script type="text/javascript">

 

 


 

Chapter 10

Yin and Yang at the Tavern

I

       The Hawthorne’s dining room table was as long as the space it inhabited.

A monstrous piece of hand-carved solid oak, with a surface polished to the point of

reflecting light better than most mirrors. A small army could have sat at it

comfortably lengthwise and it had probably taken that same small army to move

the table into the house. Roman thought the mansion might have been built around

the table, viewing no visible entrance to fit such a large object through.

The chandelier hung a good distance overhead, streaming soft light from its

crystal glass onto the emeralds that sat across from him. Could he ever get tired of

those green eyes?

        Dr. Hawthorne could not see his wife’s eyes, as they each sat far apart, at

opposite ends of the table. Roman imagined the good doctor using an intercom or

megaphone to talk with his significant other from that distance. Instead he read a

medical journal as he ate—the act of eating seeming to be more of a nuisance than

anything else. Even on a Sunday evening the man was dressed in a three-piece

suit.

        Gina wore a silk blouse, skirt, and high heels the likes of which were not

purchased at the Collingston mall. She swirled the gold fork on her plate more

than she used it to pick up anything to put in her mouth. A middle-aged woman

like Gina didn’t keep her tight figure by being a proud member of the clean-plate

club. Every once in a while Roman could see the pearls under her lips when she

spoke or maybe smiled, but her eyes stayed back in the distance, hidden from the

light of the chandelier. He could feel them though—on his face and clothes,

studying and watching, like two hidden surveillance cameras of the NN. The hair

on his neck stood up in quills, and suddenly Roman felt uncomfortable in the one

of two pair of jeans he had to his name. He squirmed a little against the high back

of his chair.

       The Hawthorne estate was equipped with a full kitchen staff. Not only did

they unfold the silk napkins and place them properly on your lap, and help to serve

the five-course meal with sharp deliberate movements, but they also stood waiting

at attention behind each of the family member’s chairs. The fellow behind Roman

was as still as a likeness in a wax museum, but Roman was sure that if even one

morsel fell from his plate, the servant would grab it out of mid-air in lightning

quick fashion before it hit the floor.

       All of it was a far cry from the little kitchen table in an Iowa farmhouse.

The table back home had one uneven leg that dad was always fixing. His father ate

when he finally came in from the fields, wearing that day’s denim overalls. His

mother delivered the casserole with his grandmother’s hand-me-down oven mitts

on, and her dull blue apron tied loosely behind her back. The leftovers were given

to the dogs.

       The French cuisine Roman had prepared might not have been as impressive

as he had once imagined. Heather probably ate better for a midnight snack.

Roman’s anxiety lifted as he watched her though. Heather wolfed down her food

with the speed and determination unrivaled by any mere mortal. Where did it all

go? Heather had told him she was a runner—up at six AM five days a week.

Roman wondered if she was a runner because of her eating, or an eater because of

her running.

        Dr. Hawthorne closed the magazine, set it aside, and patted his mouth with

all the finesse of a rich kid who’d just graduated from etiquette classes. He took

his glasses off and rubbed the indentions where they’d sat on his nose. “So,

Heather tells us that you’re a genius, Roman.”

        Roman sat with his back straight, arms to his sides, trying to maintain his

own etiquette, resisting the urge to wipe his brow. He blushed anyway. “I don’t

know about that sir. I’m not sure you can put a number on intelligence.”

       “Neither am I young man, but Heather says you do things that border on the

unimaginable.”

       “Daddy,” Heather began. “I’m sure Roman didn’t come over here to be put

to the test like some circus side show”

       “It’s fine Heather,” Roman said and then looked back at Dr. Hawthorne. “I

see the same things most people do, I just process the information a little

differently maybe.”

       “For instance?” The good doctor was now leaning on the table, rubbing his

chin.

       “Daddy!” Heather said again.

       “It’s perfectly fine.” Roman calmed her. “I see numbers in everything,

that’s all.” Roman’s answer was not specific enough for the doctor. He took a

deep breath. “For instance, when I walked in your front door the first thing I

noticed was the staircase in the foyer. It has twenty-six steps. The tops of the

fourteenth and the twentieth steps are off a couple degrees; they’re not perfectly

perpendicular to the steps before them. I didn’t count them or study them, all of

that just popped into my head when I looked at them.”

        “I see,” Dr. Hawthorne said, still hungry for more.

        “The little glass pieces on your chandelier.” All three Hawthornes looked

up as Roman pointed. “There are exactly three hundred and thirty-nine of them.

They are all exactly the same size except for one, which is about an inch and

quarter smaller than the rest.”

        Dr. Hawthorne scratched the top of his head, losing count of the pieces

around ten or eleven. “That’s amazing.”

       “It gets to be a nuisance. I’ve learned to just tune it out, the way someone

with color blindness or a walking defect, does.”

        “Make no mistake about it Roman, what you have is a gift not a handicap.”

         “Thank you sir.”

          “And with a powerful gift like that you should be able to write your own

ticket, Roman,” Gina’s voice chimed in finally from the end of the table. “I mean

you could do or be anything you wanted. What are your plans for the future?”

         “It’s not that simple, mother,” Heather started to answer for him.

Roman cut her off, sensing the onset of world war three. “I guess, Mrs.

Hawthorne, the problem is I just don’t know what I want to be or do.”

        “You’re going to college though right?” Dr. Hawthorne asked.

        “Not as of yet sir, no.”

        “That’s just a shame Roman.” Gina voice was not particularly kind. “In

this world to be somebody, to be anybody, you have to get that degree. Nowadays

maybe even two or three.” Gina dug in again.

         “It’s a waste of time for him mother.”

         “I’m sure something will come up, Mrs. Hawthorne. But thank you for

your concern.”

         “Let’s go out on the balcony and look at the stars Roman,” Heather said.

         “It’s overcast.” Roman responded.

         “Let’s go look at them anyway.”

         “It’s a little cold for the balcony isn’t it?” Gina said rhetorically.

         Heather shot Gina a look of disgust Roman would have thought was

impossible on a face as beautiful as hers. Roman’s personal butler pulled the chair

back as he stood, and Dr. Hawthorne gave Roman a firm handshake.

       “Thanks for having me sir.”

       “The pleasure was all mine, young man.”

       Gina continued to sit in her chair.

II

       They stood on the balcony outside Heather’s room. Roman leaned against

the railing looking out over the vast Hawthorne estate. The Olympic-size pool

directly below was drained for the season. The Jacuzzi sat to its left bubbling and

gurgling, steam escaping its soft brown cover. On the opposite side of the concrete

pond stood the pool house, a structure that Roman believed his own house could

easily fit inside of. In the distance was the maintenance shed and servant’s

quarters, both draped in the same beige color as the mansion itself. Beyond that

were the tennis court and the gazebo, and on the horizon where the grass ended the

forest began. The forest went on for as far as the eye could see, and miles away

where Dr. Hawthorne’s property ended, the Hollow began.

        Heather put her arm through Roman’s, laying her head on his shoulder for

more than just warmth. She looked up at the night sky just in case Roman was

wrong about the clouds. But it was gray and thick, matching the mood of the

forest, which now nothing more than bare sticks and branches. The threat of

winter seemed very weak next to Roman. She could have stood there with him

forever just watching and waiting.

       “You have a beautiful home, Heather. I’ve only been to places like this in

books.”

       “Thanks. It was a great place to grow up. So much room to run and play,

to swim every day in the summer. All of it comes with a price though. I would

have gladly traded this for life on the farm like yours, if it meant not having to deal

with my mother.”

       “She just cares about you.”

       “She does care about me but it goes too far. She forgets that we’re two

different people. I’m not her and never will be.”

       “Your father seems very nice.”

       “He is, but did you catch him reading during dinner? He does that every

night. Don’t think for a minute he’s catching up on some new medical procedure.

It’s his way of escaping my mother, so he doesn’t have to listen to her nag me.

