The Actor

         Take off your clothes, the fat, balding man in the Mulberry plaid bowtie, white dress shirt, and checkered pants insists. 

         Oh, no, sweetie, not yet, Billy Ray says coyly, as he thrusts the backside of his tight fitting Wranglers into the fat man’s jowly face. 

         The fat man gulps. Billy Ray steps forward, so that the fat man chained to the wall and seated on a sequined pillow behind him can no longer reach his denim with his long, moist tongue. The only thing the fat man can do now is to pant like a dog, which he seems to do on cue whenever another bead of stinky, diabetic sweat rolls down his face.

         Billy Ray never faces the fat man, but he can see all of this reflected in the mirror in front of him. The image is only partially obstructed by the torture device consisting of chains, straps, and metal plates that hangs from the ceiling hook. Billy Ray never uses the damn thing. It is too complicated, and he heard once through the grapevine that one of the ‘dream boys’ actually had to stop a session midway to refer to the instruction manual. Talk about stopping cold the fantasy that had been underway at the time. That is like smashing through that imaginary ‘fourth wall’ in a play. No more ‘suspension of disbelief;’ now, all of the smoke and mirrors are seen for what they are, and the audience cannot but be disappointed. Management let go that foolish ‘dream boy.’ Serves him right.

         Billy Ray continues his dance. He makes it look ‘freestyle,’ but in fact it is well choreographed. The hips sway, and the arms move over the head as if a frenetic version of the sign language performed by hula girls. The overall effect is supposed to be vaguely effeminate, but even more so sweaty and obscene. If the rube on the pillow does not believe that Billy’s ‘package’ (which that same rube never sees, since Billy never faces him) is about to burst through his tight, oily denim, then Billy is not doing his job. That almost never happens, though, because Billy is damn good when he gets into his groove.

         The stereos are hidden behind the walls, so as not to break the illusion. They are supposed to be in a parlor above an Old West saloon circa 1880. There is plenty of bordello red paint and fringe to suggest a room where many ‘illicit’ acts have been performed over the years. The damn torture set and the comfy, sequined pillow do not fit the scene, but the rubes never seem to care. For the rubes, the room is not about historical reproduction. It is about kink on a Friday night, when they are supposed to be playing poker with the boys or staying late at work to meet a deadline. 

         The torture set and the sequined pillow actually bother Billy, because he is an actor with some pride still in his profession. He needs to pay the bills, and so he shows some skin for the perverts and the faggots who pay handsomely for ‘private time.’ Nevertheless, he does not want to think of himself as a sell out. He wants to think of himself as a ‘performance artist’ in between theater plays and local television commercials. The torture set and the sequined pillow never help sustain that illusion, needless to say. 

         The unseen disc jockey puts on a new track. It is an oldie, but a goodie: Paula Cole’s ‘Where have all the cowboys gone?’ The queers go ape shit for the song. Maybe, they too spend their lives wondering where John Wayne has gone. 

         Billy Ray hooks his thumbs behind his silver buckle. He does a slow Texas swing step. He thrusts his pretty butt back, and sways from side to side, in sync with the long note played on the steel guitar. If that does not animate that fat, balding, middle-aged man wearing grandpa’s bowtie, then he will eat his shorts when this gig is done. There are absolutes in this world, believe it or not. Long, sultry notes crying out from a steel guitar are guaranteed to heat up the fairies well before the last verse. 

         Sure enough, the fatso starts to squirm on his pillow. He looks at his own crotch and salivates. Boy, does he want to whip out all three inches and just go to town; but of course he cannot. His hands are chained behind his back to that bordello red wall. The more he squirms, the more helpless he is; and the more helpless, the more aroused. It is a vicious game of denial and satisfaction. God only knows what deep-seated family issues from way back when have been thus sexualized. Billy does not care. He is not a heartless man. He is just a man with a service to perform and only so much love to give out to the world. What love he has goes to his little boy. As for the rest of the world, for all he cares it can spit out its spunk or not while staring at his gluteus maximus, so long as it goes on to tip him well for his role in this sordid play. The world does not care more for him, so he feels that he has found a good balance with everyone else. 

         Well, almost everyone else, it should be noted. There is one relationship in his life that does not work as well as he would want. He is not thinking of his son, Gary. The love and the friendship that they share together are A-1. No, his one regret is his interaction with his ex-wife, Stacey. To say that they are often fire and gasoline together is an understatement. Nuclear fission is a much more apt term. Still, he loves her, hates how he lost her, and pines for her everyday.

         Take off your clothes, the fat man screams, before unleashing a phlegmy fit of coughs. Do it now, you bitch!

         Billy Ray laughs. It is the totally fake, theatrical chuckle usually reserved for villains in nineteenth century melodramas. He thinks it is corny, but it is an old trick of the trade that he pulls out when he wants to get his rube that much more excited. After all, this fantasy is about humiliating and frustrating the sad sack rube, until the rube incongruently responds like a bully. For the rube, the sexual release actually comes from barking orders like a badass wife beater. In spite of the rube’s fixation on Billy Ray’s provocative behavior, it turns out that the release actually has little to do with the ‘freestyle’ dance moves, let alone the split second of bare skin exposed at the very end. That is a lot of scientific, psychobabble analysis with which the rube will not be aware; but Billy Ray has had enough time in the saddle to know that it is basically true. The mind by far is the sexiest organ in the body, and the mind can and will tap into all types of shit to get a man to shoot his seed. 

         I said do it now, bitch! The fat man barks. 

         Billy Ray smiles. At this rate, he will be heading home no more than ten minutes from now. This has been a long day. He is tired; but even more so, the dancing cowboy with the oversized hat and the tight denim wants to help Gary with his math problems before bedtime.

         Do it! Do it! Do it! The fat man slobbers.

         Billy Ray unfastens his belt. He pulls it off his thin waist, and throws the leather off to the side like a stripper does with her long glove. He moonwalks a few steps backward. He stole that move from Michael Jackson, and he probably owes the estate thousands in back royalties. On the other hand, since virtually all the other ‘dream boys’ have incorporated the moonwalk into their shows, it is safe to say this dance step has entered into the ‘public domain’ around here.

         What do you want me to do, sweetie? Billy Ray asks playfully.

         Take off your clothes, the fatso cries. Show me your tight ass.

         Oh, I don’t know that you can handle it, Billy Ray scoffs, while he inches his tight denim below his waist, and then holds it there a while.

         Do it, bitch! Do it! Do it! The fatso cries out so hard his face gets purple.

         Billy Ray watches the man in the mirror. He can see that he has reached his limit. After all, his ticker cannot be all that strong, given the fat tires about his midsection. He wants the man to come, since that usually will mean a good tip when it is all over, but not at the risk that he flames out from hypertension. 

         The fatso starts yanking erratically at his chains. His snarls like a hungry, rabid dog. His eyes practically bulge out from their sockets. This has got to end now, because a few more seconds of this much fun will mean that the rube has to leave this parlor hooked up to an oxygen mask and strapped into a stretcher.

         Billy Ray slides his butt to within an inch of the fat man’s face. The man could lick that denim all he wants now, but he does not have enough control of his own body to do much of anything. 

         Billy Ray pulls down his jeans. He moons the fatso up close and personal, while the Paula Cole song comes to an end. 

         The fatso barks, and then croaks like a frog. He must have come, since a relaxed expression suddenly appears on his face. He sits back against the wall, and he watches in contented silence as Billy Ray pulls his jeans back up. There is nothing said when Billy Ray steps out of the room, and the chain cuffs around the fat man’s red wrists unsnap. Nothing needs to be said that cannot be said a whole lot better in the form of a couple of twenties left in that tip box outside.

*   *   *

         Billy Ray fumbles for the key inside his topcoat. He keeps so much shit in there: old keys, wrappers, phone numbers, even a half eaten protein bar. He is about as far removed from the cowboy with the cool swagger as he can imagine when he is back in his normal clothes. For Billy Ray, like for most actors, a role begins with the voice and the costume. Talk like a Southern hick, and put on an old, worn pair of overalls, and, voila, the actor is ‘Uncle Jesse’ in The Dukes of Hazard. Talk with a halting, though learned, British accent, and put on an old-fashioned, morning coat, and that actor is a butler in Upstairs, Downstairs. In a way, even when the actor is naked on the stage (Billy Ray’s first role in college had been Alan Strang in Equus), he is always ‘in costume.’ All those perverts he entertains at ‘Dream Boys’ do not have a clue. They think they are bullying him into taking off his clothes; but, in fact, he keeps his costume on all of the time, even when he thrusts his bare ass into their blubbering faces.

         But that is work. Here, fumbling for his key, glancing down the hall to be sure there are no weirdoes hiding in the shadows, he is just another small man in a big city. He is not small physically. He actually looms over most persons he meets; but the tear in his topcoat, the holes in his sneakers, the clutter always falling out of his pockets, all this suggests a man in the lower strata destined to rent forevermore south of the tracks and to bring his own coffee cup to the old neighborhood café every morning to get a discount on his brew. He is not off of the grid per se (probably no one is, except for the ‘preppers’ living out in Idaho somewhere, and whomever is setting out to be the next Unabomber); but he is damned close. He does not possess a driver’s license (public transit, and an old pair of sneakers, will do just fine), nor a credit card (cannot justify paying that much interest), nor even a bank account (cashes out his checks at ‘CA$H NOW,’ every other week like clockwork, and before going to the supermarket to stock up). His version of a private club membership is the public library. He occupies much of his daytime there, except for when he has custody of Gary every other weekend. As for the late nights, he is either acting or occupying a stool over at ‘Kingfish Saloon.’ Not much variety, but that is okay for Billy Ray. He has more than his share of ‘variety’ when performing an exotic dance for fat perverts, or when making the old rubes laugh at the ‘Beverly Playhouse’ (usually cast as the love sick dweeb in farces), or when pitching the play that he wrote to the half a dozen producers who occupy dingy offices on Theater Row. Billy Ray needs an enormous amount of downtime, actually, because he is so focused when sitting on the saddle. When he is ‘off the clock,’ just let him have his old jazz records, his public library card, and his son; and he can call it a lifetime happily enough.

         Working late, Sonny? The old woman screams out, because she is almost deaf and more than a tad senile. 

         It’s good to see you, Mrs. McNutt, Billy Ray responds kindly. But I’m not Sonny; remember? Sonny lived downstairs, and he died almost seven years ago.

         Mrs. McNutt is a small, round woman hunched over her walker. She owns this building, two others close to downtown, and a slew of uninspired, identical tract homes. Moreover, her long dead hubby had been the Beverly city manager since around the time of Moses. He got his kickbacks over the years (handed to him in briefcases in back alleys by Guidos stuffed inside pinstripe suits), and his dirty money invariably ended up in the purses of his many mistresses or in some sort of real estate venture. All this means that grim battleax Mrs. McNutt (Does she even have a first name? God only knows) has more than enough loot hidden under her spring mattress to share a percentage of the rent each month with a property manager, but she is too old school for that. In her mind, every person is on the take, so she needs to guard her own hen house. As such, she slides her bad foot down the halls at all hours, eavesdropping on her tenants to see if any of them are breaking the posted rules (smoking pot indoors, for some reason, is her biggest pet peeve), and thrusting the four feet of her steel walker into the backside of any tenant, who is a day late or a dollar short with his rent. Surely, she is a cantankerous, old bitch; but Billy Ray is happy to be one of her tenants overall, because she keeps an eye out for the queers and the crooks. 

         Mrs. McNutt hobbles over to Billy Ray’s sneakers. She looks up at his face as much as her stooped shoulders will let her. She squints, because she is much too vain to wear glasses. At first, there is a confused look on her face; but then as the light bulb slowly turns on in her head, she snarls at him. 

         Your boy keeps the T.V. on too loud, Mrs. McNutt seethes. I had to knock on the door two times (holds up two arthritic fingers for extra emphasis) before he finally put it down. The rest of us don’t want to hear the goddamned purple dinosaur. ‘I love you; you love me; where one great big family,’ just a bunch of Commie crock to my ears. I really suspect the others don’t like it much, either.

         I’m sorry, Mrs. McNutt, Billy Ray says in the same kind voice as prior. I’ll be sure to remind him to keep it down.

         You better bet your dicky leg I don’t hear him again, Mrs. McNutt scowls.

         Billy Ray does not have a dicky leg. Mrs. McNutt does, though, so maybe she thinks that everybody else has the same ailment. If that does not indicate a narcissistic loon, then Billy Ray cannot get a fat man to pop his pecker. But this is okay, in his mind. We all have our darker selves, and hers just happens to be the ornery, selfish personality all too often found among our seniors. He figures when he is her age he will begin his acidic comments with ‘when I was young…’

         Billy Ray finds his key. He slides it into the keyhole. 

         Don’t forget the rent is due next Tuesday, Mrs. McNutt scolds him.

         He has never been late with the rent, but she dishes it out to him as she does to everyone else. He responds with a kind smile as he shoulders open that tight, heavy door to his studio apartment.

         Mrs. McNutt wants to say something else, but cannot figure out what; so she stews in her poison a moment longer and then hobbles down the hall to see what other tenant needs to be scolded this night.

         Billy Ray bolts the door behind him. He picks up the junk mail, which the mailman had pushed through his door slot earlier that same day. He throws the junk mail into the wastebasket without so much as a glance. He focuses instead on the television set in his living room/bedroom. It is still on, but mute. A DVD menu screen urges the viewer to select a scene from Barney and Friends, while in the background an oversized, purple dinosaur with a toothless grin dances in play. The dinosaur is just too damned happy. Billy Ray realizes at once why the sane adults out there just want to skewer Barney alive over a crackling bonfire.

         Billy Ray turns off the T.V. He turns on a lamp and sees that Gary is fast asleep on the foot of the queen bed facing the T.V. Gary had been trying to do his math homework when he fell asleep, because that ‘Marvin the Math Wizard’ book that is his Achilles’ heel in the second grade now is open, but faced down, upon his chest. Gary is clutching still his No. 2 pencil. It is that Miami Dolphins pencil he got from his teacher for earning ten gold stars in a row on the board. No doubt, the gold stars had not been awarded based upon his poor math skills.

         Billy Ray almost wakes up his son. He really had been looking forward to a half hour of friendly chat before tucking him into bed. Gary remains innocent in the ways of the world, which means that he does not know enough yet to be anything but honest and straightforward in his comments. Billy Ray finds Gary’s honesty to be so refreshing, even if the subject matter of their ‘talk time’ does not extend beyond Gary’s favorite toys or cartoons. Billy Ray must expose Gary to Star Wars (not the God awful prequels, but Episodes IV through VI), so as to expand Gary’s frames of reference to that fantasy universe that Billy Ray loves.

         But that will be some other night. Billy Ray carries Gary from the foot of the bed to one of the two pillows against the headboard. He tucks him into bed and whispers a little prayer on his son’s behalf. 

         Billy Ray removes his topcoat. He drops it on the floor, and wanders into the small kitchen. The light is flickering on his answering machine. He despises the damned thing. No one except Donna ever leaves a message, unless it is bad news (so and so is in the hospital), or it is a debt collector (also bad news, but not nearly as personal as the other kind). He remembers the scene from Rocky. The Italian Stallion explains to Adrian that he does not have a telephone due to the ‘aggravation.’ Adrian needs to tell Paulie that she is going to be late. Rocky does the honors by opening his window and yelling into the alleyway. 

         If only life could be that simple, Billy Ray thinks, as he pushes on the big button that plays back the recorded messages.

         We need to talk, Stacey says as pissed off as usual. 

         Stacey says nothing more before hanging up. That is just as well. Almost always, she speaks to her ex-husband like it is that ‘time of the month’ for her.

         Hey, boyfriend, Donna slurs in the next message. 

         Theirs has been always a platonic friendship. Donna is what they used to call a ‘foxy babe,’ albeit in the cheap, boozy, battered woman manner that on the whole turns off more men than it seduces. Billy Ray digs her; and if she had been anyone else with the same sexuality, he probably would have bedded her by now. But she is not ‘anyone else.’ She is Miss Donna Goody, the hooker with the big heart from ‘the neighborhood,’ and as close to a sister as he is going to get in this lifetime. Apparently, she thinks the same of him, because for all the playful ‘boyfriend’ talk she has never treated him as a potential paramour. The lovers come and go, but the friends remain for the long haul.

         Are you there? Donna continues, obviously drunk. Pick up the phone, you pervert [distracting bar sounds in the background]. Damn, when I need you. Let me buy you a drink tomorrow night, okay? Same bat place; same bat time…fuck you, if you’re not there [laughing like that is the funniest line, since ‘Sock it to me’ on Laugh In]. No, serious, I got to get your advice on something big. So tell me what I want to hear, and I’ll give you the best head ever [more of her drunk as a skunk laughter, followed by background sounds]. Namaste and all that shit.

         Billy Ray grins. Donna always manages to lighten his heart. He would do anything for her, just as he would for his son. In this world where the city lights seem to stretch on forever, where those lonely hearts out there try to squander as many night hours as they can in the cheap bars and the dingy bordellos, it is a wonder anybody looks up from his own sad nightmare long enough to befriend somebody else. But, somehow, that is exactly what most people do; and if they have any smarts at all, they do what they must to keep those friendships strong into the years to come. 

         Billy Ray removes a half finished bottle of whiskey from his cupboard. He unscrews it, takes a swig, and walks passed his sleeping son to the window that overlooks the abandoned railroad station behind the building. Mostly, the depot consists of rusted debris swallowed up long ago by weeds; but there remains an old ticket booth fronted by a porch. The ticket booth window had been cracked long ago, and yet improbably it continues to be in place. There is a desk and an inoperable cash register on the other side. Even some of the old tickets remain in the drawer beneath the register. Everything is in place for the ghost cashiers to sell one-way fares for the ghost train that rumbles down the worn tracks two minutes past midnight every night. Billy Ray never has seen that train, but once or twice, when he had been plastered, he could have sworn he heard the tracks rumbling just a minute or so ahead of a lonely, sad whistle.

         Tonight, there is a flashlight jiggling around back there. The homeless on occasion use the ticket booth as a vacation getaway. Over the years, they have outfitted it with a stash of booze and pot. Billy Ray knows all about that, since he had ventured back there a few times after dark to buy pot, when his regular supplier at the Beverly Playhouse came up short. 

         Billy Ray takes another swig of his whiskey. He could use a decent joint right now, except that he never smokes on the weekends he has his son. He has to file that impulse away for tomorrow night, when Gary is back with his soiled douche bag mother.

*   *   *

         Billy Ray awakens the next morning with a slight hangover. He had had a bit too much liquor before removing his jeans, tossing them God knows where, and sliding into his side of the bed. 

         He sits up in bed. He observes his son sitting up cross-legged on the foot of the bed. Barney is on the television screen singing about how good it is to be your friend. Gary unconsciously taps his right knee in rhythm to that song. Gary has a creative soul like his father much to the chagrin of his douche bag mother on the other side of town. Billy Ray will not push him into the arts, necessarily; but he will not be all that surprised, nor concerned, if Gary is a drummer in the best garage band in town with a nose ring and a punk red hairdo eventually. He just hopes that Gary avoids the really bad shit on the streets. Billy Ray has seen his share of junkies die too soon. 

         Billy Ray smells a stink bomb. Actually, it is his T-shirt in need of a wash.

         He takes off his T-shirt. It reads: ‘Actors do it with method.’ Not all that appropriate attire around his son. Stacey would have a hissy fit if she knew. He rolls up his stink bomb T-shirt, and tosses it to the other side of the apartment.

         He eyes that small, digital clock on top of the T.V. It is quarter to seven.

         Time to get ready, son, Billy Ray says in his father figure voice.

         Just five more minutes, dad, Gary protests without looking back.

         Did you finish your math last night? Billy Ray asks.

         Gary does not respond. He looks slightly downward in shame. The unsaid answer is ‘no,’ though not from lack of trying. Billy Ray feels guilty that he got back home so late the previous night.

         Let’s take a look at it together, Billy Ray says, while climbing over to his son, and opening ‘Marvin the Math Wizard’ to the bookmarked page.

         Dad, let’s not, Gary says. Mr. Samuels said he’d get me a ‘special needs’ tutor. Mom says that’s a great idea.

         Billy Ray sets the textbook aside. He puts his arm around his son. He can feel his son trembling, like he is about to open up the tear ducts. Gary still has a thing for Barney and his dinosaur friends, but he is mature enough already to realize how ‘special needs’ is not the coolest stigma to have on the playground.  

         Listen, son, Billy Ray says. Do you know what it means to be special?

         Stupid, I guess, Gary whispers, while looking down, and shedding a tear.

         No, son, not stupid, Billy Ray explains. It is just the opposite. A ‘special person’ is someone so much better than the others that they cannot figure him out. He is like a square that they are trying to put into a round hole. It does not fit right, but that does not mean that the square is stupid. It means they’re the stupid ones for trying to ram it into the round hole in the first place. 

         Billy Ray squeezes his son closer. He wants so much to pull back his son’s tears just now.

         Do you understand what I am saying? Billy Ray asks after a while.

         Yes, Gary says without conviction.

         Billy Ray wants to say so much more, but he knows that it is best always not to overstate the case. We learn best what we learn on our own anyway. His elementary school years had not been a bed of roses either, and yet he figured out his role in the world. He senses that Gary will do just as well, so long as he knows his dad is in his corner no matter what happens.

