Chapter 8: Teamwork
Things should stay uniform, but mostly, things are uneven in this world.
Howard first learned that lesson sophomore year of high school. He had been an ugly teenager. His eyes were beady but wide-set. His nose looked like a plop of dough and his mouth was off-center, as if he always smirked or looked at someone out of the corner of his eye. Once, he’d overheard a girl say his face looked like a bowl of oatmeal had been pasted over it. Acne had pockmarked his face and he doubted he’d ever lose the oatmeal look. Her name was Dorothy Rutledge and she had straw-blonde hair and a smattering of freckles over her cheeks and nose from the spring semester sun. She drove him wild, insane enough to try. He thought he might have a chance. He didn’t.
She laughed and said “no way, farmboy” and turned running to her gaggle of girlfriends in the high school parking lot. He turned away, wanting to go home and do the chores and try and forget. But something in him said you need to know why.
So rather than get into his beater F-100 pickup, he ducked under the bed of it, careful to let the truck tires hide his legs, and listened. He’d be late to the chores and the days were still short, but he’d do them in the dark if he had to. The heifers would be there waiting for him daylight or no.
He strained to hear their voices.
“So, he asked you out.”
“Ugh. Yeah. Goddamn hick. Give me a cigarette Cindy.”
“Fuck you. Besides, aren’t we all hicks?”
“C’mon you owe me,” she said, and then Howard heard a flicking lighter. With a voice muffled by the cigarette between her lips she said “God he’s ugly. His face looks like someone threw cold oatmeal on it.”
And they’d laughed and stifled that new smoker’s cough through giggles.
At first, he wanted to react with ferocity. She thought she was better than him, all of them did. He wanted to hurt them somehow, like they had hurt him. He settled on his motto: don’t get mad, get even.
He snuck off as they smoked. He was twenty minutes late thanks to his amateur espionage. This of course meant he finished feeding the livestock in the dark. He trudged up the steps to the squat building his father had erected twenty some years ago and flicked the outside lamp on. Working in the dark had left him dirtier than usual. He needed a hose-down before going inside. Something of a pre-shower-shower.
As he stooped to untie his boot laces his father tore through the screen door like a shot and before Howard could react, his father kicked him square on his left ass cheek. The way he’d bent over had sort of exposed his hips and he could feel the pain of the kick all the way to the bone. A bruise would form and expand in a purple-bluish bloom over his entire leg in the coming weeks.
He sat in the grass below the porch, stunned. His father swayed under the porch lamp with a near empty mason jar in his hand. Nasty home-made stuff, that swill he’d been drinking. The economic cost of the stuff was nearly nothing, but it put his old man into spectacular form.
By now, Howard had come to grasp his father’s nature. His father was an angry drunk. His father was an angry sober. He was just angry. And he had tendons like wire and bone like ironwood and the mix of alcohol and rage fueled him, seemed to supercharge him. It made him quick as a bantam weight with a super-heavyweight’s haymaker. Circling the edge of the ring would be the plan tonight; else his father would beat the hell out of him.
“You’re late,” the man growled.
“Chores are done,” he answered, “I’ll be skipping supper tonight though.”
“Damn right you will. Your ma had to throw half of it out to the pigs.”
A lie. Mom never threw out food the same night she prepared it. She’d have secreted it under his bed for him to eat after his old man inevitably passed out.
His father squinted, trying to think up some reason why he ought to be mad at his son, but finding none, he commenced a fresh interrogatory:
“Why were you late?” he asked, the words mashed into one.
“I asked a girl to the dance.”
“And she said no, I’d bet.”
“Actually, she said ‘yes,’” he lied.
He knew this would set his father off, to see his son enjoy some modicum of success. No, the Jacobson men were failures every one, and they should wallow in it, they should keep each other down in it. They were the dead faces and this place was Tolkien’s dead marsh, Tolkien simply got the geography wrong.
But his father surprised him when he answered, “I’m proud of you, boy,” and ambled down the porch steps.
His father held his hand out and helped him get to his feet. Then he stuck the mason jar out and said, “take a drink. In celebration.”
Initially he furrowed his brow, doubting, but his father’s smile seemed genuine. And besides, he was no special recalcitrant snowflake when it came to booze. He’d already developed a half-pint a night habit of his own, a penny farthing amount compared to his father’s gold-standard heroic tolerance. But, unlike his father, he was a happy drunk, or at least a hopeful one.
He took the jar from his father and raised it to his lips. There was but a sip left in it. As the liquid hit his lips with a hint of burning, a bright flash jumped from behind his eyes and he found himself on the ground, confused and ears ringing. What a talent his father had for inflicting pain. He stooped over his wallowing son and whispered: “You’re too young to drink yet, boy. I saved you a little trouble. Now wash up and go on to bed.” With that, his father turned and disappeared back inside the house, leaving behind the echo of the screen door slamming shut and a pulsating throb in his boy’s head.
By now, he knew the triage procedure. He looked left then right. Some pain but not unbearable. He checked his ears, no blood, only a tinny ring. His head wasn’t fuzzy, the pain was brightening into a nice neon hue already. This was a good thing. It was the times he didn’t feel that sharpness that he needed to worry about. Those times he’d spend the next few days floating through the world, his head a helium balloon attached to his body by a very long string. Tonight he’d gotten lucky.
He picked himself up and finished hosing off, then went silently into the house. He could hear his father in the only other bedroom of the house raising hell with his mother now. But he didn’t worry for her. She was an old pro. She’d have him fucked and passed out drunk within the hour. At least he was mostly predictable, she’d say. Her own father hadn’t been. Then she’d say, but you aren’t like either of them, but her words trembled every time and her eyes left his. She knew the way of her world. Elisa, nearly paralyzed by now, sat alone in the living room, a book propped up on a side table near her. He wondered if she could read it, he hoped she could.
“Hi Elly,” he said
“Two. Head.” Well, it was something. Better than silence.
“Good night,” he said and kissed her on the forehead. He turned the page in her book, just in case.
In the bathroom, he took a quick cold shower and toweled off. He looked over himself in a mirror so old it had warped and didn’t give an honest reflection. But he could see the honest image through it, Dorothy had given him such earlier and his father had given him a bit more later. He was ugly. His face was like oatmeal. The fresh mound of discolored broken flesh rising out of the side of his cheekbone where his father’s punch had landed wasn’t helping. Yet he smiled into the mirror. He’s almost gotten angry today, almost became like his fucking shitbag father. But he hadn’t.
“Don’t get mad,” he said to himself, “get even.”
For the next two weeks he fell asleep gripping a small brown pocketknife. In the right place, one quick stroke, and she’d be ugly too. Things would be even. He fantasized about it, how Dorothy Holster would miss the 1982 senior prom because her face had been slashed by an unknown assailant in such a way that a certain spot on her cheekbone would always carry a jagged scar. He even carried the knife with him to school the day of the dance. He thought he saw something in Elly’s eyes that morning as he left the house. As he watched Dorothy laugh with all the other popular kids at lunch and gripped the knife’s handle in his pocket he knew he couldn’t do it.
Howard realized Elly’s words had meant something. Two heads, as in his and Dorothy’s. Two separate things, he shouldn’t try to make them the same. She’d be pretty, he’d be ugly. Not even but uneven and no fairness to it.
Rather than commit a crime, he decided then to join the military. The recruiter had been talking to Howard lately about signing. The military, if nothing else, had an order to it. So Howard left the cafeteria and went straight to the recruiter’s office. Dorothy was voted prom queen, Howard fed the cows.
He’d seen Dorothy several months back, and she’d kept her figure. She didn’t recognize Howard.
Howard takes a bite from his sandwich. A sort of slimy-salt meat they’re passing off as ham around here, mustard, no cheese, sandwiched between slices of bread that are kissing cousins with crouton at this point. He blows on his coffee, much like his sandwich it seems more inspired by the real thing rather than the real thing itself. But the meal is a good one, for Calvin had agreed on an all-expense paid trip to Salinas, if only to meet this sister of Howard’s before hearing the remainder of Howard’s plea.
Calvin hasn’t dared the coffee yet. He’s staring through the café window, out to the facility across the street. The lot it sits on doesn’t have space for parking—the guest parking is located a ten minute walk away—though this isn’t a bustling part of town, as this isn’t a bustling town. The building is utilitarian: squat, minimal windows, a flat roof, all of it like a monument to the right angle.