The only one true flaw my father has is not standing up to her. I guess I don’t have

it so bad though, huh? At least I still have them around.”

       "There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about my parents. What I

wouldn’t give to just talk to them, even if it was for ten minutes. To hug my mom

one more time, to play catch with dad. There’s never a day that I don’t see their

faces somewhere.”

      “They say time heals all things.”

      “Agent Johnson wouldn’t agree. And he’s right in a way. I’ve spent that

last six years of my life trying not to think about them, about it, because it hurts.

But now I’m to the point that I force myself to, just so I can remember what they

look like, or how they sounded when they laughed.”

      “Do you ever think about him? Johnson I mean.”

      “Some days more than others. If he really wanted to, he would have found

me by now. He’s probably got bigger fish to fry at the moment. He’ll get around

to me eventually I suppose.”

      “What will you do?”

      “If you’d asked me that three months ago the answer would have been

simple—run. After I left Bravo I always imagined myself drifting from place to

place every few months. I never thought the first place I came to would be the

hardest to leave. But now everything is different. Collingston feels like home, as

odd as that might sound. When you come down to it, there’s really only two

options: avoid the problem by running or solve the problem by fighting.”

      “I don’t want you to run.”

      “And I don’t want to leave you.”

      “Can you beat him? The way you fought Johnny that day, I can’t imagine

anyone being able to beat you.”

      “We’re talking about two very different people. Johnny’s a bruiser fueled

by rage. Johnson’s a trained killer, a master at every kind of warfare. Besides, I

have a feeling it won’t be just him next time.”

      “I thought you said the NN agents always work alone?”

      “They do for the most part, to stay invisible. I’m sure the cemetery

incident has him thinking. They’ll risk their cover to complete an objective if they

have to.” Roman looked into her eyes and smiled. “Let’s talk about good things.

Who knows, maybe Johnson has decided to let me be.”

        For the first time Heather could hear hesitation in his voice, a lack of

confidence in the statement. She brushed it off just as Roman did and kissed him,

wanting also to think only about good things.

III

       As Roman opened the door to his house, the pain in the back of his neck

was unmistakable a familiar pain that dissipated almost as quickly as its inception,

its effects first numbing his fingers and toes and then immobilizing his limbs.

       This time was different though. His eyes were not heavy and his vision

was still intact. Roman lay flat on his back looking at his own ceiling, unable to

turn his head to see his attacker. It must have been a slightly different cocktail—

not taking him all the way to unconsciousness.

       The monstrous agent scooped the fragile janitor off the polished hardwood

with little effort despite the dead weight of Roman’s arms and legs. Roman

imagined himself swinging and kicking but the poison in his blood had different

ideas; even his power of speech was gone. Johnson propped his paralyzed protégé

in the rocking chair facing away from his bed, careful to prop the janitor’s head so

that Roman could see him. As his weight shifted on the wooden chair Roman

heard a small creak and was surprised his ears were still working.

         Satisfied with the positioning, the agent walked backwards eyeing the

incapacitated teenager in front of him. Johnson reached into his suit coat,

producing a case of cigars and plucked one out of the silver case. The flame from

his lighter was like that of a blowtorch, stretching at least six inches into the air.

Johnson puffed several times, a thick cloud of smoke billowing around his face;

and when the end of the cigar glowed red, he pulled it from his mouth and smiled.

       “I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that during our time

together you’ve never seen me smoke a cigar, much less carry them on my person.

You know something’s not right here but you can’t quite put your finger on it.

And you’d be correct in your assumption, but I’m not going to give anything

away. You’re a smart guy right? A so-called genius. I’m confident that you’ll

figure it out, probably even within the next ten minutes.”

       Roman’s eyes wandered away from the agent as he spoke, and focused on

the couch next to the agent. On it was a gray blanket that covered two heaps,

bodies maybe.

       Johnson took a drag from the cigar and smiled again.

       “On to business then. I’ve brought you a little going away present, a

memento of things past, if you will.”

        Johnson ripped back the gray covering exposing the lifeless corpses

beneath. His father’s skull was stapled back together with what looked like

industrial grade steel and his mother’s torso was sewn shut from her midsection to

her neck, mimicking the look of a zipper. Both with the same frozen looks they

died with.

       Roman closed his eyes tight and could hear the air blow out of his nose in

faster intervals.

       “I brought mommy and daddy along to help me prove a point, Roman.

You see, the world is full of great injustices, like the ones that killed them. Like

the ones that killed my wife and son. The problem is that it seems I haven’t gotten

through to you quite yet. Either you’re part of the solution or you’re part of the

problem. Either you’re trying to stop the injustices of the world, or you are part of

those injustices.”

        Johnson looked at Roman’s parents on the couch and sucked on his cigar

again, this time savoring every ounce of the smoke. He squinted through the fog in

front of his face and replaced the gray tarp over the corpses. Johnson threw the

half-smoked cigar to the floor and stomped it a second later with the heel of his

shoe. He walked over to Roman, leaned over the young man and smiled. The

presence of the agent’s torso and shoulders covered Roman with a shadow,

blocking out nay light from the lamp on the stand next to his door. Roman’s right

eye blurred and burned from a drop of sweat from his own forehead.

        Johnson’s smile vanished now as he was right in Roman’s face, spit flying

and teeth gnashing. “Don’t you see? You have a power to stop evil in the world.

To prevent things like this from happening.” Johnson nodded to the couch. “But

instead of that you run and hide like a coward, uncaring or unwilling to help. I’m

here to change all that. You will become an agent and fight for the freedom of

those who can’t fight for themselves, or everything and everyone around you will

be destroyed.”

       Johnson’s voice quieted to a pleasant tone, like that of father to his child.

       “And oh yes, I know about your new friends. Your cafeteria buddy that thinks

you’re the best thing since sliced bread and the oh-so beautiful blond that you can’t

wait to stick your humper handle into. They’ll be the first to go.”

Roman tried to cry out, but his lips didn’t move.

       Johnson stepped back, calming completely to the demeanor Roman had

seen in their days at Bravo. “Besides, you saw the Jesup File. Whether it was on

purpose or not is immaterial. You saw it. In fact every bit of it is probably filed

away in that computer brain of yours. You can’t be allowed to walk the streets

with that knowledge, Roman. You can’t be on the loose with information about

something so powerful. You haven’t told them about it, have you?”

Roman tried to shake his head no, but it was useless.

       “I didn’t think so,” Johnson said as if he heard the answer in Roman’s head.

“Time. What an awful concept. I know we’ve touched on it before in our

conversations. What a dilemma you’re in. Time, which is supposed to heal all

things. But in your case it never lets you forget—it can’t fast-forward quickly

enough through your life to wash away the past. You’re still right there in Iowa,

standing on the porch holding that smoking shotgun, aren’t you? On the flip side

of the coin time is running too fast. Every day you spend here with your friends

could be your last. But you can’t slow it down, can you? It just picks up

momentum like that train you jumped from. It’s burning you from both ends,

laughing at you.”

      Roman shut his eyes. A lone tear escaped down his cheek. His self-pity

was stopped short by commotion on the front porch. There were several knocks on

the door.

      “You in there, Roman?” Tony asked.

      “Is everything all right?” Heather’s voice was worried.

      Johnson pulled the Kimber from the holster inside his suit coat.

      “It seems time is not done playing tricks on you, my friend. What are the

chances of your friends showing up at this exact instance? The sad part of the

story, and the end of the story mind you, is that when you fail to answer they’re

going to turn the knob and walk right into the room. All because when you got

home you failed to realize what was on the other side of your own door. It’s not

locked you know. I hit you with the dart before you got a chance.”

       Johnson gripped the gun with both hands, bent his knees slightly and aimed

at the door.

       “You’re either with us or against us, Roman. Last chance.”

Roman’s will seemed to overtake the effects of the paralyzing agent in his

blood stream. His lips began to move. I’ll go. I’ll go with you. What were yells

in his head came out only in puffs of gibberish.

