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Walter Giersbach
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devilspickup.jpg
Art by John Thompson © 2018

Something About the Devil’s Pickup

 

Walter Giersbach

 

Andre’s legs ached and his asthma threatened to choke him into a gasp that would give him away.  RJ’s yellow Chevy pickup sat monument-like in the dirt road.

He’d ridden his bike to the top of Mootry Hill.  Andre wouldn’t give a rat’s ass about RJ, a doper and dirt bag, if it weren’t for his pickup.  Josie, slobbering over him in the cab, was his dumb stepsister. 

“Oh, no,” his stepmother said when RJ was in high school.  “He’s simply misunderstood.”  Arlene came on like an earth mother seeing innocence in all youth.  Ha ha, New Mom.  Andre explained RJ sold crystal meth and bought vodka for kids, but she wouldn’t listen.

The doors opened and the couple orbited to the back of the truck.

“Why not here?” RJ demanded.

“Cause maybe we’re not alone.”  She was wearing cut-offs and a sleeveless top.  Flip flops on her feet in the woods.  Not smart.

RJ began pulling at her shirt and pants.

“Not in the dirt, RJ.  Jeez, you’re terrible.”  Josie gave a defensive ha-ha, wiggled her butt and took a step away to peel her clothes.

“Then on that door.”  RJ pulled a weather-beaten wooden door out of the brush a few yards from where Andre hid.  What was a door doing at the top of the hill, Andre wondered.  Mootry Point was the end of the trail for many things.

 

Andre watched with sick curiosity as RJ flopped on Josie.  She resembled the frog he had to dissect in biology.  It was the first time he had seen Josie naked, making conflicted thoughts tumble through his mind. 

Neither RJ or Josie said a word.  Josie lay like another piece of trash discarded in the woods. 

“Go get me a towel from the truck,” RJ said, rolling over.

“Where’s my panties?  Oh, goddammit, you kicked them in the dirt.”

“I told you to get me that towel!”

“I’m not going to run around naked in the town park.”

RJ slapped her in the face.  It sounded like a piece of steak tossed on a countertop.  “Bitch, I tell you to do something, you do it.”

“RJ, that’s the last time you’ll slap me.  I’m sick and….”

He hit her again, knocking her head back.  “Just get out of my life, Josie.”

Josie scooped up her pants and shirt and hobbled robot-like to the trail head, working to get her toes through her rubber flip-flops.  “Bastard!” she screamed.  Her last word ended in a sob.

 

*  *  *

 

RJ was maybe two or three years older than Andre.  Hard to be sure since RJ had been left back one year and quit school as soon as he could.  Thing was, RJ was blessed with being six feet tall, about 190 pounds and movie-star handsome.  Andre was self-conscious, asthmatic, a skinny kid who could only envy RJ.  Josie could’ve had any guy she wanted, but RJ’s magic lay in the Chevy pickup.

Everyone oohed and aahed over his 1960 Chevy C/K mustard yellow pickup.  It had big-ass bogger tires on chrome rims and eight yellow spotlights on the roof in a row of manic happy faces.  RJ had also done something to the straight six engine that made it purr like a kitten at the curb and growl like a lion as it laid rubber in first gear.  The truck more closely resembled a fire-breathing yellow dragon than a workhorse for hauling.

Andre watched as RJ pulled on his pants, propped up the door and lay back to soak up the sun.  And whiskey.  And smoke.  Then more whiskey before his head hit the door.

Squirrel-like, Andre inched out of the bushes.  Three things collided in Andre’s mind:  RJ wasn’t going to wake up for a long time, he’d made Josie cry after treating her like an exercise machine, and there was a roll of duct tape in the truck bed.  He began pulling off long swaths of tape, wrapping it over RJ’s legs and around the door, working his way up to his waist.  RJ didn’t stir when Andre drew the tape over his arms and chest.

 

 “Try to get out of this one, asshole,” Andre whispered.  Before leaving, he rolled up the truck windows.  If the predicted storm arrived, he’d be personally offended if the truck were to get soaked.

 

*  *  *

 

“I’m fine, Mom,” Josie repeated.  Andre’s stepmother persisted, inveigling the girl-woman into giving up information.

“You have a bruise on your cheek.  It was boy trouble, wasn’t it?”  Arlene McManus was wearing puce today, puce-colored cropped pants and tight-fitting top with a décolletage deeper than Fairfield County women usually wore.  She stood with her wrist hooked provocatively on a hip, making Andre recall a kid saying, “Mrs. McManus is a thong mommy.  Can’t stand the fact she’s not a teenager.”

“A bruise.  I mean, my God.”

Josie stalked up to her bedroom.

The woman sighed dramatically and stared at Andre.  “Your father’s in Afghanistan, Andre, so I’m delegating you to be the man of the house, in a manner of speaking.”

Andre knew the complications of being brought into the family fray.  “So?”

“So, I’m asking you to talk to Josie and see what’s wrong.”

Andre rolled his shoulders.  “Nothing I can say that Josie hasn’t heard before.” 

 

*  *  *

 

The cop didn’t appear for three days.  In that time, Andre had worried that RJ would storm up and beat the shit out of him.  Maybe that he’d gotten so pissed in his little lizard brain that he’d simply leave Josie. 

Josie was returning from work at the bakery when Matt Riorden pulled up at the curb.

“Josie, I need to talk to you.” 

Andre categorized Riorden as a “nice guy” who had played quarterback for the Panthers when Andre was a sophomore.  He had dated Josie once or twice before RJ came into the picture. 

“It’s about RJ Kaminski.”

“What about RJ?”  She ran her fingers through her brown hair. 

Andre came to the door, shivering in the cold snap.  Josie leaned against the porch column with her arms behind her back.

“He hasn’t been home for the last coupla days.  Seen him?”

Josie shook her head.

“Seen his truck?  Can’t miss that yellow beast, can you?  Or hear it.”

“Haven’t seen his truck either.”

“Well, when’s the last time you saw him?”  Riorden inched closer, staring at Josie as though he were following a lesson plan for interrogation.  “Time and place, Josie.  Where?”

“Uh, we drove around a couple days ago, then he dropped me off.”

Lie!  Andre put his inhaler into his mouth and sucked.

“Drove around where?”

“Around Danbury.  Stopped in the Sycamore Diner.  RJ likes to show off his truck.”

Riorden stared.  Maybe he didn’t notice Josie rubbing her nose.  Finally, he said, “Well, you let me know if he calls or you see him.”  Then he turned back to his squad car.

What the hell happened, Andre wondered.  Andre hadn’t taped RJ’s nose and mouth.  Anybody could’ve gotten out of that duct tape by chewing himself free or something. 

 

*  *  *

 

Before breakfast on Saturday, Andre shouted upstairs, “I’m gonna take my bike and get some exercise!”  The announcement was all he needed to communicate, as though the small ranch house was a recording instrument.

It took forty minutes to get up to Mootry Point.  Sweat pouring into his eyes belied autumn’s chill, then he spotted the truck.  The yellow dragon was now twenty yards off the trail, pushed down an incline, dustier from wind and snow but still bewitching.