         You know I’ve got your back, Billy Ray whispers.

         I know, dad, Gary says, but without looking up.

         Okay, then, time for Honey Nut Cheerios and OJ, Billy Ray announces.

         Can I pack a Twinkie, dad? Gary asks, while coming out of his doldrums.

         Stacey hates it when Billy Ray lets Gary pack a Twinkie for lunch. She is afraid her little boy is going to get hooked on sugar, but Billy Ray knows better. Gary is not eating the cream filled sponge. He is using it for trade, probably to get another L.A. Dodger for his baseball card collection. Boys barter sweets for cards and action figures all the time in the second grade. It had been much the same when he had been in school; and if Stacey could get her hard head out of her ass long enough actually to learn something about the lives of second grade boys, she would realize that letting Gary go to school with a Twinkie in his blue backpack makes up for a lot of the shit he has to endure there. 

         Go ahead, son, Billy Ray says. You think you’ll get Orel Hershiser in your collection today?

         Gary looks at his father and smiles. So dad really gets it, after all. There is no cooler dad in the world. 

         I think I’ll need more than one Twinkie for a Hershiser, Gary chuckles. So can I have two?

         Don’t push your luck, kiddo, Billy Ray says with a wink. Go eat breakfast.

*   *   *

         Billy Ray squats down, so that he faces his son eye to eye. They are both in front of the tall steps that lead up to the Saint Robert Bellarmine Elementary School for Distinguished Boys. Little boys in blazers (blue bell emblazoned over the heart) and slacks (uniformly black and cuffed) file by without saying a word to one another. They are in the quiet zone (ninety feet before the front steps), and they have been trained well. No talking, unless first spoken to by an adult. Otherwise, the frowning Jesuit Brother watching them from the top step pins a JUG (Justice Under God) to their blazers and sends them off to the Dean. There is a lot of cleaning to be done after school, and the Jesuits are keen to provide every day a ready work force of young boys with restless minds. The boys think that they are being punished; and, indeed, they are; but in truth, their restless minds are practically begging the Jesuits to discipline them with detention and, on occasion, corporal punishment. That is what the Jesuit on Detention Duty is going to tell them, anyway, before sending them off with buckets to pick up all that trash that is so displeasing to God.

         Billy Ray does not like the school at all. He thinks that it is modeled on a cult, and he does not want his son forced fed Roman Catholicism (or any creepy religion for that matter). The public school is fine, even preferable in his mind, since the diversity of races and classes there would force his son to learn what it means to get along with very different types of people. About the only lesson Gary is going to learn at Bellarmine is how to be a pompous ass among all those ‘little people’ not lucky enough to be born Catholic, rich, or preferably both. In Billy Ray’s mind, Bellarmine truly exists to create the next generation of snobs.

         Stacey had been insistent that Gary go to Bellarmine; and in most issues where she puts up a fight, she and her dyke attorney come out the winners. For a boy with mild learning disabilities, especially in the math department, he has to admit that Bellarmine is likely a better route. Still, the social education that Gary gets here cannot but be more injurious in the long run. Boys uncertain of their academic worth often try to make up for it by becoming snobs, bigots, or bullies. Bellarmine provides Gary ample opportunity to excel in all three traits.

         If Billy Ray is going to be honest with himself, though, then he has to say that his primary reason for putting down Bellarmine is that he cannot pay even a part of the tuition. Stacey’s blue blooded, stiff collared, attorney father, the esteemed Barkley Bloom, Esq., writes Bellarmine a personal check twice a year to satisfy the fat cat tuition. Billy Ray does not believe Barkley gives a rat’s ass about Gary’s education. He writes out the checks to spite his former son-in-law and to remind his daughter that he is paying the price for her poor judgment in ever marrying a ‘hippie’ degenerate in the first place. 

         Billy Ray tries to put all of this out of his mind, as he stares into the eyes of his son. He still feels creepy being this close to the columned façade of Saint Robert Bellarmine’s Cult of Socially Conscious Parents and Impressionable Boys, as he privately refers to the school. He wants to say his goodbyes and get back to the ghetto of actors, tramps, and bums, where he feels much more at home.

         You remember what I told you about ‘special people,’ Billy Ray remarks.

         Yes, Gary says this time with more enthusiasm.

         Good, Billy Ray says with a smile. Now, go in there and get yourself one Orel Hershiser. 

         Gary grins. He is carrying his blue backpack. Barney is emblazoned upon the flap on the backside. In another year or two, Gary will think that all things ‘Barney’ are totally uncool and babyish. Until then, he is an innocent with baby cheeks that fire red when he gets excited about a toy or a cartoon. Billy Ray on the whole has confidence that Gary will end up just fine, and yet he wishes his son could remain indefinitely the innocent boy he is now. The world of perverts popping their peckers, old landlords reading their tenants the riot act on slight pretexts, and divorced parents squabbling over their kids, all that shit together eventually breaks down even the A list guys. B list guys like Billy Ray are eaten and swallowed by life before they know what is happening. So adulthood is not all it is cracked up to be. About the only release Billy Ray gets is when he is on a stage in his ornate costume, whether at ‘Beverly Playhouse’ or ‘Dream Boys.’

         I can get him for two Twinkies, Gary says with confidence. 

         Well, then, kiddo, you’ve got all the ammo you require, Billy Ray smiles.

         Before leaving for school, Billy Ray had relented. He had given Gary the green light to put two Twinkies in his backpack. He spoils, and Stacey holds the line. He figures that in the grand scheme of things they balance each other out when it comes to Gary, though that does not make him actually appreciate his ex-wife as a mother figure. He knows that the feeling is mutual. So much flame and gasoline when they are together, because of course visceral hatred tries to mask abiding love. For the most part, hatred does a pretty good job in masking love. When hatred fails, though, the pain of love lost is altogether debilitating; enough to drive Billy Ray to that ‘Kingfish Saloon’ more than he cares to admit.

         See you in two weeks, Billy Ray says. Be good to your mother.

         Billy Ray kisses his son on the forehead. Gary always tears up when they say goodbye to one another. Divorce is never easy for the little ones. Even less so is it understood. Still, for all the sadness of the moment, Gary mans up just enough to hold back his tears. He even returns the kiss with a smile of his own; then, without further delay, he steps into the stream of boys ascending to their gold plated private school education. He is literally gone in the blink of an eye.

         Billy Ray sees the Jesuit Brother on the top step staring him down like he is a flea infested dog. Billy Ray successfully fights back the impulse to give him the finger. Instead, he glares back at him a moment, grins, and then waves. He does not bother to see if the Jesuit Brother responds, before he turns fast upon his heels and crosses the busy street.

         Billy Ray stuffs his hands into the pockets of his topcoat. He almost exits the scene entirely, when he walks passed a new, grey, Mercedes Benz SLS AMG convertible. The driver is a beautiful, thirty-something, redhead wearing large, black sunglasses, dark red lipstick, and a pinstripe pantsuit. Her lipstick stands out in part because of the severe whiteness of her skin. The look on her pretty, vaguely Semitic face, moreover, suggests ‘Ice Princess’ par excellence. At first glance, she could be a beautifully made up corpse, except that she is much too animate in how she rolls her right fingers impatiently over the dashboard. ‘Evil witch’ is probably closer to the mark than ‘beautifully made up corpse.’ She is an enchantress, to be sure, able without effort to draw most heterosexual men (and notably some gay ones as well) into her web; but she is also vicious. Every man ever enticed by one of her spells invariably learns to regret it, although if pressed they likely would paraphrase the Sheryl Crow song by describing her as ‘their favorite mistake.’ Indeed, her spell lingers in their dreams long after she has moved on to some other man. Hate her, or love her, but you cannot forget her. She will not accept anything less from among the men who have loved her.

         The driver flickers her headlights. Billy Ray frowns. He walks over to the tinted, driver side window, which she lowers just before he arrives.

         Stacey, what are you doing out in the sun? Billy Ray asks with a sick grin.

         Stacey does not look at him. She continues to stare blankly towards the private school. She stops rolling her fingers, though, since the fly has flown into her web finally. 

         Cut the bloodsucker bullshit, Stacey says in a tough, but measured, tone that instantly calls to mind all the times she had punched Billy Ray or had flung a plate in his direction, before returning at once to her composed, steely norm.

         Don’t bite! Billy Ray responds. I’ve got some garlic in my pocket. 

         You don’t smell like garlic, Stacey observes. More like you’ve washed up in a vat of wine…

         Whiskey, actually, Billy Ray grins. And that’s not against the court order.

         No, it isn’t, Stacey acknowledges with regret. But pot is…

         Never touch the weed; Billy Ray interrupts. Shrinks the balls, remember?

         Stacey does not respond. She is not here to throw insults back and forth, even though she and her ex-husband obviously enjoy the banter more than the disgusted looks on their faces would suggest. She grips the steering wheel hard, while a vein in her forehead pulses vitriol down to her painted toes.

         The punishment never fits the crime, does it? Stacey snarls after a while.

         Billy Ray remains silent. He leans further inside the open window space, almost like he is going in for a kiss. Maybe, on a deep level, that is really what he wants; but consciously he is just trying to intimidate her (not very likely), or at least to piss her off (almost certain). The game is never far from reality with the two of them. That had been as true when they first met as it is even today.

         You were a mistake, Stacey comments. Admittedly, a bigger one than all the others since with you I actually walked down the aisle…

         And conceived our son, Billy Ray interjects.

         He’s the only good to come of it, Stacey continues. Okay, so you turned out to be a mixed bag, a lapse in judgment, rather than a one-man holocaust. I suppose you think you deserve some sort of prize for turning out a notch or two above Josef Mengele.

         What do you want? Billy Ray asks irritably.

         For my punishment to stop, Stacey seethes. Just because I made a dumb mistake in exchanging rings with an unemployed actor, a fucking pothead from south of the tracks, well, does that mean that I should be saddled on your sorry ass until Gary is eighteen? Does that mean that I must smell your BO stink from across the church when Gary gets married? Or that I must be in the same room with you when Gary and his wife present to us our first grandchild? Maybe, you will be gone by then; but I doubt it. Daddy told me once that climate change or nuclear proliferation may kill us all, but the cockroach will survive…

         Stacey turns her face to the side, so that she glares at Billy Ray head on.

         I think daddy is right about the cockroach; Stacey seethes. I think daddy is right about a lot of things. 

         Get to the point, Billy Ray snaps.

         The point is that I want you out of my life, Stacey spits back. And out of Gary’s, too. Our son deserves a respectable dad, not a down on his luck ‘exotic dancer’ who strips for tips. 

         I don’t dance anymore, Billy Ray lies.

         Are you sure my private investigator is never going to snap a photograph of you coming out of ‘Dream Boys’ with your cock in your hand? Stacey inquires with her voice and, even more so, with her menacingly cold stare into his eyes.

         Stacey is bluffing, Billy Ray thinks. If she had any evidence of where and when he works for extra cash, then she would pass that on quietly to that dyke attorney of hers. He would learn about it when hauled into court for violating a child custody order that says that he is not supposed to engage in that business on the weekends he has his son. Yes, he is skating on very thin ice whenever he leaves Gary in the apartment to dance; but he needs the money; and, anyway, he has taken precautions to avoid detection, including the circuitous route that he takes to and from the club on those nights. So the witch may suspect all she wants, but she does not have a damn thing on him. 

         Billy Ray does not respond. He simply returns her cold stare.

         What I figured, Stacey says cryptically. 

         Are we done? Billy Ray asks, while stepping back from the open window.

         Stacey turns her face away from his. She stares out her windshield again.

         There is an uneasy pause in the conversation. Then, Stacey reaches into her glove compartment and removes a thick envelope tied together by a string. She thrusts it out the open window without once looking to see if Billy Ray will grab a hold of it before it falls to the ground. She acts like she is disgusted, and even a bit nauseated, by whatever is inside that envelope.

         Billy Ray takes it. He loosens the string, and looks inside. It is packed full of $500 bills. Each bill is as crisp as if it had come off the presses this morning. For all Billy Ray knows, that may be the case. Old Barkley Bloom, Esq. is cagey enough after all to have an ‘in’ with the backroom boys at the Federal Reserve.

         There are two hundred of them, Stacey says. One hundred thousand just to walk away. 

         Billy Ray throws the envelope back at her. He restrains himself from also strangling her, though he gets a lot closer to committing murder than either of them can appreciate in the heat of the moment. If he had not kept Gary in the forefront of his mind all the time, then perhaps he would have crossed the line.

         I didn’t think so, Stacey observes nonchalantly, while returning the huge wad of cash back to her carpeted glove compartment. I said before that daddy is right about a lot of things, but that does not mean everything. He thinks you can be bought. I know you can’t, not because you have principles, but because you are too much the bum even to want to get ahead in this world. You believe you are morally superior, because you do not give a shit about money; but that is not the case. You are just fucking lazy, and deep down you are afraid that if you had a pot to piss in you might be shamed into getting off your dirty ass and leaving your pot and your booze behind for a while. 

         I don’t need to listen to this, Billy Ray huffs.

         Yes, you do, bitch, Stacey snarls. You are under a strict court order. One violation, and you lose Gary completely. Not one fucking weekend, hell, not so much as a supervised hour; and while I have no doubt you are hitting the weed, I know that you are bright enough to understand that Judge Black will not even listen to your sob story the next time. 

         Then I better not fuck up, Billy Ray says.

         You better not, but you will, Stacey says, while turning to face him once again. And when you do my team will snap that photo, or elicit that eyewitness testimony, that finally knocks you out of my life. 

         Billy Ray stuffs his hands into his pockets, turns, and walks away angrily.

         When that happens you’ll wish you took the money, Stacey snaps at him.

*   *   *

         Every night is Friday night at the Kingfish Saloon. There is always a stark, electrical buzz about the place, even in the early evening hours when the tired stools are holding up the kind of high school gym teachers and retired cops who wax philosophic about their exploits on the football field forty years ago. Later in the evening, the ‘upstanding citizens’ retreat back to their wives, thus giving ground to the seedier elements in society: shifty lawyers with bad toupees who take off their wedding rings before saddling up to the bar; perverts in tattered, long overcoats skulking in the corners; drug dealers gesturing toward what the regulars call the ‘dirty old men’s room’ passed the kitchen, where clear bags of pot and dirty wads of cash make their way into the appropriate hands; and, last but certainly not least, happy hookers with big hair and short skirts lounging on beefy thighs and whispering sweet nothings into chewed up ears. Among all the ‘colorful characters’ are the college kids majoring in beer, the married couples getting away from their children for a few hours, and the hodgepodge of street people who comprise the ‘background’ or the ‘stage extras’ on any given night.

         Billy Ray usually prefers to be an anonymous ‘stage extra.’ He wants the peace that comes from anonymity, while he huddles close to his Guinness (first hour he occupies his favorite stool) or bottoms up on Jack Daniels (second hour to closing time). The exception is when he is frisky for sex, which used to be all the time, but which is now about once or twice a month, given that he sees the Big Four-O just around the corner. On those occasions, he drinks less, and talks more. He plays up the television commercials he has done. He plays down all of the stage plays he has done, since girls presume stage actors are either queers, too literary, or just plain creepy. He is handsome and glib enough that he most often takes a girl home with him, when he is so inclined. 

         Tonight, he chooses to be anonymous. In part, this is because he is here to lend a kind ear to his friend, Miss Donna Goody; but more so it is because he is still pissed off from his encounter with Stacey. He is pretty certain the witch is bluffing, but he is just as certain that she intends to get the goods on him. As careful as he is he presumes it is only a matter of time before she gets a photo of him exiting the ‘Dream Boys,’ or smoking a joint, or doing a threesome with those farm girl twins from Redwood, who venture into the ‘big city’ to let loose every few months. He does not want to lose Gary. That is his first concern, but a close second is the desire not to be defeated by the one woman that he loves and he hates in equal measure. He wants to deny her that victory, not so much because he thinks that Stacey would be all that pleased, but because he knows that Stacey’s father would be as happy as a fat man at Thanksgiving supper. His ambitions are pretty small. Stacey had been right to level that criticism against him, but that does not mean then that he has no pride whatsoever in this feud.

         Billy Ray looks up at the Smiling Huey Long face above the bar. Now, the real Kingfish had had plenty of pride. That is likely why he had been shot down at the height of his power. The proud flame out when most glorious. The meek may inherit the earth, but they do not do very much with it, except to live out their long lives in the shadows and to die without fanfare. Billy Ray knows that when he is on stage he stands among the proud. Is he just as proud when out of his costume? Stacey obviously does not think that he is. His great fear is that he may start to think the same thing about himself.

         Somebody puts a quarter in the jukebox, so that the big city cowboys on the make and the farm girls from out of town can boogie to Charlie Daniels’ old classic The Devil Went Down to Georgia. No time for tears when the fiddle gets into high gear. Best to get off that stool and to stomp those blues into the hard floor. Billy Ray takes the cue, leaves his half finished Guinness behind, and puts his best foot forward on the dance floor. His ‘best foot’ of course is better than anyone else’s on account of his expert skill as a dance performer. Nonetheless, no one seems to notice, which suits him just fine. He does not want to be then the center of attention. He just wants to boogie Stacey, her dyke attorney, and her manipulative, rich daddy out of his bloodstream, at least until the last bell.

         Someone taps his shoulder, while he is dancing freestyle in the middle of the crowd. He knows who it is even before he turns on his heels to behold Miss Donna Goody. He smiles, but he keeps on dancing until Charlie Daniels’ fiddlers have beaten the devil back into the grave. 

         Hey, boyfriend, I can keep up with you, Donna teases, as she steps into a freestyle dance that is as fast, and almost as creative, as his own. 

         Billy Ray glances back at her now and then. She really is an untamed fox on the prowl. Outwardly, she is far from discreet. Her Dolly Parton hairdo (now and forever frozen in place with enough hairspray to service an army of women country singers), her bazookas mounted by concrete hard nipples, her diamond studded bellybutton ring (always exposed, for she never wears a top that drops lower than the midriff), her undulating hips and smartass butt, all of these put together scream out: Fuck me, if you can catch me! On the other hand, she has the kind of soft and innocent face that suggests the tenderness behind her hard life. Yes, she can drink like a sailor. Yes, she smokes two packs a day, even the times she claims that she is ‘cutting back.’ Yes, she is vulgar, even when she is speaking in that soft, sultry whisper that invariably melts the man in her gloved hands. But the tenderness in her face, the kindness in her eyes, suggest she has a heart of gold at odds with her brassy demeanor. That is offsetting for a lot of men; part of the reason she scares off more than she devours. It implies a keen and conniving intelligence, a foxiness, if you will, behind a bimbo gift package. Billy Ray thinks of her as a fellow actor. He imagines the two of them, laughing their asses off at how they pull the wool over the eyes of all those rubes in the cheap seats, and passing a bottle of fire hot whiskey, when they are backstage.

         The music ends. It always does. Donna staggers off that dance floor. She is not drunk, not yet anyway, but rather buzzed by the freestyle dance playing itself out still in her veins. She is a bit spacey, but not so much that she forgets to turn back to her ‘boyfriend’ and to wave him over to her table in the corner.

         Billy Ray grabs his Guinness, and walks over to her. He is also a bit wired from all that dancing. He did not manage totally to drive Stacey and her minion crew out of his bloodstream, but he came damn close. 

         One Bayou Bottoms Up for the lady, Donna says to the waiter standing at attention beside her table. I don’t think my boyfriend here will have one. Damn fool thinks it will shrink his ball sack.

         The Bayou Bottoms Up is the signature cocktail served at the Kingfish. It is a secret recipe of various liquors and hot sauces, though Billy Ray thinks that straight rubbing alcohol would taste much the same. He prefers his Guinness of course, but he is not about to shirk the playful dare the sexy fox throws at him.

         Make that two Bayous, Billy Ray interjects. 

         The waiter leaves, and Donna pulls a Marlboro pack out from her pretty, pink, sequined purse. She grabs, lights, and inhales in a matter of seconds. She is a real pro at pretty much everything she sets out to do. 

         There’s an ordinance against that, you know, Billy Ray smiles, and points toward her cigarette. 

         Fuck you, Donna says with a grin, while exhaling smoke. The police chief buys his weed in the ‘dirty old men’s room’ every Tuesday night. Let him try to enforce his city ordinance.

         Billy Ray laughs. He drinks his Guinness.

         I’ll tell you about a real crime, Donna continues. The new girls out there on 42nd and Winchester are putting out for half the going rate. I’m fine with the free market, but fucking half? Where’s the sister solidarity in that? Jenny came up to them the other night. She tried to knock some sense into them, but they are not backing down. They say the johns are whacking off for free to YouPorn. Some of them are screwing avatars. Can you believe this? Screaming Holy Christ Jesus with an animated woman on a computer screen? The programmers will be running us out of the business before we know it. Replacing the real thing with holograms generated out of sweatshops in Bangladesh…

         Don’t hold yourself back, sister; Billy Ray laughs.

         Donna eyes him with playful contempt. She takes another long drag upon her Marlboro. The smoke relaxes her for the most part. The exception is in her eyes, which continue to sparkle with a radiant, conniving intelligence that most men fear. Billy Ray is an exception. He is not afraid of those intense eyes, even though deep down he senses already that there is a heck of a lot more going on with this conversation than the price of a blowjob on the side of an urban road.

