I am a man who is apt to have bad dreams. In my dreams I am not falling, or drowning, or even being roasted on a spit or some such thing by the Vietcong, who, at the time of the war, were rumored to do piss-awful things like that to the boys they caught.
My dreams are a little more fucked than that. I have no soul, and the godforsaken beast that had replaced it does more than take lives. It takes their spirits. So when I plop myself down on my lumpy mattress at night and go to sleep, I don’t dream like normal people do. Instead, I experience the memories of people who aren’t around anymore to remember their own histories. What makes a dream bad isn’t reliving how they died; it’s remembering how much my victims loved the men, women, and children they left behind in this world. In my dreams I miss these widows and children as if I knew them. I have been responsible for the deaths of over three hundred people over the years. Consequently my nightmares are legion.
On the morning of May 1, I awoke from one of my bad dreams because the radio alarm clock went off by my head like a gunshot. I was cold but sweating, and that wasn’t unusual. I looked around the room to get my bearings. It took a second to remember where I was, what year it was. I soon came to recognize my bedroom, and a razor slice of a grin appeared on my face because Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song” was playing on KBTO, but, aside from that one saving grace, it was another day in the life that no one in their right mind would ask for.
A thin sliver of sunlight came in through the curtains and burned on the floor like the glowing edge of a heated knife. There were two windows in the bedroom. One was facing east, the other south. I had nailed the both of them shut when I moved in. The air smelled like old and rotting books. A combination of water damage and a few hundred old newspapers stacked up in the guest room helped create this scent, which was far preferable to how the house used to smell. I pulled back the damp sheets and stumbled across the creaking floorboards to the bedroom door. The door was closed, and I had a quarter balanced on the doorknob and a glass ashtray on the floor below it, so if anyone jiggled the handle at night, I’d know it by the noise of the coin dropping into the ashtray. I palmed the quarter, stuffed it into the pocket of the shorts I wore to bed, and moved the ashtray aside with my foot. Then I went down the short hallway to the bathroom.
I had a quarter resting on the bathroom doorknob as well, just in case anyone snuck in through the bathroom window. The bathroom window was the only one in the entire house that wasn’t permanently sealed, because I liked opening it when I did my business. It helped more than you could ever imagine. If I ever crap on a plane, all those funny little masks would probably drop down in the aisles.
I jumped in and out of the shower to wash away the sweat, and when I got out I combed my long, awesome hair, which at the time came down to the middle of my back. Looking at my face up close in the mirror, I decided to do a little tidy-up work on my handlebar mustache. I saw a couple of gray hairs in there that I didn’t believe should be so eager to come to fruition. I was forty years old, but a history of longevity ran in my nasty blooddespite the two packs I smoked a dayand grays in the face seemed to me to be redundant little creatures that hadn’t earned their place yet.
My little house on King Street was down on the southwestern edge of town, constructed at the very end of a cul-de-sac. The houses were spaced far enough away from each other that I had never felt obligated to say hello to the poor fools who had the misfortune of living to my left and to my right. My house was what they call ranch-style, and it was made of wood so gnarled by time that it looked like it was made of boards that fell off other houses. All the glass in the windows was rippled. Out front was a little drivewayno garageand a few bushes I never trimmed. They looked like afros in the wind. Out back I had a dead tree that my neighbors always bitched about because they were worried it would fall down in a bad storm, but I liked my dead tree. You could always see the birds crapping from its limbs with that blank look in their eyes, and the squirrels running all around its girth as they played their daredevil games. Further, I liked it because it would be impossible for a sniper to hide in it.
The woman who used to live in the house had been very old before she died. Or maybe it would be better to say that she was very goddamn old by the time she kicked off, but the point of it all is that she’d had cats. A lot of fucking cats. I’m told that when she died in that house, those cats went to work on her after a few days of having no other source of food. Sometimes I swore that I could still smell her deep in the fabric of the couch.
