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Chapter 14

Degrees of Women

I

Somewhere in Syria.

      Agent Johnson stood directly below the ceiling fan. The air felt good,

especially with no sand floating in it. The bartender had fled when Kazar and his

men entered the room, pushing his customers out the door in front of him. The

room was silent except for the rickety fan. Kazar sat down at the table in front of

Agent Johnson, grinning.

       The rest of the men surrounded Johnson with their automatics aimed,

unlocking their safeties in unison. One of the men reached into Johnson’s suit coat

and pulled out the agent’s .45 Kimber, setting it on the table in front of Kazar.

Kazar picked it up, looking at both sides of it, wondering where it had been and

whom it had killed. He put the Kimber in the pocket of his own white suit coat.

Kazar spoke in muddled English.

       “My men have tracked for you the last month. It is hard to believe an

operative like yourself would be caught and tracked down so easy. At least you

could have dressed like an Arab, you stick out like sore toe. The papers you seek

belong to me and so sorry for you they will stay with me.”

       “It’s sore thumb. Not sore toe,” Agent Johnson said. “Did it ever occur to

you that maybe I didn’t dress as an Arab because I wanted to get caught? It would

be an easy way to lead me to the papers.”

      Kazar’s grin faded slightly, the face of a man at a poker table unsure if his

opponent was bluffing.

     “Regardless, you are defenseless. I would kill you here, but the bar owner

is my friend and he would be ruined. Besides my men and I don’t wish to carry

around a heavy body. I have a far more fitting end for you Agent Johnson.”

Kazar said something in Arabic and three of the four men left the building.

The remaining man pushed his automatic into Johnson’s back, moving him out the

front door. An old Jeep wagon pulled up and Johnson was shoved into the rear

seat next to another man wielding a machine gun. Kazar got in the front next to

the driver.

      The jeep rolled loudly and was slow in leaving the small village behind.

      Ten miles out of town the dirt road turned into no road and then into desert sand.

The Jeep stopped atop a large dune, a plateau of sand that was still solid enough to

support the weight of a vehicle. The man next to Johnson shoved his machine gun

into the agent’s side, motioning for him to get out. Johnson complied. The air was

dry and the sun stood tall in the sky. There wasn’t a cloud in sight. Kazar spoke

again in Arabic, and the driver stayed in the jeep.

       Agent Johnson, Kazar, and the man with gun walked from the jeep a good

distance toward the far side of the top of the dune. Countless dunes dotted the

distant horizon, all of them lifeless, just beaches and beaches of bright brown

sand.

      Agent Johnson’s foot sank, and he tripped falling face first, but breaking

the fall with his hands. The man with the gun cursed in Arabic and jerked Johnson

violently to his feet by the back of his collar.

      “Well Mr. Johnson this is where we say our goodbyes,” Kazar said smiling

once again. “Unlike your American mobbers we don’t give a shovel so you can

dig a grave. We just shoot you and let you roll down the side of the dune. The

night winds of the desert will cover you up quite nicely.”

      “Mobsters,” Johnson replied.

       Kazar’s eyebrows raised in bewilderment.

      “You said mobbers. The pronunciation is mobsters.” Kazar’s smile left

him once again. “And besides, how is this guy going to shoot me if he can’t see.”

Kazar looked at his man, but before any words left his mouth Agent

      Johnson tossed the sand cupped in his hands directly into both of their faces as he

fell to the ground. The man with the machine gun began to fire but hit only dry

desert air. Johnson grabbed the gunman’s leg and swept it out from under him.

The man fell face down in the sand spraying bullets across the desert landscape on

his way down. Kazar dropped to the sand as well and heard the copper projectiles

buzzing through the air as they passed his ear.

      Agent Johnson jumped on the gunman’s back, grabbed him under the chin,

and snapped his neck effortlessly. Kazar fumbled for Johnson’s gun which was

tucked snugly in the pocket of his white coat, but it was too late. Agent Johnson

pulled the trigger of the acquired machine gun, and pumped bullet after bullet into

Kazar’s face, turning it into a smashed rotten tomato.

       The man in the Jeep took three steps toward the battle but was sliced down

before he could fire or even yell.

