he deserved and she is satisfied with that thought. She didn’ t expressed it to the cops though. She made sure that the cops had heard only the bit about how she had feared for her life and Ken’ s, which was true anyway, but had kept the satisfaction of revenge to herself. It had not been a deliberated lie but just a careful truth.
A pair of doors swing open and Ken is wheeled out through them pushed by a group of people in scrubs. He’ s wired and tubed and unconscious. Debbie stands up and follows the entourage to a room where Ken is parked and hooked to drips and monitors.
“ How is he?” Debbie asks a tall and young doctor.
“ His occipital has a small crack and his brain had swelled too much so we did surgery to relieve the pressure.” He smiles. “ He should come out of this with a good headache only. We don’ t see any brain damage.”
“ Thanks doc.”
The doctor smiles and in a swift second all the people who had been working on Ken are gone leaving her alone with him. Debbie wonders what she is supposed to do now. She flops herself on a chair next to Ken. Her haggard eyes look at his bandaged head. His breathing is soft and steady. He will probably be out of it at least until the anesthesia wears off. When he wakes up, then what? Will he look around with crossed eyes, see her and then ask, “ who are you?” Will he say, “ it’ s all your damned fault?”
Debbie sees and hear cops talking to the doctor just outside the room but she is too tired to try to eavesdrop on their conversation. If they want to talk to her or haul her ass to the station, they know where to find her. There are curtain partitions on each side of her and Ken. Feet shuffle, people sob, the overhead speakers in the lobby call names, paramedics, nurses, doctors, orderlies and cops move through the halls, trying to patch a wounded city, trying to understand why these people are here. But they leave her and Ken alone. There is nothing else they can do for now.
Who is this man next to her? This Ken Somethingouski. She remembers him telling her he was a Pole. What’ s next? She thinks that she should get up and leave, leave for good. This Ken doesn’ t deserve more of her and her troubles, and that is what she is, trouble. This is the second time she ends up shooting somebody to save him, but somehow she feels is all her fault that Ken gets in the middle of her messes. He would have never been in that parking lot if it hasn’ t been for her. And the Atlanta thing, it had been her who had brought the Hillbilly from Hell to meet Ken.
Her eyes close and the sound of waves lapping on the sand comes to her. The surf swirls around her whole legs, both of them, and her toes sink into the sand to fight the undertow. Ken stands next to her watching airplanes fly overhead, towing banners that flap in the breeze. Their shoulders touch and there is happiness in that feeble touch, in that stupid accidental and meaningless rubbing of skins. She would never be able to explain the peace and satisfaction she feels to a person with a clipboard. Maybe there is nothing to explain because there is nothing there; nobody can see it, can measure it. Yet, why can’ t she shake such memory off, why can she for sake such feeling?
A few minutes later Debbie sleeps on the chair and her breathing pace matches Ken’ s.
A hand squeezing her shoulder awakes Debbie from her sleep. She opens her eyes and has a difficult time focusing on the person standing in from of her. She rubs the sleep off her eyes and now she can see a rather plump woman looking down on her. She has a face like a bulldog and friendliness is nowhere on her features; rather, she stares at Debbie with a decisive hatefulness.
"Who are you?" barks bulldog face.
"Debbie. And who are you?"
There are two more people behind the woman, all looking as if they had just gotten out of bed, which they probably did, guesses Debbie.
"I' m Helen," says the woman and then points to Ken who is still asleep under the influence of sedatives. "I' m his wife."
Debbie remains seated. Her missing leg itches even though there is no limb where the itching seems to be coming from. So this is what Ken is running from? Debbie tells herself. No wonder. Debbie knows that Ken' s marriage is none of her business and that dreams of beaches and happiness are just that, tenuous dreams that fall apart when touched by reality, like tissue paper trying to soak a water stream.
With a sluggish effort Debbie gets up, using Ken' s bed to propher self on her one leg and one prosthesis.
"Good," says Debbie now standing. "Now I can go home."She starts to walk away from her chair but Helen blocks her exit. Helen breaths with difficulty, her sinuses making a wheezing noise as angry air expels out of her lungs.
"You stay away from my husband!" yells Helen. "You…You whore!"
Debbie is paralyzed neither by fear nor by anger but by confusion. Whore had been her profession for many years, and a junkie, and a drug mule, and a killer, thrice now, but until now those things had been her problems, her life, and nobody had given a damn about it. Now this woman is shouting whore at her face and Debbie is disoriented, not knowing if the insult fits like a glove – thus it is not an insult but the truth – or if she is supposed to raise in anger and protest. Helen keeps on heaping insults on Debbie and faces in the E.R. are now pointed in her direction, amused by the raucous Helen is creating.
"Bitches like you just want to steal my husband and his money!"Helen' s spit falls on Debbie' s face. Skinny Debbie is not a match for corpulent Helen if the shouting turns into shoving. Debbie sees a by now familiar cop watching from across the hallway, slowly making his way towards them. Debbie knows better than getting physical at this point. Let Helen touch her first so it would be Helen who gets charged with assault.
"Stay away from him! Stay away from him or…!"
Debbie looks straight into Helen' s eyes and Helen' s furor falters at the coldness' s of Debbie' s stare.
"Or what? whispers Debbie. "I just shot a man three times and killed him. Get out my face." Debbie takes advantage of Helen' s hesitation to step around her and head out. With her back to Helen and looking at the cop standing by the entrance to the ward, Helen lets out a grunt akin to something coming out of a feral animal. Helen grabs Debbie' s pony tail and yanks on it hard with her meaty arm. Debbie let' s out a short cry and falls back a step. Debbie tries to turn around on her heels but Helen' s grip on her pony tail stops her from finishing the turn. Before Debbie has time to stabilize her body on her prosthesis and use it as a pivot point to kick Helen with her good leg, the cop jumps in.
"Break it up! Now!" He jumps between both women and grabs Helen' s arm. "Let it go ma' am or I' m gonna arrest you for assault."
Helen let' s go but her mouth starts going again.
"That whore got my husband almost killed!" Helen bawls more insults while the cop and the two people that had come with her try to calm her down. The cop steps back and comes to Debbie' s side.