         You’re such a fucking smartass, Donna teases.

         Well, I’ve got to be smart somewhere, Billy Ray responds.

         Donna laughs. She dabs her cigarette ashes on the table. 

         Score one for the ‘dancing cowboy,’ Donna remarks.

         Actually, I’m billed as a ‘restless wrangler,’ Billy Ray grins. It seems that ‘restless’ has some cache with the marketers. 

         Whatever parts a rube from his rubies, Donna observes.

         So true, Billy Ray thinks aloud. Every individual is either a circus barker, a rube standing in line, or a freak of nature locked in a cage. I prefer to be one of the circus barkers, if only because their outfits are better.

         Donna smiles, but already she is lost in thought. Billy Ray practically can feel the fear and the uncertainty emanating out from his friend. He wants very much to comfort her; but deep down, he knows that she needs to say her piece before the drinks get strong and the night grows long.

         The motherfuckers paroled David last week, Donna says after a moment of silence. ‘Model prisoner,’ they wrote in their report. ‘Fucking rehabilitated,’ except that they did not actually write ‘fucking’ anywhere in their fifteen page exoneration. 

         I’m sorry, Donna, Billy Ray remarks solemnly, while reaching out to take her hands across the table. 

         Shit happens, Donna observes. What bothers me is that I told them about the threatening letter he sent me from prison; the promise to hunt me down as soon as he got out. I think they were embarrassed he was able to mail that kind of letter from inside the pokey. So they did what embarrassed people do to get the red out of their cheeks. They denied the incident ever took place, accused me of fabricating the letter, and even threatened to prosecute me for trying to interfere with his due process. Have you ever heard such a crock of shit before the last bell? Are we living under Sharia Law, such that I require a half a dozen corroborating witnesses to get them to pay attention to me?

         Billy Ray ignores the rhetorical question. He just stares lovingly into her eyes, while she puffs nervously on her Marlboro.

         David’s brother, Jim, is a fucking cop, Donna whispers under her breath, even though there does not appear to be a cop within earshot.

         And cops look after one another, Billy Ray interjects.

         David was never a Boy Scout, let alone a police officer, Donna comments acerbically. But the boys on patrol love Jim, especially since he took over their local union. This means they’ll cover for Jim’s brother no matter what he does.

         Enough to let the wolf back into the chicken coup, Billy Ray offers.

         That seems to be the case, Donna frowns.

         Donna removes her hands from Billy Ray’s grip, takes the Marlboro out of her mouth, and smudges it on the table. She tries to smile, but her fear robs it of its natural beauty and ease, so that she looks like she is suffering from a bad case of indigestion. 

         What should I do? Donna asks.

         Does he know where you live? Billy Ray responds with his own question.

         Probably not, Donna reasons. Otherwise, he would have mailed me that letter directly, rather than send it to the whorehouse with instructions. 

         Okay, that’s good, Billy Ray interjects.

         But it’s not going to take him long to find me, Donna continues. He just needs to ask his brother to photocopy the vice crimes police report for the last few years. He’ll find my surname in there alongside my age, address, and blood type. And then what do you think he is going to do?

         Come a knocking? Billy Ray asks. 

         In more ways than one, Donna remarks. 

         Donna leans in for emphasis. The fear in her eyes is palpable. 

         He used to beat me, Donna whispers. Beat me hard. I never told on him. They eventually got him on a burglary charge; and yet, as they were taking him away, he turned to me and said pointblank that he would kill me as soon as he got out. He blamed me for his capture. And you know what? He may have been right in a way, because while I never called the cops on him, I prayed that God or fate or something would bring an end to his terror. 

         Why don’t you stay with me? Billy Ray inquires.

         That’s too much of an imposition, Donna responds, though her conniving eyes say, ‘yes, that’s a great idea, thank you, thank you.’  

         No, it isn’t, Billy Ray says firmly. David will get your address, and he will spy on your apartment window for a while; but what is he going to do when the weeks pass by and he never sees you going in or out of your building? Whatever he does it will not be around here. The rationale is simple: If he cannot get you for himself, then he has no other reason to stick around, especially when Jim is urging him every other day to relocate. ‘Get out of Dodge’ is good advice when half the individuals in Dodge think that you have assaulted or burglarized them.

         Good point, Donna whispers with a smile that suggests the first inkling of hope is about to be released into her bloodstream. 

         I’ll ask a few of the streetwalkers to keep an eye on him, Billy Ray states with growing confidence. When they tell me that he’s gone, you can stay with me a few more weeks, just to be sure that he does not find you if and when he comes back for a second look.

         So the solution is an extended slumber party with my ‘boyfriend,’ Donna remarks in her normal, cheerful way.

         Just one condition, Billy Ray teases. Promise me you’ll look away when I bring a girl over for the night. I think it is best you learn the birds and the bees on your own time. 

         Donna laughs. She sounds more relieved than tickled, but that is fine. He had wanted only to knock the bad thoughts out of her head. David is a genuine concern; but for now, it is best to toss him aside and to let the night take over.

         Somebody else puts a quarter in the jukebox. This time, he chooses that fan favorite Achy Breaky Heart. The cowboys and farm girls return to the dance floor. Billy Ray and Donna look into each other’s eyes a second, and then laugh.

         Isn’t that your song? Donna asks.

         My last name isn’t Cyrus, Billy Ray responds with pretend irritability.

         The waiter walks over with the two Bayous. By the time he arrives, Billy Ray and Donna have lost themselves in the oncoming waves of people boogying their fears and their sorrows away. The waiter leaves the drinks for them there and goes about the rest of his business. The drinks are melted and lukewarm by the time Billy Ray and Donna return to the table, but that is fine. They are way too giddy to care about the cocktails, as the electrical charge in that saloon all but propels them into the silvery moon outside.

*   *   *

         They barely hear the last bell ring. They are giddy drunk at the table the foxy babe had claimed for them about six hours ago. If they are not spitting the salted peanuts at one another, or knocking over their plastic cups refilled every hour or so with that Bayou Bottoms Up concoction (plastic replacing glass when the waiter surmises that they are much too plastered to handle anything fragile on their own), they are one-upping each other with lewd jokes and stereotyped impersonations. Billy Ray is the master of the whiney, limp wristed queer, even down to the swishy way he rolls his butt over his seat when regaling Donna with a made up story about ‘his adventures with the boys.’ Donna does Mae West or Tammy Wynette, alternating from one to the other based on how drunk sad she feels at the moment. They dance when the music really pumps; but as midnight casts her shadow over their private party, they mostly sink into their seats and drown their fears in ecstatic laughter and rubbing alcohol. Yes, the two friends will pay for their indulgence in the morning. Indeed, at one point, Billy Ray has a mental image of his toilet at home overflowing with vomit, as they take turns target practicing into the bowl. Nonetheless, that certainty does not stop them then. They are having too much fun; and, frankly, given the dangerous madman skulking out there in the darkness somewhere, and the fear that he will be able to catch up to her somehow, they need this release now about as much as they may need a loaded pistol tomorrow for their self-defense.

         The manager shows them out, pleasantly, but firmly, when they still do not get a clue as to the time. Donna takes it in good stride. Billy Ray is peeved, and he mutters something about ‘never returning to this dive again.’ Of course, the manager realizes that Billy Ray will return to his favorite stool soon enough either to get plastered or to pick up girls; and so he responds to Billy Ray’s acid tongue with a good natured smile. 

         Outside, the air is chilly. There is no traffic, but for a police car idling at the stop sign nearby. The cop is there every night at about this time, waiting in silence for a drunk behind the wheel to do a ‘California stop’ only a few feet in front of his windshield, and sexting his girlfriend in between the sobriety stops.

         The police car calls to mind David and Jim. At once, the giddiness stops; and the two friends pick up their pace. They speak very little to one another as they pass by the darkened storefronts and abandoned lots between the Kingfish and the slumlord apartments adjacent to the dilapidated railroad depot. There is no reason to speak, really, because the morose wail carried on the shriveled, stooped shoulders of the late night winds says what needs to be said. He is out there, the wail says. Sad, frightened, and confused, like any caged beast all of a sudden thrust into the wild; but even more so, he is full of that self-righteous anger that can push even a good man over the edge. And he is not a good man, not by any definition; and so, yes, he may be put off for a while, compelled to ask Donna’s acquaintances where else beside her own address she might lay her head, forced by circumstances to ask his brother for even more help in tracking down his ex-wife; but he is not going to stop until he gets his hand on her neck.

         That’s what that wail says. There is no mistaking the message that night.

         There is some relief, when finally Billy Ray finds his apartment key, and shoulders open the heavy, creaky door. Nonetheless, they are far from at ease, especially since wind can be heard screaming late night vitriol under the eaves.

         Too frightened to fall asleep, notwithstanding how the liquor pulls down their eyes and drops their chins, Billy Ray pulls the blinds (no light bulb burning up electricity across the way, so that bum beneath the ticket booth must have decided already to call it a night), turns on the T.V. (a swarthy, smiling Arab in a pinstripe suit hosting a half hour infomercial for timeshares), and searches in his bin for a DVD. He has got a lot of Barney, Teletubbies, and Sesame Street to occupy his son every other weekend; but further down, he finds the brain dead slasher films and raunchy comedies that help him to pass the hours away when he does not want to think. Billy Ray chooses The Hollywood Knights. If they are still awake when that one is done, then they will stare glassy eyed and dumb at The Bikini Carwash Company. Surely, those two expressions of high cinema will silence the wail in their minds, until dawn finally stills the creepy wind outside.

*   *   *

         They fall asleep, clothed, above the covers, and nauseous from the first inklings of the hangover that will beat them purple the next day, about midway through The Bikini Carwash Company. Notwithstanding the poison in their veins and the tight twist in their bowels, they sleep like the dead. In fact, there is no deeper sleep than the one before a powerful hangover. It is like the tranquility before the storm; the way flesh prepares itself for the terrible flu yet to come.

         Billy Ray awakens in the early afternoon. Donna snores loudly beside him on his queen bed. He sits up on his elbows and looks at her serene face. For all the sexy bombshell hairdo, makeup, and clothing, she has just enough little girl peach fuzz on her cheeks to keep the men guessing. He imagines that she is the innocent Phoebe from The Catcher in the Rye, except all grown up now with no safe place to lay her head. 

         Billy Ray then bolts to his toilet. He vomits what seems like his very life.

         About an hour later, and with two more trips to the toilet under his belt, Billy Ray swallows a handful of Vitamin B-12 tablets, dresses into a grungy pair of jeans and a stinky T-shirt (‘Actors do it with method’), and ventures out into the sunlight. He is careful to wear sunglasses, but even then the sunlight really hits him hard; and he has to retch into the old garbage can outside his building. The fact that nothing comes out is actually not good news. It means the poison is still in there, raising hell in his bowels, and leaving a bad taste on his tongue.

         Billy Ray stuffs his hands into his jean pockets, keeps his head down, and soldiers on. He grabs the bus at the end of the block, and gets off at that crime infested intersection of 42nd and Winchester known to the locals as ‘the pit,’ as in ‘whatever you do, don’t venture down as far as the pit.’ The bus driver gives him a wayward look, when he steps off the bus. He cannot imagine a moral and law abiding person consciously getting off at this grimy cesspool of hookers and pawnshops. Even the city’s most infamous smut peddlers (Butt Crack Books and Adult Novelties) moved away from this intersection last year to avoid the street people and the drug pushers. Rats can get pretty low, but even they have a low point under which they will not crawl in search of something to gnaw. 

         The bus rumbles away. Billy Ray takes in the scene. There is a mid 1970s era, drab brown, tinted Cadillac idling across the street. A pretty streetwalker, not yet hardened by too many years on the sidewalk, is leaning her bare buxom breasts into the driver side window. The driver must like what he sees, because he unrolls his window, and reaches out to cop a feel. 

         The druggies are on this side of the street. Three of them are leaning up against a storefront window. The glazed expression in their eyes says that they checked out long ago. Perhaps, they are wandering about the labyrinthine halls of the Hotel California just now. That would be a better place than this corner.

         Billy Ray identifies two streetwalkers further up the block. He strolls up to them as casually as possible. He senses eyes even now watching him, though logically they cannot be David’s eyes. It is too early for David to figure out that Donna has skipped out on him, even if he is a prescient fellow, let alone to find out that Billy Ray is her close friend and protector. Still, logic does not provide much comfort, especially when gloom continues to hang much too low and grey in the daytime air. Fear quickens his heartbeat, and pushes its own dark poison through his veins, as he strolls up to those two hookers, Wilma and Brenda Lee.

         Wilma and Brenda Lee are married lesbians sporting identical gold bands around their necks. For most streetwalkers, jewelry is inadvisable, for obvious reasons. Nevertheless, these veterans of the mean streets and the back alleys, two hard women in their mid-forties going on sixty, have graduated beyond the safety precautions that apply to most everyone else. They are tough cookies on the streets, and the local johns know not to fuck with them.  

         Hi, girls, Billy Ray says with a wide grin. How are the pickings?

         Wilma and Brenda Lee had been whispering to one another, while taking their hourly cigarette break, when Billy Ray broke into their private space. The looks on their faces tell him up front that they are not too happy, though since the intruder is ‘Billy Ray Cyrus’ (Billy Ray winces every time he hears that joke, but figures it is better than some of the other silly names they might use) they cannot remain pissed too long. 

         Get lost, Brenda Lee says with a playful smirk. The faggots don’t pick up twink ‘dreams boys’ down here. You’ll have better luck on the Beverly Square…

         You’ll get more cock down there if you bathe first, Wilma interjects with a snicker. Fucking homos give a piss about hygiene. Wish the straights did, also.  

         I’ll remember that the next time I’ve got an itch, Billy Ray offers in jest.

         The Kingfish pot so awful you’re looking to score down here? Wilma asks.

         Actually, I’m trying to prevent a crime, not commit one, Billy Ray states.

         Billy Ray is dead serious. The hookers stop the banter at once. They have an idea as to why he is here, since the word on the street already is that Donna is on ‘vacation.’ Word really does flow like lightning among those tuned into it, and on the meaner streets only the drug dealers are more tuned into the latest gossip than the streetwalkers. The reason is survival: Learning early on what is ‘coming down’ can mean the difference between life and death.

         Billy Ray explains to them what he knows about David’s threat and early release from prison. He asks them pointblank to be on the lookout for the small time burglar and all around asshole. He makes it very clear that Donna’s life is in danger, especially since they cannot trust the police. 

         I remember the asshole, Brenda Lee says. He made her his punching bag.

         Donna miscarried because of him, Wilma chimes in.

         Billy Ray is taken aback. He had never heard about the miscarriage. Just then, he would snap that man’s neck, if he could get his hands on him. He stays outwardly cool and collected, though, so as not to give the hookers a reason to back away from him. No one wants to go out on a limb for a person with serious emotional issues, and even an outburst totally justified by circumstance will be more likely than not to suggest a deeper problem.

         The hookers agree to keep their eyes and ears open. Moreover, they will recruit two other girls to watch, when they are off duty. Sister solidarity really matters to them, perhaps because they are so old school. Regardless, Billy Ray leaves them a few minutes later with confidence that they will remain vigilant.

*   *   *

         Miss Donna Goody turns out to be a real joy as a roommate. At first, it is a bit odd that she spends most of her time indoors in the buff. Apparently, like many actors, she regards her clothing as a ‘costume’ to be worn in character. If she is not hustling men at the whorehouse, or strutting her stuff at the Kingfish until the last bell, then she is not ‘in character’ and, as such, sees no reason to be burdened with clothes. She is not sexy when nude. Rather, she seems much younger than her years, almost childlike; and as Billy Ray gets used to her soft, pink flesh and beautiful curves, he starts to regard her nakedness as endearing.

         After several days have passed, Billy Ray ventures out to her apartment, a room on the third floor of a long-term occupancy hotel on the corner of 42nd and Dillinger (one block up from ‘the pit’ and only slightly more respectable, as far as most locals are concerned). He goes out there after dark, and he remains only long enough to fill up a duffel bag with clothes. He does not think David is around; and the two hookers with whom he speaks outside (two younger ‘ladies of the night’ that had been recruited by Wilma and Brenda Lee to take over the watch when they retire to the whorehouse) inform him that they have not seen any sign of the bastard thus far. Still, he does not want to push his luck; and so he comes and goes like a moon shadow in the night.

         Donna is glad to have some of her things; but she remains naked most of the time, and seldom leaves his apartment. This really is a ‘vacation’ for her, it seems. Yes, there is an undercurrent of fear in most everything that she says or does. Nevertheless, in spite of it all, she retains a smile on her face most times that Billy Ray sees her anyway. Moreover, she throws about her wisecracks, and drinks her host under the table, like there is nothing heavy on her mind at all. Billy Ray is not sure if this is resiliency or denial. Perhaps, it is a little of both; but no matter, because the net result is a roommate who fits in nicely with the laid back way of life that Billy Ray has crafted for himself.

         Apart from having a nude woman around all of the time, the only major change from the norm is that the kitchen is put into use. Like most single men, bachelors or divorcees, Billy Ray’s idea of cooking consists of heating up a T.V. dinner or calling in a pizza. There are stains encrusted into the walls of the old microwave oven, but the traditional oven looks as clean and shiny as when first put on display in a showroom. That all changes when Donna makes it clear that she had picked up more than sassiness from her Sweet Home Alabama grandma so many years ago. Grandma had taught her how to cook for a man, too; not in the heart healthy manner that is all the rage nowadays; but with all those hard fats, butters, and creams that pretty much guarantee that every dish she cooks is a delight to the taste buds, if not to the waistline. 

         When cooking, she wears the apron that she had asked Billy Ray to bring back from her place. She does not wear anything else. Somehow, her lovely ass poking out from behind her apron is far sexier than the very same ass when she is totally in the buff. Billy Ray notices, but even then he still views her as if she is his sister. Indeed, he cannot imagine having anything but a platonic interest, no matter what she does. He does not want to cheapen her by regarding her as a lady he might bed someday, and he is sure she feels the same way about him.

         Sometimes, I wish that I could stay on ‘vacation’ forever, Donna remarks out of the blue late one night. 

         She and Billy Ray are sitting on the floor, passing back and forth a bottle of Merlot, and watching American Graffiti. They are drowsy from the wine and the hour, and yet that comment slaps some life back into Billy Ray’s face. He is not surprised so much by her words as by her straightforward tone. While she is always honest, she has a tendency to giftwrap her honesty in humor, G-rated at times, but much more often of the double entendre variety. This time, there is no humor in her eyes. She has been sitting beside him in the buff all night long, but she has never been naked until this very moment.

         Billy Ray takes a hold of her hand. He looks into her eyes, and smiles.

         It’ll be all right, Billy Ray whispers.

         That’s the thing, Donna reflects. All right isn’t good enough. I wish all of my life could be like this night. No games, no bullshit, nothing on my mind, but a cheap bottle of wine and a friend by my side. 

         What’re you calling cheap? Billy Ray teases. This ain’t ‘Two Buck Chuck.’

         Fuck you, Donna responds in jest, and then pushes him away.

         They are asleep before the end of the film. Billy Ray awakens sometime before dawn. He picks up Donna, and places her on top of the bed. He lies next to her for a long time, staring up at the ceiling, listening to her snore loudly as a result of all that wine she consumed, thinking about the man who wants to do a number on his friend. He has never met David Trent; but in his nightmares he has given him a distinct face, a steely intensity in his dark eyes, a manipulative mind capable of doing nothing until the right time to pounce. In essence, David Trent is his ex-wife, except much more burly and uncouth. He hates him almost as much as he fears him. He keeps him up long after he should have fallen back to sleep; and he will keep on doing that to him, until somehow the drama ends.

*   *   *

         We are too damned old to be pulling all-nighters, Wilma complains.

         Brenda Lee does not respond verbally, but the tired look in her eyes says that she wholeheartedly agrees. She takes another long drag on her cigarette in order to keep the chill away, but it does little good. The night winds have been howling motherfuckers all night, and by now they are just about ready to grasp a hold of her bones and to shake hard. Is this shit really worth the higher prices they charge the johns after midnight? Brenda Lee is not so sure anymore.

         Especially when the fish aren’t biting, Wilma continues. 

         The younger girls insist that free porn on the Internet is much more of an existential threat to their business than the cops. Wilma and Brenda Lee do not know much about the Internet (hell, even the DVD player back at their room in the whorehouse is about as easy to handle as a bucking bronco), but they would agree that the all-nighters are not what they used to be. Fucking long and cold is what they are; and there is not a streetwalker out here who does not wish on occasion that she is the one sitting behind the wheel and passing over the cash.

         Brenda Lee starts to walk down the road. Walking is better than standing still most times, but this is especially true when the bums lying on the sidewalk pay more attention to them than the cops. Wilma is not as keen to leave, but is she going to stand under this flickering streetlamp by herself? The short answer is ‘no.’ The more accurate answer is ‘hell no.’ She is a crusty, old whore, savvy and courageous when necessary, but that does not make her a goddamned fool.

         They pass by the dark storefronts and vacant lots. Crime statistics would suggest that this stretch of 42nd is not as dangerous as ‘the pit’ behind them. As soon as they arrive at the intersection of 42nd and Dillinger, they will be a good forty percent safer than they had been under that flickering streetlamp. 

