I was sitting at the bar in the My-Oh-My drinking what was left of my disability check after buying oxy from the retarded janitor at the hospital. The idea of killing someone hadn’t come up yet. I kept staring at the dancer in the cage in the corner. She was short and pale and had the resigned expression of someone floating in darkness just waiting for the next tragedy, exactly the kind of girl I’m always attracted to. I thought if I stared hard enough, she’d look at me, but she never did, which is typical. The retarded janitor often made strange noises and gestures, which is why they made him work in the garage where he wouldn’t frighten the public. Pharmacy storage was right next door. He’d just walk over and steal pills when nobody was looking.
Various other people were drinking or shouting or passed out. I might have gone home, but they’d turned off my electric. So I just sat there getting drunk and staring at the girl and thinking about going to the bathroom for another oxy. The bartender, a muscular woman, was pouring from a bottle of Wild Turkey and for a moment I fantasized she was an angel pouring it for me because I was such a good customer, but of course she wasn’t. But it made me think of the turkeys I saw driving back from the hospital.
They ran across the road in front of me, up the bank into some bushes. A big one stepped out of the brush at the top of the bank and stood there watching me. I stopped the car and stared back. It might have been the oxy I took as I left the hospital, but for some reason I knew exactly what the big one was thinking and even heard the words he was saying in my head.
So, here I am, confronted by a guy in a car. He’s staring at me intensely, as if expecting me to utter some gem of wisdom that’ll solve whatever inane problem he’s facing. Well, here’s news: I’ve got my own shit to deal with. The others are up in the bushes pecking at the ground for bugs to eat, especially ticks. Their thinking is simple: bugs, bugs, bugs. But, man, the stuff in my head. The thing is, you keep the flock safe from raccoons, you hide from eagles, you run away from hunters, you eat bugs. But is that all there is? Now I’m facing a situation. Scuttle away and shoo the flock to safety in the forest? Then what? Resume eating ticks and always looking over my shoulder? But a voice keeps saying do something real for a change. What the hell does that mean? What reality is available to a turkey like me? Jesus, life is baffling. Does any of it make sense? Ticks do taste good, though.
As I was getting ready to go to the bathroom this guy I hadn’t seen for years came into the My. We were in high school together and we were both fuck-ups. What I remembered most about him was how he grinned all the time. It wasn’t that he was trying to be funny, it was just how his face was. He got beat up a lot, of course. Hey, wipe that smile off your face! No? Bam! His name was Rod Something-or-the-Other. He looked around vaguely and then sat on the stool next to me. “Hey,” he said. He was grinning and maybe it was because he was glad to see me, or maybe not. Everybody called him Smiley, I remembered. Also, Dickhead. Time passed and we got drunker. The bottles behind the bar started sparkling like Christmas lights and whispering promises. Rod muttered, “What an asshole.”
“This guy. You don’t know him.”
“I wouldn’t want to, if I have a choice.”
“The thing is,” Rod said and put his head down on the bar. For a minute, I thought he’d passed out. The bartender thought so too and looked like she was going to call a bouncer to throw him out into the alley. The alley smelled of garbage and piss; I knew this because I’d been thrown out there several times myself. But then Rod raised his head.
“It’s personal,” he said.
I didn’t want to know anything personal. I turned away and raised my hand for another drink. The bartender ignored me.
“It was my girlfriend,” Rod said after a while.
“She did something?”
“No, the guy.”
“Maybe she was drunk or high, but regardless. He fucked her.”
“Wow. What did you do?”
“Nothing yet. But I should probably kill him.”
After they threw us out, we decided to go down to the river to this other bar we thought would let us in. It took a while to find the river—was it east or west? When we finally did find it, we rested on the bank in a little cove filled with garbage that had floated in—an old sock, bottles, condoms, syringes, a headless doll baby, the usual things. On the other side of the river, lights roared so loudly they hurt my eyes. This was a casino on a boat. It looked like the kind of place that had nice furniture, good carpets and happy people, exactly the kind of place I knew would never let me in. But Rod had the idea we should steal a boat and row across and win enough money to go to Florida where he had an aunt who managed a store at a marina.
“We could get jobs there,” he explained. “We’d meet rich people and work on their boats around the world.”
It was a good plan, but I pointed out we didn’t know anything about working on boats. “Also, I don’t think they let drunks who smell like garbage into the casino.”