"Are you OK?" he asks Debbie. His lips are hidden under his cowboy mustache and Debbie cannot see them move but the words come out alright. Debbie nods.
"I better get going," says Debbie. "I don' t need to be here." This time it is the cop who nods.
Debbie steps out of the ward and all the eyes from people in the hallway, other rooms and behind desks fasten on her. Debbie who has walked streets almost naked offering herself for sale, who has flashed men just to snare a john, who has snorted coke and done drugs in public, that same Debbie now feels her face burning with shame because a fat woman called her names, covered her with misdirected insults. That' s the rub though, Debbie thinks, were they really misdirected?
With hurried steps Debbie reaches the ambulance unloading area and steps out through the wide doors where a cold night air greets her. She has no idea where to go. Her car is at the bar and it is a long walk to it and also to her motel. Ernie must be starving by now. To hell with the five cigarettes at day. Debbie lights her sixth and then realizes that now is tomorrow so she is having her first cigarette of a new day. She smokes and a mixture of fatigue, anger and confusion whirls inside her.
She doesn' t want to be a home breaker, a husband snatcher, a marriage buster. The fact that Ken has to wake up to Helen' s bulldog face is not her problem, Debbie thinks. He can believe his marriage is over, and act like it, but it is obvious that the fat lady has a different idea, and Debbie doesn' t want to, doesn' t need to get in the middle of that mess. That ethereal connection between her and Ken, it is there, Debbie can feel it, but she also is afraid of it because it flies against common sense and reality. That feeling for him, it is nothing but a stupid longing, a relic of a lost youth, an empty desire with no substance. The only rewards for indulging in such a stupid longing exercise were her getting insulted by a stranger to her and Ken getting clocked by a stranger to him. What a pathetic pair they make, losers to the very end. Debbie throws the cigarette butt down and heads back into the building.
She is gonna have to call a taxi to take her back to the parking lotto pick up her car. She wonders if the bloody spot will still be there or if somebody has cleaned it. She shudders at the idea of seeing that black spot again. Even for a seasoned murderer like herself, killing doesn’ t come easy.
My bold head throbs. I say bold because the surgeons had left a hairless patch where they had operated so after I left the hospital I shaved the rest in the name of evenness. It wasn' t until now that I realized that my skull is shaped like a bullet. The doctor told me that my double vision would disappear as the days went by, and he was right. The headaches are not gone yet but they pound me with a diminished intensity each day, another correct prediction.
I woke up in a hospital room with the biggest whopper of a headache I ever have experienced. My eyes couldn' t focus and everything came in as double. There were two He lens, two James and two Freds – her brothers in law – when I came to, and zero Debbies. Not finding Debbie in the room had been a disappointment until the cops came to talk to me and told me that she had come in with the ambulance and had stayed by my side until Helen showed up.
An orderly told me about Helen' s going ballistic and getting on Debbie' s case. I don' t understand it. Helen has not moved a single finger to try to save our marriage and yet she goes bonkers about Debbie being next to me. A marriage is not saved by keeping people away but by spouses working their private problems out, starting in the bedroom, moving to the kitchen, to the rest of the house, and finally looking for things to fix outside the house. It is too late to try to keep me away from Debbie or anybody else.
I was still using the guest room in our house, soon to be Helen' s house, before I moved out. I went to talk to a lawyer and after wards I told Helen I wanted a divorce. I didn' t and I don' t expect to patch things up between us; as I said, it is too late. Helen response came as a bout of hysteria and her only solace was bad mouthing me and Debbie and everybody else on Earth. Of course, she sees herself blameless on this matter. Asking her for a divorce was likes wallowing a bitter horse pill to cure a disease; it didn' t go down easily and I almost choked, but I had to do it.
Getting whacked on the side of the head rattled my understanding of things. From this forced shakedown previous truths came tumbling down into the dust, among them my commitment to a failed marriage, my resignation to a crappy life, my shame at telling my son that his mother was no longer my wife. The doctors told me that a little more force behind the blow to my head could have shattered my occipital bone and driven the broken bone pieces into my brain. A second impact on the same area would have done the job too. I didn' t see my life flashing before my eyes, or lights above calling my name, or angels waving at me, or any other bullshit signs of my forthcoming demise. The truth is, I don' t remember a damned thing. I just woke up in a hospital with a terrible headache and seeing double.
Still, the close call made me realize that life is short, that it can be made quite shorter by many means, like a baseball bat, and that I' m not a young man who can get beaten and be up on his feet the next day, bruised but ready to go again. It takes me a lot longer to heal now. What is left of my life I need to make the most of it, before my mind is gone and my diapers are full of crap and I don' t remember who my son is, or before I fall off a horse and land head first on a rock.
It is not easy to drop years of marriage and a wife like if they were unwanted baggage. No matter how odious wife and marriage have become, there remain good memories that stick to you like your own skin and make shedding the old life a painful thing; it is like being skinned alive. The initial shock and pain are subduing and now I can see options in my future that I couldn' t before, but there is also a lingering pain that may never go away, a scar that will never heal.
Debbie shot dead my attacker. Jesus, it' s the second time she comes to the rescue. Now I figure that the hip bag she carried at the bar, the one she never opened and looked heavy, had a gun in it. I' m so fucking brilliant, a Polish Sherlock Holmes. Things are always obvious after the fact, when it doesn' t matter anymore. Anyway, I' m still breathing because of Debbie' s prowess with a firearm. Instead of John Wayne saving the girl, the girl saves John Wayne, again. The cops told me that all stories check out and that it was a good shooting. The bastard who hit me happened to be her ex, an ex con andal ready in parole violation and wanted by the law. Nobody is shedding tears for the bastard.
Since two days ago I live in a motel next to I-25. Helen had become vicious with her bile and her insults so I moved out. I should have left the same day that I told her that our life together was over because living under the same roof afterwards became a very bad idea. Had she used that internal fire to try to make things work instead of using it to debase me after the marriage was history, probably I wouldn' t be living out of a suitcase, with a shaved head, going to sleep with the sound of trucks on the highway and strangers banging their ho’ s in the rooms next to mine. But you know what? There is no point in thinking about the past when the present and the future are as shaky as a drunk Humpty Dumpty rocking on at all ledge.
