Monday, January 4, 2021
One of the men held a gun. That man wore a horsehead mask.
The other two held long knives. They were disguised as American presidents, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.
Everyone in the room turned toward Tom.
The man in the horse mask pointed with his gun to the empty chair at the head of the table.
“Sit down,” he said. “And tell us where your safe is.”
But Tom was rooted to the floor, fear gnawing him like he was a crumbling statue.
“Is that my mask?” Tom managed to ask, and then he remembered he’d actually left his own horsehead mask on the floor in the office, moments earlier. His wife, Ruth, gave Tom a confused look.
“What do you mean,” one of the men asked, “your mask?”
Tom couldn’t remember the exact moment that the copious amount of online pornography he watched began to bore him, but he could absolutely remember the moment it excited him again – it was when he started watching while wearing a rubber horsehead mask. Something about locking the door to his basement office, slipping the mask on, and adjusting it so he could peer through the nostrils gave him an exciting rush, like the sensation of a first teenaged kiss, or suddenly leaping into the air and realizing he could fly.
The mask itself had been a surprise, forgotten by some neighbor at their house after a Halloween party and discarded to his office. Tom had ignored it until one day, out of boredom, he put it on and saw himself in the mirror. And what he saw moved him.
Gone was the slumped, pudgy body of a fifty-year-old most people would correctly assume worked in insurance. Tom looked at himself and saw a mythical beast staring back. The horsehead, with its wild eyes and open mouth, looked to be in mid-gallop, perhaps rearing on hind legs. Tom had slowly unbuttoned his shirt, slid it off. Undid his pants and let them drop to the floor. His hands felt like he was holding lightning.
After that experience, it was as if pornography and the mask possessed Tom. He thought about both obsessively at work, missed family meals, took days off to spend online. Once, he shared his interest with Ruth. They gamely sat next to each other, naked in his office while he brought up a video, wondering if he should pull out the mask from the closet. But a minute into the video, Ruth asked, “Is that really what you like?” And despite the smile on her face, Tom sensed her strain.
After that, he stopped involving his wife.
Two years later, Tom couldn’t remember what that video had been, but he knew it was certainly tamer than what he watched now. His obsession had refused to rest, and what he watched had turned darker, disturbing, occasionally distressing.
But he couldn’t stop looking.
“Dad,” his daughter Katelyn said, a knife at her throat. “Please.”
Tom came back to the present, hurried to the empty chair at the head of the table.
“Where’s your safe?” Reagan asked.
“It’s in the office,” Tom said.
The office, he remembered, that he wanted to return to after dinner. The office he planned to stay in until the girls went out and Ruth went to bed. The office where he wanted to slip his sweaty mask back on.
And the office where he hadn’t turned off the pornographic images on his computer.
“There’s not much in the safe,” Tom said, truthfully, trying to steer the men in a different direction. “We don’t have a lot of money.”
“We’ll take whatever you have,” Clinton said.
“What did you mean,” the man with the gun and horse mask put in, “about this being your mask?”
“Yeah?” That from his wife.
“I really don’t want to get into this now,” Tom said, worried. “Can you guys just please leave? You can have everything in my wallet. I’ll even drive you to an ATM.”
“Nah,” one of the men said. “We want the safe.”
Tom cast desperately about. “What about my wife’s wedding ring? Would you take that? It’s the most expensive thing we own. You wouldn’t even need to go to the safe.”
“Tom!” Ruth exclaimed.
“You can have mine too,” Tom said, twisting off his ring. “But hers is worth more. Mine’s just a fake gold band.”
He’d lost the real band years ago.
“Fake?” Ruth asked.
“Listen to him,” one of the men said. “Trying to distract us.”
“The mask is something you wear?” Clinton asked, and he pressed the knife against Katelyn’s throat. “Why?”
She squeezed her eyes closed.
“I wear it when I watch porn.” Tom’s voice was small. “I like how I look in the mirror.”
“Ew,” his daughter Monica said. Monica was his older daughter, and she was breezing through her teenage years with a confidence Tom had never understood but admired. “Dad, gross.”
“You got, like, a horse thing?” Reagan asked. “Like, you jack off to the movie Seabiscuit or some shit?”
“No,” Tom said, helplessly. “It’s not that.”
“I mean,” horse mask said, “I want to hear more about this, Seabiscuit.”
“I don’t,” Katelyn put in, even with the knife shining against her throat, and she also added a, “Ew.”
She’s such a bitch, Tom automatically thought, and the thought deeply shamed him. His own daughter, her life at risk, knife at her neck, and he’d thought of her as a bitch. Yes, Katelyn had issues with authority and, yes, she often was a bitch and, yes, with her shitty grades and constant trouble she was no Monica, but what kind of father would think that at a time like this?
The man with the knife against Katelyn’s throat moved it away.
Tom was relieved that he was relieved.
“You wear a mask like this when you’re strangling your cyclops?” the man with the horse mask and gun asked. “What are you even watching?”
“Please,” Tom said. “I really don’t want to talk about this. Can’t you just take our stuff?”
“Hey Seabiscuit,” the man replied, “tell us everything, or we’ll kill all of you.”
At that, the world inside Tom dropped. He started to speak but couldn’t. At his pause, horse mask laughed loudly. “Really?” he shouted. “You won’t say anything, even with…”
He laughed so hard he bent over, hands on his knees.
And faster than Tom realized she could move, Ruth turned and grabbed his gun. The man cursed. They struggled.
The gun went off, a deafening sound, like a shout from a god.
The man slumped to the floor, the wall behind him red.
Tom could see the damage to his head, his mask and head like the right half had been smashed by a hammer, one rubber horse eye dangling down.
Ruth pointed the gun at the men with the knives, fear and anger on her face like war paint.
“Monica,” Ruth said to their older daughter, her voice shaky but determined. “Call 9-1-1.”
Ruth wouldn’t look at Tom.
Years later, Monica would, without a sense of irony, go into veterinary medicine and end up running a successful, quiet practice. Both Tom and Ruth were proud of her and kept in touch with Monica after their divorce, Ruth more frequently than Tom.
Katelyn didn’t have as successful a path. She couldn’t shake off the home invasion like her sister had. The trauma from the knife against her throat, and the sight of the dead man sprawled against the wall, haunted her. Panic and anxiety had always overwhelmed her, but the emotions grew stronger as Katelyn grew older, the twin emotions like two hands dragging her to hell. And she was desperate for an escape.
Two years after her divorce from Tom, Ruth remarried a police officer. Not one of the police officers that came by that night, but a neighbor in her apartment building after she left Tom. This police officer was also divorced. They never discussed their pasts.
They didn’t talk much about their present, either. When Katelyn died from a drug overdose, Ruth grieved with Monica, not her husband. With her new husband, Ruth kept her suffering private. And she was proud of herself that she did.