But the place isn’t completely broke down either, there aren’t prostitutes or panhandlers or any of that sort around here and there are tiny patches of landscaping here and there which have obviously been maintained, if minimally so. Howard’s never quite gotten his mind wrapped around this little town and this little facility. It’s as if a light yet impossible to remove dust has settled over everything, like the facility and this sandwich shop serving it and the whole city around it had been erected thirty some years ago and then got stuck in one of those years. The inhabitants had that same dusty look, but only the outsiders seemed to notice it.
Calvin is trying his best to be polite about the situation.
“It looks, clean,” he says. “What I really meant when I said ’is that it,’ was ‘is that it?’ I wasn’t sure exactly where we were is all.”
“Don’t worry about it. And yeah, this is it.”
Calvin takes a bite like he’s trying to hide behind that sandwich.
Howard knows what Calvin had expected. He’d expected it himself when he’d first visited her. Something like in the movies: huge lawn upward sloping until the ground meets a behemoth stone building with oversized arches and doors and windows and everything else. A big back yard for all the crazies to congregate within on the nice weather days. But none of that was true, at least not for Elisa.
This place has an outside recreational activity area, as they call it, but the outside is surrounded on all sides by the building itself. Easier to keep ’em in this way, to let the patients out yet still keep them in. He once heard a nurse say at least when they’re in the rec area, the only direction is up. And the setup spares the public a discomforting view. In fact, if not for the small white lettering on the side of the building: Public Health, Central District, Salina KS, there would be no hint to the outside world that discomforting events might occur within.
Howard has come to conclude that the building’s sign is a better warning than most of the patients inside ever gave, before they did whatever it was that landed them in Public Health Facility, Central District, Salina KS. Elisa never did anything to deserve this place, just kind of born into it.
“So,” Calvin says, “you got a picture of your dad or something?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, if I’m gonna go in there, sign her out or whatever, shouldn’t I at least look like the parent I’m pretending to be?”
Howard shakes his head at this. If only it were so easy. Walk in, sign some papers, here you go Mr. Johnson, have her! See you on down the road.
But Calvin can’t know any different. Some things, you just have to experience to know. Problem being, you never want to experience those things.
“You don’t know how this sort of deal works. That’s fine. No, I didn’t ask you to help me so I could forge a signature. Takes both parents, a witness, a notary, and the attending physician’s signature. Good luck getting his ass to drive up here. You think he’s gonna sign out all those years of Medicaid payments on a whim?”
Calvin frowns and takes his first sip of coffee. By now it’s cooled and the bitterness of the stuff is overwhelming. Calvin screws up his face and licks his lips and swallows, trying to rid himself of the taste.
“Good Lord,” he says and grimaces as he puts the cup down. “So, why are we here then? I Mean, we are here to get her out, right?”
“Yes, yes, that’s why you’re here.”
He noticed the way Calvin’s eyes had went wide when he started speaking, wide from fear and mistrust. Calvin had fidgeted the entire trip here. Chewed his lips, beat his fist against his thigh as he watched the land lose its taller foliage, then its shape, and become the flat expanse in which they are currently stationed. And Howard knows what Calvin had been thinking, something along the lines of revenge: easier to have revenge out here where the soil is plentiful and the witnesses scarce. And despite Howard’s countless reassurances, all true, he sees fear in Calvin’s eyes still.
The Colonel tries to make his face seem warm, not quite sure how to do it, and says “I only want you to meet her first. So you’ll be more likely to do what I need you to, when the time comes.”
Calvin shakes his head, “man, you must have something risky planned, I don’t know-”
“Meet her today, then I’ll tell you the plan. Spent my only yearly visit on this and I don’t want you bugging out on me before you two meet.”
So far, Calvin hasn’t pressed on the particulars of why Howard has dragged him out here. How could he? The kid’s in a corner. Run and he’ll either be found again by Howard, angry this time around, or worse be found by whichever entity Howard decides to alert. And yet, Howard suspects Calvin sees opportunity here as well. Finally a chance to meet someone odd like himself, possibly a chance to fulfill whatever purpose God has for him, and so here he sits.
And when I ask him to rob…Howard stops himself. Just let Calvin meet her. He’ll need no convincing.
“You only get to see her once a year?” Calvin asks.
“Technically, I’m not even allowed that much. I think they’re afraid what I’ll do if they refuse it.”
Howard decides to leave out the bit about the restraining order, and that he’d been told he could visit Thanksgiving and Christmas as well despite the order, so long as he ‘behaved himself.’ But he’ll never visit on either holiday. If mom or dad or both happen to show up (which Howard doubts every year but every year refuses to leave to chance), Howard does not trust his ability to behave himself under such circumstances.
“Maybe they’re doing you a favor,” Calvin offers.
Howard stands and slides a twenty under his Styrofoam cup. He nods toward Calvin’s full coffee and asks, “you sure you don’t want another taste of that?”
Calvin grins and holds his hands up as if warding off some mythological beast, “no way,” he says.
A short walk later, Howard presses a round button on the brick wall near the facility’s double doors. A bored voice comes through the intercom: “State your business.”
Howard leans toward the intercom and speaks his business. “Howard C. Jacobson, here to visit Elisa L. Jacobson, Patient 2634-91.”
Howard looks up at the security camera above the door and holds his ID out to it.
“And your guest?”
Howard turns back to the intercom, “friend of mine from town, this is her daughter, Jane. She wants to meet Elisa.”
Calvin, having taken on the form of a skinny six year old girl, gives the security camera a gapped-toothed smile. Calvin had figured a little girl would be let in without question. Another full grown male accompanying Howard might not be so lucky. Howard agreed, and so Calvin took the shape of this little child standing next to him.
“Oh, she is a cutie. What’s your momma’s name honey?”
Little-girl Calvin turns to Howard, stalling. Come on Calvin, Howard thinks, just give the lady any damn name. Howard puts his hand on Calvin’s shoulder, forces a smile and says “she is a shy one, go on, tell the nice lady.”
They’re already suspicious of Howard here. If Calvin manages to tip this woman off that Howard’s lying, they’ll never let him in again. Howard frowns, hell they might try and figure out who this Jane belongs to, and then—
“Momma’s name is Jane,” Calvin says, “Jane Johnson.”
Howard exhales and looks down. The one name that was already taken, and Calvin said it. ‘Jane’s’ face drops when Calvin realizes his mistake.
Howard tries to salvage the mistake by saying, “she means to say..." he hesitates for a moment. Looks back at 'Jane,' angry that this has already gone sour.
The intercom mercifully interrupts the silence. “Jane, like your momma? Well ain’t that the darndest thing. You know I only ever heard of little boys getting their daddy’s name. But I suppose Jane Jr. makes every bit as sense as any old John Jr. Times are ever changing, ain’t they Mr. Jaboson?”
“There’s a first time for everything.”
“Sure there is, well, you all come on in. Be an hour before her suppertime. And then you’ll have to leave, you understand this, Mr. Jacobson?”
“No need to remind me. Me and Jane won’t be long.”
Once buzzed in, Howard takes Calvin’s tiny hand. Calvin nods back at him with a straight face, it’s a strange reaction for a young girl.
In the facility, the smell is always the first thing Howard notices. How is it that this place can have the same smell in all the years since his sister was placed? It is the smell of cleaning fluids: anti-fungals, anti-bacterials, anti-this-and-that, all waging total war against the life forms which are completely at home in poorly-ventilated, poorly-lit, closed-in places like this one. Humans aren’t meant for this kind of environment, and Howard’s nose lets him know every time he visits.
He fills out a litany of forms and then Howard and ‘Jane Johnson, Jr.’ are led into a small meeting room with four plain white walls. They sit next to each other on metal chairs. Howard rests his elbows on the folding table in front of them and the table chills his arms and again he wonders at the smell. How, if everything remains so impossibly cold in here, can this place carry such a smell?
“I’ve got a headache,” Calvin says.
“It’s the air in here,” Howard answers. “We won’t be long.”
“I thought she said an hour?”
Howard nods to a clock hanging on the far wall and says, “been twenty-five minutes since we were buzzed in.”
“They count that?”
“And it will be twenty-five for them to prep her for ‘suppertime,’ which is at three, and for whatever reason she can never be late for eating time. Like they got anywhere else to be. So you do the math.”
“Ten minutes? What a rip off.”
“The thing is, they think I ought to be grateful for that much.”