      Agent Johnson looked around at the bodies, making sure they were

lifeless. He walked by the first man and gently kicked the man down the side of

the dune. He came to what was left of Kazar and knelt down. He opened Kazar’s

white jacket, splattered now with red and brown stains, pulling out first his gun and

then the documents. Johnson quickly thumbed through the papers making sure all

were intact.

      Satisfied, Agent Johnson stood up. His foot gave Kazar’s body a nudge.

Down the hill of sand it went, rolling until it stopped at the bottom of the dune in a

shallow valley next to the gunman that had gone before him. The wind blew

briefly, depositing a thin layer of sand over the blood-soaked bodies.

Johnson looked at the two bodies expressionless. “Maybe you won’t have

to wait for the nightly winds after all.”

      Arriving back to the Jeep, he found the bullet-riddled driver immobile, but

gasping hard for his last breaths. Johnson squeezed the trigger of his Kimber and

hurried the process along, blowing what was left of the driver’s brains out the back

of his skull and into the sand.

II

      We never really spoke about Extravaganza too much. Even the rumorspreading

mouths of teenagers could be humbled by certain atrocities. Roman was

confident that we would never see Freddy Flowers again, and that was good

enough for all of us. Heather probably took that night the worst. She was not quite

herself the first few days afterwards; there were dark bruises around her eyes, and

her previous overflowing opinions at the lunch table were non-existent.

       Roman blamed himself, of course, citing that he should have never let

Heather go with us in the first place. Should have gone by himself. Heather

reminded him yet again that she was a big girl and would do what she damn well

pleased. A long time ago, Ninja told Roman to never walk through a door unless

he knew what was on the other side. Roman had followed the philosophy to a tee.

His plan was brilliant—emptying the guns for insurance—it ran as smoothly as a

hockey puck over ice. But sometimes no matter how well prepared you are, things

just get fucked up, especially if you bring three amateurs along for the ride.

Johnny put his two worthless cents in once, stating that if he’d brought his gun

none of the other shit would’ve happened. I told him if he’d brought the gun, they

would have taken it from him and killed us all.

      Freddy Flowers slithered his way out of any investigation. Johnny was

right about Freddy’s connections. The only thing in the paper was a statement

from the fire marshal stating that the “abandoned” warehouse burned to the ground

by accident and there was no one present during the fire. There was no mention of

a well-done Bobby Dukes carcass. There was also no one in attendance stepping

up to blow the whistle on the Flower. After all, it could not be discovered that the

elite of Collingston had been at such an event.

      As the weeks rolled on, talk of The Flower and his awful circus faded

away, replaced by old lunch room jokes, unusual facts from Roman like a human

can swim just as fast through syrup as he can through water, and comments from

the gallery on the promising future of baseball and of graduation. Time heals all

things? Maybe if a certain janitor is along to help you through it.

       Carl had recovered almost immediately from his sickness, visiting the

Tavern nightly, and receiving guests every so often at his front door. I never saw

one of his so-called crack whores turned away. He listened to his crazy-ass radio

programs and had us over for beer and ginger ale. As the month’s full moon

approached Carl began to bring up the aliens again. I learned just to tune his nutty

ass out. It was all in his head.

      February was nothing more than a school girl tease, the fake hope of spring

popping up in a sixty-degree day once or twice, only to return to its winter chill the

very next morning. Its only good attribute was its length: always short, which

meant less prison time. I wonder why the Emperors picked February to rape of its

days, a question I never got around to asking Roman. He did, however, inform me

about what a bogus holiday Valentine’s Day was, of how the gift card companies

resurrected some story from the depths of history and turned it into a gold mine.

      Anyway, I spent my February increasing the intensity of my workouts,

playing catch with Sam and Pick five days a week, and visiting On Deck at least

three times a week. I even dragged Roman out of his books a couple of times to

throw to me. He popped the mitt well; it wasn’t just a fluke that day in January.

But with all my begging he still refused to be interested in coming out for the team.

I still had no offers on the table for baseball; all the college stuff was in the

back of my mind to be honest. I kept my eye on the prize—the state title—a title

that had eluded the Silver Streaks since baseball became a sport at the high school.

We had a good enough team to get there, of that I was positive. We just needed

that one extra ace in the hole, that one solid pitcher that unlike Johnny wouldn’t

implode when the going got tough.

