Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Untouchable - Edward C. Burton

The Untouchable

What do you get when you cross a Hindu “untouchable” with an unsung hero? Me. Yes, that’s me, just a regular walking joke. I work behind the scenes at the Renner-McCallum funeral home. I’m the guy you never see, but without me, Renner and McCallum both would be miserable men, having to do all the dirty work themselves. I’m the guy who has to go to the nursing homes and the hospitals, the dork toting a body down the halls in a stretcher, the body zipped up in a body bag looking like some awkward black vinyl cello case, trying to get to the exit as quickly and inconspicuous as possible. The idea of a dead body in proximity always has an effect on one’s spirits. I generally do okay, although there was that time I stopped for lunch at Sonic on the way back from a body run. There I was feasting on a Number One Cheeseburger with large fries, a body in the back of the Suburban, and when it came time to leave, the freakin’ Suburban wouldn’t start. Of all places for a vehicle battery to give up the ghost. And it was a hot day for this part of the country. I had to sit there for over two hours waiting for a mobile mechanic, not to mention the number of times the carhop kept walking back and forth asking if I was still enjoying my meal. Good thing the ride had tinted windows.

I got the call at 5:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning. I just happened to be in the funeral home because I couldn’t sleep. Mr. Renner had suggested I place an order to Batesville for more caskets. Actually, he’d mentioned it a few times in the past week before he went off to his annual “meeting” of the USA Mortician’s Society down in Fort Myers, Florida. I could see him and Mr. McCallum down there, both of them looking like the vultures in Disney’s Jungle Book movie asking each other, “whatcha wanna do now, Mac?” “I don’t know, Ren, what you wanna do?” Senior bachelors who smoked and drank like fish, gaping at anything that had two legs on the beach. And here I was stuck in Indiana with my cell phone set to auto alert me to calls the funeral home got. I got the call before it hit my cell phone.

“Renner-McCallum, what may I do for you?” I asked, hoping it was a wrong number.

“Yeah, I got a body for you. My uncle died in the night. Coroner’s here already,” a hoarse chilly voice said on the other end. I had no idea why, but my skin crawled with goose pimples.

“Okay, well, I’m sorry, sir. Did your funeral have a pre-planned arrangement with us?”

I could hear heavy breathing on the other end. Hey, people mourn in different ways. “Uh, no, I don’t think so. All the guy ever did was drink Budweiser and watch television. He never left the house. But when you come down here we can sort that out,” the man said.

I began to sense an odd sort of familiarity about the man. It was something extrasensory. I knew this man. I got the particulars. The residence was only a few miles away. I perked some coffee, a full pot because I knew I’d be busy until at least noon when I got back, a hell of a way to spend a Saturday. I could at least have the body prepped for Tuesday when Renner and McCallum came back. I savored a cup of the black rich coffee before slipping my windbreaker on and stepping out into the pre morning autumn wet. It wasn’t cold, but fall was definitely in the air. It had rained most of the night. Amber leaves were stuck on the pavement like wet sheets of paper. A pole lamp behind the funeral home parking lot highlighted the glistening raindrops and offered an artificial sense of sunshine warmth.

I started up the white hearse and let the engine warm for a bit before darting into the local McDonald’s drive thru for an Egg McMuffin and a hash brown which ended up crumbling in my lap as I navigated the gigantic hearse through the wet slicked streets. I found the house on the other side of town, a somber saggy wooden house painted red which looked black in the pre-dawn light. The yellow bulb that made up the porch light gave a sinister air of Halloween, a hastily fashioned haunted house hosted by a family of hill jacks.

When I clomped onto the porch, I saw a form at the window. The door opened and I still didn’t recognize the silhouette until I was invited in and I saw the occupant under his living room light. Bobby Kravenewski. I felt a twinge of guilt shoot through me. We had made his life a living hell in school, everything from dunking his head in the toilet to turning his ass cheeks blood red by snapping gym towels at him. And now here he was with a dead uncle on his hands. He didn’t seem to recognize me, and I was glad. I glanced at the talking head on his TV screen pronouncing some get rich real estate scheme.

"My uncle’s in his bedroom there,” he pointed. It occurred to me the coroner was nowhere around. I wondered if he’d even been there. He seemed to read my mind. “Coroner’s on his way. I already called the police,” he said.

“Hmmmm, well, okay then,” I said. He had lied to me saying over the phone the coroner was already here. His house was hot and I started to take my windbreaker off. “Here ya, go. I hope you like it black.” He proffered me a ceramic mug of coffee, filled to the brim. Had he asked me, I would have refused, but I thought I should take a sip or two to be polite.

“So, what happened . . . with your uncle?” I asked.

“Not sure, really, I think he just up and died in his sleep. I went in there and he just looked, I don’t know . . . different, I guess.”

“How old is . . . was, your uncle?” I asked.

“Oh, jeeze, pushing seventy I suppose,” he said.

This guy was clueless. Wasn’t he aware the coroner could request an autopsy? If any kind of foul play were suspected the police or sheriff’s department would be involved.

“Come on, I’ll let you have a look,” he gestured toward his uncle’s room. I debated about waiting for the coroner, but thought I’d be polite and at least follow him. He opened his uncle’s room, and the room had no light on. Then it hit me like a kick to the crotch. My head swam, and the talking face droning in the background on the television began to echo. I looked at Bobby, and could feel my mouth going numb and my jaw hanging slack.

“What’s a matter?” he asked. Then he smiled and I knew I was in deep trouble. “I’ll bet you didn’t think I knew who you was. How could I forget?” He grabbed my shoulders and shook me. “You made my life such fun back in school, I’m just going to pay you back a little, that’s all.” He threw his head back and laughed. I was feeling dizzy. My eyes had adjusted to the dark. I glanced at the bed. There was no body there.

When I felt my legs go he grabbed me and dragged me down to his basement. He continued talking, describing how he was going to take care of me real good. I listened until even my hearing became buzzed. He dropped me into a shallow dirt floor grave and began shoveling cold damp earth on top of me. I wondered what he could have put into the coffee to make me lose all control. I thought of the X-Files episode in which the spooky guy from Haiti blew zombie powder into people’s faces and gave them the semblance of being dead. I had the episode in a box set on my living room shelf. That thought almost made me smile although I couldn’t even feel my lips. Then I realized I would never see the episode again, nor would I ever again watch an episode of anything. I watched him pour the dirt on me and I was oblivious to the weight of it on me. I could feel nothing. How in the hell did he know I would have been alone? Had he been staking me out? I pondered these things clear up until the dirt closed over my face. And when he brought the shovel up over his head and slammed it down packing the dirt in and smashing my nasal cavity I didn’t even feel it.

The End

BIO: Edward Burton is an avid PC gamer, and has had essays published in Computer Games Magazine. He has written dozens of short stories and has been published in Children, Churches, and Daddies Magazine. He currently has two novel manuscripts floating through the NYC publishing house circuit.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Happily Here Hereafter - Grace Gannon Rudolph


Annabelle vowed if there was such a thing as reincarnation she’d come back as a boy. “Men have all the advantages,” she’d say, up to her elbows in warm soapy water, crashing dishes around the sink and slamming them on the counter. When Annabelle was angry her green eyes, with a tiny fleck of blue pigment in the left eye, would flash. “Men have it easy,” she’d say, rolling her long blond hair on hard plastic rollers; after bleaching, washing, untangling it and preparing to spend another sleepless night staring at the ceiling, and wondering where her husband Harry was at three in the morning. Again. “He’s going to hell,” she’d hiss in the darkness to reassure herself there was justice somewhere, maybe not in this world but definitely in the hereafter.

A preoccupation with death was a genetic glitch in Annabelle’s make up.
It was the favorite topic of discussion among her aunts each Sunday when they gathered in her living room after Mass at Saint Pius, for tea and cucumber sandwiches. While Annabelle prepared the food and Harry slipped out the back door, they regaled each other with horror stories. On Sundays five-year-old Lola, Annabelle’s only child, crouched on the steps of the staircase in the living room with her elbows on her knees, her fists propped against her chin and her thumbs close enough to block her ears when things got too scary.

“Did you hear about the road they’re putting in near the farm?” Aunt Hildegard began.


“I didn’t tell you about that?”



Lola knew what was coming. She’d heard every gruesome detail the Sunday before. She winced. Her thumbs inched closer to her ears and hovered there but, self-control wasn’t her long suit.

“….they started building a new road up by Nelson’s farm and they found out the old one was built over a cemetery.”

“No!” Aunt Sophie gasped.

“Yes! And, wait till you hear this….”

Nightmares for sure.

“…they found coffins.”


Oh oh.

How could they not remember they’d heard this same story a week ago?



“Yes. Inside they found skeletons clawing at the lids.” Aunt Hildegard clawed the air and twisted her mouth in agony for emphasis. “They’d been buried alive and were trying to get out.”

“A lot of good that would do,” Aunt Rose huffed. “So you get out of your coffin and then what?”

Lola knew after being tucked into bed and kissed goodnight the nightmare would float into the room. She had the same dream every night after first hearing that death related tale. There were others, shared while cucumber sandwiches were devoured and washed down with dainty sips of Red Rose tea. But the premature burial found a nook in Lola’s brain and set up house.

The nightmare never varied. Lola’s father Harry was being waked at St. Pius. Candles flickered. The scent of incense and melting wax filled the air. After the last mourner had viewed the body Lola tiptoed to the casket to pray. The lid began to lower slowly but paused long enough for Lola to catch a fleeting glimpse of Harry as he opened his eyes and winked. Lola, frantic, tried to shout, “Don’t bury ‘im.” But, the congregation, busy with their rosaries or novena booklets, either didn’t care or didn’t believe her. Lola, awake, had a terrible time with truth; asleep, she paid dearly for this shortcoming.

When Lola was nine several cataclysmic events occurred within a week of each other. First, the mother of Beatrice, the disheveled girl who sat beside her at school, died. Next, Harry moved out of the house into an apartment. Then, Aunt Sophie died. Sophie, at eighty-nine, was the youngest of the group and the only one with a valid driver’s license, even though she occasionally drove over curbs or forgot where she was going. The Sunday gatherings stopped abruptly.

On the moonless night of Sophie’s wake Lola and her mother stood alone on the funeral parlor porch watching nearby trees pitch and writhe in the wind. The scent of rain was heavy in the air. Suddenly Annabelle whispered, “I was thinking about Beatrice today, the one whose mother died.” Lola looked up at her mother, a looming shadow in the darkness. “I wonder what Beatrice will do now that her mother’s gone.”

Lola felt a chill, wrapped her arms around herself and shivered.

“Are you cold?” Annabelle gathered Lola to her side.


“Do you want to go in?”

Sophie was inside; in a coffin. “No.”

“Well,” Annabelle’s voice drifted into the darkness as she lit a cigarette. The tip
caught fire and flared for a moment then melted into a faint orange glow. Annabelle sucked the smoke deep into her lungs, held it a moment then, jutting out her chin, exhaled it into the darkness. “Someone just walked over your grave,” she said.

“My grave?” Lola reared away from Annabelle.

“Not really. It’s just a saying.” Annabelle dropped her cigarette, grinding it out with the toe of her shoe. She draped her arm around Lola’s shoulders and said, “Let’s go in.” She dragged Lola inside where they took a front row seat.

Aunt Hildegard, sitting behind them, leaned over and whispered in Annabelle’s ear, “What are you going to do now that that snake moved out? Are you going to be able to keep the house?”

Annabelle shrugged. “I don’t know,” she sighed. “I haven’t figured it out.”

When Lola realized the ‘snake’ was Harry a new terror nudged the old terror from the nook in her brain and settled in. What would happen now that it was just Lola and Annabelle against the world? The apartment her father had moved into wasn’t an apartment at all. It was his girlfriend’s house. And, what if Annabelle, like Beatrice’s mother, died?

