Monthly Archives: April 2012

To Know a Veil (or: To Noah Vale), Part Two

4

Sitting on a park bench with one manila folder tucked under my arm, I bet I had worse cottonmouth than even Patrick Lysey, what with the layer of Tums chalk coating my tongue and cheeks. Still, the area right under my belt felt no better, and I’d gotten nowhere with me and the detective’s little kibbitz. The only thing I’d taken with me out of that office was a smell on my clothes I’d have a hard time explaining to Idora and – I hate to say a “gut feeling,” under my particular circumstances, but a certain nagging unease.

I opened the folder and spread its few pages across my lap, looking at Anna Lockrem’s half-covered face and her levitating wedding gown train in the picture. The longer I stared, the warmer my cheeks got. When Mr. Lysey’s kvetching about Noah’s bounced check began to echo in my head, my ears started burning, too.

It should have been no surprise to learn that Noah had no money, or at least nothing close to the ten thousand dollars I was promised. In fact, it wasn’t. What shocked and unsettled me, frankly, was that I’d found myself disappointed in the confirmation of this. Having my selfishness, my disregard for blood relation (because even Noah, moron that he was, was still mishpocheh) brought to my attention like that killed me. I was ashamed of myself, and I thought, as her one exposed eye peeked back up at me out of the photo, Anna Lockrem would be, too.

I didn’t know her, but I could tell she was a good girl. Even if she spent all her time with those disgusting apes – the chimpanzee movie stars and my nephew.

5

Guilt is a powerful thing. I hear a lot about Catholic guilt, but my mother – who was about as Yiddish as they come – sure could lay it on thick, too. So it wasn’t necessary to ask myself why I was doing this even if there was no actual reward, or if the girl most likely didn’t want to be found. Plain and simple, I felt bad over the things I’d said about Noah, which were more or less mean, and the things I’d thought about him, which were outright evil. If I could pull this off, or at least appear to make a grand effort to do so, then I’d never again have to feel bad about mocking the boy behind his back at family functions. You couldn’t buy ethical leeway like that.

A few minutes poring over Lysey’s skimpy notes told me where I ought to head next: 8246 Oak Court, or in other words, Ms. Lockrem’s apartment complex.

My arrival brought with it a sinking frustration, as I approached the door and saw that damn “We’re Out Leasing Another Great Apartment – Sorry You Missed Us!” sign, complete with a smug smiley face grinning back at me. Who, I ask, has the time to view an apartment at ten o’clock in the morning? Don’t these shmendriks have jobs? No, more likely, the staffer on duty was out for a cigarette break or a coffee run, indifferent to the concept that a tenant might need to pick up a package that hadn’t fit in their mail slot or drop off their rent.

I waited in my car until a youngster with a crew cut and a sweater vest showed up with a hefty set of keys and slid inside, flipping the closed sign over, and went in after him. It made me cringe slightly to think that it was now en vogue for twenty-somethings to dress just like me, while I’d worked so hard to stockpile my closet with clothing that was scrutinized and vetted to ensure it was the very antithesis of “chic.”

“Well, hi there!” the kid said as he signed in on a clipboard hanging from a nail in the wall. “What can I do you for, sir?”

“What can I do you for?” That shit wasn’t funny when I was his age. I imagined the poor schmuck didn’t have many friends.

While sitting in my car, I’d come up with a story so airtight and convincing that I’d even impressed myself. I smiled now as it flowed from my chapped lips, thinking it rivaled even the most elaborate stings of my process-serving salad days.

“Son,” I said, forcing a handshake out of him, “I’m wondering if you could help an old-timer out here. My client didn’t show up for her court hearing today, and I’d like to check up on her to see if she’s all right.”

“Well, you’re welcome to knock on her door,” the kid said.

I shook my head. “Tried that,” I said. “No answer. I was hoping you could let me into her apartment. It’s not like her to just not show up to these things.”

He frowned, rubbing his argyle-covered chest with a palm. “Who’s your client?” he asked.

“Anna Lockrem,” I said. “You know her?”

“Yeah,” he said, and I recognized a lustful glint in his pervy adolescent eyes. “Yeah, I know Anna.” The kid had a crush; that much was clear. Whether it made my job easier or harder was the thing now.

The next few seconds of silence got us nowhere, so I said, “Well?”

He chewed the inside of his lips. “You’re a lawyer?”

My answer was to yank the notary seal from my jacket pocket and brandish it with meaning, which of course was ridiculous.

“Um,” he said, looking around as if somebody might be listening, “well, I guess it’s okay if you’re making sure she’s all right.”

Kids! I hate that I love ’em. Anyone under thirty has a pedigree of Grade-A Moron: show them something with an embossed logo and they’ll drop to their knees in total reverence. Doubt goes out the window – you’ve flashed them something “official.” I was like God to the boy, and after no more than a minute of haggling, I had a key to Anna’s apartment and he had my promise to bring it right back. I told him he was a mensch and shook his hand again, careful to wait to wipe his sweat off my palm until I was out of his line of vision.

Maybe Noah was right. None of these helpless, computer-addicted rookies would have thought of a move like that. If they’d Asked Jeeves and he’d pled the Fifth, they’d’ve gone home with their tail between their legs and written off the case.

Lysey couldn’t have gotten a look around this sty. If he had, the manila folder I carried around would have been about an inch thick with material. Fruit flies and gnats, a plague of them, swarmed the kitchen, their ranks thinning throughout the further reaches of the place but present throughout. The evident cause of this infestation were the dozens of rotting, black banana bundles topping the counters and shelf space of the kitchen. Magnet-bound to the fridge were countless “Past Due” notices, parking tickets, and – irony of ironies – a court order. Like she was proud of them. Perhaps my sweet little Anna wasn’t such a good girl, after all.

Adding to the abandoned feel of the place was the absence of what I call the College Kid Trifecta – television, computer, and toaster oven. The girl had a clear aversion to electronics, a detail that nudged her back a bit into my favor. Where the TV would have been, there hung a large framed photograph of Anna, her back turned to the camera, her blonde hair golden in the light of day. Facing her, and me, was an adult chimp in a diaper. The pair of them held onto each other’s hands, the barrel-chested simian in utter awe of her. His lips pursed, his eyes wide, he stared up at the girl in the photo.

It took a certain level of weirdo to blow up a picture like this and frame it.

Waving the bugs away, I rounded back into the kitchen and opened the fridge. More rotten bananas. Other than that, all I saw was a half-drunk bottle of V-8 and an unopened box of “Pad Thai,” whatever the hell that is. I shut the fridge and inspected the official notices littering the door. The court order was a summons for a hearing over a month ago, one I doubted Anna ever made it to. “Greentech Business Plaza Board of Directors vs. Anna Lockrem,” it said at the top. I pressed my bifocals up closer to the page, unable to help myself from checking out the notary seal. Henry Clarkson, a (thankfully) former co-worker of mine, had made the document official with his cheap, self-inking rubber stamp. What a yutz.

Unable to bear the swarm of insects circling my head any longer, I yanked everything off the fridge door, coupons and all, and stuffed it all into the manila.

In her bedroom was a desk with three narrow drawers. I looked inside each for a little black book or some sort of correspondence, but to no avail. Among the endless supply of pens and scrapbooking tools was only one item of potential interest: a Post-It note with a hand-scribbled, bulleted list running down its square length. It read:

Denver,

            Yuma,

            Toronto,

            Boston

The first three were marked out with a thin red line; “Boston” was circled in red. I stuck the note in with the rest of my findings and considered browsing her closest and clothing drawers for more. At the last second I got too nervous I’d find a thong or otherwise some feminine hygiene product and left the room, blushing.

A quick rummage through her medicine cabinet yielded only a hairbrush and a small pair of scissors. She’d not even left any makeup or toiletries of any kind.

I stepped out of the apartment with a pretty clear picture of a girl who’d wanted to get the hell out of Dodge, and that wasn’t all. There was enough material in my folder to run off of for a while, I thought. I’d found a lot of nudniks on much less.

When I returned the apartment key to Mr. Prim ‘N Proper at the front office, he asked me, “So was she home?”

“No,” I said. “She’s gone.”

“What’d she do?” he said, accepting the key from my open hand. “I mean, that she needs a lawyer? Is she in trouble?”

I breathed in deep and said, “God, kid. I sure hope not.”

6

A mezzanine full of insincere piss-ants waved and shouted at me, smacked my back and shook my hand, the moment I set foot in the county courthouse. I hadn’t seen a single one of these mooks since the day they’d presented me with a retirement cake that had my name spelled wrong on it. “Prentice Holm,” whoever that was, must have liked Angel Food. I’d rather eat an actual kitchen sponge, but I’m sure Prentice would have appreciated it.

In all, this dishonest and over-the-top welcome delayed me a full ten minutes on my mission to speak with Judge Gaddis. Gaddis was never my favorite of the judges my job had forced me to rub elbows with; in fact, I never could muster up even a sliver of respect for the cow-eyed old shit stain, but he was also a pushover, and he had to remember that he still owed me a favor for a sandwich I once picked up for him at the deli. “I’ll get the next one,” my foot.

I caught him on his way to file storage, and like the rest of them he switched on the nicey-nice autopilot.

“Mr. Holm!” he said, and grabbed my bony mitt with his callused, soggy one. “Did you miss us?”

“Actually,” I said, “I’m here on business of a sort.” I walked with him, limping off a bum hip and a popping ankle. “I’m doing a…” I bought myself a second or two by clearing my throat. What was I doing here again?

“I’m doing a consultation,” I said, “for a friend. She’s run into some legal trouble and I said I’d give her some advice.”

“Ha!” Gaddis, never one to remove his robe, sashayed like a drag queen into the corridor that led to the file room. “You remember you’re not a lawyer, right?”

I’d lagged a couple steps behind. “Never said I was.”

Implied it enough in your day,” said Gaddis, swiping his key card in front of the little black box next to the storage room door. A green light lit up and the device beeped, allowing him to pull the door open and enter. “Well,” he said, “c’mon.” I entered with him, finding myself – serendipitously – right where I wanted to be.