         Still, ask any night creature what they think about statistics; and they’ll laugh in your face, or beat you senseless in the gutter, depending on what they have been drinking or smoking thus far. There are statistics, and then there are the streetlamps that have not been working for years. There are police reports, and then there are the ghostly reflections of moonlight off of the storefronts. It is a wonder anyone is brave or stupid enough to stroll down this gloomy stretch of urban road this close to the witching hour, but people do; and while the cold and indifferent numbers in crime statistic reports may suggest otherwise, some of those people never make it as far as Dillinger. Not every night creature that vanishes makes it into a ‘missing persons’ file, after all. Fewer of those will be stamped as ‘homicide victims.’ This does not necessarily mean that the officers who cover this beat are callous assholes. It only means that they see what they can see, and the truth of the matter is that the night creatures are so adept at making themselves invisible they finally forget how to make themselves visible.

         Most nights, Wilma and Brenda Lee will stroll up to Donna’s dilapidated, long-term occupancy hotel, maybe hang out with one of the girls there, then go back to ‘the pit’ to strut their stuff for the insomniacs and the perverts driving passed them. Nothing else, but the ghostly moonlight, will catch their eye that far away from their regular haunt.

         Tonight is different. There is a sports car idling across from the hotel. It is a white Camaro with red trim, circa mid 1980s, and it is spitting out the kind of exhaust with which we had to contend before we gave a rat’s derriere about the environment. The engine needs a tune up. It is making such a racket it is a wonder a bored cop has not walked up to the driver to urge him to take a hike. The ghosts and the ghouls down this grimy block have a right to sleep, after all.

         Wilma, take a look, Brenda Lee whispers.

         There is not enough moonlight to make out the driver in detail. He lights a cigarette, and for a brief moment they can see that he is a greasy type with a long ponytail hanging down his wife beater T-shirt. Otherwise, he is a ‘mystery man’ insomniac with an apparent interest in the old brick hotel across the way.

         Wilma grabs a hold of Brenda Lee’s arm. She is scared shitless by all that darkness that seems to be reverberating out from that idling Camaro. Of course they know who it is. They also know that their friend will be in dire straits if he ever finds her. Best to turn around and to go back to ‘the pit’ before he notices them. They can tell Billy Ray what they have seen after their nightshift is done.

         Suddenly, the driver turns on his headlights. Has he seen them? 

         Impossible to tell, for he does not stick around much longer. He steps on the gas, turns left on Dillinger, and leaves Wilma and Brenda Lee gasping for air in his exhaust. Whatever may be going through his mind just then, he acts with no restraint when he decides what to do. His aggressive driving surely says that much about his personality.

         We are too damned old for this, Wilma mutters after a while.

         Brenda Lee does not respond verbally, but her eyes make it all too clear that she agrees. Her hand trembles while she takes another drag on her smoke.

*   *   *

         Billy Ray tries to concentrate on the ninety page, bound script in his lap. The Detective and the Damehas been his pride and joy, since he typed out the last scene about a year ago. It is a neo-noir farce, a fast paced collection of old puns and even older stereotypes set in the smoke filled office of Detective Sam Spadowalski, Gentleman Sleuth from Warsaw. He has pitched it to all the smug, cigar chomping, low life theater producers in town. He even tried one night to persuade Chuckles, the retired hospital orderly who now manages ‘Dream Boys’ when he is not selling drugs, to stage a one-night performance of his play. That pitch did nothing for the play, but it did get Billy Ray hired on to perform a few nights each week as the ‘Restless Wrangler.’ Speak to any ‘undiscovered’ actor or would be playwright, when they are sober, and they will admit that the real art to survival is learning finally to turn even the ugliest lemons into lemonade.

         He had thought about putting a copy of his manuscript into the mail and sending it with a cover letter to New York. Of course, the lottery is a far better bet than that crapshoot, but he felt that he had nothing to lose except the cost of postage. He even had a copy made, bound, and wrapped. All he had to do to roll the crapshoot dice was to hand the gawky Fed Ex cashier a handful of cash. He stared long and hard at that pimply face, and then he picked up his package and left the building. The gawky Fed Ex cashier never flinched. Maybe, he had flinched in his mind. After all, how many times does a customer grab a hold of the package he is about to send and just run for the hills? Nevertheless, he had no outward reaction. Maybe, your face freezes when you’ve been working at a brain dead job for too long. Stand at a conveyor belt, scan groceries, put labels on packages; and by the time you feel your face freeze it is too late…

         Billy Ray snaps that thought out of his head. It is condescending, but it is even more so inane. He can feel the madness creeping into the edges, when he indulges such ridiculous fantasies. A little bit of madness is actually a friend on stage; but this evening, as he is sitting in the back row of a dingy, city bus, and trying to concentrate on his script, any amount of madness is liable to give him an upset stomach. Stand naked on a stage beside a horse, and he is as calm and poised as Buddha; stand in front of a producer with steely, cold eyes, and he is a train wreck about to happen. 

         Actually, he has no idea that this theater producer will have steely, cold eyes. He had neither seen nor heard of this ‘B. Arnold of B. Arnold Productions, Inc.’ when out of the blue he got a call from him just last night. His guard had gone up the moment ‘B. Arnold of B. Arnold Productions, Inc.’ assured him that the ‘B’ does not stand for ‘Benedict.’ After all, who else but a schmuck tries to allay the suspicions of a man he has called out of the blue by assuring that man that he never commits ‘treason’ on a playwright he has taken under his wing? It is such an obvious line, like a salesman calling you ‘friend’ within five minutes of meeting you in the showroom for the first time.

         Billy Ray almost had hung up on the fast talking ‘B. Arthur,’ but then he had recalled how he ran away from that gawky kid with the unflinching face. It is one thing to cut and run in a rare moment of panic; but when a person makes that his modus operandi, then he is not fit for the schoolyard in which he wants to play. Either he is a would be playwright, or not; and while Stacey may be on to something when she accuses him of being a slacker, he is not totally lacking in ambition and pride. Nor does he feel deep down that success is off the table.

         Therefore, at the last moment, Billy Ray had set his suspicions aside long enough to accept the invitation from ‘B. Arnold.’ He wrote out the address on a Post-It note stuck to his refrigerator door, thanked the stranger for giving him a chance, and hung up. He wanted to feel some elation for having taken a hold of the horns of that elusive, two-faced bull named ‘Opportunity.’ To that end, he had uncorked a bottle of wine, before stepping out of the kitchen to inform Donna of the good news. He had plastered a smile on his face and had added an annoying chuckle to the end of every other sentence, until Donna playfully told him to stop acting out like a psycho teen who has just discovered masturbation.

         Although the celebration had seemed forced, Billy Ray and Donna finally had set aside the gut wrenching fear they had had to endure since finding out a week earlier that, indeed, David Trent had been sitting in a Camaro across the street from Donna’s apartment. The streetwalkers had not seen him again since that night, and yet the week had gone by slowly, methodically, like the untold hours as experienced by a man on a stake out. He may have vanished again, yet the night he had spent in front of Donna’s apartment had stayed with Billy Ray and Donna for seven full days. They could not shake him, no matter the booze, the late night movies played on the DVD player, even the butterball meals that Donna served up in the buff. David lingered, sometimes in how the wind rattled the window, but more often in the dread silence that followed the cessation of the wind. On those occasions, the silent, still night seemed to be staring at the two of them through the drawn blinds. Its black eyes traced Donna’s curves, as she snored beside her ‘boyfriend’ on top of the bed. Its sick mind contemplated all the myriad ways it might kill her when the moment of action finally arrived.

         David took a hike, when Billy Ray told Donna about ‘B. Arnold.’ They had a reason to think about something other than David Trent, and that alone made all the difference. Billy Ray and Donna would finish off the informal celebration by putting Caddyshack on the boob tube. They fell asleep with a bowl of warm, buttered popcorn between them and Rodney Dangerfield’s unhappy mug on the screen. He got no respect on his golf course, but the two friends slept just fine.

         That had been last night, and most of today had been just as relaxed for the two of them. So why is it then that Billy Ray’s mind keeps wandering, while the city bus rumbles from one urban nightmare of a street into another? Surely, he is nervous about meeting this stranger, who claims to have produced untold numbers of ‘first rate farces’ from New York to Albuquerque; but that seems to be only a small part of his fear. There is something gnawing at the edges of his mind, like the gawky Fed Ex cashier with the unflinching face had grown a pair of whiskers and a set of blood drenched rat’s teeth the moment he had taken a hold of his script and run away. The rat face had been there all along, but only at the last second had Billy Ray recognized it for what it is. If he had not exited stage left just then, he and his package would have been eaten alive. He would have lost his own life, but more so he would have lost what he loves; the script over which he has been working this past year exposed in the buff before those merciless, ratty eyes, before being gnawed into sticky pulp one page at a time.

         Exposed in the buff. Merciless, ratty eyes, peeping through drawn blinds.

         ‘B. Arnold’ assures him he does not commit ‘treason.’ Okay, so Billy Ray can be confident that, no matter what his producer does, he will not lose what proprietary rights he has in his own script. All fine and good, but what will Billy Ray do if it turns out that this producer has his eye set on something altogether different. Or maybe it is best to say someone…

         Billy Ray feels a cold, sinking feeling in his guts as he exits the bus. None of this is right. The low rent commercial district, the flickering streetlamp, the ninety page, bound script in his right hand, the rabid rat gnawing at the edges…

         Gnawing, but first watching, peeping through the drawn blinds in a much more brazen way, confident that it will not be snagged by a rat trap, when it is going in for the kill. And why the confidence just now? Because the ‘boyfriend,’ the protector, has undertaken a wild goose chase, and left her nude and alone.

         Billy Ray does not bother to walk down the street to where ‘B. Arnold’ is supposedly waiting for him. The reason is that there is no ‘B. Arnold.’ He is just a figment of a black and twisted imagination; a character conceived, and likely acted out over the phone, by an actor-playwright with murder on his sick mind.

         Billy Ray tries to wave down a taxi. He does not have enough cash to pay for a taxi ride back to his apartment, but he figures he can deal with the pissed off driver after making sure that Donna is safe. 

         The taxi never stops. Of course, it does not. Billy Ray is a strange dude, clothed in a tattered topcoat that may be hiding a gun for all the driver is able to tell, and standing in a neighborhood only marginally better than ‘the pit.’ No one in his right mind ever stops here. They may pass through if the interstate is packed, but they will do so with a lead foot and a searching eye. 

         Billy Ray crosses the street. Surely, there will be a dingy, city bus going in the opposite direction before too long. This is a cesspool neighborhood in the City of Beverly, but this is not Michoacán. 

*   *   *

         Indeed, there is a bus going in the opposite direction; but it does not get there for another forty minutes. By then, Billy Ray is a nervous wreck. He holds onto his script, like a tent revival preacher would his Bible. It is a squeeze doll, in essence; and it absorbs just enough of his mad energy then to keep him from exploding. God only knows what his condition will be when he finally gets home to his friend. If she is fine, then they can chuckle about it over bottles of wine.

         But deep down Billy Ray already knows he will not be uncorking a bottle of wine this evening. He will be stone cold drunk, but the toxin will be sadness and rage, not cheap wine he picked up from Trader Joe’s.

         The bus finally rumbles to a stop a block away from his apartment. It is a dark, forbidding night. The moon peeks through a hole in the cloud cover every now and then, like a Peeping Tom sliding in and out of the shadows; but for the most part, there is nothing up there in the sky, but dead blackness…

         The kind of dead blackness that does not move at all, until it pounces all of a sudden out from nowhere, and clutches its teeth into a warm bloodstream.

         Billy Ray picks up his pace. In his near delirium, he drops his script. He is not going to miss it, because it had been his ambition to find a producer for the shit thing that had taken him away from her when she most needed him by her side. So what good is ambition anyway, when as a result the silly naked are left alone and powerless before the glaring eyes of the night?

         Billy Ray tries to open the front door to the building. It does not open for him, because of course Mrs. McNutt locks it after sunset. He could ring for her, but he is too anxious to consider that option. Instead, he wastes valuable time, and whatever bits of sanity he has left, digging through his pockets in search of anything that is iron and shaped like a key. 

         In his desperation, he imagines kicking in the door. The hinges are so old and rusted the door probably would give way after a few kicks. He gladly would pay for the damages later, or Mrs. McNutt could evict him on the spot for all he cares. The only thing that matters is what, if anything, had happened to Donna while he had been out earlier pursuing his fool’s errand.

         He unlocks the front door and hurries up the staircase. It is eerily silent, as he steps into the hallway that leads to his apartment. The air feels so much heavier than normal. There is a dreamlike quality to everything he senses; and, for a moment, he wonders if indeed he has lost his mind. Perhaps, he is still at that bus stop, waiting for the ride back to his apartment, gripping his old script like a squeeze doll, and entertaining a surreal nightmare. 

         Then, he smells the coppery scent of spilled blood; and his mind returns. He looks up from his shoes. What he sees next literally knocks the breath out of him, and he has to hold himself up against the wall until he is certain that he is not going to faint.

         He sees Mrs. McNutt’s walker in the middle of the hallway in front of his apartment door. The legs look bent from repeated blows. Something like gunky flesh drips off of the legs and into a pool of blood. The blood is spreading down the hallway from inside his apartment. It is chunky tomato soup in appearance; and if Billy Ray stares at it too long, then he will start to think that it has a sick and perverted mind of its own. Does not the edge of the pool of blood look like a wide, menacing smile, the grin of a red ghoul sliding down a long face toward his shoes? Does it not speak to him in that swishy sound it makes when escaping from whatever open wound is hidden behind his apartment door? What does the swishy sound say to him? Hope you enjoyed your fool’s errand, because you are too late to do any good here. Too fucking late…

         Billy Ray is frightened almost catatonic by the swishy sound. The critical word here is ‘almost,’ because the fear passes through him like a terrible wave and then, just as abruptly, releases its hold on him. He gathers his strength and pushes his feet down the hall. He recoils a moment when he first hears how the pool of blood splashes beneath his shoes, but then he continues without further delay. The shock will hit him hard later, no doubt; but right now, he has to act.

         His door is slightly ajar. He pushes it open. He winces from the sound of old, rusted hinges creaking. It is a morose sound reminiscent of a dark, hidden, malevolent place.

         He expects the inside to be as dark as a crypt, but the T.V. is on. It is on mute. The action on the screen suggests that Donna had been watching Private Benjamin, when the night suddenly pounced through the window and grabbed a hold of her. Who knows why she had it on mute. Or perhaps the attacker put it on mute afterwards, so that there would be no television noise to call attention to this grisly scene. Ask any detective who has investigated his share of bloody crime scenes, and he will tell you that every one includes some detail that just makes no logical sense. Criminals and victims will do the craziest things during, or following, a life or death struggle; and often these acts leave the best clues.

         Billy Ray steps inside what he presumes is the scene of a double murder. The television screen casts a ghostly light on Mrs. McNutt. She is laying face up in the pool of blood still gurgling out from her open chest. The holes in her old, flat, shriveled chest are as wide as the balls beneath the legs of her walker. So the attacker had punctured her repeatedly with her own walker, before casting it into the hallway. No doubt, he had been really pissed at the time. Maybe she had surprised him. Old Mrs. McNutt had had a penchant for walking up to those who were breaking the rules and reading them the riot act. Smashing through a second story window and beating the hell out of a nude woman certainly would have been an example of ‘breaking the rules.’ Regardless, the angry expression on Mrs. McNutt’s face suggests that she had been just as pissed as her attacker, when she succumbed to his blows. She went out this life the way she had lived.

         The fact that the blood is gurgling still out from her open wounds implies that she is alive, technically; but Billy Ray can sense that her ghost is gone. She will be still within the next minute or so; her body finally giving up the struggle because there is no more soul in there to make it all worthwhile.

         Billy Ray sees two legs hanging over the foot of the bed. They are blood drenched and naked. The television light flashing off of them suggests a morbid scene in a snuff film. The legs are as gruesome as they are strangely sexy to his eyes; and, suddenly, Billy Ray feels like a pervert in beholding them as he does. He wants to run from this place. He wants to gouge out his mad eyes. He wants to rip off his cock for having ever entertained any fantasy that involved a nude woman and a bucket of blood. But he does none of those things. He just traces the blood sliding down those naked legs and dripping off of the toes. He hears a splash every time the blood strikes the floor, though he senses that that surreal detail is a figment of his imagination. Surely, each blood drip is too tiny for him to be able to hear it even if indeed there is no other noise then to distract him.

         But that is not true, because in fact there is another noise, a real sound, rather than something conjured up by his imagination. Is that a haggard breath that he hears? Is that a chest opening and collapsing as if a machine running on low fuel and about to switch off? Moreover, is that the sound of a beaten down woman moaning for help? Perhaps, Billy Ray imagines this moan, just as he still imagines an audible splash from each and every blood drip; but if there is even a remote chance that this sound is real…

         Billy Ray breaks out of his paralysis. He runs over to the side of the bed. He wants to switch on the lamp, but then he discovers that it is in pieces upon the floor. No matter, because his night vision is kicking in, and he is able to see that, indeed, Donna is clinging to life. Her eyes are shut, and there is a terrible wound in the back of her head; but she is moving her head of her own free will.

         Billy Ray grabs her left hand. She recoils, and he thinks that she sheds a solitary tear from her left eye. No doubt, she is shell-shocked; perhaps, sensing in any physical touch the hot and dangerous feel of her would be murderer. He wants so much to comfort her then; but when he sees her reaction, he releases her hand gently. Instead, he talks to her; and he prays that, notwithstanding all the shit no doubt going through her mind just then, she has the wherewithal at least to differentiate his voice from her ex-husband’s. This is important, for he senses that her survival hinges on her ability to understand that, indeed, help is just around the corner. She is liable to give up entirely, if she does not realize, on some level anyway, that there is a soft, white light at the end of the tunnel.

         Donna, this is Billy Ray, he whispers to her. Can you hear me?

         He looks at her bloody face. He is not sure if she nods in the affirmative.

         Donna, let me know if you can hear me, he says with urgency.

         Boyfriend, Donna whispers. 

         Billy Ray sheds a tear, and smiles. He retakes her hand. This time, Donna does not recoil. 

         I’m going to call for the paramedics, Billy Ray says. 

         Boyfriend, Donna repeats, and then sheds a tear.

         Billy Ray squeezes her hand, and then places it back by her side. He has never felt so much relief and joy as at that moment, and yet he knows that the window of opportunity is short. She will die from the trauma and the blood loss if he does not get the paramedics as soon as possible. 

         He steps away from the bed. He hears something crunch beneath his left shoe. He had stepped on a shard of glass; and as he scans the floor, he realizes that there are glass shards just about everywhere. The attacker had entered in through the second story window, perhaps by throwing a rock. Probably, he had climbed the fire escape. Indeed, that would have made much more sense than kicking open the front door to the building, since there would have been a high risk of detection if he had had to walk by so many apartments before getting to his target. Had not their intuition suggested all along that that is how he would break in? Is this not why he had dreamt of the night peeking through the blinds?

         Billy Ray feels a dark wave of guilt for not having listened closely enough to his intuition. Certainly, if he had heeded that sixth sense, then he would not have gone out on his fool’s errand. He had left his dearest friend, totally naked and alone, with no more protection from the night than a thin sheet of window glass. He may as well have tied her up and offered her to the wolf. It is not fair for him to think this way; but there is no other way he can think about what he did or did not do, at least not at that moment. Best to leave the guilt aside, for his dark thoughts are getting in the way of the 911 call he must make just then.

         He steps into his kitchen. It takes a while to find the cordless phone. He so seldom uses the damn thing he forgot he had placed it on top of the frig for God knows what reason. He almost has a panic attack when he realizes that the phone may be dead on account of having been out of its charger for so long. He switches it on and, thankfully, hears a dial tone; but this gives him little relief. A dial tone means he actually has to place the dreaded call. He realizes he has no other practical choice; but he also realizes that calling 911 means that those damned cops will be walking in and out of his place within minutes. And indeed they are ‘damned,’ for are not those cops the same assholes with silver badges, who look the other way when David Trent stirs the pot? Are they not the bullies with billy clubs, who look up to Jim Trent as their very own union thug hero? In a deep part of his mind, Billy Ray knows that it is inaccurate to lump all cops in the same stew of public corruption; but at this moment, as he places the phone by his ear, he is not thinking about the good cops out there. He is thinking only about Jim Trent, the asshole who no doubt told David where to find Donna. For all intents and purposes, it is as if he is calling for Jim Trent to come on over to this grisly crime scene. ‘Come on over, and bring David along too,’ he imagines himself saying to the 911 operator just then. 

         In fact, Billy Ray says no such thing. He conveys what he must, though it is very hard for him to speak at all on account of his anxiety. He then hangs up, puts the cordless phone back on the charger, and returns to Donna. He picks up her left hand, and strokes it lovingly. She does not appear to notice he is there.

*   *   *

         Billy Ray does not recall ever crying so hard as he does now. It is as if he is vomiting up tears. They gurgle up from his bowels and stream out through his tear ducts. He finds himself to be so revolting he wants to cry himself out of his own flesh. That does not make any sense, but unrestrained grief is insanity that has been packaged in a box of guilt. It is madness that the sufferer experiences in a moral context. He not only senses that he is losing his mind; he also senses that he deserves to suffer in this manner, because he has been judged and then found to be wanting. If not finally restrained, then grief descends into a kind of self-loathing, a narcissistic despair; a hell composed of one sad man surrounded everywhere by mirrors, and so given no other reference but his private anguish.