Lola checked out the woods behind their house. Tangled masses of vines drooped from trees making canopies over small clearings big enough to house a nine-year-old. Reassured, she went home and watched cartoons.

One rainy afternoon she slogged into the woods to test her home away from home. She crawled inside the clearing that seemed the homiest and sat cross-legged on the ground. The rain pounded through the vines and stung Lola with such fury that she ran back inside the house and was walking through the kitchen when Annabelle, in the dining room, heard water squishing in her shoes. “Stop!” Annabelle shouted, about to run towards Lola who froze mid-step. Annabelle back-pedaled out of the kitchen on her tiptoes. “I just washed that floor.” Lola stood stock still beside the sink as rain water pooled on the floor around her. “What happened to you?” Annabelle asked.

“I was playing in the woods.”

“Have you lost your mind? It’s pouring cats and dogs.”

Since the woods didn’t work out Lola came up with a new plan.

Each morning she’d press her nose against the school bus window to scope out alleyways as the bus rocketed its way to St. Clements School. Bobby Slecthman, the kid next door, had a club house made from the cardboard crate his mother’s new refrigerator arrived in, so Lola decided if worse came to worse and she was alone and adrift in the world, she could live in a crate at the end of an alley.

When Lola turned twelve Annabelle had an epiphany. As her anger at Harry subsided she noticed that Lola had turned into a bundle of angst waiting to erupt. She had a solution. She gave Lola a book, Song of the Scaffold, the story of a timid girl caught in the chaos of the French Revolution. Lola, an avid reader tore through the book, got to the last page and, pressed her hands against her mouth. “What’s wrong now?” Annabelle asked.

“What an awful story.”

“It’s a great story. It shows you can overcome your fears and be stronger. Like that girl.”

“Her mother died in childbirth. The Carmelite nuns were beheaded. She got stoned to death,” said Lola, trying to rid her brain of the image of a feeble twitching arm poking out of the bottom of a heap of stones. The only way she could keep from screaming was to focus on the tiny blue star in her mother’s eye.

Annabelle rested her fist on her hip, tilted her head to one side and said, “I give up. You missed the point.”

Over the years, as Lola grew up, old fears were replaced by new ones; Fear she would never get a decent job, never find a man willing to commit or, find an apartment she could afford.

Eventually, Lola met men unwilling to commit, couldn’t find an apartment she could afford but, got a job as a receptionist in a small ad agency. When the copywriter left in a huff, Lola’s boss asked her to write a 60-second radio ad for a meat market. “Pretend you’re pitching to hungry cannibals,” he said. Lola, who had the right mind-set for the task, did so well she began writing ads for newspapers and flyers as well as for radio. She lived at home, putting money aside for the day when either Mr. Right or the right apartment came along.

One Sunday after Mass Annabelle, inspired by Lola’s success, poured over the employment section of the Globe until she found a job as a receptionist in a large hospital.

On the morning of her interview Annabelle locked herself in the bathroom until an hour later the door slammed open and she emerged with a loud, “Tahdah, What do you think?”

“About what?” Lola asked

Annabelle turned to the left and fluttered her eye lashes. She had applied dark eye-liner and several layers of mascara. “Can you see it?”

“See what?”

“I don’t look like a freak?” She tapped the cheekbone under her left eye.

“Mom, you look great.”

Annabelle slung her new purse over her shoulder and braced herself against the front door as she stumbled onto the front porch on her new three-inch heels. With a wave of her hand she was gone.

After Annabelle got the job she began bringing home stories of people she met and offered them up over dinner and Lola continued her search for an apartment she could afford. Finally Lola abandoned the search and the arrangement that was supposed to be temporary, drifted from one year to the next. They had known each other so well for so long, and had weathered so many storms together that Annabelle was the compatible roommate Lola was looking for. They did the grocery shopping together, ate dinner together and shared the days’ successes and disappointments together, but then went their separate ways.

One Wednesday evening Annabelle told Lola about a homeless man who had died the previous Monday. The hospital was no closer to finding a funeral home for him than they were after he slipped the mortal coil. Annabelle patted her lips and tossed her napkin on to her plate. “I’m going to see Digger O’Dell about funeral arrangements.” She pushed her chair away from the table and headed for the phone.

Digger O’Dell, the nickname of the local undertaker Kevin O’Malley, was a short, portly man who even in the summer wore a long black coat and a black homburg tilted to one side on his bald head. He was the father of eight raucous kids who lived upstairs over the funeral parlor viewing rooms. Mr. O’Malley did the embalming; Mrs. O’Malley kept the kids under control. It was an unequal division of labor.

“Whose funeral arrangements,” Lola asked as Annabelle, her mouth set in a grim, determined line, picked up the phone and began to dial.

“Mine,” she said.

Lola’s mouth opened and her half eaten sandwich dropped to her plate. Childhood fears nipped at the edges of her brain. “Are you sick?” she asked.

Annabelle waved the question away. “I’m healthy as a horse,” she said. “When I die I don’t want you moping around trying to make decisions that’ll have you spending a bundle on something I’m not even going to enjoy.”

Annabelle pressed her finger against her lips, then using her professional receptionist’s voice said, “Mr. O’Malley, I’d like to make an appointment to meet with you.” During the pause that followed she shook her head several times then said, “No emergency.” Another pause; more head shaking. “No, she’s fine, too.” Annabelle turned, snapped her fingers and pointed to the cabinet where they kept pencils, tape, paperclips, notebooks, and curls of dust. Cradling the phone between her shoulder and her ear she mimed writing and motioned for Lola to bring her something to write on.

That night Lola woke up and squinted at the illuminated clock on the nightstand beside her bed. Three a.m. She rolled on her back, put her hands behind her head and tried to remember what had roused her from her sleep. A slow smile spread across her mouth as she realized she was finally and completely free from fears about death, dying, abandonment, and funerals. Her mother had made an appointment to arrange for her own funeral and Lola had held the notebook, secure in the knowledge that if worse came to worse she was an adult. She could survive. She rolled on her side, hugged her pillow, and fell into a deep dreamless sleep.

The next Saturday while walking down Lebanon Street to buy groceries Annabelle spotted Mr. O’Malley a block away, power walking towards the A&P. “Hurry up, Lola” Annabelle said. “I need to talk to him.” They raced to his side and while Annabelle caught her breath he tilted his homburg and smiled. She fell in step beside him and they continued down the street while Lola tagged along behind. “Can I change my obituary,” Annabelle said.

“Absolutely,” he said. “Stop by anytime and we’ll talk.”

“I’d like my funeral Mass to be in the evening.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” he said.

Lola silently vowed she would never go shopping with Annabelle again.

Since they lived in a small town Annabelle’s path frequently crossed Mr. O’Malley’s path, especially on Saturdays. While he did the grocery shopping for his large family, funeral arrangements were tweaked and re-tweaked as he and Annabelle wheeled their shopping carts side-by-side down the aisles snatching items from the shelves.

One stormy night the snow deepened against the garage and crawled in drifts up the window panes. The wind shook the house in its fist and the lights flickered on and off as Lola tried to read. Annabelle crocheted another doily for the table cloth she had set aside after Harry left her. Suddenly she sai “I missed my birth. I don’t want to miss my death.” The lights flickered off. Lola drew in a deep breath. The lights flicked on. A spasm of fear clutched her heart. “I mean,” Annabelle continued, “no one remembers their birth and what an adventure that must have been.” Lola shook her head as if to shake loose the Sunday tales of gnashing teeth and poor dears who sold their souls to the devil to escape the excruciating pain of childbirth. She put her book down and stared at Annabelle who said, “I want to be awake when I die. I want to know what it’s all about.” She looked up from her crocheting and smiled. “How about you?”

“I’d rather die in my sleep.”

“Would you want me to be with you when you die?”


“Would you want to be with me when I die?”

Lola wasn’t sure where this was leading. “If you want me there,”

Annabelle finished one doily and began another as the wind howled like a banshee against the window beside her chair. “If you’re far away I’ll wait for you.”

Euphoric that she hadn’t committed herself to a bizarre murder-suicide pact, Lola heaved a sigh of relief and said, “I’ll be there.” She picked up her book but put it down when the questions got harder and came faster. “If,” Annabelle said, leaning forward, “I can come back and let you know if there’s a hereafter would you want me to do that?”

Lola’s eyes widened. “Mom,” she began.

“I’ll figure out a way. I won’t scare you.”

“If you promise not to lurk in dark corners.”

Annabelle crossed her heart. “If you die first I wouldn’t mind if you’d come back and let me know.” She winked and said, “I wouldn’t mind if you lurked in dark corners.”

The wind gave the house another mighty shake as though to seal the pact. Lola brought the book close to her face, hoping to end the conversation. Annabelle was sending chills down her back.

“You know,” Annabelle said, “If there is such a thing as reincarnation I’m coming back as a boy. Men have it easy.” She threw her head back and shouted at the ceiling, “Hear that?” Lola glanced over, expecting to find a bitter down-turn to Annabelle’s mouth, and was not disappointed. That afternoon Aunt Hildegard had called to tell Annabelle she had seen Harry in a restaurant with a woman who looked so much like Annabelle that she had gone up to their table and sat down before she realized it was his new wife; Not only a new wife but, his fourth.

Winter gave way to spring and the frost in Annabelle’s heart melted as Harry became a fading unpleasant memory.

That spring Lola’s car died and she began taking the subway to work since there was a station around the corner from her job. One morning as she stepped off the train she noticed a circle of people gathered around something on the ground. Further down the platform a man huddled in a phone booth occasionally gestured towards the small knot of people as though the person on the other end could see what he was seeing. Lola joined the crowd. A man in a three piece suit was lying on his back; his arms and legs akimbo. His brief case had snapped open and papers drifted aimlessly around her feet. “What happened,” Lola asked, crouching beside him.

“I don’t know,” a woman said. “He just leaned up against that wall and slid down.” A flurry of papers caught in the slipstream of the train and followed it as it pulled out of the station and into the darkness of the tunnel. “I think he hit his head.”

Lola cradled her hand behind his skull and realized he was bleeding profusely. “Louis,” she whispered in his ear, sitting down and pulling him onto her lap.

“Do you know him?” a man in the crowd asked.

Lola nodded. “He’s our bookkeeper. Louis Johnstone. Louis’ eyes fluttered open and he looked at Lola. His mouth was slack; his eyes vacant. “You’ve been hurt,” Lola said, “But they’ve called for help.” She glanced up and raised her eyebrows looking for confirmation. A woman wearing a floral dress nodded towards the man who had left the phone booth and was running towards them. “There’s an ambulance on the way,” he shouted.

“Did you hear that Louis?” Lola said. “Hold on.” His eyes slowly rolled back, his chest heaved and he took a deep breath. A stream of frothy spittle oozed from the corner of his mouth. The crowd turned towards a loud echo of footsteps as two ambulance drivers and a policeman clattered down the stairs and hurried towards them. “Move aside,” the policeman said, helping Lola to her feet. Louis was lifted on to the stretcher, strapped in, and taken up the stairs. “That’s all folks,” the policeman said. “Move on.” He touched Lola’s arm and took a small notebook and pen from his pocket. “Are you related?” he asked.

“No. I work with him.”


“At the Harvard Humphrey Agency , it’s an ad agency.” She pointed vaguely over her shoulder and gave information about herself and the telephone number of the agency, but Louis had been a loner, a suspected weekend drunk, and she wasn’t sure if anyone at the agency would know who to contact.