Her son, who lived over in Edenburgh, decided to rent the place instead of selling it outright, and when I moved in about three years prior, it took me a long time to keep those cats from coming around all the time. There were holes in the walls and in the floor where they’d sneak in, but I eventually found all those holes and sealed them up. I didn’t want any cats in my house, especially cats that had supped on human flesh. Even though it had been years since I’d gotten them all out, it was as if their phantoms lived on, because whenever I turned my head, the furniture would be covered with clumps of orange hair. It was unbelievable. I always wondered if there was a hole somewhere that I didn’t know about, or if those ornery little bastards had a set of keys for the front door.
After checking all the windows, I put on a pair of jeans and slipped my skull-and-crossbones belt through the loops. I put on a Sabbath shirt, a flannel over that, and then I laced up my construction boots. I grabbed my keys, locked the four locks on my front door, and got in the trucka blue 1983 Chevy flatbed. There were so many rusted-out holes in it that it looked like some hunters had mistaken the truck for an elephant and emptied their scatterguns into it.
I turned the key and cursed. Doing these two things at the same time was almost like a prayer in and of itself, because God came down every morning to help make the piece of shit move. The engine groaned like it had arthritis, and I headed out.
I drove to the corner and took Picket Street easta quiet, tree-lined street of one-story homes and the occasional nursery or doctor’s office. There wasn’t another car on the road as far as I could see. It was very early, and anyone who was up at the time was probably at church, where, as I understood it, they gave people free coffee.
I wasn’t quite awake yet. I was picking at this piece of sleepy-sand in the corner of my eye that didn’t want to go. I was picking at it so much that it began to irritate me like a sonofabitch. It just got worse and worse. I shut my eyes real tight, and when I opened them up again, I saw that damn Indian in the middle of the road up ahead with that damn plastic bag slumped over his shoulder, full of all the cans he had picked up off the streets, like a bum.
That woke me up real quick.
I hit the brakes and jerked the wheel left. I missed him by a foot, if that, though I don’t know why I was so merciful. I stopped the truck and gave him the evil eye through the open passenger window. He was in a dirty black suit that he must have taken from a dead body. On his feet was a pair of cowboy boots.
He wasn’t a young man. He seemed practically ancient, but his age was anyone’s guess. His white hair was as long as mine, and in a ponytail. He looked back at me like he thought the whole thing was a fucking joke. It wasn’t the first time this had happened, me almost hitting him with the truck.
Hey, you old bastard,” I yelled out the window, what the fuck are you doing?”
My general distrust and hostility toward the natives was genetic in origin in the sense that my singular disorder evidently stems from a deranged red man whose vicious streak lives on through me. More presently, I had never had a good encounter with a native. Wherever I went, I felt as if they could smell the curse I carried inside of me, almost as if they saw me in a way that no one else could, could observe the inhumanity lurking beneath my flesh, and they hated me for not only what I was but why I was as well. Or at least that’s how it felt.
In his halted way of speaking, the Indian responded, What . . . does it look like?”
Looks like you have a death wish,” I replied. Stay off the road. Next time, I won’t swerve to miss you.”
He pointed his sawed-off broomstick with the nail hammered through one end at me like it was a baton and said, You have more important things to worry about . . . than me, paleface.”
What the fuck is that supposed to mean? I ain’t too tired to take you to town, old man.” I felt like getting out of the truck to clobber the sonofabitch. You looking for trouble?”
No, no,” he said. Trouble . . . is yours to find. Not mine.”
I didn’t know what to say.
Arright, you cryptic bastard,” I mumbled. You want to talk like that, fine. Just stay off the fucking road.”
He smiled. I flipped him the bird and took off.
I drove north on Hamilton Road to this little newsstand just off Main Street. I said hi to Gus, the old fellow who owned the place, and picked up copies of Evelyn’s two daily papersthe Harbinger and the Postand also a copy of USA Today. From there I went east on Main till I got to Grant. There was another little newsstand over there where I picked up a few more newspapers, but not local ones. These papers were from other cities, and some were from other states. I didn’t like buying all my papers at one place. I wouldn’t want someone wondering why I read so goddamn much.
