Can I Help Who’s Next?

I asked the Subway girl if she could change those gloves they wear. Could she, I wondered out loud, pull on a fresh pair? I put a grin in my question. The guy before me ordered turkey. To my way of thinking, you handled turkey, you didn’t then build a veggie sandwich for the next customer before you washed your hands and put on new gloves. I was taking her at her word, that she meant it when she said, “Can I help who’s next?” Meat is meat. We’re talking toxins. Also, it wasn’t up to me to explain her job to her. The gloves—you know this if you check out the box there on the counter—they’re polyethylene. What can they cost? A penny a pair? A nickel, tops? As cheap as chopsticks in China. You’re a kid, you don’t entirely believe in consequences. The brains of youths has a way to go yet. But excuses don’t mitigate the pesticide residue you find in your fast food.

What I actually said about the gloves was, “I would appreciate you doing so.” I offered up a shrug, my apology. And that grin, which you might have described as sheepish. We act out our daily scenes. The whole bunch of us thespians. Shakespeare, right?

She accommodated me. But pouty, there on her face, and she made a show at jerking the fresh gloves from their box and yanking them on.

This was my second Subway today. The first was a late breakfast outside of Cleveland, a town called Hudson, one of those municipalities that won’t let you build your business until you commit to it looking like the 1800s. McDonald’s has to fake colonial. You can imagine the symmetry, the brick columns side by side, the side-by- side-by-side windows. All the white paint. The brick.

Now, Subway was lunch here in southern Ohio, me driving and planning to hook up with the Appalachian Highway—where Ohio 50 and 32 come together—take it to Cincinnati, catch a Reds game, and then hop the red-eye to Las Vegas. First class. Sit back, order a drink. Rye, if they got it. Retiring, that was me, at fifty-five, young and athletic enough yet to carry my driver two hundred and eighty yards over water and roll my putts steady as a yardstick. Shot a seventy-one a week ago, Thunder Hills outside Youngstown, me playing the tips, my pals teeing it up on the blues and bitching hole after hole about the water. Number nine, par three, two-fifty for me, two hundred for them, and they call it quits. Pussies, I say, to their faces. Step up, I say. Hit the ball. Glorious game, golf. One of those billionaires out there in Las Vegas built a course near Lake Mead costs you two or three thousand a round. Money’s not a problem. Smart enough I got investments like a Wall Street hotshot, a hand or two in a sports book. I flew out previously and bought me a place in a gated community off Tropicana, not far from The Strip. Called Spanish Trail. Living, the locals call it, inside the wall.

I could have easily caught a flight out of Cleveland, but, on my way, as a favor, an extra two days and one last job to handle, the details of which amount to a penny tossed in one or the other ocean, given the reports of our deteriorating and expanding universe and the narrowness of our daily thinking. What I had come for had to do with a deadbeat, one of your basic crybabies. A crackhead dumb enough to gamble. You can bet he has a system, a wallet full of lucky numbers. His birthday. The date he got his first piece of ass. His kid’s ages. You can bet he wishes upon a star. He spends his second to last five dollar bill on cigarettes and the last one on the lottery, Mega-Bucks, Pick 3, Pick 4—it don’t matter.

My Lexus, an suv, a rental, I left at the local AmeriHost. The exit from this town takes you two minutes from my room. Three turns and a merge and I hit the off-ramp, then highway doing sixty-five. I drove a different rental here to the Subway. A Passat. Volks-wagen. A pissant of a car. Back in my room, unpacking, I stowed a garment bag and my running gear, paperbacks in a cardboard box, mostly novels, some bios, all of it easy to tote under one arm. Always with the books, my amigos say to me. These guys, they make like they’re reading, the pages one inch from their noses. Pals ragging me. I read like you eat, only I didn’t hang on to what I finished. I left the husks on benches. I donated them to thrift stores. This minute, on the passenger’s seat of the Passat was Dostoevsky. The Brothers Karamazov. The man’s not so smart as they say. Around and around he goes on what is common sense to a fence post. Yak. Yak. Yak. Nobody taught him about putting a sock in it. Russian, foreign—what? We’re supposed to stand on our heads and applaud like it’s opera.

So much killing on television, obligatory violence, in movies, on hbo, and your actors hanging out with thugs so as to get it right. Using words like yous. Discussing the vig. Talking about wise guys. About being a made man. The result is you think you know how it goes. Murder. Beatdowns. Getting the snot kicked out of you. Mr. Dostoevsky thought he got it right. The big Russian writer, he didn’t. He deluded himself like he was one of his own characters. Killing, it was part of how I earned a living. Rare, a last resort, but easy as sitting on a chair. In the end, I balanced accounts.

“Not too much lettuce,” I said to the young lady. We had shuffled a few steps along the counter. I said, “A sprinkling,” and I showed her how.

She said, “Cheese?”

“Not on your life.” I let her know that in this day and age you might as well eat meat. “Cukes,” I said. “Green and red peppers. Pickles. Tomatoes.” I told her how to mix the vegetables, acted like I was doing it myself, like I was putting together a salad. I said, “Your tomato, it’s actually a fruit.”

She got into the swing of our collaboration, added a couple of cuke slices, slipped in extra tomato, a few pickles. Cuke. Cuke. Red pepper. Green pepper. Pickle.

Teamwork here in the heartland.