I haven' t reached for Debbie since the day I got whacked, and she doesn' t seem to be looking for me either. I' m in the phone book, just like my business is so if she wanted to, she could have given me a ring. I have being taking care of my business since I left the hospital. Medical bills and Litigation are liable to get expensive, and I need to keep things going. These things don' t wait for you to get healthier or for you to get your shit together; they just come at you no matter if you are ready or not. With a baseball hat buried to my ears I get to supervise my crew. I don' t want the sun to burn my pale scalp. The guys tell me that I look like Dumbo. I had to take care of my rental properties too. Because of my work I have been running like a beheaded chicken and I haven' t had time to get in touch with Debbie.
I think about her all the time. At nights I cannot sleep thinking about what the future may be like, about us being together. At times I allow myself the luxury of fantasizing about our happy life together but each time the bubble bursts and I land with a flat thud on the hard surface of reality. That' s not how things work Bubba, I say to myself. That night at the bar, the hours before we ended up washing dishes together, they had been nothing but hell. I didn' t walk away because of my self pride, of being afraid to admit what a fool I had been for chasing after somebody who really is a stranger. Yet, those few minutes together, side by side with our bellies to the sink, they had been a nirvana that cannot be explained with words. Such a stupid thing, standing side by side washing dishes, I cannot believe that I' m getting a divorce because of it.
Despite my recurrent fantasies about Debbie and I being together, I haven' t had the balls to go back to Denver and look for her. I don' t have her phone number. All I know is where she works, just like I did before. I know I have to do it, that I cannot just leave her behind like I did over twenty years ago in Dallas. Just as I know that I must seek her, I' m afraid of her, of her looking at me and laughing at my naive illusions, middle age desires, at my bold head and fat and soft middle.
I fool myself with the idea that work keeps me busy, that I' m not ready to go after her but with every minute that ticks by, I know that I' m running out of excuses, and like the snow in Pikes Peak during spring time, I’ m also running out of time.
Debbie is back in her apartment. The place has no furniture but at least the fixtures are fixed. She sits on the floor with Ernie in her lap. His leg is out of the splinter and his limp is gone.
"For a while I thought you were going to end up like me," Debbie whispers to her cat. He purrs in agreement.
Besides her and the cat the only items in the apartment are Ernie' slitter box, his food and water bowls, a few cans of cat food, a biggym bag holding Debbie' s few new clothes and shoes, her toiletries, and a blanket and a pillow on the floor. She had thrown everything else away because it had been either destroyed by Billy or soiled by his mere touch. Now she is going to start from scratch again. Billy won' t have that chance so Debbie sees the fabled silver lining to her situation.
She leans her head against the wall and sighs. Past forty, former prostitute, one legged, no teeth, twice divorced, with no children, no husband, no relatives, no true friends, one cat, the clothes on her back, and a beaten up Geo with bald tires, and a murderer, all adds up to a picture perfect loser. The road to old age everyday looks more like a steep downhill into lonely senility, to a pauper’ s grave, or to ashes in a can with her name on it that is never to be claimed and that will be disposed of in the trash bin by a quiet an anonymous clerk.
But she will start anew because that is what it takes to keep on living, to stay in control of one' s life. Tread forward through the mud, uphill, with the heavy and clumsy baggage of a fucked up life on one' s back, but tread one must because falling flat on one' s ass means giving up life, and treading up the hill is always better because, who knows? maybe there is a pleasant sight at the hilltop, maybe the downhill side is not through mud but through strawberry fields. With her luck, Debbie thinks, the mud will turn into broken glass and a mine field and another Billy will be waiting at the bottom of the hill.
For days she has been expecting a knock on the door, the cops coming to arrest her for either shooting Billy or for having a concealed weapon, or for both, but nobody has knocked at her door yet. She is afraid of showing her face at the police station to ask about the disposition of her case; there is no reason to rattle the hornets' nest. At the Night Owl she has become a sort of celebrity, all regulars pleading with her to describe the gruesome details of the shootout.
"Did his head blow up, you know, like in the movies?"
"I heard you shot him in the balls, is that true? Man, that was mean."
At least when she announces the last call for alcohol nobody gives her too much lip and she and the waitresses have been able to close in time every night. Nobody wants to mess with a gun packing mama. She doesn' t have a gun anymore, but the reputation is enough, and Debby is fine with that.
She has talked to Glyn since the shooting.
"How you doin' girl?" asked Glyn.
"Fine but a little bit shaken."
"Good Lord, I would have shit my pants if that mother fucker had come at me like that."
"You wouldn' t, I know you. You first would have bashed his head in, and then you would have shit your pants."
Glyn' s hearty laugh had soothed her. It' s amazing, Debbie thinks, what little kindness it takes to make a shitty day not so shitty.
"That dude that was with you, how he doin'?
"Ken? He got hit on the side of his head. At the hospital the doctors said he was pretty lucky he didn' t get killed."
"When is the wedding?"
"Why?" Debbie' s face turned sarcastic. "Do you want to be my bridesmaid? You would look good in a pink dress holding a bouquet."
"Sure, that way I can get in a room full of naked women and help them get dressed."
"Like nobody is gonna notice your fat boner trying to poke out from under your dress."
He exploded laughing. Thank God, or Glyn, for a good laugh.
Ken hasn' t called. Of course he can' t because he doesn' t have her cell number. He could have called her at the Night Owl. Even if he lost the paper she gave him, the damned place is listed in the phone book. Now, why would he be that stupid? He almost got killed for nothing, and his wife probably made a public ass out of both when he came out of the anesthesia. Between Billy and his wife he probably had enough of Debbie to last him to eternity.
She could call him, Debbie mulls, but she doesn' t have his phone number. His name must be in the police reports, and he' s probably listed in the book. Assuming she would call him, what the hell can she say to him? Sorry you had your head smashed in? Sorry I' m still a loser? Sorry your fat wife is such a bitch? As they say, if you ain' t got nothing nice to say, keep your mouth shut.