He squinted, wondering where RJ was.  Then he saw him, farther off the trail under a pile of brush and leaves.  He pushed aside the branches.  RJ’s eyes were closed, still impersonating the Silver Surfer.

A dead surfer.

Andre coasted downhill the whole way home.  Thinking.  Who moved the truck?  Who camouflaged RJ’s body?  Hikers coming by wouldn’t have seen him.  Probably not seen the truck either.  Somebody had rolled the truck down the hill and covered the body.

The rest of the week, Andre scrutinized his half sister.  She’d return from work late and, once, smelled of beer.  Didn’t go out socially.  Slept more when she wasn’t working. 

He was playing a video game when he felt a damp hand on his neck.  He looked up, ready to curse Josie, then saw it was Arlene who had helped herself to Josie’s wardrobe.  A too-tight sweater and a push-up bra made her look like a dollar-store Dame Edna.

“Andre, are you happy?”  He smelled whiskey on her breath.  “I want so much for our family to be normal.  Till your father comes home and we’re all together.”

“Yeah.  I’m happy.  And normal.” 

Her teeth gently tugged at his ear.  “Then try to act happy.  Give me a hug now and then.  Show some appreciation for all that I do.”

Andre’s heart beat faster.  What did that ear bite mean?  Arlene wasn’t unattractive, but his stepmother for Chrissake!  “I gotta go,” he said.

 

*  *  *

 

A park worker discovered RJ’s body on the first warm day in March.  Small animals had gnawed at him, so the News-Times had to rely on a photo of the truck the police impounded.  The paper printed a map of Tarywile Park with an X to mark RJ’s mortal end. 

Riorden came back with another officer, asking Josie the same questions.  Again, Josie played ignorant. 

Shortly afterwards, he heard Josie on the phone.  “I’d like that,” she cooed.  “Awesome.  So, Saturday night?”

“And that would be some hotshot who wants to cuddle and huddle?”  His eyebrows went up in little half moons.

“Matt Riorden asked if I’d like to go out.  Not that it’s any of your business.”

“It’s kinda my business.  I called the police station when the story got in the paper.  Told them RJ had been a good friend and mentor.”

“Mentor, my ass.”

He shrugged.  “RJ didn’t have any police record, but they found weed in the truck.  That made it a drug bust so the cops confiscated the truck.  I put in my bid.  Riorden said something to the chief, and he said I could have the Chevy if I paid Blue Book price.  No need to wait for the auction.”

“You’re buying RJ’s truck?”  Josie’s eyes got big.

 “This week.  I told Riorden I really, really wanted it for sentimental reasons.  My dear stepsister’s old boyfriend, et cetera, et cetera.”

“You little shit!”

“Also, Josie, I want you to be nice to me.  It’s the least you can do after killing RJ.”

“I never!  I never!”  Her eyes widened.

“Okay.  Accessory for hiding his body and pushing the truck off the road.”

Her eyes opened up like olives on a white plate.  “How did…?”

“Be nice.  I’m your alibi.”  He walked out of the room, knowing he’d delivered his best line ever. 

Andre thoroughly cleaned and waxed the truck.  Registration and licensing went through DMV without question.  The clerk even sympathized over the loss of a friend.  “Can’t ever tell how many crazies are out there,” the DMV lady said. 

 

*  *  *

 

Electricity flowed through Andre’s body every time he turned the ignition.  The engine’s throaty growl became a woman’s ecstatic moan when he’d roll in or out of the school parking lot.  “This is what it means to be an American,” he told a friend.  “It’s not what you got in your head or pockets, it’s how many cubic inches under your hood.”

Walking to the lot after classes, he saw Deirdre running her hand over the fender.

“Hey, Andre, help me?  I gotta get over to the Mall and pick up some pictures.  I need a ride, pretty please?”

A clique of students had labeled Deirdre Owens “Snow White” for her resemblance to Disney’s black-haired naïf.  Someone said her white skin looked like a condom filled with skim milk. 

“Yeah, c’mon.”

“This is RJ’s truck, isn’t it?  He drove me home once.  What an egotistical jerk, but I’m sorry he got killed.  Sorry about your sister, too.  You know, cause they were going together.”

“Could’ve been worse for RJ.”  

Whaaat!”

“That guy in Brookfield years ago.  He put his wife in the wood chipper.  That’s worse.”

“Jesus, I can’t believe you said that!”  Deirdre laughed so that her breasts jiggled.

Friday night, Andre asked Deirdre to the movies.  Running out of words was the problem, but Deirdre didn’t mind his silences when she was in the truck.

“Want to get a cup of coffee and talk some?” she asked afterwards.

“Talk?”

She shrugged.  “Whatever.  You know.  It’s Saturday night.”

They had sodas and hamburgers at the Sycamore Diner.  The lot was full of Chevy Bel Airs and modified Model As and a sleek early Thunderbird.  Andre warmed to the glow of recognition when someone said, “Nice wheels.  Nineteen sixty one or -two?

“Sixty,” he said.  “Drop center ladder frame is why it sits lower.  Independent front suspension.”  Deirdre tightened her grip on his arm

The first hints of summer wafted up the hills as Andre felt a weekend, a Disney princess, and the sexiest truck in Fairfield County were all waiting.

“Go for a drive?” he asked on impulse.

“Why not?”

It didn’t feel awkward letting Deirdre direct him to Candlewood Lake.  Her instructions seemed instinctual as she pointed to turnoffs and dirt roads.

“Stop here,” she said.  Then she was in his arms and pulling on his shirt. 

Reason deserted Andre’s mind as her hands rubbed his chest.  Blindly, he began tugging at Deirdre’s clothes.  “I want to eat up the world tonight,” he whispered, not knowing what the words meant. 

 

*  *  *

 

“Andre,” Josie said plaintively, “borrow your truck so I can run errands?”

“What kind of errands?”

A petulant moue touched her lips.  “I absolutely have to get to the bank.”

“What’s the matter with your car?”

“It’s making funny sounds.  Kind of er-er-er when I back up.”

Andre looked up from the TV set.  “Might be a wheel bearing.  But no to the truck.  I have to pick up Deirdre.”

Goddammit!”

“Call Riordan.  He’ll take you anywhere.  Why don’t you stop off at Mootry Point while you’re at it?”

Josie stiffened.  “What’s that supposed to mean?”.

Softly, he said, “I saw you humping RJ in the woods.  It wasn’t RJ’s fascinating personality.  It was his truck you wanted. ”

Her mouth worked like a fish out of water.  You tied him up.” 

He smiled. “Somebody’s little joke, duct-taping him.  But someone else pushed him into the woods so he wouldn’t make it through the storm.” 

 

*  *  *

 

He and Deirdre were inventive at finding places to make love.  Nice also that Arlene embraced Deirdre like family, inviting her to dinner, having whispered chats, even borrowing her clothes.  “Love that pink jacket,” Arlene cooed.  “I need to know where you got it.”

“It’s too tight in the shoulders,” Deirdre complained.  “Whyn’t you take it?  My Mom’ll buy me something else.”

