Monday, August 6, 2018

Masonry, by Rob McClure Smith

The late afternoon sky was that blue  called sky-blue. A sky so clear and true you could  put your fist through it. A plane cut a diagonal swath across it. Cowan wanted to be up there, oblivious to harm.

It was 2.30.

Near the turnstiles at King Street slouched a young man. His hair cut in a fade and topped with a purple do-rag knotted in front, wide-legged Rocawears bunched on a pair of reverse-laced red K-Swiss. He had the look, right down to the old RG3 sweatshirt over  a snow-white tee, and he was trying way too hard not to check out the arrivals. A blue knapsack nestled between his feet. It was the knapsack was off.

Cowan took the other exit. He crossed by the Amtrak depot and climbed Shooter's Hill to the Masonic Memorial. Crossing Callahan, he looked back to see a blue bag slung over a shoulder and a phone clamped to an ear.

The Memorial was fashioned after the Lighthouse of Alexandria. But no Egyptian would have concocted nine floors of Doric, Ionic and Corinthian into this stone tier cake monstrosity. The information board was a dark solemn black. Open daily. No dogs. No filming. Proper attire required. This fucking donkey jacket would be the death of him. On top of the board a golden crest, sun at the top, moon at the bottom, columns at upper left and right surmounted with globes, sheaves of wheat, tools and pomegranates. In the center a "G" surrounded by a square and a compass and '1910.'  In crimson three stars and two horizontal stripes. In Memoriam Perpetuam.

He chose the curving path on the left, scaling another step tier, then another. Up and up. The embankments framing the steps stippled brown. Landscaping minimal, sparse bushes ranged symmetrically. No cover, a blank and deserted place. One tier from the top, a glass case with reproduction of Brady's 1864 panoramic view. The city of Robert E. Lee was gray and smoky, a military tent village erected where the train station now was, a row of arches, like on a rich man'ss croquet lawn. Cowan read about the Ellsworth Avengers on a sepia daguerreotype, located landmarks then and now, contemplated the hidden meanings of architecture. Sloping downhill, another stone G in the square and compass. To his right the young man from the Metro. He had followed him and it wasn't for his autograph.

"Aight." The kid tapped a finger on his do-rag, blue-black tat of a spider-web like a bruise on the side of his neck.

They stared at a distant horizon, low rooftops, distant snaking blue, a far away Ferris wheel, unturned. A flag flapped on a flagpole causing it to creak. Cowan saw the butt of a pistol protruding from the waistband of the kid's boxers. He was supposed to.

"What you suppose the big G stands for?" he asked.

The kid stared at Cowan like his question was mined.

"Big G on the stone there?"

"George."

"You think?"

"Uh-huh. George Washington, man, founding father freed the slaves and shit."

"Not God?"

The kid considered this. "Nah."

"Geometry then?"

"Don't give a shit, cuz. Whatev."

"You should," Cowan said, angrily. "Big difference between God and George.  God doesn't have a name, so the theologians say. But if he did it wouldn't be George.  Who'd take a God called George seriously?  'Come out the burning bush, George, you're scaring the kids!' George doesn't have the right ring to it. Doesn't that bother you any?"

The kid gave Cowan the heavy-lidded look he likely reserved for homeless D.C. crazies. "I ain't got to bother about nuthin' but be black and die, slim."

"What you think his name would be then?"

"God."

"Besides that."

"Fuck is with you man?"

"Seriously.  If God had a name what'd it be?"

"Sumthin like. . . " The kid pondered his knuckles. "Fuck I know."

"You're not even trying." The silence lasted about seven years.

"Sumthin like Mahabone maybe," the kid spat, finally.

"What?"

"Mahabone. I made it up. Got some serious ji voodoo vibe to it. See, I was God I'd want a serious motherfuckin name scare the shit out folks got me bent." He tilted his chin at the declining sun, content. "Mahabone, hell. I'm a liking that. They be shittin' their pants old Mahabone come round."

"You got a name?"

"You hear me ask yours?" He held Cowan's gaze. Finally, "Yeah. I got a name."

"That's good," Cowan said. "A name's useful. That's how come my cat is called Susan."

The kid unzipped the knapsack. Cowan watched. Instead was extracted a two-thirds full 40-ounce of Country Club. A cap unscrewed. Amber fluid sloshed.

"I see you brought your own urine sample."

"You ever shut the fuck up, man?  I'm here appreciatin’the nature and shit."

The kid took a deep swig of the malt and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. He had to hold the bottle with both hands to tip it, like he was playing a brass instrument.