As for Tom, he ended up living in a small apartment in a different town. He never remarried or even dated much. The night Katelyn overdosed, Tom was online in a corner of his apartment, wearing the horsehead mask and nothing else in front of a web camera, asking people what they wanted him to do.
Desperately giving them whatever they desired while the phone rang.
He has a monthly column in the Washington Independent Review of Books and is an active member of Crime Writers of Color, ITW, MWA, and SinC. He also runs the D.C. Noir at the Bar series and has hosted and spoken at a variety of crime fiction, writing, and publishing events nationwide.
Monday, December 28, 2020
Carla Kilgore’s red hair and black eyes reminded Lauren of abandoned coal mines, rusty iron, and depleted coal seams. With that thought, she pulled her phone from her pocket and reviewed the pictures she had taken earlier that day. Pictures of death.
A succession of digital photos framed the murder, stretched it out longer than it had lasted in reality. Kilgore, Lauren’s neighbor, had closed her eyes when she started stabbing her boyfriend, but they were wide and wild by the time she finished.
Lauren was glad Carla hadn’t turned her crazy eyes on her at that moment. The teenager had come out from her hiding place and snapped the photos with her phone. By the time Carla’s fury had burned itself out, Lauren was back in her Chevelle. Her car was camouflaged by kudzu hanging over poplar trees. It was her favorite place to smoke a joint, and that’s what she had been doing before it all went down.
I never seen nobody die before.
Lauren nodded, then jerked upright when she heard Carla’s truck leave the scene.
The girl climbed out of her car and followed faint tire tracks across the abandoned land’s pockmarked surface, mindful of copperheads and yellow jacket nests. The trail led her to the edge of a high wall, manmade vertical rock face nearly 100 feet tall. Peering over the rim, she saw the man’s body at the base of it.
Pulling a Percocet from the pocket of her jeans, Lauren dry swallowed it. She crouched, wrapped her arms around her calves, and rested her chin on her knees. Waiting for her high, she stared at her surroundings.
Abandoned before the enactment of reclamation laws, this strip job was a nasty scar, an abrasion that had never healed. Black gashes striped the tall walls. Boulders, ejected from earthy beds, stood alone like rejected lovers. Locust trees, blackberry vines, ragweed, ironweed, and Joe Pye weed crowded each other, but it was the kudzu that truly throttled the landscape. It groped the mountains with eager abandon, making Lauren wonder how soon it would cover the man’s body.
She shrugged and leaned into the warm bliss that traveled her veins and spread outward through her entire being. She rubbed her nose, which had started to itch. Squinting up at the yellow sack of light suspended in the sky, the girl smiled. After a few minutes, she stood and stumped through the weeds on heavy legs. She took her time finding a path to the bottom where the body lay.
The man reminded Lauren of someone deep in a daydream, his eyes staring at nothing…forever. Blood streaked his skin, and muscle was exposed on his hands and arms. His shirt was covered in gore, almost in shreds from the multiple knife wounds.
A butterfly had settled in his sandy hair, its powdery wings forming a pale barrette. The teenager frowned and flicked the insect with her finger. It fluttered up and then resettled on the man’s knee. Lauren smacked it, flinching at the thwack her hand made against the dead flesh.
In death, the man’s bowels had loosened. Wrinkling her nose, Lauren lifted her phone and photographed him. She took the pictures fast, then retreated to her car.
Lauren lit a joint with trembling fingers and smoked it while pondering her next step. She decided to go home and sleep on it.
* * *
Lauren’s quilt landed in a heap on the floor after her father jerked it from the bed. “It’s nearly two o’clock in the afternoon! Get up, dammit!”
Lauren covered her head with a pillow and tried to roll away, but the man’s fingers gripped her shoulder and pulled her into the floor on top of the quilt.
“Alright, already! I’m up!” She stretched and ruffled her hair into a cockscomb. Blinking up at her father, she worked her jaw in a closed-mouth yawn.
The man leaned close to his daughter and poked her in the chest. “Where is it?”
“You know damn good and well what! Your mother’s watch . . . the one her grandmother gave her.”
“I don’t have it, Dad.” Lauren started to stand, but her father pushed her back down to the floor and crouched on her chest.
“Listen here, you little twat. It’s bad enough you have to steal money out of my wallet and your mom’s purse. It’s bad enough that you’ve sold everything in the house that ain’t nailed down, but you know how much that watch meant to her! If you’ve sold it for your damn drugs, I’ll kick your ass from one end of this house to the other!”
Lauren didn’t answer – couldn’t answer – until her father rose. The girl coughed and scooted away from the man. She retrieved her jeans from the corner of the bedroom and slid into them. Punching her fist into her pocket, she pulled out the watch and tossed it on the bed. Her father snatched it and started toward his daughter. When Lauren flinched, the man turned on his heel and stalked out of the room.
Reaching under the bed, the girl felt for the loose floorboard that covered her secret stash. She retrieved a shoebox from it and pulled out her phone. She swiped at the phone’s screen, convinced that she had dreamed the events of the previous day.
It wasn’t a dream.
She scratched her arm as she stared at the photos of the dead man. Lauren wondered how long it took the human body to rot. She wiped her nose on her arm, then rooted through the shoebox until she found the last of her coke. She snorted a line and began to formulate her plan.
* * *
Lauren sat on the porch steps of Carla Kilgore’s house. She leaned back, rested her elbows on the porch, and examined her neighbor’s yard. Barren patches revealed sandstone in several spots in the close-cropped grass. A harsh winter had thrust old railroad ties – makeshift landscape timbers – from the ground, and they remained askew. Spindly flowers spilled out of their beds. Lauren remembered the day Carla had planted them.
Carla had worn tight denim shorts and a striped tank top. Her right bra strap had fallen below her sleeve countless times while she worked. Each time it did, she had shoved it back up with a weary sigh.
Lauren had been fascinated by the repetition of this wardrobe adjustment. Standing beneath a pine tree in her yard, she had willed the strap to drop. Each time it did, she had been pleased to no end. The last time it had fallen, the woman had raked up the strap in agitation and left a smear of dirt on her shoulder.
Lauren shuddered with pleasure at the thought of that dark smudge on white skin. Then she remembered that Carla was a murderer. She was still pondering that fact when the woman pulled into her driveway.
Wonder where she ditched her truck.
Carla turned off the ignition but didn’t get out of her car right away. From behind the windshield, she stared at the girl. Lauren could see that her neighbor was trying to work out in her head why she was here since they weren’t in the habit of visiting each other. Finally, the woman exited the car. Her limp, the result of a coal truck colliding with her old Jeep years ago, was more pronounced than usual.
Lauren wiped her palms on her shorts. “Hey, Carla.”
The woman nodded but didn’t lift her eyes to meet the girl’s face. “What can I do for you?”
“Well, I need some help with a project I’m working on.” Lauren stood and scratched her nose.
Kilgore cocked her head, wary as a stray dog. “What kind of project?”
The girl grinned. “Photography.” She jabbed her thumb at the house. “Can I come in?”