The door opens and the nurse, a large woman in pink scrubs, wheels Elisa into the room and locks her wheelchair into place opposite Howard and Calvin-Jane.
The nurse doesn’t bother with pleasantries; instead she points to the clock and says “Two thirty-five, Mr. Jacobson. Don’t forget what happened last time,” then exits the room.
Calvin-Jane looks at the Colonel, “what happened—“
Elisa interrupts, saying “trick.”
Despite her condition, she still has the look of a younger woman. Howard thinks she could have been a beautiful woman, if not for all those genetic materials getting tangled up. Her hair has been pulled into a single braid, the nurse had even put eyeshadow and lip gloss on her today. They put on a good show. If not for the wheel chair and the four walls and the line of drool escaping Elisa’s mouth—and that fucking stench—they might be a sister and a brother watching after a friend’s child for the afternoon. If not for the truth, they might be on a picnic.
But Howard smiles. He had planned on making her wait a bit, make some sort of introduction to Calvin, but her excitement is too much to resist, and besides, Howard bets that she already knows that Howard won’t make her wait any longer.
“You look pretty,” Howard says.
Elisa doesn’t answer; instead she stares into the overhead lighting. Howard continues, “This is a friend, Jane Johnson, Jr. She wants to meet you.”
“Trick,” she says.
“What the…” Calvin-Jane says.
“Show Elisa your trick, Jane.”
“But I don’t--”
“We don’t have much time, Jane. Any minute now.”
“Okay, I’ll show you my trick. Watch close.”
Calvin-Jane morphs his face to Calvin, only for a moment. To Howard the process looks as if Calvin is made of putty, the transition stage is nearly imperceptible due to the speed of it, and then he is reformed: skin, eyes, lips, chin of a little girl replaced by Calvin’s own face, or perhaps more precise the face Calvin has chosen for himself. In the next second, the little girl is back, smiling that gap-tooth smile.
Elisa raises her hands to shoulder level and makes circles in the air. She’s incapable of clapping, but Howard gets the message.
“Trick,” Calvin-Jane says.
Howard had taken a risk letting Calvin morph here. He’d suspected they’d have cameras in here after last visit’s debacle, but upon arriving he hadn’t seen any. Government rules or lack of government funding or maybe just dumb luck had struck them today. Best not to press it.
“So, Elisa, Jane and I ought to get going, okay?”
Elisa’s face seems to drop, but she doesn’t cry. She never cries on his visits. This is not the act of a woman with the mental capacity of a toddler. Not crying, but processing. His sister is in there somehow, Howard knows it. If only he can get her out of here, he thinks he can find her, the real her.
“Offer. All see,” she says.
“Yes,” Howard says. “I love you, Elisa. Say goodbye, Jane,” Howard says.
Calvin-Jane says goodbye as Howard buzzes the nurse. They exit the room and Howard looks back through the vertical glass window in the door as he leaves. He can see Elisa craning her neck toward the window, mouthing the words “sky, sky, sky.” The nurse enters and scowls as she wheels Elisa away. The nurse bears the same sort of look Howard had seen on his father’s face on a blustery morning many years before.
His father held no truck for freaks. He’d proved it to Howard in graphic fashion one winter morning.
Though he couldn’t remember the exact ID number of the cow who birthed it, Howard settled on number 327.
Polycephalys, he’d come to find later was the word for that calf’s special feature. That morning during winter break of Howard’s senior year though, he’d been rendered speechless.
While his father slept off another blackout drunk, Howard went down to check on 327. She’d gotten away from the herd overnight, a troubling sign.
That morning was bitter cold, but Howard hadn’t gotten a new coat since freshmen year. He had grown eight inches in that span, though. He didn’t wear the jacket to school at all after freshman year, claiming he liked the cold. But that was a lie. So, on the farm, shielded from all those judging high school eyes, he cut holes in the ends of some old socks and slid them over his exposed wrists to help protect against some of the weather’s bite.
This Franken-coat arrangement helped warm him some, but he thought it a ceaseless source of amazement that in the three summers since freshman year, he never had saved enough of his summertime hay-bailing wages to afford a coat of his own by wintertime. He thought, I am the living embodiment of the fable of the grasshopper and the ant. The grasshopper sang and danced all summer long, only to find himself penniless and hungry come winter. The ant, however, toiled in the summer and stored up food for winter and when winter inevitably arrived, the ant flourished while the grasshopper starved in the cold. And when the starving, shivering grasshopper groveled at the ant’s doorstep, the ant rose his head high and proclaimed that “to work today is to eat tomorrow,” and shut the door behind him, returning to his well-stocked home, alone. The ant presumably felt no remorse as he removed the grasshopper’s shriveled corpse from his doorstop come spring.
But, Howard thought as he crossed his arms and leaned into the wind, I didn’t sing or dance one damn time all summer long. I worked my ass off every single summer and in that time, I earned: replacement tires for the tractor, fence-mending supplies, cash payment on a doctor’s bill from the time the mower ran over an underground wasp’s nest and I got swarmed, and a window unit air conditioner so I didn’t have to sweat so heavy every summer night after doing so every summer day. So here he was yet again, penniless and jacketless come winter. The ant didn’t realize how good he had it. My father is the grasshopper, he thought, and wondered if he hadn’t found the parable’s answer in the bottom of a bottle.
Before he crested the final short hill overlooking the pasture, he could see the early-morning steam rising silently from the ponds at the edge of the place, he could hear no sounds. The sun was a bright orange crescent lying on its side just at the edge of the earth. In rare times like these, the cold wasn’t so sharp, the work wasn’t so joint-crushing. In these times he could see himself foregoing enlistment. In this quiet, he thought maybe he could stay on the farm and somehow turn out different than his father had. As he looked east he thought, neither the ant nor the grasshopper ever got to see the sun like he did.
So, he was in a good mood as he crested the hilltop and looked down into the low, hard-frosted spot where Number 327 had stupidly chosen to finally have her calf. She licked over her newborn, grooming it and urging it to stand. He smiled at the new mother and her baby, but as he drew nearer his smile escaped him.
Something was wrong, very wrong with this calf. Its head didn’t look right. He hurried to the newborn. 327 shook her head and stomped, warning him. “Whoa now,” he said and held his hand up to her. He pulled a feed cube from his pocket and held it out. She took it from his hand with her tongue, precise for a fourteen hundred pound animal, and he scratched her behind the ear, calming her.
The calf had tucked its face into its black belly as it lay curled up and resting. With every breath, a rough phlegm-like, almost cough followed. Possible it simply hadn’t fully cleared its lungs yet. Calvin stooped to look at the thing closer and it turned to him. His mouth dropped.
The top of its head was mirrored somehow. He couldn’t make sense of it immediately. He looked at it and four eyes looked back at him.
“What in the fuck,” and the calf bleated back at him, as if he were the strange one.
It had two heads, or it had one head but two faces. A perfect white faced calf, only problem being that there was two of them. Two skulls had fused or interlocked laterally. What should have been the left side of one skull merged into what should have been the right side of the other.
Four eyes looking him over, two noses sniffing the air, two drooling mouths hiding two tongues. The strangest thing, he thought, was that the calf had managed to get the number of ears correct. Only two ears on this somehow two-headed creature.
And what did it see of him? Twice as many, or only the one?
The calf struggled to stand, for its head overwrought the legs and neck. It could only manage to straighten the back legs, leaving its forelegs and head stumbling and dragging on the frozen ground.
He steadied its back legs then clasped his arms around its chest and lifted. With his help, the calf was able to stand. It swayed awkwardly as it looked for its mother.
Number 327 went to her baby and stood over it and he knew this was the most important moment in the calf’s life.
He’d heard of the two headed calf before. Old men’s tales of so-and-so from such-and-such county back in ’45 or ’27 or some forgotten year. But every story admitted the same: the calf was stillborn. He’d never heard of one surviving past birth, and Howard knew the calf before him now stood no chance.
He prayed. God, please let this one live. Let me have this. The calf zig-zagged around its mother for some time, swinging one mouth toward the closest teat and then the other. It was hungry, he could tell and this was a good sign, but its mouths seemed to either lack the coordination to latch or were warring as to which would be the first to taste mother’s milk.
Sometimes God helps those who help themselves. Howard took the calf’s leftmost mouth and directed it toward a teat, and the calf latched.
He stood back and made a single clap. He didn’t know how to react. It was the best thing to ever happen to him. He watched until the calf had its fill and clumsily it laid back down, exhausted already.
