“Key to the Highway” by Joseph Goodrich

Sometimes the fabric of your life rips, and you get a true look at someone or something you thought you knew. Or—even worse—you get a look at yourself. And maybe you don’t like what you see. Maybe you’d like it to change. Maybe you’d change it if you knew how. Or maybe you’re left with the bare flesh hanging off the bone.

Stay or go, change or don’t: there’s always the pain. You can count on that.

So when the knock on the door came, I was ready.

Merc was back.

We slapped each other on the back and whooped and hollered and goddamned. We wound up sitting on the porch, drinking and laughing and talking about old times. Around three in the morning we were just sitting there, out of booze and out of talk. Looking up at the sky. Thinking our separate thoughts. I was drunk enough to ask him what I’d been wondering all night.

“Why’d you come back, Merc?”

A long pause, then he said: “Where’s Jackie?”

“Who you running from?”

“How long’s she been gone?”

“You wanna talk about it?”

“Do you?”

He stood up, steadied himself against the railing, and tossed the empty bottle into the street. We heard it splinter in the dark. He sat down again, and neither of us said anything for a long time. I thought he might’ve passed out. I shook his arm.

“Merc?”

“. . . What?”

“Let’s go in. It’s cold out here.”

“It’s freezing.”

“Merc. Come on. Come on, man . . . What are we gonna do? Stay out here all night?”

“Huh?”

“I said what we are gonna do?”

He got to his feet. “Let’s go for a ride,” he said, and staggered down the porch steps.

We piled into Merc’s beater and headed out. He was at the wheel, as usual. We looped out of town and drove into the country. I didn’t know and didn’t really care where we were going, and that was okay with me. I just sat back in an alcoholic haze and listened to the tires on the road. We were out past the scrapyard when Merc jabbed me in the ribs.

“Hey, you falling asleep on me?”

“I’m awake.”

“You’re gettin’ old, man. You’re up way past your bedtime. You’re lucky I’m back. You been comfortable for too long. You need some excitement. But don’t you worry, Jimmy boy—I’m gonna take care of that.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“. . . How?”

“We’re gonna . . . take . . . a short cut,” he said, and swerved across the road, scraping up sparks from the bottom of the car, wheel spinning like a roulette game, up the path to a farmhouse, straight through the yard past tractors and troughs, horn honking, headlights swinging crazy pictures of fence posts and tree trunks, big yapping dogs lunging out from under porch steps, geese and chicken bursting up off the ground and vanishing again in the dark. And then we were out in the cornfields, tearing through the dead husks, kicking up clouds of dust and then gravel when we turned onto the access road running through the fields and connecting up with the back roads.

And then I knew what we were out here for.

“Yeah, old man,” Merc said, “I bet you ain’t been ridgerunning in a long, long time.”

This is where you get going as fast as you can down a gravel road. 60, 70, 75—as fast as you can get before you hit a cross road, which is generally at an incline, and you go sailing up and over it back onto the next piece of road. You’re off the ground for what feels like an hour. You turn off the headlights, so you’re just speeding through the dark. You never know when a crossroad’s coming up, you just hit it and bam! You’re up and flying. Hanging in mid-air with the blood going through you. You can break an axle or your neck—and that’s the rush.

“How far can I push it?” Merc said.”How far?”

“We’re up to 60.”

“All right.”

“65.”

“Doin’ good!”

“. . . 75 . . . 80 . . .”

“I like it!”

“. . . 85 . . . 90 . . .”

“Hot diggety damn!”

“Keep it goin’, man!”

“I got it pressed all the way to the—”

We hit that ridge at 99 miles an hour. We were soaring for what felt like a goddamn decade, never about to come down. It was like dreaming, and maybe a little like death. I don’t know. But I know I saw some things in my mind between the time we lifted and the time we hit the ground again. I think maybe we both did.

 

I saw a guy who looks like me. Poor bastard . . .

All alone in his living room. Watching TV with the sound down low. He’s got a bottle of Jim Beam, some painkillers for his shoulder, and what’s left of a chicken pot pie. The phone is ringing like a son of a bitch. He takes another drink and another Demerol. Everything is nice and slow motion. He’s never enjoyed anything more than he does sitting there watching these faces with their mouths flapping open and shut, open and shut like they were fish. He doesn’t wanna talk to no one. He just wants be left alone. He sure as hell ain’t gonna answer any goddamn phone. So he turns up the sound and ignores it. Now it’s just him and John Wayne storming through the Badlands. The phone keeps ringing. Someone must want to get hold of him pretty bad.

A stretch of desert highway. It’s night and it’s still hot, still a hundred degrees Fahrenheit at ten p.m. Cactus and sand to either side. Not a breath of wind for miles. If you look hard, you can see a car moving through it all. A junked-up Buick, maybe, or a crapped-out Comet.

Look at the driver in the dashboard light: hands shaking on the wheel, cigarette pinched in the corner of his mouth, face all scrunched up, muscles tight, he’s pushing that car along like if he let up for even a fraction of a second he’d never get it started again. Sweat drips off his face. He’s not stopping for anything or anyone.

Look at the poor bastard, trashed out of his mind with his pills and booze and empty bed, shit-faced on the rug to the national anthem and then the TV snow.

He gets out of the car and gimps his way to a pay phone. His leg is asleep. He digs in his pocket, finds a crumpled piece of paper, dials. He waits for the other end of the line to pick up.

He doesn’t wake up, doesn’t hear the phone.

He calmly hangs up, then rips the phone off its wire and hurls it at a stack of tires piled in a clump of weeds beside the station.

He doesn’t hear the alarm clock, either, buzzing away in the bedroom. He finally drags himself off the floor about noon and staggers to the bathroom. He doesn’t hear the car coming up the driveway.

He gets out of the car, wondering if anybody’s home—yellowing newspapers cover the porch and mail sticks out of the box. He knocks anyway.

He hears the knocking.

He’s just about to leave—but he hears footsteps.

He moves through the mess of the living room, crosses to the door, opens it.

The door opens. And there’s Jim.

And there’s Merc. My God. There’s Merc . . .

 

—And the car hits the ground, the tires dig into the gravel, and it’s back to Earth. Back to Earth again.

“All right,” Merc said. “We’re closin’ in. I think you’re gonna dig this.”

“Where is it we’re goin’?”

“You gotta see it to believe it. Weird, weird farmer shit out here.”

By now we’re deep in the country. I’d lost track of direction jumping ridges. We could’ve been in another state by now and I wouldn’t have known. Indiana, Utah, Oklahoma—it would’ve been the same to me.

Merc pointed at the windshield. “See that glow over there? That bunch of lights out there across the field? You see that?”

“I see it.”

“That’s where we’re headed.”

“But what the hell is it?”

“You’ve led such a sheltered life,” Merc said, laughing.

“A party? We’re going to a party?”

“You could call it that.”

We headed for the lights. But we didn’t get much further along the way before the car started making noises, bucking and jerking. Serious car-fuck signs.

“Think we’re gonna make it?” I said.

“Don’t worry about it, man. I got this theory—”

“Yeah, I know. I know about your theory.”

“If your car’s acting up—smoke comin’ out of the hood or some shit like that—if you just ignore it long enough, it’ll fix itself and stop sooner or later.”

“Nice theory.”

“It’s not just a theory. It’s true.”

Half-true, at least: the noises did stop. So did the car, and it wasn’t about to fix itself anytime sooner or later. Merc got under the hood and checked it out.

I got out and lit a cigarette. “. . . So?”

“Well, let me put it like this. We won’t be going to Cinderella’s ball tonight. Know what I mean?”

“So it’s screwed?”

“I’m gonna try one more thing.”

He disappeared under the hood again. I walked off to the shoulder and took a piss.

“125,000 miles,” Merc said,”and the son of a bitch quits on me. Goddamn car.”

“It was time, I guess.”

“Like an old man, huh? ‘His time’d come, nothing we could really do for him. I’m sorry.’ Ahhh, Christ . . .” He slammed the hood shut. “Hey. Get your ass back here. We got some decisions to make.”