Despite her indurate thoughts, her pragmatic and level headed musings, she cannot get Ken off her mind. Granted, they had not clicked all night until he finally got off his ass and started helping, and the time by the sink washing dirty dishes, it had been so… Debbie tries to find a word for it but nothing comes to mind because the definition is not in the mind but in the heart. She had felt young again, ready to give the world the big finger, willing to tell anybody to kiss her ass, unashamed of being who she was, and more importantly, she had felt that link to Ken, so special, strong and undeniable and yet so far beyond the reach of explanation and definition.
Maybe she should try to call him to see how he’ s doing, you know, just to be polite and show her concern. But then no, she doesn' t want to stir more trouble in his married life. Maybe he and his wife patched things up and a call from her would throw off the perilous balance that makes up marriage life. Who is she to get in the middle of another' s life anyway? Her intrusions are deadly, like the time she drove her car into the woman she killed.
She sighs again. That brief feeling at the sink, together, that had been a flawed desire to have what had past, what had never been and never will. Debbie closes her eyes and imagines sea breeze flowing through her hair, the surf whirling between and around her whole ankles. She opens her eyes and sees an empty apartment under septic electric lights that makes the bare white walls look like they are covered with watered down mustard.
A tear slides down her face. Ernie is looking at her with an amused face. It is time to go somewhere else, to see new things, to get away from Denver' s nasty winters. May as well, she will be traveling light, both in material possessions and the memories of those left behind. Billy is dead and she has proven her point, that she is not running away. She picks up her cell and dials Glyn' s number. She wipes the tear off her face while the phone rings.
"Glyn?" she asks. "Is this a good time to talk?"
Debbie lets out a great sigh.
"I' m just calling you to say good bye, and thanks for everything."
After a hard day’ s work Ken is out of the tiny shower in his motel room. He puts on clean jeans and a shirt and sits on the edge of his bed, a bed that smells like mothballs. He hopes it is mothballs that he’ s smelling. He could watch TV, flipping through channels and never stopping for more than five minutes on any program, like he has been doing for the last few days, or he could go out for a long supper and then hit a bar to drink alone until it is time to go to bed.
Jesus, he thinks, what a fucked up life he leads. His married life had been a joke but his new single status has nothing better to offer either. Maybe, he thinks, he will get into the new groove of things and he, being a middle aged, overweight dude with a shaved head will turn out to be a chick magnet. That should happen about the same time that pigs fly and frogs grow hair.
Standing by the window, Ken sees the lights of Colorado Springs spread like a carpet into the eastern plains where grass and wind and buffalo had once ruled but were now cowering away from the new masters: subdivisions of track homes, convenience stores and strip malls.
Out with the old, in with the new. It happened to the buffalo and the Indians, now it needs to happen to him. New doesn’ t mean better, at least not for everybody. Ken runs his hand through the hard stubble on his head then his hand moves to his chin where a goatee is now growing, red and white, mostly white hairs telling him how old he really is. What’ s next? A pierced tongue? Nose?Earrings? Maybe tattoos. Regardless of all the cool trappings he may end up attaching to his body, it is still a forty plus year old body. Gadgets cannot turn time back or attract happiness; their feel good quality is short lived and dubious.
Ken knows what he needs, wants, desires to do, and tonight is as good as any other time to do it. He grabs his keys, his jacket, and heads out of the door. What the hell, he assures himself, he got nothing to lose. He gets into his truck and a few minutes later he’ s heading northbound on I-25 for Denver.
He doesn’ t know why he waited this long. How could he be afraid of rejection? So what if he got rejected? As they say, pick yourself up and get back on the saddle. One more bruise means nothing. Ken drives through open plains and realizes that he was not afraid of being rejected, but of being accepted. Then what? Yes, Debbie and him go a long way back, but for the wrong reasons. His logic comes out shorthanded when he tries to analyze Debbie. Facts and experience add up to a big mistake in the making, to another screwed up relationship.
Yet, his desire for Debbie is beyond common sense; it is a wild hair in his ass, a wanting that needs to be satisfied no matter what. So he punches the accelerator and prays that the State Troopers won’ t nail him for reckless speeding.
He parks his truck one block down from the Night Owl and starts walking. Going through the parking lot he scans for Debbie’ s car and doesn’ t see it. Maybe she’ s parked somewhere else, he says to himself. There are a few ribbons of yellow police tape hanging from the fence and the light pole, just the stuff you want to see when you walk into a bar. Ken shakes his head in disbelief. Maybe for this crowd, it is a badge of honor.
The Rockolla is playing Nirvana. Behind the bar is a dry stick of an old guy with a haircut like his, but white stubbles instead of darkones. Ken bellies up to the bar and asks the old guy, “ Is Debbie here tonight?”
“ Who wants to know?” replies the old stick in a not too kind tone. Ken has an itch to reach over the bar and grab the old man by his neck and rub his face on the counter, but he’ s polite instead.
“ I’ m a friend of hers.”
“ Everybody says that.”
The old stick is getting on his nerves. This time Ken speaks without any politeness in his voice.
“ Listen, the last time I saw her we got jumped by her ex in the parking lot. When I came to it at the hospital she was gone. I just need to speak to her.”
Ken waits for an answer with a sullen face. If the old stick comes back with sarcasm or rudeness he’ s going to get it. Ken is not sure yet what he’ s going to give the old stick, but it ain’ t gonna be pretty. The old man seems to be spinning his little wheels in his worn out brain because he is not moving or saying anything. His face alights with a smile and then he speaks.
“ You’ re the guy who got clocked! How’ bout that? Debbie told me you got lucky her ex didn’ t crack your skull open.”
“ He tried, ” says Ken turning his head and pointing to the scar on his scalp.
“ Oh man.”
“ What about Debbie?” Ken reminded the old stick who now stares enthralled at his head.
“ Oh, Debbie. She quit. She picked up her last pay check this afternoon.”
Ken’ s plans, his fuzzy ideas of how things were going to play out hit a stop like a bag of garbage flung on a dark alley and bursting open, scattering stuff all over the place, and he had no shovel to pick up the litter. That’ s to say, he had no back up plans, so he stands where he is with a dazzled look on his face. Now what?
“ Are you OK?” asks the old stick.