He left the calf to its mother and ran back toward the house, wanting to tell anyone who would listen. The car was gone, mom had already went off to town, where she waitressed part-time. He tore through the rickety gate to the front door just as his father was wiping the morning’s customary vomit from his beard with the tail of his shirt.
“Where’s the damn fire,” his father said.
“Dad, you won’t believe it,” he said as he panted to catch his breath.
“You talking twins boy? Don’t tell me you come huffing up here for that. It’ll help with a bill or two but…”
“No, one calf. Two. Heads.”
“Ah shit. Stillborn then. I knew I should’ve hauled off 327 last year. They get too old, shit like that starts happenin.’”
“No! It’s alive! Suckled its momma!”
“Boy, if you’re pulling my fucking leg, I’ll—
“I’m serious! Come see for yourself.”
“Alright. Hold on,” His father turned and trudged back inside for a moment then emerged with a thermos. He held it out, “drink?”
Howard took the thermos from his dad, opened it and smelled. The acrid smell of coffee mixed with hot alcohol fumes entered his nostrils and very nearly caused him to cough.
“Ah, no thanks, I remember what happened last time,” he said and handed the thermos back. He started toward the field, his father following.
“What do you mean? What happened last time?”
He wanted to say, ‘you beat the shit out of me last time, don’t you remember?’ but this would only remind his father of the terrible drunk he’d become and this reminder would inevitably spiral out to another angry drunken late-night beating. He wondered if the time had come to fight the man back. If that time would ever come.
“You…you weren’t too happy last time. Said I was underage.”
Howard‘s father cocked his head confused, said “Hmm, well I suppose that makes sense.”
When they reached the calf it was up again, and by now its breathing had cleared. It seemed to have some trouble walking, trouble orienting itself. All calves are a bit unsteady after birth, but this one was different. As if the two heads wanted to go in their own direction but couldn’t.
Number 327 didn’t seem to notice, she strutted around her baby, licking him and prodding him to walk.
His father approached the calf and 327 huffed at him. He clapped his hands and shouted at her and she jerked backwards, leaving the calf’s side. He looked over it, checked its back. Kneeled over and checked its hooves, its abdomen. Then he stood and frowned.
“Too damn bad,” he said. “Would’ve made a decent steer. 327’s done aged out. Put a lead rope on her, and take her up to the lot. I’ll get my rifle for the other one.”
Howard’s head swum as if he’d been punched, but this was somehow worse. The calf was alive. The thing was a miracle. His father didn’t see it, or didn’t want to. He would kill it without blinking and burn the corpse and drink. He’d forget this day, like many others. But this one was not to be forgotten. But what could he do? The old man was the boss.
“But, dad, the calf. It’s healthy.”
“It damn sure ain’t. Don’t try to fool yourself.”
“It suckled though. Give it time, people would pay to see it. It’s special.”
“Yeah, it’s special alright. Special sort of the same way your sister’s special. Ain’t nobody wanting to pay to see her.”
“We ain’t in the freak show business. We’re in the beef cattle business.”
“We could call the vet, maybe he’d take it.”
“I seen him put a dog down for having a sore paw. You think he’s gonna save this thing? He’ll do the same thing I’m about to, only that uppity nig will charge me for the pleasure. Now, do you really believe this thing’s gonna help, not hurt, paying the bills?”
Howard didn’t respond. Dad was right. The cost outweighed any benefit. Miracles of the cosmos aside, the bills had to be paid. He hung his head and went to the barn for the lead rope. When he returned he was careful not to look at the calf again as he led 327 up the hill to the lot nearest the house. She cried and the calf bawled back and tried to follow but it could not keep up. Eventually it stumbled and lay in the dead grass, bawling for its momma.
327 gave some resistance, but she’d been separated from her calves before and she’d been conditioned by the rumble of the feed bucket jostling in his hands. With her tied and fed in the lot, Howard sat on the porch. By then the sun had risen full above the fields and a lone early cumulus cloud sauntered in the direction of the sun without a care that the midmorning warmth might reduce it to scattered vapor. He reminded himself that the cloud doesn’t care because it can’t. As the crack from his father’s rifle echoed through the home place, he told himself the calf can’t care either, and neither can God.
All these years later, another lonely cumulus breaks up in the atmosphere.It’s time had come, that’s all. And finally, Howard thinks Elly’s time is here.
As they walk outside the facility, Calvin asks “what was she trying to say?”
“So you believe me, then. About her ability to see the future?”
“Yeah, I mean I think so. Why not? Like you said she’s been repeating trick since around the time I…since that unfortunate event occurred between us. And I’m no stranger to crazy stuff like this. I’m living proof of it.”
“Interpreting ’All-see’ is simple,” Howard says and holds his arms out wide. “Look right. Look left, look up. See in all directions. In there, they only see up, and that’s when they’re outside. You gotta listen. No one listens to her.”
“What about offer?”
“’Offer,’ simply means I need to make an offer to get her out of here. Like a bribe, but you see she’s smarter than to say ‘bribe.’”
“Not at first, no. But I asked around. Fifty grand can get her out. Of course, they’ll deny anything as soon as mom or dad start asking questions—they’ll say I stole her. But fifty-thousand will at least open the doors.”
“So that’s where I come in.”
“You got it.”
Howard turns to Calvin, who’s lost in thought. Another dilemma for the kid, betraying the good book to help someone who needs it. An age-old problem but forever fresh. What if Calvin refuses? The funds aren’t obtainable on his own, and he’ll never get together fifty thousand just by saving—thanks to Calvin’s actions Howard would never have a real career again. If Calvin refuses, Howard could…no, he isn’t that type. Hard to repent with those sorts of thoughts popping up. Howard thinks maybe he shouldn’t have brought Calvin straight to Elisa, he decides to present his case in a better way.
Howard tries to put the idea differently, “look—“
Calvin interrupts him, saying “I want to find out if she’s like me. I’ll do it, as long as we don’t hurt anyone.”
“Do their wallets count?”
At 10:00 a.m. the next day, Howard and Calvin have made their way to a spot a block from Salina National Bank. Just two men sitting on a bench together, nothing strange about that, Howard thinks, but the locals sure do seem to stare.
“You know,” Calvin says, “I’ve thought about banks before. You could get a little bit, clean a drawer and get out without too much fanfare I bet. But,” Calvin lowers his voice as a woman and her kid pass by, “fifty grand? You’re gonna need more than a shapeshifter—it’s really only a very good costume. I mean, you could’ve gotten more with an A-K and a rubber Reagan mask. What do you need me for?”
“Not taking from the bank,” Howard says. “Taking from one of the bank’s customers.”
Howard explains the situation in Salina, Kansas to Calvin:
Due to its geographical location, Salina serves as hub for both grain and cattle in the region, meaning that on certain predetermined days, men gather within the city to either buy or sell. Now this being 2015, much of the business can be, and is, transacted electronically. But for these men, whose dads and grandads and great-grandads participated in the same trading days, a trip to Salina for a cattle or grain auction along with the activities which accompany such auction, is a thing to be revered. Electronic transactions won’t do, so they gather, and a congregation of the pioneers’ progeny descends upon this town with the same rashness of their forefathers.
Their aim, ostensibly a single purpose, is in truth two fold. The first, to sell and buy for profit and ultimately the good of the family unit (such unit of the traditional variety without a single deviation), is broadcast with great intensity and duration to the wife and the children. This first purpose, as previously described, can be conducted not only from these men’s homes but even from across the globe, and so, as all the wives are no doubt apprised, is but a façade behind which the true and sole remaining reason for the trek is concealed. These men carry with them to Salina that great old tradition of general debauchery. This aim, being much older and more natural to these men than the first, has survived the digital age, and will survive all those ages which follow.
A tradition such as this requires discretion, and so these men carry cash. Rolls and rolls of cash. Brought from hidden sanctuaries: above a ceiling tile, fastened to the inside of a pickup truck’s wheel well, on the highest shelf within the garage.
And in the course of dispossessing themselves of this secretly hoarded cash, these men hold frontier communion. In the performance of their rites these men keep the reckless, ancient flame alive out here for another season.
They return to their wives with their pockets heavier, their faces freshly shaven and doused in cologne and they kiss their children and are happy for the great old secret tradition is alive and safe for all of them. And their wives forgive them for this secret they are all so poor at keeping safe.