“About what?”

“Like about what to do here.”

“It’s pretty obvious. We’re stuck.”

“Yeah, but do we stay with the car, hope someone comes past, or do we start walking?”

“Flip a coin. I don’t care.”

“Think about it. If we start walking, we could freeze to death. Get lost. Die. I think we should stay with the car.”

“Why?”

“Because I forgot about the trunk.”

“What—you got a spare engine in there?”

“Something better than that. If it isn’t all broken to hell and gone, I forgot I have another bottle in the trunk.”

“. . . Let’s not start walking.”

“Only if it’s not broken.”

Wrapped in a greasy old flannel shirt and wedged under the carpeting up against the spare, there was a perfect, unbroken bottle of Jim Beam.

“Thank Christ,” Merc said and handed me the bottle. “Open her up, boy.”

“This is my favorite drink, you know.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. ’Cause they named it after me. It’s Jim—I’m Jim.”

We took some good long pulls and soon we were nice and warm again. Buzzed again, too. Merc fumbled around for his cigarettes and lighter, lit up, and rolled his window down a little. He ran his hand around the curve of the steering wheel.

“Damn it, I’m gonna miss this old car.”

“Maybe it’s not so bad. Maybe you can get it fixed.”

“Yeah, maybe . . . Pass me the bottle.”

I did. After a while he handed it back. And so on, back and forth. Just bottle noises and cigarette noises and the sounds of the country.

Merc goes through these strange silent spells. Has as long as I’ve known him. Some of it’s concentration—I remember trying to talk to him once when he was working on an engine at my garage, and it’s like I wasn’t even in the room. He was so caught up in what he was doing, working on that engine. And sometimes he just vanishes into his head. I knew better than to try to bring him out of it. He’ll come back eventually . . .

“Yeah,” he said, “I’m gonna miss this old car.”

And that was it for about five more minutes.

Then he said, “You ever been to Mexico? South of the border?”

“No.”

“You should go sometime.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I guess I should.”

“See, I was once in this very bizarre state—mentally, I mean—not too happy, you know, not too . . . coherent. I’d been on this bus for about a week. A Greyhound. I’d been on a Greyhound bus for a week. You know what kind of hell that is?”

I said I didn’t know.

“Well,” Merc said,”it’s not so bad at first. You all get to know each other. This certain kind of mentality develops. You watch out for each other. The world outside shrinks into coffee machines and ticket offices and crummy toilets. You stop at every little town but you never get any closer to where you’re goin’. And after about a week of this, I was sure I was in hell. I was cruisin’ down hell’s highway. No doubt about it. The memory of something—like a real life I might have had once—and the fear and fatigue and being stone-fuckin’-alone and cold all the time . . . I think I had the flu. I had this pain, this continual pain, at the base of my neck. I knew I was dead and my body was just waiting to get word about it. I didn’t think it could get any worse than this.”

“But it did?”

“Oh, yeah . . . Somewhere around McAllen, this guy gets on. We’re talkin’ flaked out, sweat-soaked, fucked-up and zipper down. Grungy silver beard. Dirty hair. And from the moment I saw him, I knew he was gonna sit by me. I knew it. No escape, nothin’ I could do. He comes down the aisle shakin’ the rain out of his beard. Smelled like wet garbage, rotting eggshells and cottage cheese and crap . . . No baggage, just a bottle in a paper bag stuck in the pocket of this old jean jacket over a t-shirt with a big frog on it with a balloon comin’ out of its mouth that said, ‘Trust Me—I’m A Prince.’

“Guy says to me, ‘Anyone sitting here?’

“I said, ‘No, no one.’ So he sits down next to me. I had to put a hand over my nose to block out this overwhelming stench of his. And he’s yappin’ with everyone on the bus, swivelin’ around in the seat. ‘Hey, Charlie! How ya doin’? All right, man! . . . Hey, cutie, coma esta? . . . Dude, where ya headed? . . . Outta sight! . . . Driver, hey, driver! Take this crate to Elvis Island, all your dreams’ll come true!’ And on and on and on . . . And then he starts tuggin’ on my arm.”

“Oh, God.”

“‘Hey,’ he says, ‘hey! You should read this.’ And he hands me this little poem on a piece of red paper—‘The color of hell,’ he says. ‘You read that poem.’ It was this little thing about where we go when we die. ‘When the choir has sung its last anthem, what then? Where will you spend eternity? Heaven’—and you flip the piece of paper over—‘or hell?

“‘You hold onto that,’ he says. ‘It’ll do ya good. Some guy gave it to me on the street. Write phone numbers or something on it.’ So I fold it up and put it in my pocket. ‘Think I was gonna give you a lecture?’ he says. ‘Do I look like one of those Christ Boys?’ I said, ‘No, you don’t.’ ‘Damn right I don’t,’ he said. ‘But I’m waitin’, though. I’m still waitin’.’

“I say, ‘Waitin’ for what?’

“‘For the Second Coming,’ he says. ‘Jesus comes back, I’m gonna grab him by the arm and say, Hey, Jesus, can I buy you a drink? And you know what I’m gonna do if he don’t accept?’

“‘What?’

“‘I’m gonna kick him in the nuts!’ He wheezed with laughter. ‘No, what I’d really do is this. Take him to India. Show him the little starving babies with the big bellies and I’m gonna tell him, I’m gonna say: If you’re so hot, Jesus, get rid of this poverty and filth and feed these little starving babies here. And he if he doesn’t, you know what I’m gonna do?’

“‘What?’ I say.

“‘Then I’d kick him in the nuts! There’s a hell a lot of difference between accepting a drink and fighting poverty. Know what I mean?’

“‘Sure,’ I told him. ‘Sure there is. Sure. Look—I think I’m gonna take a nap now, okay?’ And somehow or other, I managed to fall asleep. I think I was worn out from just bein’ conscious. I woke up around 4:30 in the morning—full bladder—and I stumble to the restroom at the back of the bus. I open the door and there he is, buck-ass naked, sittin’ on the sink and swiggin’ out of a pint bottle.

“‘Well, if it ain’t Jesus H. Christ,’ he says. ‘Glad you could join us. Ya know, if ya want some heaven, try some of this.’ And he holds out the pint bottle. ‘Want some?’

“Immediately scenarios begin bunchin’ up in my mind, and I don’t like any of them. It looks to me like I’ve got about three choices. The first of which is: Take a drink. The second is: Don’t take a drink, get taken to India and kicked in the nuts. And number three: Close the door and pretend I didn’t see him. Which I’m tempted to do. I’m really tempted to close that door and go back to my seat. But on the other hand . . . I don’t know. I could call the driver, get him to stop the bus, but then I gotta deal with everyone wakin’ up, and the police, probably, and . . . What I was doing with a naked drunk Jesus freak in a movin’ toilet in the middle of the night.

“‘Hey, Jesus,’ he says. ‘Okay, you don’t wanna drink? More for me.’

“I make my decision. I wedge myself inside and start tryin’ to get his shirt on for him. Quickly and quietly and with . . . What’s the word I’m looking for? . . . Dispatch. Quickly, quietly and with great fucking dispatch.”

We sat there for a little bit.

“. . . So?” I said.

“So what?”

“So what’s the point?”

“What? The point of what?”

“Why’d you tell me that? What’s the point?”

When the gates of the city shall close,” Merc said softly, “and night like a vision descends, / and a thief in the night comes calling . . . / What then?

“That’s what I’m asking. What then?”

“Exactly,” Merc said.

“Yeah, but—”

“Get out of the car. Someone’s comin’. This could be our ticket to ride.”

Headlights were approaching in the distance. We got out, turned on the blinkers, put up the hood. A car pulled up. A late-model Chrysler, expensive but not flashy, with some miles on it but in good shape. The power window slid down and the face of the driver smiled out at us.

“You fellas need a hand?”

“Nah,” Merc said, “we’re just parked out here in the middle of nowhere for the sheer hell of it, mister. What are you doin’ out here?”

“Merc.”