       Coach Demera knew it too. He was hungry. I could see a little more

arrogance in his step as he strolled through the halls. I could see that look in his

eye, that killer look a tiger gives his distant prey. He was going to put us through

hell; you could count on it. He was going to tell us things like “if you like the

smell of a woman better than the smell of your mitt, you need to shit and get :

you’ll be able to chase the chicken asses your whole life, but you only get to put

that mitt on for a short time.” Of course he was right, and I had already got a head

start on Coach, dumping my dead weight ahead of schedule.

      That dead weight, I heard through the grapevine, was now dating a

sophomore. A fuckin’ sophomore. Some French foreign exchange student named

Jacques, who wrote poetry and could grow a full beard. I saw them pinned up

against the lockers in the hallway, coincidentally the same hallway that led me to

my locker. Who’s she shittin’ anyway? I could give a damn.

      Jack Rollins was as happy as a pet coon, since The Killer returned to

school, making sure to grab the seat next to his former commander, and hanging on

his every word. Unfortunately for Jack, Johnny had grown up a little—almost

suffocating inside a plastic bag and being thrown in the back of a truck will do that

to a guy I guess. And when Johnny didn’t have any specific orders for Jack, the

silence we’d enjoyed for the last two months was gone. With nothing else to do

Jack talked, and talked, always with the high-pitched laugh and the I-screwedyour-

sister look in his eye.

      Brunno was in the thick of wrestling season, starving himself at lunch to

make weight, and despite being scared shitless by Carl, he was undefeated and on

fine pace to make a run at the state title. He still stuttered his daily business math

questions to Roman, often repeating the same problem from the day before. Math

just wouldn’t sink into Brunno’s fat head, but Roman never became impatient.

During those winter days, Roman and Heather spent most of their free time

together, going to his house directly after school (mostly to bed I imagine), and

then Heather studied and Roman fell into his endless reading. They would

separate briefly during the evening—Heather to cheerleading and Roman to

work—only to unite at midnight again.

      Times were good.

    III

San Diego

       Max Sheehan jogged down the concrete slabs of the Villa’s front lot,

looking constantly behind him, peeking to his right and left into the palm trees on

both sides, and grabbing his painful crotch and the still-open wound in his side.

The makeshift sling he’d fixed for his most important limb had run its course, and

Max needed some kind of medical attention.

       For six years he’d been on a steady ascension to perfection. Sure the first

time was sloppy—but since then? Not one body found, not one drop of his semen,

or a stray fingerprint on a doorknob. And the best part wasn’t the room he had

built in his new home on the coast. It wasn’t the hours of control over the women.

It was the fact that nobody ever knew about the rapes or killings. They weren’t

even looking for anyone because there was no evidence of any crime. The posters

on milk cartons and gas station windows of missing young women would never

bring the authorities to Max’s house.

      He’d come to San Diego only because that’s where the wind blew him. It

was bright there, always was. Max thought the first day he arrived that maybe the

sun would burn away the darkness in his soul, maybe the black urges would melt

away, and maybe he could be human. In the end the sun was no match.

      How did it go so wrong? He was always careful with choosing his

victims. Mary Baumbright was five foot nothing, a hundred and nothing, didn’t

partake in the party scene and kept to herself. Max could always pick out the ones

that were abused. He couldn’t have been more wrong with Mary.

      None of it mattered now though. They had his fingerprints, DNA, and

knew his identity. It would only be a matter of time before they went through the

pictures on his basement wall, identified the girls, found their bodies, and made a

map of his last six years. He had to get out of town. Not only that but he had to

disappear, become someone else, and worst of all his playtime had to stop.

      Dogey would help him. Dogey would know what to do. He always did.

Max pounded on the brown door, only to be answered with a sliding piece

at eye level. The door opened to the dimness of Dogey’s front room. The room

was always the same shade of black whether day or night. The fumes of cigarettes

and lager rushed out of the doorway, along with the cracking noise of pool balls

from the back room. Max limped in and sat at the counter.

       Dogey grabbed for the Tequila, but after looking Max over, opted for the

coffee cup. He produced a cigarette, offered it, and stuck into his own mouth when

Max declined.

      Dogey was a crime broker. He sold information, alibis, scores, and made it

his business to know things before anybody else did. Dogey had never been to a

police station. Like Max he was invisible—the producer behind the camera. His

one rule was to never ask questions of his clients, a policy that had made him a

good deal of money and kept him out of jail. A policy that kept him from knowing

that a serial killer sat across the bar from him.