“Wonderfully done,” I said. Meaning it, me making up for my early request that she do what was a simple courtesy as far as the gloves were concerned.

Two girls worked the counter. They wore ponytails. A third one at the cash register was on the cell phone with someone who was giving her a bad time. Her anger showed in the way she stood and in her footwork, and she was squeezing out one-word answers.

“That all?” my server asked.

“Not too difficult, is it?” I said.

She said, “Mustard?”

I said, “Regular. A squiggle. A fillip.”

She rippled too much on.

“Nicely done,” I said. You pick your battles. Pearls before swine, they say. I said to the young lady, “A chef’s touch.” It’s an imperfect world. You give a clap on the back now and then. Two thumbs-up. Polite applause. It’s no skin off your nose.

I asked the girl who rang me up—she had set the cell phone next to the register, was not completely done being chewed out yet—what I had to do to get the Superman toy they were giving away with meals. “I got a five-year-old out in California,” I said. “Superman is the bee’s wax to him.” Two lies in one. I didn’t have a boy, which meant Superman meant nothing to him. Not to mention I had never spent one second in the Golden State.

I said, “It will mean the cat’s pajamas to my youngster.”

“You got it,” she said. She handed me Superman.

Screw the boss, the boyfriend, the dad—whoever it was who was on the other end of the line giving her grief. Go for it. Break the giveaway rules, the promotional guidelines. Grant the old dude his wish.

I praised her for her generosity. I told her my boy Chuck would be eternally grateful. Twice I said eternally.

And I walked out.

Behind me she was saying, “Your money?”

I waved her off. Dismissed it as chump change. Over five bucks, more than the cost of the meal itself.

*

To one side of the Subway was an auto parts and straight across the parking lot a cut-rate furniture and mattress shop, one of those places that post signs for sales every day of the week, every week of the year. Sitting in the shade of the building was a guy my age, this dude one more hold out, desperate not to have left the sixties behind. Sex. Drugs. And Rock and Roll. He wore dreadlocks. Like the hair existed separate from him, and he bought a ton of it and stepped into its mass later. He had on bell-bottoms made wider at the calf by a triangle of paisley cloth. Sandals with a tire-track tread. He was shirtless. Melon-faced and skinny. Braided leather dangled from his pants, his wrists, his hair. He had wrapped a bandana around one bicep and knotted it. The man sat Buddha-style, back against the wall, as if he spent his adolescence in a cubbyhole. He was clearly baffled about where the sixties had gone, was bewildered by what the hippies had failed to bring into being. Next to one of his knees stood a Mason jar full of yellow daffodils. By the jar, tarot cards.

I said, “Awesome, man,” and flashed him the peace sign, my Salvatore Ferragomo wing tips in his face. So too my Brioni suit pants, the jacket neatly folded on the backseat of my car, and my Zegna shirt, European collar. Cartier on my wrist. I made a show of checking the time. The yahoo had no idea what he was witness to.

By his other knee he had set a woven basket and propped against it a sign that said original songs performed on demand. He picked at his banjo. There by the daffodils lay a spiral notebook, flipped open, and on the page was a song in blue ink. You could tell it was music by the look of the writing itself.

I dropped a twenty in his basket and picked up the flowers. I said, “Fair enough, twenty for the whole shebang? Jar and all?”

He returned the peace sign.

Rabbit ears on a stick.

Our cosmic exchange.

I said, “Takes me back in time, man.” I held my hand up against the sun and said, “You can hear it, can’t you? The choppers low and cutting the sky to pieces? Napalm? That pop pop pop of M16s?”

Earned me a shake of his dreadlocks. Here, he was thinking, but for the grace of God go I. He said, “Your aura is so dark it’s frightening the birds.” He surveyed the parking lot, said, “Listen, man.”

Not a sound. Not a bird to be seen. Heard. Appreciated.

His point exactly.

I said, “You don’t know the half of it.”

Again, with the dreadlocks.

 

A road sign at the corner stumped me. There was a stoplight, which turned red, but the sign itself said continuous right hand turn with caution. I hesitated, tapped the brake, once, twice, double-checked left, glanced right, and all this got me a honk from behind. Sign trumped stoplight. I kept moving.

There is, as the thinkers say, speech, and there is action. Our obligation is to learn the difference.

A dark aura, me? Sure. The darkest. Talk about night and not being able to see your hand in front of your face, about the belly of a cave. Black hearted?

No.

No heart at all.

A soul?

Only if dirt itself or concrete can be said to have one.

Those tv shows, the movies—they bring in consultants. Old shooters. Give me a break. Trying to convince you that guys like me are like you. We got families. We got kids we worry about. We talk to headshrinkers.

They’re selling products is all. Might as well be rappers. Wear the caps, sideways backwards upside down. The clothes that look like the wind hurled them at you.

They’re making art, you say.

Not in my book.

You heard that Bible story about the Jew who’s told to kill his son. Maybe it was his only son. I don’t recall the details. God—Yahweh himself—and Satan, the evil Yetzer, the two of them making a bet, like this is the nfl, fantasy football. The Jew he laments. He emotes. He’s Hamlet. What to do? What to do? Only Jewish. Oy. Oy. Oy. Us, the living and walking around guys like me, we would do it in a heartbeat. Give us the word. Hand over the cash. Like I said, there is speech and there is action. I come up from your backside and put two behind your ear. Small caliber, the slug rattling around inside your skull. You’re my son, my firstborn, my only born, so be it. I’m doing a job. Punching a time clock, you might say.