“Ask a stupid question,” the guy said, and laughed, and got out of the Chrysler.

He was somewhere around 45 or 50, I’d say. Very fat, with that beefy, high-blood pressure type of face. Johnny Carson suit, sports jacket and plaid slacks. Thin blonde hair plastered over his skull. He looked like the kind of guy who laughs a lot but isn’t too pleased most of the time. He held out a hand for Merc’s flashlight and took a look at the engine.

“Yep,” he said, “she’s a goner, all right.”

“How long you been workin’ for NASA?”

“Now, now, now,” the guy said, “I can understand you being a little upset, stranded out here and all, but stay calm. Take a deep breath. Stress kills.”

Merc gave me a look like “Who is this clown?”

“Could you give us a lift into town?” I said.

He thought for a couple of seconds. “I suppose I could do that,” he said. “It’s not like I’m doing anything else.” And he laughed again.

I got in back, Merc sat up front. Clothes in dry-cleaning bags were hanging along the back windows and there was an overnight bag, half-open, resting on top of a larger piece of luggage. I figured he was a businessman, a traveling salesman, someone who spent a lot of time on the road. Turns out I was right. After introducing himself as Ronald Adams, he told us he worked for a grain company in Indiana and was on his way home.

“That’s me in a nutshell, guys,” he said. “So how about you? What brings you out this way?”

“You don’t wanna know,” Merc said.

“I’ll bet I don’t,” he said, and laughed.

“We were just out driving around,” I said.

“Raisin’ hell,” Merc added.

“I’ll just bet you were,” Adams said. “Come on, tell me the truth—you’re those landfill killers, aren’t you?” And he burst out laughing again. I’d never met such a happy guy in all my life.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Merc said.

“You haven’t heard about that?” Adams said. “It’s been in all the papers. I shouldn’t have even picked you guys up, but I’m the original Good Samaritan tonight. I had a great day. A great day.”

“Sell a lot of wheat, did ya?” Merc said.

“In a manner of speaking,” Adams said. “In a manner of speaking . . . Well, anyway—it’s been in all the papers. Somewhere in Wisconsin, I think it was. Cops found a trash bag in a landfill with an arm and a leg in it. Couldn’t tell whose, though, naturally. But you know how they figured it out?”

“How?” I said.

“They put out a description of the tattoo on the arm. A naked hula girl, something like that. I don’t remember exactly. And the report comes back that Mister so-and-so from Nowhere, Wisconsin had a tattoo like that and has been missing for the past week. Bring in the arm so his wife can look at it.” He laughed until tears came into his eyes. “. . . Now how about that, huh?”

“How about that,” Merc said.

“A guy on the road’s gotta be careful these days. You aren’t gonna chop my arm off, are you?”

“Not your arm,” Merc said. “Something else, maybe, but not your arm.”

It took the guy a bit to figure out what Merc meant, and then—wouldn’t you know it?—he laughed to beat the band.

“That’s a good one,” he said. “That’s real good.”

“Unless you’d prefer that we cut off your arm,” Merc said.

“Throw in the other arm for free and you got a deal,” Adams said. “Two for one!”

“Me and him,” Merc said, pointing at me, “we just took a family out down the road about four-five miles back. Wasted ’em. Trashbagged ’em.”

“Sure you did,” Adams said. “Sure you did.”

“We killed ’em all. There was blood everywhere. Everywhere.”

Adams glanced over at Merc, then back to the road. “That’s not funny, guys.”

“They weren’t smiling, either,” Merc said. “Until I carved smiles on their faces.”

Adams looked quickly from Merc to me in the rearview mirror to the road, and back through the cycle again, smiling all nervous.

“We’re the landfill killers, all right,” Merc said.

“Thanks for the ride,” I said.

“Stop kidding me,” Adams said. “This isn’t anything to kid about.”

“You think we’re kidding?” Merc said. He pulled a gun out of his coat pocket. “You call this kidding?”

“Merc,” I said.”What the—”

“Oh God,” Adams said, “oh God, oh God, oh God, please . . .”

“This is the gun,” Merc said. “This is the gun I used on that family down the road. I put the gun in the mother’s mouth and the father’s mouth and the little boy’s mouth and the little girl’s mouth and I pulled the trigger each time. I told the kids to suck on it like it was a Popsicle.” He held the barrel of the gun up to Adams’ mouth. “Wanna Popsicle, mister?”

“Merc—put that thing away, you—”

“Shut up!”

Sweat had broken out on Adams’ face. All the liquor felt like it had burned out of my system. This was a little too close to the tip of the blowtorch. I didn’t move a muscle.

“Wanna suck, mister?” Merc said.

“I gave you guys a ride,” Adams said, “I picked you guys up, I was doing you a favor, I mean, come on—come on—just put that thing away, you don’t, you really don’t—”

“Got a tattoo, mister?” Merc said. He placed the gun against the side of the Adams’ head.

“Jesus,” Adams said, “please, please don’t, please don’t, please don’t—don’t—”

Merc turned to me and, calm as a minister, winked.

It was all a joke. He was just having some fun with the guy. I wasn’t laughing a lot, but it was a joke. Just a big goddamn joke.

Until we hit a bump and the gun goes off and Adams’ head explodes and there’s blood and brains and gristle all over everything.

 

A car by the side of the road. Blood dripping from the ceiling. The guy in back rolls  out into the weeds and vomits.

The guy in the front passenger seat doesn’t move. Then, slowly, he gets out, too. Crosses around to the driver’s side, he opens the door, drags the body behind the wheel out and into the ditch. He goes through the pockets, checks the wallet, goes back to the car, gathers up all the luggage and clothing, heaps it on top of the body, douses it all with gasoline from a can in the trunk, and lights it. Helps his friend in the weeds back into the car. And they drive off.

Impossible to think or talk. They roll down the windows to get rid of the warm iron stink of blood. They drive. They don’t talk. They drive.

Back in town. They clean up the car and themselves as best they can. They empty out the kitchen shelves, the refrigerator, they pack some plastic knives and forks and paper plates.

Like they were going on a picnic. Or a trip.

But to go on a trip, you need a destination.

And they’re not headed anywhere in particular. Just away.

They eat some dinner at a rest stop south of Luverne. Luncheon meat and white bread washed down with whiskey.

They sleep in the car. When they wake up, it’s snowed. The fields are white for as far as the eye can see. It’s all changed in the course of a night.

It’s all changed.

 

Jim.”

“What.”

I’m gonna ask you something, okay?”

“Sure.”

“But only once. Got it?”

“Yeah, I got it . . . What? What is it you wanna ask?”

“How long have we known each other?”

“Why?”

“Just answer the goddamn question.”

“. . . A long time.”

“So you know when I’m bullshitting, and when I’m on the level, right?”

“Most of the time.”

“You’re not helpin’ me much here, Jim.”

“What is it you want me to say? I’ve known you a long time, I know when you’re not bullshitting and when you’re on the level. So what is it you want to ask?”

He studied the flag dancing on top of the flagpole at the entrance to the rest stop.

“. . . What I’m gettin’ at is this. If you wanna go back and clear this thing up—or try to, anyway—we can. I’m givin’ you, like, that option. But only today. Only—now. Otherwise . . .”

“Otherwise what?”

“We play it to the end. Watch it unroll. Give it our best shot.”

A family pulled in—father, mother, three girls—and got out to take pictures of each other in front of a big Indian teepee.

“Well, what’s it gonna be?”

“. . . You got a quarter?” I said.

“Yeah, but what’s that—”

“Give it to me.”

I got out of the car and walked to a payphone near the door of the rest stop. I dialed my number. If Jackie was home, I’d go back. Face the consequences. If she wasn’t there, the hell with it. The hell with her and with everyone and everything. It’d be me and Merc and whatever happened.

One ring.

Two rings.

Merc had followed me and was leaning against the wall, smiling.

Three rings—four . . .

“She ain’t gonna be there, Jimmy boy.”

Five rings.

“I’ll be in the car,” Merc said.

Six rings. I kept thinking to myself, I’ll hang up after one more, just one more. One more ring, I’ll hang up.