      Dogey only stared at Max, seeing the blood spot on the side of his shirt

that seemed to be growing by the minute, and waited patiently for his customer’s

demand. Max sucked down the first cup of coffee ignoring the blistering heat.

Dogey filled it again.

     “Unfortunate circumstances have made it impossible for me to stay around

here,” Max said.

     “Where do you want to go?” the broker asked.

     “Back east somewhere, I suppose. Somewhere I can blend in. Somewhere

with work.”

      Dogey rubbed the top of his lip as if to smooth out an invisible mustache.

     “I know a cat in Illinois looking for some carpentry work. He’s not legit, so I’m

sure there’s more to it. Pays well.”

      Dogey picked up the phone behind the counter, hit a single button, and

spoke to the man on the other end of the line. “Yeah. Max is dead.” Dogey

covered the receiver and looked at Max. “Illinois then?”

     Max nodded.

     “What name?” Dogey asked him.

     “Don’t care.”

     Dogey uncovered the phone, “Yeah, Illinois and he doesn’t care. Give him

some plastic and a clean cell phone. Some Vicodin too. He’s going to need some

stitches.”

     Max pulled out a neat stack of money and laid it on the counter as Dogey

hung up. “It’ll be a few minutes my friend.”

     “Will this cover it?”

     Dogey looked at the high stack of hundreds and nodded.

     Thirty minutes of silence and five cups of coffee later, a petite woman

appeared from the staircase just next to the front door, carrying a small black bag.

Max couldn’t help but notice her dark brown hair. She set it on the counter and

shuffled through the contents, handing Max his new life.

     The lady said, “There you are John Smith. Three credit cards, cell phone,

painkiller, and two Illinois driver’s licenses. I’m going to have you come

downstairs for the stitches, the fake nose, and hairpiece. I gave you one ID with

hair and the other with none. I figured we give you hair to get you through the

airport. After that it’s up to you. I’ve got you on a four o’clock so we have to

hustle. Any questions?”

     Max looked at Dogey. “Where at in Illinois?”

    “A place called Collingston,” Dogey replied.

IV

     Roman stomped his shoes on the porch even though his sidewalk was clear

of snow. Once in the living room he bypassed the towers of books against the

wall—it was always hard to ignore them, to walk by without taking one in hand

and flip through the pages to all those wonderful places—and walked to the

kitchen for water. Roman was always thirsty after school, whether in the dog days

of late summer or in the frozen cold. His thirst gave credence to a theory he’d

developed over the years—the human brain burned the body’s fuel just as quick as

any muscle.

      Heather stood just in front of the door, removing her earmuffs and scarf,

unzipping her fluffy goose-feather coat, and stripping the gloves from her hands. It

must be nice, she thought, to walk into the dead of winter with only a flannel and

stay as warm as Roman did. Was he really warm? Or did his mind just ignore the

elements? It was silly for her to be preoccupied with such questions, but for some

reason it bothered her. Maybe it was her competitive nature. Competitive was an

understatement. When she was little, she made her father roll her countless rubber

balls, sometimes until the sun went down, and wasn’t satisfied until the ball landed

a distance that was comparable to the home run at school. She practiced for

months until every kick at recess hit the row of pine trees in centerfield—the fourth

graders’ makeshift fence. That determination stayed with her over the years. It

was the reason she ran every day. And while some of her peers as well as their

parents might have looked on and claimed lunacy, they couldn’t argue the fact that

      Heather dominated every challenge in her life—school, cheerleading, and student

government. If it were any other person than Roman, that seemingly perfect stance

in all aspects of life would have made her envious if not infuriated. But

surprisingly, when Heather figured out she couldn’t match Roman’s idiosyncrasies,

her heart did not declare war.

      She pulled off the last of her winter armor, placing it neatly on the floor

next to the lampstand. She noticed something as she raised her head, saw

something out of the corner of her eye. Something that hadn’t been in the friendly

confines of Roman’s small living room slash bedroom before. It wasn’t the

wallpaper. The hundreds of ball players still stared back at her. It was something

bright. A color that didn’t fit in the room, and now her eyes retraced the path of

her head and found the object that had caught her attention.