I don’t know if Rod heard me. He was already thinking about something else. “We can’t go to the casino,” he said.
“I know. I just said.”
“Because my girlfriend could be there.”
“Does she work there or something?”
“What do you mean ‘something’? Like a prostitute? Because that guy fucked her?”
“I didn’t mean anything.”
“You wouldn’t believe the things she does.” Rod looked across at the casino one last time. “She probably wouldn’t be there anyway, but you never know.”
We left the river bank and went looking for the other bar where we could keep drinking. But when we found it, it wasn’t there. There was just an abandoned building with the windows broken out and piles of rubbish. The streetlights were out and the shadows kept looking like scurrying animals that could attack us.
Rod sat down on a concrete block and started crying. He wiped snot from his nose. “This is just great,” he mumbled. “We can’t even drink anymore. One more defeat.”
“Look,” I said, “I think I see lights of a place down that way. You look.” Actually, I couldn’t see anything down there except more dangerous shadows.
“You can’t cheer me up. But if I could kill that guy…”
For a while we slept on the river bank on a muddy piece of old rug. Then Rod sat up and punched my shoulder. My first thought was that it was morning and a new day when I could make a plan I might even try to carry out. Then I opened my eyes and saw it was still night. “There’s this guy we can get a gun from,” Rod said happily.
The guy, Rod said, lived near Milheim, a small town down the valley. We walked back to the My-Oh-My and got my car, an old Plymouth with rusted-out fenders and an engine that burned oil and left a black cloud behind me wherever I went. My friends, those still alive anyway, would say, Here comes Smokey. Or, Here comes Asshole, if I’d recently tried to cheat them on some meth or whatever I was selling at the time. There was no other traffic on the valley highway, which was a relief because now there was something else wrong with the Plymouth and it kept wandering back and forth. If there had been traffic, it might have been an Amish family in a horse-drawn buggy with just a dim lantern on the back suddenly appearing in front of us and the wandering Plymouth would have killed them. During the day the Amish buggies were everywhere, backing up normal traffic. You always had to be alert in order to avoid the piles of horse shit they left on the road, so maybe that was why the Plymouth had decided to swerve back and forth.
“Did I know your girlfriend?” I asked as we drove along.
“She dropped out in tenth grade.”
“I almost did the same thing, but my dad beat the crap out of me. This was before he died in that accident. Oh, Jesus!” I wrestled with the steering wheel to avoid something that suddenly appeared in the middle of the road. When I looked in the rearview mirror, it looked like a body wrapped up in dark cloth. It was probably just a deer, but for a second I thought, Wow, a dead Amish girl.
We were maybe a mile or two from Milheim when Rod suddenly shouted, “Hey, pull over here!”
I wrestled the Plymouth off onto some grass. It was so dark and my headlights were so weak I couldn’t really see what I was doing and we crunched into a rock or a root or something and the Plymouth died. Fuck, I thought, we’ll be here forever. It probably was a body back there and when it’s light an Amish lynch mob will come after us. How’d I get hooked up with this guy anyway? No wonder they called him Dickhead when they weren’t calling him Smiley.
I was about to say something that would make Rod cry again, but he was already out of the car running across the road toward a cemetery on the hillside. Its tombstones gleamed dully in the night. Most were small and square, in ragged rows like bad teeth. But toward the front was one tall one overlooking the rest. Its base was blocky and its spire looked like a lighthouse. Rod flopped to his knees in front of it. I wanted to stay in the car and dream I could change my life around. But I knew that was only a childish thought.
“See this?” Rod said when I crouched beside him. He flicked his lighter and pointed at a metal plaque on the tall tombstone with the dead person’s name on it.
The whole place was creepy. There were no houses nearby, and the highway was empty, just darkness all-around. My skin felt like it was crawling. But Rod looked excited. His eyes flashed in the lighter flame as if the alcohol in him was on fire. “Supposedly, the guy buried here killed his wife. This was a long time ago. With a big knife.”
“Why?” I asked.
“I dunno. Probably she was a slut too. The point is, he got off—he was some kind of big shot. Time passes and he dies and they bury him here and put up this big stone.”
“Let’s go find the dude with the gun so I can go to sleep.”
But Rod wasn’t listening. “Then, blood came out of the stone in the shape of a knife. They’d wipe it off, but it kept coming back. So finally they covered it with this plate.”