Eight . . . Nine . . . Ten . . .

I let it ring and ring and ring, but no one answered. And no one was going to, either.

I hung up. Then I turned around and walked slowly back to the car, and off and away it was.

It’s odd—it’s pretty goddamn strange—but if you didn’t think too hard about what had lead to this, if you just sat back with no guessing and no expectations, the first part of the trip wasn’t so bad. We’d talked about heading off somewhere for a long time. And once in high school we’d made it all the way to Council Bluffs before we’d drunk away our money and had to hitchhike back. This time, more than 20 years later, I sat back with my eyes open and just let it wash over me. It became one big Texaco blank—days of nothing but road signs, billboards, water towers, cattle and sheep and horses, train tracks and farm houses. And names, names of places, one after another, always passing through, never stopping: Adrian, Magnolia, White River, Ashton, Grant, Stickney, Sloan, Long Pine, Halsey, Stockville, Hoxie, Ulysses, Florence, Chambers, Goodnight . . .

Sometimes I drove, but mostly it was Merc. Whoever was behind the wheel, though, it was Merc’s voice I heard, threading along the country like the road itself, stitching the miles together, weaving in words a place of rest. A kind of home.

“So there we were, man. There I was—the emergency room in Gainesville, Florida. Land of the Citrus. I’m drunk, sunburned and bleeding. They got this tube in my arm, I’m woozy, I’m passing out, I’m sitting on the floor and I’m laughin’. Laughin’ my ass off. There’s this Cuban guy in one of those little rooms with the tents around ’em, and he’s laughin’, too. With me or at me—I got no idea. He’s spitting blood into a Maxwell House coffee can and laughin’ and singin’. He’s got a lot of spirit, that guy. A lot of spirit. . . ’

He took a long drink from the bottle, passed it back to me.

“See, me and Malcolm, we were out crab-hunting. Malcolm’s about 75 now, and he’s got leukemia into the bargain, so he sold his business a couple years back—he used to restore violins—and he moved to the farm, which is where I used to visit him. . . He’s very brave it about. Dying, I mean. No grandstanding, no Lou Gehrig shit. I mean, if you gotta die, he’s being very cool about the prospect. . . So there we were in Gainesville, crab hunting. On the beach, Malcolm says to me, ‘Once I was in the Manhattan Towers Hotel, circa 1966. February. Cold. I was there for the Pittsburgh Symphony. They were in town and I was working with them. And I hear this noise through the wall. Some black guy singing. Playing. Blumming around on the strings. I’m trying to work with some very delicate old instruments, and this extraneous sound is screwing me up. So I knock on the wall. It doesn’t do any good. The guy in the other room keeps singing, keeps playing. So I figure if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. I pick up a Stradivarius and start to play along with him. He stops. A minute later, there’s a knock on the door. Two big colored guys standing there, very Chicago-slick, you know? Black leather car coats, sunglasses, skinny ties, porkpie hats . . . They say the guy in the next room wants me to come over. And I’m thinking, the hell I will. I’ll wake up—if I wake up at all—with nothing in my pockets but my ass.’

“Now the great part of it is—other than, you know, this old white semi-bigot gettin’ liberalized—is what happened next. Somehow or other they convinced Malcolm to come over, and he did, and he started playin’ some music with this really old black guy, and they recorded it. They were makin’ a record in that hotel room. You know who Malcolm had been playing with?”

“Who?”

“Mississippi John Hurt.”

“Wow.”

“You know who Mississippi John Hurt was?”

“. . . No.”

“A very great old blues singer. And Malcolm met him and made a record with him.”

“Wow.”

“Malcolm’s all right, you know? He’s not exactly liberal, but he’s all right. Very well-traveled. He’s been to Cuba, Mexico, Europe, everywhere. We talked about goin’ somewhere together once. Paris, Rome, India—all the places you think when you wanna do the travelin’ gig—but where did we actually wind up? Gainesville, Florida. It was the one place he’d never been, he said, and he wanted to see it with me. Before he died. Think of that . . . He’s got some peculiar habits, Malcolm. White shirts. Always a white shirt, rolled up and folded on the forearms. So sharp you could cut ice with it. Long black pants likewise sustained above the knee. For crab-hunting, he always ties a baggie around each foot. Hates to get his feet wet, he tells me, and I believe him. Big straw hat. Says his grandfather taught him how to dress, which is why he always wears a hat outside. I’ve got the buckets and the equipment and the thermos for his drinks. We are, like, Gentlemen Crab Hunters. Ready, willing and able to corner the Gainesville crab market. I’d never done this before. I had no idea what to expect. Jeez—the big crab hunter . . .”

“How’d you wind up in the emergency room?”

“What?”

“You said you wound up bleeding in the emergency room.”

“Yeah, I did, didn’t I?”

“So?”

“. . . I don’t wanna get into that now.”

“You’re gonna drop it there? Shit, man. If I gotta listen to you, the least you can do is finish the goddamn story.”

“I don’t wanna get into it, okay?”

I didn’t push him on it. I figured he’d tell me—or not—when he was ready to. So I just watched the road (I was driving at this point) and let him talk about whatever he wanted.

Later, how much later I’m not sure, Merc was talking about Tijuana or Caliente or someplace. I wasn’t really listening too close. The heater was on, I was not feeling pain, we’d hit the road rhythm, everything was everything—when a deer flashed out into the headlights. I stomped on the brakes and the next thing I knew, the car was upside down and I was thinking Christmas thoughts. Reindeer, presents, candy canes, the works. There’s a cut over my eye that’s warm and liquid. Somehow I crawled out of the car and sat down in the middle of the road. Merc, not looking any too good himself, yelled at the deer. But it wasn’t a deer—it was a dog. Some big, weird-ass three-legged dog. Merc chased it off but it came back.

“Goddamn stupid dog! Get the hell out of here, ya dumb bastard! Go!”

He chased the dog away again. The car was good and stuck in the ditch. It wasn’t going anywhere. And neither was I. I felt sick and exhausted and wanted to lie down, so I did. The road against my cheek was very nice and cool. I closed my eyes.

“Jesus, there he is again!” Merc said. “I get my hands on him, I’m gonna kill that dog.”

I felt something wet on my face like a rag or a washcloth. I opened my eyes and the dog was right above me, pink tongue licking my face. I reached up and tried to push it away. My hand caught its collar. A piece of metal dangled off it. I sat up and looked. It was a key for someplace called the Half-Moon Motel.

“. . . Hey.”

“You got the bastard?”

“You’re not gonna believe this.”

“He talks, right?”

“Almost.”

I heard Merc coming toward me through the weeds. And that’s when I stop remembering.

I woke up in a strange room. It was bright daylight and the room was buzzing with orange light. I closed my eyes and waited to wake up completely before moving. The skin above my eye hurt and my shoulder was throbbing. I tried to get up, then decided it was probably better to just lie there. I was fine with that. I was happy to lay in bed and just stare at the ceiling and wait. For the moment it was enough to just trace the cracks in the plaster. I did that when I was a kid, on Saturday mornings. I’d paint a picture in my mind in such detail that I’d lose myself in it . . .

I pictured my house when it was happy. Everything neat, everything clean. Food cooking in the oven. A Sunday night in spring. Some stupid show on TV and a record playing, too. The smell of Lemon Pledge-polished furniture. Jackie’s profile as she passes from one room to another. I’m comfortable on the couch. Merc sits down next to me and hands me another beer. I open it and it foams all over my fingers. I laugh. Merc punches my arm and heads to the kitchen. Beautiful feelings—beer, a roast beef dinner on the way, the blur of the TV, music . . .

I guess I must have nodded off. The record’s skipping in a groove. The roast beef smells burned, and the room is dark. I get up and look for Merc and Jackie. They’re not anywhere in the house, so I look out the windows. Front window: two cars in the driveway, mine and Merc’s. Side window: the neighbors to the right. Side window: the neighbors to the left. Kitchen window: the backyard. The bug light is on and I can’t see anything but our little patch of yard and the edge of someone’s garden toward the back. And—and this is very strange—every few seconds a pair of legs rising and falling behind a hedge.