     On the floor next to Roman’s bed leaned a canvas—a brilliant tapestry of

bright colors. And while her first glance didn’t reveal exactly what image the

colors merged to create, it was clearly some sort of painting. Heather took only

two steps closer before she remembered the scene.

      Remembered? That might not be an accurate statement. She had

physically never been to the place in the painting, but she’d gone there on two

different occasions in her mind. Once when Roman told his story, and once when

she finally laid her head on her pillow after countless hours of wakefulness after

the business at the Hollow.

     The painting was identical to the image that her mind’s eye saw when

Roman described it with his thoughtful words. The brilliant yellows and reds, and

every shade of orange in between stood out in the sky, then in the reflection on the

waves below. The perspective was fitting—from a window, with tropical palm

leaves hanging over the edges on both sides. Out from the view lay what seemed

like miles of golden tan sand that traveled to the horizon where it met the ocean as

well as the setting sun. The black shadows of birds floated on the wind miles away

against the cloudless evening. Immediately Heather forgot that it was winter

outside, forgot that she lived in Collingston.

      She thought of walking on the beach with Roman and at that instant his

arms wrapped around her waist, and his chin rested on her shoulder. An image

popped out at her from the painting, two black blotches that her eyes missed at first

glance, two subtle details off in the distance, miles from the window, miles across

the sand of the beach. It was two people, or shadows of people, hand in hand,

walking toward the ocean and into the giant red-orange sun that teetered on the

curvature of the earth.

      “It’s beautiful.” The words were just supposed to be a thought in her head,

but escaped from her lips in a whisper.

     “Maybe the best prison view in the world,” Roman whispered and pulled

back the hair from her neck, either because the locks obstructed his vision, or

because he wanted her to feel his breath on her neck. Heather hoped it was the

latter.

      “I’ve been there before,” Heather said. “In my dreams. We jumped

through that window or hologram or whatever it was, and sat under the sun on the

sand. We never said a word, just sat there, and when the sun started to set, we

walked toward it, like somehow if we kept on going it would never fully disappear

behind the ocean.” Heather reached her fingertips out and touched those two souls

on the soft canvas.

      Roman kissed the lobe of her ear. He pulled the bottom of her sweater

gently up from her stomach, until it was over her head and on the floor. Roman

undid the clasp on the front of her bra with his right hand and at the same time

unbuttoned her jeans with his left. She turned and kissed him, sliding the silk

panties away from her waist and then wiggling them down to the floor with her

legs. Roman slid out of his flannel with a similar fluttering gesture using neither

hand. When everything was out of their way, Roman laid her down gently and

followed her with his own slow descent to the bed.

       If there was one skill or task that couldn’t be learned through some

textbook or the black words on a page, it was surely this Roman thought. As his

nervousness passed that first time on Christmas, he knew he would someday

perfect this ritual. Why wouldn’t he think such a thing? Every obstacle,

roadblock, and problem that ever stood in his way was in inevitable danger of

being conquered. In fact it was only a matter of time. His mind had mastered the

art of denying himself that final pleasure too fast. His fingers had mastered that

blind dance on the silky floor of her body. His mouth had learned when to give to

her lips, and when to take. He had a good teacher after all—though there was no

one to measure her against. This was a time (he first thought) that was supposed to

be completely void of dialogue. It shocked him the first time Heather talked out

loud during their love making, suggesting this and that, and literally telling him to

do things.

      Not long after those first few sessions did it finally emerge in his brain—

this wasn’t something you could perfect, it wasn’t something you could have

planned ahead of time, it wasn’t a mathematical equation. If you went after it like

another problem to solve, you would fail, and fail miserably. If you mastered some

format, some technical plan of attack, the mystery and anticipation would wither

and die. And while in every day life Roman begged for routine, longed for logic,

this was the one place he had to be different. And different was better than he ever

dreamed. Roman shut his mind off in those moments of passion and let his heart

drift where it would.

      Roman was on top of her, his arms and hands lying parallel on hers, his

thrusts beginning to quicken. She couldn’t hold on much longer (a feeling Roman

had been fighting since the beginning of this flesh-to-flesh horizontal dance).