After the policeman left, the woman in the floral dress came to Lola’s side. “Here,” she said, offering a package of Kleenex from her pocketbook. “I’m sorry about your friend.” Lola nodded and rubbed the stain on her skirt, making it worse. “It was good you were there for him.” she said. “I was at my mother’s bedside when she died.” Lola gave back the package of Kleenex, bundling the stained one in her fist. “It’s a gift,” the woman said, “Letting you be there during their last adventure.”

“He didn’t die, did he?” Lola asked. “Not like that.” She looked over at the dirty platform and her eyes misted.

The woman patted her shoulder and was about to walk away but turned and asked, “Are you going to be all right?” Lola nodded. “I’ll walk you to work.” Lola nodded and together they came out of the shadows of the subway and into the bright sunlit street.

That night when Lola told Annabelle about Louis and the woman in the floral dress, Annabelle smiled. “See?” she said, “That wasn’t so bad was it.”

Lola slammed down her fork. “What are you talking about?” she shouted. “Louis died in my arms, mama.”

Annabelle reached across the table and took her hand, “And you were there to comfort him. You weren’t afraid where you?” She asked softly. Lola thought it over then shook her head and smiled.

That night the dream crept back. The casket was closing, her father’s eyes snapped open and they were Annabelle’s green eyes with the tiny blue star. He winked as the lid closed and Lola woke up screaming. Annabelle, her white nightgown billowing around her in the moonlight rushed into the room. “What’s wrong?” she cried.

“I had a nightmare.” Lola sat up in bed. Perspiration drenched her pajamas and she held her hand against her throat as though trying to push her heart back into her chest.

“About what?”

“I don’t know,” Lola lied. She lay down on her side with her back to Annabelle who crawled under the covers behind her and put her arm around her waist. “Shhh,” Annabelle said, “Go back to sleep.” Lola felt like a terrified child whose goal in life was to find a refrigerator crate large enough to house an adult.

It seemed to Lola that everything in life happened in clumps. Shortly after Louis died it was discovered he had been embezzling from Harvard and Humphrey long enough to sink the agency like a depressive en route to a deep pool with a pocket full of rocks.

Jason Harvard called Lola into his massive glass paneled office, an office overlooking the bustling street below and the harbor beyond. “I supposed you’ve heard the rumors,” he began. Lola nodded. “They’re true. Louis wiped us out. I suppose you know what that means?” Lola tilted her head and waited. “We’re done. It’s over.” He leaned back in his brown leather chair, the leather as soft as melting butter. “We may reorganize but in the meantime we have to lay people off.” He looked down at his desk, a thick sheet of green acrylic resting on stainless steel legs, and began flipping his antique letter opener from side-to-side. “I’m sorry, Lola. We don’t want to let you go but,” he looked up, waiting for her to say something to make it easier for him. The sun poured into the room through the window behind his back, crept over his shoulder and touched the twitching letter opener.

“When am I done?” Lola finally asked.

He looked over the top of his rimless glasses, “Today?” It was a question more than a directive and she knew she could stay longer if she wanted to but, for what purpose.

“It’s okay,” she said. “I understand.”

She was almost out the door when he called her back. “Lola, sit down for a minute,” he said. She drew up a chair and sat down. “You were with Louis when he died.” She nodded. “That must have been a comfort to him.” She shrugged. “That son-of-a-bitch ruined us. I hope he’s rotting in hell but, I’m glad you were there.”

That night she and Annabelle ordered a plain cheese pizza. After the delivery boy flew back to his dented car and sped off into the night, they discovered it was a pepperoni. “Figures,” Annabelle said, picking off greasy rounds of meat. “The only thing you can count on anymore is that you can’t count on anything anymore.” She kicked off her shoes and sat down at the table.

“How was your day?” she asked while Lola brought the plates to the table and opened two cans of beer.

“I lost my job.”


“Remember Louis? He embezzled so much money from the company they went under. I was last one in, first one out.”
Annabelle’s eyes narrowed; the tiny blue star seemed more prominent. “You were the only one?”

“No, mom, relax. By the end of next week everyone will be gone. It’s over.”

“Well,” Annabelle picked up a slice of pizza, eyed it carefully then took a bite, “Look at the bright side,” she said. “It’s the weekend. Check out Sunday’s want-ads. You’ll find something.”

Lola took a long swallow of beer, “I’m a failure.”

“You’re not the failure. That stupid boss is the failure. He hired a crook, gave him free rein and never bothered to check the books himself.” She slid the pizza box closer to Lola, “Don’t lose faith in your self. You’ll find a better job. You’re a good copywriter.”

“It won’t be copywriting.”

“Why not?”

“I want something different,” Lola said. Annabelle held her fist to her chest and grimaced. “Are you all right?” Lola was about to stand up but Annabelle waved her back down and took a sip of beer. “I’m fine,” she said. “It’s the damn grease left over from the pepperoni.”

“How was your day?”

“The usual.” She didn’t tell Lola she had been over-come by a spell of dizziness so severe she had to lay down on a sofa in the nurses’ lounge.

On Sunday Lola poured over the want-ads while Annabelle concentrated on the crossword puzzle. “Find anything?” Annabelle asked.

“Not yet.” She was about to fold the paper and put it away when an ad caught her eye:
Lumber company. Friendly,
Energetic, w/ability to multi
task. Computer skills not
necessary. Call Ruben at 555-307-6218.

At the sound of ripping paper Annabelle put aside her crossword puzzle and held out her hand. “Let’s see,” she said. She scanned the ad and frowned. Lola braced herself for the worst. “‘Gal Friday?’ Did this guy just crawl out of the primeval sludge? He’s probably a fat slob sitting behind a huge desk somewhere with his feet up and a cigar stuck in the corner of his mouth. Men have the power; we have the ‘phones.” She crumpled the ad and tossed it at Lola then went back to her crossword puzzle. “Don’t answer it,” she said.

Lola put the crumpled ad in her pocket, and called for an interview the next morning.

Cohen’s Lumber Company was housed in a large orange metal building. The entry was bracketed by a wooden bower covered with non-flowering vines. A startled robin flew out of its nest in a rain gutter as Lola approached the door. She stood for a moment inhaling the smell of fresh hewn wood as men on forklifts stacked piles of lumber behind the building. Then she straightened her back and went inside.

Rubin Cohen, a thin nervous man with sad brown eyes, was a foot shorter than Lola. Their interview was interrupted by continuous phone calls and a harried secretary who kept slipping in and out of the office to lay messages on his metal desk. Lola took out the ad and passed it across to him while he was on the phone. He tucked the phone against his ear, looked at the ad, and put it aside. When he finally put the receiver back in its cradle he sighed and gnawed his lower lip. “I’m sorry,” he said, “we just filled that position.” Lola began to cry; big, heaving sobs that rocked her back and forth in her chair. “What’s wrong?” Rubin asked. His large eyes got larger and he pressed his palms against the desk, ready to get up just as the door opened and another man, a little taller and slightly bald, but close enough to be Rubin’s twin, entered the room. “What’s this?” he asked, stepping back from Lola’s chair as though he had encountered a leper.

Rubin shrugged. “Miss,” he said gently, “Miss?” Lola snuffled and brushed her sleeve against her nose. “This is my brother Sidney.” Sidney stooped down so he was at eye-level with Lola. “What’s wrong with you?” he asked.

“I lost my job,” she sobbed, “and I need to get another one fast so I can forget everything.” As the Cohen brothers exchanged a quick anxious look the misery Lola had trapped in her heart poured out of her mouth and she told them about her old job, about being laid off, about the embezzlement, and finally about Louis dying in her arms.

Sidney pulled up a chair and sat down. “Rube,” he said, “Isn’t there something she can do? This is a big place. There’s gotta be something.”

“They always need somebody in collections. There’s always somebody leaving to have a baby and we always get Office Temps for a month or two. I was going to call today but,” he nodded at Lola, “if you want to do that you can. It’s only temporary and it’s boring compared to what you were doing.”

“I’ll take it.” Lola hiccupped. She wiped her nose against her sleeve again.

“It’s just opening envelopes and sorting them into piles,” Sidney said. “We’re not computerized. Everything’s done by hand. Dad wanted us to keep the company the way it was when he ran it. It’s been successful for four generations…”

“…and ‘if it’s not broke, don’t fix it’ was dad’s motto,” said Rubin.

“When can I start?” Lola asked.

Rubin and Sidney exchanged a glance. “Now?” Rubin asked.

After Lola left the room Sidney said, “We just hired a nut case. What would dad have done?”

“What we just did,” Rubin said. “A man died in her arms, Sid. How could we say no? It’s only a week or two at the most.”

The job that was supposed to last a week or two at the most, was nearing the end of its second year thanks to the fecundity of the collections department. As one woman returned from maternity leave another left. The department was awash with baby pictures. Lola and Jackie were the only unmarried women in the office and that was about to change as Jackie was planning for a wedding in May. Although she was right-handed Jackie answered the phone with her left hand, fixed her hair with her left hand and generally invented creative ways to call attention to the ring that sparkled on her third finger.

One day over lunch Jackie, a large red-headed woman who had taken Lola under her wing, asked if Lola had ever had a serious boyfriend. Lola shook her head. “Not even in high school?” Lola shook her head again. “Girlfriend, class is in session. Get-A-Guy 101 will meet at Murphy’s pub after work. I’ll pick up the tab this time; you pick it up next time.”

Jackie convinced Lola that she needed a computer to go on line and find a compatible date. On the Saturday they planned to price computers but stopped first at Macy’s for free facials. Then Jackie snapped pictures of Lola and they took them to a one-hour-photo shop. While they waited in line the cell phone, Jackie insisted Lola could not live without, began to chime in Lola’s purse. She dug it out and snapped it open “Hello,” she shouted. People behind her frowned and whispered among themselves until Jackie motioned for her to lower her voice. “Hello,” Lola whispered, “Oh God! Where is she?” The line leaned forward straining to hear. Jackie took Lola by the arm and they stepped outside. “NO. Tell her Lola’s on the way. Tell her I’ll be there.” She snapped the phone shut. “I’ve got to get to City Hospital .” She rushed into the parking lot with Jackie close behind.

“What happened?”

“My mother had a heart attack. They said I should come but they don’t think I’ll get there on time. She flat lined twice.”

“What do they know?” Jackie tore the passenger door open and yelled, “Get in,” then rushed to the other side and slid behind the wheel.

Traffic was stalled and roads were barricaded everywhere they turned. They drove down side streets and alleyways, bumping over curbs and mangling trash cans until they were trapped in a log jam of cars and semi-wheelers. Jackie hit her horn several times then got out of the car. The traffic signal at the corner flashed from green, to gold to red several times and then she heard bagpipes in the distance. She threw her arms into the air, turned in circles, and finally slid back inside the car.

“What’s the problem?” Lola asked.

“It’s Saint Patrick’s Day. I forgot about the parade.”

“I’ll walk,”

Lola opened the car door. Jackie leaned across and pulled it shut. “We’re five miles from the hospital,” Jackie said. “It’ll be quicker if we sit it out and wait till the parade’s over.” She shut off the engine and rolled down her window. Lola turned to the window beside her. At the far end of an alley next to the car, a man in black and white checked pants and a soiled chef’s jacket sat on an overturned white plastic bucket spooning food into his mouth from a plate on his lap. “He must be cold,” Lola said. When Jackie didn’t answer Lola turned towards her. Jackie’s eyes glistened with unspilled tears. Lola squeezed her hand. “It’s not your fault,” she said. “We’ll get there in time. My mother will wait for me.”

“It’s not that,” Jackie held up her left hand. The ring was gone. “The wedding’s off.” She took a deep breath and shook her head, “It’s over,” she whispered.

“Well it’s better you found out he was an immature jerk now rather than after you married the rat.”

