Monday, June 1, 2020

Scapegoat, Fiction by Nick Kolakowski

I call it my stunt torso: a silicone belly and pecs filled with something gelatinous, pinned to my real body with big velcro tabs. My brother, an actor, bought it used from a stuntman on a movie set. The stuntman told him it would absorb blows from fists or a baseball bat, but anything sharp would slide right through. For tonight’s gig I’ll wear it beneath a loose sweatshirt, to hide the seams, and hope that nobody feels me up.

The client is waiting for me in a white BMW parked down the street from my apartment building. She wears a sleek pinstripe pantsuit, signaling that she has a high-powered job, and her bloodless cheeks are streaked with what’s left of her mascara, signaling a crying jag on the way here. She flicks through a puzzle game on her phone while I count the crisp twenties in the envelope she handed me. “This is too much,” I say, peeling off the extra two hundred.

Without glancing from her game, the client says: “Think of it as covering your deductible. Just in case.”

I want to tell her that my health insurance sucks, that two hundred is maybe a quarter of what I’d need to pay before coverage kicks in. A hard blow to the head, one that puts me in the emergency room with a broken skull, will cost a few thousand out-of-pocket, everything included. A couple punches to the stomach, the kind that scramble organs, might total more. That’s why I use the stunt torso. It’s too bad I can’t wear a football helmet, but that would ruin the performance.

“Doesn’t work that way,” I say, and tuck the excess money into the dashboard cup-holder. “Rule one of this job: Never deviate from the price. Makes it easier for everyone.”

“Well, do you take tips?” The game shrieks a high score.

“No.” I fold the envelope once and stuff it into my rear pocket.

“Okay, suit yourself.” Shutting off her phone, she starts the engine. “My name is Delilah, but everybody calls me Dee.”

“Neal,” I say, which is a lie. “Everybody calls me Neal.”

“Hey, Neal. I know this is just a job to you, but thanks anyway. It means a lot.”

“Sure.” I settle back and work on my breathing as she leadfoots the gas, rocketing us down narrow streets of my crumbling neighborhood. I never ask where the clients live, but we’re heading east, beyond the areas of town where you get real familiar with your living-room carpet pattern on account of diving on it every time bullets whizz through the windows. Based on her all-options sedan, and the expensive cut of her suit, I bet our final destination is the Heights, where everybody is rich enough to pay someone else to shovel their shit.

I don’t know whether it’s nerves or the stunt torso, or some combination of both, but after a mile my forehead is slick with sweat, my underwear chafing my crack. “Can you turn the air conditioning on?” I ask.

Dee twists the dial like her worst enemy’s nipple, and arctic air blasts out the vents. “Good?”

“Yeah.” I nod. “By the way, you’re supposed to fill me in. I don’t need too many details, just enough to play the role.”

“So there’s this guy, Charles. We’re at the same company, but we don’t report to each other or anything. I didn’t mean to, but we hooked up at this work event, and at first I thought it was one of those fuck-in-the-bathroom things, you know how it goes.”
Dee takes a corner at high speed. “And lo and behold, I sort of fell for the guy. So now we’re in a relationship, which would be fantastic except for, well.”

Dee takes her left hand off the wheel and waggles it so the little diamond on her engagement ring catches the light. Stacked atop the ring is a plain gold wedding band. “Rick—that’s my husband—found out about it,” she says. “We have our thumbprints programmed into each other’s phones, and he snooped in my messages. Maybe I wanted to get caught. My marriage sucks.”

“Sorry to hear that,” I say. “He hasn’t seen a photo of Charles?”

“He hasn’t seen a photo of his face, if you get my meaning. And Charles is, like, the last person on Earth not on Facebook, so Rick can’t find him that way.”

I have also forsworn all social media. Possessing any kind of public profile would make it more difficult to do this job. “Tell me about Rick’s temper,” I say.

Dee puffs air into her cheeks, exhales loudly: “What’s to tell? He’s got a bad one. He’s never hit me, or I would have walked out a long time ago, but he throws shit, yells, all that stuff. One time, we were in this bar, and this guy bumped into him. Just an accident, but he spilled Rick’s beer. Guy offers to buy him a new one, and Rick up and hits him in the chest. Lucky nobody ended up in jail over that.”

“What are his triggers?”

She laughs. “He’s really sensitive about his weight.”

Maybe Rick’s fat, I think. If he’s out of shape, that’s great.

Still giggling, she says: “And you should definitely mention his hair. He’s afraid of losing it.”