“ Yeah, ” says Ken. “ I suppose I will stop by the caterers to see if I can get in touch with her.” Ken’ s words came out before he had time to think that maybe the old stick has her phone number.
“ No luck either. She quit that job too.”
“ Do you have her phone number?”
The old stick gives Ken a mistrustful look and shakes his head. The bastard is lying, Ken knows. Ken’ s fists are bunching up and his stare is narrowing on the old man when a voice comes from the side.
“ You Ken?”
Ken looks in the direction of the question and he sees a large black man sitting on the side of the bar.
“ Yes, ” says Ken. The black mange stures for him to come over to his side. Ken has no idea yet what to do with the stick man so letting his head cool off a little bit may help him see a way out of his blind street. Besides, the black guy may know something. Ken approaches and the black guy points to the stool next to him. After Ken is seated the black man hollers to the old stick to bring a beer.
“ What do you drink, ” asks Glyn.
“ Make it a Bud, in a bottle.”
The old man brings the drink and when Ken is going to pay for it Glyn tells him to forget about it. “ It’ s on me.” Despite his intimidating size, there is a geniality in Glyn that makes Ken feel at ease.
“ Debbie is leaving town, ” says Glyn without being asked.
“ How do you know?”
“ She told me so herself.”
Both men drink a few sips without saying anything else before Ken speaks again.
“ Did she mention me by any chance?”
Glyn smiles. “ Why? Should she mention you for any reason?”
“ Well, ” says Ken rubbing his chin.“ That’ s the whole point of me trying to talk to her. I don’ t know if I mean anything to her or I’ m just a bother she is trying to get rid off.”
“ What is she to you?” Glyn looks straight into Ken’ s eyes. Ken feels this is one of those times where what comes out of his mouth will dictate how the rest of his life will unfold. Ken doesn’ t even know the name of this stranger and somehow he feels that he is the gatekeeper of the hidden path that leads to Debbie.
“ She’ s nothing and she’ s everything, and she doesn’ t know it.” Ken sips on his beer.
“ Name is Glyn.” A big hand comes across the distance between the stools. Ken shakes the hand and feels the big squeeze.
“ Ken, ” he says.
“ Debbie felt pretty bad about you getting whacked like that. She thinks it is her fault, ” says Glyn.
“ That’ s nonsense. It was just bad timing and bad luck.”
“ That’ s what we all say when things turn to shit, bad timing and bad luck.”
Both men drink in short sips, their minds probing each other’ s answers and questions.
“ Why is Debbie running away?” asks Ken.
“ She’ s afraid of you.”
“ Of me?” Ken looks at Glyn. “ I would never hurt her.”
“ She is not sure of that.”
“ You know, says Ken. “ I should really talk to her and straighten things out. This game of I think, she thinks, I say, she says is bullshit. I need to see her and we need to have an honest talk, whatever happens, happens.”
“ How bad you want it?” asks Glyn. His teeth over the beer bottle shine with the electric colors of the beer signs on the wall.
“ There is nothing in life that I want more than seeing her again. I want one more chance, without a nut swinging a baseball bat cutting in.”
Glyn calls the old stick and asks him for pencil and paper. He writes a phone number on it.
“ This is Debbie’ s cell number. Now, I know her well and she will probably have it off, and who knows if she will ever turn it on before leaving town.” Glyn cuts the paper in half and gives the side with the number on it to Ken.“ Write you number down, in case Debbie calls me again, which I doubt is gonna happen, but just in case. I can give it to her.”
Ken writes his number down on the other half of the paper and gives it to Glyn.
“ Do you know where she lives?” asks Ken.
“ Somewhere in Englewood. That’ s about it. She kept her private life pretty much to herself.”
Ken drinks and thinks about her phone number, calling and calling and not getting through. The future that had waited over twenty years turned away because of a frigging phone call that didn’ t make it through. Glyn must have been reading his mind because he spoke with the same doubts.
“ You know, ” says Glyn. “ You may never be able to reach her through her cell.”
“ I figure that much, ” says Ken.“ Any other ideas?”
Glyn laughs, loud and long. “ It’ s time for you to chase her!” Ken says nothing but gives Ken a wondering look.
“ She told me that she’ s hitting the highway for Santa Fe tomorrow, when the sun rises. You gonna have to watch the damned highway for her piece of shit Geo to go by.”
“ Is she going to Santa Fe then?”
“ Nope. She’ s headed that way. She doesn’ t know where she is going to stop for good.”
After the beer was gone Ken bid Glyn good night and thanked him for the help.
“ Good luck tomorrow, ” said Glyn.
“ Thanks, I’ ll need it.”
Ken called Debbie’ s cell about twenty times while he walked back to his truck Good luck was not to be had tonight. Maybe tomorrow.
My sleep last night wasn' t worthy of the name. I kept on wakening up, tossing and rolling in bed, my mind unable to settle into a restful unconsciousness. I don' t know how many times I dialed Debbie' s cell to no avail. The people who turn their cells off is a rarity but the yare out there, walking among us with their dead phones. Vicente, one of my foremen, is such an oddball. If I leave him with a crew somewheres, I better call someone else in the crew but him.
"Why in hell you have a cell phone if it is always off?"
He shrugs. "It' s like a pay phone in your pocket, and you don' t need coins."
"What about people trying to get in touch with you?"
"The only reason people call you is because they want something from you, you know, money or do this or that for them," he says laughing. "I can do without it."
I cannot argue with the guy because he' s correct. My business depend son that stupid thing but I cannot tell you how many times I had wished I could just fling the damned beeping gizmo as far as I could. It is both a blessing and a course; I envy those who can just turn them off and live theirs lives without the agony of unexpected beeping.
Because I' m the one trying to call Debbie I infer, using Vicente' s logic, that I' m the one who wants something from her. Of course I do. I want her, the whole of her. Again, using Vicente' s logic, she doesn' t want to be bothered because she can do without me.
There is madness is in my dialing fingers, calling Debbie and each call never going through but still dialing, time after time, and like a madman, expecting her to answer using a phone that is not turned on. I stand on this stupid bridge facing the highway and every so often I go through the dialing motions, putting the cell to my ear and then putting it back in my shirt pocket, every attempt an exact copy of the previous failed one.