Jackie rested her head on the steering wheel. Her voice was so low and muffled that Lola almost didn’t hear her when she said, “He called it off when I told him I was pregnant.”

“Do your parents know?”

“Not yet. When dad finds out he’ll throw me out of the house.”

“Your mother won’t let that happen,” Lola said.

“Wanna bet? You don’t know my dad.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know.”

Lola gazed out the window trying to think of something comforting. The man at the end of the alley stood up, scraped something from his plate, and disappeared into one of the buildings. “You can stay with us,” Lola said.

“With all you’re going through?” Jackie shook her head.

“It would be good to have you there.”

“I don’t know.”

“It’s an option.”

The sound of drums and bag pipes gave way to shouts and cheers as people streamed down the sidewalks. A group of teens stopped beside the car. One stuck his head through the open window on Jackie’s side. “Kiss me. I’m Irish,” he slurred

Jackie rolled up the window and caught his head. “Don’t mess with me I’m in a bad mood, you freak.” His eyes bulged and as his buddies weaved their way to his rescue she rolled down the window, put her hand against his forehead and pushed him into their arms. They stumbled onto the sidewalk and were swept away by the sea of foot traffic. The car in front inched forward and Jackie muttered under her breath, “Men! They’re a different species.”

When they reached the hospital Annabelle was already in the Intensive Care Unit. Jackie chose a chair in the waiting room and picked up a magazine while Lola went to the ICU and sat beside Annabelle. “I’m here,” she said. The light above Annabelle’s bed threw shadows into the corners of the room. Tubes from her body fed into machines and filled the room with soft beeps and hums. There were long pauses between each ragged breath and a low bubbling in the base of Annabelle’s throat. Her hand was icy; the finger tips and nails blue. “Mom,” Lola whispered. “I’m here.” Annabelle opened her eyes and made a feeble attempt to lift herself onto her elbows. She stared at the foot of the bed with such intensity that Lola turned to look. “Who do you see, mom?” she asked. When she turned back Annabelle’s head again rested on the pillow. Her eyes were wide and vacant and her chest was still. An even line crept across the face of the monitor closest to the bed as a nurse came into the room.

A few days after the funeral Lola found out that Jackie had been right about her father. “I was always a rebellious kid,” Jackie told Lola, “but you’d think he would have forgiven me by now.”

“Where are you living?” Lola asked.

“In my car.”

“Not anymore,” Lola said. “Move in with me.”

“I couldn’t impose.”

“You wouldn’t be imposing. You’d be paying half the bills.”

Jackie smiled. “Okay,” she said. “We’ll give it a try.”

The day she moved in Jackie insisted on sleeping on the couch and hanging her clothes in the hallway closet. Annabelle’s room stayed untouched until July when Jackie, six months pregnant, rolled off the couch and on to the floor while trying to turn over. Lola painted the walls in Annabelle’s room and together she and Jackie turned one corner into a nursery. When Jackie enrolled in the Lamaze class she asked Lola to be her coach and then insisted on finding some way to repay her. “Listen,” she said. “We never got that computer.”

“You can’t afford a computer,” Lola said.

“But together we could afford one.”


“And then we’ll go on line and find you Mr. Right.”

“Jackie, you’re not the poster girl for finding Mr. Right.”

“I know, but the people at http://www.rudyledonnematchmakers.com/ are.”

After the arrival of Jackie’s baby Minnie, Lola and Jackie, with Minnie on Lola’s lap for good luck, trolled the site each night. Before going out on dates Lola left Jackie the date’s name, where they were meeting, and when she’d be home. By pre-arrangement the dates were interrupted by whispered phone calls from Jackie to check on Lola’s safety, and to give her an excuse to escape: “My cat’s dying. Gotta go. Bye.”

Lola was about to abandon all hope when the week before Thanksgiving http://www.rudyledonnematchmakers.com/ lived up to their hype. Much to her delight, and Jackie’s amazement, Lola met the man who met the criteria on her wish list.

Drew Benson was divorced, in his mid-forties, and raising a teenaged son. He had salt-and-pepper hair and a sign on the side of his pick up advertising his construction company: Homes at Last. He had been a customer of Cohen’s for several years but since he picked up lumber in the back of the building and Lola worked in the front of the building, they had never met.

By December the relationship was becoming serious.

“What do you like most about him?” Jackie asked.

“I feel safe. I feel like he cradles me in his hands,” she shrugged and smiled, “and I’m home at last.”

It was a tradition at the Cohen Brothers Lumber Company that every Christmas Eve the holiday party started at 10 a.m. and employees could leave at noon . One of the warehouses was cleared out and a bagpiper, Liam from the accounting department, fronted by the Cohen brothers, led the employees in Christmas carols. After a buffet brunch the company closed its doors for three days. Another tradition was that former employees brought children in for a maternal show-and-tell.

Drew was picking Lola up at noon and it was hard for her to concentrate because the holiday excitement in the collections department was at a fevered pitch. Flocks of babies were carried into the room for display but Lola kept working, kept her head down and only glanced up to check the clock. A steady stream of toddlers surged around desks and filing cabinets, some wandering up to Lola to rest their mittened hands on her knee waiting for a Christmas treat. When no candy was forthcoming they moved on and ignored her; except for nine-month old Patrick. No matter which way his mother turned Patrick twisted in her arms in search of Lola. She wasn’t aware of him until someone behind her whispered, “Patrick’s a cute baby, but…”

“But what? Jackie asked.

“Did you see his left eye? He’s got a broken blood vessel.”

Jackie snorted. “That’s pigment. If it was a broken blood vessel it would be red. It’s blue.”

Lola’s head snapped up. Patrick had rested his fist against the door jamb and wouldn’t let go.

“It’s just pigment,” Jackie said. “It’s cute. It makes him unique.”

Lola and Patrick’s eyes met. He gave her a droll smile, let go of the door jamb, disappeared around the corner and as she did she forgot all past memories as he sailed into the brave new world of male entitlement.

The End

BIO: Grace Gannon Rudolph is the author of the plays We’re All in this Together, and Elder’s Statements. Her articles and short stories have appeared in Contemporary Long Term Care, Intergenerations.com, shortstory.us.com and short-humour.com

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Randon Acts of Fatherhood - Robert Peza


Before the thing with the trains, or any of the talk about hidden gold or lightning rods, there had been the little woman at the employment agency. Later Mabry would suspect her act was a put-on, the crisp, professional tone as contrived as her high penciled eyebrows, or the immovable globe of hair, its shade reminding Mabry of the antique bronze he had seen on hardware store spray paint caps. But on that first visit he was simply annoyed, put off by the way she slid the pink sheet of paper across the desk without getting into why he was here, what his career aspirations were. Then tapping her chin with a brown painted fingernail as he read it, watching over the bifocals.

Mabry read the sheet, shook his head.

The woman smiled patiently. “It’s a good job. They have benefits.”

“I don’t look good in a blue vest,” Mabry said. “And giving out happy face stickers doesn’t sound challenging.”

“There are other positions. You could be a cashier or stock person.”

“I was hoping for something in management.”

The woman stared at him, then slid the pink sheet away without comment. She withdrew another from her top drawer, this one white.

“Let’s review your employment experience.” She took a pen from a set on her desk, the brass plate on which read Mrs. Walker. Aside from the phone it was the only object on the metal desk. “Describe in one sentence your primary marketable skill.”

Mabry thought about it. “Procurement.”

The pen dipped toward the paper, paused. Mrs. Walker looked up. “That’s all? Procurement?”

Mabry thought some more. “I was in trains.”

“So you were an engineer.”

Mabry shook his head. “More on the inventory side.” The pen hovered for a moment longer, then Mrs. Walker said, “Transportation Inventory Management,” writing in a script so neat it looked to Mabry like newspaper print. While she wrote Mabry looked around for an ashtray, knowing he would find none, the office so sterile it echoed.

“When was the last time you were employed?” Mrs. Walker asked.

“My last job was four years ago.”

The penciled eyebrows arched over the bifocals. “And you haven’t worked since?”

“I made a lot on that job.”

A hundred and eighteen thousand, Mabry thought. Then immediately thought of Philip, the image coming unbidden, the way it always did with that dollar figure. The boy’s face fading in his mind now, like the face on a coin that’s passed through too many fingers.

“No salary requirement defined,” Mrs. Walker said. “What about tool skills? That can also include computer proficiency, or any particular software.”

Mabry said, “I’m good with firearms.”

“I see. So you were an armed guard.”

Mabry shrugged. “I have a lot of experience in that area.”

“But… you weren’t really a guard.”

Mabry kept silent.Mrs. Walker turned the white sheet over and pushed it to the corner of her desk. She returned the pen to the marble base and straightened it. Then stared at Mabry for a long time over the bifocals.He thought the meeting was over.But Mrs. Walker said, “I may have something for you.”


The first – and only – time Mabry had gone to visit Philip after the South Boston freight job was three weeks later. Really only seeing a wedge of Philip, because Bobbi’s father had kept the chain on the apartment door. But Mabry had seen enough to know the boy’s grandparents had given him a haircut, what Mabry thought of as a white-trash cut, the way they left his blond hair long in the back but spiky on top. Trying to be contemporary but only making it up to the early eighties, probably doing the cutting themselves with the same shears the old lady used to snip coupons.

By then Mabry had already hidden the money, the amount forcing him into a distributed banking system: some in plastic bags in the apartment’s tiny freezer, some beneath a flagstone in the weed-choked backyard, a few notes tucked under a corner of carpet for spending. The chrome-plated locomotive had set him back almost a hundred bucks, but he was still in the afterglow of new money and his personal economy had not yet equalized. It wasn’t until later he would realize he would have been better off with something unrelated to trains, but that’s what the kid loved.

“For your birthday,” Mabry said, holding the toy up to the crack in the apartment door, its chrome reflecting the milky light of the hallway. Then eventually setting it on the faded hallway carpet when it became clear the grandfather wouldn’t release the chain.

He had hoped it would go better, but then Bobbi’s mother had come up to the door and started spouting off, her pale, wrinkled face hovering in the gap and using language Mabry thought unbefitting a grandmother.

Mabry left, but not before seeing the look in Philip’s eyes at the sight of the locomotive, knowing his son would be all right, understanding the amazing resilience of children.


Mabry stepped out of the taxi, double-checking the sheet Mrs. Walker had given him, the address written in her fussy lettering. He was watching his pennies now and couldn’t afford for the cab to leave if it was the wrong place. But then the sight of the property told him all he needed to know: manicured shrubs as flat as end tables, the small lawn cropped as tight as a putting green. The brown November leaves had been herded off to neighboring yards, like sheep held at bay by some invisible border shepherd. There were no potted plants or humorous lawn signs, only the house number beside the brown, windowless front door. A beige compact stood in the driveway.

Mrs. Walker answered the door, her weekend appearance similar to his visit two days before but softened, the pantsuit replaced by a brown velour jogging suit, zipped to the neck. She seated him on a plastic-covered sofa in a small living room. The opposite wall was dominated by a wide bay window with drawn curtains, as if the sunlight itself were too unpredictable a prospect to allow into the tidy room.

A moment later she returned with a glass tumbler filled with iced tea, which she placed on a coaster produced from some unseen location. She sat across from Mabry, smoothed her jogging pants, then followed his gaze to a framed photograph on the coffee table.

“My late husband,” Mrs. Walker said. Then added, “He worked for the Great East Coast Railway,” seeming to feel a need to explain the engineer’s cap.

Mabry had seen many engineers in his career, none of whom ever wore a cap, but kept it to himself. “When did he die?”

“December will make a year.”Mabry nodded, then could think of nothing else to say, not knowing the man.

Mrs. Walker said, “I imagine you know your way around trains pretty well.”