“Yep,” he said in that god-awful Southern drawl of his, “I remember looking at you and thinking, ‘Now there’s a fella’ who failed the Bar a time or two.'” Laughing, he leaned against a file cabinet and dabbed his forehead with the sleeve of his robe. “So, Prentiss,” he said, “my dear, old friend. How can I be of help?”

Here I came to a crossroads. I could either punch this pug-face goy square in the jaw, or I could salvage this fact-finding mission and leave with some integrity intact. I went with the latter, pulling the Lockrem file out of my jacket lining. The court order that had adorned Anna’s fridge now dangled from two of my fingers, flapping in the A/C breeze before Gaddis’s eyes.

“This ring any bells?” I said.

“I believe,” he said, his eyes narrowing to resemble an opossum’s, “that I was to be presiding on that one.”

“Small world,” I said. I’d already figured that much. Gaddis usually handled petty cases: coffee-scalded crotches and monies owed in amounts less than a thousand bucks. Logic told me my niece-to-be wasn’t involved in any big-time murder or racketeering case, or else Noah would have had no choice but to involve the police in the search for her.

He took the document from my hands and studied it, creating vomitous smacking sounds with his lips and tongue as he read over it. “Yep, yep, yep,” he said. “The no-show. You know this Lockrem girl?”

“Family connection,” I said.

“Well,” he said, and pressed the page into my chest until I grabbed it, “your family certainly keeps mixed company. This girl, this hipster, New Age chick, she takes care of these monkeys, right? Keeps them all cooped up in this business suite downtown. Says she training them to be actors, if you can believe that.”

“You don’t say.”

“So the other business owners in the building file this formal complaint on her. The noise these chimps make is bad, but evidently it’s the smell they can’t stand. Finally the building’s board of directors have a petition signed by almost everyone renting space there. There’s nothing in her lease about not being allowed to keep chimps – why should there be? Long story short, they cite her on sound ordinances and drub up the paperwork to sue her and her dingleberry boyfriend’s ass out of there.”

“Only she never shows up for the hearing.” I tried to say it like everything he’d just told me was old news.

“Right-o,” Gaddis said.  He tried to be sly about picking a wedgie out from under his black judge’s gown, but I knew what he was up to. “Now, okay, you’re consulting this girl,” he said. “What is it you want from me, exactly?”

To be frank, he had just given me everything I needed from him.

Only, that wasn’t quite true.

I put the paper back into the cream-colored binding of the folder and looked into his eye. “I want a sandwich,” I said. “Or don’t you remember you owe me one?”

He remembered.

7

After lunch (courtesy of the honorable Judge Gaddis) I found the nearest gas station and bought a bottled water to wash down the fruity calcium tablets stuck in my teeth. I also purchased every local newspaper I could find there. I grabbed a Herald, a Daily Shopper, one of those catalogs listing sex offenders and missing persons – hell, I even bought the Conservative birdcage liner.

What I was looking for were any mentions of Anna Lockrem’s disappearance. Scouring those rags, my highly-trained vision honing in on key words (“missing,” “disappearance,” “vanished,” “runaway,” etc.), I came up dry. So far Noah had been successful in keeping this embarrassing snafu out of the public eye. I wondered how much longer he’d be willing to wait before he phoned in someone who knew what the hell he was doing.

I had these papers spread out on a four-seater table in the station’s lounge area, where two other men my age sat sipping coffee and scratching off lotto tickets. I wondered about those guys: did they have wives at home, and if so, what was so wrong with spending the day with them instead of here? Of course, that begged the same question of myself. I could have slept in that day. I could have done whatever I wanted, yet here I was.

“Mr. Holm!” A man’s throaty voice called out to me. I tilted my head up, just enough to see where such an enthusiastic greeting could’ve come from.

Patrick G. Lysey, Licensed Private Investigator, was just coming off the checkout line with a packet of tobacco papers. I wadded my assortment of newspapers together as he approached the table, grinning. His jacket was unzipped and fluttering like a superhero cape. He had a plastic bag in hand from the grocery next-door.

“Hard at work, I see,” he said.

I laid my arms over the papers. What I read was none of his business. “You, too,” I said.

“Well, just a quick break,” he said. “I’m actually in the middle of something big.” His eyebrows drifted up like renegade balloons. He stood there, waiting.

To make it stop, I said, “What might that be, Mr. Lysey?”

“Oh,” he said, and he pulled open his grocery bag to let the cigarette papers fall in. “That. Well, I can’t really talk about that. It’s sensitive.”

I waved him off. “Whatever suits you.”

“But since you ask,” he said, and to my utter chagrin he took a seat opposite me, “I’m on retainer for this big case. Cops’re workin’ it, but the family’s loaded and they want people comin’ in on this from all angles. You hear about this Fiona Jacobs girl?”

I tapped one of the newspapers under my sleeve with meaning. There, on the front page, was a picture of the girl he’d mentioned. The Fiona Jacobs situation was common knowledge to anyone with eyes, ears, or both. It was a high profile case; the Jacobses, a family or philanthropist yacht enthusiasts, had lost their college student daughter. It was a tragic thing, to be sure, and no one could blame the family for trying anything and everything to get her back. But what Lysey was insinuating was ridiculous.

“The Jacobses hired you to find their missing daughter?” I said.

“Detective Lysey’s on the case,” he said, tossing his bag onto the table. “But don’t tell anyone. All right?” Averting my eyes from his stupid smile, I glanced at the plastic grocery bag he’d carried in. Through a gap in the opening I could see several packages of denture cream.

I thought of the adult diapers under the secretary’s desk in his office, and without thinking, I blurted out: “You taking care of a parent, or something?”

His eyes melted into a squint. “No-o-o,” he said. He snatched the bag and tied a knot with the handles. “Why?” A frock of stringy hair fell over his eyes, though he did nothing about it. I wished he would.

“Hey, listen,” he said, going taut and energized. “I’ve been thinking about your thing. Anna Lockrem. And I did have one idea for you, if you wanted it.”

I rubbed my mouth and chin. “Go on,” I said.

“Kendra Harris,” he said.

“Kendra Harris.”

“Friend of Lockrem’s,” said Lysey. He planted his feet on firm tile and spun ninety degrees in his chair so I faced his profile. “Or ex-friend, to be precise. Never got around to questioning her, myself. But she’s an odd character, if you’re into gross understatements. Talk to her. Might know something.” He stood up and nodded down at me. “Might even be involved. Just a thought.”

The grocery bag jumped off the table with a jerk of his clasped hand. He left without another word, presumably to resume his search for the missing media darling Fiona Jacobs. I thought he was just as apt to go back to the office and work on his awful movie script.

Although the thought of accepting even one piece of advice from Lysey was painful, I had to face the fact that aside from his Kendra Harris, I had nothing to keep things moving. The insult piled onto this particular injury, though, was even worse than getting a hand from that idiot.

I only knew one person who might be able to give me the scoop on this friend of Anna’s.

I had to talk to Noah again.

8

 

            He wasn’t in the office – “Out To Lunch,” as the sign dangling from his doorknob put it – but the pristine, white room next door was occupied by a middle-aged woman in khaki shorts and a ponytail. One of the chimps was in there with her. I tapped on the glass door with a knuckle, and she waved me in, smiling.

“You must be Prentiss,” she said, pressing a small metal clicker she held to the side. In response, the young chimp took a seat on a stool and folded its hands in its lap. “I’m Gracie.”

I gave her a nod and ignored her extended hand, which was likely rife with monkey germs.

“Noah’s out,” she said, “but you’re welcome to hang around ’till he gets back. Do you want to sit in on a coaching session? I’m just working with Rambo here, getting some of our cues down.” She tossed Rambo what looked like a piece of kibble and said, “Isn’t that right, Ram’?”

“So these monkeys really get acting roles,” I said. I watched little Rambo crunch on his treat and tried to hide my shock. Unfair it may have been, but I had assumed this so-called “business” of Noah’s was as much a joke as anything else he’d ever set out to do. That is to say, I never anticipated that anybody was really calling in with job offers for these animals.

“Well,” Gracie said, tucking her hands into her pockets, “the phones aren’t exactly ringing off the hook, but stuff trickles in. We’re an upstart, so we’re just getting our name out there. It’s not easy. And it’s not going to be any easier without Hanky.”

“Hanky?”

She sighed. “Our little star,” she said. Rambo, on his stool, gave a small grunt. Gracie said, “You’ve probably seen him in that beer commercial?”

My face went blank. “I’m not much for television.”

“Well,” she said, “Hanky was a dream. He just got it. Not like the others. I mean, look.”

She turned to Rambo and pointed at him, her hand held in the shape of a pantomime pistol. “Bang!” she yelped.

Rambo grinned at her, exposing a terrifying row of jagged teeth, and stuck his tongue out.

“He’s supposed to fall over,” she said. “That’s the part. ‘Bang’ means he’s dead.”

“I’d gathered that much,” I said. “What happened to Hanky? Did he go ‘Hollywood’?” I held in the chuckle my own joke conjured.

“He went wherever Anna Lockrem went, I expect,” she said, swatting away Rambo’s hand. He held it out for another treat, one which he had not earned. “That’s how it’s been, anyway. Wherever Anna goes, her buddy Hanky follows. She loves that chimpanzee.”

“You know, some folks might find that weird.”

Gracie clicked the metal tab in her fingers again. Rambo once more settled down. “Your nephew sure did,” she said, and there was no doubt I heard disdain in her voice. “I don’t know if he even really likes animals, to tell you the truth.”

“Well, he opened a monkey house,” I said, waving around the room as proof.

“For Anna,” she said. “Now that she’s gone, and our only real talent with her, how long you think this’ll last? How long you think I’ll have a job?”

With her particular skillset, I was amazed she’d found one at all, anywhere, but I didn’t say so. What I did say was, “So this whole thing wasn’t Noah’s idea.”