I stacked all the papers on the passenger seat and kept going east on Main till I got to the restaurant, which was almost at the edge of town. The restaurant was set far back on the sidewalk so cars could turn off the road and park up front of the place. Since the restaurant wasn’t open yet, all the spots should have been empty, but that wasn’t the case. There was a puke-green Toyota parked there, and I could recognize that puke-green car from a mile away.
I pulled up next to it, killed the engine, and got out. The burly man sitting in the Toyota got out too, followed by a wall of cheap cigar smoke. He was wearing a pair of khaki pants that accentuated his heavy ass and a golf shirt that was the same color as the car.
I shielded my eyes from the bright morning sun and said, Howdy, Frank.”
You’re late,” Frank said.
Frank owned the restaurant. It had been his father’s, and his father’s before that. I had never met Frank’s father, and to be honest I never wanted to because Frank was a prick. If I had to meet a second one just like him I would have lost my mind.
I looked at my watch. It was five past the hour.
Hardly,” I responded. Besides, it’s Sunday. The place is gonna be dead.”
That’s not the point,” said Frank. I pay you to be here at a certain time, and that’s when I expect you to be here.”
C’mon, man, do you give anyone else a hard time when they’re late?”
That’s not the point,” Frank grunted.
Frank and I never got along, if you couldn’t tell already.
I think it is,” I said, as shock invaded his face. I think this is sexual harassment.”
I had heard the expression once on the television. I thought it sounded cute.
Shut up,” he said, disgusted. Just open the fucking restaurant.”
That’s what I’m trying to do.”
Aren’t you even going to apologize for being late?”
I looked at him with pity for a second, like he was a street urchin, a latchkey kid, and then said, Frank, I never volunteered to work the morning shift, okay? If you don’t like it, have me switch shifts with Carlos or something.”
Frank got back in the car and slammed the door. He rolled down the window and said, The thought of you working here at night scares me, Marlowe. Just get here on time. And tell Abe that he’s a fucking asshole too.”
Will do,” I said.
Frank pulled out of the spot, and I watched as he headed west on Main Street. Main ran from one end of town to the other, and right down the middle of the street was an old set of railroad tracks that carried about a half dozen freight trains through the town per day. Those trains, for all intents and purposes, were Evelyn’s sole connection to the outside world.
Main Street met up with Old Sherman Road at both ends of it. Farther east of Old Sherman, Main cut through several miles of deep woods as a country road. The tall trees bent over the road, forming a canopy, and in the fall, when the red-copper colors of autumn came out in startling abundance, it was beautiful. The road and the train tracks went on still and led to Campbell’s Bridge, which was an ancient thing of rusted metal and molded planks. The trains went over a separate bridge just to the south, and this one was just as old. Flowing underneath the bridges were the clear waters of the Ivy River.
Much farther south, the Ivy River connected to the St. Michael River, which ran in a southeastern direction along the western border of Evelyn, and made a hook along the southern end, thus encasing Evelyn on three sides with water. Many miles of dense forest served as a buffer between the rivers and this quaint little town, which rested, like a spider in a vast web, just outside the Tennessee border.
Up to the north beyond Old Sherman there were many, many miles of labyrinthine wilderness before you could come upon so much as a bottle half-buried in the dirt to remind you that you were still in the world.
I opened the passenger door of the truck, reached in, and pulled out my stack of papers. Then I climbed the three stairs to the front door, unlocked it, and entered the restaurant. A tiny, little bell jangled overhead as I entered. I flipped on all the lights, which, because of the sun, was hardly necessary. The restaurant had a fifties-era ambience, and the sun glinted off all the chrome along the tables and chairs. I took those hot, glowing chairs down from the tabletops and sat them all on the floor. After that, I turned the little radio behind the counter to KBTO. They were playing Peace Frog” by The Doors.
I got the grill and the oven going in the kitchen, and just as I finished making that first precious pot of coffee, Abraham decided to show up.
Abraham Davis had worked at the restaurant about twice as long as me, about six years. He was a people person, very suave, which was why he worked the counter and dealt with the patrons, and why he never got fired for being consistently late. I, not even remotely being a people person, worked in the kitchen. Abraham wasn’t a young man anymorehe was nearing fiftybut he seemed to live to go out and drink and dip his wick in whatever was around.
