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.
Copyright 2015 Steven Baird
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