I found the park the Subway ladies directed me to, kids shooting hoop and skateboarding, a lady walking a white dog, a public pool, rec center. There was a soccer field near a river. The water ran low and brown in its channel, and a mist hung close to its banks. By the time I settled myself at a picnic table I needed a shower. Humidity like the air had weight to it. I was breathing with my mouth open, one of your bottom-feeders in a fish tank. I laid out my Subway veggie, unscrewed the cap from a bottle of water, and placed the jar of daffodils in the middle of the table. Next to the flowers I stood Superman.

 

A mail truck circled through the lot where I had parked. The carrier pulled in next to the Passat and climbed out. Here was the man I had come to see, only he didn’t know it. A wink, as they say, is as good as a nod to the blind. He was wearing regulation post office shorts. Stumpy hiking boots. White socks, high up on his calf, striped, three orange rings at the top. What was missing was a dummy. This guy held his spot in the world like one frigging sad sack who ought to have been carrying one at his side. You know, under one arm, dragging the dummy along, its heels digging into the ground, raising dust. New Year’s for this loser was take-out pizza picked up at the drive-thru. Gulp down a slice or two, chug a beer, hit the hay at nine.

I finished my meal, pocketed Superman, collected the jar of flowers, and walked toward his table. You knew he sat here every day the weather allowed. Habits like a tattoo on his cerebral cortex. He sensed I was going to stop, glanced at me, and said, “You one of those park queers?”

Took guts on his part. I’ve got some age on me but am still imposing. Six-six, two-forty. Built for the nba, power forward. You bump into me, you trip over yourself in your rush to apologize.

Maybe it was the daffodils.

“From out of town,” I said. “You being a postman, I’m thinking you might give me directions.”

“No way to get there from here,” he said. Smirk on his mug. Then a grin like a badge.

“Yeah,” I said, “where’s that to?”

He said, “To where it is you’re headed I’m thinking the best thing is to keep turning left. Left. Then left. Left again. You’ll find what you’re looking for.”

“You think so?”

“The brother-in-law, he takes 33 to scenic route 550. Me, I argue for country road 15 through Chauncey, even though the two-lane’s known for wrecks and road construction. Others, I hear, go through Amesville and Seldom-Traveled Hollow past the Short List Grocery and Mercantile to Goat Run Honeysuckle Road.”

Funny man. Your Appalachian comedian doing his routine. I placed the flowers on his table.

He shook his head, downright amused at his own wit. “Is a bad joke,” he said. He said, “Name’s Virgil. Wife calls me Virg, or On the Virg. She’s Bobbie. I call her Bob.” He reached to shake hands and said, “No offense, I hope. It’s just we’ve got a bunch of wienie waggers frequenting the area.”

I took his hand and told him I was Dutch, my name, not my nationality, and, I claimed, as good a name as any. My spiel. One more lie on my conscience. Add them up. I’d lost count on the truth-lie scale. Didn’t know where I stood. “Mind if I sit?” I said.

He asked me where I was from. I told him New York, New York, and he said, “Was thinking something like that.”

I said, “My aura? A dead giveaway, is it?” Reality, as you know, was I was out of Cleveland, six, seven hours away was all. The Passat had Pennsylvania plates.

He tapped his temple, kidding himself about being smart, about his having savvy. He said, “The clothes, too rich, but even more, too slick for this backwater hell hole.”

“It’s pretty as a postcard here,” I said.

He said, “Jesus,” more gag than word. He said, “You say so.”

Over the next ten minutes I learned that his land in Coolville was flooded, the result of the state of Ohio paying a bunch of fat heads to clean a half-century’s worth of trees and stumps, limbs and other shit from Monday Creek and Tuesday Creek. Nobody anticipated what was about to happen downstream. Nobody factored a rain train into the equation. Nobody thought about Wednesday Creek. Virgil said, “Your tax dollars at work.” I learned that he was five minutes from finalizing a divorce, which was going to cost him a granddaughter he and his wife had been raising, an eleven-year-old who made getting up in the morning worth the blood flow and the pains in his feet. His wife would be hauling the girl across the country to Seattle, Washington. Five years back, his own boy—the girl’s father, a Mayflower driver—got himself T-boned by a bigger and meaner semi on a clover leaf outside Atlanta. He died in his cab. They never really extracted all of him. The mother had early on taken to the road, had become history one month after she delivered. Best way to describe her was to point out her similarities to a cigarette butt. Virgil’s boy had had twenty-two-inch biceps from all the lifting he did. Could clean and jerk a chest of drawers and run fifty yards with it if he had to. The granddaughter, lately she was obsessed with light switches. On. Off. On. Off. And the washer and dryer. Start them. Stop them. Start them. Stop them. There was one year she hung onto a tennis ball like it was her own baby child.

“You been beat up hard, day in and day out,” I said.

He said, “From above, below, and both sides.”

“Experienced that,” I said. “Crap coming at you from every possible angle. Like falling stars.” I shook my head. Hard to bear, I was saying. Me empathizing.

Virgil said, “Divorced?”