       “If you can’t decide, I’ll have to decide for you.”

       The door opened.

       The silenced shots of the Kimber flicked through the air.

       Roman willed his head finally to turn, just in time to see the blood from the

back of Tony’s head splatter the lampshade and send a crimson cast through the

room.

       Heather stood alone now in the doorway, paralyzed as well, not from the

poison in a dart, but from fear.

      Johnson aimed at her and pulled the trigger.

      An instant before the bullet tore through her, Roman’s power of speech

returned enough for him to shout.

     “No!”

      It was too late; Heather’s body lay sprawled in the doorway, her legs on the

porch, her once-blonde hair spread out on the living room carpet.

IV

       A 1989 Caprice Classic sat parked in the back lot of the Tavern. The car

was paintless, primed in gray, with sand marks in several areas around its base and

door as evidence of the freshly removed rust. A few scattered cars littered the

parking lot but the busy time had passed, and with it the random foot traffic that

made its way into the watering hole.

       Bobby Dukes sat in the passenger seat of the Caprice and smoked yet

another cigarette. His eyes were fixed on the back door of the Tavern. Sensing he

was down to the butt, he pulled another white stick from the top of his ear, poked it

into his mouth without seeming to open his lips, and lit it from the glowing end.

His fingers worked on their own, trained by repetition, not needing to see to

perform the task. He took his attention off the door briefly to peek at his watch.

He pulled the collar of his black leather coat up around his neck, cold even though

the back window was steamed up.

       Boochie Anderson sat in the driver’s seat with sweat dripping down the

sides of his face. The perspiration almost seemed to flow from the tattoo on his

bald head—a green image that looked like the wild branches of a thorn bush

stretching out in every direction. His huge stomach pressed against the steering

wheel and his lungs pulled hard for oxygen as he struggled to reach for a

handkerchief in his back pocket. He grabbed the steering wheel with his free hand,

leveraging himself to pick his wide bottom off the car seat. After finally wiping

the sides of his face, Boochie let out a horrid mucous-filled sigh, a sound that

might have come after an average-sized person had been running wind sprints. A

few more deep breaths and his air recovered. He reached for the console and

flipped off the heat.

       Bobby crossed his arms in front of himself trying to stay warm, but never

lost his concentration on the back of the brick building. The ash from his cigarette

crumbled to his lap.

      “He’s late,” Bobby said keeping his mouth closed tight like a ventriloquist.

      “Which one?” Boochie replied.

      “Johnny the Killer.”

      “He’ll be here.” Boochie’s gaze drifted away, discovering a king-sized

package of Kit-Kats snuggled between the dash and the windshield. The candy

had somehow eluded the black hole between his lips for the last day and a half.

      “Can you turn the fuckin’ heat back on? Christ. It’s twenty degrees out.

My body’s not used to this cold yet. Not even December and it’s freezing. I swear

the first chance I get I’m goin’ to Miami.”

      Boochie picked up the Kit-Kats, noticing the softness of the once-hard

candy. “Hey, you think these would still be all right to eat? The heater melted

’em.”

      “Since when do ya discriminate between solid and liquid type food? Just

turn the goddamn heat back on.”

      Boochie flicked the heat back on, his pierced tongue licking the dark mushy

chocolate from its wrapper. Boochie’s face could have set off any metal detector

within a mile radius—not only did metal occupy his tongue—but his top lip was

pierced in several places, and his eye lids, his chin, and both ears dawned an array

of silver. Boochie wiped his mouth after consuming the melted chocolate, paying

careful attention to the rings that decorated his face.

       A silver Corvette entered the parking lot and pulled up next to Bobby

Duke’s side of the Chevy. Johnny the Killer rolled down the window.

      “You’re late,” Bobby said.

      “I had a couple last minute sales. Sorry.”

      Bobby reached in his coat pocket, producing a thick wad of money folded

in half and held together by a rubber band. He tossed it through both windows

onto Johnny’s lap.

      “Not a bad week kid. Freddy likes your progress. Keep up the good

work.”

      “Is that it?” Johnny said trying to imagine how much money he was

holding without actually counting it.

      “No, that’s not it kid. The Flower wants to make sure you’re on the up and

up, so he wants you to hang around and help us with a little problem we got here.”

     “Problem?”

     “Yeah kid, a fuckin’ problem. Like this guy sitting in the Tavern. He owes

The Flower some jack.”

     The back door of the Tavern opened and out came the last patron of the

night, wheeling himself down the newly constructed handicapped ramp.

     “That’s our man.”

     Johnny and Bobby exited their cars. Boochie followed at a snail’s pace,

trying several times with no success to pull his pants up over his barrel gut. The

man in the wheelchair was at his van, putting the key in his door, but was stopped

just short of unlocking it.

    “Joe. How’s it goin’ Joe?”

    Joe swallowed hard, eyes big. Johnny had seen that look on freshmen at

the high school. But this was an instance he did not welcome the sight.

     “Look Bobby,” Joe blurted. “I told Freddy I’d have the money by

Monday. He knows I’m good for it.”

    “Being good for it ain’t the problem,” Boochie Anderson said, still winded

from the short walk.

    “No that ain’t the problem,” said Bobby. “The problem is you’re late. Two

days late. Monday makes you five days late. You’re a fuckin’ computer

programmer or some shit aren’t you? And you don’t have the fuckin’ money?”

    “Software designer. I design interactive CD-ROMs for kids.”

Johnny looked down at the ground and shook his head, wishing himself

somewhere else.

    “You hear that Boochie?” Bobby asked.

    “I hear it.”

    “Mr. Computer Man wants sympathy ’cause he makes kids happy. Boo

fuckin’ hoo. Guess what Joe? We’re fresh out of sympathy. But I will make you

a deal. If you can walk to that light pole and back we’ll forget the whole thing.”

The man in the wheel chair looked down at his abnormally short legs and

shook his head. “Bobby please. You know I can’t.”

     “Boochie,” Bobby said lighting another cigarette.

     Boochie grabbed the limp man out of the chair and held him so his stubs

touched the ground.

    “Now walk cock sucker,” Bobby said.

     Boochie let go and Joe fell to the ground like a normal person faints,

catching himself with his hands against the gravel parking lot. Joe began to crawl

only with his arms.

     “That don’t look like walkin’ to me Joe. Does it to you Boochie?’

     “Nope”

     “Take care of him, Johnny.”

     Johnny stood still.

     “I said beat his ass Johnny. This guy might not be able to use his legs but

there ain’t a fuckin’ thing wrong with his head. In fact he uses his head all the time

to bet on football. Lost twelve large last week alone. You shouldn’t feel sorry for

this asshole. Nobody’s holding a gun to his head making him bet.”

     Johnny walked over and stopped just short of the man’s head.

     “Go ahead Johnny,” Boochie encouraged.

     Johnny looked at Boochie and then at Bobby. Then at the man.

     “I can’t do it Bobby.”

     Bobby took the cigarette out of his mouth, and brushed Johnny off to the

side. “Let me show you how it’s done kid.”

     An onslaught of kicks ensued, blood splattered over the gravel and Bobby’s

boots. At the end of it the crippled man picked one of his teeth out of the rocks,

and begged for his life. Bobby pulled the gun out of the back of his jeans and

lifted the man’s head up. He shoved the gun in Joe’s mouth and pulled back the

hammer.

     “Come Monday Joe, there ain’t gonna be no walkin’ contests.”

With that Bobby let the man’s head fall back into the gravel. He turned and

looked at Johnny. “It’s alright kid. Nobody can do it the first time. It’ll come

eventually. Let’s get the hell out of here.”

       Johnny followed Boochie and Bobby to the vehicles, looking back at the

man who lay almost lifeless on the ground. Johnny’s legs were jello and his

stomach rested in his throat. Johnny exited the parking lot behind them, but when

they were out of sight he drove the Corvette back to the Tavern lot and helped Joe

get into his van.