There was a chill in the morning that made me take a big jacket, gloves and a wool hat. The hat is white with red and yellow flames and has a long tip. It looks like a condom on my head. I have been standing on this bridge over I-25 since just before sunrise, watching my breath turn solid in front of my mouth. There is a steady buzz of engines and tires on pavement, a never ending stream of traffic heading south. With every car that passes my hopes diminish but I stay put. The sun climbs through the clouds and the temperature rises and I’ m still standing on the same spot, looking northward.
I have done crazy and stupid things in my life, but this one has to be one of the dumbest ones, watching traffic, watching for a blue Geo with a grafted red front end and a blonde behind the wheel to go by. The chances of me seeing her go by are so low that I should had given it up many hours ago, but here I' m, like a dupe, standing now with my jacket in my hand, the gloves in my pockets, the condom still on my head, pulled above my big red ears. Cops go up and down the street and look at me funny but they haven' t given me any grief yet. I think this is called loitering. I call it a waste of time.
Then, why am I here?
Because I don' t want to give up, no matter how ridiculous I may look standing over a bridge watching cars pass by, no matter how small are my chances of ever seeing Debbie again. It took over twenty years and a fat chance for us to meet, and things have not gone well since that first meeting, but if it happened once, why shouldn' t it happen again? It burns me up that after twenty years, after meeting by pure chance, our lives are drifting apart again without us having a chance to talk things over, to decide if our paths should be one or should split again. I don' t want our paths to diverge because of fate. If she tells me to go to hell, I can live with that, but just drifting away like shipwrecks in a dark night, pulled away by the currents, that I cannot accept and that' s why here I stand, my bladder ready to burst, my feet tired of standing.
If by ten o' clock in the morning I' m still here, then I have to switch to Plan B. I just have to figure out what plan B is.
The Geo is pointed south, past Pueblo, in the slow lane. Every time a fat SUV or a truck flies by, the little car gets buffeted by the wind swirls. Debbie is not in a hurry because where she is going, which she hasn' t decided yet, there will be nobody waiting for her. That' s the way it has always been. Ernie is asleep on the passenger seat. The CD is playing Johnny Cash' s The Man Comes Around. She never liked the Man in Black but this CD somehow strikes a soft mood in her with its simple arrangements and pointed lyrics. Debbie realizes she is getting mellower as the years go by. Since she left Denver a couple of hours before sunrise the CD has been playing. Debbie wonders about Mr. Cash, with all his money and fame, and still having to deal with his addictions and life' s bad tricks. Well, Debbie muses, hard times don' t care how deep you pockets are or how well known your mug is; shitty times are for everybody.
Money doesn' t buy happiness but it buys options. Her detox program had been going cold turkey at the jail house. She shivers at the memories. Cash probably went to a fancy rehab center and his friends and family were behind him. That must be nice, Debbie thinks, to have people willing to give their support just because they love you. Debbie tries to imagine what that feeling must be like, to have somebody waiting when one comes out of jail, out of the hospital, somebody who comes running to one’ s side when things turn for the worse. Debbie looks to her right. She has a cat. She used to have another one but God took it away because she didn’ t deserve two.
Her fingers grip the steering wheel with anger but she exhales and the tension in her hand eases as her breath comes out of her lips. Thinking stuff like that does no good, she decides; it’ s bad Karma.
If standing on a bridge looking down on I-25 for hours is dumb, riding down the highway chasing after what may not be there is dumber. At ten o' clock I gave up my watch and walked to the convenience store in the corner, took a long overdue piss, bought a burrito and coffee and took off in my truck, chewing and drinking and thinking what a fool I was.
My plan, if it can be called that, is to drive southbound all the way to Santa Fe with the hope that I may overtake her. What if she is driving to California instead? or to the east coast? Or if she decided to leave later during the day? My chances are nil, I know, but driving and searching are better than sitting on my butt and letting her slip away. I feel like I' m wading in a lake up to my waist in water trying to catch a small fish. I don' t know if it is behind me, or in front of me, or if it took off in other direction. The lake is full of fish, but none of them is the one I want; maybe it is not in this lake anymore. Still, splashing in the water and searching with clumsy steps and cold hands is better than sitting on the shore crying about my loss. It is a mighty big lake, but I have no choice.
The only thing I might get out of this is a speeding ticket, but I don' t care. What if she pulled off the highway to eat or to take a leak? Is she a McDonald' s person? A Burger King person? I don' t know if she still eats hamburgers. Here I' m, chasing after her because I feel my life depends on it, and I don' t know her; I don' t know the simplest of things about her, what she likes or dislikes. The absurdity of the chase is obvious to anybody with two fingers of fore head. I put my hand over my eyebrows and I measure a comfortable five fingers. I seem to have the space for enough brain matter to understand the futility of my quest but I cannot stop. I pass cars that are not hers and look forward as far as my eyes can see, searching for what I know will not be there, but search I must because that' s all I have and I don' t want to give up without a good fight.
I drive by rest stops and I get off the big exits, like in Pueblo, and search up and down main drags and truck stops. At times I think these side trips increase the distance between us but I want to make sure I didn' t leave her behind in my southbound rush. Perhaps she is behind me and then these side trips close the gap but the truth is that I don' t have a clue. I just search and drive and my head swivels atop my shoulders so much that I know I will have a neck pain before the day is over.
Raton pass is coming up. That Geo of hers will have to crawl up the pass so maybe I can catch up with her. If she already went over the top, then I will have to chase her down into New Mexico. But I don' t know if she is even in front of me. I' m chasing a dream that exists only in my head.
Raton Mesa is majestic by its shear size and its bands of colors and vegetation that rise against the deep and bright blue sky. To Debbie, though, it is just a big rock, impressive, but a big rock nevertheless. Her mind is preoccupied with other things and she cannot enjoy the view. She sits on a guardrail of the Raton Passover look with her back to the parking lot, and she is cold. The hood of the Geo behind her is open and hissing noises spill over the fenders at the same time that a lime green and smoky liquid drips through the front wheels on the black top. Ernie is on her lap, unworried by Debbie' s problem.