I showed him three fingers, saying, “I’m a slow learner,” and he got a kick out of that. I said, “Last one got the house and the gold mine.” Chalk up one more lie. It’s part of what I do. Original songs on demand. Talking myself into a slew of incarnations.

He said, “I’m walking away with a box of paper clips and a hinge is all.” He ducked his head and said, “The wife once bought a broom because its smell made her think good thoughts.” She spent two hundred bucks on a nine-cent cat—shots, spaying, declawing. Virgil built their home hand-over-hand, her taste, his labor. He gets done, and she learns—first time she’s paid attention in a year—that the furnace is between the bedroom and all possible exists, so she hauls bedding into the living room and sleeps on the couch from that moment to now. He argues they can break out windows, and she gives him nothing but blowback. Angered him to the point that he chucks a log through the front bay window to make his point. She goes mute. The woman refused to cross a bridge, in a car, on foot—no how any way. It turned out Virgil was this week living with another son in the boy’s double-wide, this boy over six foot tall and close to three hundred pounds. He, too, had worked as a mover. A few nights back, he got to jumping around in the shower and took the tub and himself through the trailer floor.

I said. “Pissed off was he?”

Virgil said, “Just the opposite of that. He felt like celebrating. He wanted to dance, was all.”

That night, Virgil heard yelling and hustled down the hall, and there was his boy Full-Monty naked. Soap on his shoulders. Not a cut on him. The tub, the stall, one wall, water—all of it the wreckage you see on the news after a tornado.

Virgil didn’t mention his other boy, the one I had business with. Could I find him, I was here to resolve his debt. The young man had miscalculated.

I said to Virgil, “You got just the two boys?”

“Just the two,” he said. “One left on the earth.”

Chalk one lie up for Virgil.

One son dead on the highway, I thought, and one dancing in the shower. A third in limbo.

*

I spent the night at the AmeriHost. Warm enough that evening that I swam. Sat in a butterfly chair and read. Like I said, Dostoevsky. The man cogitating like crazy. Stewing in his own juices if you asked me. Night settled on the motel, and I watched fireflies. Whole world knows about their cold light. About bioluminescence. About the chance that fireflies might help wipe cancer from the planet. Story you hear is a firefly gets into your house means someone is going to die.

I woke to a steamy morning, a blue mist, armpit sweaty, so I did my five miles on a treadmill in the exercise room. About noon, I returned to the Subway. All new young people at work. This group friendlier and on the ball. These youngsters fulfilling their marketing claim to be sandwich artists. The kid putting together my vegetarian special changed his gloves on his own. He had an Allen-wrench mustache and black hair chopped and yanked into hunks. I tipped the crew a tenner.

The sixties remnant was sitting outside the Subway, buttoned to a spot on the sidewalk. Bell-bottomed. Leathered. Dreadlocked. He was wearing a tie-dyed T-shirt. His banjo lay at his side, and he was writing in his notebook. No flowers today. A damn shame that fact. Their absence saddened me. I hadn’t known it but I had counted on them.

I dropped a twenty in his basket.

He screwed up his eyes and studied me. No recognition, not an iota of. Year after year the fog thickens for this dude.

I said, “Yesterday,” and gave him that gesture that says, Take me in. Have a good look. You know me. I said, “I’m the one with the bad aura. I scare birds even.”

Nothing in his eyes. All the fuses blown.

“Your everyday evil yetzer,” I said.

“I’m sitting here,” he said, “and the door opens, and out you come, and it’s like when it’s a perfectly clear day and a cloud crosses the sky and blocks out the sun.”

“Midnight at noon,” I said. “It’s a famous saying.”

He said, “I was writing exactly those words before you stepped out here. I see life before it happens.” He shut his eyes and took three deep breaths. He said, “Thank you, Lord, for my small gift.”

“Amen,” I said.

“Not really,” he said. “All you have to do is listen.” He made a big show of cupping a hand around his ear, which wasn’t easy to do, him having to haul aside a bundle of hair. He cocked his head and said, “Listen.”

I wasn’t hearing anything and said so.

“Precisely,” he said.

 

Virgil watched me park. My returning was its own message. I walked toward him, and he worried over me, like I was a tv he clicked on only to find the wrong program. He said, “Now you’re scaring me.” But he understood. He set his lunch aside and said, “Once is happenstance. Twice is not a coincidence.”

Was a game he was playing with himself. Say the magic words and I might disappear. Rotate your wrist twice to the left and three times to the right and the bad guy goes up in a puff of smoke.

“You mind if I sit?” I said.

“Last I heard it was a free country.”

I said, “Nothing up my sleeve,” and I showed him. Armani today, cuff links.

Virgil said, “You’re here about my boy.”

I nodded and said, “Not the bathtub dancer and not the dead one. You and me, we know this. The other one is why.”

“My youngest.”

“Your youngest.”

“No getting around it.”

“If not me, someone else. Whenever. Whoever.” I said, “One sits, one stands.”

“Meaning?”

I flip-flopped my hand in his face, palm to top, top to palm, and I said, “Justice, my friend. One sits, one stands—is not justice. Everybody sits or everybody stands.”

Virgil said, “For Christ’s sake.”

I said, “You got it.”

He said, “Last night I sent him away. The boy is some distance from here by now. Could be north. Could be east. Could be west. I told him not to tell me where he was going.”

“Not south?” I said.