“No way,” said Gracie. Rambo got a bit fidgety in his seat around then, so once more she pressed the clicker. He straightened up right away. It brought to mind the sudden obedience of a pooch at the blow of a dog whistle, or of myself at the sight of Idora’s stink-eye.

“You know them,” I said, spreading my hands. “What is it you think they even see in one another?”

She fed another brown pebble to Rambo and said, “There’s a reason I went into chimpanzee behavior and not human psychology. God knows what the attraction is there. Honestly, Mr. Holm, I wasn’t surprised the wedding was a flop.”

I looked away from Rambo, back to her.

“What surprised me,” she said, “was that it wasn’t Noah who hit the door running.”

My tongue snaked around my palette. “You really think he was that miserable?” I said.

“Why don’t you ask him?” she said, her eyes narrowing into slits of dislike. I followed her gaze, craned my neck. Through the glass door we watched Noah enter the office suite, slurping from an enormous McDonald’s cup.

Catching my eye, he beamed and twiddled his fingers.

“Hello, Noah,” I muttered.

9

Five minutes later I found myself standing on the fenced-in veranda behind the Greentech Business Plaza, where Noah let his chimps out to play and answer nature’s call. The creatures looked somewhat less absurd here, in the outdoors, but still I felt bad for them, confined to the care of a man Judge Gaddis had accurately referred to as a “dingleberry.” They swung from low-hanging trees, chasing each other and hooting, while Noah and I leaned against a birdbath and watched.

“I’ll just ask,” he said, swirling a finger in the pooled filthy water of the concrete cistern. “Have you made any progress?”

“A bit,” I said. The folder hung heavy, tucked into my belt. I wore my pants high, so the top of the paper stack dug into the crevasse created by my droopy man breasts. “I have a lot of questions, Noah. You left out a few important details when you hired me on. I’m not happy.”

“What kind of details?” He gave a start as one of the apes leapt an impressive sprawl overhead between two trees.

“To wit,” I said, “your fiancée was being sued by the owners of this building. She emptied out her apartment. Skipped out on a laundry list of public debts. And I think she was keeping one of your monkeys in her apartment, which can’t be legal.”

“What makes you say that?”

“More bananas in that kitchen than the green grocer’s,” I said. I pushed myself off the statue, relieving the pressure it held against my queasy stomach. “And Gracie back there all but spelled it out.”

“Yeah, well,” Noah said, and gave a sigh. “Look, I might’ve neglected to tell you a few things, but if I had divulged everything right out the gate, would you have agreed to help me?”
I told him I wouldn’t have.

“So you know about Hanky,” he said, watching his hairy acting troupe jab at each other with loose sticks. “You’ve probably seen him in that beer commercial.”

I brought my eyebrows together and grunted. “I saw the picture of him hanging in her apartment,” I said.

“Hanky was our first success story,” he said. “He’s her favorite. They’re inseparable. He came home with us at night, slept in our bed, got in the shower with her. It was creepy.” His hand karate-chopped the water in the birdbath, spraying both of us with a water-and-algae cocktail. “Uncle Prentiss, it was downright disgusting. The little bastard wasn’t even potty-trained. Unless Hanky had on a diaper, you were guaranteed a face full of tossed monkey dung.”

Oh, yes. My nephew, the entrepreneur. Every endeavor a wise investment.

“But she loved him. Loved him. Like a son.” Now he looked at me, those empty eyes of his filling up for once, only with sadness.

“And he’s missing now, too,” I said.

He nodded.

“Think they eloped?”

“It’s not funny!” Noah kicked a nearby rock past my shins.

I allowed him ten seconds to throw his tantrum, which I ended by asking, “What’s in Boston?”

“Huh?”

I fished the sticky note from Anna’s desk out of my waistline and showed him. “Does this mean anything to you? Potential honeymoon sites? Banana farm locations you were gonna order from? Could she have run off to Boston?”

“No,” he said. “I mean, I know she’s still here somewhere.”

“How?”

“She’s been leaving me notes,” he said. “Look.”

Now it was his turn to pull a slip of paper from the recesses of his pant legs. From his pocket he withdrew a square of pulpy folded stationery, upon which had been written – in the same feminine script as on my list of locales – “To Noah Vale.”

He handed it over, and I unfolded it, revealing a tattered upper edge, where a strip along the top had been torn off.

“What was here?” I said, tapping at the fray.

Noah’s shoulder jerked. “‘Dunno,” he said. “They’re all like that, ripped at the top.”

I grumbled and read:

Dear Noah,

                        I’m so sorry. Things aren’t making sense, babe. I never dreamed this would play out like it has. But here we are. If you never saw me again, would you remember the good times, or be stuck stewing over these past few days? Knowing you, probably the latter. And that, my love, is the problem.

                        Don’t come looking for me. When I’m ready, if that day ever comes, I’ll find you, if only to come clean. I have a lot to answer for. But whether or not I do is up to no one but me.

            Love,

            A.

Gevalt!” I smacked the boy on the back of the head. “You kept this from me? Do you even want me to find her?”

“I’m sorry. It just felt so personal.”

I crumpled the note back up along its preordained creases and held it out to him. “Most girls woulda’ just sent an e-mail,” I said.

“Anna’s not like most girls,” he said, tucking the letter back into his khakis.

“Sleeps with a monkey. You don’t gotta tell me,” I said. “What is it with you kids? Why’s everyone gotta be something special? Why’s everyone in your generation so hell-bent on standing out? I mean, a chimpanzee talent agency? What’s wrong with a real job?”

“It was her dream,” he said. One of the smaller chimps hopped from a nearby perch onto his shoulder. This time he gave no sign of surprise and just let the filthy beast sit there, bare-bottomed, legs swung around his neck. If I had to ascribe a word to the sight of him, I’d’ve gone with “defeated.”

“Anna’s an actress herself,” he said, “and I’m not just saying so when I tell you she’s good. She’s an environmentalist and a vegan. Used to be a member of the United Fauna Front. Y’know, those wackos who throw blood on ladies in fur coats and chuck rocks at steakhouse diners? Make PETA look Zen?”

I nodded. No, I’d never heard of the UFF, and I didn’t care to hear more. I got the picture.

Noah smirked, although there was no mirth to it. “So,” he said, “she married those two passions, and…” he stopped. The word “married” had gotten caught in his throat.

“And now her dream is your problem,” I said.

He lowered his head. “I hate these goddamn monkeys,” he said.

He lifted the one that rode him like the braying ass he was and set it down. It loped, on knees and fists, in my direction, surveying me like a piece of meat. I saw my own footprints form in the dirt before I realized I was backing away. Noah shooed it off, and it swung around and made a beeline to join the others frolicking in the trees.

Once certain I wasn’t about to be mauled to death by the ensemble cast of Planet of the Apes, I pointed a gnarled finger in my nephew’s pudgy face. “No more secrets,” I said. “Anything else crucial to my finding her, you tell me right now.”

Shoulders angled, he shifted around a little before saying, “There is one more thing. When word came down that we were being sued out of our office space here, Anna kind of lost it. She sorta started a fight with one of our more outspoken critics here, the guy that runs the realty on level three. Some things were said. Rough things, by both of them. We were considering getting a restraining order. So was he, actually. He swore Hanky almost attacked him, threatened to have him put down.”

“And that’s it?” I said, making a mental note to jot all this down soon, when it was still fresh in my mind.

“That’s it,” said Noah.

That was when the first tomato struck my face. It wasn’t until I tasted the pulpy juice dribbling down my lip that I realized I’d been pelted with fruit, like a Vaudeville actor the audience had turned against. Noah yelped just before taking an egg to the chin, and we both turned to face the source of the onslaught.

On the other side of the fence, on the curb adjacent to Polk Street, stood a mob – ten or twelve strong – of cardboard sign-waving, bullhorn-brandishing protesters in t-shirts that said United Fauna Front.

“Death to the oppressors of our simian ancestors!” one of them shouted.

Another piped in. “Go to hell, Noah Vale! Fascist!”

“Oh,” said Noah, yellow yolk dangling like a snot rocket from the tip of his nose. “There is one more thing.”

10

More expired fruits and eggs were launched over the wire fence, and the majority of them made impact with one of us. Noah was already at a trotting gait, headed for the back entrance to the brownstone, but having never been the object of public scrutiny and violence, I was frozen in shock. It wasn’t until the first rock was thrown, whizzing just past my ear, that I snapped out of it and followed him.

Electronically amplified voices continued their ranting. “Free these creatures!” one guy shouted. “These animals are not your slaves!” a girl screeched. Under the duress of her awful shriek, her bullhorn emitted wailing feedback.

Now the chimps were getting nervous, retreating to the highest branches of the trees, some of them huddled together like a family during a storm.

“These UFF freaks have been out for our blood for weeks!” Noah shouted back to me, his head tucked under one arm as we approached the entrance. “Taping threats to our door, mailing dead birds to us, even busted my car window last Wednesday!”

I wheezed, every loping step over those sticks and dirt clods a struggle. “I thought you said Anna was in the UFF,” I said.

Ten paces ahead of me, Noah reached the door and grabbed the handle. “She was until we started the Vale Acting Ape-gency. They gave her the boot the day we cut the ribbon on the place. Said she was worse than a slave-owner.”

Once again, I wanted to strangle the boy, both for leaving this weighty information out from the beginning, and for naming his company an “Ape-gency.”

“Shit!” he said, yanking on the door handle with such force it almost tore clean off. “Who locked this?” Another egg went crack against the back of his neck, and he yowled.

On tip-toes, he peered into the sliver of a window set into the door. Pounding, he shouted, “Hey! Hey, Feasel! Let us in!”

From my vantage point, I saw a pair of gray eyes appear in the rectangular glass panel, staring out at us with disinterest.

“C’mon, Feasel! Let us in! We’re under attack out here!” Noah smacked on the door with an open hand.

The disembodied eyes swept away from the limited view of the window, but the door did not open.

“Damn it,” Noah said. “Fucking Feasel.”