“So all that cash,” Howard finishes, “it’s mostly going to one place. Eddy’s western bar and grill. Only place in town that serves hard liquor. There he is.”
An overweight man in a gray suit with a bolo tie is carrying a faded leather satchel tightly under his arm. He’s wearing a Stetson hat, pearl-snaps, and alligator boots with a diamond pattern over the toe. He’s playing a well-off cowboy, but anyone with a sharp eye could see his thin limbs, his pale face, and the ripe belly currently straining that fine shirt to its breaking point and know he hasn’t worked cattle, much less worked outside, in some time. He disappears into the bank.
“So that was Eddy?” Calvin asks.
“Eddy’s grandkid. Name’s Forest,”
“So why no other bars? Wouldn’t someone want to move in on all that cash?”
“The world of liquor licensing laws is a complex and mysterious one. All I know is, Eddy bought the license way back, the first—and only—one in the county, and managed to pass it down the family line.”
Calvin furrows his brow at this. “What a country,” he says. Howard can tell Calvin convinced himself that stealing from this man is no sin.
A few minutes pass and then Forest leaves the bank, carrying the satchel more loosely. He passes by Calvin and Howard, who have moved toward the bank’s doors.
“Afternoon,” Howard says to him.
Forest tips his Stetson, “Gentlemen,” he says and continues his way on down the street.
When Forest is out of earshot, Howard says, “Just need that satchel. You got him?”
“That easy?” Calvin asks.
“Here, yes. Small towns and unlocked doors and all that. He’s a fool for believing it, but he clearly does. I’m guessing we’ll be well past the required fifty grand with that satchel. So, you got him?”
“Voice, look, both simple. But I don’t know how he acts, how he reacts. I don’t really have him.”
Howard decides to pump some confidence into Calvin and says, “You worry too much. You made it as a private, you can do this. Besides, no one’s out looking for a shapeshifter. This’ll be a snap.” Calvin nods, but is mostly silent the rest of the day, contemplating the mannerisms of a man like Forest.
The next morning, Howard takes a corner table at the Steak and Eggs and orders the special: steak and eggs. The restaurant is lit poorly, either for the benefit of the hungover men hunched over their porcelain coffee cups or to mask the age of the décor.
Howard’s meal arrives and he gets to work on it. Places like this don’t change much, they don’t really need to. Howard peels the plastic from the top of a single-serving orange jelly and spreads it over his toast. Calvin should be there by now.
Howard speaks into a compact black walkie-talkie, “you ready?” he asks.
“Alright. Buzz me when you’re ready.”
“Over and out.”
Howard doesn’t answer. Calvin had half-insisted on using ‘over and out,’ something about authenticity. Howard takes it as a poor attempt to lighten the severity of the crime he is about to attempt. Hopefully it won’t be only an attempt. He’ll get it.
Howard can only wait. He pretends to read the paper. Shouldn’t take long, but with Calvin…he’ll do it. No way to mess this up. They’d gone over it a dozen times. Forest goes to the back door of the bar at ten a.m. every morning this time of year, clutching a coffee in a Styrofoam cup. An old woman with stringy white hair, name’s Carolyn, answers the door and hands him the satchel. Then Forest heads to the bank. That’s it. No way to screw this up.
Today, there will be only be two deviations to the routine: ‘Forest’ will pick up the satchel early, then he’ll step into a black Ford Bronco rather than complete his trip to the bank. No doubt this deviation will cause major confusion for the real Forest, and his old assistant might need to search for another occupation. Possibly Forest will rethink his security protocols.
‘Buy,’ if Calvin succeeds, ‘sell,’ if he somehow fails to retrieve the satchel from the little old lady. No way, absolutely no way, this gets fouled up. And yet…Howard forces himself to read the headlines syllable by syllable. Lo-cal Girl Wins Grand-Nation-al Steer show. Steer Auc-tions for One-Hund-red Thous-and. Howard reads the headline twice, and yes he read it correctly the first time. Maybe he should have stuck with the family business after all.
Wouldn’t need to become a thief if he had. Thou Shalt Not Steal. Not a headline, but it shone in big black letters in Howard’s mind. He tries not to let those words loiter in his head but he can’t seem to get rid of them.
Howard can’t seem to justify what he’s set in motion, what he’s sent Calvin out for, and yet he hasn’t asked for forgiveness. And he doesn’t plan to. Wouldn’t be honest if he tried. If getting her out this way is a sin with some kind of hell attached to it, then Howard decides he’ll go to hell tomorrow to free Elisa from the hell she’s suffering today. Howard digs his thumbnail into his thigh. Stop thinking, focus on the pain.
Howard digs in like that, drawing blood to the surface of his skin, until Calvin buzzes in. “Buy,” he says.
“Alright,” Howard says. “On my way,” and then he adds with a smile, “over and out.”
Howard sops the remaining egg yolk with his last bite of toast, then leans back in his booth and closes his eyes. For a moment, peace takes hold. He inhales. He’d have Elisa out of the sanitarium within the month. He’d find a doctor who knows what they’re doing. She’d get fixed up, or at least not so medicated. Damn list of meds three pages long. But the questions creep, as they always do. How exactly does one find a doctor willing to treat a kidnapping victim? That’s what she’ll be. Then, how does one go about paying this doctor? How does one with no medical training care for her in the meantime? She can’t even clean her own ass. And then, assuming a doctor is found, paid, and they manage to treat her so that she resembles something close to a functioning human, what then? Tell mother? Hide her? Keep interpreting those word-soup tea-leaves she spouts off? Loneliness awaits. Happiness is an impossibility from here on out.
No. Think positive. Positive self-talk is the thing. This is for sis. She’d have done the same for me, no matter the odds. Would she have? Impossible to tell what kind of person she’d turn out to be if she hadn’t been locked up in there. No. Positive. One step at a time. That’s the only way to take it. One step at a time, else the climb seems too high. Keep it simple. Next step: pick up Calvin.
Howard mutters a prayer to himself. “Help me if you will it,” then he opens his eyes. Howard only says it once. He’s heard Calvin pray to himself constantly, like Calvin is some misbehaving kid at the grocery store, tugging at his tired God, like he’s trying to wear down his deity. If God’s the sort to listen to prayers, Howard figures he only needs to say his once.
Five minutes later a black Bronco comes to a stop in a side street. Calvin-Forest steps into it, then Howard makes a u-turn and drives away from town and toward the interstate.
When they’ve passed the town proper, Howard asks, “How’d it go?”
“You were right,” Calvin says. “I doubted it but you were right. The old woman didn’t say a word to me, just handed me the satchel and shut the door. A little rude actually, but who cares? We got it. Not a question from her, not a hello, nothing.” Calvin’s shaking his head, as if he still doesn’t believe the simplicity of it. Well, they are simple folk here in Salina.
“There’s a reason these people never made it out of Kansas,” Howard says as he pulls into a low-sitting rest area off the highway. “Let’s see the haul,” he says.
Calvin reaches between his legs and places Forest’s leather case on top of the center console. Not even a lock on the thing, only a latched strap. Howard flips the latch and opens the satchel. He looks inside and sees white. “What,” he says.
“Socks?” Calvin says.
Howard pushes the socks to the side, digs deeper. Socks under socks under socks. He tosses them all out of the satchel, tips it upside down, shakes it. Howard turns it over and inside out, looking for another compartment. Something in the stitching? No.
A leather case full of socks. A ringer.
“Fuck!” Howard screams and throws the satchel to the back seat. It lands upright, its open top like a laughing mouth mocking him. Howard turns to Calvin and narrows his eyes.
“What did you do?” Howard asks. “Be very careful with your words.”
Calvin’s voice cracks as he recounts the scene. It was just as he said the first time: Calvin approached Eddy’s bar from the south, crossed at third street, knocked four times. The white-haired woman answered the door, handed over the satchel, then shut it without a word. Calvin heard the back door’s lock click as he walked away. Then he buzzed Howard on the walkie-talkie.
“Then you picked me up,” Calvin finishes.
Howard cocks his head and takes a long look at Calvin. Calvin’s fidgeting, but that’s not any different than usual. He’s scared of Howard, too afraid to cross him. Howard scans the inside of the SUV. And anyway, he thinks, where could Calvin have gotten all this laundry on such short notice? Ah, it wasn’t the kid. Calvin doesn’t have it in him. Howard’s the one at fault, that’s all there is to it.