He said, “God forbid.”

Gave us both a laugh. No need to be sending him to a foreign country.

I laid out my Subway and drink, telling him I was watching cable last night and a thought come to me. I told him one way to describe what I did for a livelihood was to say I cleaned up messes. So I was wondering, him being abused and defiled in so many different ways, if I could help him with regards to his granddaughter, if I could unburden him of the cause of his situation. Made me feel like one of those actors, me talking like I wasn’t talking about what it was I was saying.

He said, “The cause?”

And I said, “The cause. The source.” I said, “The wife.”

He said, “Bob?”

“You got another one you didn’t bring up?”

Another laugh, me and my buddy here in the park.

Virgil said, “No offense—because, believe me, I believe you—but what you’re saying is nuts.”

I said, “I’m so far from nuts I might be nuts.”

All he could do was shake his head.

“I see too clearly,” I said, and I unwrapped my sandwich and said, “People make the easy things too hard.” I told him about the one-hand-washes-the-other theory that life is. I reminded him of the trade-offs we all depend on. Your everyday reciprocity. You buy my groceries. I sell you cheap gas. “I resolve a problem, Virgil,” I said, “and you gain a granddaughter.”

“You a cop?” he said.

I said, “Only on Thursdays.”

He said, “Is this a trick?” Virgil had heard of stranger stuff happening, had seen scams on the news. Lady hires a sleazeball to remove her good-for-nothing boyfriend and the guy turns out to be an undercover fbi agent.

I said, “Sleazeball?” and used my hands to remind him of my attire. Haircut itself cost me a hundred bucks.

He said, “No offense.”

“Virgil,” I said, “what kind of aura do I have?”

“No,” he said. “Let’s not go there.”

“Where’s there?”

“Aura. Crystal balls. Voodoo. My wife—this is the day before she gets serious about the divorce—she comes in where I’m watching nascar. I’m talking about me relaxing in the house I built from the foundation to the wiring and plumbing to the last shingle. Not a double-wide that’s got a shower that crashes through the floor because of a little jumping around. I built a three-bedroom, two-bath ranch. I’m sitting in the La-Z-Boy I ordered from Blackwood’s in Lancaster. She comes in, and she says, ‘You know what’s impossible to do?’ I cut the sound on the tv, and before I can say something that makes her step back, catch hold of herself, maybe laugh, something like blow your nose with your feet, she says, ‘Try this. Close your eyes and look at the ceiling.’”

“Virgil,” I said, “game’s over.”

He said to me, “Try it yourself.”

“Try it?”

“Close your eyes, keep facing straight ahead, and look up at the ceiling the way you can if your eyes are open.”

I balked.

He said, “She hounds me until I give it a shot. I shut my eyes and try. You can’t. I couldn’t. I work at it until I get pissed. She leaves the room, and I go back to trying. You can’t do it.”

“You have a point, Virgil?”

“It’s your third eye you’re trying to find. All of us, we’ve got a third eye in our forehead, and we need to learn how to use its powers. How to employ it. Full utilization for full clarity of our human needs and desires.” Virgil glanced across the river to the hills. Trees there thick as grass. He said, “People like me got to figure out how to use that third eye. I close both eyes, and I try like crazy to look up, so hard it hurts. My wife tells me our third eyes allow us to see through all the falsehoods and injustices that make up most of what we say to each other, and what this amounts to is that she is packed and is leaving on the next bus.” Virgil ducked into his hands. Groaned. He did. He separated his fingers and peeked through, eyes wild, and he said, “A figure of speech, of course. She was taking the Camry, and she was bringing the granddaughter with her. There’s family out there in Washington.”

“Hell of a long drive.”

“Two thousand miles at least.”

“Jesus, Virgil, I ask about my aura and you tell me to close my eyes.”

Virgil said, “Is all its own form of bullshit.”

Had me there. Me and the Original-Songs-Performed-On-Demand guy—all of us dealing in the cover up. Dancing on the pavement like there is a grand design and knowing the whole time it’s all footwork and misdirection in the end. The box step and all its permutations is still the box step.

Virgil said, “I’m not saying you don’t do what it is you say you do for a living. You look like you could kill a child and not blink. Or you could be a ceo.”

“One of a kind, huh?”

“Bunch of peashooters in a pod.”

Nice that, once again the two of us sharing a joke. Felt good. Was like family. Thanksgiving. After the fabulous meal.

Then Virgil tells me more about the granddaughter. How she paints portraits. Monster-sized canvases he staples to frames he has nailed together for her. Oil paints. Basic colors. Red. Blue. So on. Straight out of the tube. She uses housepainter brushes. You buy one of her pictures—she does sell them—you need a U-Haul to bring it home. She uses a step stool to reach the top. She was on the news out of Columbus a year ago.

Virgil said, “Makes you believe in God, she does.”

“Him and his mysterious ways,” I said.

“Amen,” said Virgil.

I was thinking he was going to end up on his knees, was going to ask me to kneel next to him and pray, so I wrapped up the shreds of my veggie and tossed what was left in the garbage. I said, “Do we have a deal? You bring me your boy, and I give you the granddaughter in return.”

Virgil squinted hard and clamped his eyes shut. Hunting that third eye was my guess. Kind of like climbing hand-over-hand up a rope. He let go a deep breath and quit, popped the lid off his coffee mug and poured what was left onto the grass. Could have been Virgil was considering the trade-off. Weighing wife against grandchild.