       Joe refused an ambulance.

V

      “No!”

      The scream itself jolted Roman up into a sitting position. His sheets were

soaked and sweat ran down his face like he had been trapped in a coffin for hours.

Roman thought for sure his heart would beat out of his chest in another couple of

pumps. Adrenaline filled his body and made the tips of his fingers and toes tingle.

Roman took a full swing but hit nothing except air.

        For five years Roman had never slept more than two hours at time. At

times he was still waiting for his eyes to close only to find that the sun was up and

school awaited him. As a young child he had problems with sleep as well, but in

those days a quick read from part of a story usually eased him into sleep.

       Sometimes a powerful mind was a curse as much as it was a blessing. The

insomnia intensified after his parent’s death, of course, a mixture of grief, self-pity,

and the coming of age of a super-charged mind that evidently had no off-switch.

The sleeplessness began to let up when he got to Collingston. A new start.

A normal life. Roman found himself at first sleeping for three hours and then four

hours at a time. And when he started spending time with Heather it even became

five hours. The last two nights he’d found himself waking only because of the

alarm clock. An event that Roman had thought would never happen in his entire

life.

       But now this nightmare barged in at a time in his life that was probably the

happiest, stirring up old feelings and injecting fresh fear into his thoughts of the

future. Roman closed his eyes and tried to wish the dream away, only to open his

eyes five minutes later. Was it really a nightmare keeping him from rest? He was

eighteen years old, mommy shouldn’t have to pat his tummy and give him a drink

for him to be able to go back to sleep. There’s always truth in dreams though.

Roman had read books on the subject of course, and believed—as many

believed—that dreams are just buried feelings coming to the surface. Was it really

Agent Johnson threatening him and killing Heather and Tony? Or was every

character in his dream either some manifestation of himself, or a feeling hidden

somewhere in his head. Was it really cowardliness that kept him from joining the

NN? Roman knew it wasn’t, but maybe somewhere deep inside part of him did

want to use his abilities to help people. Would Agent Johnson really kill his

friends given the chance? Only if it kept him from his objective of obtaining

Roman. It wasn’t a nightmare at all, more like a blast of reality. He was putting

people in danger by being here, by loving them. It wasn’t just about him anymore.

The thought made the hairs on his neck stand up. He looked at the picture of

Heather on the stand next to his bed, and then at the baseball cards covering the

walls of his living room.

      One of the cards caught his eye. The one he could never make it through

the day without looking at. The one he kept right above the headboard of his bed.

It was a very limited series and yet not worth a penny to a serious card collector. It

had been given out at a minor league ballpark some thirty years ago, to the first

fifty fans in attendance. The player on the card was a catcher named Henry

Swivel.

      Roman pulled the card from the wall and looked at like it was the first time

he had seen it. The picture was taken a month before his career-ending collision at

home plate. His father had never seemed angry at his misfortune, never had a

problem talking about baseball, or recalling old stories about his teammates.

      “Doesn’t it bother you? Being so close to the show and having it taken

away because some guy mauled you over at the plate,” Roman recalled asking him

as they played catch.

      “Things happen for a reason, son. I could’ve rehabbed and gotten back in

the game if I really wanted. But I got a better offer—your mother and you.”

Things happen for a reason.

       Roman wasn’t completely sold on this theory. All too often it seemed that

things happened for no reason, or even worse, they happened to spite you. Before

turning on his side Roman flipped his pillow, searching for a cooler comfort,

something that would lull him back to sleep. Instead, the pillow only kept his head

eye-level with the picture next to his bed. Sleep eluded him, because of the girl in

the frame.

VI

      “Babe Ruth was the best ball player there was or will ever be. End of

story,” Sam Peterman said chewing a mouthful of his chicken sandwich.

      “You’re off your fuckin’ rocker,” Pick Bryant started. “The only thing

Babe Ruth could do for a current major league ball club is drive the shuttle bus

from the hotel to the airport, and only then if he was sober.”

       Here we go. This argument had happened at least once a year at our lunch

table for the duration of our incarceration. Nobody ever won the argument; I guess

that’s why it kept popping up from time to time. It was Wednesday, the day before

Thanksgiving and the first real break from school. Students were ready to let go,

set the books aside, and relax. But the anticipation of freedom also caused a few

tempers to flare, probably because that Wednesday seemed to stretch into

endlessness, almost as if God was playing a cruel trick on us. Sam and Pick

currently going at each other was a perfect example.

      “I’m going to say one more thing to shut you up once and for all, Bryant,”

Peterman flared up again. “The Babe hit 714 home runs in his career, 60 in one

season. Led the American League in home runs eight times, led RBI’s 6 times, led

the slugging percentage 13 times, and basically built the game on his back.”

       “He swung a 45- inch bat,” Pick responded.

      “So what?” Sam countered.

      “Do you see anybody swinging a bat that long today? Hell no you don’t.

You know why? Because nobody would ever hit the ball swingin’ a tree trunk like

that. Ruth got away with it because they didn’t throw as hard as they do now.

Those assholes out there pitching two ends of a double-header in some cases.

They couldn’t do that if they threw as hard as they do today. Their goddamn arms

would fall off. Plus those first two statistics you mentioned have both been

broken. The 60 home runs in one season is a joke now. Just like that fat ass

himself.”

      Sam stood up red-faced and grabbed Pick by the collar of his shirt. “That’s

it you little pencil dick.” Sam raised his fist.

      “Whoa. Whoa. Fellas. Can you hear yourselves?” I said. “You’re about

to fight over a guy that’s been dead since before your dads were born. You think

it’s really worth it?”

       Peterman released Pick’s shirt and sat back down. “My bad Pick.”

      “No problem buddy, but I still think...”

      “Pick,” I interrupted.

      “Yeah?”

      “Shut the fuck up.”

      Roman showed up at the end of the conversation, bypassing his usual seat

next to Heather and sitting between me and Brunno. Heather was aware of it right

away—all women have the super power of sensing bad karma. Roman sat down,

worried only about the fruit on his tray, and didn’t seem to have that spark that so

often inspired the rest of us. His eyes were red and brown stubble covered his

face. Heather shot me a glance as if I could read the janitor’s mind.

      “You look like shit,” I said, expecting at least a grin.

Roman nodded. “I didn’t sleep well.”

      “You missed a good argument between Peterman and Bryant. One thinks

Babe Ruth was Jesus and the other thinks his picture is next to ‘degenerate’ in the

dictionary.”

      Roman didn’t acknowledge.

      I shrugged my shoulders at Heather.

     She began to speak, confident that she could talk to Roman. “Do you want

to come over to the house for Thanksgiving dinner? My parents said you could.”

     “I’ve got plans.”

     “What’s wrong with you?” Heather shot back.

     “Nothing. I’m just tired.”

      Heather let it drop against her better judgment. She watched as Roman ate

his lunch, knowing there was something more to it. Tired didn’t make him sit

across the table from her. Tired didn’t make her invisible. After watching for

several minutes Heather left the table without a goodbye.

      Women always read more into shit than is really necessary. I mean give

the guy a break, he’s tired. He’s entitled—more than anybody probably—to have

an off day or two. That’s the difference between guys and chicks. I could give a

rat’s ass if Roman wasn’t exactly doing cartwheels down the hallways. I don’t

even care if he’s not his charming self every once in awhile. He didn’t owe me

any apologies. Let the man be. But with women, with Heather, I had a feeling

Roman was going to be explaining himself for awhile, apologizing his ass off, and

it wouldn’t stop until Heather was satisfied. See that’s the thing, “Sorry” is not

enough. You’ve got to go through the whole “why you’re sorry” part as well.

       Roman helped Brunno with some of his business math homework.

       Business math is a fancy name for “math for dumb asses” at Collingston High. At

least I made it to Algebra. A smile came to my face watching Brunno try to

comprehend the explanations from a guy that was light years ahead of him

intelligence-wise. It was like a cockroach trying to understand Einstein.