Heather’s arms escaped Roman’s and her hands (and nails) found his back. Her

breathing and moans heightened to a point of not being able to raise any further

and finally Roman gave in as well. Not because she told him to, or because he was

guessing it was time. But because he could see it in her eyes—that electric look of

one that has just touched a cloud.

      Heather seemed to hold onto her final sigh as long as she could, like the

first drop on a rollercoaster, that no matter how long it was or how sharp the drop,

you would always came back for more. Roman could feel a hard shiver go through

the body underneath him, and now it was Heather whose calves cramped in joy and

toes curled in satisfaction.

      They lay there silent for minutes, maybe hours, staring at the ceiling

without conversation as if they were watching the sun set on that beach. Their

breathing eventually went back to normal pace, their flesh to normal temperature

as the sweat evaporated. Heather’s hand lay on Roman’s chest palm up, her body

too tired to roll over so she could look him in the eye. Roman ran his fingertips

down the folded lines in her palm.

     “I want to thank you, Heather. I never thought that I would ever be happy

again. You saved me. You taught me what it is to be a person again.”

Heather shut her eyes and kissed his hand. “I’m happy too, Roman. Isn’t it

ironic, our relationship? I’m supposed to be the rich girl cheerleader, some ditz

who bounces her way through life with no thought or regard for it. And you work

as a janitor. I want to be a doctor and mother and a wife. I want to show my kids

that the world doesn’t have to be the way it is. What about you?”

      Roman hesitated, caught off guard by the question. “I’ve spent so many

years worrying about the past that all I’ve been doing these last few months is

living in the moment. Kids?” Roman paused again. “If I did have children, I

don’t want them to be like me, awkward I mean.”

      “You’re not awkward Roman. And any mother would be lucky to have

half of you in her children. Your mind, your courage, and most importantly your

heart.”

     “It’s kind of you to say such things.”

     “Not kind Roman, fact,” Heather said, rising from the bed and walking to

her bag on the other side of the room.

      Roman kept his head on the pillow and smiled as he watched.

      Heather slid on a pair of athletic shorts, a T-shirt, and over both top and

bottom went sweats. She pulled the long blond locks back into a ponytail, but

released them, finding a brush was needed for the frayed mess on her head. Her

hair was always like that when they finished—the electrocuted frazzle of someone

who stuck their finger in the light socket—and to Roman it was starting to become

the favorite of her hairstyles. Several quick pullbacks from the bangs with the

brush, some kind of one-handed magic trick with her scrunchy, and Heather was

ready for cheerleading practice.

     “Teach me to fight,” she said.

     “Where’s that coming from?”

     “I still think of that asshole Bobby Dukes from time to time, and how

helpless I was with his arm around my neck. I don’t want to feel that way again,

ever.”

    “I don’t think you have to worry about Bobby Dukes,” Roman said, getting

up from the bed himself.

    “There are more than just a few Bobby Dukes in the world, Roman.”

Roman walked over to her at the door. “This is true. Okay. Whatever you

want.”

     “Nothing spectacular. Just maybe teach me a few deadly punches.” She

kissed him and smiled.

     “I want you to take this with you.” Roman walked over to the painting.

     Carefully, he lifted the canvas by its edges.

    “Roman...I don’t know.”

    “It was meant for you. Besides I’ve looked out that window enough to

burn a permanent image in my memory.”

    “Thank you.” She moved the painting aside, wrapped both arms around

him and kissed him again. It was a long one this time, something that made

    Roman want to go back to bed.

    Heather let out a sigh. “I gotta go. I’ll see you tonight then?”

    “Yes.”

      Heather carried the painting out as Roman shut the door behind her. He

walked to the kitchen and downed two quick glasses of water. As he returned to

the living room a knock came from the door.

      Did she forget something? That’s what he wanted to say as he opened the

door. But he didn’t. It might have been the sixth sense that people like Roman

seem to have, or maybe he could smell the overuse of perfume through the door,

but before she was in plain view the signals in Romans brain cells had figured out

who had come a-knocking. It was someone he’d never imagined seeing on his

doorstep.

