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His breath hung between the skinny aspen trees with their big black spots on white bark. Feeble light filtered into the thicket from the sunrise. Ice puddles pocked the forest floor and where the intermittent light hit them, they looked like the polka dots on my sister’s dress.
He stopped and lifted his head, and motioned for me to come up beside him. I made sure my feet didn’t scrape a “hell of a racket,” as he called it, in the dead aspen leaves on the ground. He turned and gave me a “hurry the hell up” look but I wasn’t screwing up and stirring those leaves up so I let him glare. When I got even with him, he lifted his face and for a moment I wondered if he was praying to Jesus to send us some deer.
Rays of light hit his face and he suddenly opened his mouth and took in a deep breath and then he stuck his tongue out. I thought it was too cold to do something stupid like that. Then he flared his nostrils. I could see hair growing up in his nose and turned my eyes down and looked at the dry leaves, old deer crap, quartz stones, dead moss at our feet.
He sniffed the air and he reminded me of one of Uncle Elmo’s Hereford bulls when he’s trying to find out which of the cows is in heat. He licked his lips and opened his eyes and looked at me.
He whispered, “I can smell him.”
He shook his head and looked into the woods. “A buck.”
He said, “Listen.”
I did. The wind stirred in the tops of the aspens and the big ones groaned. I heard him breathing and as he did, more of that frozen breath hung in front of his mouth.
I thought about a buck and then I thought about the movie “Bambi” and the little fawn, its big sad eyes, its white spots all over its fragile body.
I froze and whispered, “Where? What?” My feet were numb from the cold and my fingers felt like they were ice cubes even though I had on the brand new gloves Mama bought so I could go hunting.
He lifted his thirty-ought-six like a pointer and stuck the barrel in the direction of a bunch of aspen saplings.
I looked but couldn’t see anything but the white skins of the saplings and the leaves that drifted down and the…the…something moved and then I saw some horns and a head and a nose and two legs. My heart went bang, bang, bang.
He grabbed my shoulder and leaned into my ear and whispered. “Here, you kill it.” He handed me the rifle. I looked at the deer and I looked at him and I looked at the deer. My hands shook and I wished my heart would stop pounding because I was afraid he could see it leaping out of my chest; bang, bang, bang.
I shook my head and he grabbed me and stuck the gun in my face. I said, “No. You shoot it. You made me leave my gun in the pickup. You shoot it.”
He sneered at me. A smirk, Mama calls it. He hissed, “It’s only a forky-horn. If I shoot it, I can’t shoot another one. The big one. With the big rack.”
I looked down at the leaves beneath my feet. He shook me and snot came out of my nose and ran down onto my lips and I couldn’t hold back the tears that eked out of my eyes. I closed them hard to put a stop to that.
“Goddamnit,” he said.
I heard him move and metal click and I opened my eyes and he was sighting in on that little buck. I stuffed my fingers in my ears and put my head down. The bang still scared me and even though the report was muffled, it rattled the inside of my head.
I heard the deer fall into the aspen leaves. He jerked my arm and said, “Here, at least act like you shot it.” He handed me the rifle as he grabbed my collar and yanked me towards the deer. The rifle was heavy and I could smell the bitter scent of spent gunpowder.
I thought, this isn’t how it seems when Elmer Fudd hunts that “wabbit.” This isn’t funny.
I said, “Why do I have to act like I shot it?”
“Because we’re going to put your tag on it.”
We stopped about three feet from the deer. He said, “Touch its eye with the end of the gun barrel.” I looked at the left eye. It reminded me of a big, dark brown marble and it caught the light. And then it reminded me of something different, something soft and…and…almost intelligent.
“Goddamnit, stop fooling around and touch the eye.”
He sighed and said, “Because, if it ain’t dead, it may jump up when we try to gut it, and you see those horns?”
I understood and reached out with the gun and moved the end of the barrel towards that lit-up eye. At the same time I tried to move my frozen feet farther away, just in case…and what if it wasn’t dead, what would we do if it moved? Jumped up? Was I supposed to shoot it?
He must have been thinking the same thing. “Got your finger on the trigger?”
I blinked my eyes, once, twice because spots speckled everything, the trees, the ground, the deer.
He said, “Got your finger on the Goddamned trigger?”
I touched the trigger with my index finger. Even though I wore my new gloves, it was cold. It was so cold.
My friend Hanno called and said the narcs were on to all of us so we needed to get the weed and any other dope out of the house. I don’t even like weed but I didn’t want us to go to jail so I grabbed Wally’s little wooden box that he bought at the Buddhist religion trinket shop. I opened the top and inside was a half a lid of Acapulco Gold (he had a note inside that said so) and a lid of some weak shit (that’s what the note called it) that Melinda…she’s Wally’s main squeeze…brought back from Kansas after she went there to visit family.