Howard rubs his temple with his forefinger. “Sorry,” he says. Fell for the ringer. Got too proud. But, there is still time, still time to get this right.
“We’re going back,” Howard says and puts the truck into gear.
Soon after, Howard is looking through binoculars at a sedan now pulled up to the back door at Eddy’s. A rail-thin, long haired man with a pearl-handled pistol strapped to his hip exits the vehicle. The white-haired woman hands him two metal briefcases, no doubt both are locked.
“So that’s where the money is. Smart.” Calvin says.
Howard grinds his teeth and doesn’t say a word. Not smart by them, but brick-to-head stupid by him. Howard grips the wheel hard. He’ll crush the thing. He’ll kill this goddamns steering wheel because it’s the closest thing to him. If he takes his hands from this wheel they might find their way to Calvin. Howard Jacobson, ex-Colonel, ex-father, now ex-intelligent man. He’d been duped by a country bumpkin. Not duped even, for the man hadn’t tried to trick Howard at all, he’d only instituted a fairly run of the mill security protocol. Howard, due to his own vain idiocy, had rendered himself blind to the obvious. Howard’s tendons creak and strain under this wild power of his anger and he cherishes it for a moment. His hands will hurt for weeks and he deserves this pain and more. As the anger starts to a rolling boil, he exhales and wills it away. Keep order, as you have been trained to do. Focus on the task at hand.
The real Forest bursts from the back door of the bar and berates the old woman as she hands the briefcases off. Howard knows the source of the man’s anger. Someone had stolen his satchel earlier today after all, and the old hag had somehow let them get away with it. Forest’s skinny arms are swinging wildly over his head and he’s red-faced, screaming. The old woman shakes her head and says something to him, and the words send Forest looking up to the heavens.
“Damn,” Calvin says, “we cost that lady her job.”
Howard knew this, had planned on it and calculated that her loss of employment was no more than a small collateral loss, nothing compared to the astronomical good achieved by freeing Elisa.
Except now, Elisa will stay in Salina and the old woman will lose her job, unless…Howard reaches under his seat, removes and takes a silver-barreled .45 he’s fastened there for emergency, and places it on the dash.
“Howard, what? Don’t make this worse, violence is only gonna make this worse,” Calvin says.
“Spare me the platitudes. I’m not shooting anyone, I’m only,” Howard trails off. I’m only what? Only going to commit a robbery at gunpoint? Partake in a shootout? Howard can’t see how spilling blood can get his sister out of there. No, no need for a single shot. Calvin could make himself into the thin long-haired man, yeah that could work. Forest’s tipped off, have to do it today. Stop the car en route, do whatever is required to free the long-haired man from it. Empty the cases, mostly. Calvin cum long-haired man can deposit the remaining contents off at the bank to appease any further suspicion. Long-haired man will lose his job, yeah, maybe get convicted for embezzlement. It could work. This will work.
“You can do that long-haired guy’s look, right?” Howard asks.
“No,” Calvin says, “or yes, I can but I won’t. No guns Howard. You said no one gets hurt, but he has a gun and you have a gun and there’s a fairly large sum of cash between the two of you. You know how that ends.”
Howard replays the plan through his head. Long-haired man’s heard Forest berate the old woman, so no doubt he’s on edge already. Some guy stops him on the road for some reason, tries to get too close. The thin man will no doubt get trigger happy, would he draw? If yes, that would be the end for the guy. Life taken, his sister free—assuming Howard doesn’t get unlucky and run into the law somewhere along the way. But say the guy didn’t draw, say he surrenders the vehicle? She’d be out within the week. A risk, but one Howard decides to take.
“We’ll have to be quick,” Howard says. “I’ll race ahead, stop him on the road. All you have to do is—“
“I won’t do a thing,” Calvin says.
Howard looks over and Calvin’s expression is like stone. He can see no fear in Calvin’s eyes. He won’t help, not even with a gun to his head. He’d die before he’d do it, because he believes to die doing this right thing would get him into his heaven. Whatever small sin Calvin might have been willing to commit for Elisa, this one is too far over the border, and Calvin will not cross any further.
Calvin had only been trying to do right, but he’d gotten it wrong. He seems to have a knack for it. Howard never raped anyone. Especially not Alice Gentry. At worst, his acts had fallen in a gray area. They’d all been drunk and they’d all said yes. Back then, that sort of ‘yes’ tended to count. But rumors start when an older man seems to leave with all the young women, and Howard let them swirl.
It could have been much worse, Howard knew. He could’ve done far, far worse. Twenty years for Uncle Sam, the U.S. citizenry, weapons manufacturers, lobbyists, all of them hating and feeding off one another.
He’d just wanted off the farm. Away from his father. The service was a chance to try and make his time worth something, but, after all these years on the inside, he figured that sort of military idealism died around the end of WWII. Howard feared that all the years and all the miles in the service hadn’t saved him from becoming his old man but rather had cemented that fate.
The goal was money, pure and simple, any other aim for those joining up was nothing more than a fever-dream from the get-go. So, though he hated the service he clung to his position at Fort Sill in Lawton, a huge military installation in a small city. Here, the base was the castle and Howard a little Lord. He could hunker down behind these walls until that pension filled up.
It began with simple lust. He told himself he didn’t like to cheat, but he kept on doing it, rationalizing by giving his wife half the blame. Copulation with her had grown difficult recently. Not a decade ago, her skin and shape sort of made him think she wasn’t quite human, like she may have been a superior species. She had been the kind to walk fast through restaurants, not making eye contact or any sort of acknowledgement lest the patrons delude themselves into thinking she was, in fact, their same species and therefore possibly willing to breed. She had been attracted to the Colonel’s power rather than his body. So, he could put on some weight and all things would stay equal. But she changed the equation by morphing from the type to walk fast through the restaurant into the type that stayed for dessert and a chocolate martini, and things stopped being equal. She looked like she’d stuffed tiny marshmallows under every square inch of skin, even managed to fit one under each of her eyes. He couldn’t bring himself to fuck her, though he had to admit she was still the more attractive of the two.
So, he’d get the ambitious female enlisted drunk and talk sweet to them and in their drunkenness they’d see the Colonel as a rung on a ladder and say yes.
Except, that wasn’t the entire truth. The lust kind of morphed into jealousy, you see. Something about this new generation of recruits was soured, it was out of order.
The young officers seemed to revel in enriching their status even to the detriment of their superiors, and why wouldn’t they? They’d not yet seen what many here had. They’d never witnessed uncountable plumes of smoke rising from oil fires to coalesce in the atmosphere, promising a blackened horizon; they’d never seen the burnt out cars holding limbless charred bodies with their ashen gaping faces left to decay on the highway of death. They’d all enlisted after the relatively peaceful gulf war had ended, and their eyes were still bright with lies.
The good-looking girls, they were the worst of the bunch. They’d call themselves officers and they’d say it so an old man like Colonel Howard Jacobson would know they weren’t only an officer, but an officer and a woman with the future in her hands. Look how much they overcame, look how much they accomplished. All the little propaganda pieces interviewed these girls. But not one of them had a chance in hell of being placed on the front line, not one of them had the skill to be placed there in the first place, not one of the cunts would take a bullet for a man, because they’d never be expected to.
But they were interviewed. They were held on high. Meanwhile his sister who actually possessed something the world might need aged alone and silent, and this only fueled his fury toward them.
Every single one of them thought they were better, and so the Colonel grew to hate every single one. A band of brothers can’t hope to trust each other enough to die in service if some snooty young bitch in an officer’s uniform is dangling them like marionettes.
So lust and anger, and, he’d admit by now, jealousy, drove him to do something immoral, but not quite rape. He told himself he was only keeping order, though now he knows that was a lie. But he must admit, the method seemed to have an effect.
Sweet talk them, but them drink after drink, then take them to a seedy motel room and fuck them. By the morning, change was self-evident. Over-achiever no longer, higher class no longer. Just another troop with regrets, like him. Another flawed mortal who’d awoken with a terrible hangover, asking what kind of slut were they anyway? He’s so ugly, why had they let themselves do it? And the spell was broken. Not better, all the same.
Twice, the jealous hate had overcome lust and he’d done something worse. The second time had been the last.
The first time, one of the proudest ones had rejected him, even after downing $100 worth of top-shelf cosmopolitans. She laughed in his face the next day as she thanked him for the drinks. Ah, but Howard wasn’t so easily bested. He smiled back and offered to pay again the next weekend, and she agreed. The next weekend her third cosmo was made with an extra kicker: Flunitrazepam. She slept, and he didn’t bother her. He wasn’t a rapist, after all.