V

      Gina Hawthorne stood on the porch, draped in a black mink coat with the

lustrous fur collar snuggled against her neck. As always her perfume seemed to

spread through the air with an unmatched velocity. And though the fragrance

almost knocked him back a step or two, it was still sweet to smell. There was no

evidence of it but Roman was sure her face was painted with the several layers of

makeup it took to erase twenty years. She could have easily passed for thirty and

there was no mistaking where Heather obtained her beauty. In her hand she carried

a large flower-print bag—something Mary Poppins might travel with—and on her

face she wore a crimson-lipped smile. A smile that looked like it pained her to

make.

     “May I come in?”

     Roman waved his arm as he backed away from the doorway. She entered

but only took two steps into the living room/bedroom. She tried to be subtle but

her eyes danced around the room in a flurry of curiosity, examining every inch—

the baseball card wallpaper, the polished floor, the spotless furniture, and the

neatly stacked books, finally stopping at the bed. Her eyes looked unimpressed.

A nervous gloom filled Roman—something maybe a soldier felt when the

drill sergeant came for inspections—and now he remembered that he stood only

his underwear. He walked over to the wild sheets on his bed and looked down to

see his clothes in a pile before his feet.

      “Quite the cozy cottage you have here,” Gina said as she placed her bag on

the floor and removed her silk gloves.

     “Thank you,” Roman’s politeness was as fake as her compliment. He bent

down and jumped into his jeans (both legs at the same time) and then began

straightening the sheets of his bed, as if he could erase the event that had taken

place just moments ago. As he tucked the edges under the mattress, he couldn’t

help but feel like a criminal trying to cover up the scene of a crime.

     “You need not tidy up, nor clothe yourself. What’s good enough for the

daughter should be sufficient for her mother. Don’t you think? Besides this isn’t a

social engagement. I will take only a small amount of your time.”

      Roman didn’t respond. He finished with the bed and threw a shirt on.

Gina lifted her bag off the floor, opened it by the two handles on top, and

looked at its contents. Satisfied, she closed it, walked over to the couch, and set it

down.

     “I want you to stop seeing my daughter.”

     “I’m in love with her, Mrs. Hawthorne.”

     Gina laughed out loud. It was an awful sound—laughter that sprang from

spite—echoing through the house as if it traveled through the caverns of hell.

     “Love? Dear Roman, your enlightened mind must know that love is only a

word. Only a term used to explain the chemical reactions in your brain. Those

reactions no different than the feeling one gets when eating large amounts of

chocolate or releasing endorphins while on the treadmill.”

     “I don’t eat large amounts of chocolate and I’m not much for the

treadmill.”

     Gina’s awful laughter stopped. “Mock me if you must. I want you gone. I

want you to disappear into the night to wherever you came from. Or you go

somewhere new. It doesn’t really matter.” Gina looked over to the couch.

     “There’s one hundred thousand dollars in the bag. I expect it will be enough to

give you a fresh start somewhere if you don’t squander it. And I expect that you

will be gone before school starts tomorrow.”

     “Why do you hate me so much?”

     “It’s not a matter of hate, Roman. It’s a matter of what’s best for my

daughter. You’re a very talented young man. Your path just lies in a different

direction than Heather’s. She is to go to school and become someone. To marry

and have a family. To live with her own kind, not some drifter, some janitor.”

Roman walked to the bag as Gina slipped her gloves on. She opened the

door. “Best wishes Roman.”

      “Mrs. Hawthorne,” Roman said with the bag of money outstretched toward

her. “If this bag is still here tonight when Heather comes over, I will not lie to her

about how and why it came into my possession. If the bag is not here there will be

no reason to bring it up.”

      Gina peered at the bag and then at Roman, hoping to see some sign of

insincerity on the janitor’s face. “Fine. I’ll make it two. Two hundred thousand. I

can have the rest by the end of the day.”

      Roman took two steps and held the bag so the handles touched Gina’s

hand. “It won’t matter if you bring the entire bank vault down the street on a semitrailer.”

      Gina ripped the bag out of his hand and swung open the door. On the porch

she said, “You’re making a big mistake.”

      “I’ve heard that before.” Roman watched as the high heels stumbled over

the cracks in the sidewalk to the black BMW on the street.

     “Drive safely.”

VI

      If Roman told me the story a year ago, all I would’ve been worried about

was the money. Maybe something to the effect of “You turned down two hundred

thousand fucking dollars?” But I was more mature now, more in tune with

people’s feelings since meeting the janitor. The money statement kinda just rolled

off my mind. I was immediately pissed at the end of it. I kept calm though, and

did my best to make him feel better. I shot him straight.