         Looks and sounds melodramatic; and no doubt, if Billy Ray could look at himself just now from outside of himself, he would see an actor literally eating up the set with his excess tears. It would look like a bad performance, what we would expect from an amateur actor who has yet to understand that subtlety is the mark of a master. In fact, Billy Ray’s emotions are all too real. He is finally coming to terms with what he saw in his apartment earlier tonight; and for that reason the dazed, distant expression he had had on his face when the cops and the paramedics first arrived has been replaced with this grief. Nevertheless, for the cops who escorted him into the interrogation room about forty-five minutes ago, and who are now watching him through the one-way mirror, his tears look decidedly ‘crocodile’ in nature. As far as they are concerned, the more he cries like this the more obvious he is trying to hide something from them.

         Detective Ringwood has seen enough of this horseshit. It is getting rather late, and he had promised his wife and their marriage counselor that he would try better to call it a night before midnight. His wife wants ‘snuggle time.’ It is a ‘life necessity,’ the counselor insists, much like air and water. If he values his wife as he claims, then he will give her ‘snuggle time’ before she is fast asleep.

         The detective tries to knock all that ‘life necessity’ shit out of his head, especially when he is on duty. He does not do a very good job, as evidenced by the fact that he is thinking about his wife of twenty-four years while ostensibly observing the suspect’s self-incriminating behavior. As a result of his misplaced attention, he suffers from a terrible headache that is only marginally softened by the prescription pills he pops into his mouth every four hours. 

         The detective indicates to his deputy that he is going back in for another round. The deputy can see the pain on his boss’s red face, and so he pours him a cup of coffee. He hands it to him on the way into the small, padded room. He also grabs a lukewarm can of Pepsi for the suspect. Though no instructions have been given, he presumes that he will be playing ‘good cop’ to Ringwood’s ‘bad cop.’ Ringwood is so pissed right now there is no way he can play Mr. Nice Guy.

         Billy Ray hardly notices the two cops enter into the padded interrogation room, though he is getting a hold of himself finally. He had been hit hard with the brutal underside of reality this evening; and though he had thought that he had seen it all backstage and round the bend, nothing had prepared him for the blood, the open wounds, the glass shards, even the distant, businesslike way all those first responders and crime scene investigators did what they do. To those guys, the scene had been old hat; more confetti to tag and to sweep up after a party had gone too far; and, in a way, that emotional indifference on their part had hurt Billy Ray a lot more than the wreckage. Is Hell really so commonplace? Must we live just one rock toss away from a mad devil? Just how many persons, old geezers on the bus, weirdoes in the hallway, fat slobs saddling up to an ‘all you can eat buffet,’ in fact have murder on their minds? Apparently, a lot more than Billy Ray had appreciated. He wonders if ever again he can trust the blank eyes peeking through the ‘fourth wall’ when he is then in character. How many are there to enjoy the show, versus how many are there to try to peek through the blinds in his costume and to figure out where he is most vulnerable? Surely, they will remain silent; but they will be thinking the whole time: Take off your clothes. Let me see you in the buff. Let me see where you are weak, because I may not do anything just now, but one of these nights I am going to do to you what David Trent did to your landlady and your friend. You get that, nude man?

         You hear what I’m saying? Ringwood asks again irritably. 

         Billy Ray snaps out of his own head. He looks up from his shaking hands. He imagines blood on his hands. He wonders if the two cops see the same blood dripping off his fingertips and splashing onto the table. 

         Ringwood is leaning against the wall. He looks like he is in pain, while he is clutching a cup of coffee and staring straight into Billy Ray’s face. Of course, that may be part of the act. Billy Ray has had few run-ins with cops, thankfully, but he has been around them enough to sense that they are all actors. Limited range, to be sure; never more than one or two steps of nuance away from John Wayne; but they are performers, nevertheless. They either are trying to charm the pants off of a woman (assuming a squinty eye and a monotone voice indeed have anything to do with charm), or are trying to frighten a confession out of a suspect. They alone wear the white hats. Most everyone else wears a black hat.

         I’m sorry, officer, Billy Ray mutters.

         I said, ‘Would you like to try the truth this time?’ Ringwood barks. 

         Billy Ray looks at the younger cop sitting in front of him. Deputy Hooper, or Hopper, or whatever, is barely thirty years old. He has the baby face and the buzz cut of a child who still believes in ‘Truth, Justice, and the American Way.’

         The deputy shoves the open can of Pepsi across the table. He has a fake grin on his boyish face that he thinks projects ‘friendliness,’ but that is actually condescending. Billy Ray despises him, much like a seasoned actor might hate a young upstart, who presumed to share the stage with him. At least the old man is a convincing ‘bad cop,’ while the protégé could not ‘good cop’ himself out of a paper bag. Billy Ray decides it is better to focus on the old man, if only so as to stop his own grief from transitioning into anger. He does take the Pepsi can, though, since sipping on something may douse the erratic charges in his nerves.

         I told you the truth, Billy Ray mutters.

         So what is your name? Ringwood barks.

         Billy Ray Blaise, Billy Ray whispers.

         Speak up, boy, Ringwood yells, while slapping his free hand against the wall, and spilling some of his coffee. I don’t think you’re cute, and I don’t want to hear your goddamned ‘bedroom voice.’

         Billy Ray Blaise, Billy Ray says with a little more force.

         What kind of a faggot name is that anyway? Ringwood snarls.

         I don’t know what you mean? Billy Ray asks.

         Fuck you don’t, Ringwood chuckles. Actor, exotic dancer, playwright, if there is not a homo somewhere in all that then I’m a goddamned Obama voter. Do you think I voted for that one nut half-breed? Is that what you’re telling me?

         No, Billy Ray says.

         No what, asshole? Ringwood barks.

         No, I don’t think you voted for him, Billy Ray says.

         For whom, precisely? Ringwood barks.

         For the one nut half-breed, Billy Ray says.

         The one nut half-breed, Ringwood repeats, before taking a sip of coffee.

         There is an uncomfortable silence. Billy Ray swallows some of his Pepsi. He almost vomits up the lukewarm, sickly sweet concoction, and privately vows he will never touch the sugar poison again. He keeps the vow all of ten seconds before taking another sip. It is something to do to break the tension. He senses that during our lives most of what we do is just something to break the tension.

         So let’s start from the top, shall we? Ringwood snickers.

         Billy Ray sets the Pepsi can aside. He looks down at his hands. His bloody hands; red goo dripping off his fingertips; red goo splashing upon the table; red goo sliding over the edge and onto the white floor; a pool of blood gurgling out from under the table; the edge of that pool of blood curving like the sickly grin of a ghoul. How is it that the cops do not see what is so obvious? He may not be the attacker, but he is guilty. He is the man who went out on a fool’s errand on the night his friend most needed him by her side. He does not belong inside one of their prison cells, but he surely belongs inside the one in his head. He cannot plea bargain his way out of that sentence, because the blood is everywhere, all the time, and the prosecutor and the judge cannot shrug off what is so evident.

         Speak up, goddamn it! Ringwood slaps his free hand even harder against the wall this time, and about half his coffee ends up on the floor. 

         The spilled coffee looks like blood, Billy Ray thinks. Surely, if these cops cannot see his blood, then they cannot see their own…

         From the top, Billy Ray mutters, while quietly turning his inner eye away from all that spilled blood in his imagination.

         Billy Ray tells them everything he had told them twenty minutes earlier, which is the truth. He does not think that they will buy it. After all, Jim Trent is a god in these halls. It would not be very politic, shall we say, for his brother to get out of jail early and then to commit a murder and a near murder so soon after all the messy details of his past life had been swept away. What else can he do, though? It is much harder to remember all of the details of an elaborate lie. If he tries to go down that route, then it is only a matter of time before he trips up on his own story, especially given the state of his mind this evening. He will not fuck up on the truth, though, because it is simply what it is. Without a fuck up on his part, it is not likely the cops will be able to detain him. After all, they may have their ‘preferred suspect’ in their crosshairs; but without finding any evidence that he did something other than what he says he did, what really can they do? Bully him verbally, and hand him lukewarm Pepsis; that’s about it.

         So tell me, one nut, how do you explain that your fingerprint is smudged into the blood on Miss Goody’s left hand? Ringwood interrupts him at one point.

         I told you that I held her hand, Billy Ray responds with the very first hint of agitation on his part. 

         But we do not find anyone else’s fingerprint on her, Ringwood continues.

         Perhaps, the attacker wore gloves; Billy Ray blurts out, and then realizes at once that he had made a mistake in offering up any speculation.

         You never said anything about gloves before, Ringwood says with a cold, contemptuous grin on his face.

         Billy Ray falls silent. He takes another sip of his Pepsi. His hand trembles the whole time. The cops cannot see the blood dripping off his fingertips, but it is clear from the expression on both of their faces that they see how his hand is trembling. Even the ‘good cop’ breaks into a grin that calls to mind a dastardly, old spider discovering an injured fly in its web.

         You know all about David Trent, don’t you? Ringwood asks after deciding to take a different path in this interrogation.

         Only what Donna told me, Billy Ray replies.

         The same Miss Goody who fabricated a letter to try to derail his petition for early release, Ringwood snarls. 

         Billy Ray is silent. He does not believe that Donna fabricated that letter, of course; but neither does he know for sure. Anything he says along those lines will be purely speculative, and he senses that Ringwood wants him to speculate just as he had about the gloves. The more Billy Ray talks about things he simply cannot know, the more the cops will be able to use his words against him down the road. Thus, Billy Ray keeps his mouth shut, and looks at his trembling hand.

         You and Mrs. McNutt were not the best of friends, Ringwood says.

         I always paid my rent on time, Billy Ray mutters.

         Neighbor says that Mrs. McNutt had to pound on your door to get you to turn down your television set, Ringwood remarks in the kind of accusatory tone that now suggests an incident far more sinister than a T.V. operated too loudly.

         Billy Ray does not remember when Mrs. McNutt complained to him about how his son had played Barney too loudly. Nevertheless, she had been always a cantankerous, old bitch complaining about this or that; and so he presumes the neighbor is being honest about whatever it is he or she had relayed to the cops.

         Hardly a motive to commit murder, Billy Ray remarks testily.

         What do you know about motive? Ringwood asks cryptically.

         You did not find my fingerprints on her damned walker, Billy Ray snarls, ignoring Ringwood’s question about motive, and throwing aside his caution. Not on her damned corpse, either…

         No, we did not, Ringwood agrees, and then steps away from the padded wall enough to cut in half the floor distance between himself and his ‘preferred suspect.’ But, then again, you were the one talking about gloves a few minutes ago. Kind of gloves that would have kept your fingerprints to yourself…

         Fucking ridiculous, Billy Ray snaps. So I wear gloves the whole time, but I take them off to touch Donna’s left hand?

         Is that what you did? Ringwood asks, while stepping forward enough now to lean on the rickety table, and to slide his face to within inches of Billy Ray’s.

         No, Billy Ray answers.

         Billy Ray is pissed. He had made the mistake of speculating yet again. He knows that he came to within a voice inflection of being arrested. If indeed he had ended his sentence with a verbal period instead of a verbal question mark, then no doubt the old man would be reading him his Miranda Rights, and calling it a night. That did not happen; and so the two men simply stare at each other, like a couple of enemy gunslingers about ready to draw their guns at high noon.

         Billy Ray leans back in his chair. He folds his arms before his chest. He is done with this damn interrogation. If they say another word to him, so much as a syllable, then he will demand that they provide him an attorney.

         Ringwood senses this. With some suspects he can push further than with others; but unless they are retards, the suspects always reach that point where they will not go any further without a lawyer. The last thing he wants is for any suspect to lawyer up. Far better to give them some slack then. So long as their necks remain in the noose, he will hang them high at some point; and that is all that matters to Detective Riley Ringwood at the end of the night. Thus, with no further word spoken, the detective steps out of the interrogation room. 

         The deputy stands up. He asks Billy Ray to stay in town for the next few days, in case they have any further questions for him. 

         Billy Ray understands that that is his cue to exit stage left. He gives that smug deputy no more than a noncommittal grunt, and then he leaves the room.

*   *   *

         Billy Ray is about to step out of the police station when he hears the old man call out to him from behind. He almost does not look back. His debilitating grief has subsided. In its place is a dizzying anger that he does not recall having felt before. He is mad at the detective’s accusatory tone, even as he realizes it is par for the course; but more so, he has a seething hatred for the bastard who made this all happen. He senses that if he looks back, and faces the detective, he will have the face and the bearing of a demented beast.

         One more thing, one nut, Ringwood barks.

         Billy Ray hesitates only a moment, and then turns on his heels. He is full of white hot anger just then; but his outward appearance is actually composed, as it turns out. At most, he looks like he is thinking about which bus line will be able to get him home fastest. 

         You don’t happen to have an alibi, do you? Ringwood asks, while leaning against the reception desk, and staring into the eyes of his ‘preferred suspect.’

         The Blue 5010 bus line from the Old Beverly Railroad to 8th and Fairchild, Billy Ray answers with no hesitation. Then, the Red 5010 back home. Just call…

         I know how to do my job, Ringwood interrupts gruffly. 

         I’m sure you do, Billy Ray snaps back, and then backs out the front door.

*   *   *

         For a moment, Billy Ray feels better for having told the old man to stuff it, in so many words; but then he wanders further into that cold and forbidding night and, yet again, thinks about how Donna had looked when they carried her out of his apartment. She had lost so much color she resembled a ghostly white faced doll. In contrast, the open wound in the back of her head had looked like something Tom Savini might create for a slasher film. It had seemed too bloody to be real; more like a garish splash of clay modeling and makeup to conjure up a shocked response from the rubes. If so, then the effect had worked its magic, because he had almost vomited his guts out at that moment. 

         Interestingly, Mrs. McNutt’s corpse had not elicited the same reaction. In part, no doubt this had to do with his lack of emotional connection to the sick, old woman who had collected his rent every month like clockwork. But more so it had had to do with the fact that she still had plenty of color on her dead skin just then. The ‘color’ had not been her pigment, so much as the quarts of thick blood that had squirted out from her chest. She looked like a lump of clothing, which had been soaked in blood in a washing machine; but somehow that gross image had been easier to handle than the waxen doll removed earlier.

         Billy Ray stuffs his hands in his topcoat pockets. He stares at his shoes. If anyone had paid any attention to him, while he wandered passed the homeless winos and the hookers, then they would have presumed that he was a loner lost in deep thought. In fact, he could not think of much of anything, except for the waxen doll with the garish head wound. The stark image just stayed there, like a freeze framed film projected upon a screen. Unlike a real film, it did not lose its visceral impact the longer he stared at it. On the contrary, it appeared even more real as the seconds passed, less like a cinematic trick intended to elicit a scream from the audience, and more like a glimpse of hell intended to grab out from the observer the last vestiges of his humanity. To that end, Billy Ray hung his head lower the longer he looked. He felt his shoulders stoop inward. He felt his face contort into the angry beast façade he had imagined back at the police station. He wanted to kill, and then to devour, like a hungry wolf on the prowl, though there remained a voice somewhere in his head that tried to remind him that nothing good would come of acting out on that impulse.

         Billy Ray gave no conscious thought whatsoever to his surroundings; and yet he meandered his way down the long, dark streets, until he happened to be standing at the front door to the county hospital. Only then did the waxen doll start to fade from his mind. He had to pay attention to what he was doing now, and that meant that he had to set aside as much as possible the horror show to which he had been exposed earlier.

         Billy Ray lifts his chin, wipes away a single tear that had fallen down his right cheek, and steps boldly into the hospital emergency room. It is later than he had thought, because there is no one sitting in the waiting area and just one nurse reading a Cosmopolitan magazine at the desk. The lights are turned down low, presumably to allow the patients still resting on the emergency room beds to fall asleep, if possible. There is an old television in the upper right corner of the waiting area. It is mute, but Billy Ray recognizes at once an infomercial for a set of Ginsu knives. ‘Every Chef a Samurai Warrior,’ words on the screen yell.

         Can you tell me how Donna Goody is doing? Billy Ray asks the old, obese, night nurse with the Cosmopolitan magazine. 

         Husband or Relative? The nurse asks without bothering to look up at him.

         Excuse me? Billy Ray asks.

         The nurse sighs. She folds her arms on the open pages. Billy Ray glances down and observes that it is an article about how to get a man to do ‘whatever you want in the sack every time.’

         How about hitting the treadmill? Billy Ray thinks.

         I can only divulge information to her husband or her blood relations, the nurse explains irritably.

         Her brother, Billy Ray blurts out. Um, Holden Caulfield Goody…

         Hope she does not ask for identification, Billy Ray thinks.

         Apparently, for all the time she spends reading magazines, the nurse has never gotten around to The Catcher in the Rye. She does not flinch, but simply squirms her heavy bulk away from the front desk to check an open folder to her side. She barely scans the page, before returning her fat face and glossy lips to the worried, young man standing in front of her just now.

         Medically induced coma to help with the swelling, the nurse says with no empathy whatsoever. Must have taken a nasty fall.

         May I see her? Billy Ray asks timidly.

         Well passed visiting hours, the nurse snaps back. 

         Just a minute, Billy Ray pleads.

         The nurse stares petulantly at him a while. She finally sighs, and the sad look on her face just then suggests she would rather not give in to the invisible angel whispering into her right ear.

         Well, since you’re her brother and all, you can have one minute, and not a second more, the nurse remarks.

         The nurse nods in the general direction of a drawn curtain down the hall and to the right. She returns to her magazine, while Billy Ray takes his cue. His slow and heavy heels echo on the white, tiled floor; and in a moment of frozen terror, Billy Ray imagines that he is alone in a mausoleum. 

         Alone, that is, except for the ghosts peeking out from behind the marble name plates embedded into the walls…

         Name plates that look like drawn curtains in a hospital ward…

         Billy Ray takes a deep breath, and pulls aside that curtain down the hall and to the right. He almost screams, when he views what looks like a corpse on a white slab. It is so white, so still, so utterly devoid of the mischievous, soulful life that had cooked for him, watched DVDs by his side, snored into his left ear.

         Then, he views the squiggly lines on the heart rate monitor, and relaxes.

         Donna Goody is alive. His friend has seen better nights, even when she’d been married to that psychopath David Trent; and she’d be a Screaming Mimi if she saw how the doctor cut away her Dolly Parton hairdo and replaced it with a gauze bandage. Nonetheless, there is a bit more color in her skin (unless that is a figment of his imagination); and her breathing seems regular and serene. This is the kind of sleep that can go on forever. He knows that, of course; but this is an improvement from the horror show he had found in his apartment.

         Billy Ray grips the cold, metal bar on the side of her hospital bed. He has to do so to remain standing, for at once he feels as dizzy and lightheaded as he had when consumed with white hot anger back at the police station. He cannot tell if this is anger, or relief, or some strange combination of the two emotions. All he knows is that, no matter the nurse’s instruction, he cannot stay too long, for the horror of everything that happened tonight is really taking its toll. He is sick physically, but even more so he is beginning to question his tenuous sanity.

         I’m so sorry, Billy Ray whispers, when the tears start to flow.

         Donna does not respond, of course; but, somehow, Billy Ray senses she is able to hear everything he says. 

         Your boyfriend should’ve stayed home and watched Private Benjamin by your side, Billy Ray continues. Opened a bottle of wine, popped some pop corn, passed a joint. Goldie Hawn’s a whole lot funnier when you’re actually stoned…

         Billy Ray stops speaking a moment. He has no idea what to say, although he figures Donna would not mind. If she could, she’d just laugh, punch his right shoulder, and tell him to stop muttering like a pimply boy on his first date. She might very well throw in a few profanities for punch, but that would be the gist of it. He decides to pretend that that is exactly what she has done, and so he is able to stop with the tears and the inane talk and to man up a little. It is not so easy a task, since the myriad emotions are still trying to burst through his dam.

         Billy Ray leans down, so that his lips are no more than an inch from hers.

         I’m going to make this right, Billy Ray says, softly, but firmly. When you wake up from your beauty sleep you’ll never again have to think about your ex-husband. I’m going to pull the curtain down on that act, and turn off the lights.

         Time to go, the nurse barks from several feet behind him.

         Billy Ray steps back. He turns and faces the irritable witch. Since making his solemn promise, all the dizziness is gone. He is still exhausted, but the calm look on his face suggests a man altogether sure of the steps he is about to take.

         The nurse must notice the difference, because she drops her attitude on a dime. She looks like a fat bully that has just met its match on the schoolyard.

         I’m ready to leave, Billy Ray says with an unsettling smile. 

         The nurse does not respond. She just steps to the side, as he passes her.