"Did you know beer is made from barley?" Cowan asked. "That gut rot is derived from corn."

The kid screwed the cap back on and adjusted the bottle on the parapet. "Do I look like I give a fuck?"

"That's the only Country Club you'll ever see the inside of." Cowan gestured at the Memorial. "Ever gone inside?"

"I ain't ever been in that joint." The kid grimaced. "Fuck is these creepy pillars and shit?"

A couple, in prosperous middle age, climbed the steps. The kid observed their approach, eyes flitting, evaluating terrain. They passed, on to the entrance, where they paused in an attitude of worship.

"I do like them boxers," Cowan said. "Very pretty. I knew a girl had panties the exact same shade of blue and red and white. I think her name was Wonder Woman. Is that the new concealed-carry underwear I've read about? What you plan to do with the gun? Shoot your balls off?"

The kid tilted his chin at him. "Kill your ass. Do the world a favor."

"Not here though." Cowan said. "All these sightseers. Look, here's Tiger Woods."
Prince Hall came down the steps backward, snapping a photograph on his phone.  He wore a green jacket.

"Tourists don't give no shit. You know how they do. They from Minnesota and such." The young man waxed philosophical. "See no evil, know what I'm sayin'?"

"You all getting acquainted?" Hall joined them. He wore a pair of too-large Locs sunglasses, a Redskins snapback high on his brow. "What's good cuz?" He offered his fist to the kid for a pound and they performed an elaborate ritual handshake.

"Man, I'mma keep it a hunnit, don't like this shit. Naw. Way in the open, know what I'm sayin'? Like the Kennedy Center. Should be in the cut for a deal like this."

"What you got there?" said Hall, gesturing at the bottle. "You can't be doing that here. What the matter with you, Jalil? Get a grip."

"Listen to this motherfucker talk for five and you be drinkin too."
Prince walked behind Cowan to fingerwalk his jacket pockets, hunkering to track with his palms the inside seam of his jeans, socks. He removed his wallet.

"I appreciate you hooking up with us, Mr. Cowan."

"If you're feeling frisky shouldn't you ask me out for a drink first?"
Prince palmed his chest pocket for a cigarette. "Smoke?"

"I'm looking after my health." Cowan grinned. "I'm figuring to live a long time."

Hall laughed, tossing the wallet to Jalil who rifled it.

"Next you'll be asking if I want a blindfold."

Hall lit with the flick of a Bic, inhaled deeply.  "I'm not with you."

"Before the execution. Like the last cigarette."

Hall blew a streamer of smoke. "That's a morbid thought. I'm going to finish this jack," he said. "Then we're going to stroll back around there admire the fine architecture."

"I'm not going anywhere," Cowan said, reasonably. "Sorry. I like it here. I can appreciate the nature and shit, that right?"

Jalil sniffed. "I think we got a crazy. Talkin' to me about the name of God and some shit." He finished with the wallet, finding nothing of interest, stuffing two twenty dollar bills in his pocket. "We bout done here?"

"This one says the G in the block there is for George," Cowan said. "I say God. Want to be the casting vote, Prince?" Cowan blinked a few times at him. "Prince. What a silly name."

"Giblum." Hall examined the tip of his cigarette like it was a Rorschach, flicked dead ash. "It means stone squarer."

"I'm surprised."

"You get a free education when you serve. You be all you can be, no one tell you that?" He looked in Cowan's eyes. "You'd have been better never come to this city."

The tourists returned and the men exchanged a glance. Hall made a delicate gesture with his hands, an oblique sign.

Cowan looked at the sprawl of city. "You get a good view up here. Where was it you served? Afghanistan? Iraq?"

"You don't want to know where I've been or the things I done."

"Prince," said Cowan, thoughtfully. "Say, you weren't named after the midget in the purple suit? The one sang Darling Nikki?"

Hall narrowed his eyes slightly. "Great song that," was all he said.

The tourists stopped by the emblem. Hall drummed his fingers on the railing.

The sun hung lower in the sky, an invitation to night. They moved away.

"I'm not coming with you," Cowan said, quietly.

"I think it's in your best interest."

"I'm finished either way." Cowan shrugged. "I'm just not up for making it convenient. You'll have to do for me here, like this."

Hall flinched. "It's a hard world. You know that."

Cowan needed to think carefully and act quickly. For now, jabbering like an idiot would have to do.

"Must be hard for you being a professional and here you have to work with amateurs like Lil' Wayne here."