He crouched and took off, taking wide steps while hunched over, running like a chimpanzee himself. A sudden burst of fresh pain exploded in my gut, tingling all the way down to the tip of my privates. My vision blurred. The sound of shouting protestors and squalling chimps faded. Moaning, I grabbed my stomach and trailed Noah, upright and much slower, taking another egg to the shoulder and missing a hefty rock to the skull by less than an inch.

Noah led us to a drainage ditch at the furthest end of the veranda, lousy with sludge and murky water seeping from a wide concrete sewage pipe. Squatting near the edge of it, he waved me over. “Uncle Prentiss, over here,” he said. “C’mon!”

I reached him and stooped as low as my hip and my pulsating kidney would allow. Through clenched teeth I asked, “Who was that asshole at the door?”

“Tony Feasel,” Noah said. “The realtor who got into it with Anna.”

“Not a fan of you, either, I take it.”

“Nah,” he said, and pointed in the direction of the edible artillery. “That there’s my fan club. Now wait here while I take care of this.”

While he shielded his eyes and marched, impressing me with his first-ever apparent display of bravery, I slunk back closer to the bank of the ditch. I watched Noah and massaged my abdomen. Judge Gaddis’s sandwich was clawing its way back up.

“Hey, Kendra!” Noah shouted.

Kendra. Kendra Harris. She’d completely slipped my mind.

Noah shouted her name once more, then only the chirping of birds could be heard for a long pause, during which the barrage of produce and rocks ceased.

Finally, I heard a woman’s voice respond. “Yeah?”

Noah’s back faced me, and before him, beyond the netted wiring of the fence, stood the mini-throng of lunatics who found this to be a productive way to spend their day. The young lady who had answered Noah was front and center of this small army, an egg carton tucked under one arm and a bullhorn in the other, dangling at her hip. She was hideous, even from afar. Her ugliness wasn’t so much in her bone structure or her hairdo (neither of which were in great condition, mind you), but it came across in her defensive stance, her hateful expression.

Noah took a step closer. “Where’s my fiancée?” he said.

Another long break in the dialogue before Kendra said, “How the hell should I know?”

My nephew was not one for mulling over his answers. His immediate retort was, “She asked you to be her bridesmaid, and you sent us death threats in the mail! I want you all gone. You’ve done enough, okay?”

A man’s static-laden voice called out: “Not until you’ve set these innocent creatures free!”

Now Noah reached into his windbreaker, his hand empty as it tucked inside the shiny fabric, only to emerge brandishing a handgun. My hand went to my forehead and I stopped breathing; even my stomach pains gave a brief reprieve as all my attention turned to the drama unfolding before me.

“One!” Noah shouted.

“You can’t silence us!” said Kendra.

“Two!”

“We speak for those who can’t speak for themselves!”

“Three!”

Noah’s arm shot straight up and he fired into the sky. The outcry was unanimous. I gasped, the protestors screamed, the chimps squawked in fright. My sister’s son had come unhinged, and with one bullet created a scene of utter chaos. The group on the other side of the fence did not recoil or withdraw; instead, they escalated the situation from surprising to scary by throwing themselves against the wired partition and rattling it, some of them even attempting to climb it.

“Back off!” Noah shouted. “I’m not kidding!”

His arm lowered and leveled the gun in their general direction. All I could think of was Idora, how she would feel if I was killed in a riot or – worse – wrapped up in all this meshegas and brought in by the police as an accessory to the whole thing. How could I explain that?

My stomach roared, erupted in fiery disagreement. I fell to the sludgy ground and crawled, babbling and terrified, down into the ditch. Filthy water soaked into my pants as I splashed and shuffled on hands and knees, out of sight and into the gaping drainage pipe to hide.

The cacophony of squabbling and rage outside bounced around, muffled, within the cylindrical concrete enclosing me. Unable to hold back any longer, I retched, tears and snot gushing from every other orifice. The stream was endless, or seemed so, but finally I ended up with nothing by dry heaves and so edged back, away from the mess I’d made.

My heel made contact with something behind me, something soft and with some give that shifted on impact. I whirled around, and through the diminishing daylight that flowed in from my entry point into the cement tube, I was able to make out that someone was in there with me. A pair of legs bent at odd angles, draped with something white and fluffy.

“H-hello?” The duress of the past five minutes had all but taken my voice away. “Who’s there?” I poked at a leg with my toe. It wobbled and fell back into place.

My eyes adjusted to the darkness at more or less the same rate the synapses in my brain were able to signal each other and discern the obvious. That white, fluffy thing? That was a wedding dress. And the person inside of it was not moving.

“Noah!” I shouted. “Noah!” I scrambled my way out of the pipe, not caring what mess my hands and knees landed in. Falling out of the concrete mouth, I flailed and fumbled my way upright and tossed myself up the incline overlooking the ditch. “Noah! She’s in here!”

Everyone fell silent. Noah turned slowly in my direction, lowering his firearm, cocking his head to one side.

“Anna is in the drainage pipe!”

The rioters made an instant role change to rubberneckers, observing with hungry curiosity as Noah sprinted over and nudged me aside, going shoulder-deep into the pipe.

“Oh, God!” he said. The acoustics of the drain amplified his dismay. “Oh, God! Anna?”

I lowered myself and sat in the grass above, watching as Noah submerged into the dark circle and returned a minute later, dragging Anna Lockrem’s lifeless, wedding gown-draped body with him. He flung himself out, landing on his back in the muck with the dead body on top of him. Situating his position, he sat up and cradled her in his arms.

“No, no, no,” he said, hugging her to his chest. “Anna.”

The mob, so full of piss and vinegar just moments ago, began to disperse, muttering to themselves and consoling one another.

Anna’s face was covered with a white veil. That small touch, amongst everything else happening in front of me, disturbed me more than anything.

Noah lifted the veil, gingerly, with two fingers, and screamed. There was nothing underneath. Nothing but sinew and blood. Her face – her entire face – had been removed, ripped right off.

Somehow, my stomach drudged up enough material for me to vomit again.

 

TO BE CONCLUDED.

Tagged , ,

To Know a Veil (or: To Noah Vale), Part One

To Know a Veil
or, To Noah Vale
(Part I)
Ryan Everett Felton

1

“I’m sorry, ladies.”

I managed to get this out, bow my head and tip my trilby at the two cotton-haired bitties on either side of me before ducking my head into the open Samsonite briefcase on my lap. The hat fell off as the bus hit a nasty bump and I unleashed holy hell into the suede-lined leather case. The noises I made, the sounds bubbling up and out with the rest of my guts, I don’t even think I’ve ever heard another human make. The poor old poodle-headed ladies on either side of me couldn’t hop away fast enough to find more suitable accommodations on the double-decker. Suddenly those spooky kids with the piercings and the spiky hair didn’t seem like such terrible seating companions.

By the time they situated themselves a few rows back, I’d retched three or four more times, yielding diminishing returns with each cycle until I came up empty.

These volcanic vomits had been a problem for me the past few weeks. Just the day before the doctor had told me it was a kidney stone – as he put it, “the size of a clementine –” bouncing around in my guts. My wife Idora calls me her little shlimazel, that I got this black cloud over my head wherever I go, and I’ve never disagreed, especially when I thought about the fact that one day that clementine would have to pass through me.

I wiped my mouth with the back of a spotted hand writhing with wormy blue veins and spat one last time into the attaché. I put my trilby back on just as the bus slowed down at my stop, stood up to the sound of my own crackling spine, and hobbled down and out into the city I’d so far done a pretty good job avoiding since my retirement. I found the nearest garbage bin and tossed my newly-ruined briefcase in after taking out my notary seal. None of the papers inside could be salvaged.

The thing about the city is it’s got this smell – this rotten-eggs-on-pigshit stink that hits you like a brick wall the moment you cross the county line. You don’t notice it so much when you’re up there every day, like I used to be, but spend a few months away and let me tell you, it’s atrocious. And the wind. The wind there isn’t like the chilly breezes in the suburbs where Idora and me hang our hats. This wind is mean. It’ll cut you.

It took me a little longer than it used to, thanks to my no-goodnik hip, but I managed to walk the six blocks to the stoop of this hideous brownstone. I had an appointment here, God help me. The stench felt stronger on the stairwell of this mossy, graffitied eyesore. I cupped my nose and rang the buzzer next to a mailbox that swung from one rusty screw. I thought, They’ve got a screw loose, so when the young lady answered me on the intercom I was chuckling. She probably thought I was a lunatic.

“Yes, who’s there?” she said. I could barely make her out over the cheap speaker system’s feedback.

“Prentiss Holm,” I said. I watched the mailbox rock back and forth in the bitchy breeze. “Noah Vale is expecting me.”

She didn’t answer. Instead, the door latch just clicked open, and I figure I was just supposed to know to come on in. These kids. Oy, vey.

So I went inside. I felt my stone take another little stab at the wall of my kidney and clenched my fists. Just a few minutes and I’d be back on the bus, home in time for supper with Idora.

I checked out the receptionist’s rack as she told me where Noah’s suite was and allowed myself one loud, burbling belch on the elevator before I realized there was a young lady stuck in there with me. I smiled at her. She looked at her shoes.

The first thing that struck me when I entered my idiot nephew’s office was that it was lousy with monkeys. I mean it: the reception area of suite 400 was crawling with half a dozen full-grown chimpanzees – occupying desk chairs, standing on the table, one of them even flipping through an upside-down copy of Cosmo.

And in the middle of all of this, a seventh, infant chimp riding shotgun on his shoulders, was Noah. At my entry, he swiveled his chubby, rosatia-ridden punim toward me and smiled.

“Uncle Prentiss,” he said, peeling a banana. “Thanks for stopping by.”

I couldn’t move. Every simian set of eyeballs in the room – and I include Noah’s here – was on me. It was very disconcerting.

“Noah?” I said, taking a step back. “What – what the hell is going on?”

“What do you mean?” he said. He took a bite of banana; Noah was never one for sharing.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said. “I should have been more specific.” In the far corner, one of the apes cackled, making him one of a very select few to get my sense of humor. “The menagerie, Noah. Who died and made you Jane Goodall all of a sudden?” My one-monkey fan club blew a raspberry. We were a regular Laurel and Hardy.

