Fifty-seven years ago I killed a boy. Tonight, Euart Monroe walked into my room with a Mossberg 510 and a stained hobo mattress and fired a shot into my belly. It should have killed me right off, but he didn’t want that. He wanted me to know who pulled the trigger.
I could taste the backsplash in my mouth, dripping bile and bowel, and it tasted like bits of wet cabbage.
Calm yourself, Jimmy, she oftentimes said.
Arlene. I can still smell your hair, and it smells like black tea.
The clock says 2:45. One more morning added to the four dozen years since she passed.
Look here, I see the crepe myrtle in the backyard, tinted like cherry Popsicles, and the first blush on the garden tomatoes. I can smell the late-spring mint that grows wild beside the porch. I can hear Arlene humming something sweet in the kitchen, a lullaby for no one. I hold on to these things – smells, colors, sounds — for as long as I can, because none of it is real. Reality is the reek of greasy undershirts, the whorl of colored lights on a police car, the damp black gases seeping from my bowels.
The box fan in the window filters the slushy noises from the street, curling the sounds into voices, rhythms, cockeyed conversation. But there’s no one outside, not now, not in Handsome. It’s only white noise sluicing through the blades. There’s no one out there to hear the echoing rip shot from the 510.
Breathe, Jimmy, breathe, think about breathing, think about who you were two minutes ago.
They call this an Assisted Living Retirement Complex. What it really is, is squalor in a box. Everything smells like boiled onions and baggy adult diapers. It’s a place of low expectations and high cholesterol charts. The best you can hope for is a few wet faces at your funeral.
The Lady of Autumn hallways are furred with industrial beige carpet, and the walls, once gunmetal gray, are now sour milk white, scabbed and wounded like its residents.
So have you stopped yet? she asked.
She, exhausted: The drinking, the whoring, the robbing.
I’ve cut back on the whoring, I said, but she didn’t smile back.
There is a group of old men who gather in the Lilac Room every Wednesday night. It is called the Church of the Dead Wives. Members serve tea and reheated coffee and soft, crumbly cookies. The room doubles as the cribbage and checkers room by day. It is a place for grief to catch hold, a place for dark one-upmanship. The women don’t seem to have such a gathering or, if they do, keep it to themselves. I don’t know that women grieve any harder than men. Grieving is grim work.
This was the home of an old man. In the dreams, I’m still young, still cocksure, focused on the pig trail that was my life. Awake, I’m stupidly aware of what I’ve stepped in to get here. I’m gut-shot and dying, and no one will know until the coroner pulls in. The young-me would have seen Monroe, seen him for what he was, but old-me has become passive to changes in his routine. And no man – young or old – can change the physics of a Mossberg.
There is a former congressman whom I count among my neighbors – you’d know his name if I told you – who bounces grapes off his thighs. Most days he sits in the Lilac Room passively watching everyone. He never speaks. Sometimes a nurse will blot the dribble off his lips. He never notices her. He only becomes cognizant when he drops the grapes from between his fingers and watches them bounce off his legs. His hand-eye coordination is better than most. He is in the Zone.
I remember what the Zone felt like. It was all about focus and being oblivious to everything else. I was deep in the Zone when Arlene tried to tell me something, anything, everything. I was too intent on the next job, the last job, the final thing I had to do to walk away clean. Then I could settle down, wipe the past away like mist from a windshield. Then, maybe, peace.
But death took her, and it shook the roof. It blew away the walls and left a hole in the foundation. I didn’t see it coming. I think she knew how short her time was. She may have even told me. But I was in the Zone, focused on the pig trail. How could I not know?
You age fast after your first heart attack. Lines crease your face like pencil sketches. Your skin droops from your bones like a wet rag. You give up smoking and eating salt and drinking Tanqueray gin, but your knowledge of dying has become more fulsome.
I took my first heart attack seventeen days after she died. Five months later, my second. I checked myself into this place, not knowing that Monroe was still following me, hunting me for something that happened fifty-seven years ago.
And now this: bleeding, dying, still smelling her hair and it smells like black tea.
My old man lived most of his life in Handsome, Oklahoma. I used to have a photo of him on the wall in the spare bedroom. He is holding a dead chicken in one hand and an ax in the other. The ax is slung casually over his shoulder like a prosthetic. There is wheat chaff in his hair and a curled stalk between his teeth. He was thirteen years old, long before he met his wife, long before I was a burr in his pants.
I don’t know why I held on to that picture. It was just an old creased photograph with no esthetic value. I suppose it reminded me of where I came from and where I didn’t want to go.
He was shot to death trying to rob a butcher shop in Bokchito when I was seven years old. At least I was a more successful thief, but our fates have become bookends.
I don’t remember much about being a child. My mother was a quiet woman. She drank sweet black coffee and spent most of her days standing in the kitchen, frying, baking, preparing. She wore a faded pink apron that smelled like orange peel and bleach. I rarely saw any affection pass between my parents.
I was named after a second cousin, an oil rigger who was killed in North Dakota when a pipeline exploded. He was twenty-three years old. He became the patron saint in our home because he worked hard and died honest.
After my father was killed, I became the man. There was no definition of what that meant, other than a vague notion of hard work. School was not an option. I was almost eight years old.
The crows are flying across the hay field, casting inkblot shadows. They are figments of an enormous imagination. A small dark shape blots the far field, a deer, maybe, or an abandoned calf. I walk towards it, and my steps are jerky, like a crudely drawn flip-book. The shadows of the crows crawl across the field like summer tar. It is the shape of a man, a man or a boy. There is a basket of yellow chrysanthemums on the table, the color of butter. They are perfectly round and scentless. The shape in the field is moving, a slow rolling motion. I have walked far enough that I cannot see the homestead behind me. I am surrounded by a field of stunted, brown hay. The man or boy is no closer. Remember, said Monroe, and his finger tugged the trigger. The bastard was coordinated, I’ll give him that; he must have practiced relentlessly, because he was also holding a mattress. I saw his face and I remembered, and felt my guts rearrange themselves like a child’s gruesome finger painting, wet and muddy and a hundred shades of red.
I mucked cattle barns and I tossed hay bales for forty-seven cents a day. The days were long enough that each folded into the next with only a small curled ribbon of night running through them. There was no time for books or school or play. On Sundays, I helped my mother. I cut firewood, harvested, planted or turned the soil of our meager garden. My body knew no rest, save for the five or six hours between awake and awake. I grew into a man’s body within a few months, solid and strong. Soon, I was outworking boys double my age. The work bored me, and the money was not enough. With my strong back and arms, I decided I needed more.
But wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a goddamn minute. The boy is dead, and has been for a long time. I killed him fifty-seven years ago.
Excerpt from Ordinary Handsome: Available at http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00P46ZPA0