“Around them?”

“Yes. The ins and outs. How they’re built.”

Mabry shrugged. “Sure.”

“And if something was, say, hidden in one. Like a in boxcar. You’d know how to find it?”

Mabry thought about it. “Not many places to hide in a boxcar.”

“Or hidden in any kind of train car.”

Mabry shrugged again and waited.

Mrs. Walker smoothed her pants again, which Mabry realized was a habit born out of the absence of anything else in her immediate radius to straighten.

“I believe my husband stole something,” she said, getting to it at last. “From the freight company.”

“You mean something owned by the company? Or the freight itself.”

“Freight,” she said. “Gold.”


“Ingots. Or gold bars.”

Mabry sipped the iced tea, which was tepid and bland, as though Mrs. Walker had devoted her full attention to neither ice nor tea. “What makes you say that?” he said.

“I saw it.”

“The gold, you mean.”

“Yes. I saw him carrying it on several occasions.”

She saw his look of doubt. “He worked in a high security area,” she said. “They used those armored boxcars. He told me about it once. Banks and financial institutions use the service to transport currency and other valuables.”

Mabry did know about that. “And you saw him carrying gold.”

“Yes. What I believe was gold, a bar or ingot, as I’ve said.”

“But you didn’t actually see the gold.”

“It makes sense, Mr. Mabry. There are other reasons.”

“Where was he going with it?” Mabry said, picking up the iced tea, then remembering the taste and cradling it in his lap. “Where would he hide it?”

Mrs. Walker stood, smoothed her pants, and went to the bay window. She swept open the big curtains.

There, beyond a low hedge and stretching in three directions under the pale autumn sky, lay what Mabry thought at first was a junkyard. But then understanding it wasn’t a junkyard at all, for there wasn’t a single automobile in the vast, scrub-choked plane. This place held only trains. Ancient locomotives, rusted boxcars, commuter cars, tankers, hoppers, flatbeds, gondolas. In the far distance, on a low ridge of second growth, Mabry thought he even spied the silver flank of a high-speed passenger cabin, its chrome detail winking in the early sun.

“Nice view,” Mabry said.

“Those bushes used to be taller. Lou cut them down so he could see that mess.”

“So he could see where he hid the gold.”

“This was before all that. Before he started acting funny. Not that he was ever normal.”

“So he just liked the view.”

“He was a rail fan, Mr. Mabry,” Mrs. Walker said, crossing her arms across her chest. “Have you ever heard of that?”

“Someone who likes trains.”

“That’s an understatement. Rabid about trains is better. Before he died the basement was wall-to-wall trains. Photographs, paintings, you name it. He even tried to set up a model train set down there.” She waved a hand. “I put a stop to that nonsense right away.”

“Which explains why he was an engineer. His love of trains.”

“He wasn’t an engineer. He worked for the freight company. So he could be around trains.”

“Also to steal gold.”

Mrs. Walker sighed. “He wasn’t a bad man, Mr. Mabry. Stupid, yes. Childish. He attended model train conventions, if you can imagine. An overweight, balding man wearing that silly cap. But I think an opportunity presented itself at the freight company and he took it.”

Mabry looked out over the vast graveyard.

“You’ll take twenty-five percent of whatever you find,” Mrs. Walker said, watching him.

He tried to estimate the number of dead trains in the salvage yard. Five-hundred? Eight? Certainly not a thousand.

Mabry said, “I’ll want a daily rate.”


It wasn’t like there was shooting. The way Mabry had planned it, he was in and out, no shooting, no one even aware that he was there until ten minutes after he walked out with the money. Philip was in the car – Mabry had no choice with that, Bobbi leaving the way she did without notice. But Philip was never in any real danger. When Mabry dropped him at the grandparents’ place the kid was even smiling.

It wasn’t like there was any shooting.


On Monday Mabry showed up at eight-fifteen, stepping out of the cab to a bright autumn chill and the waiting Mrs. Walker, who was standing by her car and looking at her watch.“I thought we agreed on eight-o’clock,” she said.

“Cab was late.”

“Arrive at eight. Lunch at noon. Closeout at four-thirty. That’s our agreement.”

She handed a stack of bills to the cab driver, who counted it and drove off, meaning she had somehow calculated the exact fare and tip. Mabry watched her get into her Toyota and drive away, wondering if the hundred a day was worth it, wishing he had held to his original price of two. But the woman had been immovable, and he needed the money. Two weeks, a hundred a day, then the agreement was terminated whether he found something or not. At least he had negotiated cab fare.

Now he went with his plan, which was to start at the far corner of the freight yard and work his way in. The thinking being, if this guy Lou wanted to hide something from his wife, he would probably get as far away as possible to do it.

But as Mabry picked his way through the pathless graveyard, he found the plan more difficult than he had imagined. After twenty minutes he had only covered about a hundred yards, the scrub and Bermuda grass hiding an invisible course of oxidized rails, potholes, locomotive parts, boulders, and tumbled deadwood. Here and there glass glittered in the watery sunlight, most from broken beer bottles, sparkling like green and amber gemstones scattered among the rust and debris.

He eventually settled on a row of commuter cars about halfway out, lined up on a an overgrown siding. Their broad silver sides were scrawled with old graffiti, like the faded hieroglyphs of some crumbled civilization. Inside, Mabry found more or less what he expected: shredded seat cushions, beer cans, used condoms, and yellowed skin magazines. Amid the swollen stuffing of one cushion he turned up twenty-six cents in tarnished coins. But no gold.At noon he made his way back toward the house, glad to be out in the sharp air and away from the odor of decay inside the cars. Mrs. Walker was there with sandwiches and more of the bland iced tea. He had nothing to report and so they spoke little, business being the only thing they really had in common.

He spent the afternoon poking through a jumble of dilapidated boxcars near the northwest corner of the yard, and realized it was going to be a long two weeks.


At lunch on the second day, after a fruitless search through a collection of locomotives – mostly diesel-electrics but there was even a rusty old steamer, its pulls and levers petrified to the floor like arthritic limbs – Mabry asked Mrs. Walker about her husband.

“I’m all over the place out there,” Mabry said, pinching one of Mrs. Walker’s finger sandwiches but not eating. The smell of coal tar creosote clung to his clothes and knocked the edge off his appetite, more than could be accounted for by the rubbery lunchmeat, which he had gotten used to yesterday. “I need a little more to go on.”

“What would you like to know?” Mrs. Walker said.

“Anything about him. His hobbies.”

“I told you, he was a rail fan. That’s all he did. All he ever thought of.”

“Drinker? Smoker?”

“Only a social drinker. And no smoking.” She waved a hand, which Mabry noticed was a frequent gesture when discussing her husband. “At least not in my house.”

Mabry had entertained an idea of following a trail of empties and cigarette butts, but now tossed it aside. He said, “How did he die?”

“Lou was killed,” Mrs. Walker said. She sat with her hands in her lap, as though the subject of her husband’s demise was conventional parlor conversation.“Killed,” Mabry said.

Mrs. Walker stood and went to the bay window, pointed out. “They found him over there. By that group of newer freight cars? Two maintenance-of-way workers found him.”

Mabry said, “And you think this is something to do with the gold. Or the alleged gold.”

“Yes. I think the freight company sent someone out here. Or whatever company was shipping the gold.”

“I’m surprised you didn’t tell me before.”

“It’s not like there’s any danger to you. I’m sure whoever was looking for it has long given up.”

Mabry looked out at the boxcars. “Maybe it was an accident.”

“Not likely, Mr. Mabry,” she said. “He had a lightning rod through his heart.”

“A what?”

“They’re pretty common around here. We have one up on top of our house.” She nodded out the window at the flatness of the freight yard. “Being the tallest structure around. And all that metal lying about. The salvage company installed them on some of the train cars out there too, to attract the lightning away. But a lot of them have fallen off, or the kids have torn them down to play with.”

“Why would a hired killer use a lightning rod?”

“Not a hired killer. I think they sent someone out to retrieve the gold. But Lou wouldn’t tell them where it was, and they killed him.”

Mabry looked out at the group of freight cars. Maybe fifteen in all, some still holding their painted colors, mostly reds but some blues and yellows, bright in the midday sun. At least it was something.

“Why was he out there?” Mabry said. “Was he bringing out more gold or something?”

“Lou was in the habit of going out almost every night after work. He liked to take walks. But sometimes he’d be gone for a couple of hours. The thought of it. Out there with all that filth.” She picked a spot of lint from her pants and then hugged herself, looking out.

Mabry waited. “Anything else?”

She thought about it, said, “His knees were dirty.”


“Not his actual knees. His pants. I found them in the laundry several times, the knees dark with ground-in dirt.”

“Any idea why?”

“I’ve thought about it. Maybe he was crawling around, hiding the gold under a train car or something. I don’t really know. I asked him once and he had no answer.”

Mabry thought it might be a clue but made no comment either way. After lunch he made his way to the freight cars. The going in this part of the yard was stonier, one of the reasons he hadn’t gone this way. He wondered what would happen if he broke an ankle, whether Mrs. Walker would send someone out for him, or assume he was dead and wait for maintenance workers to find him in the morning.


What really stuck in Mabry’s mind, more than the way Bobbi was dressed or her impatient glances at the guy in the idling Mustang, was the way she had ignored Philip. At that time Philip was only three, but Mabry thought the kid knew a lot more than Bobbi gave him credit for. Philip’s round face peered through the fogged windows of the Buick, watching his parents stand out in the cold.

“What the hell is in Georgia?” Mabry said, seeing Bobbi glance again at the tricked out Mustang. It looked newly-waxed, the aftermarket spokes and chrome trim glinting under the cold sun, the driver only a silhouette behind the smoked glass.

“Well, it’s warm for one thing,” she said, hugging herself. Her skirt was sheer, too short for the weather. “And it’s not like we’re married or anything.”

Mabry said, “What about tomorrow?” Then realized that was a mistake, making it sound like the South Boston job was the only thing that mattered to him, standing here breaking up after a four-year relationship.

“I wasn’t going with you anyway.”

“But who’s going to watch Philip? The whole goddamned thing was planned.”

Bobbi didn’t answer, only half listening. She glanced down at her left hand, like a woman who inspects her nail polish, only Mabry had already seen her do it four or five times and knew she was looking at the diamond. He suspected it was Cubic Zirconium but didn’t say. Her eyes shimmered, meaning she had gotten her head up before the encounter and now it was starting to kick in. Her eyes could still look good with makeup if she took the time, the purple blotches underneath softened with the powdery stuff she used. But now they told him she was already gone.

He tried a few more arguments anyway, reminding her what he had given up to support her way of life, other lines of reasoning he had made over the years, trying to get her to back off the lifestyle. Arguments that had never worked then and didn’t now.

And then Bobbi was gone, the Mustang growling as it fishtailed out of the driveway, again at the stop sign. And she hadn’t even glanced at Philip.


Mabry’s first inclination was to look for a bloody spot, the place where Lou had been stabbed with the lightning rod. But then he remembered that almost a year had gone by, the Massachusetts seasons freezing, drenching, then baking away any sign that might have been left from that long ago encounter. So instead he concentrated on the group of newer boxcars, making his methodical way through their interiors, searching for something that looked out of place, a loose section of floor or ceiling. The going was slow. After crouching under four or five cars he gave up on the idea that Lou would have hidden anything there, the undersides smooth, the great wheels and axles exposed and devoid of hiding places. While he worked he thought, mostly about gold and lightning rods, but also about the hundred a day, and which bills he would pay first.