While I was off in the war, he was back Stateside getting his ass gnawed off by police-trained German shepherds. He’d been married twice, divorced twice, and to hear him tell it, the time that he spent shackled” to women who, after getting to know him, didn’t really care if he lived or died consumed about ten years of a precious life that would’ve been better spent chasing tail and having experiences”or getting into trouble, more likethat enriched the spirit and the mind.
According to Abraham, he was making up for lost time by acting like a college boy on spring break, as if lost time could truly be returned to someone, like a deposit in a bank. As if anyone got a second chance to be happy in this world. It was foolish of him to think that way, and I think he knew it. But the hell of it was that it was hard to ever see the man without a smile on his face, which made it hard to vilify him for acting like a young man when he damn well knew he wasn’t.
When Abraham staggered into the restaurant, I could tell immediately that he was half in the bag from a Saturday night of drinking that turned into a Sunday morning of wondering not only where he’d woken up but where the hell his pants were.
Sorry I’m late,” he whispered.
Frank told me to tell you you’re a fucking asshole.”
Great,” he said. I’m an asshole.”
A fucking asshole.”
I put my apron on as Abraham seemed to slither past the counter and into the bathroom. A moment later, I heard him through the door losing what sounded like a hundred dollars’ worth of used booze the hard way.
When he came out of the bathroom, he wiped his eyes with his fists and said, Jesus Christ, man, I’m making up for sins from a past life this morning, you know what I mean?”
Me too,” I said. I’m working with you.”
Cold motherfucker,” he groaned. That’s what you are. You mind if I crash in the kitchen awhile? Just to rest my eyes. I can barely see.”
Moonshine does that.”
C’mon, man . . .”
There’s no fucking way I’m working that counter, Abe. I did it once and nearly killed a man. I’m not doing it again. I don’t care how bad you feel.”
It’s Sunday morning, man. I’ll be golden before anyone comes in, I swear.”
I thought for a second, then nodded. I was too nice sometimes. In light of the mercy I’m showing, you still think I’m a cold motherfucker?”
Man, you’re like a turd in the snow.”
Abraham took a chair from one of the tables and dragged it back into the kitchen through the double doors. He made some noises one would expect to hear coming from a circus tent, and then he fell asleep. I poured him a cup of coffee and set it down by his foot. I then went and made a cup for myself as well.
It might have been unwise to leave the restaurant unattended, but I didn’t care. I wasn’t paid to stand behind that counter. If anyone came in I’d know it because there was a long window looking out into the restaurant, and I’d wake Abe up by any means necessary. Until then, I took my stack of newspapers into the kitchen and got to reading. Behind me, Abraham didn’t so much snore as labor for each inflammable breath.
Reading the papers was a daily ritual of mine. Information was a crucial thing for me. There was a very specific kind of article I was looking for in all those different papers. Big-city politics didn’t mean a whole hell of a lot to me, nor did world affairs. I realized back in ’Nam that nothing was ever going to change, that the same mistakes were going to be made over and over and over again for the rest of time because that’s just how people are made, I guess. You can have all the revolutions and protests you want, I don’t care. They say history repeats itself, and I suppose that’s just as true as anything else ever said, so I paid these articles no mind. I read the same ones when I was young, and I’d read them again when I was old and silver-haired.
What interested me were the smaller atrocities, the everyday miseries. Who was itLenin, I thinkwho said a million deaths is a statistic, but a single death is a tragedy? It’s true, man. The murders are what I read the papers for. The deaths. More specifically, I always kept an eye out for unsolved murders.
I didn’t get off on the stuffI’ll swear on a stack of Bibles to that factbut it was more like I had made misery my business. After all, I was the wrath of God.
Wrath of God. Pleased to meet you.
I had begun reading as many daily papers as I could get my hands on around the time my mother died in 1981. I inherited this slightly creepy habit from one of my victims. You see, the wolf doesn’t just kill, it claims. It’s not just that the memories of the deceased become my memories; their traits become mine as well. I guess it’s like when people get some kind of organ transplant and they develop a taste for a certain kind of food they never liked before. All of a sudden they’re addicted to fish or chocolate because the person whose liver or kidney or heart they had couldn’t get enough of the stuff.