 

Andre was indifferent to Arlene as long as she didn’t put her cougar moves on him.  Josie settled into a relationship with Matt Riorden.  The episode with RJ didn’t come up again.

Normal family.  Just like a TV show.

The incident came a week later.  Friends from Newtown invited Andre and Deirdre to share a bottle of spiced rum.  As Andre stumbled upstairs to bed after midnight, Josie said, “You’re bagged.  Gonna have a big head tomorrow.  Want some pills to avoid the hangover?”

“Pills?” he asked stupidly.

“Like Alka-Seltzer, but pills.”

He took the pills into the bathroom, stumbling and dropping most of the blue capsules in the dark.  He swallowed the remainder.  Ten minutes later, he rushed back to the bathroom and began retching.  Cramps seized his stomach in a vise-like grip.  At the sink, he looked at the bottle Josie had given him.  In shock, he saw the container had Arlene’s rat poison.

At breakfast, he worked hard to say “Good morning” to his stepmother and the stepsister who had tried to murder him.

After school, he sat in the Chevy debating whether to make an anonymous call to the police.  Josie had no alibi for the afternoon when she’d pushed RJ and the truck into the woods.  He could pin a murder rap on her.  And if he was dragged in, what did they call it?  Justifiable homicide.  She’d tried to murder him.

“Nah,” he said out loud.  But he chewed on the thought through dinner before driving to Deirdre’s house. 

“What’s up, baby?”  Deirdre slid into the passenger seat.

“Just thinking about my weird family.”

She stared into his eyes.  “They’re not weird.  I like your mom.”

“The thong mommy of Fairfield County?” 

“That’s not nice.  She works hard while your dad’s in the Army.”

He changed the subject.  “Nice weather.  I’m going up to the lake.  Okay?”

Deirdre’s lips curled into a grin.  “Can’t.  If I don’t stay home and clean my room tonight, I’ll be grounded.”

Life’s a tragedy, Andre thought.  Everything in the right place — the truck, a little money, a Saturday that could last forever — but no girl.

“Bye-bye,” she called in her sing-song voice.

Alone, he sat in the truck seeing paradise draining away.  Moments later, a Ford Taurus pulled up across the tree-lined street.  Startled, he saw his stepmother extend a long leg onto the pavement and ease her body after it.  He went cold, squinting in the growing darkness at her high heels, cropped pants and Deirdre’s too-tight pink jacket.

“Andre, I want to talk to you.”  She leaned into his window until her face was inches away.  He smelled whiskey on her words.  “You owe me an apology.  I demand respect from you while you live under my roof — our roof — paid for by your father in Afghanistan.”

Thoughts tumbled in his mind.  Two words came out, but they were the wrong ones.  “Hoochie mama.”

Whaaat?  My own stepson saying…?  Andre, I have tried to make you like me, even a teensy bit, and all I get is…is manifest indifference.”

She lunged forward, her mouth closing over his in a sucking kiss.  Her arms wrapped his neck like fleshy tentacles.  “Andre, tell me you like me even a little…?”

A sharp crack broke the still air.  Arlene’s eyes opened wide, witnessing something unseen, as she dropped to the asphalt.

“Damn you, Deirdre!  Damn you, Andre!”  Josie’s shout echoed in the darkness. 

“That’s not Deirdre,” Andre croaked.  “It’s your mom.  Deirdre’s jacket, your mother.”

Andre had never heard a scream like the sound coming from Josie’s throat as she peered at her mother’s face, screamed again, and put the gun to her temple.  A second shot reverberated in the street.

Andre jumped from the truck, stepping on Arlene’s hand, and reaching down to touch Josie’s face. 

Was this how it was supposed to end?  A normal family? 

He had the truck, but now there were three dead people.  Maybe he could simply drive away, keep on driving until he ran out of road.  He’d ask Deirdre to join him.  Even if she refused he’d have the truck and the truck would have him.  It was the American dream, to let your troubles stream out onto the open highway.

He was sorry they were dead.  But they’d be dead for a long time and he had to go on living.  He put his key in the ignition and the truck seemed to respond with love.

 

#  #  #






The Bank-Robbin’ Deacon

 

 by Walter Giersbach

 

That’s what the newspaper called me. “The Bank-Robbin’ Deacon.” 

Damn it, and I even had a drink now and then at the VFW hall with the editor. The Minnetonka bank had been hit for about eighteen hundred bucks. Not a big heist, but the teller took a bullet in the shoulder. 

“I was shopping at the SuperValu at 2:30,” I told Sgt. Reilly after I was charged.  “I think I still have the cash register receipt.” Reilly was a guy I’d gone to school with.

“Thing is,” he said, “we got your picture. Standing at the counter. Holding a gun.  Facial-recognition match. The bank teller you wounded confirmed it was you.  Sorry, Jack.”

Double damn. I needed target practice and I didn’t think the crappy little bank had cameras.  

Reilly apologized before locking the cell door and pointing to a stinking jail mattress.

Next day the judge allowed it was a “first offense” and could have been an “impulse crime.” My wife made bail by emptying our bank account, cashed our savings bonds, and in 36 hours I was back home.

“How could this happen?” Alicia demanded. “You’re a church-going man, a good father. We don’t need the money!”

“That’s what I told the police. And the court. And now I’m going to find a lawyer.  Bob Mackenzie, I think.”

“He writes wills. He’s not a criminal lawyer.”

“Alicia, I need to think. I’m going for a long walk and then head down to the Cozy Corner for a coffee. I’ll be back soon . . . and don’t worry. The Lord is with us.”

 

 

People on Walker Street gave me the fish eye when I passed, or tried to make believe they didn’t see me. I drank my coffee, alone.

Back outside I lit one of the three cigarettes I smoke each day.

“Sorry for the shit dumped on you ‘cause of the bank I robbed.” 

An electrifying shock hit me as I stared at the stranger. It was like looking in a mirror. He wore a T-shirt and blue jeans, but otherwise was my exact image.

“What the hell?” I whispered.

“Yeah,” he said. “Surprise. I said the same thing when I saw your picture in the paper.”

“Who are you?” 

“Beats the shit out of me, ‘cept for one idea. I was an orphan. Got picked out’n an orphanage in Duluth. Coupla years ago, I had a friend sneak a look at their books and found my ma. She was a doper who died a year after dropping us on a church doorstep.” He held up two fingers. “Two kids. Me and my twin.”

“Wait! Wait a minute. You saying you’re my twin brother?”

“You tell me. Was you adopted? You look like your folks?”

A chill ran through my body. Both my mother and father had brown eyes, but mine were robin’s-egg blue—a recessive gene. And Mom used to laugh at the dimple in my chin, saying she thought her grandpa might’ve had one. “When were you born?” I demanded.

“’Bout February of 1984. No birth certificate, so I made it the 29th.” He laughed.  “Leap year. I only age one-quarter as fast as everbody else.”
I inhaled sharply. “That’s my birth date. I have my birthday cake on the 28th.”