Noah shrugged, and the baby chimp on his back swung around to come face-to-face with him. As he talked, the little creature sucked banana crumbs from his chin. “I told you in my letter,” he said, “that I’d started a chimpanzee talent agency.”

I chewed on that a second. “Your letter,” I said, “asked me to come down here and notarize the articles of existence for your new monkey business.”

Noah held out his hands and bugged his eyes.

“I thought it was a figure of speech,” I croaked. My stomach gave a single jolt of protest. Instinct forced me to scan the premises until I spotted the restroom.

The thing about my shmendrik nephew is that, as far as I’ve ever been concerned, every one of his occupational endeavors has been nothing but monkey business, a crock of baloney. He once invested in a fleet of snowplows – when he lived in Miami. Just last year, he took out a loan to open a puppet theater, whatever the hell that is. You want a puppet theater, I’ll give you a shoebox and an old sock.

Puppet theater!

“My staff and I train the chimps to be actors,” said Noah, setting down the fuzzy youngster on the desk. “You know, for commercials and movies and stuff.” The little simian tyke grabbed onto his pinky; they looked like father and son. “Lot of money to be made in this business,” he said to me, very serious.

“All right, fine,” I said, sidestepping a pair of chimps picking bugs off of one another to reach the desk. “I wish you all the best on your new entrepreneurial venture. Now where’s this paperwork so I can stamp my seal on it and go home?”

He produced a single sheet of county letterhead. I pressed an emblem into it and pocketed my embosser. “Will that be all?” I asked. Idora was waiting, probably setting the table by now.

Noah licked his stumpy fingers and threw his banana peel into a wastebasket. “Actually,” he said, “there is something else.”

He sat down and placed the little simian on the desk, where it crawled until it reached the edge and just stared at the floor in awe, as if it were a mile below. Noah cleared his throat and looked at me now, all traces of a smile gone. I tried to remember the last time I’d seen this kid wear a serious expression and came up empty. I figured I knew where this was going.

“No,” I said. “Don’t even ask. I’m not loaning you anything. No handouts, remember this discussion?”

But he just shook his head. When it stilled, I noticed how much redder those cheeks of his were. “Uncle Prentiss,” he said, “do you like me?”

I swear every monkey in the damn office took a deep breath and held it right then.

“Noah,” I said, taking a seat, eyeballing and trying to get a read on him. “You’re mishpocheh. We’re blood. Y’know I love you.” I leaned over the desk a little, but not enough to make him think I’d wanna hug or anything.

“No,” he said, sinking in his chair, his face lost in his palms, “that’s not what I mean. Sure you love me, but do you like me?”

“No handouts,” I said.

He only shook his head again and sighed. The desk drawer on his side made an awful, wailing screech as he pried it open and pulled a manila folder from it. He slapped it down in front of me. His eyes flickered between the overstuffed folder and me. I grabbed it, flipped it open.

The first page was a full-color photograph of a girl, probably in her twenties. What a knockout she was. She wore a wedding gown, and the picture was snapped as she spun in circles, making the frilly white train billow around her. Yellow hair, one jade-colored eye peeking out from the fluttering corner of her wedding veil. An angel.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“Her name is Anna Lockrem,” Noah answered. “Runaway bride.”

I sucked on my lips. “Pretty woman,” I said.

Noah sniffed. “Right,” he said. “Now if we’re done naming off Julia Roberts movies, I’d like to make my offer. Anna’s run off, all but disappeared. Her friends, family, co-workers – none of ’em have a clue where she’s gone. Uncle Prentiss, I’ll pay you ten thousand dollars to find her.”

I snorted. “Noah,” I said, “what is this, really? Do you even have ten thousand dollars? Because your mother tells me—”

“Never mind what Mom says!” he said and banged his fist on the desk, knocking his fuzzy little companion on its back. “We’re talking now.”

“Who is this girl?” I asked. I flipped the page over so it faced him. “Who is she that she’s worth my time and your money?”

Noah scooped the screeching, still-startled baby chimp into his arms and locked eyes with me, becoming a surreal portrait of the Lady Madonna. “She’s my fiancée,” he said.

That explained a lot – everything, in fact, except for why I hadn’t been invited to the wedding, but I let that go for the time being.

So instead of asking where the hell my invite was, I asked the second-most pressing question on my mind. “Why me?” I said. “You can’t call the cops? Hire a real private investigator? Both options seem a lot more economically sound.” But then, Noah liked waving his money around, on the rare occasion he had any.

“That folder in your hands,” he said, pointing. “Take a look inside.”

I did. Aside from the photo, there were about four other pages. Bulleted lists, mostly, of generic Anna Lockrem factoids: former and current addresses, past employers, a few names with a parenthetical relationship (mother, friend) next to them. In other words, slim pickings.

“Calling the cops was out of the question,” said Noah, wrapping his fingers in the curls of his own hair. “It’d be bad publicity for the company.”

My teeth pressed into my cheeks, holding them in place. “For the monkey actor company.”

“That’s right,” said Noah, unfazed and stroking the hairy baby simian in his arms. “We did hire a private eye. Fired him after only a week. Useless bastard. But I guess that’s what I get for hiring him based on a business card tucked under my windshield wiper.” He rolled his eyes and nodded at the folder in my hands. “What you’re holding there is the fruit of his labor. Everything he could get on her.”

“This?” I said, making it flap around with my wrist. Somewhere behind me, one of the apes hooted. “A week’s work, this?”

Noah’s forefinger and thumb pinched the bridge of his nose. “She’s a bit of, um, a naturalist? Into the environment and that. Anna doesn’t believe in cell phones or Facebook, or, um, any of that mainstream Big Brother bullshit. It’s one of the things I love about her.”

“So you’re saying, since this girl doesn’t Tweeter—”

“Twitter.”

“Whatever. You’re saying since she doesn’t log onto the Internet every five minutes, like the rest of the world, your private eye couldn’t get a lock on her.”

“That’s about the size of it.”

“And?”

The legs of Noah’s desk chair creaked under his shifting tuchas. “And,” he said, “you were a process server for the county for thirty years. Mom says you never failed to find whatever poor schmuck you were looking for and serve him his court papers.”

“I thought we weren’t going by what your mom says,” I said.

“Your heyday,” he continued, “was before the days of iPhones and social media. Far as I know, you and Aunt Idora still don’t own a computer or have cable. I think you can do what these private eyes can’t. I think you can find Anna without leaning on technology. That’s why you.” In case he was being too complimentary, he added, “You cranky old Luddite.”

I looked at Anna’s photograph again, tried to imagine her with one of Noah’s beefy arms wrapped around her. I couldn’t. To my mind, they paired about as well as toothpaste and orange juice. Anna Lockrem having second thoughts on the day of her wedding didn’t seem so outlandish a concept.

“What if the girl doesn’t wanna be found?” I asked.

Noah shrugged. “Find her anyway. It’s ten thousand dollars, Uncle Prentiss.”

“That you earned by training monkeys.” My eyebrows went up against my will.

Another shrug from Noah.

Taking a deep breath, I straightened the few pages in the folder by smacking them on the desk. “I’ll do it,” I said, standing up, “or I’ll try, anyway. But there are conditions.”

Noah nodded, his mouth twitching. “Sure,” he said.

“First, I get to go home and have dinner with your aunt before I start work. I’m hungry, and she’s making gelfite fish tonight.” The fact that I hate gelfite fish, I left off. “Second,” I said, “if one of these chimps touches me, even for a second, I walk.” The chipper ape that had laughed at my jokes pounded his chest when I scowled in his direction. “I’ve gone sixty-five years without contracting fleas or rabies, and I’d like to continue the trend, understand?”

To show my admirer who was boss, I pounded my own chest. This angered my kidney stone, which pounded back – and hard. I grabbed my stomach.

“And last,” I said, pointing at the metal bucket by Noah’s foot, “I need you to hand me that trashcan.”

“What?” Noah said, looking down. “This? Why?”

Oy,” I said. “Never mind.”

And I yakked right on his carpet. It couldn’t be avoided.

2

“You’re not eating, dear.”

Idora pointed this out, as if I should be surprised by it, at the dinner table while I slid a flake of lukewarm fish around my plate. Rather than tell her I didn’t appreciate her gelfite (something I’ve kept hidden from her since we were in our twenties) or fess up to the ticking time bomb plotting its attack on my urethra (which she didn’t know about, and wouldn’t, if I had anything to say about it), I shifted gears.

“Did you know Noah’s getting married?”

“Noah?” she said. The overhead light caught a lens of her cat-eye glasses and shined like a headlight right in my face. I looked down. “Our nephew, Noah? Kathy’s boy?”

“Yes,” I said. “Engaged.”

“Hmm,” Idora said, reaching for another dinner roll, taking up her butter knife. “Poor girl.”

“We weren’t invited,” I said.

“So?” Idora arched an eyebrow, the thin chains on her glasses swaying.

“It just seems dismissive,” I said.

“So let ’em dismiss us,” she said. “What do we care? We’ve been perfectly happy without getting caught up in the affairs of the Vales for the past decade.”

The next, forced bite of fish tasted like seawater. Swallowing it was made harder by my weakened constitution, but Idora means enough to me that I kept it down.

“What brought this up?” she asked through a mouthful of bread. “Did Kathy call you to gloat?”

I shook my head. Idora didn’t know about my meeting with Noah, only that I’d ventured into the city for “an appointment.” My wife has a tendency to dote. Some things are better left unspoken in our house.

“Well, did you meet this girl?”

Again, my noggin went side to side. No, I hadn’t. But I thought, without telling Idora so, that whether she liked it or not we would be meeting very soon.

3

The next morning I kissed Idora goodbye, stopped off for an industrial-sized vat of Tums, and took the bus once more into the Heart of Darkness. The first leg of my journey, I’d decided over the restless night, would be the office of Patrick G. Lysey, Licensed Private Investigator. His scant notes, scribbled down during his own ill-fated investigation into the whereabouts of Anna Lockrem, were all I had to go on. I was hoping the man himself could provide a little elaboration.