Then I realize it’s someone playing on the swing set in the next yard. Kids up past their bedtime. Still half-asleep, I watch the swinging legs, hypnotized by the motion.

Then I recognize the shoes. I bought them for Jackie for her birthday last month.

I go out in the backyard. I can hear the chains creaking as she swings. By the time I get to the hedge, though, it’s quiet. I look through the twisting of branches and leaves. Jackie’s stopped swinging because Merc is sitting with her in the swing, facing her, legs wrapped around her, gripping the chains with his hands, his face pressed up close to hers.

“Look at it this way,” I hear Merc say to her. “I’m a cheeseburger. You’re a cheeseburger. We’re all cheeseburgers, right? All of us, everyone on earth is a cheeseburger. But the difference between you and me and the rest of them, the rest of the world, is that we know we’re cheeseburgers. We are the first post-cheeseburger cheeseburgers. Don’t laugh—this is a very philosophical point I’m making here.”

But Jackie is laughing. Giggling. Like she’s enjoying this talk a lot. She says something that I can’t quite make out.

“No, I’m serious,” Merc says. “We know. And that’s why we gotta do it. There’s no backing out of it this time.”

Jackie moves her face away from his and says one word: “Jim.”

“I like him,” Merc says. “I know him. I know what he is. I know how to deal with him.”

“You like him,” Jackie says,”because you don’t have to spend the time with him that I do.”

“We can change that,” Merc says. “It’s easy. It’s so easy.”

“It’s not,” Jackie says.

“He’s a cheeseburger,” Merc says. “What does he know? Nothing. But I know. And so do you.”

Their two shadowy figures turned into one, and that’s when I turned around and went back inside.

I didn’t sleep that night, and it didn’t look like I was going to go back to sleep in the bright orange room. I tossed and turned and rolled around, couldn’t get comfortable. Couldn’t escape the rush of memories. Eventually I did fall asleep. You get so tired of being tired that the body gives out. You’re whipped into sleep like a prisoner being punished. They have to stop when you pass out, right? You can’t hurt a man who’s gone under.

It was late afternoon when I woke up for the second time that day. There was no sign of Merc so I went outside to look around. I didn’t see anybody until I ran into Brother Tom and his three-legged dog standing beside the burning swimming pool of the Half-Moon Motel.

The Half-Moon Motel was one of those places that generally goes out of business when the new highway goes through. It was a collection of slowly crumbling, weather-beaten orange, yellow and green stucco buildings laid out around a swimming pool.

The dog was a mangy German shepherd with no teeth and three legs and was probably as mean as a cartoon rabbit. It perked up when it saw me and hobbled over my way as I walked toward Brother Tom, working away at the pool’s edge.

The dog may not have been much of a threat, but Brother Tom looked like someone you wouldn’t want to mess with. He was somewhere around 60, 65, and pure Okie—tall and stringy with sideburns down his jaw and deep-set, haunted eyes, a big broken nose and heavy lines around his mouth. He was tossing bags of leaves and garbage and bundles of newspapers tied with string into a fire at the bottom of the swimming pool. All he had on was a pair of grease-stained work pants held up by suspenders and a pair of work boots without laces. His long, stringy arms were covered with tattoos—angels with halos and robes and devils with horns and pointed tails wrestled to the death up the length of his arms and met for the final conflict on his grizzled, naked old chest. He finished off a couple more bundles, then stopped to catch his breath.

“You seen it, too, huh?” he said. “You look like you seen it, too.”

“Seen what?”

“It’s been comin’ regular most nights now. Thought you might have seen it same as me.”

“I haven’t seen it.” Whatever it was.

“You’re lucky,” he said. “I see it most every night now. An angel of the Lord appears with tears of flame running down its face. The tears fall on the ground and burn little patches of grass wherever the angel goes. And he’s after me. I run and run, but I can’t get away, can’t make no headway. The angel catches me, holds me ’bout three feet off the ground in its arms. Ain’t nothin’ I can do.”

He grabbed a sack of leaves and tossed it into the pool.

“Me and the angel, we start floatin’. Go up so high I could look down and see this place small as little toy town. Way, way high up. The angel says—without speaking, exactly—‘Let go.’ And I say, ‘No, I’ll fall, I’ll fall to the earth and kill myself.’ Angel says, ‘Then I’ll let go.’ And I was pleadin’ with him, just cryin’ and carryin’ on, but he wouldn’t listen. Just loosed his grip—and I fell. I close my eyes and prepare to die. But something catches me. I open my eyes and I’m lookin’ into the face of Jesus Christ . . .”

He heaved in a large cardboard box containing a bunch of smaller cardboard boxes.

“You ain’t seen it?”

“No,” I said.

“Thought you might have.”

“What happened then? In your . . .”

“My vision? My dream? Well, then the dog there, he started barkin’ and I woke up—if I was dreamin’—and there he came with you two draggin’ along after him. Now, your friend was okay, but you . . . You were in some pretty rough shape. Half-dead and all-in. I figured if you didn’t come around by this evening I was just gonna have to toss you in the pool here.”

Something wasn’t making sense, and I guess he could tell from my face.

“Confused, ain’tcha?”

“I guess so, yeah.”

“Well, you’d conked your head pretty bad. I can’t blame you.”

“I guess not.”

“It’s nothin’ to be ashamed of. I was confused once, too, and a lot worse than you. Heaven and hell—I was caught between the two. You know what I’m talkin’ about, bein’ caught between the two?”

The smell of smoke and gasoline and burning trash was getting to me. I sat down on some cinder blocks near the pool edge. My stomach was kicking up and the cut above my eye was itching.

“Son?”

“. . . I don’t know.”

“That’s all right. Someday you will. Every man comes down to it sooner or later. It’s just a matter of the choices a man makes. What road he takes. You can fight it, you can ignore it, you can try to pretend that it ain’t a problem. But it’ll get you in the end . . . It all turns out the same, anyhow.”

He picked up the final bundle of paper and hurled it into the pool with the rest of the trash. Big black ashes rose up into the wind and blew away. He pointed a large gnarled finger at the tumbling ash.

“Just like that,” he said. “Just like that . . . Hey—you okay? You gonna pass out on me?”

“No, I’m okay.”

“Hate to disagree with you, but . . .”

He lifted me to my feet like I was a sack of leaves, light and insubstantial and dried-up—which was pretty much the way I was feeling.

“We’ll get you back to your room. I’ll finish the sermon next Sunday. If you’re still here, that is.”

He helped me away from the pool and onto the gravel path back to the cabin.

“. . . Is this Sunday?” I said.

“Yes, sir. This is the day the Lord hath made. Let us be glad and rejoice.”

“It can’t be. It’s not Sunday, it’s . . . It’s . . . Friday, right? Isn’t it Friday?”

“It was Friday night you got here, but it’s Sunday now. You been out for a while, son. Like I said.”

He led me into the cabin. I sat down on the bed. The dog padded in and stuck its wet nose against my ankle, then went sniffing around the room.

“The guy I was with. You seen him?”

“He borrowed the truck to go into town. Said he was gettin’ some groceries. Should be back soon.” His voice suddenly broke into a loud, hoarse command: “GET AWAY FROM THERE!”

I damn near jumped out of my skin. But it wasn’t me he was talking to, it was the dog, who’d been nosing around a bag full of garbage. The bag fell over as the dog moved away quickly. Brother Tom snapped his fingers and pointed at the door. The dog, head down, slunk out of the cabin.

“Damn dog’s always gettin’ hisself in trouble. Only got but three legs and still it don’t know no better.” He started for the overturned trash bag.

“I’ll get it later,” I said.

“You sure? It’s no trouble.”

“Thanks, though.”

“All right, but trash layin’ around is something that just strikes me as wrong.”

“Did he say when he’d be back?”

“Your friend? No. Just that he would be. —YOU! OUTSIDE!”

The dog turned around and left the room.

“What’s his name?”