Hall ashed his cigarette on the railing and a slow rain of orange flecks descended.  "You have to use what's at hand when you're building," he said, turning a complete 360, seeing no one for miles. "Different tools for different purposes." He flicked his butt on the grass, reached into his jacket pocket, made more significant eye contact with Jalil.

They wouldn't shoot him. They had something else in mind. Something quieter.

"What about this tool?" Cowan asked, edging closer to Jalil.  "When this is done, you going to do for him too?"

"What the fuck this crazy rambling ‘bout?" Jalil asked.

"Forget to tell you about that?" Cowan tut-tutted. "You didn't tell him how royalty cleans up after itself. That's a sin of omission."

"I hate to be rude, but you're starting to bore me."  Hall nodded at Jamil, who didn't move. Just stared blankly.

Cowan toe-shuffled closer, within arm's length of the bottle now.

"You need to kill here, cuz," Prince said, discomfited. "This one just trying to syce the situation."

"I been thinking about how that shit went down my own self."

"We talk about this later, aight?"

"Hold up, but way Carlton was buggin’. . ."

Jalil didn't finish because Cowan scooped up the liquor bottle with both hands and brought it down hard as he could on the purple do-rag. There was a dull hollow glassy thud and the cap popped. Blood and liquor sprayed on the stonework. Jalil staggered sideways like a stunned cow and Cowan smacked him on the cheekbone with the bottle so hard it shattered. He was left holding the wide jagged neck. Jalil's knees buckled and his eyes rolled back white, like a man far gone in drink. He toppled onto the embankment, thrashing, his legs kicking as though pedaling an invisible bicycle.

The gun spun between the railings and onto the emblem, clattering on the stone.  Cowan was trying to gauge where it went when Prince's body flew into his, a linebacker's hit. The momentum sent them off the parapet and onto the carved square. It was a four foot drop, but they landed hard and awkward on the stone G. Cowan's back spat rapid sparks of pain. Only a tsunami of adrenalin and terror got him upright.

Hall was hurt too, his right shoulder dislocated. His arm hung limp by his side and he had the look of a man who had failed to accomplish a basic task, targeting fury like a laser at his own ineptitude. He eyed Cowan through a mist of hurt and rage.

Cowan scrambled across the stone searching for the missing gun.

With the subtlest flick of his wrist a small ivory knife appeared between Hall's fingers. Cowan backed up across the G as Hall  advanced, dabbing the knife at his chest.  He felt the indent of the stone letter under his feet. The man was trained to kill hand-to-hand. But he was injured, switching the blade to his left hand. His semi-crippled status evened things up. The third time Hall thrust, wincing as he did so, Cowan skewered his wrist with the bottleneck.

"I'm going to kill you," Hall bared his teeth. He looked at the glass embedded in his wrist, blood spurting around it. He took a step, his face crumpled with pain. "I'm going to kill your ass. Kill your ass," he chanted. But the knife hung limp.

They circled one another on the emblem,in the attitude of dancers. Hall on the compass:  Cowan on the square. He expected to be numbed by panic, but this close to death he felt untroubled. How few thousand years ago it was other dancers had stood here, plodding slowly in a darkness of fetid caves, befouling themselves in ceremonies of fear with gestures bloody and offerings bloody given up with knives bloody to some impassive stone idols.He tasted swamp history in his mouth and scented in the wind an ancient, reeking odor and wanted very much to live and was no longer afraid.

When Hall made another lunge, Cowan  tugged on the elastic in his sleeve and the plywood with the razor blade embedded in it snapped into his fingers. He jinked and stroked the blade across the exposed cheek. It slit Hall temple to chin. The skin tore like paper. Hall gave a cry and fell to one knee. Cowan kicked him in the jaw.

The spurting made a red tributary across the indentation of the square and compass. Cowan crept to where Hall lay splayed on the stone. He wasn't moving.

"Prince,"he said, holding the razor's edge in front of him.

More red pooled now and the handle protruding from Hall's neck quivered each time a jet squirted under it.

"Isn't nobody killed me yet,"Cowan whispered.

The slab was veined with blood.



Cowan found the gun in a bush. He knew fuck-all about guns. He didn't even know how to take the safety off.

Jalil sat up, feeling at his face with his hands. One cheek was badly swollen and an eye closing fast. Cowan jammed the gun in his ear. "I told you drinking was bad for you," he said.

"What the fuck you do?" moaned Jalil, blood seeping between his fingers.

"You've heard the expression 'hitting the bottle'? This time the bottle hit you. I think you might be concussed. That'd be hard to tell with you, son.” Cowan tracked the cut on the kid's head with his palm. “You're going to need a doctor but--"

"I don't believe in them," Jalil groaned. "Fucks stick you with needles and shit."