“Guess our mama had identical twins. So anyway, I just wanted to say sorry for the shit I got you in. I’m out of here, now. Nice meetin’ you, Bro’. You’ll beat the rap.  Cops got no real proof.” He shot me a salute and turned.

“Wait! What’s your name—‘brother?’ ”

“Call me Jimmy.” He smiled, kind of brotherly.

“Well, Jimmy, stay in touch, and happy trails. I’m the VP of Purchasing in that big foundry outside of town.” 

I should have said thank you. Now, on Monday, I could hit the armored car courier while he was getting coffee, before dropping off our payroll. About 20 thousand, I figured.

If the cops questioned me, I’ll know where to send them to find the thief. That facial recognition photography sure is something.”

 

 

 

Best Enemies Forever

by Walter Giersbach

 

Eben overheard nurses chattering.  Only fifty-six . . . atrial fibrillation. Talking like squirrels rustling in the leaves. Ignoring him as though he were already dead.

 

He continued clicking through laptop screens. Screw the bitches in white. They did what they had to do; he had his own imperatives. His lifeline was the dozen Twitter feeds and chat rooms where he was Coyote, the insider and tipster.  His barbs and quick wit, arcane economic patterns, and a deep well of knowledge secured respect and fear.

 

Eben’s roommate — a cancer patient anticipating death — turned on the TV. Eben considered hurling insults as Christmas carols blasted off the walls. Stifling the urge to throw something, he returned to his laptop.

 

His computer chirped, “We’ve found the friend you’ve been looking for.” He clicked the link, and Myra’s name and photo appeared. Trust a search engine to find someone who had disappeared from the fray.

 

All derision drained as he stared at her picture. She was the opponent he’d never vanquished. They would slip apart after brutal acquisition battles, only to run afoul of each other in board rooms and courts. At different times, she was with Silicon Valley startups while he managed an array of money management firms selling them short. Another time, she directed a billion-dollar acquisition while he was in the Caribbean, killing her efforts with rumors. 

 

“Myra,” he sighed. “Are you still pissed at me always getting the best of you?  Don’t be such a pussy.”

 

“You okay, Eben?” Nurse stuck her head in the door.

 

 “That’s Mister Ebenezer to you.” He clicked through to Facebook, punched in a friend request, and was rewarded with Myra’s instant acceptance.  

 

“Hey, Eben,” Myra texted. “My fatwa still stands. You’re going to be dead before Christmas.”

 

“Forgive me, old girl. If I’m not near the girl that I hate, I hate the girl that I’m near.”

 

“Same aggressive jerk. Still calling yourself ‘Coyote’? Get real. You’re not the trickster. Just another three-card monte dealer trolling Wall Street.”

 

Time was suspended as they pushed and pulled at old memories. This was a woman he could have ruined just for the thrill. 

 

The nurse interrupted. “Will you put down that computer long enough for me to do this EKG?”

 

“Piss off,” he shouted. “Feel free to use my water bottle for a rectal thermometer.”

 

Returning, Myra wrote, “Ciao, Eben. Got to go. I’ll be waiting in hell for you.”

 

Two wives had come and gone, both bitch goddesses. But Myra was his forever enemy. Hate and love were two sides of the same coin. Nurse asked why he was chuckling. 

 

“I was remembering when a lovely lady and I were caught hiring the same law firm to destroy each other. What a glorious ending then, when the Feds went after her!” More laughter came to his gut, recalling the time Myra saw him at DeGaulle Airport Duty-Free Shop and threw a two-hundred-dollar bottle of Scotch at him.  Love of battle was so exhilarating! 

 

“You’re weird,” Nurse said. He overheard her talking outside: “Gotta have a heart to have a heart attack.” 

 

She was back an hour later. “You got a visitor.”  

 

He looked up at the only person who had remained constant over the years.  Bergerson was friend, confidant, and lawyer. “What’ve you got today?”

 

“Mail, Ebenezer. Paperwork. No problem. I got you covered.”

 

“Bergy, I’d like Stella to make sure my houseplants are watered when she comes to clean,” he said. “And while I think of it, if something should happen — you know, something — see that she gets a nice gift from my estate. Five figures, at least.”

 

“Reminds me,” Bergerson said, sitting down. “I had a call from a lawyer in Manhattan. Remember Myra Kostyrka? You and her in those epic battles?”

 

Eben pushed the laptop aside and stared hard. “Yes.”

 

“Her lawyer said she died yesterday. 

 

Yesterday? Then who. . . ?

 

Aloud, he said, “I’ll miss that bitch. It wasn’t about the money. Just the chase.”

 

“Before she died, she told the lawyer to get a message to you. Said she’s the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Said she’ll see you soon for payback. What’s that mean?”

 

Eben managed a crooked smile. “She wants a rematch. For old times’ sake.” 





Cleaning Up After the Narc

 

Walter Giersbach

 

It had been almost three years since I’d seen old Americans, fat ones, ones on crutches.  Or roundeye women.  I’d been away dodging bad guys in Vietnam.  Four weeks back in Manhattan and it was a shock when I ran into Starla Markowski on Second Avenue.

“Jackie Boy, are you a sight!” she shouted.  “Where the hell you been?”

“Avoiding getting shot in ‘Nam.  Christ, is it really you, Starla?”

“In the flesh,” and she shook her breasts.

Her nose was too large.  Her eyelids and eyebrows hung down at the corners, like the laws of gravity were battling the forces of inner enlightenment. Her even white teeth had a distracting gap in front.  A dragon tattoo on her ankle.  But in spite of her grab-bag mix of features, the entire package bubbled over with excitement and energy.  Not tall, not beautiful, but Starla had a personality like a soda bottle ready to pop its cap.

 “So, tell me what’s happening,” she said.

“I’m getting used to what’s changed since I left.”  I already knew everything was upside down.  The long-hair kids were wearing flowers and smoking dope in Tomkins Square.  Fourteen-year-old chicks were hustling change from guys on the street.  New York’s cops were talking about a strike.

“Buy me a drink and I’ll tell you what’s shaking.  I’m waiting tables at a place on 14th Street, a hash house but the food’s good.  Owner’s a guy was hitting on me at a party, so I told him to come across with a job.  Me and him are pals now.  He probably would’ve gave me the key to the joint, but I ain’t easy.  And I got a pad on 12th Street with two roommates.”  She leered.  “Both women.”

Starla was tough as they come.  We’d gone to high school together in Jersey, then I left for two years at Penn State before the Army collared me.  I could write a simple declarative sentence, so when I got back stateside, I found work as a cub reporter on a neighborhood newspaper.   Eighty-five bucks a week paid for my crash pad with the bathtub in the kitchen.

It felt good to have Starla on my arm again.  I guided her to a bar a block from my place on Bowery.  Monaghan’s was an Irish joint filled with geezers, but it had a jukebox stocked with classic swing.

Coming out of Monaghan’s we were knocked backwards as a kid ran past.   He was 10 steps ahead of two uniformed cops closing the distance.  One cop whacked the kid in the head with his nightstick, the other ran up and kicked him in the ribs as he lay there.