Yet, she didn’t smile the next day when he said, “thanks for the lovely evening.” Her eyes went wet and rather than ask that important question which had no doubt echoed throughout her pretty head, she forced a “welcome,” and walked briskly away.
He didn’t think he’d do it again. Something about that wet questioning look in her eyes, it made him think, who’s the bad guy here? And he knew the answer was him. He thought of Dorothy and that little pocketknife of his. Whatever had been inside him then, telling him to stop, it had gone from him. Either the military or simply the years had taken it, but he’d been the one to let it go that night. He promised himself, never again.
Yet the pill bottle remained in his bedside drawer.
A few months later, Alice Gentry made him glad he’d kept that bottle. They’d fought over some accounting discrepancy and she’d shouted him down in the courtyard, in plain sight of everyone. She, an accountant, dressed-down him, a Colonel. No one wanted to bust her for it. So, for the next few days he carried that pill bottle around in his pocket like he had that knife, rolling it in his fingers ever so often, waiting for his chance to do an important task that the U.S. military seemed to have forgotten: maintain order.
He didn’t have to wait long for his chance. As luck would have it, Alice Gentry walked into his bar Friday of that week.
It was karaoke night and the locals were happy and loud as usual. Howard doubted Alice would show her face—this was his regular place after all, and everyone knew it—yet as he finished his sixth Coors, he spotted her from the corner of his eye. He quickly smashed a pill using a quarter and the underside of the bar.
Howard’s recollection of that evening was a strange one, as strange as those of his sister when she’d speak in one word prophecies.
Alice had her hair down and she was wearing a spaghetti strap dress. Though he hated her, he had to admit she looked good. Probably his hate for her made her even more alluring.
Howard snuffed his cigar and tried to convince himself he wasn’t an unattractive aging man, but a charismatic Colonel. A rank with a smile. The self-talk, no doubt aided by alcohol’s effect on his synapses, resulted in a feeling of confidence like a puffed-out chest.
Alice came to the bar and Howard led off with an apology made to sound real. Alice accepted and he offered to buy a drink. She asked for a beer, much to his surprise, he took it from the bartender and with his forefinger dusted the drug across the rim of the glass as he handed it to Alice. Alice drank the laced beer and was down within fifteen minutes.
He put his arm round her and took her out, his sleeping beauty, and laid her in the backseat. Buckled her in to keep her from sliding into the floorboard during the drive. Limp bodies are hell to get out of a floor board.
It was a short drive to the hotel. A run down trucker-type place on I-40 at the edge of Lawton. Chipped gray paint and landscaping left to nature. Parking spaces conveniently located right outside the door, and rent payable by the week. Perfectly inconspicuous for this part of the country.
Howard paid a bored Hispanic woman at the counter for one night and returned to his car. He opened the back door and froze.
Alice Gentry was not in the backseat. A private he’d seen before but of whom he could not recall the name was now in place of Alice, conked out and drooling. He was wearing Alice’s dress, his feet overflowing her heels.
Howard shut the door and blinked. No lights on around here, no passersby at this hour. Only the roar of the highway. No way had she escaped. And anyhow, why put this kid in the backseat?
He re-opened the door, half-hoping, half-expecting to see Alice lying there. But Alice was not there. Nor was the private.
Lying there, passed out in the poor light and crossed dressed, was the Colonel himself. His pocked face, dark circles under his eyes, his thin lips, him unconscious on the floorboard. The world started up spinning. The Colonel vomited on the pavement. He wiped his mouth with his shirt sleeve and stood straight. Leaned against the car. Think. Fucking think.
He turned to look through the window yet there he lay in the backseat. Standing here, knocked-out there. He’d lost it. He’d been drugged. Alice had drugged him. Is that Alice back there?
She’d done something to him. Or someone had. This thing had done something. Maybe he was hallucinating. Maybe nothing was back there at all.
Only one way to find out. Howard bent into the car and touched the thing. He unbuckled it, lifted it and it had real weight. He wasn’t sure of his eyes, how could he trust his hands now. But he could stand out here, conspicuously contemplated the unconscious body before him, no longer. He had to act. He dragged it into the hotel room and over onto the bed. He stood over it and watched—reversion to Alice, to the Private, to a buxom woman he did not recognize, to a thin red-headed one, to a doppelganger for Tom Cruise, back to the Colonel himself.
Howard undressed it. The changes came and went again; finally back to the Colonel himself. But the thing wasn’t quite a perfect rendition. Too thin, no moles, penis a hyperbolic version of his own.
The drugs he’d no doubt been slipped were making him confused. It’d be the best way to pay him back for all this. Eye for an eye type justice.
But, if this was a setup, it had been a poorly timed one. No one had come for him. Or, they had decided to keep it clandestine. And then he thought of his sister and a shining axe blade embedded into a barn pole.
Could it be?
Before his mind wandered too far his training kicked in. Get out of this room. Sober up. Recon.
He’d have to see who he was up against. The Colonel wiped the place clean and drove off. Convinced that he hadn’t been followed, he returned to the lot on foot, and hidden, he watched until the daylight. Early morning arrived and a confused looking woman, not Alice Gentry but the thin one from the night before, walked to the bus stop. A fucking bus stop.
Howard had expected more from this person. What had she given him? And how had she done it? At least the Colonel had a face now.
Howard followed the bus all the way to the central hub in downtown Oklahoma City. The old station was made to look like an early train station. The welcome sign was emblazoned with vertical red lettering: “MetroStation.”
The riders stepped off, unkempt hair, loose-fitting clothes, stumblers and stragglers. She’d stick out in this crowd. Yet, they all unloaded and he never saw her. Never saw a black dress. She’d managed to change clothes and change her face.
Could it be?
No. Can’t be. He just missed her.
The Colonel crossed the street and climbed the stairs up the bus entrance. The bus driver- a huge man wearing a crimson ball cap—spoke to the Colonel as he mounted the stairs. “Hey buddy, we aren’t loading passengers yet. You’ll have to go in the station and wait.”
“I think I forgot something, mind if I take a look?”
The man grumbled but nodded. “Be quick,” he said. The Colonel climbed on and looked over the rows. The smell almost overwhelmed him. He scanned every seat and the floor for that dress. She had left nothing. He’d lost her.
A week later, Alice’s black dress, garters, and pink g-string had shown up at the office of internal investigations, and there had been a note which said: ‘Colonel Jacobson likes women and benzos. But he doesn’t like consent. Check around Lucky’s bar.’
The Colonel knew how this story ended, and he’d been right. Alice couldn’t remember anything odd from that night and claimed she hadn’t even been to Lucky’s, but the attorney chalked her forgetfulness up to the drug, and the other girl he’d drugged had been more than happy to recount her tale, with none uttering a hint of disbelief, considering the drug was designed after all, to make one forget, as it had no doubt done to Alice. After the hearing, they discharged him without much fanfare. Luckily they’d kept it out of the papers.
The private he’d seen but couldn’t name had gone AWOL on the same day of the Colonel’s interesting interlude. No one had seen him since. No leads at all. Investigations would shut it down soon, but the Colonel would not.
When all the tangible evidence disappeared, Howard turned to something more substantial. He visited Elisa. She tried to clap at the sight of him and said “trick, Beantown! Trick, Beantown!” He’d stayed through his allotted time, pressing her for more words and fighting off the orderlies who tried to remove him. It wasn’t until the fourth orderly got hold of him that Howard relented. “Thank you for your service, Mr. Jacobson,” they said as the door slammed shut.
Within the month, the county judge signed the restraining order.
Trick. Beantown. Nonsense to everyone except Howard. Perfectly coherent to him. He’d found Calvin in Boston, and so it had been Elly’s words which got Howard this far at all. Now on his own, he couldn’t seem to get anywhere. Where’s the redemption here? How does he get back that thing which keeps the knife safe in his pocket?
His robbery attempt had been a disgrace, and now Calvin is obstinate. Howard is back to square one. She’ll die in that place if Howard doesn’t act. No. She won’t die, she’ll just…be older when she gets out. Get a job around here, save some money. Where else could a disgraced man find work but in the anonymity of cattle country? Calvin might stay; he had nowhere else to be. He’d be a help.