The old car overheated on its way up the pass. Debbie waits for it to cool down. She plans to drive it downhill to a shop where somebody can take a look at it. She hopes that the car can at least make it downhill because she doesn' t want to spend the money to get a wrecker up the pass and then down into Raton again.
Resignation is the only virtue Debbie can hold on to. Getting mad at the piece of shit car won' t make her feel better. Coursing God and anybody who crosses her path will do no good either so resignation is the only thing left; being stoic is her way of dealing with bad things. Still, there have been so many times that Debbie has felt like blowing up and throwing a kicking and screaming tantrum and cussing God and everybody in heaven and hell. Why can' t things ever work out for her? She doesn' t want much; she can live with the crumbs that others throw away but even those crumbs are denied to her.
Running away from Denver: She had killed a man to prove that she was going to stand her ground but then runs away from Ken, and that, Debbie tells herself, was the motive for this trip from hell. Now she' s stuck atop a frigging mountain with a broken down car, a cat, a little bit of cash, and the clothes on her back. Had she stayed in Denver, everything would still be the same except the part about being stranded on a mountain. Debbie laughs at herself; what a loser she is. Ken is in her mind but she thinks she did the right thing by leaving. She has been many things in her life but she is not a home wrecker and she doesn' t want to become a wedge between Ken and his lovely fat wife. Debbie has enough problems of her own; she doesn’ t need new ones from others.
Regrets are many, what if' s are infinite as are the possible paths that could have been but never were. In another time, in another reincarnation, perhaps she and Ken could have been together. There is that unspoken desire between them; she knows it is so for Ken too because he was the one seeking her, and that night at the bar, by the sink, that had felt real, but it wasn' t because reality is another thing; Ken is a square peg and she is a round hole. They may dream about getting together but it just cannot work, ever. Like that big ass mountain in front of her, some things cannot be changed.
Debbie hears a vehicle park next to her and a door opens and slams shut. She turns her head and there is Ken, standing next to her car with a look of disbelief in his eyes.
"Ken?" Debbie stands and faces him from the other side of the guardrail. The disbelief on her face matches his. "What the hell are you doing here?" she asks.
"I was looking for you, for hours, since yesterday."
Debbie doesn' t know what to say. What can she say? She is holding Ernie against her chest and his warmth comfort sher. Her heart beats faster and the rush of blood to her head make sher dizzy. Wait! Debbie says to herself, this is not real, the whole thing is a big mistake and Ken must go back to his wife, to his life.
"I have been watching traffic go by for hours in Colorado Springs, hoping to see your car go by," says Ken. "When that didn' t work, I drove south with the hope of catching up with you, if you were indeed going south."
Ken smiles from ear to ear, pulls the wool hat off his head and throws it up in the air and shouts in elation," I can' t fucking believe it! I found you!"
"How did you know I was heading this way?" Debbie voice is soft and shaky.
"Glyn told me. He gave me your cell number too but it is obvious you don' t turn the damned thing on."
"No," says Debbie. Ernie struggles and wants to be put on the ground. "I don' t." She bends over the handrail and puts Ernie on the blacktop. She raises and Ken can see fear and doubt in her eyes, but fear of what? What doubts are there?
"What you want from me, Ken?" asks Debbie with both arms akimbo. Her face is expressionless, at least that is what she is trying to show, a poker player face.
Ken wants to answer but there are no words that can express or explain why he chased after her. Saliva dries up in his mouth. This is it and all he can do is stand in front of her like a moron. What the hell, Ken reassures himself, just open your mouth and let your gut talk because it is obvious your brain is locked.
"I want you. I don' t want to leave you behind like I did that day in Dallas over twenty years ago."The words came out fast and they felt like a hurricane blowing through his throat. "I want you and I' m not leaving without you."
Ken' s heart beats one rev below red line. Debbie' s is not far behind. She steadies herself by putting a hand on the handrail.
"Ken…" She tries to speak. "Don' t be a fool. You' re a married man with a family."
"Was, the lawyers are already taking care of it. The ex gets the house and I get my life back, and I want you in it."
"You moron! You fucking idiot!" shouts Debbie and stars crying. "You don' t know what you' re talking about!"
Ken smiles disappears but he' s telling himself that he is not turning back alone unless Debbie' s kicks him in the ass and sends him on his miserable way. Debbie steps over the guardrail, stops and starts unzipping her pants. They come down to her knees. Ken' s jaw has dropped down to his chest, what the hell? He cannot avoid gawking at her tiny panties and the curves underneath.
"Look, you dumb ass!" says Debbie while pulling her pants down to her ankles. For a moment Ken doesn’ t understand what Debbie is trying to show him, that one of her socks is longer than the other one?
"Look!" says Debbie. "I' m a one legged bitch!"The prosthesis now registers in Ken' s mind.
"And these teeth?" Debbie points to her mouth. "The yain' t real either. I got no teeth!"
Ken says nothing. The sight of Debbie with her pants down to her ankles in a parking lot makes him feel like he is having a bizarre dream, and the cat sitting next to her looking at him with fixed and expressionless eyes adds to that feeling.
"And you know why I lost one leg and my teeth? You know why?"shouts Debbie. Ken shakes his head.
"Cause I ran my car into a mother of two and killed her! That' s why!" Debbie cries hard and starts to pull her pants up but She is having a difficult time doing so. She wobbles and Ken rushes forward but Debbie manages to stand up again, holding her pants with her hands.
They are facing each other now. Ken can see the fat tears on her face and Debbie can not see Ken too well because her eyes are watery.
"Go away," says Debbie almost in a whisper. "Don' t get involved in my messed up life." She turns her face away from him, buttons her pants and wipes her face with the back of her hand.
"Too late for that." Ken speaks in a normal tone of voice. For once, he knows what he wants to say, and how to say it. "We got involved over twenty years ago and have always been involved, and there is nothing that you or I can do about it."
Debbie sobs and turns to look at him.
"I' m sorry," she says.
"There is nothing to be sorry about. I have never stopped thinking about you. Have you stopped thinking about me?"
Debbie shakes her head and her face turns into pure embarrassment.