The address, I’d gotten off his business card – the very one Noah had found tucked under his windshield wiper. It looked and felt cheap, rendered on a household printer, and said PATRICK G. LYSEY: LICENSED PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR & SCREENWRITER. Reading that, I fought the urge to chuck the card out the window of the moving bus. It’s a recent thing, I’ve noticed, that it isn’t enough for people to just be what they are anymore. They’ve all got to also be a screenwriter, an actor, a novelist. Enough already! For thirty years, I told everyone I met I was a process server downtown, and never once did anyone ask me, “What else?”

I digress.

Lysey’s office was on the top floor of a business complex, this tiny room I think might’ve been a refurbished supply closet. The sign on his door said “By Appointment Only,” but I walked right in and the secretary didn’t seem to mind. I could tell she would have rather I didn’t interrupt her nail filing and magazine reading, but either way she waved me in without question.

I remember what marijuana smells like. I was young once. Not that I’ve ever sampled even a morsel of the fakakta stuff myself – no one ever offered to share that I can recall. This investigator’s office was lousy with the skunky stink of weed. I thought I’d wandered into a Neil Young concert.

Patrick Lysey was asleep in his chair, his head buried in the wadded-up sport coat on his desk. For his part, when my entrance startled him awake, his transition from resting to working was seamless. An exhausted yawn evolved into the word “Hello,” and at its heels, “How can I help you?”

I would not have taken a seat in there under any circumstance, but I still resented the choice being taken from me by the absence of a chair. I said, “Hello, sir. My name is Prentiss Holm. I was wondering if I could have a moment of your time.”

“I’m not takin’ any cases right now,” he said, smoothing out the wrinkles of his coat with a palm. He slid it on, still seated. Though the man was about ten years too young to fit the bill of “grizzled detective,” his rumpled sport coat and patchy stubble helped sell the role. Both hands bent and massaged his eyes at the wrist. “Too much on the docket. Apologies.” His head jerked up and to the left, toward the young woman at reception. “Michelle!” he barked. “Breakfast!”

The young woman squeaked and hopped up, digging around in cabinets while I spoke. “Actually, Mr. Lysey,” I said, rubbing my palms on my pant legs, “I was hoping you’d have a minute to talk to me about Anna Lockrem.”

There was a crash behind me as Secretary Michelle dropped a glass from an overhead shelf.

All of a sudden Lysey seemed very tired again. “Did you say ‘Lockrem?'” he said. His body sunk like his chair was sitting on quicksand.

“Yes,” I said, ignoring the pain in my belly, rubbing the clump of Tums in my pocket like lucky coins. “My nephew says he had you look into her disappearance. Now Unkie Prentiss is to the rescue, I’m loath to say, and I was hoping to pick your brain. Maybe over a coffee? I’ll buy.” God knew the guy needed it.

It wasn’t easy to hear him mumbling over his klutzy assistant’s clanging around behind us. “Your nephew is a real dirtbag, Mr. Holm,” he said. He scooted his chair back in what I assume was a pointless effort to hide the stink of booze and pot on his breath. “I worked around the clock on that missing girl of his, and he just fires me on the spot, without so much as a ‘fuck-you-very-much.'”

“I see.” It had to be obvious, just from looking at me, how little I cared.

He tapped a button on the keyboard before him, and the computer screen on his desk flickered to life, illuminating his face with artificial light. “It’s funny,” he said. “I left my card outside his office a couple months ago, way before this business with his fiancée. I’d wanted an in with this chimpanzee racket he’s got goin’. See, I’m writing this screenplay…”

“Here we go.”

“…This comedy about a chimp detective. You know, wears the hat, carries a magnifying glass?” He chuckled at his own supposed wit. “Real funny shit.” Oscar Wilde, he wasn’t. His fingers hammered on the keyboard as he talked, almost as an entity separate of the man himself. “Thought I’d get a leg-up and mingle with the talent pool. Imagine my surprise when I finally did get a call, and all a sudden I’m hunting this Lockrem broad.”

Michelle popped up behind me, leaning over and making me jump at the unexpected brush of her long hair on my shoulder. “Your breakfast, Pat,” she said, her voice flat as a latke. She clinked a glass of red stuff on the table. A sprig of celery stuck out of it, and from where I stood the odor of tomato and vodka was enough to get me a little loopy. So Lysey wasn’t a coffee guy, after all.

“Thanks, darlin’,” he said, taking up the glass and swigging. He wiped his mouth and added, to me, “Let me ask you a question. Where should Detective Bibbo run his office?”

I stared at him. “Who?”

“Detective Bibbo. My protagonist. I can’t figure where to set the thing. New York’s so obvious, y’know? New York and L.A., every mystery story ever told.”

“I’m sure I don’t know,” I said. “Look, about the Lockrem girl. About Noah.”

Lysey ran his tongue over the red-stained celery sprig and snorted. “Right,” he said. “Your nephew. Well, look, Mr. Holm. I don’t know what to say. He hired me then he dumped me. His check didn’t even clear. I guess he’s keeping it in the family now, so the pro bono stuff is okay.” My toes curled in my shoes. He said, “You a dick, then?”

My mouth went slack, and he laughed.

“Not a dick like Noah Vale is a dick. A private eye, like me,” he said.

“Oh,” I said. I shook my head. “Process server. Retired. Semi-retired notary public.”

He laughed again. “Okay,” he said. After downing the rest of his Bloody Mary, he burped and sized me up from his seat. “Well, best of luck to you, pal, but if I couldn’t find her, I don’t think you’ve gotta snowball’s chance. Trust me. No e-mails, no instant messaging accounts or cell phone… That girl don’t wanna be found, and I don’t blame her.”

I cleared my throat. “Doesn’t matter. I gotta find her anyway.”

“Word of advice, then,” Lysey said, licking his upper lip. “Steel yourself for an ugly family affair.” His eyes, pink and puffy, went a shade darker. “That nephew of yours is rotten. Somethin’ about this whole mess don’t sit right with me. I think you’ll end up looking at a lot more bad news than good, you understand?”

I nodded. “With Noah, it usually is.”

“Well,” he said, standing up, fingertips pressed against the mahogany surface of his desk, “now that I’m up, I’d probably better get to it. Believe it or not, Mr. Holm, I do have paying clientele. I am reputable.”

My eyes drifted to the glassware pot-smoking apparatus leaning against his computer monitor. “I don’t doubt it,” I said. “Good luck with Detective Bilbo.”

He snorted again and said, “You can show yourself out, I assume.” It wasn’t a question.

“Sure.” Turning around, I now faced the hovering Michelle, another breakfast cocktail in her hand. She was good-looking, in a way, if you could get past the unkempt, raven hair and apparent disdain for cosmetics. The stains under her arms screamed of a deodorant embargo. I tried not to look at them as she held the glass out.

“One for the road?” she asked.

I grunted. “I’ve got a kidney stone,” I said. “Maybe two. Feels like a dozen.”

“You poor thing,” she said, puckering her lips. I couldn’t say for sure, but I think the girl was mocking me. Without a conscious prompt, my chin made contact with my chest, my gaze shifting away from her and to the floor. Here I noticed the latest in a series of very odd things about Patrick Lysey and his office: tucked under the secretary’s desk, in higgledy-piggledy stacks, were several packages of adult incontinence briefs. Now my head snapped back to its upright position, my inclination to not get caught looking at the diapers more pressing than the one to not get caught evaluating the secretary’s hygiene. While trying to figure out which of the two they might’ve belonged to, I reminded myself that the man who just yesterday barfed into his lap on the bus shouldn’t be making judgments about one’s mastery over his or her bodily functions.

She was gone, anyway, the hippie office clerk. Now she leaned over Lysey’s desk again, handing him the drink, cleavage no doubt on full display. I kinda hated Lysey. I kinda hated her.

Most of all, I really hated Noah Vale.

TO BE CONTINUED.

Tagged ,

Season’s Greetings

Season’s Greetings
Ryan Everett Felton 

            So, my neighbor thinks I’m the reincarnation of the Son of God.

            I’d never met the man – Randal, his name is – but he has a higher opinion of me than most people have of anyone, if his Christmas card is any indication.  I found the thing just a few inches from the crack under my door, on my way to pour myself a cup of coffee in preparation for another late night. We live in this duplex, these conjoined apartments, above a dive bar in town. Thanks to the rowdiness inherent in the arrangement, on most nights sleep isn’t an option, which is perfect for a nocturnal creature such as myself and, I imagine, my true believer Randal.

            It’s a perplexing little thing, his card. The first thing I noticed after picking it up was the gorgeous penmanship of my name on the envelope – CHELSEA – inscribed in what I immediately and ironically thought of as calligraphy more suited to a monk’s transcription of the Bible than a cordial, neighborly holiday greeting. Before opening it with a kitchen knife, I took a little peek into the hallway, as if I’d see my benefactor of Christmas cheer standing there, waiting with arms crossed for a thank you. But the hall, as always, was empty save for the vibrations of music and drunken laughter coming from downstairs, so I closed the door and took a chair to see who it was from, never dreaming it’d be Randal. He’s certainly not on my Christmas card list.

            I smiled a little at the cheesy illustration on the front of the card: a snowman with his coal-lump smile arranged into a frown, his head tilted down at the dog lifting its leg at his base, about ready to let loose. The distasteful choice of cardstock confirmed it wasn’t from my mother, or from Philip. That wouldn’t be their style.

            Inside, there’s more of that inhuman cursive, and the first time I read it I nearly fell over.

            “Dearest Chelsea,” it says.

            “Even if the world denies it I know who You are.” Yes, the pronoun’s capitalized. “‘Revelation’ says no man or woman would know the time or place, and you’ve passed among us undetected just as the Bible says you would. You are not alone, Chelsea. God loves you, and I love you. And I know you love me. That is enough.

            “Praise His holy name! And I will praise yours, my savior.