“Motherfucker, you halt when I say halt,” one cop shouted.

“Tough town,” Starla said. “Wonder if the kid understood English.”

A tough town, but I was rewarded finding old friends and new.  Weekends were filled with peace and love.  That beat poet Allen Ginsberg showed up regularly at the rallies and peace marches, clanging his little finger cymbals and chanting Hare Krishna.  To me and Starla, this was free entertainment before we went up to her rooftop to drink wine and toke up. 

Me and Starla were over at the park when she said, “Watch out for that guy in the cheap suit.”  She dug an elbow into my ribs and pointed to a middle-aged joker wandering near the crowd.  “He’s a plain clothes narc.”

“What?” I asked.

“Narcotics squad.  Name’s Riorden.  I seen him bust kids for smoking weed.  Literally.  Take ‘em down like dead meat, cuff ‘em and call for a car to haul them off.”

“They can’t do that!”

She smiled.  “Welcome to the Big Apple.  It’s okay if you’re the law.”

It was bad if you’re not the law.  Two weeks later we were back at the park.  Starla said she was going to get some egg creams at Gem’s Spa and for me to wait by the dog walk.  I sat back on a bench and lit a cigarette, happy to be home again.  Then I saw Starla coming back on Avenue A with the drinks.  A cop car pulled up to her, the guy she tagged as a narc jumped out and hit her in the head.  Riorden.  As she dropped her drinks and began to fall, he grabbed her and swung her limp body into the car.

“Hey!” I shouted, running up the street. When I got to the avenue the car — with Starla in it — had zipped through a red light.  Two ladies standing there stared at me like I was the crazy one.

The New York Post hit me with the news next afternoon.  “Girl Drowns in East River.”  Story ID’d her as an anonymous suicide.  I knew it was Starla when the paper described her ankle tattoo.  A photo of the Manhattan Bridge was illustrated with a dotted line showing the arc Starla’s body took going over the edge.

That night I started drinking and thinking about Starla.  She wasn’t an uptown la-de-da queen, not a Wall Street hotshot, not a friend of the mayor.  Just a sweet dumb kid.  And now she was dead for no reason at all.  Because of Riorden.

With Starla gone my place felt eerily quiet, the way Manhattan goes silent when a car alarm in the street finally stops.  The whole world had gone empty because Starla was dead.  And all the training America had given me to deliver justice in Vietnam rushed back.  It was time to do some house cleaning. 

A couple of calls to the Police Department got me Riorden’s office phone number.  “There’s a drug delivery at midnight tomorrow night,” I told his answering machine.  “Two kilos that a Mexican kid is delivering.  They’ll be at the  park along the East River at Eighth Street.  I’m just an anonymous concerned citizen.”

I took the next day off work at the paper — Monday.  A bad summer cold, I told my boss.  Then I called a guy name of Little Jeffrey who sold Starla a nickel bag of weed every now and then.  Told him he could find the narc who killed Starla at midnight.  He might even invite his dealer friends to join him in a Waste Riorden party.

That night was cool and foggy as I lay in the riverside park’s shrubbery.  And waited.  For Riorden.  For the dealers.  For whoever wanted to rumble.  I brought my Dad’s old Army revolver just in case.  If the dealers didn’t waste Riorden, I’d have to.  But I hadn’t reconnoitered the park and was surprised to see construction there.  Piles of rock and timbers, a boom for hauling stuff, tangles of rope and wire.  A real mess.

Half an hour later three guys in hoodies strolled by.  Suddenly Riorden jumped out screaming “Police!”  The three dealers, who were just long-hair hippies, scattered.  Then I heard a gunshot from one of the hippies.  Wild West, I thought, lying there in the grass.  Riorden skipped toward the river bank for cover, jumping over the piles of construction shit. 

“Police,” he screamed again, this time in a falsetto.  Bastard knew he was outnumbered, but he’d wanted to make the collar on his own.

Another wild shot, but this one clanged off a metal girder.  Must have hit a lock because something started dropping from the scaffolding.  Riorden realized what was happening as a rope snapped around his ankle.  The bucket hanging from the boom started down and Riorden began a swift rise up.  His arms grabbed the rope around his leg, but he couldn’t get untangled before his head hit the boom.  Then the bucket of rock and stuff smashed, spilling over the sidewalk.  Riorden — being heavier — dropped 30 feet.

It wasn’t pretty.  Riorden was laid out flat.  The dopers walked away into the darkness.  I crossed back over the East River Drive to the Bowery and my empty pad. 

Next day’s Daily News couldn’t explain what a police detective was doing hanging round dead at midnight by the East River. 

Soon’s work ended, I headed for the Dom on St. Marks Place.  I found a couple pals at the bar and said, “Riorden the narc won’t hassle the neighborhood anymore.”  My glass was never empty that night as we toasted Starla.

#  #  #




 

 

 

Switchbacks in the Forgotten Corner

 

Walter Giersbach

 

There are woods in northeast Connecticut where you can step off the trail and disappear till a hunter trips over your bones a year later. Locals call this the Forgotten Corner and spiel about the land that time passed by. Back in New Jersey, with a 7-Eleven at every corner, we call those places graveyards.

That’s where I found Sam Dexter, the chief of police up in Putnam. He’ll be out of a job in a year, replaced by the state police if the town can’t raise the money to pay him. 

“Mikey,” he told me over the phone, “I don’t mean to call in favors, but I need you to come up and see what you make of a case I have. It’ll be the last straw if the state takes over.”

I needed to get away from Newark, fast becoming Murder City, U.S.A.  Fortunately, the captain gave me a compassionate leave to recover from the last killings. I’d been five minutes too late to save a kid from the projects who was shot by his crack head father. Dad wouldn’t give up the gun and I didn’t feel so hot after murdering a murderer. 

Next day I headed up the Parkway.

“Dr. Bone is one of two doctors here, Mike,” Sam explained when we were settled on his patio sucking on a couple of cold beers. “Yeah, Dr. Neville Bone.  That’s his real name. His wife went missing a week ago, along with the guy who runs a chili and hotdog stand at the edge of town. Put two and two together and you have a runaway couple. Doc believes they were having an affair.”

“Happens all the time, Sam. Easy enough to track them. Cell phone calls, credit cards.”

His beefy face crinkled in concern. “Jesus, that’s obvious. Think we didn’t check that? They took their wallets and purse and some clothes. The owner of the chili dog shack — guy name of Nathan Crutchfield — he’s single. No one’s looking for him.”

“Doctor have a family?”

“Got a boy about eleven years old. Doc’s a nice guy who came down here from Mass General Hospital in Boston last year. Wanted to bring up the family wholesome like. Wholesome we got a lot of.”

I tipped down the last of my beer. “You want me to see him, this doctor?  Tell him Connecticut has to import detectives?”

“Christ, Mikey, you owe me from when we were partners patrolling Newark’s Ironbound Section! Tell him you’re a private investigator hired by the wife’s sister.”

“That’s against the law, Sam. And I’d need some background on the wife.”