* * *
Lauren worked her way through the maze of junk piled high in the old building her father used for storage. “Friggin packrats,” the girl muttered as she shoved aside a box of water-stained Reader’s Digest magazines. She slid between two metal school desks and stepped over garbage bags of scrap fabric her mother had saved for quilts.
Warped wooden crutches leaned against a wringer washing machine. Hundreds of mason jars lined homemade shelves; some lay on their sides, stuffed with shredded newspaper and mouse droppings. Lauren’s father had stacked old lawnmowers on top of each other until they reached the ceiling. Looks like bad modern art.
She found a tarpaulin-covered mass near the back of the building. Jerking the tarp with the flair of a magician, Lauren exposed an old trunk. After opening the container, she discovered it was empty. Perfect, she thought. She pulled a crumpled brown lunch bag from her pocket. She glanced around. Reassured that she was alone, she stuck her fist into the bag and retrieved several prescription bottles she had demanded from Carla.
Carla’s hands had trembled so severely that Lauren thought the woman would never get the medicine chest cleaned out. The medications, some prescribed to Carla and some to her boyfriend, had stood in neat rows on the shelves. Light brown containers capped with thick white lids that gleamed in the fluorescent light.
Lauren ran her fingertips across the smooth labels until her own hands began to shake. Some of the prescriptions were current, but others were outdated; they had never bothered to throw away the old meds.
Lauren’s eyes had popped at the contents. Flexeril. Vicodin. Lortab. Valium. Prozac. Doxepin. Ativan. Ambien. And, behind all the others, two that made her heart swell: Percocet and OxyContin. She had hit the mother lode.
She dropped the bottles into the trunk. From her other pocket, she retrieved a thick wad of creased fifty dollar bills—seven hundred dollars in all. Carla had protested that it was all the money she had in the house.
The girl peeled off three fifties and stuck them back into her pocket. She tossed the rest of the money into the container and shut the lid. She threw the tarp across the trunk and made her way back through the building. Outside, she blinked in the shimmering heat.
Summer’s turning out to be pretty good after all, she thought. The sugar tree’s in bloom.
* * *
Throughout the next few days, Lauren sneaked out to the storage building to check on the trunk. She was paranoid that her parents would go on a cleaning binge and discover her treasure. During this time, Carla kept her shades drawn and didn’t leave her house. The girl wondered when she would make another run to the drugstore.
That leg’s gotta be hurting. But Carla’s car remained in the driveway.
One morning Lauren rose to find that Carla had finally left her house. I guess she couldn’t stand it any longer.
Wonder what she’s told her doctor?
The girl’s mouth watered in anticipation. She wanted to go to Carla’s house and wait for her, but her father caught her wandering through the yard. He browbeat Lauren into cleaning out the basement.
At least it’s not the storage building, she thought with relief. But I need to move my stuff before she gets any ideas.
She broke away from the basement work after lunch. Seeing Carla’s car in the driveway, Lauren considered a visit. She decided to check on her stash first. She stepped into the building and wrinkled her nose.
A chipmunk must have crawled into a jar and died. It smelled so bad she wondered if an entire family of chipmunks had died.
The heat makes it worse, I guess.
Traveling her usual path, she rounded a corner and ran into Carla Kilgore. “What the hell--”
The woman shoved Lauren against the wall and placed a pistol against her right nostril. “Thought you was bein’ so clever hiding your booty in here, didn’t you? You’re not very bright, bitch. I can see why your daddy’s disappointed in you.”
Lauren started to speak, but Carla mashed her nose with the gun. The girl shrank against the wall, knocking a jar off a shelf. It broke, scattering shattered glass and dried corn across their feet.
“Be quiet, you little shit,” Carla hissed.
She grabbed Lauren’s arm and shoved her through the building. The rotten smell got worse as they got closer to the back. When they reached the site of the trunk, the girl saw that the tarp had been thrown to the side. She turned to the woman and lifted her hands in supplication.
“Hey, if you want your junk back, go ahead and take it. I was just messing with you.”
“Shut up! You know, I’ve never seen you strike a lick at a minute’s hard work. You are worthless.” Kilgore motioned with her gun. “Lift the lid.”
Lauren reached down and pulled open the trunk. The smell of decay engulfed her, making her eyes water, but not enough to blur the sight of Carla’s boyfriend stuffed into the container.
Maggots, beetles, and wasps covered his skin, which was now green and blue and blistered. Gagging, Lauren tried to stumble past the woman, but Carla shoved her against the trunk. The back of her knees hit it, causing the lid to slam shut. Putrid air billowed out around them. Lauren bent at the waist and vomited.
Coughing, Carla backed away from the teenager.
“Lift that lid again. Do it!”
Lauren turned her head as she opened the trunk. She swallowed against the bile that rose in her throat. “Look--”
“Shut up!” Carla stared at the contents of the trunk, her eyes black pinpricks. “He thought he could screw around on me, then beat on me. You see what happened to him, don’t you? Now it’s your turn. Get in.”
The girl’s eyes widened. She felt the blood drain from her face. She shook her head. “You’re frigging kidding me, right?”
Carla cocked the gun. “I’m serious as a heart attack, dipshit.”
Lauren worked her jaw. What if I just mule up and refuse to do what she says?
She remembered how she had trembled that first day, at the medicine cabinet. She looked at the gun. The barrel was steady in her face. No trembling now.
Crazy as a bess bug, Lauren thought.
Without taking her eyes off the gun, the teenager lifted one leg and stepped into the trunk. It felt as if she had stepped into a vat of hot sour cream. That thought made her stomach roll, and she expelled a stream of vomit that splattered Carla’s hiking boots.
Cursing, she reached out and punched Lauren on the ear. The girl fell into the muck that was Carla’s boyfriend. Thrashing around to gain a grip, she looked up in time to see her slam the lid. Lauren screamed and kicked the lid, but it held tight.
Jesus, she’s locked me in here!
In the wet darkness, she screamed again. And again. She only stopped after something soft dropped into her mouth. Crying, Lauren spit out the thing, willing herself not to vomit again.
She won’t leave me here, she thought. She’s just trying to teach me a lesson. Well, I done learned it. I got it!
“I’ll straighten up!” she screamed. “Please, Carla! You can’t leave me in here!”
She paused to see if she would say something. No one responded. Lauren pounded against the lid with her fists.
“You dirty bitch!”
Suddenly, the girl stopped her resistance. Instead, she concentrated on a thought that had entered her head. She had the answer. Carla was trying to teach her a lesson.
All I have to do is wait her out.
The woman would be back, and the joke would be on her.
Lauren giggled and shoved her hand into her pocket, ignoring the fluids oozing across her skin. She pulled a pill bottle up close to her chest and worked on the cap. Her hands shook, and something slick coated the bottle, but eventually, she got it open. Weeping now, she emptied the contents of the bottle into her mouth.