            “Your humble servant,

            RANDAL”

            After reading this I actually yelped and clasped my hands over my mouth, something I don’t think I’d ever had cause to do up to that point. I bounded for the door and fastened both locks, stared out the peephole for a good while, and went back to my bedroom, locking that door, too. The landlord, Devin who runs the bar, had warned me about Randal the day I moved in. Said he wasn’t all there, a little off-kilter. But harmless. Harmless.

            I kept telling myself, “harmless,” but even so I couldn’t concentrate on my homework, the TV, Facebook – anything. I kept feeling this presence on the other side of the wall, where Randal’s own bedroom is. This heat seeping through, searing my shoulders and neck, like the devil giving me a backrub. I was so terrified I couldn’t think of anything to do but break the promise I’d made to myself a month ago and, so far, upheld against all odds. I logged onto Skype and dialed up Phillip – almost certain he wouldn’t pick up.

            But he did. Thank God, I thought.

            “What is it, Chelse?” Not, “Hello.” Not, “How are you, babe?” Just, “What is it?”

            “Are you busy?” I fought an obscene impulse to apologize to him, rejected the feeling I got while looking into the pixilated transmission of his eyes – the one that told me I shouldn’t have bothered him, shouldn’t have interrupted his evening. It dawned on me I had no idea what time it was across the ocean, whether he’d be getting ready for bed or on his way to work. I should take the time to learn how that all works.

            The warmth I had imagined emanating from the other side of the wall and against my back rose, grew to a searing heat, as I thought about the purpose of my unwanted call. I drew my legs up, cradled my head in my knees. Philip must’ve seen that something was wrong, because I watched his pale, blue-eyed baby face contort into one of mild concern in between lagging video frames crossing thousands of miles of superhighway.

            “Is something wrong? Really wrong this time?” The view into his hotel room, adorned with the trappings accumulated only during very long stays, swirled sickly behind him while he, I guess, picked up his computer and carried it to a spot where he could get a better look at me. To me it looked like the earth in Glasgow had upended, torn free from the shackles of his reality. But he remained firmly rooted to his far corner of the world, and only I wound up with motion sickness.

            I rubbed my temples, clamped shut my eyelids. “Do you remember Randal? My neighbor here, Randal? Short, frumpy, smelly guy?”

            “I don’t know,” Phillip said. “Why? What’s going on?” I hated – I hate – the way the video chat makes his voice sound. Like it’s not him, just some simulation manufactured for my placation, while he gads about and I’m nowhere near his mind.

            “He gave me this Christmas card,” I said, and held it up before the webcam, but my shaking hands wouldn’t allow the maneuver and let go, sending it swooping under my bed. I let it fall, let it disappear.

            “And?” Philip rubbed his face. His catchall signal for “get to the point.”

            “And, well,” I said, thinking of how to put it. But “My neighbor thinks I’m the second coming of Christ” didn’t roll off the tongue, not like you’d think it would. And Philip rubbing his face ­– on a different hemisphere, no less – didn’t quite instill me with divine powers of articulation. I just sort of stopped talking, and for what must’ve been a longer amount of time than I’d perceived. One more rough swoop of the palm across his bristly cheeks and he’d had enough of me.

            “Chelse, no, I didn’t send you a Christmas card, if that’s what you’re getting at,” he said, the robotic amplification of his voice buzzing at the base of my skull. It made me want to puke. “I’m not going to, either. You agreed on distance. You shouldn’t even be calling me like this.”

            “I know,” I said, inching away from the wall, putting some air between it and me. “I’m sorry.” And there, at last, was my apology.

            “I’m going now,” he said. “Merry Christmas, I guess.”

            “Yeah. Merry Christmas.”

            And the screen went black.

            I spun around on the bed, tangling the sheets around my ankles and thighs, caught up in a web of fabric. I struggled against it, only to succeed in halfway binding myself in a reverse-Houdini. I pressed my hand against the wall. It was cold. Closing my eyes, I imagined Randal on the other side, asleep or maybe at the foot of his bed, praying. To me.

            The card peered out from the edge of the bed skirt, just visible enough to expose the upper half of its front image, a pattern of falling snowflakes. I bent over, still entwined with my bed dress, and hung upside down longer than necessary to pick it back up. When I started to see spots in my eyes, almost identical to the card’s falling snow, I jerked back up and fell onto my side. At arm’s length, held out before me, the card seemed so insignificant and unthreatening. A poor, lone snowman and the dog about to piss all over him.

            “I know how you feel, buddy,” I said. Once the bar slowed and quieted downstairs, there were only a few more hours left of tossing, turning, and shallow breathing until I was asleep.

            Next morning – or rather, afternoon – I woke up with Randal’s Christmas card still clutched in my hand, placed over my heart. Once I was awake enough to remember what it was, I sort-of tossed it to the side, where it landed on my bedside dresser among a stack of untouched magazines.

            Starving, I took a quick shower and went out to find something for breakfast – or rather, lunch. As an afterthought I took my tiny mailbox key with me, stopping by the locked mail receptacle at the bottom of the stairwell, just outside the entrance door to the bar. Inside I found the same old bills, past due notices, and yet another magazine to add to my unread collection. But at the very bottom of the stack, a square envelope. For the briefest of moments my teeth clamped down on my tongue, me thinking somehow this was another devotional from Randal. It wasn’t. It was a Christmas card, yes, but this time from my mother.

            I ripped it open, dreaming up all the delicious meals I could possibly treat myself to with the Christmas check that was sure to be inside. Prying the card open like I did, I’m sure there was a slight manic glint in my eye that would’ve put some passersby at unease, but that mad look quickly dimmed. The card was empty, for the first time in a string of lonely holidays.

            The only thing the inner parchment of the card bore was a handwritten message from Mom, in script that was – no offense to my mother intended – far less graceful and artsy than my bipolar neighbor’s. The message contained within was far from the statement of unconditional love and respect in my earlier card, too. All it said was:

            Chelsea,

            Sorry no check this year. Hope to have something for you when you come visit!

            -Mom

            Which, of course, was her way of saying that unless I hitched a plane back to her and Dad’s neck of the woods, no handouts would be given. Where she thinks I’ll scrape up the cash for a plane ticket, I have no idea. After her card came up empty, I wasn’t even sure what I was going to use to pay for lunch.

            I squeezed the partition in my winter coat tight with one hand and bunched my shoulders up, stepping outside despite having no idea what I was doing, or if leaving the apartment at all would do me any good. And it was at this moment, when I was hardly one foot out the door, that Randal came puttering along on his rusted jalopy of a moped. He parked it and put up the kickstand, removed his helmet to reveal his chapped, scruffy face and lizard-like eyes. He took a deep breath of cold winter air before going to work taking off his gloves.

            There was no way I could speak to him, even say “hello.” The only thing I could picture was him, all four-feet-eleven-inches of him, somehow overpowering me so I could find myself waking up nailed to an inverted cross in a Satanic shrine in his apartment.

            But all he did was smile, nod, and wave at me. I did not return the gesture, opting instead to shuffle my winter boots as fast as they could carry me to the nearest diner, where – like a queen – I feasted on the finest tap water and buttered toast the county has to offer. I chose the diner for the pair of police officers kicking back in the corner, chugging on coffee. Once inside I sat away from the window, every so often glancing over my shoulder to make sure Randal hadn’t followed me. He already worshiped me, having freely admitted that, so was it very hard to believe he was stalking me, too?

            “Hon, will that be all?” The waitress had crept up behind me when my back was turned. She even put her hand on my shoulder. I jumped, squealed, made a general fool of myself in public. My waitress, who could’ve been cast in a film as “the waitress,” with her bunned-up red hair and throaty voice, looked at me like I was a box of abandoned puppies. Was I wearing my troubles that plainly?

“You sure I can’t get you some coffee or something?” she asked. I held up my hand, shook my head.

            “It’d be on the house,” she said, sighing so hard the hair on her upper lip fluttered.

            “Oh,” I said, tapping my chin. I gave another nervous look over my shoulder, breathed, and said, “Would a plate of onion rings be on the house, too?”

            She smiled, my fairy-godwaitress, and nodded, off to whatever wonders her kitchen held to prepare for me the latest in a long line of pity giveaways.

            A few minutes later, no less miserable save for my palate’s satisfaction, so focused was I on munching my free onion rings that I didn’t instinctively whip my head around at the sound of the bell above the door jingling. My own salacious hunger distracted me from my surroundings long enough for Randal to enter, approach me, and take a seat opposite me in my booth.

            “H-hello,” he said, “Chelsea.” His voice, a low mumble, hardly registered beyond the pulsating thumps of adrenaline in my head. He repeated himself, the “Chelsea” part of it anyway, a few more times, like a chant. Like a mantra: “Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea.” Each repetition screwed up his mouth, his whole face, like it was physical work getting it out. Once finished, he grinned at me – put his hands on the table palms-up, and just grinned.

            “Did you get my card?” he asked and wiggled his fingers. All I could focus on, between deep gasping breaths, were those nubby digits, dancing around with expectation. I thought for a second about accepting that invitation, taking his hands in mine, and in the process scared myself more than he had done on his own.

            “Uh, officers?” I said. The cops enjoying their break at the far table either ignored me or didn’t hear me. I said it again, this time louder: “Officers!”

            One of them heaved a sigh as the other pointed at him, as if saying, “This one’s all yours.” The sighing officer pushed his chair back and stood, stomping over to me and Randal, but focusing his dirty look squarely on me, the interruption to his placid coffee break. There came a surreal feeling that no one else in the diner could even see little, haggard Randal. A feeling that I was in a bad episode of The Outer Limits or something, and all of this was in my head. But when the cop finally spoke, he said, “Is this guy bothering you, ma’am?” My hands found a nice spot on either side of my head to rest, pulling my face back into a twisted smile I wouldn’t have cared to see for myself.