Mingled with the painted boxcars were three coal hoppers, as well as an old Pullman dining car. He tackled the hoppers first since they were the most difficult, their steel ladders flaking, the going especially shaky as he crested the tops for the descent into the pits. The first two held only scattered debris, enough so he had to get all the way down inside to see if anything had been hidden there. At the bottom of the third, amid a scrim of coal, lay a dead coyote. Mabry saw that it had bloodied its muzzle and paws clawing at the ladder to get out, its coat matted and black with coal dust. He saw how it had gotten in, leaping from a nearby outcrop of puddingstone, possibly after a bird or rodent. Then wondered what had been like, dying alone down there, cut off from its places of roaming and its children, starving to death for following its hungers.

Later, as Mabry explored the Pullman, a boy appeared, away to the east and picking his way through the tall grass. The windows of the Pullman had been shot out and Mabry saw the boy now and again, tossing stones or climbing boxcars, while Mabry inspected the Pullman’s ornately carved wooden booths and tables, the gilded tray ceiling. After an hour he had found no secret compartments or loose screws. When he thought to look again the boy’s bright yellow coat had vanished beyond the back of the yard.

At noon on Thursday, over tuna sandwich wedges as dry as ash, Mabry asked Mrs. Walker if there were any children.

“What, Lou and I?” Mrs. Walker said, nibbling a corner of a sandwich.

Mabry nodded. “I don’t see any photos around.”

“We were childless, Mr. Mabry.” She saw the way Mabry looked at her and added, “Not because we couldn’t. It was a decision.”

Mabry thought about it. “You probably liked to travel.”

She shrugged. “Sometimes. Mostly we stayed here and enjoyed our home. Children just never fit in.”

Meaning they we too messy, Mabry thought.

“How about you?” Mrs. Walker said. “Any little dependents? I don’t remember any on your application.”

Mabry thought about how to answer. He thought about Philip with Bobbi’s parents, the checks he was sending. Before the money dried up.

“No,” he said at last. “No dependents.”


By Wednesday of the second week, Mabry came to realize he was only going through the motions. The luster of the autumn afternoons had fallen off to a pre-winter gray, and with it Mabry’s belief that any gold existed in the rusted wasteland. He had scaled double-decker coaches, inspected snow plow engines, prowled cabooses. He had picked Mrs. Walker’s brain for details, believed he knew Lou as much as a man could learn about another man he had never met, but still had found no trace of him.

During the past five days the boy had appeared off and on, the yellow coat flickering at the fringe of Mabry’s vision like an occasional sunbeam slipping through the overcast. He always chose a different area of the vast yard in which to play, well beyond the distance Mabry could throw a stone or his voice. The boy never waved or acknowledged Mabry in any way. Mabry found himself thinking of Philip, and whether he had a place like this to roam, or if he spent his afternoons in the cluttered, shag-and-mahogany gloom of his grandparents’ apartment.

It wasn’t until Thursday morning, with two days remaining and nothing to show but the daily wage, that Mabry came to realize the boy was his only hope.


The birth of Philip had been a touch and go thing, what the pediatricians in the special care ward termed a cocaine birth. Bobbi went five weeks early and Philip showed up at less than half of the hospital’s average infant weight, looking to Mabry like one of those marionette puppets, his head too big, his body frail and stick-like, fighting it out in the pale glow of the incubator’s heat lamp.

Eventually they got Philip home and Mabry saw it as a new chapter in their life, and for a while it was true. Bobbi sometimes went for days without a visit to her guy in the north end, breaking the previous routine of once a day, twice when she was on a roll. A flame of motherly instinct seemed to flare up inside her, for a while burning away the other appetites, or at least outshining them.

But as Philip gained weight and his needs began to diminish to that of a normal baby, Bobbi’s needs slowly grew back to their normal weight as well. Mabry began to find the stashes of cheap vodka or rum in the usual places, in the toilet tank or the bottom of the laundry hamper. For some reason Bobbi was open about the cocaine and beer, but quiet about the hard stuff, as though she could manage her addictions by limiting their disclosure.

But the flame of motherhood never completely disappeared and for that reason Mabry held on, hoping for some future reform, a vague idea of change that always hovered on the edge of his thought, an elusive Monday morning that always seemed a week away but never actually came. Back then they were living off Mabry’s second or third heist, Mabry getting pretty good at Bobbi’s original idea. But always wondering where it would end, waiting for his own Monday morning. He saw it in his mind’s eye, stepping out of the apartment’s front door in a tie, back to the working grind but not dreading it. Something that utilized his talents more than the communications position he had held when he met Bobbi. Possibly something in management.


To Mabry the sight was so foreign, so utterly unexpected, that at first he thought it was a trick of the distance, an effect of the cloud shadow that obscured the basin of land between him and the boy. At first there was only cold terrain surrounding the cluster of boxcars across the valley. Then the yellow coat, emerging from the November earth like some bizarre, late bloom.

The fact that the boxcars were there at all was a surprise to Mabry. He had roamed the rear acreage of the yard twice in his two weeks, but had never climbed the bluff of second-growth, or known about this older section, an additional four or five acres of railroad salvage. Nor had he known about the crowded neighborhood of trailer homes beyond.

So a secret cave or tunnel, Mabry thought, his mind suddenly alive with possibilities, letting the thrill of it run through him. Lou must have known the boy. And the boy had the gold.

Mabry forced himself to be patient, waiting until the boy crossed the vale. When he was halfway up the rocky slope, Mabry stood and started down.

“Hey son,” he said, waving, putting on a friendly face.

The boy looked up and froze.

Mabry came on. “I’ve got a kid your age,” he said. Stretching the truth, but it didn’t matter because the kid turned and bolted back down the slope.

Mabry tried to follow, but after a dozen steps the terrain became loose, as slick as aquarium gravel, and Mabry nearly tumbled. When next he looked the kid had already reached the far side of the basin, and then he was gone, rocketing past the boxcars toward the trailer homes beyond. Mabry crossed the vale and reached the boxcars just as a light drizzle began to fall.

After thirty minutes of searching he cursed himself for not marking the location while up on the rise. Down here the cars all looked the same, the surrounding earth featureless but for some scrub pine and scattered pea gravel. Nothing resembling a hole or cave opening.

After two hours the drizzle swelled to a full rain and Mabry gave up, made his way up the treacherous slope and back to Mrs. Walker’s house. In the kitchen, over pallid instant coffee, Mrs. Walker said, “Only one day left. I thought you’d have more leads. Knowing your way around trains the way you do.”

Mabry shrugged. “Tomorrow’s another day,” thinking of the boy and the tunnel but keeping it to himself. No sense setting expectations.

“What will you do after this?”


“With your career. I’m wondering what you’ll do for work.” She paused. “Whether you’ll stay in trains.”

Mabry could tell she wanted to ask about the robberies. He said, “I’m looking for something else.”

Mrs. Walker set her coffee down. “Have you ever had a regular job?” Getting into it now.

Mabry looked across the table at the bronzed hair, the folded hands and patient smile. He said, “At one time.”

And he thought about his last real job, where he met Bobbi. Fresh out of the army and plying his new vocation in railroad communications, surprised at how quickly he had gotten a job in the growing field of high-speed passenger services. Traveling up and down the east coast with a small crew on a rip-and-replace project, pulling out the old control equipment and installing the new fiber optic stuff, the modernized computer-operated systems. The company also handled freight lines and that’s where he met Bobbi, doing light secretarial for an armored freight carrier in Virginia.

Bobbi’s habit had already been heavy back then, but Mabry was young and open-minded and it was kind of cool, going to the parties or just hanging out and getting high, cramming all your sleep into Sunday night after your nose was too burned out for any more blow.

Then that one party, hanging with that coke-freak friend of Bobbi’s, the skinny guy who worked for a security consulting company. The guy’s head was up but he had said some lucid things, talking about social engineering, how companies spent piles of money on electronic and physical security but always forgot about the third piece, the human factor. The guy’s firm did something called penetration testing, where the coke head or one of the other consultants would dress up as a maintenance worker or delivery guy and walk right into a place, the workers all assuming it was alright because the guy looked legitimate. Or a computer repairman, asking workers their passwords, people giving them without thinking twice. The consultants would go into the system and pull out some data, maybe the company’s tax return or the names and birthdays of the CEO’s kids. Then charge the company big money to go in and educate the workers, teach them how to react to social threats.

And so Bobbi had come up with the scheme. Mabry was resistant to the idea, and for two months Bobbi worked on him, withholding her affections and sulking. Finally Mabry had given in and worked with Bobbi on the preparations, which took another month.

And then, when the timing was right, he had gone in and done it, stepping into Bobbi’s office on her off day, wearing a records management name tag, which Bobbi had gotten off the Internet and sewn onto his shirt. Timing the visit around a currency transfer. And the receptionist had buzzed him right in, even telling him which part of the vault they kept the backup tapes in. If Mabry wasn’t so nervous that first time it might have been comical, there among so many security precautions: time locks, fortified boxcars, razor ribbon, video surveillance, and sealed containers. But no armed guard inside the secure area, just the transfer agent, moving bags from the vault to the container. Mabry was apprehensive but it turned to be easy, stepping in and nuzzling the bogus .38 under the man’s chin, forcing him back into the boxcar and telling him to stay put, making him believe Mabry was with a team. Mabry felt some remorse afterwards, counting out the twenty-two thousand, remembering the way the transfer agent had looked, talking about his two kids and begging Mabry to spare him. But for Bobbi it was the start of an extended party.

Later they got worried, Bobbi hearing that parts of Mabry’s face had been visible on the video. Bobbi quit the freight company and they left the little furnished apartment and drove up the coast to D.C.. From there it was easy to repeat the process, watching the routines at the local freight depots from the parking lots and finding a pattern, going with a different plan each time but always using what the coke head had taught them about social engineering. They had varying success, the smallest score being the first twenty-two, the biggest almost fifty. After that one Bobbi worked on Mabry to quit the communications job. She liked the lifestyle.

And Mabry had embarked on his new career.


A blast of Canada air shouldered out the rain, Mabry’s last day on the job coming in bright and hard with a bitter wind. He spent the morning out of sight of the crouching trailer homes, sitting in the relative warmth of a wood-floored boxcar. At noon he skipped the trek back to Mrs. Walker’s house and resisted the temptation to go out and look for the tunnel, waiting it out, letting his mind wander through the possibilities.

Much later a sound jarred Mabry and he sat up, realizing he had dozed, seeing that some of the brightness had faded from the day. He waited and the sound came again, a scuffle of shoes on gravel. He peered around the edge of the boxcar door and the boy was there, not six feet away. He was squatting, bent over something on the ground.

A moment later a section of earth seemed to shift before the boy’s feet. As Mabry watched it broke free, a tidy three-foot square, shrubs and all. The boy grunted and Mabry saw how he did it, a length of black cable attached to a sheet of plywood, sliding now as the boy pulled. Mabry remembered stepping on that cable yesterday as he searched in the rain, probably more than once. The camouflage had been artfully done, earth and pea stone attached to the wood in a realistic manner, dead shrubs carefully placed to avoid a wayward step and subsequent discovery of the hollow place underneath. Mabry remembered Mrs. Walker’s comment about the dirty knees, felt something shift in his gut.

When the yellow coat disappeared, swallowed up by the hole, Mabry stepped out. He went to the opening, saw that the hole extended into a tunnel of sorts. He could hear the kid rustling further in. He turned it over in his head a few times, wondering how to play it.

“Hey son,” he said, bending to the opening, deciding it was the only way. The hole was wide enough to accommodate his frame, but following the kid in would only frighten him.

The rustling stopped. Mabry waited but the boy said nothing.

“Come on out, son.”

More rustling, and the boy’s head appeared. “What do you want?” the boy said. There was a fear in his eyes that Mabry couldn’t equate to the situation.

“I’m not going to hurt you.”

“What do you want?” the boy said again.