Nope. Next words out of his mouth only added to the prayer he was offering the heavens, was him wanting to believe against all odds that there was a heart in my chest. Go ahead, I could have said. Put your ear right where one human heart ought to be. Give it a good listen. Any sound? Thumpa? Thumpa?

“We call him Dr. Doolittle,” Virgil said.

Rehash.

Virgil said, “The boy you want.”

“Don’t want the boy,” I said. “What would I do? Raise him?”

“You want the money.”

Rehash.

“He’s got a way with animals,” he said. “Him and his full-blooded hounds get along like family. We go hunting, and he signals for all of us to stay put. Thirty feet away he sits on a log. He unwraps a Baby Ruth and starts eating it. Five minutes go by, and we hear some rustling. It’s a buck. Skittish, ears on radar, but up it comes and starts eating the candy bar right out of the boy’s hand.”

Rehash. Same song. Second verse.

Virgil said, “So, the name Dr. Doolittle.”

“And your Bambi moment?”

“Right.”

“You take your shot?” I said.

“We did.”

“Down it?”

“Sure.”

So—and I stood up for this—I said, “I’ll tell you my own little story.” Virgil and I were walking now, headed to our vehicles, and I said, “My uncle—a scratchy old bird he is—he runs a smoke shop in Youngstown. The man sounds like he’s got a hole in his throat when he talks. One morning he opens for business, and he’s been ripped off. Not by pros. Whoever did it snatched and ran. Didn’t know a good stogie from straw. So my uncle—we’ll call him Stu—he hires five kids from the neighborhood, gives them cash, and sends them out to buy merchandise on the street. He gives them lists. Few hours go by, the kids bring him his product back and three names, and Stu takes care of the problem so it won’t happen a next time. One goes missing and the others are left to tell the tale.”

No rehash here on my part. I’m ending the conversation. Virgil, I was saying, don’t piss me off. No more talk and don’t even think about the police. My uncle and me we’re smarter than your average bear. Nowhere in this world is there a mark by my name. Not for loitering, not even for littering one of our nation’s highways. The police could only inconvenience me. Could only make me angry.

I gave Virgil one day. I would contact him.

 

You rented cars from dealers here. No Hertz. No Avis. No Enterprise promising to pick you up. You called Toyota. Honda. I returned the Passat and upgraded to an Accord, which I parked on a side street called Euclid. I walked down East State and rented a Dodge at another dealer. Left it in a Rent-to-Own parking lot next to a Kroger’s. AmeriHost itself was less than a mile away. Exit stage left. Exit stage right. Choices. Options. Every minute of every day is your either-or, your this-or-that, your on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand.

Kroger’s grocery was Virgil’s idea, was where he wanted to meet. More talk. Dostoevsky. Yak. Yak. Yak. A flyer said the store was celebrating its regrand opening, the place twice its old size. Kroger’s had added a pharmacy, complete with its own drive-thru. drop off and pick up. Kroger’s was now selling flowers and lawn furniture. tvs. Place settings for holidays. Exotic coffee blends. An Athens radio station’s Jambulance parked near the entrance put out the kind of music you pay no attention to. Old couples, dressed in black and white and red, danced on the outside patio, slowly, the sock hop of the living dead. Inside, locals and university kids cruised the aisles, the students wearing what they slept in or shorts and flip-flops, young women in slacker pants, Bobcats stenciled across the butt, their hair twisted into a fly-away bundle on top of their heads.

Late afternoon, and we were meeting inside at the Starbucks. No problem locating it right off the entrance to the right. A band had set up and was playing. Three ladies, two men. Fiddles, bass, guitars. Banjos. An autoharp. Spoons. cds for sale on a card table covered by a handmade quilt also for sale. The Home Remedy String Band. High up on the wall behind them cnn was on. Muted. There were balloons and cakes.

Virgil brought his son along, the one who put the tub through the double-wide’s floor. Clayton, I would learn. I spotted them near the entrance. The boy wore a black chunk of a mustache like a square patch, and a narrow half-inch-wide straight line of beard ran dead center from under his lower lip through his chin. Struck me as looking like the tail of a chipmunk he was polishing off. He wore studs in his cheeks and a silver ring in his upper lip. Had a nickel embedded in one ear lobe. He was all about screw the Midwest. The boy I had come for was one-fourth this yahoo’s size and skinny as a floor lamp, was one of those guys who left an outline of his bones in his clothes. In the photo I was given he wore a baseball cap, a “C” like a snake above its bill, his long hair sprouting from under the sides. “C” for Copperheads, the local baseball team. The boy was barefoot.

Kroger’s had jammed together tables and chairs next to the Starbucks. A woman, wearing an apron and a party hat, passed among the customers and handed out free coffee, small cups, mine a Frappuccino. Java Chip, she said. Not my taste. Give me black and cream hour after hour, and I’m a happy man. Virgil and Clayton, coming toward me, sidestepping through the tables, ignored the coffee the woman offered them.