            But Randal wasn’t smiling. Instead, he sat there in the booth, pulled his hands away from me and hugged himself, looking mortified – back and forth, from me to the officer, in utter confusion. The idea that maybe I’m a horrible bitch did, for a second, cross my mind when it hit me that I thought his face looked sort of funny, all puffed up and red with his eyes bugging out. “I-I just needed to ask her something,” he said. “Chelsea,” he locked his eyes at last on me, “can I please just ask you something?”

            Part of me wanted to say “yes,” because telling him “no” felt like denying Oliver Twist his second bowl of gruel, but I didn’t need to say anything. The policeman put a hand around Randal’s chunky arm and pulled him from the booth.

            “Sir,” he said, “I need to ask you to leave.”

            I thought Randal might cry. Certainly he was on the verge. Having no desire to see a grown, albeit damaged man break down into tears – and having even less desire to stick around and see what lengths my new stalker might go to in order to ask me whatever he wanted to ask, I stood up instead. I shook my head, little bobs that made me feel my brain rattle, and sucked on my lip.

            “No, no,” I said. “That’s— that’s okay, that’s fine. I was just leaving anyway.” And I did leave, abandoning a half-eaten plate of complimentary snacks and the lone member of the Cult of Chelsea to whatever fate might find them.

            Once outside, my coat unbuttoned, the chill of the winter air struck me and set something loose inside of me. Devin might’ve said Randal was harmless – and hell, he could have every reason to believe that – but the matter remained that this guy had a clear obsession with me. Like, a try-to-assassinate-the-president-in-my-honor obsession. How could I stay safe with this very lunatic sleeping on the other side of my own bedroom wall?

            I thought I should call someone, maybe see if I could find somewhere to shack up for a night or two, or until things cooled down. But as I scrolled through the contacts list on my phone, I saw what my options were: precisely zero. My mother, halfway across the country. Philip, halfway across the world. Some erstwhile co-workers from my last job, who I hadn’t bothered to delete since I was let go. A strong desire to chuck my phone into the street reared its head, and even though I fought against that, I still had this new realization to contend with. I hadn’t a single disciple to watch over me. No one would even know, not for days, if Randal crept into my room in the dead of night and strangled me while reciting the Lord’s Prayer.

I ran.

But not far.

I made it back to the bar, only half-intending to go up to my room and lock the door, maybe lean a chair against it, but instead ended up in the tavern proper. I took a seat at the front counter, where Devin – all shoulders and shiny bald spot – stood wiping a glass and emptying ashtrays. Except for the two of us, the bar was empty.

Loose strands of hair stuck to my mouth, threatened to tickle my eyeballs, and in pulling back my locks I must’ve exposed the distress broadcast by my face. I don’t know if I was crying, but I imagine I must’ve looked a lot like Randal had back in the diner, that cop yanking him up by the arm, and me – his savior, turning him away, throwing him like a lamb to the wolves, and running off.

“Somethin’ the matter, sweetheart?” Devin asked me. But I knew it wasn’t real concern for me that sparked the question. No, I was his tenant, and at the moment a potential barfly to boot, so tips and rent were at stake. And if Devin was lucky, something would be the matter. Nothing cures an addled mind quite like a few rounds of drinks. And for him, that means dollar signs.

“Just get me a whiskey sour,” I said. No thought went into the order. I’d never even had a whiskey sour. “Start a tab.”

He said, “You got it, babe,” and in seconds my hand had seemingly produced a glass full of amber liquid, as if I’d made a wish and Devin were my gin djinn.

So I drank, alone, what must have been six or seven whiskey sours. Toward the end there I think I dropped the “sour” and just started ordering whiskey straight, which I’m aware isn’t very ladylike. With each order, there came an increasing pang of guilt as I wondered what Philip might think of me, had he been there. But Philip wasn’t there; he was in damn Glasgow, in damn Scotland, where there was no Chelsea and that was the appeal. So I kept the drinks coming, knowing full well they’d be added to next month’s rent, which I had no idea how I was going to pay without Mom’s annual Christmas check.

Almost every new thought in my stream of consciousness made another drink sound really good.

“Is Randal really harmless?” I said. Devin didn’t hear me. I shouted the question back to him, and he turned around, washrag in hand, leaning on the bar.

“Randal?” he said. “Yeah, I don’t think he’d hurt a fly.”

I made my cheeks and lips into Silly Putty, tugging their muscles up and down. The whiskeys made it feel funny, almost entertaining. A deep breath, and I said, “Tell me about him.”

Devin scratched his goatee, gave me a weird look. “Well,” he said, emphasizing the ell, “he’s divorced. Had a wife and a boy, I think. Got into a motorcycle accident a few years back that left him sort of brain damaged. He walked away from the wreck with his body intact, but not his mind, as you can see.” He started to wipe down the countertop, though it was already pristine from what I could tell. “I don’t think he sees much of his boy, or the ex, not these days. He’s lived here since I started subletting the duplex upstairs. I haven’t talked to him much, always felt like maybe I should. I see ‘im walkin’ the halls, talkin’ to himself a lot. Don’t guess he’s got much more company than that. The voices in his head.”

I nodded, pretended my face was a Stretch Armstrong some more.

“Why?” Devin asked. “He botherin’ you, Chelsea?”

I thought about it over the last sip of my drink and decided now was the worst time to stir the pot. “No,” I said. “No. Just wondering.”

That was all either of us said until Devin politely asked me to leave when he started to close up. Normally, the place would be hopping and stay open until the wee hours, but with the holidays, nobody was really around to fill seats. I left without argument, fiddled with my keys and stumbled off the barstool. Home was as close as I could’ve prayed for; I took the stairs one step at a time, each one its own mini-challenge, until I reached my apartment door and let myself in.

While I hummed a carol, I flipped the light switch and threw my coat on the floor, waddled to my bedroom and the impending embrace of my bedsheets.

And there, sitting on my own bed, was Randal, alert and in waiting. With only my knock-off Tiffany lamp to light the room, he looked sinister, nefarious – the whole thing was like the cover art to a terrible serial killer movie.

“Hi,” he said.

My response was, “Shit!” or something like it, followed immediately by a clumsy maneuver to tear off one of my snow boots. Randal simply sat there and watched, observing like a museum patron as I fell over myself, drunk and stupid, struggling to pull myself up with a hefty shoe in one hand.

For his part, Randal didn’t struggle, not even when I flung myself at him, raising the boot above my head and bearing it down on his squat, vulnerable body. I wailed on him, striking him wherever the boot in my furious hand landed. Over and over, I whacked him across the ribs, the face, the back, with the sole of my boot. Screaming, crying out for help, I grew bloodthirsty in my drunken fervor. No matter how many times I felt the impact resound from his person to the shoe to my arm, it wasn’t enough. For a moment there, it wouldn’t be enough until I saw his lifeless little pervert body sprawled out on the hardwood floor.

All he did was cower, crumple, melt into my bed, slide off, and fall to the floor, whimpering. The poor bastard didn’t raise a hand against me, didn’t even lift an arm to shield himself from my rage. It felt like hours, but it was probably only seconds later that I did finally let up, let myself follow his lead and concede an upright position. I, too, hit the floor, thumping my knees against wood, the world swirling around me like the backdrop in Philip’s roving webcam.

The two of us were probably a sight, holding ourselves up by the palms, panting and coughing at the foot of my bed. At some point I heard Randal, through struggling breaths, murmuring an apology. “Sorry, sorry, I’m sorry,” he said, stinging my ears with some acid, disgusting twinge in his reedy, addled voice. I slapped him, and he broke down, sobbing and curling up in a fetal position.

“I’m sorry, Chelsea,” he said. “Oh, God forgive me, I’m so sorry.”

I dropped the boot, kicked it away. Its temptation was too great. “What the hell are you doing in here, Randal?” I said. The anger in my voice shocked even me. I must have put the fear of God in that man.

“I have to ask you something.” I couldn’t tell, looking at him, what was tears, snot, or sweat dripping off in beads from his face. I looked away.

“What?” I said to the floor. “What do you want?”

“I prayed,” said Randal, taking sharp breaths, choosing his words carefully. “I prayed for God to show me a sign. I begged and pleaded with the Almighty to show me the way, to point me in the right direction. And he showed me you, Chelsea.” He put his hand on my shoulder. I let him. “I know nobody else can see it. I know you might not even see it. But I know who you are. I know what you are, and what it means. Do you know how that feels?”

I shook my head. “What do you want to ask me, Randal?”

“Can you—” he stopped, only for a second, and found whatever it was inside himself he needed to trudge on. “Can you fix me?”

I pried my eyes from the easy view of the hardwood to face him again. He was leaning against the side of the bed, hands folded in his lap. Bleeding from the nose, hair sticking out on all sides. A wreck of a man. “Can you fix me?” he asked.

In my mind’s eye, I wiped the sweat, the blood, the tears away, smoothed his hair back. Really got a good look at him, a nice long glimpse at who he had been in a previous life. What his wife must’ve seen at one time. Or his ex-wife. I wondered what he would think if he found out his own personal Jesus was just as much of an aimless mess. Would he be here now if he’d had a chat about me with Philip? With my mother, or even with Devin, who knew I was four weeks behind on the rent?

I didn’t lie to him. The room seemed to swallow me whole, my perception distorted by the drink. I fell and fell as I answered him, quite honestly, “No. I can’t. No.”

He nodded. “I understand,” he said. “And I’m sorry. I just had to know for sure.”

“I can’t do anything for you,” I said. “Nothing that’ll matter. I’m sorry.” The walls continued to shrink around me. In all likelihood I would be on the floor in the bathroom, hurling up my profuse drink orders in just about ten minutes. I honed everything on Randal, every sense I had. Used him as an anchor to keep my head from swimming. “This is all I can do,” I said.

And I put my arms around him, drew him tight. Cradled his head, gently and with my boot’s bruises in mind. We sat on the floor, rocking in synch. He said, “Thank you,” only once, and then shook me with outbursts that felt as though they’d been struggling to break free for a long, long time.

I shushed him, told him it would be okay. We rocked, we swayed, and the room slowly fell still. And all I could think was: all over the world, there are people praying to their God, but tonight, only Randal gets to be held by his.

Tagged , ,