"You need stitches. It won't hurt."

"'It won't hurt' always does," Jalil said, despondent.

Cowan hauled him to his feet and, shoving the gun in his back, forced him to look at the body on the emblem, arms forming a 90 degree angle, like a final signal of distress.

"Head hurts like a motherfucker," Jalil observed.

"That could be you," Cowan said. "Lying there. Just saying."

"Could be. But ain't." Jalil shrugged. "I didn't like him anyways. He had a bad attitude."

The blood made the stone slippery. Cowan had never once considered the slipperiness of blood. 

"Take off your jacket," he ordered.

"Nah."

"Give us the fucking jacket."

Jalil handed it to him. Cowan took off his own. "Here," he said, handing it over. "Wipe that stone off with this."

"You serious?"

"Do I look serious?"

"I dunno what you look like."

Jalil scrubbed. The declining sun freakishly seemed to dart its rays to the center.  Both of them looked up, disturbed. Then returned to the task at hand.

"Move the body off first," Cowan said. "And be careful you don't slip and fall.  That would be embarrassing." He pulled on the sweatshirt. "It's important not to embarrass yourself." He flipped the hood and sat hunched like a monk with the gun still leveled at Jalil. The hoodie made him self-conscious. His back hurt and his legs were shaking again. He wondered if he was going into shock. "Now how's about you drag it under that bush, see it?"

"You goin to shoot me or what?"

"Depends."

Jalil kicked the body into concealment, wiped his hands clean on the grass.

"You know how to make this all go away?" Cowan asked.

"How you mean?"

"I mean can you make a call to your people and make this go away? Like it never happened. You connected? Or is that what Prince did before he abdicated?"

"Maybe."

"Do it. Then go get some stitches."

"I think I got a number some place. You not goin’to shoot me?"

"I want to, but I need the bullets where I'm going."

"The safety is on."

"Yeah, I figured."

"Can't shoot nobody with the safety on. You retarded?"

"You going to make that call or not?"

"What I say?"

"Tell them you fucked up. Tell them the guy you meant to waste got away. Say he ran towards the Metro. Tell them you need a body disposed of."

Jalil's eyes never left the gun as he spoke. Cowan took his phone and threw it against the stone.

"The fuck?"

"The cell phone is destroying the art of conversation."

"That a new iPhone!"

Cowan took off the safety. "Go find my wallet."

Jalil came back with it. "You take bad photos, man. They do the license over you ask. Don't nobody have to go through life looking that ugly-ass."

"Keep the 40 and put it toward a new coat." Cowan stuffed the wallet in his pocket. "Then get yourself a new line of work. You're not cut out for this. Be an exotic male dancer or a postman or something."

"You not goin to shoot me?"

"You keep bringing it up I'm liable to."

Cowan lowered the gun and took off down the steps.

"You really goin to the Metro?" Jalil called after him.

Cowan turned and aimed the gun. "It matter?"

"I ain't say shit."  Jalil's lip was in a full pout. "You sure you need to be keeping that jacket?"

"Uh-huh."

He walked along King, glancing nervously at traffic headed east. The street whirled like the blades of a fan. He went into the Austin Grill, famished. Maybe that's what killing someone did. Gave you an appetite. He asked to be sat at a window table, one overlooking the main drag.

4:03, night fast falling, headlights on. He settled back, looked at the rack of glasses by the bar, the longhorns above the kitchen, the array of weird masks on the brick walls. Even that scary-ass Frida Kahlo looked seductive tonight.

The waitress was checking him out. She was young, a leggy sloe-eyed blonde in too-tight jeans and a low-cut blouse. He didn't attract that kind of attention from this young a woman anymore. In his early thirties, a cloak of invisibility had descended on him. Perhaps he had the look of a stone-cold killer tonight:  maybe the danger he exuded made him more attractive. Something evolutionary.

She returned with his Pepsi, big-eyeing him. She was staring so blatantly that he felt obligated to stare back. She was pretty as all get-out. When she brought his order, she put on the tray a glass of water without ice and a pile of napkins. She leaned her breasts across him and he deep-whiffed her perfume as she whispered in his ear. "Sir, there's blood. It's on your face." He looked at her. "It's, like, all over your cheeks."

He dipped the napkin and wiped the blood away. There was a lot of it, and it wasn't even his. He depleted the pile.

"I think I must have cut myself," he said.

Her look of concern was tinctured, Cowan realized, with horror.

"There's blood on your hands too," she said.

There was.

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