I’m the law in Putnam!” He slammed his arthritic hand on the chair. “His wife Celia came from Brookline, Massachusetts. Some money there, I think. Her sister Amelia’s concerned enough to hire a P.I.”

*  *  *

The doc’s house was down a street off Five Mile River Road. That street turned into a one-laner buried in a forest. I get goosebumps when the sidewalk ends, and this was the woods out of some fairytale. Sam called this the Quiet Corner, but tourist books refer to it as the Forgotten Corner. Forgotten is right, and I swore as I slammed on my brakes. The car skidded to a stop three feet from a little girl standing in the road. Kid was barefoot wearing a skimpy blouse and cutoff jeans. 

“Jesus, kid, you could get killed playing in traffic.”         

She looked startled, clutching a handful of flowers harder before scampering off into the brush. The feral figure disappeared with her long hair waving goodbye.

Doc’s house was a hundred yards around the next bend — one of those contemporary places that look like an explosion in a geometry class.

“I just heard from Chief Dexter in town,” the man said opening the door.  “Said my sister-in-law Amelia had hired a detective. Well, I welcome every attempt to find Celia and that bum she ran off with. Imagine a mother running away from her little boy!” 

The doc was TV handsome — Hollywood casting for an elegant doctor to walk around with a stethoscope.

“What makes you think your wife and this Nathan took off together, Neville?” I asked. He recoiled. Doctors do that when you don’t call them Doctor. 

“Because they’re both gone. Left on the same day. No goodbyes or go-to-hells.”

“You and your wife have any problems? Marital troubles? Any enemies?”

He opened his arms wide as if to say “Who could have problems with a wife like mine?” and pointed to a framed photo of Celia. Celia was stop-the-train beautiful, with a face carved out of ivory, a promising hint of cleavage and hair the color of weathered shingles on a Jersey shore bungalow. 

He answered my routine questions, then I asked him to show me the house — their bedroom, the kid’s room, the basement they’d fixed up like a classy bar with paneling, mirrors and a shelf of booze. 

“You a smoker, Neville?” I pointed to an overflowing ashtray in the basement. “Gauloises cigarettes. And you a doctor. I’m shocked.” 

“Celia. I could never make her quit, so I banished her smoking to the basement.” He rubbed his face. “I miss her. God, how I miss her.”

That’s what they all say. It’s the standard response, maybe with a little choke in the voice.

 “Where’s your son?”

“Alexander’s probably out playing in the yard or the woods.”

“Who’s the little girl I nearly ran over driving up?”

He shook his head. “There’re no little girls here.”

The sound of a howling animal shredded the air. We both swiveled to gawk out the living room window. “What the hell is that?” I asked. “Last time I heard shrieks like that a broad saw her homeboy go down in a pool of blood.” 

“Dog, I guess. We also get coyotes, and some people say the wolves are coming back.” He chuckled. “Maybe it’s the Black Dog, the sign of death.”

*  *  *

“You live in a weird part of the world, Sam.” I tossed myself into the chair in his office. “Roads that look like cow paths, howling dogs, little ghost girls.”

“That’s why you’re here, Mike. A fresh point of view.”

“You said the Doc has a little boy?” 

“Alexander. Nice kid. The kind with his nose in a book all the time.”

“Daughter? Straw-colored hair. Maybe ten or twelve years old?

He shook his head. “Just the boy.”

“They have a pet dog? What’s this about a black dog in the woods?”

Sam leaned back. “Oh, Christ, the locals will tell you this legend about a black dog roaming around. See it when you’re hiking and you or a loved one will die soon.”

“Must play hell with your real estate values.”

“Mike, listen, I got to check out a kitchen fire down the road. C’mon over for dinner tonight. I’ll ask my wife to do it up special.”

I waved Sam off to chase his fire and wandered down Main Street looking at the two-story buildings and dusty store windows. No need for surveillance cams in this town. I felt a dozen eyes on the back of my neck as I sauntered up one side and back the next until I got to the chili and dog shack.

“Nathan Crutchfield?” I asked a high-school-aged kid in Crutchfield’s parking lot. Kid was leaning over the engine of a Honda Civic.

“Nathan ain’t here. Took off.”

“Fishing?” My joke. 

“Ran off with the doctor’s wife.” He wiped imaginary grease off his hands.  “She was some looker. Guess she liked his brand of hot dog.”

The shack had a Closed sign in the door.

“He got any relatives here? We’re old friends and I want to pay him back the fifty bucks I owe him.”

“Hell, might’s well give it to me ’cause he got no one I know about.” High School Harry stuck his head back under the hood and made believe I was gone.

I drove out of town past rusted cars in front yards, scrawny dogs — none of them black — lying in the weeds, residents riding little mowers and watching me over their shoulders. The sign at the edge of town said it all: Founded sometime in the 18th century, population 5,000. I wanted to add a line: Fuhgeddaboutit.  Instead, I drove back to Doc Bone’s pile of glass and shingles.

No one answered my knock on the door, so I strolled around back. The kid — Alexander — was lying in an aluminum recliner. 

“Hey, Alexander, your dad at home?”

He put his book down and stared back through thick glasses. “Who’re you?”  The book was an inch thick — a hardcover and no evident pictures. The kid could have stepped out of the 1950s, with his crew cut hair, khaki shorts and a tee that said Black Dog - Martha’s Vineyard.

“Name’s Michael Mullally. Your Aunt Amelia in Boston asked me to talk to your dad. We’re trying to find your mom.”

“Aunt Amelia lives in Brookline, for god’s sake, and Dad’s in town seeing a patient.”

“Can you tell me about the last time you saw your mom?” I pulled up another chair.

“She kissed me goodbye so I could go catch the bus. I forgot my lunchbox, so she ran after me.”

“Was she home when you got back from school?” 

He shook his head. “She made me peanut butter and jelly, and everyone knows our school doesn’t allow peanuts. Dad said she went off with Mr. Crutchfield.”

“Oh, by the way, Alex — can I call you that? — I almost ran over your friend coming up here earlier. Nice girl. I forget her name.”

“That’s not my friend. That’s Angelica, my sister. Can’t you get anything right?” The book kept drifting up toward Alexander’s glassy eyes. 

“I didn’t know you had a sister.”

“Angelica’s my twin. Identical, not fraternal.”

“Your dad said you’re an only child, Alex. Why’d he say a thing like that?”

The boy gave an exaggerated shrug of two skinny shoulders. “Maybe he doesn’t want to admit that he tried to kill Angelica. He’s in denial.” The book floated up to cover his face.

“But that’s terrible!” Here’s one for the shrinks, I thought, wondering if the county had any psychiatrists. “Why would he want to do that?”

The shrug returned from his limited repertory of gestures. “Same reason he killed Mr. Crutchfield and Mom. They saw the Black Dog — and that’s Dad.  Angelica says she may be next. That’s why she’s afraid to come home.”

“Can I chat with Angelica? I have a question for her.”

“She’s playing in the woods. Angelica!” he called. “C’mere!”

We both waited, Alexander calmly and me with chills crawling up my back.

“She lives in a tent, down the path there between the hemlocks. I bring her food and Cokes and comics.”