There was a time in my life when this was very hard for me, inheriting other people’s wants, their needs. This was back when I used to feel guilty about being what I am, when I felt as if I was losing my own identity every time someone got killed. One of the wolf’s many victims had been a paranoid, reading all the papers every fucking day, but unlike so many other idiosyncrasies, I’ve allowed myself to keep the newspaper routine up all these years because all I have to do is find one unsolved crime in the paper, and then I have someone to send the beast after when it comes around to that time of the month. You see, I can’t ever stop it from killing, but I can at least keep it from killing people who don’t have it coming. That right there is turning two negatives into a positive.
I always started off the paper sessions with the Harbinger and the Post. After that, I went through the different newspapers for all the different towns based on how far they were from Evelyn. On this day the front pages of the two local papers were dedicated to what was dubbed the Horror at the Mill.” Some poor slob got his hand taken off by a saw over at the lumber mill all the way out west of town. That’s what headlines consisted of in a town like Evelyn, and I could live with that, too.
Out in the restaurant, I heard the bell above the door jangle.
I kicked Abraham’s foot, and he stirred.
There’s a guy out there,” I said. Get to it.”
Take care of him, man. Please.”
Fuck you,” I whispered.
Howdy, Marlowe,” called the man in the restaurant.
I turned and recognized the tall, lanky blond man in the suit and tie as one of the regulars, a guy named Brian. He worked over at the life insurance place around the corner.
Howdy, Brian,” I said.
You’re open, right?”
Yeah, pretty much. What do you need?”
Just a coffee to go.”
Would you mind getting it yourself?”
Are you serious?”
Brian went behind the counter with baby steps, as if he were a cat burglar. I hated the interruption, but he was at least funny to watch through the long window in the wall. He poured himself a cup of coffee without getting burned, and then he dropped a pair of quarters on the counter.
You don’t have to do that,” I said.
Sure I do,” said Brian. He held up the cup of coffee in a salute, then went back out the door.
He’s a good guy,” said Abraham.
I lit a cigarette and blew smoke in his face.
If I have to talk to one more person today because of you, I’m going to burn you with this cigarette.”
Buried in the back pages of the Harbinger was a short article about Crazy Bob. Crazy Bob was a trucker who lived not far from me. He must have been a big fan of getting arrested, because he did, a lot. When I first came to town he had just stolen an eighteen-wheeler and driven it into the river. He figured if he stole enough trucks, he’d be able to make a dam and flood the town. I guess that was around the time he lost one of his jobs. The article in front of me stated that he’d gotten picked up again, for breaking all the windows at a hardware store. He apparently had anger-management issues. What sparked this latest incident off was the fact that they had given him a Canadian penny.
When I finished the two local papers, I placed them in a new pile on the floor. I picked up the Edenburgh Gazettethe major paper for our closest neighboring townand dropped it on the counter in front of me. At this point, Abraham got up off the chair, but instead of going to work, he went to the bathroom and didn’t come back.
I put my hair back in a ponytail with a rubberband, ran my fingers through my handlebar, and got myself good and hunched over the pale counter.
Edenburgh was the kind of town where they wrote about the cats stuck in the trees, and if the cat happened to have some unusual talent, or if it had one good eye or something, then it was front page news over there, but on this day there was something just a touch more interesting: A local church had been broken into. The poor box was stuffed and intact. Nothing had been taken, and nothing had been vandalized.
A few pages after that, there was an even more interesting article. A seventeen-year-old girl had disappeared.
That, I thought, could be something.
A flash of light from outside the restaurant caught my eyes. I craned my neck through the space in the wall and saw a dusty black 1973 Mach 1 drive slowly past the restaurant, heading west. It then made an illegal U-turn and pulled up into one of the parking spots outside. The black car could have kept on going, but it didn’t. The engine revved up once, and then was shut down. I didn’t know it at the time, but things would never be the same again.
Copyright © 2008 by the Estate of Nicholas Pekearo. All rights reserved.