“I need to see your tunnel.”

The boy’s eyes darted away, then back to Mabry. “You can’t be there. Someone’s going to see you.”

Mabry looked around, realized he was in view of the trailer homes. The opening itself was hidden by the angle of the boxcars and the slope of the land. The boy had probably approached from the opposite side so he could remain hidden.

“I’m coming in.”

“No,” the boy said, but backed away into the tunnel as Mabry approached.

Mabry squatted, peered in. The earth had been excavated to a depth of four or five feet, the walls muddy from the rain but smooth-sided. Looking closer, Mabry saw how the tunnel had been formed, not really a tunnel but a trench with a roof of plywood, camouflaged along the surface with more shrubs and soil. Mabry could hear the boy’s rustling further in, the nylon coat noisy in the darkness. After a moment’s hesitation he lowered himself into the hole.

Then worried, because the boy was gone. Somehow the kid had vanished up ahead, the yellow coat no longer visible. Mabry paused, listened. A new sound came back, hollow and metallic. The boy had gotten into some other part of the tunnel. There were footsteps.

Then all at once he got it. He lifted his head out of the hole and saw the boxcar, across from the opening a dozen feet away. The boy had to be inside it, gone up through a hole in the floor. The reason for the trench became clear: it allowed access to the boxcar without crossing the dozen feet, which were in view of the trailer homes through a gap between the other boxcars.

After a claustrophobic scuttle in the dark Mabry was there, squeezing his shoulders through the opening in the floor of the car. The wheels had settled and the floor was only a few inches from the ground, causing Mabry to wonder how the hole, a neat, nearly perfect square in the steel, had been cut.

Looking around the inside of the car, he got several answers at once, more than he could take in and process. The sliding door had been secured from the inside with a hasp and padlock, answering his first question. Whoever had cut the opening in the floor had done it from the inside, then locked the door. Other holes he been drilled in strategic locations for natural light, and a pair of battery-powered lanterns stood in each of the four corners.

Scattered around the space were various artifacts. Remnants, Mabry thought, of a dead man. An ashtray shaped like a coal car, the filters of three or four butts still lying in its bottom. A tattered engineer’s cap hanging on a nail. Taped to the wall were several grainy instant snapshots of the boy or Lou with that same cap perched on their heads, twisted in odd directions, the subjects tugging on their ears or making funny faces.

And the model train set. More than just a set. A whole model city, taking up most of the boxcar’s floor. Trees, office buildings, bridges, high-tension poles, cell towers. A plastic lake with miniature sailboats. Cars, trucks, pedestrians. Even an airport, its tiny painted aircraft huddled around the hanger like exotic insects. And through it all a winding track, a shining pair of steel ribbons meandering through the landscape.

Mabry heaved himself into the car for a closer look. The boy stood in a corner, silent.

Parked in a section of track in the far corner, directly in front of the boy, was another answer, the real reason Mabry was here. The model train was one of the larger scales, maybe HO or S, Mabry could never remember how they went. It was at least twenty cars long and made of solid brass, right down to the wheels and fittings. The caboose glittered in a shaft of sunlight from one of the holes in the wall. Mabry could see how Mrs. Walker could mistake one of the cars for a bar of gold.

“Mr. Walker did this?” Mabry said.

The boy didn’t speak.

Mabry looked around, noticed an aluminum baseball bat standing in the corner, a tattered baseball on the floor.

“He played ball with you.” Mabry said. Then stared the boy down until he nodded. The kid was dirty, and not only from the crawl through the hole. His fingernails and hair looked like they hadn’t seen the inside of a bathtub in recent memory.

“Mr. Walker was quite a craftsman.”

When the boy didn’t answer again, Mabry went back to taking in the space, his eyes falling again upon the ashtray. He wondered how Lou got the smell of smoke from his clothes after his evening excursions. Probably delayed coming home until Mrs. Walker was in bed, then tossed his clothes in the hamper. Or more likely the pair didn’t sleep together at all.

“Diesel,” the boy said.

Mabry looked up. The boy was watching him. “What?”

“That was his nickname. Diesel. Mine’s Steamer.”

Mabry nodded. Rail fan nicknames. Although Diesel didn’t seem quite right for an overweight, balding man. He went to the line of brass cars and plucked a boxcar from the track, unexpectedly liking the feel of it, the weight in his hand. “What happened to Diesel?”

The boy shrugged, then squatted and began adjusting pieces of artificial landscape.

Mabry watched for a while, thinking it out but not too hard. There was no gold. So the job was over.

He was about to stand when a sound came from outside the car. He looked up. The boy froze.

Then a voice, coming through the opening in the floor. “Get your ass out of that hole, boy.”

The look of fear, now amplified, was back on the boy’s face. He stood and went straight to the hole without looking at Mabry.

Mabry went to the hole after the boy disappeared, then paused, thought about it. He stuffed the brass boxcar into his back pocket, then went to the corner and picked up the aluminum bat.

“Who the fuck are you?” the man said as Mabry emerged into the sunlight. The boy stood a few paces away, hands thrust in his pockets and staring at his shoes.

Despite the cold, the man wore a faded cotton athletic shirt, his exposed arms thin but ropy with veins. A red stubble covered his jaw and cheeks, hair flat on one side as though he had just awoken. His eyes were watery and rimmed with red. Meaning he was coming down off something and not happy about it.

The man held something in his hand. It took Mabry two or three hard heartbeats to realize it was a lightning rod.

“The fuck you doing with my boy?” the man said.

“No one’s doing anything with him.”

“Damn kid draws queers like a magnet.” He raised the lightning rod a little, suddenly inflamed by his own words.

Mabry said, “You don’t know a thing about the boy, do you?”

“Fucking around in holes with grown men. That’s enough.”

Mabry realized then that the man – by ignorance or plain lethargy – had never bothered to see what was on the other side of the tunnel.

“The boy likes model trains,” Mabry said. “Did you know?”

“Who the hell are you to tell me about my own boy?”

“Someone needs to.”

The guy spat something in the dirt. “You think you could do better mister?”

Mabry thought he could. As he passed, the guy made a feint with the lightning rod, but Mabry raised the bat and the guy stepped back. Which told Mabry that overweight, balding men were more the man’s speed. He wondered where it had happened, whether the guy had done it here and moved the body to the other section, or if he had ambushed Lou in the dark as he walked back home through the yard. Then decided it didn’t matter.

He left the brass boxcar with Mrs. Walker and explained about the boy, then called a taxi. Today’s hundred would be enough for cab fare to Philip’s grandparents’ apartment complex. He thought about telling Mrs. Walker about the father and the lightning rod. But then changed his mind and let that part lie as a mystery, a random act. A boy needed a father.

BIO: Robert Peza has published stories in the magazines Mysterical-E, Amarillo Bay, Conversely, Shots, Millenium Writings, and Gorilla magazine. His short story, "Love Triangle," was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2005. He lives in Massachusetts and is currently working to locate an agent for a recently-completed detective novel.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Out on Joppa - Robert Ward


So it was like this went down back when I was a kid and Nicky Scarlatti scared the living shit out of everyone who hung around The Lodge because that was the kind of guy he was. Nicky and me ran around with two other Whale- Boy Blake, and we did whatever and whoever we could. Our specialty was house robbing; for a year or two we all lived in a row house down on Calvert Street and it was a short jog right up to Homeland, and Roland Park where we lifted up the ladders and pried our way into stately homes, basically ripping off everything we could carry. We had a really nice little fencing scene going over in Dundalk; Nick owned a warehouse in which he kept paintings, and silverware and the family jewels, TV’s, compact disc players, Moose heads for laughs, all kinds of shit. All this when he was just seventeen. I mean he was a real villain, top of the class. Robbing, strong arming, dope selling…you name it, the kid had it cornered.

Where were the cops? They were around. But what could they do? Nicky’s dad was Jimmy Scarlatti, yeah that one…he ran nine clubs, and fifty hookers and more dope out of the great Port O’ Baltimore than Al Capone did whiskey in Old Chicago.

He also owned politicians by the score…they were like little puppets he kept in his hip pocket, took them out, dusted them off and let them make speeches at City Hall.

What’d they talk about? Reform. What the fuck else? The roads gotta be reformed, concrete is gotta be poured, don’t we need a new dam now that Pretty Boy is old and cracked? Yeah, we do and who is gonna supply the concrete ,none other than Maiden Choice Concrete, owned and operated by Tommy Floria, Jimmy’s running buddy from Little Italy. How about schools, fuck yes we need schools, great big concrete mutherfucking schools, and what about a new stadium, well fuck n A yes we need a new stadium…old Memorial Stadium is a piece of shit, the piss runs in lakes out of the broken urinals…Now stadiums are good things…Jesus, there’s a million ways to make money off a stadium…from the stanchions to the new seats to the fucking crab cake and beer franchises. That’s American enterprise at its fucking best.

Yes, the world was good for the Scarlatti’s, and better than that for young Nicky, king of the teenage bad boys.

Everything was coming up money, right until Jimmy got Nick his new Corvette for his 18th birthday. Well, actually it was an old Corvette, 1956 classic, but all tricked out with duel carbs, super fuel inject, two steel pipes in the back, and original white wall tires. The engine only had about five hundred and eighty horses. What a fucking beauty. I woulda given my own left nuts for it and both of yours.

Oh, did Nicky love that car. He and me and Whale Boy used to blast up to the Lodge get down on some crystal meth in the back bathroom, drink down about half a gallon of Jack Daniels and then go cruising through the city, looking for chicks to fuck, guys to fuck over, houses to rob.

I remember hitting the light at Charles and North Avenue…fucking North Avenue with like four lanes of traffic and Jimmy doesn’t even slow down, just blasts through it going about ninety miles an hour.

I’m screaming: “Hollllly shittttt,”

Cars are slamming their brake and horns are blasting and I see a five car crash-up behind us, and Jimmy is laughing, screaming with his pointed chin and beady eyes, and Whale is doing his Whale Boy flip out…yelling

“Whaaaa Whaaa Whaaaa!”

What a rush!

And Nicky keeps right on going through the city, and out onto the Baltimore Beltway where we start terrorizing four girls in a Toyota, screaming “Baby come sit on my face!” and other subtle shit like that. (Can you believe they didn’t wanna?)
And then it happens…like we knew it would.

There’s a siren and a flashing red light behind us and this state trooper is closing in on us.

And Nicky starts laughing and weaving right and left…and then the guy starts in over the loudspeaker:

“This is the Maryland State Police. Pull over at once, sir!”

And Nicky is laughing so hard he almost rams into the speed limit sign as he pulls over, and the guy stops about ten feet behind us. Nicky starts to get out of the car, and the guy freaks, starts yelling over his speaker:

“Do not leave your car, sir. Get back into your car at once, sir.”