       My thoughts drifted toward the evening’s events. As I probably mentioned

earlier, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving is the biggest night of the year at the

Tavern. They would take the table and chairs out, and still it was impossible to get

from one end of the bar to the other on account of the crowd. That was the one

night of the year we couldn’t have our regular game in the back room. Don’t get

me wrong; there was still a game, but Pick’s dad was running it. The Tavern ran

its own blackjack table, and Pick dealt. The poor suckers would stand in line to get

a seat at the table unknowingly begging to be kicked in the nuts. It was a perfect

situation for Pick: he didn’t have to put up his own money, but he still got a

percentage of the house winnings. I felt a plan coming to the surface as I watched

Roman write down numbers and then answers in Brunno’s notebook. He wrote the

numbers just for Brunno’s benefit; the answers were already there, flashing in

Roman’s head like numbers on a computer screen. Blackjack—the only game that

the enlightened player has a mathematical edge over the house in. And I had a

human calculator sitting right in front of me.

     I grabbed Roman as the bell rang, before he could leave the table. “Whatta

ya doin’ tonight? You gotta work?”

     “No.”

      “How about comin’ down to the Tavern with me and helping me out with

something? I know the Tavern isn’t really your scene but I could really use ya.”

     “I don’t know, Tony. I was planning on catching up on some reading.”

     “Take a night off for God’s sakes. Last time I checked, the pages of those

books don’t change if not read in a certain amount of time. Don’t you ever just

want to have some fun?”

     “Reading is fun to me.”

      “Look, what I’ve got in store for ya is mental work, so don’t worry about

being able to rest that brain of yours. Besides you know if ya stay home Heather’ll

be on your doorstep before ya get through your first book. And then you’ll be

playin’ twenty questions all night.”

      “I don’t know. Won’t there be a big crowd there? I can’t stand the

smoke.” Roman paused analyzing even this simple situation.

      My only hope was to play the friendship card. “Look I know this isn’t

really your scene. I wouldn’t even ask if I didn’t really need your help. If you

absolutely hate it, I’ll never ask you to go back there again.”

     Roman gave a sigh. “Fine. What do you have in mind?”

     I put my hand on his shoulder as we walked up the stairs. “You ever

counted cards before?”

VII

      Since there was no school on Friday, Mr. Buttworst’s sixth hour Calculus

class was having their extra credit day in advance. The bearded teacher had

resigned himself to the fact that he was the second-smartest person in the room. So

now Roman graded papers during the class. He sat at Mr. Buttworst’s desk with

red pen in hand, marking not only that class’s papers but every class’s of Mr.

Buttworst’s, speeding though the students’ problems with the same velocity as

when he read books. The answer key sat on the desk off to the side, unneeded and

unused.

     The bell rang, the last bell of the day, releasing the inmates out into the

world for their extended weekend furloughs of eating, drinking, and partying.

They would go with freedom before them and savor every minute, forgetting their

troubles and deadlines and prison guards, and live to the minute, until that minute

turned into Dreadful Monday.

     Roman sat in the empty room, still working on the last of Buttworst’s

papers, not noticing the mass exodus, and not running for the doors as his peers

did. His mind was ultra-focused in another world called mathematics, and that

mind did not unlock from its focus easily.

    Mr. Buttworst poured another cup of coffee from his thermos, looking over

Roman’s shoulder at the papers on the desk. As many times as he encountered it,

Buttworst could never get over the speed of Roman’s grading, twice as fast as his

own.

    “Forget the rest of those, I’ll do them over the weekend,” Mr. Buttworst

said.

    “Are you sure? I’ve only got fifth hour left.”

    “I’m sure. Go and enjoy yourself this weekend.” Buttworst threw the

ungraded papers into his brief case and clicked the latches shut. “Say, what do you

have planned for the holiday? Are you going with Tony or to Heather’s?”

     “Actually I’m going across the street to my neighbor’s house. He doesn’t

have any family around so...” Roman stopped short, cut off by the picture of Mr.

Buttworst’s wife and daughter staring back at him from atop the desk, and realized

what the teacher was getting at. “...What are your plans?”

    “Ah, I don’t know. Just another Thursday for me really. I know I’ll do

some hunting in the morning but other than that? There’s football on. I’ll throw a

couple deer steaks on the grill, drink a few beers.”

    Roman grabbed his backpack off the floor and followed Mr. Buttworst into

the hallway. Not until the teacher locked the door did Roman realize the emptiness

of the hallways. Only ten minutes had passed and the school was deserted by

teachers and students alike.

    “It’s always like this on Thanksgiving,” Buttworst said, sensing Roman’s

surprise. “First break of the year is always a long time coming. Have a good

holiday, Roman.”

     The two started in opposite directions down the hall. Roman stopped on

his third step and turned back to him. “Mr. Buttworst? How much of that venison

do you have anyway?”

     “Enough to last a year. Why?” Buttworst said, stopping to face the janitor.

     “I don’t know. It seems like the three us of might have a better time

enjoying each other’s company. That is if you don’t mind....”

     “Two o’clock, my place. All you need is your appetites.”

Roman changed directions, and started on the same route out of the

building as the pot-bellied teacher, even though it was a longer route for him.

     “I’ve got to warn you, Mr. Buttworst, my buddy Carl is a little on the eccentric

side.”

     “A friend of yours is a friend of mine Roman. Besides I’ve lived long

enough that not much of anything surprises me these days.” Mr. Buttworst put his

arm on Roman’s shoulder as they descended the stairs. “I owe you anyway, for

grading the papers. How pissed off do you think the rest of these teachers would

be if they knew I hadn’t graded a single homework assignment in a month?”

    Roman smiled.

VIII

      With all of its threats and glimmers of sunshine of certain days, the few

stubborn leaves that refused to let go of their branches, and people out walking in

the evenings, your occasional football being thrown around in the backyard—the

worst of seasons had failed to conquer. But now, on this night, there was only one

thing in charge, one force to reckoned with. He was an old grouchy man, rocking

back and forth on a rickety rotten chair, with a white beard down to the floor and

no sympathy for even the most righteous of souls, indiscriminate with his wrath.

His last name was Winter.

      The sky was clear, every star in its grip accounted for. The same as it

looked on hot summer nights; the same as it looked on fall evenings by the lake.

But somehow it was different. It wasn’t the contents of the heavens that had

changed, but what lay beneath them. Now there were frozen ponds and streams.

Smoke could be seen from every exhaust on the street. People wore earmuffs and

stocking caps, and blew on their hands even after entering a warm building.

Smokestacks shot their fog into the air in every neighborhood residence. Lights

turned out early. The absence of young kids’ kickball games was deafening.

      There was no snow, not yet anyway. I parked the Pinto on a side street a

half-mile away from the Tavern, the closest I could get. I left my winter coat in the

car and braved the walk without it because I knew there was nowhere to put it once

inside, and I knew that as cold as it was out, it was just that hot in. Roman wore a

flannel, the attire he seemed to wear in all seasons and for all occasions. My

constant warning of how hot it would be in the Tavern did not detour the janitor.

      I held my hands against my mouth, blowing on them as we walked, trying

not to lose feeling in my fingertips. Roman walked with his face turned up to the

stars, letting his arms dangle like he was strolling home from school the way I

watched him earlier in the year. Temperature was not high on his list of concerns.

     Even the cold wasn’t enough to dampen my spirits though. I’d already won

the battle. If Roman didn’t win my money back I’d still succeeded in at least

getting him out of the house. I was anxious to see my friend in a new

environment. I was glad he thought enough of me to come.

    “You know that counting cards is not a for sure way to win? It only gives

you an idea of what’s coming next. Even if I know exactly what cards have been

played there’s no way of telling what exact card is coming next.”

     “I know. I just want you to give it a shot. It’s not like were trying to cheat

someone out of a million dollars or anything. I just want back what I lost to Pick

the last time.”

     “How much was that.”