“Think I could find it? Down that path?”

He nodded.

I went back to my car for a bottle of water, pack of Camels and my .40 Glock automatic. Alexander pointed silently to the path to set my course.

The path must have been created by a drunken cow. It staggered over hillocks and into gullies, through mossy swamps and around rocks. Half an hour later, I sat down on a flat rock and pulled out my phone to call Sam. I was going to be late. 

I should have known there’d be no signal. AT&T had forgotten this place too.

“Mr. Mullally?”

A squeaky voice floated down over my head. I looked up to a ledge ten feet high to see a girl — the one I’d almost run over. She could have been Celia minus 25 years, with a sunburned face framed by a haystack of hair. A second later, I realized I was looking at Alexander playing dress-up in a wig and skimpy tank top.  Of course she — he — knew my name.

“Are you Angelica? Alexander told me where to find you.” 

“Why?” She stretched the word into two syllables that went down a hill and up again. “You won’t tell my dad, will you?”

“Angelica, what happened to your mom? I think you have a pretty good idea.”

“She’s gone to Heaven. Mr. Crutchfield’s gone too. They tried to tell people Daddy was the Black Dog. Nobody listened, so he got ’em good.”

“Where are the bodies — Angelica?”

“I told you! In Heaven with the angels. Don’t you ever listen?” Then she turned and melted into the woods.

*  *  *

Sam didn’t dispute my report of the chat I had with Alexander and his alter-ego.  I guess it confirmed his expectations. “Neville Bone killed his wife,” I said.  “I think the kid could be called to testify. The couple may be buried out in the woods.” I flung my hand out in the general area of the hills. “Someone’ll trip over them in the fall – or never.”

“So Alexander invented a sister? To deal with the trauma?”

“Celia had a wig that Alexander puts on. I went back to the doc’s empty house and found other hairpieces in Celia’s closet. Girl’s clothes are easy enough to pull off someone’s clothesline. But it wasn’t entirely his imagination. I ran a check on Neville Bone, M.D. There was a twin sister who disappeared in a boating accident last fall. The doc lost her when the family was vacationing on Cape Cod.  Celia was hysterical and accused him of ‘manifest indifference to the welfare of a child.’ The Hyannis P.D. put it down as accidental drowning — body not recovered.” 

“I guess that wraps it.” Sam didn’t smile a lot, but I was rewarded with a nod of appreciation. “I’ll send it all up to the District Attorney. Family Services will pick the kid up for counseling. I’ll go out and collar Doc Bone.”

“Well, I can’t say my vacation wasn’t interesting, Sam, but give me a shootout in Newark any day over weird crap like you got up here.”

*  *  *

“You were in the Forgotten Corner?” the barman at Foxwoods Casino said as he put a cold one in front of me. “Weird part of the state.”

Everyone comes down the funnel of Interstate 95 to Foxwoods sooner or later, dropping their dreams in the slots and on the blackjack tables. The casino had a gas station where I filled the tank and I was a sucker for a beer and half an hour on the one-armed bandits. Cold beer makes me wake up the way it puts other people to sleep. Who could sleep anyway with the ching-ching-ching of the slots?

“Basically,” he continued, “they got no rules up there. Cabin-in-the-woods mentality.”

“Explains the rust buckets and porch potatoes out on the county road.” 

“They pretty much stay under control using common sense.” 

I pulled out a pack of smokes and reached for the ashtray. State smoking ban hadn’t reached the casinos yet, but there ought to be a law against people sucking Gauloises. I picked the cigarette butt out of the ashtray. They’ll kill you twice as fast as a Camel, but they’re not the only thing that’ll kill people. Take Celia, for example.  I saw her coming out of the ladies’ room looking like the queen of Boston’s Beacon Hill. I grabbed her arm as she passed me.

“Hold it, Celia. Let’s have a drink and a little chat.”

“Let go of me! Bartender!” Her voice sounded like a swallow of 12-year-old cognac. She was a wonderful sight with her translucent skin and eyes that glittered like blue sapphires. 

The barman stared at us, looking for Security and wiping a glass so furiously I thought it would break.

“I’m a police detective.” I pulled out my badge. “If you’re here and the doc’s going into the slammer, where’s that leave Nathan? Under a pile of rocks?”  My Glock was an inch away from my hand.

“How did you know my name?” Confusion began to fill those brilliant sapphires that stared back.

“Sam Dexter, the police chief, asked me to come up to Putnam and look around. I admired your picture in the rumpus room, but not your taste in cigarettes.”

“You have to listen.” She sat down on a barstool. “Yes, I had an affair and my husband tried to kill us. He stabbed Nathan. He was totally insane! I managed to get away with just a bruised rib.” 

“You took off and left your kid to go crazy? Face the situation alone?”

“Neville doesn’t hate Alexander. Only me. I’ll come back to my son. And I’ll see the police — but in a few days. I’ll do anything if you’ll let me handle things on my own terms. Just another day to get over this and I’ll go back and testify against Neville.”

I flashed on the kid I couldn’t save in Newark. Some things deserve protection at any cost. Kids and abused wives rank high on my list. Alexander needed help his mom might deliver. Call me a middle-aged fool, but I felt no rush to collar Celia. The doc was in custody. The kid in Protective Services would be questioned by the prosecuting attorney. I’d call Sam shortly to tell him the babe was hanging out at the casino and he could do what he wanted.

“I’ll buy you that drink now, Celia, then I’m going to hit the highway. I’m a Newark cop and this isn’t my jurisdiction.”

“God, I love you — and I don’t even know your name.” She leaned over and dropped a wet one on my cheek.

*  *  *

Summer hung over the Connecticut hills like a fighter on the ropes as I waited for the valet to bring up my car. Newark would be frying too, but it was home. And then I saw Alexander strolling by a concession stand, a preoccupied pre-teen tourist in a wig and cutie-pie dress. Everybody comes to Foxwoods, they say 

“How’d you skip out of Protective Services, Alexander?” I shot my hand around his neck to get his attention.

He shrieked and my hand realized that was no boy’s body. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Celia’s punch coming a second before it connected with my nose.  Then she was all over me with claws and teeth.

“How dare you!” she spit out.

“I dare because your kid and I had a long talk.” I was on my knees holding off the wildcat. “I figured him for a loony — until just now when a dead kid came to life. Is this the daughter that drowned?” 

Run, Angie,” she shouted, kicking me in the knee. 

The Glock jumped into my fist. “Don’t move, Celia. I shot a street punk last week. I can pull the trigger on a woman just as well.”

*  *  *

Neville’s the one with the big money — not Celia,” I told Sam back in his office. “I called her sister in Brookline an hour ago. She’s frantic that her mortgage will put her out in the street. My take on this is that Celia wanted the doc charged with Angelica’s drowning so she could put him away. After that didn’t work, she tried a kidnapping and murder angle.”

Celia was in a cell. Angelica had fallen asleep in an office next door.  Tomorrow, one would be transferred to the Windham County jail and the other would go home to a “wholesome” family life with dad and brother. A matter of time and someone would trip over the hot dog man’s body.