“What else?”

“Tell him he’s boring in the sack. Like I said, he’s got a lot of anger issues. It doesn’t take much.”

With gigs like this, it’s all about finding the right balance. You want everyone emotional, but not so emotional that they beat you to death on the sidewalk. On cold nights, my left knee and right elbow twinge and throb, reminding me of what happens when I’ve gotten that rule wrong.

“Good to know,” I tell Dee. The road becomes smoother, the potholes disappearing as we enter the Heights, the enormous houses on either side perfect as wedding cakes, the lawns so manicured I imagine hordes of workers cutting every individual blade of grass with tiny scissors. The sight of those million-dollar homes makes my stomach clench in a hard knot, and I pat the stunt torso for reassurance.

Dee notices my discomfort. “You don’t like it here.”

I grew up a couple blocks away, I almost tell her. This place is in my blood. Like a virus, or something that poisons you slowly. But the clients never need to know anything like that, especially when it’s almost showtime. “It’s fine,” I say, wiping my forehead.

“Look, Rick needs to get really aggressive, you understand?” Dee’s lips tighten. “And I need to film it. His lawyer sees a video like that, it’ll make this whole process a lot smoother.”

“Yeah, you said that in your email.” I sigh. “You also said he doesn’t have a gun.”

“He doesn’t.”

“Just reconfirming.”

“Got it. I’m not lying to you.”

“Okay. And if I see him with a knife, any kind of blade, I run, got that?”

“He’s an angry jackass, but he’s not a killer. Anyway, we’re here.” We pull into the driveway of a two-story McMansion, white with beige trim, and park behind a gold-colored SUV with tinted windows. As we climb out, I glimpse something on the SUV’s trailer hitch that makes me pause: a giant pair of brass balls, realistically rendered down to the veins and textured skin.

Dee follows my gaze and rolls her eyes. “Rick’s idea of a joke. Can you blame me, about the divorce?”

I shut the BMW’s door, adjust my sweatshirt, and crack my neck. I did some preventative yoga before leaving my apartment, and I feel nice and limber, ready for whatever’s coming. The envelope is a comforting presence below my tailbone, and I think about what I’ll spend my payment on, besides painkillers and bandages. I’ll tally up my rent and student loans and fast-food orders and phone bill, and maybe I’ll have a few bucks left over for a decent bottle of whiskey. I run my tongue over my teeth and think: Why bother saving for retirement? I’ll never have enough.

Dee slings her purse, as shiny and white as her car, underneath her arm, her elbow pressing it tight against her body. It has a small exterior pocket, and I spy the edge of her smartphone peeking out the top, its camera a black eye.

We are halfway up the stone path to the front door when it bursts open, framing the infamous Rick in full Suburban Barbarian mode. His faded t-shirt strains against a meat market of oversized pecs and biceps, and his square head reddens to the color of undercooked steak when he sees us. “Well,” he hisses through clenched teeth. “Bitch brought her bitch, I see. This is Charles? This is who you’re leaving me for?”

So much for my dream of Rick being flabby and floppy. The dude looks like he bench-presses rhinos for fun. His blonde hair is thick as a newscaster’s, shaped by professional hands into a camera-ready cowlick, and the sight of it makes me feel a weird sympathy for him, despite his rage and heavy fists: I would fear losing a magnificent mane like that, too.

Dee gifts him a big smile. “Rick, let’s just behave like adults, okay? This is Charles. We just want to talk.”

That’s my cue. I step forward with my hands out, palms up. “I know you’re angry, buddy.” I try out a chuckle. “I’d be angry as hell, too. Don’t blame you a bit. But we can work this out.”

Beads of sweat drip down Rick’s forehead, shiny in the light. It reminds me of something my grandfather, one of the last of the old-school miners, once told me about dynamite: if you left it sitting too long in the case, it would start to sweat like a man, unstable, a jostle away from blowing everything to hell. (Actually, that’s my only memory of him, before the state and my foster parents took me away.)

“Thought you could fuck my wife,” Rick says, marching down the steps toward us. “Thought I wouldn’t find out, huh?”

“Things just happened, man,” I say. “The heart wants what it wants.”

Rick squeezes his fists so tight I can see the tendons straining in his forearms like bridge-cables about to snap. He’s fifteen feet away and closing fast, his sneakers squeaking on the stone path. “Show you what I want, motherfucker.”

I tense my abs and say: “Dunno, man, you’re pretty soft.”