And Nicky is just laughing, doubled over…as he sort of half gets back in, sitting on the back of the seat top…

And the trooper walks toward us, all stiff and formal, a long lean Clint Eastwood looking guy with the reflector shades on even though it’s nighttime. And he goes through the whole “Let me see your license and registration, bit,” and me and Whale are sitting there not knowing what’s going down. But Nicky hands it to him real cool, and then looks at the guy and before he can say anything else, Nick says, “Aren’t you gonna ask me was I drinking?” And the Trooper, whose name I can now read as Stumpfel, looks at him and says,” Are you trying to be funny, son?” And Nicky says, “No sir, I just didn’t want you to be derelict in your duty.” I liked that touch “derelict”. Nicky had a pretty good vocabulary for a gangster…Now the guy looks at him harder and says, “Thank you very much, but I don’t think I’m going to have a problem doing my duty, punk.” And Nicky looks all a flutter at that one, says in this kind of high pitched fag voice, “That is sooo upsetting. My dad is gonna hate that you called me that.” Now the guy looks at him again, taking off the mirrored shades and you know he wants to stick his hand down Nicky’s throat and pull out his heart, but instead something like a revelation comes into his face, and he looks back down at the license…and when he looks back up again, he’s totally changed., I mean the whole Clint thing is stone gone, and the tight little tough guy lips are kind of twitching and his voice, I swear, is like a half-register higher, and he says, “Oh Mr. Scarlatti, well why didn’t you say so? Listen, no problem son. Just take it a little bit easy will you?” And he’s sort of backing away like some old slave, shucking and jiving, and Nicky’s looking after him and laughing, and saying, “Yeah ,no problem Sergeant Dickhead…none at all. We’ll be rolling along now, fuckface.” And he turns and slides back down into the seat and we peeled out of there like we’d been shot out of a cannon, leaving a rubber patch about twenty feet long. And the dickhead trooper, he didn’t see or hear a thing. Man, he couldn’t wait to get away…

That was maybe…no for sure, the greatest night of Nick’s life. As he explained to me later when we got back down the Lodge and were smoking these big spliffs he’d gotten off a boat from Jamaica…

“Here’s the thing, man…The cops, the politicians all of them are nothing. We run the scene Eddie Boy, you and me and Whale man, and anybody else we fucking choose.”

And I was nodding my head and digging the music on the box…some ancient Stones thing…and yet I couldn’t help but add a note of caution, and I said:

“Yeah but Nick, we don’t want to attract too much attention,” And he laughed and said, “Don’t be a pussy. I studied ancient Rome, which is what we got here. We run the show and the thing to do is to make sure the cocksuckers know it. This whole secretive thing…I don’t buy it. You want to spread the fear, the intimidation, so that they are already beaten before you even show up. They’ve shit their pants and they can’t fight back. You saw that cop tonight. He was paralyzed with fear cause he knew the Roman legions had swooped out of the city onto his territory. Man, I loved that…That boy is my bitch. Love it, dig it…We all die Edward so grab the power and squeeze while you got it.”

“I guess so,” I said. The way he said it, the way his eyes shown into mine like headlamps, oh man, I believed it.

And that was how Nick’s new hobby began.

In the red Corvette, screaming out to the belt way, high on every drug we could cop, and scaring the shit out of the local cops.

I dreaded it really…I kept thinking one of them would take us off to jail, kick our asses, but Nicky was right. It never happened. We cruised, we drove on the grass plot in the middle of the fucking highway, we drove over people’s lawns in the middle of the night and then waited for the cops to come.

City cops, state cops, it didn’t make a bit of difference baby. They all freaked when they saw that license…

“Sorry Mr. Scarlatti.”

“Nick Scarlatti, hey how you doing?”

“Oh Nick? I know your dad. Take it easy son.”

There was something about those rides that made Nick, me Whale…all of us felt like we were golden. Like they couldn’t touch us. Soon we got real empowered, as the shrinks say now…empowered to steal more and more. Guilford, Falls Road, Homeland…man we were racking up the robberies. Rolling in ill gotten gains.

One night we climbed into this guy’s house lived on Hollywood Lane. Cruised right in and robbed the fucking guy blind while he was passed out in the bed next to his wife.

The guy wakes up and looks out, all blinky and freaked, and says:

“Who’s there?”

And Nick says:

“Just me.”


“House robbers,” Nick says. “Go back to sleep.”

“What the hell?” the guy says. “Who the hell are you?”

“My name’s Nick,” Nicky says. “This is Eddie, and this big guy is Whale Boy. “We’re gonna take all your shit now, okay?”

“Fuck!” the guy says.

“Who is it, Gerald?” the wife says now rolling over with cold cream on her face.

“Geez, how many times I gotta tell you?” Nick asks, picking up a big handful of the guy’s silk ties. “It’s Nick, the house robber. We’re going to take all your shit. You got too much of it anyway.”

“Call the police, Gerald,” the woman says.

“Nah, you don’t want to do that Gerald, Nick says. “Cause if you do I’m gonna have Whale Boy hear stick his Beluga up your wife’s pee-pee. Then I’m gonna come over to you, and make you suck my cock, Gerald.”

“Gerald,” the wife said. “Do something!”

“Shut the fuck up, Lois,” Gerald said.” Take the stuff guys. Just hurry…I think I’m gonna be sick.”

“Goodman Gerald,” Nick said. He put the ties in his bag and started scraping up the money off the dresser.

What a scene that night was. Robbing a guy and telling him your name and knowing that he wasn’t going to do shit. I mean that was colorful. Yet, I got a little worried. Turned out the guy was some kind of bigwig doctor at Larson Payne Hospital and was on boards at a lot of downtown businesses.

But Nick never got scared. Just the opposite. He loved it that we’d jerked the guy off like that.

He took the guy’s ties and started wearing them around. I mean a tie with the guy’s initials on it. Jesus fucking Christ…

I worried about that. But ok I loved it too.

Then he went over the top.

I mean there was this Christmas thing at City Hall and we went and there was the fucking guy, Gerald himself, right across the room, hobnobbing with the head of the city council Joe Narowski, and there’s Nicky wearing his tie. Man, I wanted to book right away, but not Nicky. He grabs me by the arm and pulls me over to the guy with him, smiling and greeting his old man’s friends like he’s the Pope.

“Gerald,” Nick says, “I’ve heard all about your work. Very impressive.”

Gerald looks confused at first like he’s trying to place the voice. I’m feeling embarrassed, looking down at my feet. Man, this was not called for. But Nick isn’t going to stop. He sort of punches Gerald on the arm, and goes right on:

“I’m Nick Scarlatti. This is my friend, Edward Morris. Pleased to meet you, sir.”

But Gerald says nothing at all. He’s just staring at Nick’s tie. .

“Sir?” Nick says. “Are you all right, sir?’

“Oh yes, fine,” Gerald says. But his voice is like a little squeak. And his face is crimson, man…

“You like this tie?” Nick says. “Got it as a Christmas gift. Well, good to meet you Doc. You de man.”

We walked away, Nicky laughing, and grabbing a drink as we staggered out to the Vette.

See,it was like one kind of dare…robbing a guy, fed the other kind of automotive insanity, and there we were one day later driving out the Joppa Road doing about ninety-five as we go by Carney’s Crab House…I forget what the fuck we were doing out there, trolling for Christmas pussy no doubt…and running people off the road, of course…laughing as we see their cars hitting the ditch…ba boom ba boom, and we get to this little stretch of woods over in Parkville somewhere, you know the area where the hairhoppers all live, and Nick really opens up…and sure enough right around the corner comes this fucking trooper’s car…it’s coming after us…and Nicky is laughing and doing power slides around corners and handing me a joint… and I’m so wasted I don’t quite know what’s going down, but the guy does the whole siren thing, then the walky-talky bit, except this cop seems to have a sense of humor, because he doesn’t command us to pull over and stop, instead he says, “I strongly suggest you stop,” and Nicky looks at me and says, “Great! Comedian cops now. This ought to be different.”

So he pulls to a stop, and hops right out of the car, and the guy comes walking toward us…and I’m expecting the usual Clint long tall laconic bit but instead we get this guy who is built like a fireplug, and there’s something else about him too…though I was sort of too wasted to know what it was…but I think it was the color of his uniform. It didn’t look quite right…like an off brown that was more piss yellow. And he acted kinda cool when Nick handed him his license. I mean even after he looked down at it, he seemed …like the name didn’t mean shit to him.

And he smiled at us…oh man, that smile.

And he said:

“Mr. Scarlatti, you were driving at ninety miles an hour and you were responsible for a number of motor accidents a few miles back, and therefore I am going to have to ask you and your friend here to come with me.”

Nick squinted and looked right through him, with his deaths head smile and said:
“Have you read my license you fucking punk?”

The cop nodded and handed it back to him. But as Nicky took it, the guy had unsheathed his pistol. That was when I started feeling all hollow inside.

“Come with me now,” he said. “Both of you.”

“You’re out of your fucking mind,” Nicky said. “My father will…”

But the guy didn’t let him finish. Instead he hit him across the face with the gun butt, breaking Nicky’s nose like you’d snap a kitchen match.

“You come too, sir,” the man said.

He pulled Nicky out of the car and kicked him in the back of his leg, bringing him to his knees.

I thought maybe I could run away out to the road, which now looked so empty and dark. But there was no way.

“You can’t do this,” I said, as he pushed us toward his car.

That’s when I began to really feel sick. The paint job on his car was off. It had obviously been done in a hurry by someone who wasn’t too sure how it should really look.

It was fine until you got up close, but then you could see that the Maryland decal was messed up, and that there was some metallic primer still showing underneath.
Nicky saw it too, and said:

“You asshole, you can’t get away with this. My father will fucking scrape your nuts off with a nail file.”

“Shut up,” the guy said. “You rude little shit.”

He kicked Nicky inside. That’s when I tried to run for it, but he hammered me in the head, and as I fell I thought I heard him giggle. Like this was all some kind of cute little game.

When I came too we weren’t even on the road anymore. Oh no…we were back in some kind of Parkville woods, the kind that are all thick pine, so dark you can’t even see the moon.

Nicky was down on his knees next to me, and the guy was standing over him with his big assed barreled .45 an inch or so in front of Nick’s nose. I was lying next to him…and I heard Nicky start to beg:

“Look man, I don’t know who you are but if you don’t do this, my old man…he’ll set you up for life. For life! You won’t have to do shit, except go down to your mailbox everyday and just take out your money.”

The guy laughed then too…a high pitched clown’s laugh…Oh man…that laugh.

He put the gun next to Nicky’s lips, ran it around them in this gentle way.

“Suck on this, Nicky Boy,” he said.

“No!” Nick said. “Please.”

He was starting to cry now. Nicky! I couldn’t believe it.

“Who the fuck are you?” Nick said.

“Just think of me as a friend of Gerald’s,” the guy said. “He said you could keep the tie.”

Then he fired the .45. The back of Nicky’s head blew backwards and splattered on an oak…I think it was an oak anyway. It’s funny the shit that goes through your mind when you’re about to be killed. Oak, pine, I never could tell them apart. Neither one of them looks good with hair and brains sliding down them though.

I staggered to my feet and watched the guy standing there, the smoke coming out of his gun. He had on his goddamned reflector shades and he stuck his belly out and rubbed his back. Like he was finishing up a good day’s work and getting ready for a friendly beer.

I turned and ran, ran for the tree line, and was sure, dead sure that any second he’d blast me in the back. Then I heard him laughing after me, that high pitched screech of a laugh, and I kept on running, stumbling, falling ,getting back up again, scared shitless… until I came to a place called Jo Jo’s Tire yard, and I fell in there and found the old man. Jo Jo himself, who took me in and gave me a pint of cheap booze…and then about an hour later drove me back into the city. And never asked one damned question the whole time.

I cleared out that night…as fast as I could, and caught a Greyhound headed south.

For over a year, I moved around a lot from motel to motel.

I changed my hair color to red, and then to blonde and I grew a beard.

I read the papers and watched the TV. It came up pretty soon.

SON OF CRIME FIGURE DISAPPEARS. Somewhere farther down in the lead they’d mention me too. Edward Morris, 18, a family friend also gone. Yeah, I liked that. A family friend, like we were old school mates from St Paul Prep or someplace.

It’s been over ten years now, and they never found Nick. Not one hair of him.

They never found me either. I don’t go by Eddie anymore, and I don’t stay in one place all that long. I know I know…if the guy had wanted to kill me he could have and that I should feel safe.

But I don’t.

I’m never going to feel safe again as long as I remember those glasses, and hear that laugh. That’s just how it is, and all because of a Red Corvette. .