*   *   *

         There is something wrong with that pimply kid in the Fed Ex uniform. He has a brain dead job, to be sure: stuff, scan, stamp, change. If the customer is using a credit card, then he does not even have to count change out of the cash register. Sometimes, he has to tell the customer that ‘your package will arrive no later than 4:00PM tomorrow,’ or ‘you missed the cut-off time by a half hour, so your package will not go out until tomorrow.’ Most often, he does not even need to say that much, because the customers are repeat offenders and realize well enough what they are doing. So he mostly just stands there, looking bored or stupid, thinking about the next gig for his heavy metal garage band. He is an anonymous cog in an elaborate machine of listless, underachieving worker bees in the century of America’s decline from first world behemoth to second world, multilingual, dumbed down, mall park. He knows it. He knows there is no hope for it to be any better. So he mostly just stands there, looking bored or stupid…

         Billy Ray has reached into his pocket. He counted the money before, and so he knows that he has just enough to send his package to New York. Yes, it is a crapshoot, but so is the lottery, and venereal disease, and bumping into ‘the one’ in an overcrowded bar. If nothing comes of this, then it will be no worse, really, than leaving the bar without a girl for the night. A little sad, a waste of money on beers and shots, but he can forget the blues just by putting on a fun, early eighties, inane comedy. Anything with Bill Murray (before he got it in his head that he is a ‘serious actor’) or John Candy will do. So what’s there to fear in this transaction? Why not just hand over the rumpled bills; watch that Fed Ex boy stuff, scan, and stamp; and collect the change (two bits and a dime, if Billy Ray counted correctly before leaving his apartment with his manuscript stuffed under his right arm)? Why not try to accomplish something in this dead end life?

         Why? I’ll tell you why. Because there is something wrong with the pimply boy, something more insidious than just bored or stupid, something maybe evil.

         Take off your clothes, the Fed Ex cashier says nonchalantly.

         Excuse me? Billy Ray asks, though he knows very well what the boy said.

         You heard him, buddy, a fat construction worker type says from behind Billy Ray. Take off your clothes, so the rest of us can send our packages before Jesus comes back for supper.

         Everyone else in the long line murmurs in agreement with the man in the hardhat. Billy Ray looks over his right shoulder. He is amazed to see that there is no end to that line. It is like everyone who had ever lived is behind him. They are all clutching identical manuscripts under their right arms. The title page on every one of those manuscripts reads in boldface: The Detective and the Dame.

         Take off your clothes, an old lady berates him.

         Yeah, hurry up, a middle aged housewife teases him. Show us some skin.

         We don’t have all day, mister, a boy clutching an Orel Hershiser baseball card along with his manuscript yells. Just show up one little pubic hair at least.

         The crowd laughs. An old man high-fives the boy. They are all impressed that this young whippersnapper had the smarts to call attention to ‘pubic hair.’

         Take off your clothes, the Fed Ex cashier says again, while Billy Ray still looks behind his right shoulder at the increasingly pissed customers behind him.

         Except this time the Fed Ex cashier’s voice sounds different. It is so high as to be almost inhuman. Indeed, the more Billy Ray thinks about the sound the more he realizes it had not been a voice at all, so much as a squeal. The squeal of a rat with long whiskers, sharp teeth, and merciless red eyes. The eyes of an ugly, drooling predator, peeking through the blinds, and waiting for the perfect moment to clutch down on a vein…

         Billy Ray does not need to look back at the Fed Ex cashier to see that he has a rat’s face now. He is still standing tall in his uniform, as bored and stupid as always, but everything above the thin neck is hairy, ratty, and ready to dine on his trembling flesh. He needs to run from this rat without any further delay, no matter if he looks like a sad coward in front of all these agitated customers.

         He stuffs the cash back into his pocket, and grabs his manuscript. He has decided to run like hell, and he is about to do just that when he sees that all of the people behind him have changed. At first, he is not sure what it is. Then, in a moment of clear understanding that stops him cold, he sees that each person has lost his or her face. Instead of a face there is a window with blinds. All the blinds are drawn, but not tightly enough. For that reason, beady, red, rat eyes peek through the spaces in between the blinds. The eyes stare at him. There is a sentience behind those eyes, a clear intention, a reasoned game plan; and as such, it is only a matter of time before they break through, tear him apart, and see just how naked he can be when billions of rats gnaw on him simultaneously.

         Take off your clothes, the rats squeal as one. We want to observe you in all your glory. Then, we want to tear you down, until you’re nothing, but sticky pulp left behind for someone else to clean up. Nothing, but an untidy loser who cannot sell his script, who cannot talk back to his ex-wife, and who cannot save his friend from her stalker, nor his son from the Jesuits. 

         Billy Ray wants to scream, but he discovers then that he no longer has a voice. The whole world is now a ‘quiet zone’ for him, and the Jesuit Brother is watching closely to see if he breaks the rule.

         The rats squeal again. This time, it is so high, so abrasive, he is not able to make out any words. It is just an annoying sound. The sound of rats breaking through the space in between the blinds and going for what is left of his mind…

         Actually, the sound of a telephone ringing in the kitchen…

         Billy Ray opens his eyes. He shuts them again on account of the intense, debilitating pain. Nevertheless, there is no chance of falling back asleep. That fucking phone is going to keep on ringing until he answers it. Moreover, why on earth would he want to slip back into that creepy nightmare full of talking rats?

         Because that creepy nightmare full of talking rats will turn out better for him than what he is likely to hear on the other end of that phone. Hard to think that way, since the rats are so frightening; but when they are all done with him he will be dead; putrid, disgusting, sticky from all that sick rat drool, but dead. On the other hand, when he is done talking on the phone, he will be alive, sick in the head, perhaps, but well enough to endure more visceral pain and sorrow.

         Billy Ray pushes himself up from his mattress. He had had to rip off all of the sheets because of the bloodstains. The mattress had been stained too, but not so much that the stains posed a hard psychological barrier to falling asleep.

         The floor is another matter. It looks like Gettysburg the day after all the bodies had been removed, but the day before an unexpected rain washed away much of the blood, shrapnel, and miniscule body parts. The blood smear on the floor seems to have been permanently encrusted into the wood. The shattered, bloodstained glass can be swept away, but there is so much of it that Billy Ray imagines having to use a bulldozer to push aside enough shards to make a trail. No doubt, the floor is irreparable, if only because he cannot imagine scrubbing away the dark energy left behind when David Trent fled back into the shadows.

         Worse than the floor are the walls. Mrs. McNutt’s blood must have spurt out of her chest like a geyser at first, because there are ghoulish blood streaks on the foyer walls near to where she fell back for the last time. The dark blood looks like maudlin, melted faces painted haphazardly on a white canvas. There are ghoulish eyes sliding out from their sockets. There are ghoulish lips snarling almost as distastefully as Mrs. McNutt had snarled in real life. The ghouls speak inside Billy Ray’s imagination in much the same way as Mrs. McNutt had spoken into his ears when alive. They also say much the same thing: You’d better hand over your rent on time. Don’t think this little mishap absolves you of your duty to pay on time and to follow the rules. If you should happen to think that way, then be forewarned that we can enter into your darkest nightmares as much as we are now mucking up your walls. We can get into your mind, and stay there…

         Billy Ray blocks out the rest of their refrain. He tiptoes around the glass shards, while wearing nothing but his soiled underwear and his unsettling fears.

         Hello, Stacey, Billy Ray mutters as soon as he lifts the phone to his ear.

         We need to talk, Stacey barks.

         Billy Ray imagines his ex-wife already dressed in her pantsuit, scarf, and sunglasses. Dawn barely has broken over the horizon, and yet even now she has tired of the sun. The light of day has a nasty habit of breaking down mysteries, and showing the facts to be plainly what they are. Is it a wonder then that the dyke family law attorneys, the manipulative, rich fathers, and the witches who rely on both to maintain their respectable face in society much prefer the dark hours, when they hatch their schemes and seed their mischief? Billy Ray knows deep down that this is an unfair caricature. Stacey’s indomitable bitchiness is a mask behind which she tries to hide her sadness. He should feel sorry for her so much more than he hates her. Nevertheless, this is not the morning to try to be strong for her. It is hard enough for him to be strong for himself and the friend he loves. As such, he has no more interest in Stacey than is needed to swat her away with as much vindictiveness as she throws at him.

         No, actually we don’t, Billy Ray snarls.

         What in the hell were you thinking? Stacey snaps back. 

         What are you suggesting? Billy Ray responds.

         You were keeping a girl at your place; Stacey seethes.

         The judge wants me to forego exotic dancing and pot, Billy Ray remarks. He never said anything about women, though the more we talk the more I think I would have been better off really, if the shit list had included ‘the fairer sex.’

         Don’t be smart; Stacey reprimands him.

         So what do you know about what happened last night? Billy Ray inquires.

         I got a telephone call from a Detective Ringwood, Stacey says with total contempt. Father had been correct when he told me on the eve of our wedding day that someday I’d get a call from the cops about something you did. 

         I didn’t do anything; Billy Ray interjects.

         The hell you didn’t, Stacey says. You had a girl at your place. A girl who is now in intensive care from a blow to the back of her head…

         Are you saying that I had something to do with that? Billy Ray interrupts.

         Would she have been found where she was if you hadn’t had her there in the first fucking place? Stacey parses out every word with slow, dripping vitriol, like she is talking to a child or a retard, who otherwise would not be capable of following her unassailable logic.

         That’s bullshit, Billy Ray mutters, though the pang of guilt in his heart is telling him otherwise. 

         Oh, yeah? Stacey barks like she cannot believe her ears. Is the murder of your landlady bullshit? Is the assault of your lady friend bullshit? How about the police inquiry? Is that bullshit, too?

         What’s your point? Billy Ray inquires; while he holds the cordless phone so tightly it is only a matter of time before it snaps into two halves.

         My point is that you are a person of interest, Stacey snaps back at him as if she cannot believe he is so goddamned dense. My point is that there is an old detective with your ass in his crosshairs…

         Yes, and? Billy Ray interjects…

         My point is that I am not about to throw my son smack into the middle of your shit, Stacey concludes much as Billy Ray had anticipated the moment he’d heard the phone ringing in his nightmare.

         Our son, Billy Ray mutters lamely.

         Listen, I don’t know what you did, besides keeping the girl at your place, Stacey continues. But at any moment Detective Ringwood could haul your ass in for more questioning, or even arrest you. What’s Gary going to do then, but be traumatized? 

         Billy Ray cannot deny her logic. He had not thought about Gary last night for obvious reasons; but now, as he glances back at the bloodstains and the bits of glass spread everywhere, he has to admit that this really is neither the place nor the time for a sensitive, little boy. 

         Henrietta’s filing the necessary papers this morning, Stacey goes on with the steely coldness of her voice no doubt fogging up her dark sunglasses. 

         Billy Ray imagines Henrietta waddling up the courthouse steps with wads of paper in both of her sweaty hands. Her jowls look like they are about to fall off her face. She pays no attention to them, because her eagle eyes focus only on whatever weaknesses they can detect in the men who happen to stumble for one reason or another into her path. Under his breath, Billy Ray prefers to call her ‘Henry,’ as in ‘Henry the Axe Wielding Lumberjack,’ or ‘Henry the Old Ball Buster with a Hairy Lip,’ or other similar titles of affection. 

         I wanted to ask for permanent custody with no visitation; Stacey goes on to say before Billy Ray can interject. Henrietta explained that as long as you’re simply ‘a person of interest,’ the most we can demand is no visitation, pending a statement from the police that exonerates your sorry ass from involvement in this double crime. 

         Billy Ray remains silent. He is totally crestfallen, and yet he cannot deny the hard logic of keeping Gary with his mother, while he remains technically ‘a person of interest.’ Sure, Stacey is motivated to a large extent by her desire to beat Billy Ray in her ongoing tug of war with him, but that does not mean she is wrong to do what she is doing. He would do the same thing, if the shoe were on the other foot, though he wonders if he would be as coldhearted towards her in her moment of grief as she seems to be towards him. He would like to think not but cannot shake the fear that he too is quite capable of dark, selfish behavior.

         After all, did he not pursue a fool’s errand, when his friend most needed him by her side? Did he not question the whole time what he was setting out to do, and yet went ahead and did it anyway? Surely, Stacey hides behind her dark sunglasses, her iced cold demeanor, her haughty bitchiness; but really, does he not hide just as much behind his slacker indifference, his sloppy apartment, his booze and his weed? He wonders if perhaps he and his ex-wife fight each other precisely because they see so much of themselves in their opponent. Look a bit long in those mucky waters, and you are liable to see yourself in the reflection.

         So you’re not going to say anything? Stacey asks after a while.

         I’ll see you in court, Billy Ray mutters, but knows then that that is a lie.

         Henrietta will file Stacey’s petition this morning. Because it is clearly an emergency matter, the court will schedule a hearing for the next day. Perhaps, Stacey will be there, standing beside her dyke attorney, keeping on those dark sunglasses of hers on the pretext that she has some sort of eye disease (her rich father can get a doctor to prescribe just about anything that will make his only daughter content), folding her hands behind her back, and nodding in a general agreement with whatever her attorney says. Billy Ray will not be there. He has no attorney, no chance of persuading Judge Black not to grant the request, and no desire deep down to drag his son into this mess. Judge Black likely will go on to insinuate that Billy Ray is a deadbeat dad for not even trying to contest this petition. He will be wrong, of course; but since when has that stopped a power hungry, asshole judge from sweeping his black robes over whatever he wants? It is the judge’s right to be a closed minded, contemptuous bigot, just as it is the detective’s right to try to put words into the mouth of a ‘preferred suspect.’ In this life, no one cuts you any slack until you are hanging high and dry on a tree.

*   *   *

         Billy Ray does not leave his apartment that day. He sweeps up the glass, scrubs off as much of the blood as he can, and sheds more tears than he recalls ever doing before. This time, he cries for his son as much as for his friend. Yes, it is logical that his son should remain with his mother, until the police nab the real criminal here, or at least decide that he is no longer ‘a person of interest.’ But what will his son think of him when this is over? What will Stacey tell him in the privacy of their home together? What will Barkley Bloom, Esq. whisper into his grandson’s ear, when the two of them share a moment on the sofa together before Stacey takes Gary by the hand and walks him up to bed? Billy Ray knows that Gary loves him, and he does not imagine that that will change; but will his son ever be able to look upon him with the same innocent eyes? Will his son be able to talk about Orel Hershiser baseball cards, or sing the Barney song, or ask for a double scoop of Thrifty’s ice cream in the same way he had before his dad became ‘a person of interest’ in a gruesome double crime? Billy Ray has no idea really, though he suspects the answer is ‘no.’ Part of his son died when the sick bastard threw a rock through his second story window and went after his friend and his landlady. Billy Ray hates David Trent for what he has done, but more so he mourns for his son’s lost innocence. 

         Billy Ray cries himself to sleep upon the bloodstained mattress. He is not able to sleep very long, before he is awakened suddenly by a belligerent knock on the door. He is still in nothing, but his soiled underwear. He opens the door, anyway. ‘Propriety’ is not even on his long list of concerns this dead afternoon; and deep down, he actually hopes that Detective Ringwood is there to ask him more questions. He would love to see the look on the old man’s face when he is standing before him in nothing, but his filthy, old skivvies and his crusted tears.

         It is not Detective Ringwood. It is a beat reporter for the Beverly Times, a tabloid masquerading as a legitimate newspaper that focuses entirely on gory crime scenes, haunted houses, and alien abductions. They print the offbeat and cantankerous musings of a self-styled ‘critic of thespian arts,’ which sometimes tickles his funny bone; and for that reason alone, Billy Ray will read the Beverly Times in the public library once in a while. For the most part, though, he views the slimy tabloid and its staff in contempt.

         Billy Ray tells the beat reporter to fuck off as soon as he reads the ‘press credentials’ hanging around his neck. He feels a little better for having told the bastard off, though not so well that he can fall back asleep. 

         He thinks about visiting Donna in the intensive care unit, but decides not to do so. Now that he is officially ‘a person of interest’ in this crime, the police will be watching his every move. Likely, they will haul him in on some pretext, if they catch wind of him trying to visit the victim. 

         He tries to watch one of his DVDs, but he cannot get in the mood for the sophomoric comedies in his basket. Perhaps, if he had a copy of Schindler’s List he would be able to watch that film from beginning to end. That is pretty much his mood, as dusk finally bleeds through his blinds and casts grotesque shadows upon his floor and walls. 

         Finally, when it is pitch black outside, he opens his blinds just enough to see that the light bulb is on over the ticket booth across the way. So one of the bums is awake and open for business. Time to get dressed and to head on over.

         Billy Ray steps out the back door of the apartment building. He stuffs his hands into the pockets of his topcoat, hunches his shoulders, and looks down at his shoes. He feels dirty, maybe like a flasher, who long ago lost the thrill of his peculiar craft, but is compelled to do the one thing that will elicit a reaction of some sort from beyond the ‘fourth wall.’ For all the skin that he has exposed in seedy backrooms, and all the times that he has said or done something that the good folks in Peoria would regard as ‘lurid’ in an ‘experimental’ play, Billy Ray actually is quite law abiding. He skirts the edge, to be sure; but with one noted exception he stays on the side of the angels. His one noted exception is the pot that he buys, smokes, and sometimes resells. Nowadays, with weed legalization all the rage, it is a vice hardly worth mentioning; and yet it plays on his mind in the way a boy will find pleasure in sneaking a sniff of his father’s brandy in the wee hours of the night. Deep down, he actually hopes that it is never legalized, because then so much of the lure would be gone. 

         Until this night, he had felt a certain boyish pleasure in sneaking outside to buy pot from that bum with the bloodshot eyes and the five o’clock shadow, who manned the ticket booth that civilization had abandoned long ago. He saw the encounter in much the same way as Pinocchio initially had Pleasure Island; in essence, as an escape into irreverence, mischief, and amorality, a place with mad, twinkling eyes, crimson red cheeks, and wet lips. Indeed, Billy Ray always loved how the bum’s mouth watered, and his eyes practically bulged out of his wrinkled sockets, when Billy Ray took the wad of cash out of his topcoat pocket in order to count out the bills beneath the light bulb. He loved how the wind on some nights swayed the light bulb back and forth, thus casting surreal shadows that transformed their faces into something more suggestive of a starving beast than a cultured man. The quality of the pot in the little baggies kept under the ticket booth ranged from good to downright bad, but the minutes spent talking up a bum out on ‘Pleasure Island’ always had that surreal quality to it that Billy Ray found strangely intoxicating. He understood why otherwise good people on occasion consciously violated the law. In our button downed society, breaking a law from time to time allowed a person to remember that, in fact, he truly had not lost every last bit of his capacity to be free when he had accepted both the benefits and the burdens of civilized life. Indeed, he could furlough himself out of his cell when he had a desire to do so, even if only for a short period of time and in the commission of a relatively minor infraction; and that alone made his lifelong sentence much more palatable. Madness is a release; so is uninhibited, reckless sex; and for Billy Ray and countless other ‘potheads,’ so is the weekly, or daily, trip out to the shadows to pass a minute or two with the neighborhood drug dealer. It never occurred to Billy Ray that these regular excursions into his own version of ‘Pleasure Island’ chipped away at his soul. He never thought his brief escapes from civilization would weaken his resolve to do what he must do in order to protect what he loves. He never imagined that, in reply to his small, presumably harmless kicks at the letter of the law, sheer lawlessness one night would come crashing through his window and almost kill his dearest, old friend.

         But that is exactly what had happened; and so now he feels dirty for the first time, while strolling with his hands in his pockets over the broken railroad tracks and toward the ticket booth. He does not lay the blame on the pot. He is of a mind still that it is a relatively small vice in the grand scheme of things. He does not imagine that there is anything wrong with talking up a bum, either, no matter the off color nature of much of what is said. No, what is dirty is not the actual infraction, but the almost childlike sense that indeed there would be no real consequence to his decisions. What is dirty is the sheer extent to which he had accepted the juvenile mindset that says that a life may be lived harmlessly no matter the paths travelled or avoided. Taking a furlough from ones cell may be a necessary evil, but that does not make it any less evil; and to pretend that it is otherwise is the highest form of willful ignorance, if not moral degeneracy.

         Or so Billy Ray thinks on this dark and quiet night, as he steps across the rickety porch and saddles up to the ticket booth. God, with all his vitriolic self-condemnation, he wonders if he is about ‘to find Jesus,’ not the affable fellow befriended in the Mainline Protestant Denominations, but rather the pissed drill instructor feared in the ‘old time religion.’ Frankly, he had never had much use for religion before; but now, as he wallows in his emotional dirt, he thinks that he could use a heavy dose of traditional Calvinism. 

         He had cried earlier for the loss of his son’s innocence; but this moment, as the light bulb sways ever so feebly in a tepid breeze, and he leans the top of his body upon a ticket booth, he sheds a single tear for the loss of his own. The world will never be the same. Never again will he sit on the floor beside a nude friend and watch DVDs for hours on end. Never again will he toss back his shots of whiskey, smile at the lonesome doves, and imagine life is just one big ‘dance and fuck’ party. Never again will he be his son’s friend as much, if not more so, than his father. He did not pick up his manuscript and run away from the rat as fast as he should have. He did not get away; and as a result, the rat gnawed off his clothes, and exposed him to the world, and to himself, as no more than just another dirty man. Yes, just another dirty man with no discipline, no backbone when the going gets tough, nothing finally in his mind nor in his heart on which his best friend, or even his own flesh and blood, can rely when that same filthy rat breaks through that glass window and comes for them in the dead of night…

         Billy Ray forces himself to snap out of this stream of consciousness. After all, he had put on his clothes, and ventured out back, precisely to break out of his doldrums. Why can’t he just get high, maybe even high enough to enjoy one of his sophomoric comedies, and call it a day? Is there no bottom to the well of guilt into which he had fallen the moment he realized that he had been tricked (and had allowed himself to be tricked) into a fool’s errand? In a way, is not his self-pity as much a narcissistic self-indulgence as the childlike way that he had approached life before last night? 