“The dog?”

“Yeah.”

“Named him after the Bible.”

“. . . Matthew?”

“Nope.”

“Mark?”

“Nope.”

“Luke?”

“Said I named him after the Bible. His name is King James. Call him King, mostly, if I call him anything at all.”

“I like that.”

“I’m Brother Tom,” the old man said. It’s just me and King around the place, so if you need anything, just come on down to the office.”

“I’ll do that.”

“Where you boys headed? If you don’t mind my askin’.”

“. . . West.”

“California?”

“Maybe.”

“Don’t do that. Nothin’ but freaks out there. You don’t wanna fall under their spell.” He walked toward the door. “Hold onto that garbage,” he said, “I’ll be burning some more soon,” and he was gone.

 

Lying on that lumpy hotel bed, alone and feeling sick, I had too much time to think.

I knew I had to do something, but I didn’t know what.

What in God’s name was I gonna do?

My eyes got hot with tears. Here I was, a grown man, so far from home, so far from the woman he loved, who’d once loved him . . . Crying into a dirty pillowcase in a derelict motel somewhere on the other side of nowhere.

 

I woke up in dim orange light. The sun had moved around to the other side of the cabin and wasn’t shining directly through the tattered orange shades on the windows anymore. I felt a little better.

I went over to the kitchenette for a glass of water, stepping in the overturned trash on the way. Might as well pick it up. I took a sheet of old newspaper and shoveled the coffee grounds and beer cans and crusts of sandwiches—Merc’s leavings—back into the paper bag.

I refolded the newspaper so it’d fit neatly into the paper bag, then stopped because I recognized the face on the front page. It was a face I’d been trying to forget. I hadn’t succeeded, and I wasn’t likely to now.

Wanna suck, mister?

Gotta tattoo, mister?

They’d found Ronald Adams.

 

I spent the rest of the afternoon on the steps of the cabin with King James. I’d throw a stick, he’d fetch it. I’d throw it, he’d fetch it. It was a very simple thing to do and I didn’t have to think at all. Just throw and fetch, throw and fetch . . . We kept at it until it was too dark for him to find the stick.

Brother Tom brought me a bowl of soup and some toast on a tray. I ate the soup, some of the toast, and gave the rest to the dog. It looked like Brother Tom wanted to talk. I wasn’t in the mood. After a bit he picked up the tray with the empty bowl and the plate full of crumbs and said he’d best get going. Time for Vespers.

“Vespers?”

“Oh, yeah, sure. I got cabin twelve all fit up into a sort of chapel, like. I put in a little altar and some candles and some pictures. It’s awful nice. You’re welcome to join me.”

“Thanks, but I think I’ll just sit here and wait.”

“For your friend?”

“I guess. For him and whatever happens next.”

“You boys are in trouble, aren’tcha?” he said after a moment.

“No. Not really.”

“Huh. Well,” he said, and snapped his fingers for King James, who got up and hobbled off the porch. The two of them walked down the path and entered the cabin 12, the Half-Moon Motel chapel.

Merc came back a couple hours after that. He had a bottle of vodka in one hand, already opened, and a 24-pack of beer in the other. I showed him the article in the paper.

We drank and talked about it. We didn’t come to any conclusion other than just to keep on doing what we were doing.

“I mean,” Merc said, “why not? It’s not gonna be worth worryin’ about soon enough. Maybe in a couple of days, maybe later, our faces are gonna be in the paper, too.”

“You think so?”

“Look at like this. Sometime, somewhere we’re gonna turn around and the cops’ll be there waitin’ for us. They always are . . . Sure, they’ll find us. But no one said we had to make it easy for ’em.”

“Why don’t we just give up? Get it over with, you know?”

“Jim—giving up is no fun.”

“And this is?”

“Beats sittin’ at home, doesn’t it? Or do you miss that garage so much you just gotta go back and work in it? Or do you think Jackie’s gonna come back to you if you just wish hard enough?”

“You son of a bitch.”

“The hell with you, too, pal. Hey, if you wanna go, the door’s right there. Just realize there’s nothin’ to go back to.”

“I should leave.”

“You do what you want. But I’m warnin’ you. Step outta that door, and I’ll kill you.”

We stared at each other for a long, hard moment. Then Merc busted out laughing. “Jesus, Jim, when they were passin’ out a sense of humor, you must’ve been standing behind the door.” He cracked open a beer, held it out to me. “Now drink that up and be somebody. We’re rockin’ the house tonight, man. Time to party down.”

 

Merc had a head start on the drinking so he sacked out pretty early. I drank and thought and smoked for a long time after that. I was still up—it must have been around daybreak by then—when I heard a car crunch up the path to the Half-Moon’s office.

I looked out the window and saw some very official looking men get out and make their way to the office. Brother Tom, in a ratty blue bathrobe, came to the door. They showed him their badges, and that’s when I woke Merc up. Despite the ocean of booze he’d had, he was immediately up and out of bed.

“So they found us, huh?” he said.

“What do we do?”

Merc finished tying his shoes and checked the ammo clip of his gun. “Let ’em find us.”

We heard their shoe leather scraping quietly along the gravel path to our cabin. Then it was silent, and then we heard a key turning in the lock of the door. The knob turned, but the door didn’t open. The bolt was flipped. They’d have to kick it down.

We heard the shifting of feet, then the approach, and the door flew off its hinges. By that time I was out the bathroom window, scrambling for the truck.

No sound from the cabin. They were wondering where we were.

I unlocked the truck and jammed the keys in the ignition.

The dim sound of wood slapping against plaster—Merc had kicked the closet door open, surprising the men in the empty room—and then gunshots.

The engine wouldn’t turn over.

More gunshots.

I kept trying. The engine grumbled and sputtered but it wouldn’t turn over.

The gunshots stopped.

The engine shuddered into life.

I swung the truck around and brought it to a stop in front of the cabin in a spray of gravel. Merc stepped out of the door, twirling the gun on his finger cowboy-style. He held out a badge in the other hand.

“F.B.I. We must have killed us a big shot back there.”

He climbed in and we drove past the office. Brother Tom, a third, red eye in the middle of his forehead, lay sprawled on the steps. King James whined and tentatively licked at the dead man’s face. He couldn’t figure out what was wrong with his master. I stopped the truck and got out.

“What the hell you doin’?” Merc said.

“We can’t just leave him like that.”

“Who says we can’t?”

“I do. Help me here.”

I took Brother Tom’s arms, Merc took his legs, and we carried him to cabin 12. Tom’s altar was there, just like he’d said. The cabin was decorated with candles and crosses and pictures of Christ and the Saints. There were some discarded theatre seats lined up for pews. We dragged a table over to the altar and stretched Tom out on it. I lit the altar candles. Merc stepped up to the Bible stand.

When the choir has sung its last anthem,” Merc said, “and night like a vision descends, / and a thief in the night comes calling, / what then?

About two miles down the road from the Half-Moon Motel, Merc stopped the truck. We turned around and drove back. Merc walked around the office, whistling and clapping his hands.

“What the hell?”

“The dog,” he said. “We can’t leave it here. Poor dumb bastard’d starve to death without someone to look after it.”

“You’re right,” I said, and began clapping and whistling, too.

King James came out from under the office porch and with a little persuading got into the flatbed of the truck. The three of us drove off.

 

Merc was right about the guy we killed. He was a big shot, all right. A big shot crook. It was in all the papers how Ronald Adams—“stupid enough to use his real name,” Merc said, “had to be an amateur”—of the McTavish Paper Company had left work one day with the company payroll, a cool $350,000. Adams’ car had been found and the authorities were conducting a search for the person or persons who killed Adams and taken his car when their own car broke down near the scene of the crime. And so on and so forth.

“I gotta give those boneheads credit for puttin’ it together,” Merc said. “Not that we made it too hard for ’em.”

“They think we have the money.”

“We should be so lucky. Goddamnit, I knew I should have gone through his stuff. Makes you sick missin’ an opportunity like that.”

“How were you to know?”