Some of the pills caught in her throat, and she had to keep swallowing to get them down.
Nothing like a Perc to take the edge off.
Monday, December 21, 2020
Jono Leadbetter and Shane ‘Warmonger’ Stevenson were two crooks who had just finished a big job. It was Christmas Eve. They were having a glass of mulled wine poured from a flask that Jono’s wife, Sue, had packed for them in a hold-all. Inside the hold-all was also a Christmas cracker. Wrapped in gold paper, decorated with a red ribbon. Expensive looking, like the kind you find in Harrod’s.
‘You want to do the honours?’ Jono said, picking it out. He held it up in the thin light from the low-wattage bulb hanging from the ceiling of the warehouse they hid in while the air cleared.
Warmonger smirked. ‘Your missus is gonna make you soft in the nugget, one of these days.’ But he grabbed the tapered end, and for a moment, they eyed each other like the frontmen from two opposing tug o’ war teams before they each yanked at the cracker.
The cracker exploded, and a rolled-up sheet of paper dropped out. At first Warmonger thought it was one of those crappy jokes they always put in crackers. He picked it up and unrolled it. Read the writing. His smile left his face and he looked at Jono, a hint of fear and uncertainty entering his eyes.
‘What’s up, Warmonger?’ Jono said, sculling the remainder of his mulled wine.
‘I’m not sure you should see this,’ Warmonger replied. His voice cracked a little, which startled Jono. Jono thought Warmonger was about to cry.
‘Give that here!’ Jono snatched it out of Warmonger’s shaking hands. He glanced over the scrawl, Warmonger knowing all too well Jono couldn’t decipher the strange lettering. Jono had never attended much school. He dropped out at 14 and went to work at the Ford Motor Company with his father, sweeping floors, working his way up to screwing bolts into engine mounts.
That’s before he decked the foreman. Before his first stint in Strangeways.
‘Read it to me,’ he snapped at Warmonger.
Now Warmonger was a tough nut. His name says it all. But Warmonger suddenly felt sick. For what was written there was something he really didn’t want to share with Jono. For Jono was the tougher opponent. Jono was his mentor. His best mate all these years. Warmonger was also Jono’s best man at his wedding.
‘Nah, listen, Jono,’ Warmonger stalled for time. ‘It’s a crap joke. Nothing to even get your laughing gear excited about.’
Jono looked at Warmonger. Jono didn’t so much as crack a smile.
‘You screwing with me, Warmonger? You know I can’t read, and now you comin’ all high and mighty? What you fucking take me for? There’s a shit load of words on that page. They never put long gags like that in them Christmas crackers. Read it.’
Warmonger swallowed hard. He had to think fast. But Warmonger’s problem was that he wasn’t a thinker. Thinking wasn’t something he was expected to do, much. He was a trigger man, a back up to Jono, a getaway driver.
‘Well?’ Jono said, getting angrier by the minute. ‘Go on then. Tell me what’s in it. I can tell by your face it ain’t a fairy tale.’
Warmonger unrolled the paper. It was a letter. Not a good letter, either. It wasn’t full of goodwill to any man, especially not to Warmonger and especially not to Jono. The poor bastard, Warmonger thought at that moment. The poor, poor bastard, finding out like this. But that sympathy didn’t last for long, for then he thought of himself, and what would happen if he read out the contents of that letter. He wouldn’t get out of here alive, he was sure of it. Jono had a temper on him, one that even Warmonger couldn’t beat. Warmonger cursed God under his breath. Started cursing his own existence. Started cursing, more quietly, in fact silently so Jono wouldn’t hear, Sue, Jono’s wife. Did she want him to die? Did she want to ruin everything? Then he thought back to several nights before, when he’d left Sue at the pub. They’d all got rather drunk, and Jono had let it out about doing over the jewellery store on Christmas Eve, when the cash float was floating so much it became a river of the Queen’s Head, those fad wads of sterling, those bristling bundles of pound notes sitting in the safe in the back, ready to go to the bank the day after boxing day. Sue got angry. She pulled Warmonger aside and said that if he wanted to be with her, then he needed to get out of the game. But Sue didn’t understand. Noone, not even Warmonger, once they crossed him, walked away from Jono. She said he promised her he wasn’t going to do the jewellery shop job and if he did then she’d tell Jono about them. But Warmonger brushed her off; he guessed, wrongly it seems, that she was bluffing, that she would never do anything so stupid.
But here they were. Jono and Warmonger; a hold-all bulging with notes; a Christmas cracker laying in tatters on the floor; a Dear John(o) letter clutched in his hands.
‘It’s easy for you,’ Jono suddenly said. ‘Being able to read those scraggly lines. I mean, how the hell is anyone supposed to decipher that shit? Nah, gimme the football on Sundays and me fags and Magners, and I’m happy.’ He picked up the hold-all and hugged it as if he hugged Sue. Warmonger felt a wave of relief, thinking he’d gotten away with it.
‘But still,’ Jono suddenly said. ‘Be a pal, and read me the joke. I need cheering up.’
‘Why don’t we have some more of that wine?’ Warmonger said.
‘Fine. You pour.’
Jono and Warmonger sat down on some crates. Warmonger poured the wine into the cap and a plastic cup. ‘Cheers, pal!’ Jono said, and he chinked Jono’s cup with his. When they had taken a mouthful, Jono became serious again.
‘You know why we’re here, Warmonger?’
‘For the money.’
Jono nodded. ‘That, and a lot more. I’m here because I stood for 14 hours a day, double shifts, screwing bolts into engine mounts. Like my old man did. Like his did before him, except he worked at the foundry. I suppose we had a better life, and he always reminded me of that, every bloody day. But I never saw it like that. I wanted more. I wanted one of those new Fords we rolled off the lines. Remember, right at the end, they’d roll those brand spanking new machines off the rails and send it out to the world. To some lucky bastard who lived in a nice two up two down conversion somewhere. I always imagined being someone like that. A wife, couple of kids, packing them up on a Sunday and heading down to Dymchurch, getting the kids some ice-creams, a cool pint for myself with a good froth, then driving back again through the B roads, taking in all the scenery.’
They were silent for a while before Warmonger said, ‘Why you never have kids, Jono?’
‘Ah, never happened. Something wrong with the pipes. Or Sue’s pipes.’
‘What, you never had it checked out?’
‘Nah, all them fancy doctors prodding your gear. No way. Give me some dignity.’
A siren wailed in the distance. The two men stiffened. Jono cocked his head. The siren veered away into the night.
‘You think we’re safe?’ Warmonger said.
‘We’re never safe, lad. Ever.’ Then, after a pause: ‘You gonna read me that letter?’
‘What makes you think it’s a letter?’
‘It’s from Sue, innit?’
‘It’s from Sue. Don’t lie. You’re gonna read me that letter, then one of us is walking out of here with the bag. Just one of us, mind you.’