“You’re right,” Howard says to Calvin as he puts his gun back under his seat. “Have to do this the right way, or at least earn the cash I need to bribe her out of there. I’ll start looking around for work. I won’t tell anyone about you, you can trust that. You’re welcome to stay, more than that, I’d be happy to have you.”
“I’ve been thinking about what you said about her. About how she speaks in a prescient way, you just have to listen for it,” Calvin says as he reaches into his pocket and pulls out and envelope. He hands it to Howard.
Printed on the otherwise plain envelope are the words, “God In Christ Church,” with an address in west Kansas. Three hour drive, tops.
“I wasn’t sure at first,” Calvin says, “but after the robbery, I thought why not? Maybe Elisa wasn’t talking to you. Maybe she’s been waiting for me this whole time. Or for Tabitha Xuba.”
“That TV preacher? She’s more of an affront to God than either one of us, I’ll tell you that.”
“Could be. But I’ve been carrying that envelope for a year now. Haven’t had any funds to put in it. So, I’ll admit it, I planned on skimming some of Forest’s money, just a couple hundred, for my offering.”
Howard taps the envelope against his thigh. Perhaps she’d known Calvin would come, she’d known that he would understand offer, even if Howard wouldn’t. So offer, but not the type Howard had envisioned, then all-sky.
“But what’s the offer?” Howard asks. “Couple hundred bucks and a hopeful letter? How’s that help Elly?”
“I don’t know, I don’t know how any of this works. But I’ve been carrying that offering envelope around—with that address on it—for a long time now. I think a little money isn’t enough. I think we need to go the church. Figure it out from there.”
“Let’s get a bite to eat,” Howard says. “And a drink. I’ve got to clear my head.”
Inside Eddy’s, the crowd is small but beginning to pick up. It’s mid-day and most of the men are still out finishing the day’s business. The local drunks are the only ones in here this early. For Howard, this state of things is fine. They sit at two barstools nearest the door, as if venturing toward the darker bowels of this place might send them into another dimension. Howard knows in a way this is true, since reality is at least partly in one’s own mind, so is that alternate sloshed up version called drunk. He’d lose purpose back there, so Howard chooses instead to stand on the edge and look over into the void, with a glass of Jameson of course.
Howard orders his drink. The girl behind the bar is wearing cut-off jean shorts and boots with pink designer stitching. She has her blue-button up shirt tied above her belly button and her blonde hair peaks from below a cowboy-hat with an aggressively curled brim. Calvin orders a Jameson as well, though Howard doubts it’s his drink of choice. The girl turns to the bottles lined on the shelf and stands on her tiptoes to reach the bottle. Howard notices small dimples on her lower back as she arches toward the shelf. It’s been far too long since he’s seen dimples like that up close.
He turns away. Forever abstinence after what he’d done. It is his a part of his penance. He’s taken intimacy from another so he’ll never allow a shade of it for himself.
“So, what do we give the TV preacher, and why do we give it?” Howard asks, not expecting an answer from Calvin, more formulating the problem in his own head out loud.
“Do you really believe in God?” Calvin asks.
“Yeah, but that lady, she’s not what I’d call ‘Godly,’ exactly. And the whole idea of a personal God in the cosmos is…” The bartender places Howard’s glass next to him, he thanks her and takes a drink and pauses. These thoughts, they’d never been spoken by him. And he figures there is no God of the personal variety, but why suffer through this penance if none? Intellectually, no one out there watching and judging but emotionally…“I believe,” Howard says. “I’m not so sure that she does though.”
“And what about your sister?”
“I’m not convinced she understands the concept. The whole point of this exercise was to try and find out just what she can understand.”
“Then why would she say ‘offer?’ Why not something with less of a…connotation, I guess?”
Because she’s simple, is the first thought Howard has. Because she speaks in two syllables or less and doesn’t understand the meaning of a verb. Because ‘offer’ was the first word that popped up for her which was close to the word ‘bribe,’ so it stuck. Howard shifts his thoughts. Those are borne of anger at himself, a reactive defense projected upon her, meant to save him from facing his own shortcomings and his own short-sightedness and misunderstanding. God or no God, Howard has missed her meaning. Maybe Calvin has it.
“So you’re saying, what? God speaks through her?”
“I’m only working out the question. But yeah, I’m saying that.”
“Yeah,” Howard says. “So what’s the answer? God is one possibility, as in God chose her like God chose you for whatever reason; or another answer is you two are the way you are because of blind chance and a higher power doesn’t really factor in here. There’s a coinflip. Then the third answer…”
“We’re wasting our time trying to get her out.” Calvin says.
“Right.” Howard throws back the rest of his drink and signals to the waitress for another. As the girl turns back toward the shelf, Howard does his best to look away and as he does he sees the light of the door opening out of the corner of his eye. Howard can’t make out the man darkening it without turning his head.
The day is still too bright and so the man’s face is obscured from Howard’s peripheral vision. His hair is long and he’s got a thin frame and—“who’s driving the Bronco,” the man asks— he’s wearing a pearl-handled pistol on his hip. Howard purses his lips and looks forward and is silent, though his mind is racing. All those socks, that satchel, why didn’t I, I got angry and I fucked up again. Howard steels his mind as the military has trained him to do so well. Calvin stays silent, waiting for Howard’s direction.
The man takes a step inside and stands near them with his feet wide-set as if in affirmation of the old wilder days out here, as if that stance can bring back some dead age inside this barroom. He’s made his decision.
The man doesn’t bother with any further questions; instead his hand goes to his hip. He draws. Howard grabs his empty glass from the bar and rolls toward to the man as he fires. Everyone hits the floor but Howard stands and smashes his glass into the man’s temple. Before he can take a second shot, Howard has struck him down. Gun smoke clouds the air and Howard inhales this deeply for the smell invigorates him.
Howard assesses the room. The man is down and blood is gushing fast from his head, darkening the well-scuffed wooden floor and staining the contents of a spilled salt-shaker that had broken during the melee. The man might make survive, if emergency services are fast in coming. Howard hopes for a delay as he steps to Calvin. Howard doesn’t ask how he is doing, the blood soaking Calvin’s right pant leg and ruining his shoes says it all.
While the others in the bar begin to rise from the floor, still lost in chaos, Howard’s focus only sharpens. He picks the largest glass shard from the floor and throws it to the ground again, shattering it into pieces too small for fingerprints. He takes a towel from the bar and wipes the place where he’d been sitting, where Calvin had sat, the bar where they’d rested their arms, and finally he wipes Calvin’s glass, though he does this only as a matter of the greatest precaution for he doubts that Calvin has any prints law enforcement might recognize.
Calvin is reeling. His blood is spilling over the floor now, far too heavy to clean with any success, and though Howard isn’t sure Calvin’s blood would be recognized by the authorities, he sure doesn’t want them to have possession of a sample of it. With his hand wrapped in the towel, Howard grabs a strong vodka from the shelf and a bottle of ammonia from under the bar and dumps both on the floor over Calvin’s pooling blood. No time for a better method.
Putting his arm under Calvin, Howard leads him out the door.
He drives fast until he can no longer hear sirens. Though Calvin is constantly morphing from one form to the next, Howard manages to dress the leg and stop the bleeding. Howard hasn’t found any exit wound. That bullet’s got to come out. Howard checks his rearview mirror often but none are following. Police scanners would be lighting up about now. Black Bronco witnessed at shooting scene. Within the day a black Bronco won’t travel far in this state. Where to go? Where to run? Hospital. Get the bullet out.
Hospital is the only place but, Calvin’s changing, amorphous like a shock symptom unseen to any health professional before. A gunshot wound on its own brings attendant questions, a gunshot victim who can’t seem to stay within a single body would bring a few more. Calvin would never get out of there. Then Howard would have two locked up superheroes on his conscience. Or, not superheroes. Not heroes, and not super, really. Howard settles on two locked up kids. He won’t have it.
Hanging from Calvin’s pocket, Howard sees a corner of the envelope. Howard reaches over and pulls it free. The envelope is sticky and stained a deep red but the address is legible.
Tabitha Xuba. The woman’s a shyster. This can’t be what his sister wants and yet, there on the envelope in big black letters the words ‘BELIEVER’S OFFER.’
God speaks through her.
Calvin’s question posed again in Howard’s mind. No, the personal God thing, it’s only false comfort or it’s only pride, yet the wide flat nose of Howard’s Bronco points toward Dickinson County, Kansas, and the God in Christ Church.