     “A hundred and twenty.” I took my hands away from the warm air of my

mouth, reached into my pocket, pulled out sixty dollars, and put it in Roman’s

hand. “If you lose that we’re done.”

     “And if I don’t lose? Where do you want me stop?”

     “Like I said, I’m not greedy.” I pondered the question for a moment. “I

don’t know, if you get up two-twenty or so, that would be good. That makes me a

hundred. Severance pay for losing last time.”

      We walked up the ramp to the Tavern’s back door. Amazing how you

couldn’t hear anything. The only barrier between three hundred people, blaring

music, and us was only a single layer of brick wall.

     “What about an ID?” Roman said following behind me.

     “Don’t worry. I know everybody in here. It won’t be a problem. You’re

with Tony Falcone, man! Have I ever led you astray before?”

     Roman didn’t answer.

     My face was instantly defrosted as I opened the back door. In a rush of

heat and noise, I went from chattering teeth to sweat forming on my forehead. I

couldn’t make out one single person in the bar. The floor was wall-to-wall

bodies—a beast with a hundred different heads. Each individual movement set in

motion a wave through the crowd, a never-ending circle of action and reaction.

     The doorman fought for space as well, smashed between the entrance and

the restroom line. Only after winning a struggle to maintain his own legroom did I

see who it was. It’s amazing that a stream of people hadn’t poured out when I

opened the door.

     Larry was a good friend of Pick’s dad. “What’s up, Tony?” he said giving

me the wink that let me know I was cool.

     I started past him, looking for familiar faces and smacking my lips for beer,

and then realized I couldn’t feel anybody behind me. Roman was still standing in

the doorway, like a kid who was nervous to jump in the water at his first day of

swim lessons. Larry put his arm in front of my chest halting me before the amoeba

occupying the floor absorbed me.

     “Who’s this?” Larry squinted through the smoke and dim lights, sizing

Roman up.

     “He’s with me. He’s cool.”

     “Yeah, well he doesn’t look cool. He looks twelve. We’ve already got a

bunch of under-agers in here as it is. It’s my ass if something goes bad.”

      “I’m tellin’ ya he’s cool.” A line had started to form behind Roman. If he

stood there much longer the thirsty patrons would trample him. “He doesn’t even

drink. He’s here for the cards. He won’t be a problem. I’m lucky to get three

fuckin’ words out of him myself, and I’m his best friend.”

     I swore Larry had one eye peering at me and the other focused on Roman.

    “Get him in here then. Let’s go fella you’re holding me up. You’re either staying

or leaving.”

     Roman walked in, his reluctant steps seeming never to catch up to mine. I

navigated us through the crowd, dodging beers held above heads, breaking up

conversations, and rubbing up against a few tits in the process, the last being an

accident of course.

     Roman followed like a running back behind his blocker, careful to avoid

contact with anyone. We made it the length of the bar, just short of making a right

toward the back room when I hit a wall. The person in front of me was walking

the opposite direction and I bounced off him like I just hit a trampoline, back

peddling until I was stopped by Roman.

     At the turn, it was gridlock, two masses of people trying to go in different

directions, locked at a standstill in a three-foot space between the corner of the bar

and the front door. I had an idea of who it was in front of me just by bumping his

belly. If being in good physical shape meant a man had a six-pack for a stomach,

Boochie Anderson had a keg, maybe two. My suspicion was confirmed by the

light glimmering off the metal from twenty different places on his face and the

tattoo that covered much of his bald head.

     Behind the giant marshmallow stood Bobby Dukes and Johnny the Killer.

There was an awkward exchange of glances between me and Johnny. Boochie

decided it was time to untie our mangled knot. He pushed me to the side and made

a path through the crowd with no more effort than just his normal walk.

     “Excuse you,” I said after the fat man had passed.

     “Whadyou say?” Bobby Dukes asked as he passed on my left.

     “I said, enjoy yourself.”

     “That’s what I thought,” Bobby said, shifting his glance from me to

Roman. He shot a smile at the janitor, something that happened only when bad

thoughts traveled through his head. A smile that had a story behind it, like he

knew all about the Hollow.

     Johnny walked to our left as well, looking away as he came to Roman.

Carl sat in his chair at the end of the bar, talking to two girls that seemed to

be hanging on his every word. There couldn’t have been a stranger sight. A guy

who was probably forty years older than anyone in the bar, sitting on a bar stool

that would certainly have his name engraved on it when he finally passed, wearing

that lime green army jacket or whatever it was, his ears covered by the flaps on his

hat, talking to two twenty-ish hot bodies that thought he was Socrates himself.

     “I’ll go to hell. Got the son of a bitch out the books for one night huh?”

Carl said pointing at Roman.

     “It wasn’t easy, let me tell ya. How’s it goin’ anyway?”

Carl looked at the girls’ chests in front of him, took a long drink of his beer,

and smiled. “Havin’ a good time. A good night to you fellas as well.”

     The pool tables had been removed from the second room, hanging lights

anchored by chains over the tables had been pulled close to the ceiling so no one

would hit their head, and the usual tables for lounging were absent as well. It

didn’t make any difference. This room was worse than the first. Not only were the

people jammed into the sardine can—this room was rocking. The girls grinding on

their men and on each other. Beer spilled from cups and there was a steady

thumping from people hitting the floor, knocked off their own feet by the shifting

monster they helped to make up. I navigated us through, like Han Solo dodging

the ever-changing direction of huge rocks in an asteroid belt.

      I saw Sally from the corner of my eye, reminding myself that at some point

during the next day, she was one obstacle I couldn’t maneuver around. Way back

at Halloween I asked her to go with my family to my grandparents’ house for

Thanksgiving. I knew when the words came out of my mouth I’d regret it. I liked

her sure, but December 1st meant it was time to get ready for baseball. And there

was no time to chase pussy if you were serious about chasing your dream.

     Thanksgiving would be more like our last supper I guess. My throat was sand

paper. I needed a beer.

     The third room was cooler, there weren’t any bodies gyrating, just eight

players seated for cards and three rows deep of people watching. The damage was

already done however; I was thoroughly soaked from my shirt to my underwear. I

pulled the bottom of my shirt up and wiped the salty sweat dripping from my

forehead into my eyes.

     Roman still had his flannel on, standing next to me without a drop of sweat

to be found, watching the cards on the table. His brain was already focused and

calculating faster than Pick could flip the slick sturdy cards.

     Pick had a pile of money behind him already and a permanent smile filled

his face, like a kid opening Christmas presents. He wore a towel around his neck,

and sipped his beer through a long straw making sure that his hands were occupied

only with dealing and collecting. Keep them playing.

     The last of the six-card deck were dealt. “All right boys, we’re gonna take

a five minute break so I can drain the dew from the lily.”

     The man next to Pick scrounged through the pile of money, separating the

tens and fives into stacks, and took out the twenties, securing them in a lockbox.

     He stood like a secret service agent.

     In the back bathroom, I hit my face with a cold splash of water, something

usually only reserved for summers at the ball field. Pick let out a moan standing in

front of the urinal next to me as if he were doing something more than peeing.

     “Jesus, I feel better. Haven’t took a piss since I got here at five.”

     I wiped my face with the brown paper towels and looked in the mirror, still

not used to the sight of my eye being normal, half expecting to see the purple or

green raccoon circle that’d graced it for the good part of a month.

     “I need a favor, Pick.”

     “Let me guess, you want me to let you cut in front of everyone waiting for

the next seat when somebody gets up.”

     “Close, but no. I want you to give that seat to Roman.”

     Pick started for the door.

    “Aren’t you going to wash your hands? You are dealing. Other people

touch those cards.”

    “Oh, shit yeah. I was just in a hurry to get back in there. So why Swivel?”

Pick turned on the water and looked at me in the reflection in the mirror.

    “Roman loves blackjack, but can’t ever play because he’s always got the

janitor’s gig at night. Ya know he’s been through a lot of shit over the last couple

of months. I know it would really make his day if you gave him a seat.”