Warmonger didn’t often experience the sensation, but now he felt a cold worm crawl through his stomach. He thought for a moment he would throw up. He felt suddenly afraid to die, and he had to stop himself from bursting into a nervous laugh.
Jono grabbed the sawed-off shotgun they’d used to rob the jewellery shop. Now Warmonger realised why Jono insisted they only bring the one gun and he carry it and do the holding up while Warmonger filled the bag. They hadn’t needed to use it, yet. It was still loaded.
Now Jono pointed the gun at him.
‘I told you, son. Read the letter.’
‘You don’t want to know what’s in the letter.’
‘I won’t know until you read it to me, will I? Besides, maybe it’s nothing. Then we can go and have a pint. But if it’s something…’
‘What if it’s something?’
‘If it’s something I’m not gonna like, then we have a problem. Still, either way, I want you to read that letter aloud to me.’
‘And no using the Lord’s name in vain. My mother hated that.’
‘You’re going to push this?’
‘Right to the edge. And over.’
Warmonger, who’d been leaning slightly, shuffled his feet and straightened up on the crate. ‘Let me ask you one question, Jono, and then I’ll read the letter.’
‘Fire away.’ Jono laughed then. ‘Probably not the best phrase to use, eh?’
‘Put the gun down first.’
‘I ain’t putting the gun down.’
‘Alright then. Alright.’ Warmonger had started to sweat. Every now and again, his heart threw itself into a spasm. But he kept his head.
‘You and Sue.’
‘Oh you mentioning Sue again? You seem to be talking about her a lot, tonight.’
‘You and Sue. I mean, are you happy?’
‘Christ!’ Jono spat out, ignoring his own profanity law. ‘This gonna turn into a shrink session or sommin? What the fuck do you care?’
‘You’re a mate.’
‘Oh, now he’s bringing in the we’re best mates bullshit. You should’ve thought of that before.’
‘Before what? You don’t know what I’m getting at?’
‘I know what you’re getting at, boy.’
Warmonger’s eyes narrowed. His own temper was surfacing, like the incoming tide filling a deep rock pool. ‘You never called me boy before. We always respected each other.’
‘Coz that’s what you are. Just a boy, a kid, a snot-nosed little arsehole. Now you cut the crap and read me the letter. Or I’ll blow a hole through your chest and rip out that fake heart of yours.’
Warmonger raised his arms up, like a cowboy in an old western. Jono looked at the damp patches under his arms. He felt satisfied that he’d cornered Warmonger and got him scared. He had him where he wanted him. He did love the lad once, like his own son, like the son he never got from Sue. But he trusted him too much, put his faith in something despite all his gut feelings that he should never put his faith in God or another person. He remembered, now, how his mother slapped him across the head each time he cussed as if each blow was a fresh nail driven into the palms of Christ. Sue, also, was a little religious. But look where that got her.
‘I’m going to have a cigarette,’ Jono said. ‘You want a cigarette?’ Warmonger nodded. ‘And put your arms down, you look like a stupid prick.’
Jono lay the shotgun across his lap. He took out a pack of Player’s, took two cigarettes out of the box, put both between his lips, struck a match and drew the flame across both, passed one over to Warmonger. All the time, his eyes never left Warmonger’s. Each sucked in a good lungful of tobacco, blew it out in the space between them. The thick smoke lingered. It seemed comforting, calming, and the nicotine put them in a better mood.
That only lasted a moment. Jono lifted the gun and pointed it back at Warmonger.
‘For the last time, Warmonger, read me the letter.’
Warmonger let out a sigh, put his cigarette between his teeth, picked up the now crumpled letter. The paper shook slightly in his hands. He was almost resigned to his fate, now. He cared no longer what Jono thought or did. He always knew things would end something like this, although he imagined a more glorious outtake, a shootout with the coppers like those jokers Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, or The Wild Bunch. He’d grown up on a diet of westerns, and it was the only time he remembered spending with his old man. Sunday afternoon westerns. Now he was Billy The Kid and Jono was Pat Garrett. Jono had led him straight into a trap.
He started reading. ‘Dear Jonathan.’
‘Ah, she always likes to use my full name,’ Jono said. ‘The only one that does, these days. Go on.’
‘We’ve been together a long time.’
‘Don’t I know it, son, don’t I bloody know it!’
‘We’ve had some good years together.’
‘Indeed we have. Indeed.’
‘But lately‑ ‘
‘Stop it there.’
‘Stop reading. There’s no point.’
‘You don’t want me to read the letter after all?’
‘Nope. Because I’ve read it.’
Warmonger sat staring at Jono. Jono sat back a little, as if he was in a recliner. He took another pull on his fag. To Warmonger, he suddenly looked way beyond his years. He didn’t look at Warmonger any longer but stared up at the ceiling.
‘I’m going to tell you a funny little story. About a year ago, I’m shopping down at the Co-Op. The one at the end of the High Street, owned by that lovely Middle Eastern couple. The one I put the word out on that if anyone tries to so much as think about doing them over, I’ll break both their legs. While I was at the counter, I stared at the notice board. Of course, I couldn’t read any of the notices, but I asked the man at the counter if there was anything of interest. I made an excuse that I’d left my glasses at home. Sometimes I do that, just to pass the time, to make sure I’m not missing out on anything. He told me of some geezers plying for work, some window washers, lawnmower rounds, that kind of carry on. But then he told me about a notice posted by a woman who was teaching the Queen’s to new immigrants. So I figure, if she teaches them to speak English, she can teach me to read it. So he gives me the number, and I memorise it – I became good at that in my life, you have to when you don’t have much schooling behind you – and so I rings her up, and she says come down and see me and let’s talk. So I goes to see her, and she lives in one of those housing estates south of the river, in a tower block, on the fourteenth floor, and the lift was out of order and the climb nearly did me in, I had to stop for a fag half-way, and when I reach her flat she opens the door, I get a shock. She ain’t even English but turns out she’s from the Sudan and has three kids and her hubby is looking for work and they need to pay the rent and buy food. Now when she sees me, she’s a little unsure. I’m a brute, these tats don’t help me and the scars on my face tell her all sorts of stories about me before I’ve even opened me gob. But she’s gracious enough to invite me in, and we get talking and she says she can teach me to read in no time, she says something about language and words being in all of us and we just have to unlock it and let it all out.
‘So I tell her about Sue and that it’s our silver wedding anniversary in a year and I want to write and read her some new vows. And she starts showing me the alphabet, what all those letters mean, and putting them in some sort of order, and then pinning that order onto objects, things. She’s patient. Her husband goes out and hunts for work each day. She looks after the kids, gets a few students, not many, and I go twice a week. I tell Sue I’m at the pub, that’s easy. Meanwhile, Akifa – that’s her name, Akifa, and I add it took me a while to get my head around it – patiently taught an old crim like me to read. Something no one else has ever been able to do or tried much.