“Let’s go. This place is weird.”
Just then, headlights appeared down the highway. We lay down behind the big tombstone. The car went by. Rod jumped up and ran across the road to the Plymouth and opened the trunk. When he came back, he was carrying a tire iron. He started prying at a corner of the metal plate.
“What the fuck?”
“I wanna see the bloody knife,” Rod said. He was grunting and prying. “All my life since I heard that story, I’ve wanted to do this.”
Well, I thought, at least he has a goal in life, even if it’s a stupid one. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had a goal, probably never.
Suddenly Rod stopped. He peered into the darkness up the slope past the tombstones. “There,” he whispered. “They’re coming toward us.”
I strained to see. At first there was nothing, just the blackness and the tarnished glimmer of the tombstones. I strained harder. “Jesus,” Rod said. “It’s ghosts or something.” Then I saw them too. Shapes marching down the slope toward us. Whatever they were, they were making snuffling noises.
We ran back across the highway to the Plymouth. The starter ground and whined, but I finally got the engine going. “Let’s go, let’s go,” Rod was shouting. I slammed down the gas pedal as far as it would go. The tires slipped back and forth. Then the car bounced and lurched back onto the pavement.
We were almost sideways and I hauled at the steering wheel to get us pointed in the right direction. In the process the headlights swam up across the cemetery slope. That’s when we saw that the ghosts marching down to attack us were actually a flock of turkeys, a big one in the lead.
“Gobble, gobble, gobble,” Rod said. He was laughing, but I knew God was trying to tell me something.
Milheim was totally dark when we got there. Nothing open, not even one of those 24-7 markets with some raghead behind the bullet-proof glass, where you could get a six-pack which I really needed. Rod was leaning toward the windshield, peering out at the darkness. “I think it’s the next street,” he said. “I remember there was Santa in a sleigh on the lawn right before you turn.”
“Santa? It’s the middle of August.”
“I guess they leave it up all the time. I mean, where would you store Santa and his sleigh? It’s big.”
We drove another block and there on the corner was Santa Claus in a sleigh. Rod chortled happily. But as for me, I always found Santa creepy, sliding down chimneys to sneak a peek at the little boys and girls, but maybe that’s just because of something that happened to me once. Anyway, I didn’t say anything and made the turn. The road climbed steeply into the mountains. It was even darker here and there were trees everywhere and probably bears. “Go slow,” Rod said, “so I can remember. There was a giant man with an ax at the entrance.”
Does everyone here have weird things in their yard? That made me think of my father. One time when he was drunk he put a dog harness on my baby sister and tethered her to a stake in the yard. “Now, Goddamnit, carry on that wailing out here and stop bothering me!” he shouted at her. She never told me anything else he might have done to her, but I could imagine. When she was thirteen she put Drano in his coffee, just not enough. He spit it out and then went after her with his belt, worse than the last time. The next day she ran away. I never saw her again. Sometimes, I miss her; she used to listen to my idiot schemes as if they made sense.
“There!” Rod shouted and sure enough to my left was a huge man, maybe eight feet tall, holding an ax on his shoulder. I turned and we bounced down a long dirt road until the headlights found a log house. In front of the house was a Beetle up on blocks with a bumper sticker that said, “In the Event of the Rapture, This Vehicle will be Unoccupied.”
“He’s a very religious person,” Rod explained.
“I bet he’ll be a very pissed-off person if we wake him up at 3 in the morning.”
Suddenly, a big, snarling dog tore around the corner, throwing slobber everywhere, but was yanked off its feet when it came to the end of its chain. The front door of the house opened and a short, fat man with a beard to his belly and hair to his shoulders came out with a shotgun.
“He never sleeps,” Rod said. “At night, he sits in the dark and thinks. He’ll remember me.”
“What does he think about?”
“I asked him once. He said, ‘You don’t want to know.’”
Rod got out of the car, walked forward and mounted the porch steps. Both the fat man and the dog stared at him. The dog started snarling and slobbering again, but the fat man just kept staring. Then he smiled and put his hand on the top of Rod’s head, like a priest. They went inside. The dog crawled under the porch.
About ten minutes went by, then the front door opened and Rod walked back to the car. The dog didn’t even come out to snarl at him. Rod, of course, was grinning. He settled himself in the car seat, lifted his shirt and pulled out a small gun. It was tarnished and looked banged up and one of the grip pieces was missing, but it was a gun.