         He peers over the edge of the ticket booth. There is a bum, scraggly, old beard and all, but he is already fast asleep on the floor. He is nursing a leaking bottle of whiskey by his left nipple. Judging by the blood trickling out from the back of his head, he passed out suddenly and hit the floor hard, thus explaining why he did not bother to turn out the light bulb before dipping into La-La Land.

         He should call the paramedics. The blood may coagulate before the bum loses too much of it, but then again it may not. It is hard to tell, because so far as Billy Ray knows bums always sleep perilously close to the edge what with the bruises spreading all over their bodies and the alcohol ravaging their livers. It is best to err on the side of caution and to call in the First Responders. 

         Except that that would mean another long night inside that interrogation room with Detective Ringwood and his toady. How is it that Billy Ray happened to come across this bum out back? Is it not much too coincidental that Billy Ray is at the center of two bloodstained scenes back to back? And is it not peculiar that on both nights there is a person dead or dying with a wound to the back of their heads? Is it not time to come clean, one nut? Have we not all had enough?

         I don’t know if we all have had enough, but I sure have, Billy Ray thinks.

         And on that note, Billy Ray turns from the ticket booth, stuffs his hands into his pockets, and retreats back to his apartment. He tells himself that he is not going to call for the paramedics. He is going to strip down to his underwear and collapse on his bloodstained mattress, before his conscience can make him do what is contrary to his self-interest.

*   *   *

         His conscience wins out, goddamn it. Billy Ray no sooner leans back upon his pillow than he sits upright, beats his right fist into his left hand, and runs to the cordless phone sitting in its charger in the kitchen. 

         The paramedics arrive about ten minutes later. He lifts his blinds enough to peek out his window. He still cannot get over how fast the building’s janitor had replaced the shattered window. It is as if the old man had been frightened that Mrs. McNutt would stab him with her walker, if he did not do his duty toot sweet. Still, with the ambulance lights flashing repeatedly beneath his window, and with the paramedics and the cops jiggling their flashlights closer to the old ticket booth, it is as if the shattered window had not been replaced at all. Yes, his blinds are drawn, leaving only a slit through which he can observe the scene down below, but he feels totally exposed. He imagines that the paramedics and the cops are glancing up at him, even while ostensibly caring for the dirty bum.

         Sure enough, within about ten minutes, there is a knock at his door. The 911 operator had traced the call to his phone. The young cop with the crew cut and the balloon biceps wants to know what had happened. He makes it clear he wants the kind of short and direct answers that can be written out in shorthand and can save him from adding a second page to his police report. Elaboration is the only real criminal here, as long, meandering answers mean that that young cop with the crew cut and the balloon biceps has to stay passed his shift to put the finished report in the hopper. Billy Ray is happy to comply, since of course he wants to have as little interaction with the police as possible tonight, or any other night, thank you very much. 

         The only sticky point is when Billy Ray has to explain why he went out to the ticket booth in the first place. He decides to tell him the truth. He thinks a lie is as bad as speculation when talking to them; and though the cop gives him a dirty look when he says that he had gone out to buy marijuana, the cop does nothing else with that information but to write it down. 

         The cop leaves, and Billy Ray hopes that the incident has come to an end as far as he is concerned. He observes the ambulance drive off. It does not turn on its siren, and so Billy Ray presumes that the bum is not on death’s door after all. All’s well that ends well, Billy Ray thinks, as he returns finally to his pillow.

         Then, there is another knock on his door. This one is more belligerent in tone, and Billy Ray immediately knows that he is in trouble. 

         He answers the door. That young cop with the crew cut and the balloon biceps sneers, when he sees that Billy Ray is clothed in nothing at all, but filthy underwear. It is a look of disgust, but is it also the look a man has the moment before he gets a boner inside his tight, leather pants? Billy Ray has encountered that look many times before tonight, and so he answers his own question in the affirmative. He feels way more uncomfortable now than he ever did during the interrogation earlier. He imagines rat’s whiskers growing upon the cop’s boyish, white face, and it takes every bit of effort not to slam the door in that rat face and to run back to his mattress. 

         You’re coming downtown, the cop says. We’ve got some more questions.

         The cop does not handcuff him, nor does he read him his Miranda Rights. Thus, Billy Ray knows that he can tell him to fuck off; and he comes close then to doing just that. Nevertheless, he figures that it is not in his interest to swing a bat into the hornet’s nest, no matter what his rights may be. He dresses into a T-shirt and a pair of jeans, and then he follows the cop to a patrol car parked in front of the apartment building. He does not say a word, while the cop takes him downtown, though now and then he sees the cop’s sneer reflected back to him in the rearview mirror. He tries to avoid that queer look, but cannot do so.

*   *   *

         The first ten minutes of the interrogation goes as expected. The deputy, Hooper or Hopper, sits across from Billy Ray. He shoves a lukewarm Pepsi in his direction. Billy Ray imagines a bored worker bee at a zoo shoving a can of food through a slit in order to make sure that the trapped animal receives his legally mandated daily caloric intake. 

         Detective Ringwood leans against the wall. He grips his cup of hot coffee in one hand. He slams the padded wall behind him to punctuate his words with the open palm of the other. He looks tired and overburdened, but more so he is angry. He cannot believe that the slovenly asshole in front of him is not yet in a cell waiting for his arraignment. He wants to get that pussy actor; and because his wife is a real bitch when he gets home late, he wants to get him before the midnight chimes. ‘Snuggle Time’ with his wife is bullshit, but hearing her yap in his good ear like a goddamned yenta (She must have some Jew in her blood, he thinks) is way worse. 

         Detective Ringwood goes over the facts about the bum. He speaks to him in a bored, perfunctory tone. After all, the bum is far from dead, and Detective Ringwood works homicide. The real purpose is to put the pussy actor on edge a bit, so that he is less able to deflect the questions that he will shoot at him in a few minutes. So while bored and perfunctory in his tone, Ringwood is indeed as accusatory in what he actually says, as the facts will allow.

         The gist of his accusation is what Billy Ray had expected: Really, is it not much too coincidental that Billy Ray happens to be ‘the central figure’ within a bloodstained scene two nights in a row? How peculiar is it that in each instance the victim suffers from a blow to the back of the head? Doesn’t that sound like a modus operandi, or is the detective missing something here? Finally, is it not time to come clean, one nut? Are you not tired of your own dog and pony show?

         Billy Ray does not verbalize his denials, because he notes that Detective Ringwood seems to get even angrier when he whispers ‘no.’ Instead, he crosses his arms before his chest, and stares through the contemptuous deputy, who is sitting in front of him. It turns out not to be all that hard to stare through him, since he is hardly there in the first place.

         So you’re not talking, Ringwood barks after a while. 

         Billy Rat fidgets in his seat, but otherwise does not react. 

         Ringwood steps away from the wall. He hands the deputy his coffee, and he leans on the table. He has a sick look on his face that could be vicious anger or indigestion. Billy Ray thinks that it is a combination of the two.

         Am I to interpret in your silence an admission of guilt? Ringwood asks. Or are you tongue tied, because you think I’m too damned cute?

         What’s with all this faggot talk? Billy Ray thinks after recalling the sneer on the young cop’s face. Or is he just playing on the old stereotype about what actors do with one another backstage? 

         Speak up, goddamn it! Ringwood yells, as he pounds his fist on the table.

         No, Billy Ray whispers.

         No what? Ringwood asks.

         No, I don’t think you’re cute, Billy Ray responds.

         Ringwood stands up. He chuckles, and slaps his deputy on the back of his head. The deputy chuckles as well, though he seems to be a bit uncomfortable.

         One Nut doesn’t think I’m purty, Ringwood teases.

         Ringwood slides back his hair. It seems to be his subconscious reaction to the idea that, indeed, he is not all that purty anymore in his advanced age. His wife is to blame if that is true, he thinks. She’d turn George Clooney into a silly old coot with a dropped cock, if she gave him half the bullshit she dishes out to her own husband for this or that ‘slight.’ Goddamn, what a blabby yenta she is!

         You said I’m not cute, Ringwood continues in a more solemn voice. That is your prerogative, I suppose. But you didn’t say ‘no,’ when I asked you if your silence is an admission of guilt. 

         No, Billy Ray sighs. My silence is not an admission of guilt.

         That is what you say now, after you’ve had a chance to realize just how much you fucked up royally, Ringwood remarks. What matters is what you said at first. You are one guilty son of a bitch, aren’t you? Hell, it is written all over your face. You’ve already admitted that you wanted to break the law…

         What? Billy Ray mutters as if coming out of a fog.

         Can’t remember? Ringwood asks. I hear that’s a problem all you fucking queers have. AIDS zaps the short-term memory about the same time it puts big, red splotches all over your skin. Shrinks the brain and the cock…

         Ringwood lets that image linger without finishing the sentence. He then taps his deputy, and points toward the door.

         Get Officer Steuben’s police report, will ya? Ringwood says. And a cup of coffee while you are at it. This one here is pretty much lukewarm old man piss.

         Ringwood says ‘lukewarm old man piss’ slowly and emphatically, like the phrase is a keen insight on his part that should be remembered by the ages. His focus on ‘old man piss’ also implies that he is not yet over just how ugly he has become in his old age. That fucking pussy actor never would have called him an ugly toad, if he had been five years younger, happy, and single, that’s for sure.

         Ringwood stands tall, crosses his arms, and stares at the fly in his web. It is his favorite pose, because he knows the fly can do nothing in response but to squirm deeper into his trap.

         Billy Ray looks down at his folded hands. He feels naked, like the pervert detective has undressed him with his eyes and is now lusting over every pore on his body. He had never thought that any man could be so intimidating with just his eyes. Back at ‘Dream Boys,’ he always had danced with his back to the man in chains, thus seeing his face only as reflected in a mirror; but now, as the two of them are waiting for the deputy to return with the police report and a fresh cup of coffee, he wonders if he would have been just as intimidated, if instead he had faced those perverts and had seen up close the queer look in their eyes.

         It seems to take forever, but eventually the deputy returns. He hands his boss the police report and a hot cup of coffee. He takes his seat, and offers the fly in the web nothing at all, but his bored and contemptuous grin. He has been anointed the ‘good cop’ in this nasty, little affair; and yet right now he appears too tired of this old gig to do anything more than to fold his hands and to smile.

         ‘Witness Billy Ray Blaise claims he went outside to purchase marijuana,’ Ringwood reads from the police report. ‘When asked if he understood that the purchase of marijuana is a crime under state and federal law, he nodded in the affirmative.’

         Billy Ray is certain the cop never asked him that question. The cop gave Billy Ray a dirty look, when Billy Ray acknowledged going outside to buy pot off of the bum. That was all. Could it be that one of Beverly’s finest lied in his own police report? Hard to imagine, Billy Ray thinks in jest; but far be it from me to try to contest it with this crusty, old detective. Billy Ray thinks he’d have been better off as a Negro trying to get an ounce of justice from Bull Connor. 

         Do you deny what you said here? Ringwood asks.

         No, Billy Ray says.

         So then you wanted to break the law, Ringwood screams, while he tosses the pages of the police report into Billy Ray’s face. 

         There is an uneasy pause. Detective Ringwood slurps his coffee. His brew must be good enough for him now, for he winks at his deputy as if to tell him in no uncertain terms, ‘you did good, boy.’ He then strolls over to the side of the table, hands his deputy what is left of his coffee, and leans forward. He is now inches away from Billy Ray’s sullen face. Billy Ray smells tobacco on his breath.

         Let’s stop with the bullshit, shall we? Ringwood snarls.

         Billy Ray says nothing, but neither does he drop his eyes. He stares back at the old man with the same intensity. What is said between them is bellicose, short, and to the point; but what is intimated in how they stare at one another could speak volumes. There is a strange bond forming between them. One is in chains; one is dancing; but it is not clear yet which is which in this dark drama. Billy Ray fears the line between them may not be as defined as he had thought.

         I checked up on your alibi for last night, Ringwood continues. The drivers don’t remember seeing you entering or leaving. 

         The old man could be lying, Billy Ray thinks. Cops are permitted to lie to ‘a person of interest,’ even about the evidence they have found. For them, it is all a game. Keep the asshole on the edge, until finally he cracks and confesses. It does not really matter if the confession is true or not, because the guy in the hot seat is an asshole anyway. After all, only an asshole finds his way into a hot seat. Those good folks out there who pay their taxes on time, go to church, and vote Republican never see the inside of an interrogation room, now do they? No point in actually answering this question, since we all know the correct answer.

         Then again, maybe the bus drivers did not see him entering or leaving. In his experience, bus drivers always look like they are zoned out on Xanax. If the alibi cannot be corroborated, then he might be closer to a jail cell than he had surmised before agreeing to go downtown with Officer Steuben. 

         Billy Ray remains silent. Detective Ringwood steps back. He eyes Deputy Hooper or Hopper. The deputy understands that this is his cue to leave the two of them together alone in their little lust dungeon. 

         Once the deputy has left, Ringwood turns his back to Billy Ray. This does not make sense, since Billy Ray is not shackled. The very fact that this does not make sense actually heightens the tension more so than when Ringwood yells or slams his fist. Something is about to happen. Billy Ray practically feels numbers inside of an invisible digital timer counting backwards from ten to zero.

         Ringwood turns on his heels, and pounces on his ‘preferred suspect.’ In a second or two, he grabs a hold of Billy Ray’s collar and pushes him up against a wall. He juts his chin into Billy Ray’s mouth. For that reason, he actually speaks into Billy Ray’s nose, and looks down on Billy Ray’s forehead. Billy Ray in turn is not able to do much more than to quiver like loose pasta in that old man’s grip.

         Your alibi doesn’t check out, one nut, Ringwood barks.

         Billy Ray moans. Ringwood coughs out more of his rancid tobacco breath.

         You know why your alibi doesn’t check out? ‘Cause you did it. You killed your landlady. You tried to kill your whore. Who knows why? Perhaps, you came up short with them; short on the rent, and short in the sheets. Regardless, I am not going to stop until I see your ass fry black for what you did to those women.

         Billy Ray glances at the one-way window across the room. God, there has to be one sane cop on the other side who is going to put an end to this madness before it goes too far. 

         Ringwood sees his eyes move. He reads his mind.

         Nobody is watching us now, Ringwood gloats, while twisting the collar in his grip. And the deputy accidentally switched off the video recorder as soon as he left. ‘Plausible deniability’ is an art form in law enforcement. So you see, it is just you and me. 

         I didn’t do anything, Billy Ray mutters feebly.

         Ringwood drags him away from the wall, and drops him on his chair. Billy Ray is beyond flustered. He is not sure that he can suck another breath into his lungs. His fear, his anger, his confusion, everything about this ordeal combines to paralyze him. His head hangs very low, but otherwise he is not able to move.

         If you didn’t do anything, then why don’t you take a lie detector test? It is not admissible in a court of law, but it actually works wonders in the court of public opinion, Ringwood says, as the deputy slinks back into the padded room.

         Why not take a lie detector test? Billy Ray thinks, as he manages in time to break out from that paralysis. Because they will skew the test results against me, that’s why. Just use them to try to coerce a confession out of me. Besides, didn’t the old man turn me into a nervous wreck just now? Isn’t it obvious that he rattled my nerves to make sure that I failed the test? And if I refuse to take the test, then he has me on record (because, no doubt, the deputy switched on the video recorder before slinking back inside) looking like a fucking criminal in desperate need of an attorney. After all, the goon who refuses the lie detector test is like the goon who pleads the Fifth Amendment. In either case, the goon may as well walk down the street with ‘guilty’ scrawled in red around his neck.

         I’ve said enough, Billy Ray whispers, as he buries his head in his arms.

         What’d you say, one nut? Ringwood asks, though he heard him just fine.

         No more, Billy Ray whimpers through his arms. I want to go home.

         Ringwood steps back. He stares at his ‘preferred suspect’ a moment and then leaves the room. His deputy gathers up the police report, and follows him.

         Billy Ray cries a while longer. He lifts his head. He sees that he is alone, finally, and that the door remains slightly open. He can go back home. There is no doubt in his mind that a nightmare awaits him there. It will be the sick rat’s eyes staring through the blind slits at him, or perhaps the ghoulish bloodstain in the wall that he did not quite manage to scrub out, or perhaps the faint smells of sweat and blood still in his mattress. Regardless, the nightmare will be there in all its sordid glory; and it will play on his guilty conscience long after sunrise.

*   *   *

         Billy Ray opens the door to the Fed Ex office. The bell tinkles above him. It should be the kind of light ringing sound that suggests a quaint general store, or maybe a small town barber. Downtown retailers often go out of their way to evoke a misty eyed nostalgia for yesteryear in their exterior trappings: the bell above the front door, the happy, cardboard people in the display window, even the warm smile on the cashier’s pudgy face meant to suggest Norman Rockwell, or chestnuts roasting on an open fire, or whatever frankly will make a customer want to spend a few more dollars before slinking back out to a grey, indifferent city. Billy Ray should feel cozy in this clean, well-lighted place. He should smile just a bit when he hears how that bell tinkles above him, when he steps inside the establishment with his manuscript in one hand and his money in his pocket.

         The problem is that the bell sounds instead like the heavy, low gong that keeps the rhythm of a maudlin funeral procession. Moreover, the cashier is not a pudgy, old man with a warm smile, but a thin boy with a smirk. The boy is an obvious metal head (notwithstanding the Fed Ex uniform), who cannot stand his job. After all, how lame must it be to stuff, scan, stamp, and provide change to a bunch of old timers (most people over twenty-five, or over thirty if they have a menacing, metal head look in their eyes and the smell of pot on their breath) when he should be jamming with his fellow anarchists? 

         Billy Ray wants to leave almost as soon as he is in there. He glances back at the door as it snaps back into the frame. It sounds like the clang of a jail cell door locked for how long? Until he bends over, takes it like a man, and sings off key, that’s how long. He can get out of here, but not with his pride, maybe not even with his sanity, either. There is a price to be paid for freedom. Donna has paid her price. He must pay his price, too. The next guy who stumbles into this Fed Ex office will need to pay whatever price has been allocated to him. Life is a tough gig; and even when we have cried ‘Uncle,’ we still cannot be sure, well not completely sure anyway, that the package we have handed over will get to its designated destination. Nor can we be sure that the individual who gets it is going to give a damn enough even to open it, let alone to scan the text. What a high price to pay for no certainty, no absolutes, no court order that says that in fact the jail cell door will be opened again on a date certain.

         No wonder Billy Ray is sure that he made a mistake, but the door is shut. The pimply kid in the Fed Ex uniform is smirking at him, because he knows that the ‘old man’ with the manuscript in front of him this time cannot run away. In that moment, Billy Ray senses that the clean, well-lighted place is actually too bright. It is as if the light in an operating room; the sun that blinds a trembling, confused patient just before a pair of hands puts a gas mask over his face and a different pair of hands removes his clothes. He feels so exposed under that sun that he can hear the mantra echoing out from that boy’s pimply forehead: Take off your clothes. Take off your clothes. Fucking old man, take off your clothes…

         Billy Ray is so frightened he cannot imagine stepping any closer; and yet, as if pulled forward by a string, that is exactly what he does. He tucks his chin into his neck, and looks upward with the huge eyes of a little boy who has been caught with his hands in the cookie jar. He wants to cry out in intense fear, but his anxiety remains lodged in the back of his throat. The most he can do then is to place the manuscript upon the counter and to fumble pitifully for his money.

         He lifts his hand from his pocket. His money is so wet from his sick, cold sweat that he will need to peel several of the bills apart. He focuses on how to do just that, perhaps so as to avoid thinking about the smirking boy only inches away from him. Think about anything else hard enough, and perhaps he will be able to block out the boy’s strange mantra.

         Fucking old man, take off your clothes, the rat squeals again in his head.

         Rat? Billy Ray thinks. Why does the boy squeal like a rat in my head? 

         Billy Ray finally manages to shriek, as a rat’s claw pounces upon his hand and squeezes his wrist. It is the hand with which he has pulled out the cash. His fingers open, and the money falls on top of his manuscript. 

         The boy squeals, like he has been caught up in the thrill of a rat orgasm. It sounds like a rusted door hinge opening and closing fast in a windstorm most of the time. Then, when it reaches its crescendo, it sounds like fingernails on a chalkboard. The wall paint peels off in reaction to this horrid sound, or so Billy Ray imagines when he winces in pain and his knees buckle.

         Billy Ray tries to look away, while the rat’s claw squeezes harder. He has a vague sensation of warm blood pumping out from a torn vein in his wrist; but, for the most part, his delirium saves him from experiencing any one, particular sensation. There is just intense, inchoate fear beneath the light of an operating room, the cold fear when he hears the gas hissing into his mask. This time, that gas is going to put him out for good, and he will be a naked corpse on the slab…

         Billy Ray breaks out of that delirium just enough to turn towards that rat face on the other side of the counter. Or perhaps he is being forced to do so by the same string that had pulled him up here. Free will and fate seem much the same when this up close and personal to the soul eating rat. 