“I just should have. But no—I just take his wallet. Three hundred dollars as compared to . . .” He slammed a fist on the steering wheel. “God! And I burned it. I just burned it. If we had that money now we might have a serious chance of gettin’ out of this. That dough could have bought a lot of time.”

“. . . At least they don’t know who we are.”

“Don’t kid yourself. They know.”

“They haven’t caught us yet.”

“Give ’em time.”

We drove in silence until Merc swung off the highway and into what looked like an abandoned school house. “Piss call,” he said, getting out of the car. I got out to stretch my legs. King James did his business and gimped off after squirrels. I went and sat on a rusted out merry-go-round. Merc came over and perched on a big plastic elephant nearby.

“Know what I would have done with that money?” he said.

“Give it a rest, man.”

“I’m over it, don’t worry. Mostly, anyway . . . No, but say we had it. Know what I’d do?”

“What.”

“Well, first we’d get out of the country—”

“Somehow.”

“We could do it. And then I’d go to an island. Like Tahiti. Maui. Someplace like that. Places with cockatoos where it rains every day.”

“A rain forest.”

“No, it’s got to be an island. Same kind of climate, but I want it to be on an island.”

“Why’s that?”

“I had this . . . vision when I was a kid, you know? I’d get a hold of an island—buy it or find it or whatever—and I’d set up my own paradise. The Paradise Island of Chicks. Nothing but chicks. Beautiful chicks in tiny bikinis. And I’d be the boss, right? I’m the king of the island. Whatever I say goes. Every day I get up and go inspect my chicks.”

“I bet you do.”

“No, it’s not like that. I was a kid. What did I know about that stuff then? This was different. Romantic, you know? . . . I’d go out every morning and inspect my chicks and we’d, like, kiss. Long, long kisses. And maybe their clothing slips a little, but that’s all. I’m just really happy and excited to be with my chicks on my island. They’d bring me food and we’d ride dirt bikes and watch TV and have these long, long kisses. I’d give them all bonuses if I could talk ’em into undressing for me. We’d all undress. Piece by piece. Then we’d run around naked on the beach and then go swimming. And then we’d kiss some more. Kiss for hours and hours and hours . . .”

“That’s what you’d do with the money.”

“Yeah . . . Then, anyway. Today I’d probably blow it all on new car and a Fender Esquire and whatever else. Or maybe I’d buy a house and get married, like you did. Or maybe I’d just give it all to charity. You know, just walk into someplace, put a suitcase full of money on the desk, walk out again. Without saying a word . . . Who knows what I’d do with it. And who cares.”

“I do.”

“Yeah, and I don’t know why. After all that happened.”

“You weren’t the only problem.”

“I know that.”

“You weren’t any goddamn help, either.”

“I know that, too.”

“I took you in, man. When you had nowhere else to go—”

“—and that’s how I repaid you. You don’t have to say it.”

“No.”

“ . . How long did I stay with you guys?”

“Six months, maybe. From the time you got out until that summer. I think that’s what it was.”

“That sounds right.”

“. . . What was like inside?”

“Inside?”

“You never talked about it, you know. Not with me, anyway.”

“Not with her, either.”

“So. What was it like?”

“School,” Merc said after a long pause. “It was a lot like school.”

He got up and started back to the car. I followed him, whistled for King James, let the dog into the backseat and got in myself.

 

Merc just sat at the wheel.

“You all right?”

He turned to look at me. “. . . You spend your whole life trying to get out, right?”

I nodded, though I wasn’t sure what he meant.

“That’s what you do, if you can—you get out. Out as far as you can go. And then when you do, you know what happens next?”

I shook my head.

“All you want to do is get back. So that’s what you do. You try to get back. But you can’t. You’ve gone too far. There’s no going back.”

He reached abruptly for the map and opened it up. He studied it hard for minute after minute after minute, running a finger along the blue and red and black lines. I started to get to itchy.

“Come on, man, let’s get going.”

But he just kept staring at the map. I gave him a tap on the arm.

“Come on, man.”

He didn’t answer, didn’t move, didn’t even blink. He was starting to scare me. I hit him harder.

“Merc!”

“. . . What?”

“Well?”

“Well what?”

“You want to sit here all day, or are we gonna get movin’?”

“I guess we can go.”

“Where to?”

He picked up the map real slow, and dropped it in my lap.

“Pick a spot.”

 

Merc drove without saying a word, lips tight, shoulders hunched, eyes never leaving the road. He wouldn’t talk and didn’t seem to listen. I ran a finger over the map from where we’d started to where we’d just left. Anything after that was just guessing.

Some people come into your life and no matter what you do, no matter what happens, you can’t shake them. Just the idea of them is like a fish hook in you. It’s always been like that for me with Merc. We’d been young together, and that means something.

But the guy behind the wheel wasn’t the guy I knew anymore. Or thought I knew.

I looked at this sudden stranger, who wouldn’t look at me. And I thought, “This guy doesn’t have a clue.”

And then it hit me that I was right.

Merc didn’t know where he was going anymore than I did. Merc didn’t know where we were going. He may have been driving, but it was all one big circle. I’d been riding with him for a week now and I’d really been alone the whole time. He was sitting right next to me but he could have been a thousand miles away for all it mattered.

Then it hit me that the same was probably true for him.

I began to understand why Jackie had left. It must have been the same for her, too.

Jackie . . . I couldn’t tell you how much I missed her. Jesus Christ, it was a hunger, I swear to God, how much I needed her. I wanted to hear her voice. I could picture her hair, her scent, the curve of her body, the feel of her hands and her skin . . .

No. That was over. We were all just moving along, away from each other—me and Merc and Jackie—like ice in an avalanche.

 

We stopped at a coffee shop in Redmond. I had bacon and eggs and toast. Merc sat quiet over his cup, stirring spoon after spoon of sugar into his coffee. I watched the waitress go from table to table, booth to booth, like she was the last woman on earth. She had fat knees, too much make-up and about fifteen extra pounds on her, but there was something so sweet, so friendly about the way she asked if I wanted another cup of coffee that it damn near broke my heart. She was just doing her job I guess. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. I wanted to go home with her—just go home with her, sit in her living room and watch TV with her or something. Something stupid and normal and beautiful. She had a name tag on her blouse and I used her name as often as I could. I pretended to myself that I knew her. I told her my name was Jim.

“Jim what?” she said.

“Jim Beam.”

“You’re famous. Who’s your friend?”

“. . . I’m not sure.”

She picked up my plate and wiped some crumbs into it.

“He okay?”

“No.”

“What’s wrong with him?”

“It’s a long story, Becky.”

She switched our ashtrays.

“Do I know you guys?”

“I don’t think so.”

“You look familiar. You been in before?”

“Maybe once or twice. We’re from over by Grange.”

“Yeah, I knew I seen you guys before. You need anything else right now?”

“Not right now, Becky. Thanks, though.”

She started back for the kitchen. I called after her: “Becky? Could I get some change when you get a chance?”

She took the bills I held out and went to the register. She came back with some quarters and told me where the pay phone was. It was back by the kitchen. You could hear water running and dish noises and food orders being called out. I fed change into the slot and watched Becky talking with the manager, a skinny guy with a little mustache and coke bottle glasses and a shirt buttoned all the way up around his throat. I dialed the number . . . waited. It rang and rang just like last time. But his time I wasn’t going to hang up.

A woman answered. I didn’t recognize the voice.

“. . . Hello?” the woman said. “Who is this?”

Then I placed the voice. “Eileen?”

“Yes, this is Eileen. Who’s this, please?”

“It’s Jim. I wanna talk to Jackie. Is she there?”

“Jim. Oh my God . . .”

“Is Jackie there?”

“Yes, she is. Just—just hold on a second, I’ll get her.”

I listened to ghost voices from other calls drifting through the wires. Then the phone was picked up, and I heard the voice I hear in my dreams.

“. . . Jim?”

“Yeah.”

“What are you . . . Where are you?”

“I’m in a coffee shop somewhere.”

“Where?”

“I don’t think I wanna tell you that, Jackie.”