Besides the weed there were some white crosses and a few reds in Wally’s box, none of which do me any favors and he had a couple of hits of mescaline. I thought about taking those, but with narcs creeping around and all the sirens running up and down Mission Beach Boulevard, I didn’t want my experience to spiral down into a bad trip.
Out back, in the parking space for our pad, we’d laid some of those hexagonal paving stones with etchings of Mexican peons so mud wouldn’t get tracked into the house. Melinda is a freak about clean. She takes a bath every time one of us pleasures her. Wally doesn’t know it, but Melinda lets me.
I got an old shovel out of the garage where we don’t park the cars but keep a bunch of furniture. And it’s where Wally keeps his white-throated capuchin monkey ever since I eighty-sixed it out of the house. That thing is filthy and shits all over and stinks and it’s mean besides. I wonder why a zoologist named that kind of monkey after a bunch of monks. Capuchins are Catholic monks. Monk, that was the monkey’s name, too. And he did kind of look human and had some human traits. Monkey, monks, Monk.
That little monkey is mean. Well, it’s mean to me. Wally and I almost traded hands over me eighty-sixing his fucking pet. But I won out, and on more than one level. That’s when Melinda let me pleasure her the first time.
When I went in to get the shovel, that fucking monkey went bat-shit and started screaming and picking up its feces and throwing it at me. I went outside and found a smooth stone and came back in and let fly. It was too big to go in between the wire mesh of the cage, but it hit so hard that the monkey cowered down in the corner and raised a hell of a ruckus. It hurt my ears the way the little fucker shrieked. Like nails being driven through my eardrums.
Outside, I levered one of the paving stones up and dug a deep hole. I sized the hole and squared it off and went back into the garage–Monk was lecturing me in monkey lingo about what he thought of me and I figured it wasn’t good–and found an old gunny sack and lined the hole with that. I put the dope box in the hole and as I did I had to shake my head at that screaming monkey, who, even though I was outside hiding the stash, wouldn’t shut up.
I buried the box and replaced the paving stone and just as I put the shovel back in the garage a siren screamed and red lights flashed and my heart started thumpa-thumpa-thumpa faster and faster and I spread my body against the garage wall. I heard tires stop in the parking lot and I heard doors opening and closing and then a tall cop with a helmet eased in through the garage door with a big black pistol in his right hand. He shined a flashlight on the monkey, who by this time was way over the berserker level.
The cop didn’t see me for a time and after he watched that fucking monkey for a moment, he chuckled.
I said, “Can I help you?” The words hadn’t left my lips and he shined that light in my eyes and I assume the muzzle of that pistol was aimed dead at my heart.
A couple of other cops strode in and I knew the narcs were on to us and I wondered who had snitched. Was it Hanno who had squealed and then felt bad about it? Is that why he called me?
One of the cops said, “Where’s Melinda?”
“Melinda? Melinda? Why…ah…she’s at work. Why do you ask?”
“Well who was beating up Melinda over here?”
“No Melinda here right now, just me and that fucking monkey.”
The monkey was silent now and images of Melinda kept kicking their way into my mind. Melinda sunning herself at the beach, sipping coffee at the breakfast table, stretched out in bed.
“The monkey.” One of the cops chuckled. “The monkey.”
I said, “What’s funny about the monkey?”
“You get along with this monkey?”
“I hate this fucking monkey. It’s Wally’s.”
“He’s Melinda’s boyfriend.”
I stepped away from the wall of the garage. “Right now he’s slinging burgers downtown.”
“Ah,” the one with his pistol pointing straight at my heart said, “Melinda, Wally, the monkey. You make that monkey scream?”
“That monkey screams every time it sees me.”
All of them laughed and the one with the pistol holstered it and they went outside and on their way back to their patrol cars they walked right over where I had buried that box. My heart went thumpa-thumpa-thumpa.
The cop who had pulled his pistol turned to me and said, “One of your neighbors called in a report that someone was beating up Melinda.”
For some reason Monk started screaming again and I shrugged.
He went on, “She said someone is always beating up Melinda.”
I shook my head.
As they drove off, I thought about Wally and Melinda and how, a time or two, he’d blacked her eyes when she bitched at him too much. But I’d been witness to that and she had never screamed, she had just cried. And when he screwed her, she didn’t make any noise either, just him, acting like some kind of primitive animal. No wonder he likes that monkey.
I looked at my hands and noticed they were shaking. I hadn’t noticed how nervous I was, or had been.
I walked out to Mission Beach Boulevard, leaned against the white picket fence and looked both ways but didn’t see a sign of a cop. The monkey screamed and screamed and screamed. I didn’t know which neighbor had called the cops, but whoever that snoop was would have a lot to listen to now with Monk going on like that. Dozens of cars whizzed by and pretty soon one of them would be Melinda.