Pick shook his head back and forth weighing the decision as he grabbed a

paper towel. “What about you. You not playing or what?”

    “I’m broke. You cleaned me out last time.”

    Pick smiled, proud of his accomplishment. “Okay. I’ll let him sit. But if

he runs out that’s it. I’m not letting him reload. The guys’ll be pissed off enough

that I let him cut in the first place.”

IX

      Sam Peterman hit his sixteen against the dealers six and busted, screwing

the table once again, and bankrupting himself. Some people never learn. Adding

to the insult was the fact the Pick was the dealer and there was more than money

involved, there was the honor of Babe Ruth from earlier that day.

Pick stopped the man trying to grab the seat Sam departed from. “Hold on

buddy. That’s not your seat. I’ve had someone waiting longer than anybody.”

     Pick motioned for Roman.

     “That’s bullshit,” the man said, watching as Roman took the seat.

     “No it’s not bullshit. He’s been waiting since six. He just keeps getting

pushed to the back of the line by you fat asses.”

     There was rumbling through the crowd but it died off in a matter of

seconds.

     “All right Swivel, whatta ya got?” Pick said winking at Roman.

Roman pulled the three twenties out of the breast pocket of his flannel and

sat them on the table. “Can you break that first twenty into fives please?”

     “Not a problem. Everybody’s got to start somewhere right?”

Roman smiled.

    “Alright gentlemen place your bets, cards coming out.”

    On his first five-dollar bet Roman got blackjack.

     I left the room to get a beer.

X

       Fate has a strange way of placing you in situations you don’t want to be in.

I ended up after taking a twenty-minute swim through two rooms of people,

pressed against the edge of the bar next to none other than Johnny the Killer.

There were five bartenders working, but the average wait was still fifteen

minutes for a drink. I ordered two, trading the waiting for the inconvenience of

drinking a warm beer.

     “Four shots of Wild Turkey,” Johnny said after I got my beers.

Just thinking about whiskey made my stomach turn. Too many nights of

puking and too many days of headaches. Besides that it tastes like shit, like

something that should go in an engine for fuel. In the movies and TV they always

drink the stuff down like it was sweet, savoring every last drop. It only took me

one time drinking it to figure out those actors were drinking tea or diluted pop.

Nothing goes down worse. Nothing.

       Johnny slid two of the shots in front of me after he paid the bartender.

      “Drink up Tony.” Johnny raised his glass for cheers.

      “Fuck that. I’m not shootin’ whiskey.”

      “What happened to you man? We used to drink this stuff by the fifth back

in the day. Remember the time you got all fucked up and my ma found you laying

in her bushes with puke all over yourself the next morning?”

     “You drank it by the fifth. I just took a swig from time to time. And yes I

do remember lying in the bushes. That’s exactly why I want no part of it. I

remember a lot of times. A lot of good times.”

     “To the good times,” Johnny said, raising his glass once again.

     Reluctantly I lifted my own and hit it against the Killer’s. Johnny slammed

one and then the other, followed by a huge burp that blew right in my face. The

smell was unmistakable and made my whole body convulse in a shiver.

    “Wild Turkey of all things?”

    “It’s not that bad,” the Killer still cringing.

    “To good times. I’m such a dumb ass.” I lifted the first shot and poured it

down, careful not to touch my tongue. Before I took a breath I shot the other. This

one splashed around in my mouth a little more, forcing me to taste it. When they

were down, I coughed hard and then tried to wash the taste away with beer. It

must have been a male thing—the shots I mean—It didn’t take a rocket scientist to

figure out nothing good ever came from doing them. When your buddy bought

you a shot, it was an unwritten rule that you took it. Not a good rule but still a rule.

     Johnny stood next to me, a dark shadow of his old self. The Ralph Lauren

sweaters and designer jeans traded in for black T-shirts, a complimenting thick

leather coat with numerous silver zippers, and steel-toed boots. For the life of me,

I had never seen Johnny in boots until that night. His hair was greased back and

the pupils of his eyes danced on their irises like the chromed sphere that bounces

repeatedly between the bumpers in a pinball machine.

    There was something else on his jacket too, almost invisible if you weren’t

looking for it, something the size of an eraser on the end of a pencil. I squinted

trying not to be too obvious. It was pink...a pink... rose. The mark of Freddy

Flowers. It was stitched with care into the thick leather, wanting to be seen, but at

the same time hiding in plain view. A reflection of Freddy’s own psyche—he

loved the power and respect he had on the street, but he didn’t exactly want to

advertise it.

     Me and Johnny stood in silence with our backs pressed against the bar,

watching the scene in front of us. The speakers pounded Marilyn Manson’s

“Beautiful People”, turning normal conversations in the bar into yells between

mouths and ears that were already only inches apart. Individuals with their Jack

and Cokes, gin and tonics, and beers, all formed a bigger solitary unit: college

students back for the break, sisters visiting brothers, lovers starting their evening,

loners watching, dancers and friends. The once dingy green floor of the Tavern

was alive.

     Boochie and Bobby were at the video slot machines that were usually only

ten steps away but now seemed like a mile. Johnny drank another shot. It went

down easy for him now, each drink softening the blow of the next.

      “What the hell are you doing? What’s all this?” I said waving my hand at

Johnny’s new attire. “You look like you’re extra in the movie Grease.”

      “You know how much money I made last week, Tony?”

      “Do you know how long you’re going to spend in jail, Johnny?”

     “It’ll never happen. The Flower is too tied in, too many of the pigs in his

pocket. He’s squeaky clean.”

     “Exactly he’s squeaky clean. Who do you think goes away when he does

get pinched. It isn’t gonna be Freddy Flowers. It’ll be you or one of those other

degenerates over there like Bobby Dukes.”

     “I’d watch who you are callin’ a degenerate.”

     “Look man, I’m not trying to ruffle anybody’s feathers. I’m just shootin’

ya straight. What about baseball? We need you if we’re going to win state. What

about graduating?”

     “Fuck all that. Why put myself through it? I’m not going anywhere in

baseball. Maybe some junior college in the middle of a cornfield somewhere. And

graduating? I’m making more money now than I would at any piss poor job in this

town.”

    “That’s just it. If you decide to go to college, you can go anywhere. You

don’t have to stay here your whole life. I’m just tryin’ to talk to you as a friend.”

    “Just like you were being my friend that night in the Hollow.”

    “If I remember right, it was you who kicked the shit out of me, not vice

versa.”

     I’m not sure if it was the cold breeze blowing in as the door opened or the

hundred-degree heat escaping, but the temperature dropped for a few seconds, a

welcome relief to the stickiness that covered me. I could see them barely, those

unmistakable long blond curls in the line to get in, stuck in the doorway behind the

people in front of her. Johnny saw her as well.

    “Ask the janitor how my sloppy seconds taste would ya? Remind him

every time that he’s down there, it’s the same spot where the best part of me was

first.”

     Johnny walked off, absorbed by the forest of people.

    “I’ll be sure not to tell him that,” I said, talking to myself.

     Heather wasn’t a frequenter of bars and I don’t believe she had ever been in

the Tavern. She still had that undeniable confidence, walking by Larry like she

owned the joint. The only action the doorman could muster was his tongue

hanging out of his mouth, like a dog outside without shade in August. Heather

didn’t need a fake ID or somebody to get her in. Sure she could have passed for

twenty-five with the make up and all, but Heather had the single greatest passport

of all—beauty.

    It took our blond friend twenty minutes to go twenty feet, and although she

scanned the crowd looking for Roman, by the time Heather was directly in front of

me she had no idea I was there. I decided to have some fun with her.

She whipped around with a shocked look on her face after I pinched her

ass. She gave me a friendly slap on the cheek in return. Heather wore a silky

black shirt, the top two buttons of which were undone. She knew how to work the

system, a trait unknowingly passed down to her from Gina I imagine.