“Dude, you really did it,” I told him. “I thought you were just full of shit.”
I took another oxy. Then we drove back down the mountain to Milheim and then back past the cemetery and on down the valley to the city. I thought maybe just getting the gun would be enough for Rod and I could drop him off and then go someplace and sleep. But no, he wanted to go see the guy.
“The guy that…?”
Maybe it was the last pill I took, but as we were heading for the Fifth Street Bridge the Plymouth started wandering back and forth again. Eventually it got so bad we banged into the curb and bounced up onto the grass of the park that runs beside Old River Road. As soon as we came to a stop I jumped out, staggered to a lamppost and threw up. My head was spinning. The clouds seemed to be breaking apart, allowing daggers of moonlight to seek me out as if they wanted to impale me. The river was right there, not thirty feet away, with black birds as big as houses floating along on it. Or was I just having visions? I staggered away from the lamppost. A voice near me said, “Ho, is that you, Jimmy?” It turned out the voice belonged to a homeless guy lying under a tree. But inside my spinning head, a voice was saying to me that at least Jimmy, whoever he was, must have done something right in order to have his name called out in the night.
Eventually I managed to get back to the Plymouth and start it up. Rod was just sitting there holding the gun. We drove across the bridge to a dilapidated neighborhood of old shotgun houses the railroad built many years ago before it pulled out of the city. Now they were basically flop houses where dopers and cripples and old people with no money lived, just hoping they wouldn’t get killed in one of the gunfights that often erupted.
Rod told me to stop across from a house with a porch that had fallen apart and a giant pile of old tires in its small yard. For a while we just sat there. Every so often Rod would laugh. There were several loud pops down the street—maybe a backfiring car but probably a gun. Rod nodded as if a message had been conveyed.
“Well, that’s interesting,” he said and got out of the car.
I thought about just driving away, but finally I followed him across the street. There was faint music from upstairs, some weird foreign-sounding thing. I was still thinking about leaving but couldn’t make up my mind. Rod pushed the front door open, so I had to follow.
The hallway was dim. There were doors along it, some open, some closed. Various noises seeped out: snoring, grunts and groans, an intake of breath like sucking a crack pipe, a drawn-out scream. The place smelled awful, like rotten fish and various secretions. We climbed the rickety stairs at the end of the hall. Rod went to a door behind which the strange music was playing. He had the gun stuck in his waist. He took it out and held it up. Both of us looked at his hand shaking. I thought he’d probably turn around and walk out of the building. But I willed him to stay. For some reason—probably that scream I’d heard—I felt invigorated and wanted to see what would happen.
At that moment the door opened. A young, skinny black girl stood there holding a pipe curling sweet-smelling smoke into the air. She was probably 14 or 15 and had a long, livid scar on her cheek. How sad and beautiful she looked holding that pipe! She looked like the sort of person who would wander into my dreams and come to a bad end. “I was gone down there to pee,” she said. I saw a question just for me shimmering in her eyes. Then she looked at Rod and the gun he was holding. “He’s in there,” she said and ran out between us and down the hallway. We went into the room.
Candles burned here and there and that weird music came from a boombox in the corner. A man was lying on a mattress on the floor, his head propped against the wall. He had a beard and he looked like an old man. He was naked except for his underwear and socks. They were old-fashioned socks that came way up his legs.
Rod took a couple steps until he was about six feet from the guy. The guy didn’t move at all, just stared at us with red, wet eyes that made me think he knew how demented God could be. His hands were flat on the mattress, and his fingers wiggled back and forth like little snakes, the only movement.
“Is that him?” I asked Rod.
“Probably,” Rod said, but it sounded more like a question. The man on the bed frowned. Yes, I thought, he did know about God’s mental state.
“Well?” I said.
Rod’s hand with the gun was shaking even more. “I don’t know,” he said.
The dark room, the sputtering candles, the weird music from the boombox, the man lying on the bed, it all suddenly seemed familiar. It was like a dream I’d had, or maybe just thought I’d had, or anyway wished I’d had, perhaps one of those dreams entered by the sad and beautiful little black girl with the scar. Whatever it was, it was something real, a plan, that seemed to hover right there. Right there!
“I do,” I said. “Give me the gun.”
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