‘Anyway, Akifa helps me put together my vow renewals, and I’m ready to go home and surprise Sue with tickets to Majorca where I’ll propose to her all over again. I come home, and she’s at the kitchen table, writing something. She ain’t that pleased to see me. I sense something’s wrong. I see her tuck the letter away and I don’t say anything. I keep the peace. But I don’t forget the letter, either, and later when she’s having a bath I take the letter out from her mother’s bureau, and I read the letter. It takes me a while to get through it, and I don’t get all the words, but I get the gist.’
Jono paused, and he ran his hand along the gun like a fascinated kid who runs their finger down a wet window.
‘I don’t blame Sue, really. I was never a good husband to her. No kids, three stretches in The Big House, never owned our own place. All those jobs, and look at us. Flat bleeding broke. So I had an idea. For once, I’m going to do some good. I want to leave a legacy for someone. Was going to be Sue, but buggar that now for a game of soldiers. So I set up the jewellery number. Dragged you into it, of course. But the money’s not going to you, and not Sue, and not me either. It’s going to Akifa. It’s going to put a deposit on a house for them and maybe buy them a little run-around. Nothing much, let’s admit it we didn’t get a great haul.’
Warmonger flinched as if to grab something. Jono fingered at the trigger.
‘You dirty bastard,’ Warmonger spat out. ‘You strung me along. You knew about me and Sue. That’s the lowest a man can go with a mate.’
‘Don’t worry, Warmonger. You went lower. To the bottom of the stinking Thames. Maybe that’s where you belong.’ Jono stood up then, grabbed the hold-all, backed away a little. ‘It’s time for me to leave.’
But Warmonger was in a sea of red mist. He lunged at Jono. Jono was expecting this, and he swung the shotgun around and thumped Warmonger in the cheek with the butt. An almighty crack sounded out into the empty warehouse, and Warmonger kissed the concrete.
‘Stay down!’ Jono shouted. ‘Stay down! I don’t want to kill you, but I will!’ and he was shouting so loud the steel walls seemed to vibrate as if a lorry with a blown exhaust had driven by. He pointed the gun at Warmonger; Warmonger clutched his bloodied cheek, and he felt as if everything had broken inside his head.
Jono ran to the door. Suddenly the area filled with light. A torch blazed in through a skylight in the ceiling. A thunder rolled out across the warehouse. A helicopter hovered above them. Red and blue and white lights flashed in through the windows. Someone shouted something through a tannoy, but Jono wasn’t listening. He was thinking of Akifa, how she first taught him C-A-T and all those three-lettered words, and between teaching him how she told him that her brother and father had been taken from their village one night and she had never seen them again. And he thought how sad, how terribly sad that was, and that he’d never heard anything sadder in his entire life. Then he remembered how all those many small words she taught him grew into longer words and made sense, and he could write them out and finally how he wrote the new vows for Sue and how Sue betrayed him. And Warmonger. Now he was desperate to get the bag of money to Akifa and her kids and her husband, who couldn’t find work but who always offered him a meal when he came for lessons.
He looked back to see if Warmonger was still there, but Warmonger had gone. He was alone as he’d always been alone. He dropped the hold-all and he dropped the gun. He looked up into the light and thought how very lovely the light was, and wondered if this was the sort of light they always talked about. He willed himself into the light and wished more than anything the light would lift him up. He turned his body upwards, stretched out his arms to see how far he could reach.
Monday, December 14, 2020
The flight was under four minutes, a trick of levitation at eleven at night, up Market Street and then Portola Drive to Diamond Heights. Jefferson Airplane’s “Have You Seen the Saucers.” With the opening notes, the cabdriver reached over to the dashboard and turned up the FM station’s volume. When the song concluded on its sci-fi buzz and fade, he glanced at me in the rearview mirror and said, “Welcome to San Francisco.”
It was 1974 and I was eighteen. I’d arrived in the city via a Greyhound Ameripass, and while that cross-country trip had its own disparate misadventures—a collection of stories connected by only, I admit now, a naïve young man from Wisconsin set loose on the modern American West—it was San Francisco that I aimed for all along, and my aim was true. I thought I might even remain in the city, blow off my freshman year of college that fall. I would get a job and stay.
“Pete?” My Uncle Eric expected me at his apartment. But not that night. His eyes were bloodshot and fractured, and I knew that familiar funk of weed, recognized the artist who created the music chiming from his living room. “Pete”—stepping aside, welcoming me in—“ Jethro, I didn’t think you’d arrive until, what, next week.”
I walked in, shrugged the rucksack from my shoulder Jack Kerouac style, and ignored the “Jethro” nickname Eric tagged me with years before because whining would have been pointless. Bullheaded. He was a Strom and I was a Strom. If he was going to call me by The Beverly Hillbillies’ nephew’s name, so be it.
We stepped down into the hexagonal living room, lights turned low, sticks of sandalwood incense smoldering on the fireplace mantle. A jeans and chambray shirt-clad young man with unruly hair and beard reclined on one of the two Victorian sofas, a Hindenburg-size joint in his hand, the zeppelin’s tip smoking.
“This is Duncan,” Eric said. “Duncan, this is Jethro.”
“Pete,” I corrected, and Duncan nodded, offering me the burning airship.
“He’s my nephew, Duncan. Verstehen sie?” Eric spent the Korean War in Germany and phrases he had picked up remained over twenty years later. “He’s just out of high school.”
Duncan said, “Sorry, man,” diverting the joint midflight to Eric. I recalled the disaster newsreel’s sobbing reporter: Oh, the humanity.
I did manage to suck in a deep breath of the quality smoke that floated across the room. In my small hometown, low-quality pot was the expectation. Whatever Eric and Duncan were indulging in was a treat. And the music. That was too. The reel-to-reel tape rolled on playback. “Is this who I think it is?”
Duncan’s face lit up, bowled over at the possibility a kid from a little Midwestern town might know, but before he could say anything, Eric forestalled him, a lift of his hand. “Who do you think it is?”
“John Rider.” No confirmation necessary. It was John Rider, I knew it. I’d been buying his albums for five years at that point, my older brother even longer. Rider released his debut LP, the psychedelic Colors in My Garden, in sixty-seven, after Lennon and McCartney, Brian Jones, and Syd Barrett applied their wash of aural color. “John Rider,” I repeated, adding, “Recluse Rider,” because that’s what the music rags had dubbed him.
Eric winced at “Recluse,” shook his head, while Duncan’s weed-enhanced titter budded through the room.
“Anyway, that’s what Lester Bangs calls him in Creem. But this is great, Eric. I’ve never heard it before.”
My uncle said, “That’s because, I shit you not, it’s John Rider’s latest.” He glanced at Duncan, then back at me. “Keep it under your hat.”
I never thought to ask that night if I could see the tape reel’s box, the artwork and photography, the lyric sheet, the list of musicians playing on each song. Music is magic, and this was musical mesmerization: ringing twelve-string guitars, Baroque noodling with harpsichord, hill country dulcimer, juke joint piano, rumbling electric bass, spare drum work, and spacey synthesizer.