I heard some commotion in the back room—clapping actually. That was a

good sign. It meant the house wasn’t doing well. Hopefully, Roman was reaping

the benefits.

    “Is Roman here?”

    “Nope haven’t seen him.”

    Heather started to dart off from the way she came before I grabbed her arm.

    “Damn woman, chill. He’s here. He’s making me some money in the

blackjack room.” I swallowed a couple mouthfuls of beer. “You’re not going to

bust his balls in there are ya? This isn’t the time or place for it. Like I said he’s

making me some money. So if you’re...”

    “I get it. I get it. God, are you drunk already?”

    “I’m not God. But I may be a little drunk. Come on.”

     I took her by the hand, leading her through the other drunks, starting on our

long journey of two hundred feet.

    Sweating profusely did not describe Pick Bryant accurately enough—sweat

was pouring down, one towel already soaked to the point of uselessness. The other

he rubbed on his head and hair, with the motion of a cat cleaning its face with its

paws. He picked up a full draft and chugged down the amber liquid like it was

Gatorade. He may have been thirsty, but that wasn’t what was on his mind at the

moment. Pick stared across the table at three evenly stacked skyscrapers of

money. What used to be the other players’ money, and what was briefly Mr.

Bryant’s money, now sat in front of the lone surviving player at the table. The

green mounds sat in front of Roman.

     Pick handed his empty glass to his bodyguard—the one that formerly

organized and kept an eye on the house’s money—and in turn the man handed Pick

back a full draft. Pick drank it in two long swallows.

     Roman sat motionless, arms to both sides of the money, still with the

flannel on but without a drop of sweat. I got as close as I could, zigzagging

through the taller crowd until there was nowhere left to zag. I tried to count the

money stacked in front of my friend. It would’ve been a cinch if it were chips, but

the bills were too much, blurring together at their edges. I was starting to wish I

hadn’t shot the Wild Turkey. Whiskey was a slippery fellow. After getting over

the initial bad taste of it, people thought they were home free. But as time passed

the brown liquid infected your brain like some kind of sleeper cell. I managed

though to refocus and at least see the cards that were lying on the table. The crowd

was silent like someone was teeing off at a golf tournament.

     Pick had a face card up. Roman had a five. Normally this was cut and

dry—Roman should take a hit. But this wasn’t your everyday blackjack game, and

it wasn’t your ordinary player. The deck was down to the last fifteen or so cards

and Roman had a fair amount bet.

     Pick patted his head with his towel again. “Are you going to hit or what?

It’s real simple, you win this hand and the game’s over cause there’s no fucking

money left.”

    “I understand,” Roman said. “I’m going to stay.”

    “Unfucking-beliveable.” Pick flipped his hole card—a five as well. I’ve

never seen somebody guess right as many times as you have tonight, Swivel.”

     Pick took a card—the queen of clubs.

     Busted.

     The crowd burst into applause.

     Pick put his head face-down on the table and threw the towel over it. The

blackjack fans poured out of the room on to find some other spectacle.

Me and Heather walked over to Roman. Heather seemed nervous and

Roman didn’t have so much as a glance for her.

     “I know we did well, but how well?” I said, rubbing my hands together and

looking at the folded green in front of Roman.

     “My dad is going to kill me,” Pick mumbled from underneath his towel.

     “Hold on a second,” Roman said to me.

     He walked over to Pick, lifted the towel up and whispered something in

Pick’s ear.

    Pick jumped out of his seat like he’d been ejected out of an airplane

cockpit, wrapped his arms around Roman, and kissed him on the cheek. Roman

shuffled through the money, counting it as fast as he could flip it, and gave the

majority to Pick.

    “Hold on. What the hell?” I said, watching Pick run out of the room with

my money.

    “Relax,” Roman said.

    “I don’t want to fuckin’ relax, that’s my money.”

     Before Roman could respond a voice came over the speakers. “Attention

     Tavern patrons, everyone has two free drinks coming, courtesy of the big winner at

the blackjack table tonight.”

    The bar erupted in cheers—the loudest I’ve ever heard the Tavern.

    Roman took the remaining twenties and placed them in my hand. “How

much is this?”

    “Two-twenty.”

    “And how much did you give Pick?”

    “I don’t know, eighteen hundred maybe.”

    “Eighteen hundred. Are you nuts?”

    “No I’m not nuts.” Roman started picking up empty beer bottles and

plastic cups, throwing them into the garbage. I stood there in disbelief. “You said

earlier you didn’t want to be greedy. You said you’d be happy with two-twenty.

You said that would be enough severance pay for the last time, if I remember

correctly.”

    I wanted to rebut, but no words would come to mind. “I need alcohol.”

    I put the measly two-twenty in my pocket and left the room.

    Roman continued with his trash collecting. Even after a couple hours of

counting cards—something that would make a normal person’s head ache—

Roman could not just stand still. He had to be moving, working, organizing.

Heather saw that she was being ignored and began helping him pick up the

empty receptacles, following his every move and tracing his path until she was on

his heels. Roman literally worked himself into a corner and Heather stood in front

of him.

    “What did I do to you?” she asked.

    Roman lifted the bottle he was holding and shot it at the wastebasket. The

bottle tumbled through the air over Heather’s head and the blackjack table and

landed in the receptacle, making a loud ting, but not breaking. Roman had run out

of garbage to throw away and now there was only Heather.

    “You haven’t done anything to me.”

    Heather waited for more but there was nothing. “So what, you just ignore

me now? You act like you don’t even know me. I think it’s a little rude if nothing

else. How does something turn from so good to so bad overnight? I think you at

least owe me some kind of explanation.”

    Heather stared directly at Roman, forcing him to look her in the eyes.

    “I think we should stop seeing each other,” he said.

    “Stop seeing each other? Is that what you call this? Like some switch you

can just turn off?”

     Roman brushed her to the side, freeing himself from the corner and from

her eyes. He stopped after a couple steps but kept his back to her. “I don’t know

what I think anymore. I don’t know who I am or where I’m going. It’s not fair to

you, to drag you through this mess.”

     Heather sped in front of him again. “So what? Who does know exactly

where they’re going or who they are. I want to be a doctor but that doesn’t mean I

will be. Isn’t that what life’s about? Isn’t it about the small moments, the little

pieces, rather than the whole? You said yourself you were happier now than you

have been in years. Doesn’t love count for anything?”

      Roman focused on the floor, unable to look at the green eyes in front of

him. He said in a descending voice, “Let me tell you about love. It’s cruel.

Everything I’ve ever come in contact with and cared about is either taken away

from me or destroyed. After the smoke clears, the only thing love leaves you with

is pain.”

      “So you’re going to go through your whole life not loving anything,

because you’re afraid of losing it. Why even live?”

      “I’ve been asking myself that same question for some time now.”

     “You’re full of shit, Roman Swivel. You enjoy life more than anybody

I’ve ever met. You walk to school every day just to feel the wind in your face.

You read fiction by the truckload, which deals with nothing but people’s lives.

You care enough about your friend to spend a night at this dump playing a game

you don’t even like. You know what this really is about? It’s about you not being

able to forgive yourself for what happened to your parents.”

     “I don’t want to talk about this.”

     Roman tried to walk off again, but Heather grabbed him, clenching his

flannel in both her fists.

    “It wasn’t your fault Roman and never will be. Some mad man broke in

your house and because of him your parents are dead. Not because of you.”

    Roman broke Heather’s grasp, swiping her arms away with a firm windmill

of his arm and walked to the doorway. Roman stopped when Heather spoke again.

    “Say you don’t love me and I’ll never bother you again.” Heather chewed

the ends of her fingernails—a nervous childhood habit she could never shake.

    “Say it.”

     Roman walked through the doorway, disappearing into the crowd without

saying it.

 

 

           


 

 

 

Download the entire story as a PDF for just $1.88

or

Buy the hardcopy for $16.00

 

Continue reading at the Janitor Main Page

 

Message Board