We faced off over black coffee at Flo’s On The Corner and he added hash browns and eggs over-easy to his order. He hemmed and hawed about my job and how sorry he was that I lost it.
Two days before, he came by my house when I returned from an elk and deer hunting trip. Me and Peggy were unloading a big chest full of venison when he pulled up and got out of his red Ford pickup. Me and him don’t socialize so I suspected some emergency, like I needed to get to the office and fix some fuck-up.
He was like the Tin Man, clanky and awkward. He blurted, “Hey man, you are fired.” Since I supervised him, I knew he couldn’t fire me so I wondered if he was joshing me. I winked at Peggy. He said it louder. “No shit, man, you have been fired.”
I must have looked like an idiot standing there with my mouth open. I know it was open because some little flighty critter got down my throat and I hacked and hacked and when I finally got it out I must have killed it with my tongue because the most vile and sharp taste, like biting into the skin of a witch, filled my mouth.
Peggy said, “McDonough, what do you mean?”
“I mean he’s been fired.” He was glaring at her like she’d done something wrong. Then he shrugged and looked at the asphalt pavement.
She grabbed his arm. “Why?”
“Something about Mr. Butch not liking his attitude.”
Peggy shot me one of those okay-asshole-I-told-you-so glares.
McDonough dug the heel of his boot into the pavement, “You know, maybe there is something…” He stared across the street at the old stucco house, the one rumor had it that Mr. Butch had run a whorehouse out of in the early forties.
He didn’t look either of us in the eye. “Look, man, I’m sorry about this. I really am.” Then he turned and got into his Ford and drove off, squealing his tires like he really was sorry.
And then two days later, looking at him across that table and watching him sop his over-easy eggs with a piece of white bread toast, I thought, yeah, McDonough, you are one sorry guy. Sorry. Sorry son-of-a-bitch.
He said, “I’ve hardly slept the last few nights knowing they wanted me to be the messenger and then telling me I had to see you today, too. I suspect you want to blame me.”
I said, “Aw, don’t worry about it.”
He reached in his shirt pocket and pulled out a check. It was folded in half and he put it on the table and slipped it across to me as he chewed his greasy hashbrowns. “Here’s your final check.”
I picked it up and stuffed it in my shirt pocket and then pulled it out and unfolded it. I noticed it was signed by Mr. Butch himself. I’d never seen that in my six years at the company. And it was signed with green ink.
I said, “Signed in green, eh.”
“Yeah, you know Mr. Butch, green’s his favorite color…the color of money.”
I thought about that poet, Neruda. He wrote poems in green ink. He said green was the color of love.
I watched McDonough pull his pack of Salems out of his shirt pocket and that reminded me of when me and him stole a pack of Mississippi Crooks from the Chinaman’s grocery and that reminded me of a lot of other stuff.
Images erupted from our grade school days, him with his trumpet and me with my sousaphone, walking home after band practice. He’d say shit like, “Why did you pick that? It makes you look idiosyncratic.”
Back then I didn’t know what idiosyncratic meant. I’d say something like, “Why’d you pick the trumpet?”
He’d look at me with one of those you’ve-got-to-be-shitting-me smirks and say, “Trumpet players get a lot of solos and then all the girls—the flute players and the clarinet players—they want to go out with you.”
I put my final check in my wallet. He fired up a Salem and inhaled a lungful, “Gee, I don’t know what to say.” The waitress came and put the bill for breakfast on the table. He wouldn’t look me in the eye. He mumbled, “I’ll get it.”
Well, no shit, I thought.
He leaned back and flicked his cigarette ashes onto the plate and the gray waste landed in a little pool of yellow egg yolk. “Well, what’s next?”
I thought, how the fuck do I know what’s next? He pursed his lips like he was thinking about what I might do and that reminded me of him and his trumpet in his bedroom, practicing his band music and then turning to me and telling me, “Hey man, you need to ask a girl to the dance next week.”
“Ah, I don’t care about girls.” What I didn’t tell him was that I was afraid of asking a girl to the dance. I didn’t dance and what if she said no? He harangued me to call this girl and that girl, each name enhanced by his shitty little comments about “she’s stacked” and “she’s cool” and “I hear she likes to French kiss.”
After I made a bunch of excuses, he insisted that I call CeCe Jones. To shut him up and prove I wasn’t scared to call a girl, and because CeCe was real cute, I did. I remember shaking all over as I tried to dial her number. When she answered it was like I had polio in my throat. She kept sighing like I was a big pain in the ass and I could feel my face get hot and I knew I was a bright shade of red and when I finally got it out, “Do you want to go out with me next week to the homecoming dance?” she answered, “No.” Before I could slam the phone back in the cradle she said, “Sorry, already have a date, but thanks for asking.” I was three inches tall.