I didn’t know squat about fiddles and less about music but the man playing this fiddle lived in the tradition of Robert Johnson and others who had met and bargained with the devil at the crossroads, who had entered into the exchange, your soul straight across for agility and passion and an ear. You want to play, to really play? To do so will cost you. No fire sales. No bargains. You pay with your life. Don’t quibble. After all, a note on the score is a note is all. A phrase is only a phrase. A chord, a chord. Right here in Kroger’s, on one particular day, this fiddler fiddled like he was running out of air and needed to get his say in.

I reached into my jacket, stood, and produced a cigar for Virgil and one for his boy before they could sit down. Trinidad Maduros, a farewell gift from my uncle’s stock. The two of them shook me off. A pair of finger puppets, shoulder-to-shoulder, each with his hand up the other’s ass.

Virgil was thinking Kroger’s was safe. So many people about. The regrand opening. The Home Remedy String Band. Customers in droves. I sat and Virgil and Clayton settled in across from me. “You’d be a fight,” Clayton said, “but what’s to stop me from taking you?”

“You’re not a natural-born idiot, is that the answer?” I said.

We stared at each other, me fiddling with the cigars they had rejected, pocketing them. “Coffee?” I said. “It’s free.”

“Not really,” Virgil said.

“Buy you a sandwich?” I said. “A brownie? Muffins?”

Virgil’s boy said, “Not here to eat.”

I said, “Good company, good food.”

Virgil said, “Clayton, sit on it and shut up.” Clayton scooted backwards, bumped a woman behind him, his chair screeching. He was to my left. People turned to look. Felt the anger. Rancor in the air. Next to the woman was a guy in an American-flag cap, stars and stripes swirling up the bill, along the sides. His shirt matched it. He drummed his table to the beat of the band. A lady in a straw hat clapped. Virgil handed Clayton a few bucks and said, “Get us some real coffee.” Clayton hesitated, cut his dad a look, but got up and wandered off.

Virgil checked over his shoulder. He turned back and said to me, “I’m hoping we can talk.”

“I think I answered that yesterday.”

“Hear me out.”

“Done that to death,” I said. “I came for an address. Today. For directions. Drive up this road, and turn left and there’s a narrow alley where the boy’s waiting. He ain’t going to run. Coordinates. Longitude and latitude.”

Virgil said, “A few words is all.”

I held up my hands. I said, “Your choices are one.” I held up a finger. “One. You’ve got other family to consider. A granddaughter who’s on the road to artisthood.”

“There’s nothing I can do?”

“Dig a moat. Fill it with water.” I gave him my best wink. “Build a wall around your new house, around the city, around the state. If nothing else, a wall might keep the cold out.”

“Funny man.”

“You can tell your boy to keep his head down wherever it is you sent him,” I said. “Everything else is blah blah blah. Period.” I sat back. Added, “Would’ve. Could’ve. Should’ve.”

He said, “I’m not a rich man.”

“Nobody said you are.”

Clayton returned. He handed his father a coffee and sat.

Virgil said, “But you met us here. Face-to-face. Person-to-person.” He shifted in his chair, said, “I saw that as a hopeful sign.”

“Didn’t mean it as hopeful,” I said. “Address is all I want.” I dug out the cigars and said, “No?” offering them again. Wishing I could light up. I said, “You want to take me up on the suggestion for the wife?”

“Judas priest,” Virgil said. “In my dreams, maybe. Not in real life.”

Pissed Clayton off, me talking about his mommy like that. He stiffened, was about to stand up to the bad man right here in Kroger’s. Virgil caught hold of his boy’s arm, and he said to me, “We’re just like you. We make mistakes. We screw up. We fart. Give us—give me—a fucking break here.”

Shoppers who had gathered for the Home Remedy String Band, those sitting, those standing by and gripping coffee cups, they got into stomping their feet and hollering. The fiddler did what fiddlers do. He fiddled experience into gold. Behind Virgil, an old-timer, cane leaning into his table, slapped his thighs in rhythm, left right, left right. One of Kroger’s managers—had himself a nametag and a sky-blue shirt—stepped over and started dancing, elbows bent, thumbs hooked into belt loops. He was heavy-footed but agile. He jackknifed himself into a clog, back and forth in front of the band, all of them singing “Barefoot Nellie.” A guy near the tv whooped. The clogger, a young man, face and grin like a pumpkin, sidled up to the mike and leaned in. The band quit singing, but kept playing, and he sang, “She’s the gal for me.” Deep, like what you’d expect from a bull. The crowd exploded. Couples hooked arms and danced.

Distracted me from Clayton. From Virgil. The set of the young man’s arms, his one leg like he was pedaling, his baritone.

“Some time,” Virgil said, “is all I’m asking for.”

The band was singing again, playing—fiddling, guitaring, autoharping.

I said to Virgil, “My hands are tied,” and I held them up, the underside of the wrists together as if I was bound. You’ve seen people do that, like they’re in cuffs.

He said, “God.”

I said, “God?”

“Intelligent design,” he said. “Rules about mercy and justice.”

I said, “My turn to say Jesus.”

And, again, the band steadied itself, stepped back, let the dancer in. The young man—he’d picked up a guitar—stepped to the mike and sang. “She’s the gal for me.”

Virgil said, “Candidly, you know as well as I do you don’t see the wind whistling through a junkyard, picking up parts and nuts and bolts and making itself a Cadillac.” Sounded like a speech he had worked on. Like something he had heard on talk radio. Preacher talk. Nutball wisdom. He said, “The cardiovascular system, candidly, is what I’m saying—it didn’t spontaneously come into being.” He moved his hands like he was washing them. He said, “You know, like a magic show. Design isn’t out of the blue. There has to be a designer.”