"Listen," says Ken. "You have done fucked up things, and I have done my share of fucked up things too. All I ask for is for a chance to try to get our lives together. I make no promises and I know we are taking our chances, but that' s what we have always being doing anyway. Let' s do it together and see how far we can go."
"You' re nuts."
"Am I? So what? We have nothing to lose and everything to win. I say, let' s take the chance of our lives and run with it."
Ken places his hand on Debbie' s shoulder and the touch makes him shiver. There is a tumultuous rush of memories, of sensations reincarnated and feelings resuscitated that comes through his fingertips and jolts him from the inside. He thinks he' s going to faint. Debbie feels Ken' s strong hand on her shoulder and for once in her life she doesn' t feel alone. It is just not the mere presence of a body next to her, but of a sincere strength that comes from knowing that somebody cares, no matter how flawed she may be.
"Come back with me, to the Springs," asks Ken. "We can start a life together. We have waited long enough"
Debbie nods, and why not? She has nowhere to go, nobody she can calla friend, and Ken has been in her mind for the last twenty years. Call it fate, destiny or plain luck but now they are standing facing each other and their lives crossing paths to become one seems as natural as the sun rising every morning. Ken pulls her towards him and embraces her. Her legs turn to rubber and a sudden tiredness of over twenty years catches up with her and makes her hang onto Ken like if she were a boneless creature, weakened by years of walking paths that lead nowhere but now she has found something worth hanging on to and she won' t let go. Her tears soak Ken' s shoulder and he just holds her like a delicate thing he is afraid to crush.
The cliché says that everybody deserves a second chance. Debbie and I went to the Humane Society to get her a new kitten. I offered to buy her a new one, a pretty one from a pet store but she said she wanted a thrown away mutt who needed its second chance. I don' t have a problem with that, but I still don' t understand why she had to pick the ugliest cat in the joint.
"How do you like him?" she asked, holding up a scrawny black cat with terrorized yellow eyes. His fur looked like steel wool.
"Is that a cat or a wet possum?"
"Stop it! I think he' s cute."
"We can name him Double Ugly."
Debbie pierced me with her you-smart-ass look, turned to the Humane Society lady and told her," we are taking this one."
We named him Felix, like Felix the Cat character, another black cat with big eyes. I have to admit that the ugly critter has fattened up and is looking a lot better than when we brought him home, and he has shown to be a smart and loyal pet. I cannot say that everybody who gets a second chance will turn out OK, but it is nice to know that there are cases where the second chance bit works.
Our life together has been challenging, rewarding and has had its up sand downs like anybody else' s but dull is not an adjective that I can use to describe it. We had to readjust to each other and our quirks. I think Debbie is a tight wad and a cheapskate. Her idea of dining out is going to Wendy' s. She is the coupon queen of the Springs. Somehow she knows who has the best deals and she always carries a wad of coupons in a fat envelope in her purse. I' m embarrassed when we goto the grocery store and she pulls out that fat thing and starts passing out coupons for everything in the shopping basket. She reminds me of those old ladies who pay with pennies out of a jar.
"Can' t you, you know, like just pay for the damned groceries and be done with?" I told her once. She looked at me with thats quint of hers that I have come to dread.
"I' m saving money," she said and had sounded like Clint Eastwood ready to pull a gun on some scumbag.
"Yeah, I know, but sometimes it' s just easier to pay and go."
"Money doesn' t grow on trees," she said. "At least not where I came from." And she had been pissed at me all day after that so I have learn to keep my mouth shut when it comes to her coupons and the jars of pennies and lose change she treats like they were full of gold coins. Even that piece of shit Geo she drives, she won' t let go of it.
"Honey, let me get you something better."
"What' s wrong with my car?" and there goes that squint again.
"It' s a piece of junk."
"It' s paid for and it runs. I don' t need another car."
I took me days to convince her to at least let me buy her new tires and a two hundred dollar paint job. Now the clunker is all blue with new threads, but she was as happy as if I had bought her a brand new Lexus.
I' m sure that she sees me as reckless with my money but I' m sure that we will either come to a common ground or learn to live with each other' s idiosyncrasies. It is fun to watch her getting used to her new life with me. We live in a small old house on the foothills of Cheyenne Canyon. She thinks it is some sort of palace and cannot believe how big the rooms are. I myself think the rooms are kind of smallish and that the house is cute but not much to look at. But that is the first house she can call home and I imagine that for that reason alone it looks far better to her than anywhere else she has ever lived before.
We behave like stupid children with a sugar overdose. I suppose it can be called middle age love, or overdue love. I don' t know what you call it or what it is but I like the way it feels, we both do. For the first time in years I enjoy the company of a woman. I rush from work to be next to her and she waits for me to come back from work.
I don' t know how long this bliss will last. I don' t know what the future has reserved for us. She doesn' t either. For the moment, we try to enjoy what we have like there will be no tomorrow.
We are in Isla Mujeres. I' m standing on the sandy beach waiting for Debbie to get her prosthesis off. She sits on a beach chair taking the thing off. When she is done she wraps it on a clean towel so the sand won' t get in it.
"I' m ready," she tells me. I scoop her off the chair and carry her in my arms into the warm and clear surf. She kisses me on the neck and says to me," you didn' t have to do it."
She is referring to our wedding yesterday.
I dragged her into the civil registry office in Can cú n and I told the guy in charge that we wanted to get married. Debbie gasped when I said that.
"Señor," said the man. "This is not Las Vegas. Getting a divorce in Mé jico is not easy and it can take a longtime to go through the courts."
"We are not planning on getting a divorce," I said, and I meant it. Debbie just squeezed my arm. A cop and a clerk acted as witnesses to our impromptu wedding and now we have a Mexican marriage certificate hanging on the wall of our room, and it is signed, dated, sealed and as good as anything done in the States. I will see to it when I get back to Denver.
I' m now waist deep into the ocean and I let Debbie down. She stands next to me on her one good leg and puts her arm around my ample soft waist. I put mine over her narrow shoulders. The waves crash against us but united we stand against their foaming power.
It took us over twenty years to be back, but here we are. At the crossroad we met and now we walk the same path.