      “I wouldn’t worry too much about what the bitch in high heels thinks of

you. She’s always been a scheming cunt. Always messing in Heather’s business,

over stupid shit. The only reason people give her the time of day is because she’s

rich and she’s hot. There isn’t much to her after that. I think Dr. Hawthorne

would’ve kicked her ass to the curb along time ago if Heather wasn’t around. You

should watch your back though. Gina doesn’t like to take “no” for an answer.

You should tell Heather, she’d set her straight.”

     “I don’t want to cause problems between Heather and her mother.”

     “You know what your problem is? You’re too fuckin’ nice. People like

Gina Hawthorne don’t understand nice. They only understand money.”

Roman didn’t respond.

     With Heather’s arrival our conversation came to a halt. She immediately

noticed there was something wrong with Roman—although he looked fine to me—

and asked him about it. Roman gave her a smile to stop her worries. It was

amazing how women knew—women’s intuition, sixth sense, motherly instinct,

whatever you wanted to call it—they always knew.

     One by one, our lunch table patrons seated themselves, sparking what

seemed to be a hundred different conversations. Chairs were rearranged, tables

pushed together, and soon our group was at least twenty strong, digging into the

lunches and each other’s gossip. A book sat to the side of Roman, and while I had

seen him drill through the words of countless pages, he rarely opened one these

days. It must have been there in case Heather had no stories of her own to tell, in

case there was a moment of down time where he could feed his mind. I saw him

look over at it several times, as if it were tempting him the way drugs do an addict,

but he never opened it.

     Johnny the Killer appeared with tray in hand, laughing to himself before he

could tell the rest of us. Johnny was always good for a joke or two—some of them

were actually pretty good. And although our table was fifty percent of the female

persuasion, it never stopped the Killer from reciting vulgar often degrading jokes.

The entire table listened regardless.

     “A man in a hotel lobby wants to ask the clerk a question. As he turns to

go to the front desk, he accidentally bumps into a woman beside him and as he

does, his elbow goes into her breast. They are both quite startled. The man turns to

her and says, ‘Ma'am, if your heart is as soft as your breast, I know you'll forgive

me.’ She replies, ‘If your penis is as hard as your elbow, I'm in room 320.’”

The table broke into laughter. Milk squirted from Sam Peterman’s nose,

      Jack cackled like a hyena, the cheerleaders were laughing, and even Heather broke

a smile.

      My tears and laughter stopped when I saw the two people coming toward

our table. Sally and Jacques or Jock or whatever his name was, were coming

straight for me, hand in hand. I was relived a little bit when they ignored me and

talked to Heather.

     “Jacques got our lunch switched to the first lunch period with you guys.

     Isn’t that the best?” Sally asked Heather.

     “That’s great,” Heather replied. “Here, there’s room right here, let me pull

up a couple of chairs.”

     I scooted reluctantly to the left to make room for Sally and Frenchy, asking

in my mind what I had done to deserve such a punishment. It wasn’t jealousy, I

promise. It was more the fact that I viewed Jacques as quite the lesser man. And if

a man like Jacques made Sally happy what did that say about me? The kid didn’t

have an ounce of muscle on him. He was shorter than me and had pale white skin,

like the color of a toilet. He had long woman-like hair and a thin spotty beard,

which I’m sure he combed in front of a mirror for at least an hour.

     Jacques was all smiles when he sat down. “You are Anthony, yes?” He

held out his hand, and I shook it. It was a limp grip, just as I imagined.

    “Uh, just call me Tony. Only my good and close relatives and friends get

to call me Anthony.”

     “I see. Tony then. I am Jacques.” The “J” rolled off his tongue like it was

two or three syllables instead of just a letter.

     I hated him immediately.

     Roman saved me from the torture, or at least diverted my attention. “Carl

wanted to know if you and Heather wanted to come over to his place for supper.

He’s making one of his specialties.”

     “What’s that?”

     “Some stew. He wouldn’t tell me exactly what was in it. He said I’d never

taste anything better.”

     Under normal circumstances I’d be wary of eating anything Carl was

cooking, but the stress of the situation

hindered my judgment.

     “Sure. What time?”

 

 

           


 

 

 

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