I said, “Candidly,” and he said, “Candidly.”

“Virgil,” I said. His boy was examining his own hands, opening them, closing them, making and undoing fists. Girding his loins. Bucking himself up. “Virgil,” I said, “what are you getting at?”

“Where are you on God?” he said.

“An eye for an eye.”

“An eye for an eye?”

A question, but he knew what I meant. I said, “Eternally.”

“In every case?”

I washed my own hands, that gesture that says, In all cases. Always. Every single time.

The band finished “Barefoot Nellie.” The crowd shouted, gave them an ovation. The dancer was all over himself with his own good cheer.

Clayton had had it. He stood, a big man. I got to my feet, only I was clapping, whistling. Side by side, a foot apart, me and Clayton, me equal to him in all ways, plus I was carrying. You don’t have to see movies or watch the tv to know what he understood at that moment. That I wasn’t going to waste half a second of my time on him. That I would drop him where he stood and walk out the door before what had happened registered. Five seconds, and I wouldn’t exist. Guy went left. Guy went right. I was a fucking magic trick. Virgil got himself between us, collected his boy, and they headed for the exit. I didn’t see them leave. The band had started up, and I was watching the fiddler, how he held his instrument, how he fit it to himself, how he dealt with the bargain he had struck in order to make the music he made.

 

Virgil and Clayton were sitting in one of those short-bedded trucks, this one looked like a flatiron, the body mostly gray primer, ace farrier service lettered in red across the tailgate. I weaved through the cars and shoppers moving to the music of the Jambulance and came up along the driver’s side. Clayton sat behind the wheel. I had pulled on black driving gloves. I made a two-fingered finger gun, put it to the back of his head, one inch from his ear, and touched him.

Clayton flinched, said, “Shit.” Didn’t turn. Did shut his eyes, I could see.

Virgil got the picture, and he ducked to look at me.

I said, “Pop.” They say you don’t hear it. Virgil did. I counted a beat and said it again. “Pop.” Was thinking Clayton might be hunting that third eye. Or he had crapped his pants. Peed himself. I leaned in the window, so they both got a good look at me, and I said, “Merry Christmas, gentleman.”

And I was gone.

I placed the phone calls I needed to make and reached Cincinnati by seven, found a Subway, caught a Reds game—Griffey hammered two into the right field seats—and then it was me and the red-eye. Three hours and twenty minutes to Las Vegas.

First class.

Rye, if I was lucky.

Me, semiretired.

Virgil and his boy—maybe the granddaughter could help out, sell a painting. Maybe they’d hit the lottery.

 

You want the truth? Here’s how deep me and my kind run. What we do is we sit around and shoot the bull. We piss and moan. We stuff our faces. We play poker. Five-card draw, Jacks or better. None of that Texas Hold’em shit you see on ninety-five channels night and day. Cigars. Beer. Scotch. Rye. You’ve seen this scene. I’ve lived it. tv’s on. Out in California, a lady—there’s a picture of her in the corner of the screen, one of those from the family album—she goes for a jog in the foothills and a mountain lion attacks her. Shreds her. Gnaws her to the bone. They’re reporting that she dies two days later.

One of us, guy who’s already tossed in his hand and is bored enough to be fiddling with the remote, he rocks back in his chair, removes his stogie and says, “Can you call that a homicide?”

We collectively mull over the question. We study our cards. I’m holding three threes, and I’ve raised fifty bucks. This is penny-ante. We’re killing time. We drink our beer. Our Scotch. Our rye.

One of us says, “You mean to the cops? Lion kills woman—is it a homicide to the cops?”

“In a philosophical sense?”

“Legally?”

“From whose perspective?”

“He said the cops.”

“What about from hers?”

“Or the mountain lion’s?”

Big laughs all around.

“You’re counting out fate?”

“What about a hit. Husband hired the cat.”

This we think hilarious. Like I said: I’m talking about how deep me and my kind run.

“You can’t count out destiny,” one of us says, and we nod our heads collectively. I say, “Or God, too. God’s in play.”

“What’s that mean?”

I tell them about the wind in the junkyard, about the cardiovascular system, about the big designer. I say candidly five, six times.

Another guy turns his cards over, folds. He says, “Fate. God. Your destiny. Don’t be throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”

Three of us say, “Jesus Christ.” It’s like we’re a chorus.

Followed by silence.

We stare at the tv. There’s a shot of the mountain lion. It’s dead too—they took it down—and it’s being dragged away. There’s a live shot of the husband. The lady’s kids.

I tap out my cigar and lay down my three threes.

The Original-Songs-Performed-on-Demand dude stuck in the sixties, you can hear him singing and the fiddler’s fiddle, Virgil’s yak yak yak—all of it alive in a child’s obsession with a light switch. On. Off. On. Off.

We turn it off. We turn it on.

I’m offering up a small prayer here, am thinking that maybe, just maybe, Virgil’s kid can run far enough.

About Darrell Spencer:

Darrell Spencer lives in Athens and teaches at Ohio University. A winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and the Drew Heinz Literature Prize, he lives with his wife, Kate, who is an artist and writer. They have five cats and a dog named Doc.