“Is Merc with you?”

“Yeah . . . What are you doing home?”

“I came to pick up some clothes and stuff.”

“Eileen’s with you?”

“She came along to help me.”

“How ’bout that.”

“. . . Jim, I saw you in the paper.”

“You did?”

“You—and Merc.”

“I didn’t see it. Guess I’ll have to take a look at it.”

“I guess.”

“. . . Jackie?”

“What, Jim?”

“I wanna come home.”

“I don’t . . . I don’t think that’s possible. You and Merc are in real trouble.”

“Will you be there? If I come home?”

“I’ll be at Eileen’s.”

“I’ll come there, then. In a couple of days. Okay?”

“Okay.”

“I can get this all straightened out, Jackie.”

“It’s a real big mess. I don’t know if you can.”

“I’m gonna take care of it.”

“. . . Jim? I gotta hang up now.”

“Okay.”

“Goodbye, Jim.”

“Wait—wait a second. I wanna ask you something.”

“What?”

“If I . . . Would you mind if I brought a dog along with me? I’m bringing a dog back.”

“A what?”

“A dog. Do you mind?”

“Bring back whatever you like. Jim, I . . . I’m hanging up now, Jim.”

And she put the receiver back on the hook.

 

Sweating, shaky, I headed back to the booth. I could see Merc at the table, still stirring sugar. I glanced out the window for a glimpse of old King James in the back of the truck. He was sniffing through the preacher’s junk. Some oily rags, a bag of rock salt, some old newspapers. He was busy and happy and stupid and he didn’t care about the empty police cruiser sitting in the parking lot.

I swung around to scope out the door and, like magic, two officers came through the door, guns up and cocked. Merc dropped his spoon and brought his other hand up from under the table. His gun hand. The cops hit the deck and started shooting, and the room exploded into broken glass, maple syrup, and blood.

 

A coffee shop, blown to pieces.

Look at the splintered wood of chairs and tables.

Look at the bullet hole in the girl in the swimsuit on the calendar.

Look at the bullet hole in the neck of Becky the waitress, body slowly cooling into death.

Look at the shattered picture window and the curtains blowing in the breeze.

Look at the dead cop and the trail of blood across the carpet. Follow it across the parking lot to the police car and the wet red handprint on its door, the body slumped half-in, half-out of the car.

Listen to the radio static and the fuzzy questions coming in through the static.

Now look at the preacher’s truck, from way up high, tearing across the dry, brown countryside. Now come in closer and look at the two men in the cab.

The guy at the wheel is driving with one hand—his other arm is wrapped in a shirt soaked in blood. He watches the road roll under the truck. He looks strangely happy: he knows, once more, where he’s headed. All he needed was the nudge of events to straighten him out. He’s alive again, heightened in his pain, keeping an eagle out for the crossing in the road that will lead him to an old farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. He’s looking for the road that will take him to Malcolm.

The guy beside him is hurt, too, but not as bad. Just cuts from flying glass. He runs his hands over his head and picks out tiny shards from the skin of his scalp. He wipes his bloody fingers on his jeans. He can’t believe the blood is his own, his very own.

The guy at the wheel keeps his foot on the gas pedal. They stick to the back roads. Every foot of concrete covered is a miracle, a victory. One foot closer to Malcolm, and to rest.

Dusk has fallen when they turn onto a one-lane dirt road and follow it to a ramshackle wooden fence with a gate. The car stops. They sit, listening to the night sounds of the country. An owl, somewhere far away . . .

 

“This is it, Jimmy Boy. The end of the line.”

“Where are we?”

“Home.”

“. . . Home?”

“My home. My real home . . . It’s gonna be all right now. Malcolm will help us. He’ll get us out of this.”

He managed to get a cigarette to his mouth. In the lighter flame, his eyes were sunk deep into the sockets above dark-purple rings. It was the only color in his face. He reached over to open the car door and froze with pain. His lips tightened on the cigarette and the coal burned bright in the dark.

“You wanna open this for me?”

“Sure. Sure I will.”

“Then if you’d be so kind, help me out of this goddamn car.”

I helped him out and through the gate and up to the house. There wasn’t a single light on. Merc knocked anyway. Then he turned to me.

“Think you could disappear for a minute, Jimmy boy? This is gonna take a little explaining and Malcolm’s not . . . He’s not well, you know what I mean? I think I ought to handle this myself. No offense, right?”

“Right.”

I walked back to the gate and got King James and we went out into the fields. We walked through furrows until we found a rotten bale of hay to sit on. A single dim light appeared in a room on the second floor of the house.

We sat there until the cold had seeped into both us and we were shivering. I figured we’d given Merc enough time to explain things, so I got up and told King James we were going back.

The door to the house was blown open by the wind. It was pitch black inside. I dug out some matches and we went in.

We moved under cobwebs hanging from the ceiling. The place was completely bare. Not a picture on the wall, not a rug on the floor, not a stick of furniture anywhere. The matches kept burning down to my fingers. The place’d go dark as I dropped the burnt match and cursed, and then flare up again for a second when I got the next match going. We went up the unsteady staircase and arrived at a landing. A faint glow came from a room at the end of the hall.

That’s where Merc was.

The room was empty, just like all the others, except for a hospital bed by the window. Merc was sitting on it, arms wrapped around himself, head down, rocking back and forth. A candle burned in a dish on a small table beside the bed. I watched Merc and his shadow, moving on the wall behind him.

Merc raised his head and I saw his face. For the first time in my life, I saw Merc crying. Tears ran down his face through the grime and dirt and streaks of blood.

“Malcolm’s dead. He’s dead. He’s dead.”

He reached into shadows beside him and raised his gun into the candlelight.

“Goodbye, Jimmy boy.”

“Merc—don’t.”

“Wanna suck, mister?”

“Don’t do it!”

“No? That’s okay. More for me.”

And he lifted the barrel of the gun to his mouth. I threw myself at the bed. The table fell over and the candle went out. We wrestled for the gun. I could smell the new blood starting to flow from his arm. There wasn’t much fight left in him, but he held onto that gun like a son of a bitch. I pulled at his hands, at his arms, fighting for control—and the gun went off. And suddenly Merc wasn’t fighting anymore.

I scrambled for the candle. I found it and tried to light it. My hands were shaking so bad I went through three or four matches before I could sit back on the floor and catch my breath and check things out.

Merc was half-covered in the tangled sheets. He was very, very dead.

I went to the window and opened it, leaned out and sucked in big, huge gulps of fresh night air. When I could breathe again I looked out over the yard, down to the gate and the preacher’s truck and—beyond that—the string of lights coming down the road. Police cars. A lot of police cars. Like they were coming after psychopaths or lunatics, anything but some poor bastard and a three-legged dog and a dead friend.

I stretched Merc out, closed his eyes and pulled a sheet over him. I coaxed King James out from under the bed, told him I was real sorry, and put a bullet through his brain. I thought it was better that way.

I blew out the candle and sat at the foot of the bed and waited for the cops. I wasn’t sure if I’d give up without a fight or go out shooting. I’d cross that bridge when I came to it.

When the choir has sung its last anthem
And night like a vision descends
And a thief in the night comes calling
What then?

Exactly.


Joseph Goodrich is an author and dramatist whose plays have been produced across the United States and in Canada. His adaptation of Ellery Queen’s Calamity Town was named Best New Script at the 2016 Calgary Theatre Critics Awards, and Park Square Theater in Saint Paul, MN has commissioned two adaptations of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe novels. Panic won the 2008 Edgar Award for Best Play. He is the editor of Blood Relations: The Selected Letters of Ellery Queen, 1947-1950 (Perfect Crime Books, 2012), which was nominated for Anthony and Agatha Awards. His fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Noir Riot, Dark Corners, Bullet, Vacant Funhouse, and two MWA anthologies. He is a frequent contributor to Mystery Scene. He is an alumnus of New Dramatists, an active member of Mystery Writers of America, and a former Calderwood Fellow at the MacDowell Colony.


Image courtesy of Pixabay, altered by Cartoonize.

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