“Sonic harmonics.” That’s what Duncan called the mix. Leaving at sunrise, he shook my hand. “You’ve heard John’s new nickname, right?”
“Reckless. Not Recluse. Reckless. Remember that, okay?”
I nodded as Eric took Duncan by the shoulders and pointed him out the door.
The Ameripass was a great deal for an eighteen-year-old off on his own, although stuck at the Sioux Falls YMCA my first night out—the depot closed, no departures till morning—I wanted to turn back, be homeward bound. But I continued on the next morning. The pass was a wide-open, ninety-nine-day ticket to ride anywhere Greyhound rolled in the lower forty-eight. You could disappear in America. The company’s TV spokesman was Fred MacMurray in the guise of the My Three Sons dad, a gosh-by-golly barker encouraging people to see America from a relaxing seat on the bus. The price was low. How could I say no?
After that first night in San Francisco, listening to John Rider’s new music and cracking Eric and Duncan up with stories of my antics on the road, I was ready to ball up the paper ticket and chuck it and my freshman year at Barron County out the window. But I didn’t. Instead, I sat on the guest room davenport and considered the Ameripass. I ended up tucking the flimsy ticket away, between the pages of my paperback copy of On the Road.
Eric, two nights later: “I have to run over to my boss’s place. Want to come along?”
I jumped at the offer. It would have to beat the previous night. I’d wandered into the city’s Tenderloin neighborhood looking for the studio where the Airplane, the Dead, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young had recorded. I’d stopped to gawk in the window of a closed leather goods shop, and a reflection in the window materialized beside me, a young woman in a flowing cape. She passed me a handbill for Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple— But that’s a different story.
When I first met him, Eric’s employer consisted of instruments: a Blüthner grand piano—McCartney played one on Let It Be; two Martin guitars, six- and twelve-string; and an Epiphone bass, all these in a room overlooking a silent, rolling Pacific.
“Don’t touch anything—especially the instruments. In fact, just stand where you are,” Eric directed, then he left. I couldn’t hear him though he worked his way through other parts of the house. Moonlight flooding in through a curved window wall lit the music room. The ocean’s breakers rolled in silence.
Tell me not to do something. I glanced back. Stepping to the grand piano, I lifted the keyboard lid and played the first nine notes of “Imagine.”
“Stop. Just stop.” Eric came from behind and moved me away from the Blüthner. He wiped down the keyboard and then, after closing it, the lid.
“Peter”—no Jethro—“It’s important that if you want to come with me when I have to work here, that you listen. When I tell you not to do something, not touch something, a book, an instrument, a gimcrack, follow my instruction. Verstehen sie? I’m not trying to be an asshole. It’s just—it’s just, this is his home. Not hermetically sealed, but damn close. So, please. Touch nothing.”
“Who is he?” The family back in Wisconsin didn’t know what Eric did for a living in San Francisco. Yes, they knew what he did when he lived in the Midwest. After serving in the U.S. Army, he’d worked for a while as a steward on a Great Lakes freighter, drove a delivery truck with a Teamster card tucked in his wallet, and at one point, he was a laborer, assembling industrial bakery equipment. When he moved to the Bay Area in the early sixties, it was, for the family, out of sight, out of mind. “Who is your mystery employer? Howard Hughes?”
Eric crossed his arms and stared at me, then said, “John Rider.”
“What? No, wait. What?”
“John Rider is my, as you have said, mystery employer. I’m his— I don’t know: righthand man, gofer. I make things run smoothly for him and his organization.”
I grinned, color me dumbfounded. All I could think to ask? “Can you turn on a light in here?” I wanted to see the music room’s instruments under the bright lights.
“No.” He sized up the room. “So, now I’ve gotten the place ready for his return. We should get going.”
Backpedaling to Eric’s Fiat, I took in John Rider’s home, call it a mansion, snapping it for my mental photo album, like I would Abbey Road Studios, Wally Heider Studios in the Tenderloin, or the Jefferson Airplane House on Fulton Street.
As he drove us back to Diamond Heights, I apologized for touching the piano. Some might say it was over the top, but the apology led to another question. “How about Duncan? Does he do what you do?”
I caught the swell of a laugh on Eric’s face, but he didn’t let it break. “Oh, not Duncan. No.”
“You’re his boss? I mean, you kind of marched him out of your apartment the other night.”
Eric let that slide. “Let’s listen to that new Rider tape when we get back to my place. I’ll probably give you what’s left of my weed too. It’s been playing hell with my allergies. Just”—zipping his lips—“no word to your mom and dad.”
The next day I pretty much obliterated by smoking a grass zeppelin on my own, then letting a wild hair spring me out of my vegetative sofa state and out the apartment door. I trekked, no, floated up and down the hills of San Francisco in that stoned condition. By midafternoon, I was on Mount Sutro and I couldn’t find my way back to the apartment.
A man in a red Jaguar convertible picked me up on Crestmont, I think it was Crestmont. He offered me a beer from the cooler stash tucked between the Jag’s bucket seats. I whined like a twelve-year-old: “Thanks, but I just need a ride to my uncle’s place.” There was the sudden braking action at the curb, and he reached over and popped open my door.
I was still on Mount Sutro, thinking I could see the Diamond Heights neighborhood, its curving rows of fifties shoebox duplexes, from whatever street I was walking on. A Karmann Ghia painted British racing green pulled up. I didn’t have high hopes.
“Give you a lift?” It was Duncan, looking over the lenses of his mirrored aviators. “Peter? Not Jethro, right?” he asked as he pulled out into traffic.
“What the hell are you doing up here? Getting a better view of Sutro Tower? It’s not even up here.” He laughed, took us on a few hairpin turns. “I heard you were with Eric at the house the other night.”
All my coiled astonishment sprang out. “Holy crap, man! Yes. Like, was I stoked, absolutely—”
Duncan nodded, signaled with the cigarette in his hand that we could move on from the initial blown away perspective. “Did Eric mention me?”
I thought back. “No. Yes. I’d asked him if you did what he did. What your role was.”
“He ignored me.”
Duncan laughed joylessly. “Nothing—oh, why should I ask you— Okay, nothing about me, about what I do? What I’ve done?”
He pulled into a Safeway parking lot, a spot tight against the public sidewalk. We weren’t going grocery shopping.
“I came back from L.A. that night with John Rider. Later. The same night you were there with Eric. He didn’t mention we were coming in?”
“Reckless, man. He’s a mess.”
Reckless. Not Recluse. Reckless. Remember that, okay? “Yeah?”
Duncan glanced over at me, then back at the grocery store and the people walking in, walking out, going about their everyday lives. “Yes. Reckless John Rider’s burned to a crisp. That cereal? Crispy Critters? He’s a bowlful.”
My mouth hung open. Duncan smiled, chucked me under the chin to close it. “Okay. But with all the music, the albums— How long?”