The worst thing about it is that when I walked into the dance, there was McDonough. With CeCe Jones. How did he get a date with her when she told me she already had a date? That’s what she said, “Sorry, already have…” and then it hit me. They were dancing there to a slow tune, like two people merged into one, like they’d been doing this for a long time and…
He grunted and shook me out of my daydream. He stubbed his Salem into the hardening pool of yellow egg yolk. It hissed a little and a tiny puff of smoke erupted. He reached over and grabbed the bill. Without looking at me he got up and said, “See ya.”
Lemon phoned at two in the morning and hemmed and hawed like a boy asking a girl out on his first date. He jabbered about all kinds of stuff. His breathing was erratic like he was waiting for something bad to happen. I knew he wouldn’t spend all that money on a long distance call just to talk to me about the one-hundred-fifteen-degrees days and how the new subdivision going out along the freeway had stirred up all the rattlesnakes and scorpions and how Jimmy Cluff got busted with a kilo of cocaine. I didn’t care about that shit.
I said, “Get to the point.”
I rarely hear from Lemon. “Who died?”
Even though it wasn’t a surprise, it still surprised me. “How?”
“Ran his pickup into a pile of gravel left on the road.”
I thought about me and Manny playing hide-and-seek out in Aitona’s cactus garden, the fat barrel cactus with the orange blossoms the size of cereal bowls. “Was he drunk? Or does anyone know?”
“He was at my place before he wrecked and yes, he was drunk, or at least he’d been drinking. We had a couple of Buds and he may have had more before and he may have had some kind of dope.”
“What did you say to him?”
“What do you mean, what did I say?”
The telephone connection wasn’t great, there was a buzz, but there’s always static in the line because Lemon lives out in the desert south of Interstate 8. Aitona built that huge adobe and surrounded it with groves of eucalyptus and a big cactus garden; spiny cholla, red-blooming ocotillo, prickly pear, saguaro that looked like cops directing traffic. And there were all those organ pipe cactus that Manny said looked like hard peckers. We’d giggled about that. We’d all wanted that property but Aitona left it to Lemon. Well, first he left it to Manny, but Manny did what Manny always does, or always did, so Aitona left it to Lemon. Why he didn’t leave it…oh, forget it, that’s like whipping on a dead steer’s carcass.
The place has its own well with the sweetest water you ever tasted. And the dirt road out there isn’t bad, only when the Arroyo Santa Cruz floods every ten years or so and cuts Lemon off from the rest of us.
I’d wanted that place so bad I could taste it. “What did you say to him to cause him to go wreck?”
“Well…well, I didn’t say…hey, what the fuck do you mean?”
“Did you piss him off? You are good at pissing him off.”
“No, I didn’t, although I told him I thought he needed to stop getting fucked up all the time.”
I thought about the water from that sweet well and how it came out of the faucet with ferocity. I could taste that water in my mouth right then as I said, “You never liked him.”
“What do you mean I never liked him? He was my cousin.”
I ran my tongue over my lips which suddenly felt chapped. “And mine, too.”
“Hey, man, there’s nothing I could do about this. You know how he was. Fucking crazy. Like he wanted to get it all over with.”
“Aw, bullshit, he wasn’t much different than the rest of us.” I don’t know why I said that because Manny was different, had something out of sync in his brain. Liked to do stupid shit, stuff that made no common sense. Like the times he hijacked the Coors trucks and hid all the stolen beer out in the desert, in that cave at the base of Little Egypt. As if the law wouldn’t figure that out.
I waited a bit and thought about how water runs down a drain, the sound it makes, like something leaving. I finally said, “You know, there was a time when he was doing okay.”
He hesitated. “Yeah, I guess so, but that was a long time back.”
My mouth reminded me of a desert wash that gets wet, then dry and the silt cracks, leaving that spider web pattern as the sides of the silt curl up. “Remember that? How good he was doing when he was doing okay?” I didn’t give Lemon the opportunity to respond. “Yeah, he was doing real good, like when he had that livestock auction he was running, making those big bucks.” For some reason that water well wouldn’t get out of my mind. The grind of the pump and those leathers below ground working their magic. “Why’d you change that well, put the pump on it and take the windmill off?”
“What…what the fuck are you talking about? What’s that got to do with Manny being dead?”
For a second I thought the line went dead. I heard a loud pop. Maybe Lemon slapped the countertop or the wall. Then he yelled, “Besides, it didn’t make any sense not to put a pump on that well. We’ve had this discussion before. Too many times. It’s not your well.”
©Ken Rodgers 2014