He plants his left foot and swings his right fist at my head, really telegraphing it, and I raise my hands to protect my face, already knowing his next move: a left jab to my stomach. Rick does exactly that, and I feel the blow as a wobbly vibration through the stunt torso, almost knocking me off-balance. If Rick sensed the difference between flesh and silicone, he doesn’t show it: instead, he launches a flurry of punches at my chest, driving me back across the lawn.

The stunt torso blunting the blows means I can take a breath means I can mutter: “It started as one of those fuck-in-the-bathroom things, but I think it’s love…”

I expect Rick to keep punching, maybe take another swipe at my head. Instead he opts for a sweeping kick that he no doubt saw in some action movie. I try to duck and weave, but he’s a quarter-second too quick. His foot catches me in the side, at the edge of the stunt torso, and drives the air from my lungs. My knees wobble, and I fall, trying to tuck into a ball as I hit the grass.

Through my forearms crossed over my face, I spy Dee take a position at the end of the driveway, the better for a wide-angle shot of her husband delivering a beatdown to a stranger. “Oh God,” she yells. “Oh God, Rick, stop. Please.”

Rick does not listen. In fact, the tempo of his blows speeds up, his feet slamming into the stunt torso, which can only take so much damage before my stomach begins to feel it. I can hear him muttering in time with the blows: “Show you… show you… show you…”

At moments like this, I wonder if dropping out of college was a mistake.

I could have been anything: an engineer, a software designer, a film director.

But maybe I’m helping more people this way.

After what seems like an eternity, the kicks slow, then stop. I lower my forearms. Big mistake. Rick, grinning, slams his heel into the right side of my face, and the world pops white. My mouth salty, a front tooth loose under my tongue. I groan, and Rick bends down until his lips are almost in my ear.

“That’s what you get,” he says, sounding satisfied. Offering Dee a middle finger, he turns and walks back to the house—limping a little. Maybe the thirtieth kick to my stomach sprained his ankle. Who says I can’t give as good as I get? I try to rise and the world tilts and lurches, my chin warm with blood. Dee’s hands on my elbow, helping me upright.

“I can drive you to a clinic,” she says. “Or a hospital.”

I take a deep breath that fills my lungs with napalm, but nothing pops or shifts in my chest. “Take me home,” I whisper, and opening my mouth lights a pack of matches under my tongue. “I’m okay. Just need… a little ice…”

We make it to the BMW. Buckled into the passenger seat, I take care to keep the collar of my shirt pressed against my mouth, to soak up the blood before it can stain the leather upholstery. Every turn out of the Heights sends my stomach slapping against my ribs, sparking fresh agony. I’ll make it, though. I’m a connoisseur of beatdowns; I know the nuances of bruises, the true depths of damage.

“How often you do this?” Dee asks, real concern in her voice.

I shrug. “Not that often,” I say, working the pain in my mouth like a piece of gum. “Couple times a year. Pays good, though.”

She shakes her head. “Such a weird job. How’d you get into it?”

“Life,” I say, and turn my head to the window.

Dee, taking the hint, stays quiet until we pull to the curb where she picked me up. Then she almost ruins everything by plucking the overpayment from the cup-holder and trying to force it into my hand. I swat it away. “No,” I say, opening the door. 

“Wait,” Dee asks.

I pause, one foot on the curb, already fantasizing about the ice packs in my freezer, the half-full bottle of whiskey in my bedroom.

“I know you’ll never meet Charles, but he’s grateful.” Dee brushes her lips against my wounded cheek, sparking a web of fire that crackles down my neck to my collarbone. “You’ve been a huge help. Thank you.”

“No problem,” I mumble, and exit the vehicle. I wish Dee well as I lurch down the sidewalk, pausing to spit a red gob into a tree-box. Although the stunt torso held up reasonably well to Rick’s rage, the dents in the sternum and left side suggest it has maybe two more jilted-husband jobs before I need to ask my brother for a new one.

It takes so long to walk the block to my place, fumble my keys from my pocket, and let myself into my apartment. In the darkness of my kitchen, I touch my cheek where Dee kissed it, flaring that dulling ache back to a full-on firestorm. I touch it again.
And again. And again. 

Damn, it hurts.

It hurts so good.

"Nick Kolakowski is the author of 'Maxine Unleashes Doomsday,' 'Boise Longpig Hunting Club' and the upcoming 'Rattlesnake Rodeo' (all from Down & Out Books). His short work has appeared in Tough, Shotgun Honey, Plots With Guns, and various anthologies."

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