“Where was the little girl all this time?” Sam Dexter had a hard time digesting my story. 

“Hidden by a friend nearby, believing Celia’s cockamamie excuse. She embroidered the plan with her own apparent murder of the kid when the drowning charge didn’t work. The chili dog guy was the schlemiel.”

“Just crazy what people come up with,” Sam said. “Thanks, Mike.” This time I got a smile.

“Look at it this way, Sam. You only have half as many bodies to look for now.” 

*  *  *

I whistled my way down Main Street, happy to be driving back to Newark.  But a mosquito bite still itched in the back of my mind. Something wasn’t right.  The setup was just too complicated. I pulled a brody in the middle of the street and headed back up to Doc Bone’s house in the woods.

The place was still empty, unchanged from the day I’d left Alexander. His book still anchored the lawn chair. A big fat book called One Hundred Best Murder Plots. 

Alexander had done his research, underlining page 247 about a case that cast blame on an innocent man by faking his child’s drowning. Celia had been Alexander’s best student. 

My first question to the kid should have been, “Are you the good twin or the evil twin?”

 

#  #  #




Settling Scores with Queenie

 

Walter Giersbach

 

Queenie was still a hundred percent bitch four years since I’d last seen her.  Some hospital worker called and told me she’d fallen.  Not seriously, but bad enough that next-of-kin should be notified to bail them out of any legal hassles.

 

“They rifled my pocketbook to get your phone number,” Queenie griped after I’d brought her home to her all-white living room.

 

“I’m surprised you had my number,” I said.  “Getting sentimental in your old age?”  How sweet and daughterly did she expect me to be, waltzing up after all that time?

 

“I’m fifty-one, Donna,” she barked.

 

“In dog years,” I muttered.  Queenie was as protective of her private life as one of those CIA spooks. 

 

She’d been an actress in three films.  Was even nominated for a Golden Globe.  Before Daddy married Queenie, his father said he wouldn’t have his son marrying an actress.  Seeing Queenie in a play, he announced, “Go ahead and marry her.  She’s no actress.”  

 

“So, I guess you need to tell me all of the dramatic things you’ve been doing.”  Queenie snorted.  “The wondrous men you’ve met, the amusing adventures.…”

 

“I came back to see whether I’d have to bury you.  Only after you were dead, of course.”  I eyed her enormous living room, the dining room leading into a sunroom before opening onto a terrace that led to an azure swimming pool.  This Spanish-rococo pile of bricks looked like real estate porn on Sunday TV.  After Queenie inherited Daddy’s oil money, she’d become the regent of Beverly Hills.  Queenie no longer had to do anything.  She was a celebrity simply because she was famous. 

 

Somehow, Queenie had achieved the waxy immortality of a Mae West, the svelte mummy of Rodeo Drive with her size six figure and inflated breasts.

 

“Well, if you must know, I’m seeing Emilio again.  We have a little place in Pasadena.  And we’re.…”

 

“Emilio.  Not Emilio Fortunata!” 

 

“The very same.”  I think I was freaking her out.

 

“I absolutely refuse to allow you to throw your life away for that jailbird, that perverse stalker and insipid twerp.”

 

“Queenie, number one, we are in love.  Number two, he’s a published writer who never served time.  Number three, he was just interviewed on ABC-TV.”

 

“Number whatever — four-five-six….”

 

“Stop with your insults!  Number four, he provides financial support for an absolutely marvelous youngster.  We’re going to adopt her when we’re married.”

 

“Well, any man who has an obscenity tattooed on his penis….”

 

“What did you say?”  My voice squeaked up an octave.  Yes, Emilio has a tat, but I’m the only person who’s seen it.  Well, maybe there were others.  But my mother?

 

Queenie recoiled, realizing something inappropriate had popped out.  “Never mind.  Change the topic.”

 

“Queenie, if you know about that tat, you must have seen Emilio naked, which indicates the likelihood you were also naked or close to going jaybird.   For once, are you going to tell the truth?  To stop being two-faced and deceitful and making everyone crazy with your dramatic world?”

 

Queenie sank deeper into the lounger as years of facelifts dissolved into a roadmap of age.

 

“I guess I shot my mouth off that time,” she whispered. 

 

“I’m waiting, Queenie.  Tell me what happened or I may bury you before you’re dead.”  

 

She exhaled like a whale spouting.  “Once.  Just one time!  You were at school or something.  It just happened.  Once!”

 

“That’s when you walked out of my life.”  Pieces of the past were building into a hideous structure of lies.  “Daddy was dead, and you left me alone for six months.”  It was coming back.  I was a high school senior and Emilio was studying at UCLA while becoming my first love.  “Do you know I had to pawn paintings from this house to buy food?  That I couldn’t afford school lunches, so I called up people and invited myself to dinner?  It’s called child abandonment, Queenie!”

 

“I was shooting a picture,” she shouted.  “In Australia.  A commitment that couldn’t be broken.”

 

California air conditioning flowing over me signaled worse was to come.  “You were supposed to do that studio picture,” I said, trying to line up my thoughts.  “But you were fired.  I read it in Variety.  You stayed in Australia while I scrounged for food!”

 

“I was pregnant, goddammit!  Don’t get uppity with me, Donna!”

 

“Pregnant?  And that father was…Emilio?”  It was becoming clear.  My mother was the mother of my fiancé’s child.  I began laughing insanely at the irony of adopting my own half-sister.

 

“It’s not funny, goddammit!”  Queenie rose from the lounger, tottering toward me.  “Stop laughing.  We’ll figure things out.  My lawyer arranged for your boyfriend to be the caregiver or whatever the hell you call it.  He’s a bleeding-heart schmuck and he’ll be paid.  Emilio doesn’t know Jennifer is his child.  Just that I gave up my mistake at the orphanage.  You didn’t know either a minute ago.”

 

Is it easier to face life when you’re blissfully ignorant?  Better to believe life is sweeter when you can clap your hands and make Tinker Bell live?  How would my life be different if I hadn’t taken that call from the hospital?  I felt my teeth grinding. 

 

“So long, Queenie.  I’ll see you in a decade or so.  Maybe when they notify me about your funeral.”

 

“Don’t go, Donna,” she pleaded.  “Don’t leave me alone.  I’ve been alone so long.”

 

At the door, I turned.  “The truth hurts.  We’re just sharing the pain.  But we can all get sentimental over it on Mother’s Day.”  Then I almost smiled.  If I couldn’t get rid of the family skeletons, I might as well make them dance.  Emilio and I would have little Jennifer waiting for us. 

 

I saluted Queenie.  “Jennifer can draw you a picture of what a mother should look like.  I’ll teach her.”

 

#  #  #






Walt bounces between writing genres, from mystery to humor, speculative fiction to romance, with a little historical nonfiction thrown in, for good measure. His work has appeared in print and online in over two dozen publications. including Yellow Mama. He’s also bounced from Fortune 500 firms to university posts, and from homes in eight states and to a couple of Asian countries. He now lives in New Jersey, a nice place to visit, but he doesn’t want to die there.






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