He blew a Marlboro stream. “I don’t really know, Pete. I was late to the Reckless Rider party. His mind, it’s pretty much like I said, man, crunchy cereal. He still has those terrific vocal chops. The cat truly does. But that’s it.”
A swipe at the dust on the dashboard allowed Duncan time to consider his next words. “The last tape, the one you heard, the new LP? Reckless sang lead, and damn well. Session players played the music, and they did amazing work. Me? I wrote the music and lyrics.”
I looked at him and sputtered, “No way.”
He didn’t have much money, but Duncan bought us dinner at a Doggie Diner, even treated me to a T-shirt featuring the restaurant’s iconic dog, the smiling, bow-tied, red-hot dachshund wearing a chef’s hat. He was a worried man, he didn’t have to say so and didn’t, I could tell that much at eighteen. How long Rider had been the way he was, that was an open question.
Duncan was hired over a year before via a nondescript ad in the back of Rolling Stone and a lengthy, puzzling audition: Do some John Rider for us. Do something John Rider could have composed. He’d blown away the interview panel that included my uncle. Now, here he was. The record company was releasing the new LP, it could be any day, but Duncan felt at loose ends.
“I haven’t been told the release date. Reckless doesn’t know. He doesn’t really know me, though we’ve been traveling buddies up and down the coast a number of times. But here’s what really puzzles the hell out of me, man: Who wrote and recorded the earlier albums? Where are these talented cats now? Rider’s the cash cow, but where have all the old hired hands gone, man? I’d like to know that.”
The next day, Eric left for L.A. He told me he’d be gone for at least three days for meetings with record company execs, working out the logistics for Rider’s upcoming release.
I felt him out. “Will there be a tour?” I already knew from Crawdaddy, Rolling Stone, Creem, and Duncan that a tour was not in the cards. Reckless Rider hadn’t performed live, anywhere, in over three years. The rock magazines, Rider was their cash cow as well, wiped the sweat from their collective brow: At least John Rider continues to produce music that we can review.
“Enjoy the city while I’m gone,” Eric said. “And stay out of trouble. Verstehen sie?”
The first time I’d gone to John Rider’s ocean view home, I checked the house number and cross street when my uncle and I left. The second time I went there, I was able to give the cab driver the approximate address.
At Rider’s front door, I wondered if I was the reckless one. What did I expect to gain by showing up and ringing the doorbell that played the first seven notes of Groucho Marx’s “Hello, I Must Be Going”? The next steps were easy since no one answered the musical chimes. I could have walked away. Instead, I tried the door. It was unlocked.
It seemed every San Francisco abode I stepped into that summer of seventy-four was socked in with the fog of pot and incense. On this second visit to John Rider’s home, I just followed my nose.
The piano bench had been knocked over, a junk drawer’s worth of material tumbled from its storage compartment and scattered on the floor. An antique wing chair replaced the bench in front of the piano’s keyboard. I recognized John Rider. He sat in the chair, staring at the black and white keys as if they were a curiosity. His elbow rested on an arm of the chair, his hand cradling the side of his head, mouth gaping, his now doughy face frozen in wonder.
After a few minutes, his head swiveled to take me in, the dazed look of his face unchanged. “John,” he said. “Mr. Rider is my father. And my grandad.” He took a deep breath from the effort. “John.”
“John,” I was bummed by his burned-out aspect.
He managed to point a bent finger at me, the fingers of his other hand caught in the long, ratted tangle of his prematurely gray hair. He pointed, tapped in my direction, and finally, with effort, yanked his other hand out of his hair, three fingers encircled with the gray matting, pulled from his scalp, apparently, with no pain. He continued to point at me.
“I’m Peter Strom, Eric’s nephew.”
He took a breath, a clotted gurgling through his sinuses. “You? In L.A. with me? Last time?”
“No. That must’ve been Duncan. You know? Duncan?”
He touched his chin. “Beard? Right, man?” He smiled when I nodded. “At least you won’t have to worry about that.” Rider laughed and, as Uncle Eric would say, I shit you not, I got goosebumps from the musicality of the man’s laughter. He did. He still had something.
But still: “What won’t I have to worry about?”
He waved me off in slow motion. “The big change out, man. The cosmic disappearance.” His hands orchestrated a poof, and whatever may have been there was gone.
“Duncan will—you’re saying Duncan will disappear.”
Rider’s hands repeated the poof, slowly, very slowly.
Rider was fascinated by the movements of his hands.
“How will Duncan disappear, John?”
“Just gone, baby. Gone, gone, gone”—his knees were crossed and his hands landed there, one atop the other—“like the coda of the song.”
Duncan and I got high listening to the Rider LP on Eric’s reel-to-reel. I should say we tried getting high, smoking one of his outsized joints. It didn’t work. I’d told him about my visit with John Rider.
The tape ran out, the tail flapping round and round until Duncan flipped the lever, turning off the machine. As he put the tape in its box, he sang the old Animals’ hit “We Gotta Get Out of This Place.”
“You’re right, man.”
He looked at me. “I’ve got no bread, Pete. I’m stuck inside of San Francisco with those Reckless John Rider you don’t work for me no more blues again. I’m stuck, brother. Stuck. And I’ve got no idea who I should be on the lookout for—you know? Is it Eric? Reckless Rider? Some hit man”—hit man, the musical kind, made him chuckle—“I’m, I don’t know. I’m in trouble, and I can’t get away from it.”
That’s when I told him about The Cosmic Disappearance. The Poof.
When Eric returned to San Francisco, he brought back intensity in spades, a hip ferocity, a skull session with Duncan was in order. He phoned the few numbers he could normally reach him at. Nothing.
“Did Duncan stop by at all when I was in L.A.?” His cool a thin layer masking something like anxiety.
I shook my head, playing at youthful dumbass which Eric had no trouble buying.
“Idiot kid,” my uncle muttered, walking away. From down the hall, he called out, “Aw, sorry. Not you. Duncan.”
The police located the green Karmann Ghia within a week. He’d abandoned the car, a note on the driver’s seat, in the parking lot of an observation area on the north side of the Golden Gate Bridge.
The suicide, the note Duncan had written to his family, none of it directed attention to my uncle and Reckless John Rider’s use-them-and-lose-them operation. With the suicide, Eric’s mood lightened, an item off his Rider plate.
Eric did think it was well past time for me to return home. One problem with that? “I tossed my Ameripass my first night in the city,” I said sheepishly. “My plan was to stay here.”
That didn’t fit Eric’s plans. He bought me an airline ticket. I flew out of San Francisco International, arriving home for school with time to spare.
Flying over America, back to the Midwest, I looked down through the breaks in the clouds at the interstates, the traffic, when I could make it out, rolling predominantly to the west. Yet some, no, many rolled to all points east. And that made me think of Duncan. I wondered where he was, rolling away on a Greyhound bus.
I shit you not.