         And ‘soul’ is the operative word here, is it not? For this rat does not eat flesh. It leaves that task to the beasts that crawl in and out of the sewer pipes. Instead, it goes for the soul; first in the blood pumped out of a torn vein; then, when madness breaks the victim’s resolve, in what is left of his tortured mind…

         Again, Billy Ray struggles to break free from his dark insights. Who cares if it is eating his flesh, his soul, or his sanity? What matters is that this moment the rat is calling the shots. It had sounded the funeral gong. It had bolted shut the front door. It had turned up the lights. It had grabbed his hand. Now, it has him where it wants; and something, perhaps the rat itself, perhaps some strong force inside Billy Ray that the excited rat cannot yet control, whatever it is this something wants Billy Ray to observe that rat’s slimy and furry façade head on.

         And so that is what Billy Ray does. He looks up, and shrieks even louder than when the rat’s claw had grabbed him.

         There is no rat standing where the boy had been. Instead, there is a tall, glass window veiled by blinds. It is dark on the other side of the window. There is a man staring through a slit in the blinds. Apparently, he had climbed up the fire escape; and though Billy Ray cannot see it, he is certain that the man has a rock in his right hand. The man is going to throw that rock any second now. The man is going to shatter the glass, and then he is going to take from Billy Ray all that he holds most dear. The man is going to take it all, and shred it into pulp…

         Unless I get him first, Billy Ray mutters, thus erasing at once the creepy, paralyzing image in his mind. 

         Billy Ray blinks a few times. He then sees that he is standing before that pimply boy in the Fed Ex uniform. The boy is not smirking. He just looks bored, probably lost in a metal head daydream. 

         Billy Ray looks back. He half expects a long line behind him, but there is no one there. Moreover, the front door is open. It is swinging in a slight breeze. It seems to be waving him over. Time to go now, the door seems to state with a voice that sounds as if rusted hinges opening and closing. Time to do your duty.

         Because if you don’t, Billy Ray thinks, the next time you’ll be trapped in this place forever, exposed under the lights, clothes burned off by the brilliant rays of the sun; the same terrible rays now bleeding through your shut eyelids…

         Billy Ray sits up in his bed. He has a roaring headache, but before he can drag his sorry ass into the kitchen to fetch a Tylenol he needs to make a detour into the bathroom. He pees for what seems like hours. He must have opened up the old war chest and downed a dozen beers, or at least that is how he feels as he stares blankly at the yellow clouds his pee creates inside of the toilet water.

         He doubles his Tylenol dosage. He sees that the answering machine light is blinking; and against his better judgment, he listens to the message. It is the requisite courtesy call from the dyke attorney informing him of that emergency court hearing that is scheduled to happen later this morning. If Billy Ray wants to argue his side before the good judge, then he must show up at Courtroom 9A no later than 10:00AM. You are advised to wear a jacket, a tie, and a splash of cologne, since this is a court of law and not a whorehouse, the dyke concludes with a gravelly chuckle. 

         Billy Ray erases that message. He does not want to hear her shit again by mistake. Life is hard enough as it is without hearing her bitchy smoker’s cackle.

         He returns to his mattress. He cannot fall asleep again, and frankly does not want to do so. Instead, he wants to think about what he must do in as calm and clearheaded a manner as possible. 

         There is no question what he must do. He must confront David Trent. He knows that the police will never investigate Jim Trent’s brother. He also knows that as long as David feels that he is untouchable, Donna’s life is in danger. The psychopath probably knows that Donna survived. He probably also knows where exactly she is. It is not likely the Beverly Times withheld such information from its article, since when did those smut writers care about protecting the identity and the whereabouts of a woman whose life is in danger? If the would be killer is able to get her good the second time, then that is an even bigger front page, is it not? Billy Ray thinks it is, and so he is certain that David already is planning his next attack. This time, it will be more clandestine. There will be no broken glass, no unanticipated struggle with an old lady wielding a walker. He will be a shadow in the hospital ward, until the nurse looks the other way. Then, he will slide into Donna’s hospital room, and finish what he started in Billy Ray’s small apartment. He will slip out as quietly as he came, though no doubt he will have a hard one in his trousers simply from knowing that he finally snuffed the bitch.

         Unless I get him first, Billy Ray mutters. 

         How is he going to find the son of a bitch? It is not as if David left one of his calling cards at the scene. 

         I’ll need to spend a few hours at the club, Billy Ray mutters. 

         Of course, ‘the club’ is the public library. He keeps his library card in an old, ceramic bowl full of useless keys, phone numbers written hastily on scraps of paper (mostly babes he had never called after the hangover because by then he had forgotten all about them), and purchase receipts for various goods long since passed the date at which he could return them. That old, ceramic bowl is the quintessential bachelor’s version of ‘organization.’ It had not been knocked over during the attack, though, and so he knows right where the library card is.

         The more interesting question is what is he going to do when he actually confronts the son of a bitch? In his dream, he understands that he needs to kill him; but now, in the light of day, he is not so sure he can do that. He hates him with a passion he had never experienced before. It is almost a lustful desire to put that sick fuck down. Nevertheless, hating a man is not the same as putting a knife into his body, stepping back, and watching the blood squirt out in every direction. He may want to do it, but does he actually have a killer’s tenacity to go through with it at the last moment? Can he actually thrust the blade forward when he knows that a second later he will feel the warm blood flowing over his hand and down to his shoes? Can he unleash himself enough to feel in his chest the quickened heartbeat of a predator beast? Can he release every last vestige of his humanity, so that he lets his instinct supplant his rational mind, his crazy squeals replace his voice, his ratty fur sprout out from beneath his human skin?

         Moreover, what will he be afterwards? He laments how he can never see the world again through the eyes of an adolescent, not after standing upright in all that blood and broken glass, while holding Donna’s left hand. Nevertheless, it is one thing to grow up fast as a result of a crime scene; it is quite another to roam the city streets after dark with the knowledge that you are a murderer, a hero in the eyes of some, perhaps, but also a damned soul. Oh, what torture it would be to know firsthand that the good also go to a hell of their own making, when they cannot let go what they have done. 

         So why confront the son of a bitch, if Billy Ray is not sure he can kill him in the end? After all, it is not as if they are going to get together to play a hard game of Scrabble. If and when they view one another face to face, one of them will die. That is the unavoidable reality of the situation. If so, and if Billy Ray is not so sure he can kill him, then why start down this sad path in the first place?

         Because I have no choice, Billy Ray replies to himself. No fucking choice.

*   *   *

         Billy Ray steps off the city bus. It is two days since he made the decision to go after the son of a bitch who injured his friend and fucked his own life. He had not entertained any other course of action since that time, but neither had he had the mental wherewithal to step out of his apartment. The sun had been too bright during half of those forty-eight hours, too much like the buzzing light above an operating room slab just seconds before hands in surgical gloves start to poke and to prod. The night sky had been too black the other half, as clouds veiled the moon like blinds pulled completely shut before a window. Too hot or too cold, too bright or too black, his mind had swayed all those hours from high anxiety to blind detachment. Either he saw too much, or he saw nothing at all; and as a result, he felt as if rusted chains had been wrapped tightly about him and then locked to the legs of his bed for his own safety. A man’s home indeed is his padded cell, he had thought once. He may behold his things as a king on a throne beholds his supplicants, but that does not dissipate the sick blood smell, nor wipe away the bloodstain ghouls that he can see still on his walls. 

         Then, for no reason that he can fathom, his chains had been unlocked as the morning sun first bled through his blinds. He practically heard four, distinct clicking sounds, as the chains snapped free from each of the four legs. It took a while for him to feel liberated enough to sit up in his bed. He had to fend off a dark, sinister voice that told him that the chains would snap back on if he tried to get up. He also had to shed the last of his tears. 

         Who knows how long it would have taken him finally to silence the voice or to shed the rest of his tears, if he had not been forced off his mattress by an abrupt knock on his door? Billy Ray had stumbled over to the door, saw through the peephole the kind, old face of Mrs. Beverly Soames from down the hall, and exchanged pleasantries with her. After inquiring about his health and wellness, Mrs. Beverly Soames had told him that Mrs. McNutt had named her the executor of her Last Will and Testament. Pending probate, she would collect the rent at the first of the month and respond to any maintenance or security issues. Billy Ray had thanked her for the heads up. In his mind, he also had thanked her for treating him like everyone else. Mrs. Beverly Soames may or may not have had her suspicions, but until the police put handcuffs on his wrists she would regard him like all the other tenants.

         Mrs. Beverly Soames hobbled down the hall with her cane when finished. After a few slow steps, she turned to wish him a ‘goody day.’ Billy Ray had not smiled the whole time they spoke, but this time he had managed a halfhearted grin and a wave. By the time he had shut the door on her, he had silenced that voice in his head, and had shed the last of his tears. 

         Billy Ray had eyed the mattress, but then had knelt down to retrieve his topcoat, shirt, and jeans from a pile. He had tied his shoes, and had grabbed a hold of his library card, before he could entertain any second thoughts.

         Now, he has stepped off the city bus. He feels a cold snake slither down his spine. Is that an undercover cop in an unmarked car across the street? Could be nothing, but then again how often does he lock eyes with a silver haired guy in a cheap, ill fitting, Joseph A. Banks jacket wiping Krispy Kreme sprinkles off of his lips? Not very often, but much rarer still is to hear in passing the muffled words of a female dispatch officer coming out from the same unmarked car. He has a fan alright, but his fan also happens to carry in his breast pocket a badge with a serial number issued by the City of Beverly P.D.

         Billy Ray looks down, but otherwise he tries to stroll away from the curb as casually as he can. Did he truly hear the muffled words of a female dispatch officer coming out from that unmarked car? Perhaps, but if so then his ears are much stronger than they have been in years. The unmarked car is halfway down the block. Cars are flying by at breakneck speeds. People are breakfasting, and talking loud enough to be heard over the cars, in an alfresco restaurant behind him. There is so much distraction, and yet he actually hears a female dispatch officer speaking over a radio several parked cars away? 

         Perhaps, that is not an undercover cop, but rather an undercover private investigator. No doubt, Stacey got full custody without visitation; and yet she is quite aware that that will end the moment the police declare officially that he is no longer ‘a person of interest’ (‘a person of interest’ my ass, because we all know that ‘a person of interest’ is really a ‘suspect’ about which the cops have not yet accumulated enough evidence to put in the pokey). Better to find more dirt now, while Billy Ray remains under a cloud of suspicion. Whatever sticks on the wall may be all that is needed to make sure that Billy Ray never again gets a moment alone with his own son.

         Billy Ray continues to walk across the street. Does he wants the guy with the donut sprinkles on his lips to view where he is headed? No, he does not, but neither does he want to delay what he has to do. Every hour that he had spent on his mattress, staring up at his ceiling, shedding swollen tears down the sides of his face, David Trent had been able to perfect his next plan of attack. 

         After all, David has shown himself to be a careful man. He had waited in the shadows until someone,perhaps David himself, or perhaps a co-conspirator better able to impersonate a theater producer new to town, had lured Billy Ray into the fool’s errand. He had considered the best way to get inside, and to do his deed, without being seen beforehand. He had been very quick, when finally he had acted; and, in the case of Mrs. McNutt anyway, he had been deadly.

         For all Billy Ray knows, David already may be roaming the intensive care ward, disguised in the dress of an orderly ‘reassigned from the sister hospital in Redwood,’ and checking out which nurses are more observant than others. Yes, he is taking the time to plan out every detail; but at the same time, he realizes that he needs to act sooner rather than later. It is only a matter of time before the suspicious head nurse calls the sister hospital to verify his work credentials.

         So Billy Ray has no time to lose. If the Krispy Kreme devotee knows he is heading into the public library, then so be it. 

         Billy Ray passes through the metal detector. The librarian had to install one a few years ago, when the ‘children’s reading room’ had been overrun by a gang of toughs from the elementary school nearby sporting knives and knuckles in their backpacks. Billy Ray understands the necessity, of course; but he hates how he has to remove the clutter in his topcoat pockets every time he snaps up his card and enters into ‘the club.’ Just one more indication the happy go lucky world of Porky’s and Caddyshack has been lost in the plodding steps of time. In the back of his mind, as he removes the junk in his pockets, he can understand almost why certain people are Luddites. 

         Today is not the day to become a Luddite, though. Billy Ray will need to use the Internet, if he desires to get any information about that shadowy figure hiding behind the window blinds in his nightmares. 

         He saddles up to the only personal computer not in use. The Internet has been castrated in the public library, so as to prevent kiddies and perverts from going to porn sites on the public dime. Most of the ‘people search’ websites are blocked as well. Presumably, the firewall thinks that any website that includes a link for making online credit card payments is a ‘porn site.’ For most persons in Billy Ray’s shoes, that would be a real pisser. Nonetheless, Billy Ray does not have a credit card. It is a quirky badge of honor in his psyche that he refuses to carry any plastic in his thin, leather wallet. So he does not care about all those ‘people search’ websites that have been blocked. Instead, he goes to a website called ‘Find Your Old Boyfriend,’ and he sets up a profile there under a female pseudonym, ‘Ophelia Phoebe Mulgrew.’ The first and middle names refer to his favorite characters in literature. The last name refers to the lead in Star Trek: Voyager, a television show that he still believes did not get the critical acclaim that it deserved. As for the website, it is free because of the abundance of odd and strangely unsettling ads ranging from penis enlargement pills (the boys who run ‘Find Your Old Boyfriend’ must have deduced that the clientele includes an enormous number of gay men and obese perverts) to bondage kits (more likely, an appeal to the type of women who check out this website). Billy Ray is not so sure why these ads do not throw the website into the ‘porn category,’ but he is not inclined to bring this matter to the attention of the librarian. He is actually more prudish than his ‘Restless Wrangler’ alter ego would suggest, but he is far from being a card carrying member of the American Family Association.

         Under the guise of ‘Ophelia Phoebe Mulgrew’ he provides the website as much information as he knows about David Trent. He actually knows quite a bit more than he has supposed at first, based on the times he had heard his friend, Donna, talk about her ex-husband. He expects the website to spit back David’s last known address, phone number, blood type, and sexual quirks. 

         He gets nothing of the sort. Apparently, David Trent’s public records are blocked. This is done normally to erase from the record those persons who have been put into the Witness Protection Program. Since when are crooks given the same blank slate? Or is David Trent special in this regard?

         Billy Ray searches for another man whom he knows to have an extensive criminal record. So far as Billy Ray knows, the crook’s name is ‘Blade McGraw.’ He is a shadowy friend of the man who owns ‘Dream Boys,’ and hangs out many late nights with the bookies and the male prostitutes who pursue their trade at ‘Dream Boys’ after the exotic dancers have punched their cards. No doubt, this ‘Blade McGraw’ has a real name; and based on his thick accent, it is probably a traditional Scottish name printed on a birth certificate back in the old country. No matter, the alias is good enough for the search engine; and the website very soon spits out his last known address and cellular phone number. The website is silent about his blood type, but Billy Ray guesses that it is Mortlach Single Malt.

         So he can lift the veil on other crooks, but not on David Trent. Now, that is fucking peculiar. Then again, maybe it is not so peculiar at all. How difficult would it be for one of Beverly’s finest to place a call to the Justice Department stooge that wipes slates clean for a living? Sure, the cop may need to offer that stooge a little grease to get the wheels turning; and the cop may not feel good about himself after hanging up that phone; but if indeed he is willing to take a bullet for Jim Trent, then he is willing to bend the rules (okay, break them into small pieces and stomp on them) for Jim Trent’s brother. 

         Billy Ray logs off. He surrenders the P.C. to the cute woman behind him.

         He wanders into the older wing of the public library. This area had been set aside years ago for highly technical books that cannot be checked out, worn paperbacks (usually missing pages, or so yellowed with time as to be practically unreadable) that are for sale for nickels and dimes, and bulky, dusty microfiche projectors that have been largely replaced by the Internet. The room is darker, and much colder, than the rest of the public library. For that reason, there are seldom any kids in here; and a library assistant only makes a brief walk through every other hour. Most of the patrons are older, bespectacled men either doing title searches (the county land records office shares this space with the library) or researching newspaper articles for one reason or another. The overall feel of the place is subdued with just a touch of creepiness. 

         Billy Ray stops at a file cabinet. He removes several microfiche rolls, for he is not sure which issue of the Beverly Times had featured a front-page photo and story about David Trent. He nevertheless recalls that salacious crime story that had found its way into the tabloid: The Beverly P.D. had held David for the kidnapping and torture of an old streetwalker. He had tried to finish her off by adjusting the back of her head with a wrench. She had survived, but would stay mentally impaired for the rest of her life. He had offered up an alibi that could never pass ‘the laugh test,’ no matter the fact that the Beverly P.D. wanted to believe him. His beloved brother, Jim, eventually corroborated his alibi; and of course the case went ‘cold.’ In this news story, David is standing in front of his house, speaking before an impromptu press conference, and insisting upon ‘his share of slavery reparations, since the cops had treated him no better than one of those common coons.’ David is indignant, and the local press has a field day.

         Billy Ray sits at a microfiche projector. There is a fan blowing inside the machine. That means that the machine had overheated before, and so Billy Ray has to wait about five minutes before he can insert his first roll and turn on the lamp. The delay is fine for him, since he needs some time to assort his thoughts anyway. He is outwardly calm, but inside he remains as much a jumble of fired up nerves as when he had spotted that Krispy Kreme fan outside. 

         He observes a recent issue of the Beverly Times on another table. 

         ‘Blood Work at the McNutt Apartments,’ the headline screams. The huge photograph on the topside of the fold features Mrs. McNutt’s punctured corpse on a stretcher. The guys carrying her to the coroner’s truck are obese, sweaty, and glum. They look like they may be joining her inside that coroner’s truck at any moment. The crotchety, old coroner observes from afar. He looks strangely amused, and Billy Ray wonders if at one point he had had an unpleasant run-in with the testy slum lady. Regardless, her horrible end does not break his heart.

         Although repelled at first, Billy Ray decides to read the story. He figures it is better to know what the public knows. The reporter is a sleaze ball named ‘J. Cooper.’ Billy Ray has read the Beverly Times enough to know what actually gives this pseudonymous ‘J. Cooper’ a hard on; and so, true to form, the article is rich in gory detail about the scene and short on facts about the personalities involved. A casual reader might walk away from the tabloid thinking that there had been no crime at all, that the ladies had been struck down by nature, or by an Act of God, since the personalities themselves seem incidental to the event.

         ‘J. Cooper’ gives some column space to Mrs. McNutt, whose late husband had run the city, after all. He shrugs off Donna Goody as ‘a local whore.’ In the same vein, he shrugs off the tenant in whose apartment ‘the female blood had been shed’ as little more than ‘a derelict actor.’ Thankfully, ‘J. Cooper’ never reports Billy Ray’s work as a ‘dream boy.’ No doubt, if he had known, then the sleaze ball would have included that tidbit in his story for good measure, since the only thing better than a blood and guts story is a blood and guts story with a kinky sex angle. If that had happened, then Stacey would have had in tabloid print what she needs to ask the court to deny Billy Ray visitation rights with his son until sometime after the Second Coming. Billy Ray is certain that, if indeed that had happened, ‘J. Cooper’ would not have flinched, when told later of the unintended consequence of including the ‘dream boy’ factoid in his lurid piece.

         The article concludes on the second to the last page. Beneath the ‘blood work’ story is a regular feature entitled ‘Get the Axe.’ Billy Ray is familiar with it, because this is the column written each week by a pugnacious theater critic (actually, ‘critic of thespian arts’ is the writer’s preferred title), who offers the world his cantankerous dress downs under the pseudonym, ‘Whiskers.’ So far as Billy Ray knows, no one knows anything about ‘Whiskers,’ except that he never has a kind word for local theater, always prefers the British spelling of words in his column, and annoyingly ends his harshest insults with a ‘ta-ta,’ as in ‘really, folks, there is nothing more to be said about so-and-so, so I shall bid him ta-ta, and go on to my next victim.’ Nobody professes to like him, and yet every actor and director in the city reads him with an almost religious devotion. Billy Ray is not sure why, since ‘Whiskers’ never provides any particular insight about plays or individual performances that the actors and directors do not already realize. Perhaps, they want the schadenfreude the critic offers when he puts down one of their own. Regardless, reading ‘Whiskers’ feels like slinking into a tiny closet with a flashlight to ogle over a porn mag. It is thrilling, but dirty, and even the very casual reader leaves the column sensing that he has to take a cold shower.

         The fan switches off. Billy Ray inserts his first microfiche roll (not simple to do because many of the frames are creased), and switches on the lamp. Like every microfiche user, he starts off with the certainty in his mind that the task ahead of him will be dull and long, each second seemingly stretched out to the length of a minute or two, the eyes glazing from the endless progression of old newspaper columns and advertisements, until finally he stumbles upon what he wants to find. The only thing that keeps him on his toes is the fear that there is a Krispy Kreme muncher outside waiting for when he leaves. Or perhaps he is in here now, hiding behind the machines, squinting his eyes from afar to read the text on his microfiche projector screen. 

         Several times, Billy Ray looks back to see if there is a man lurking in the shadows. He never catches any stalkers, but that does not put his mind at ease.

         And why is it that he cannot put his mind at ease? Because the longer he sits in front of the microfiche projector, flipping from page to page, every now and then glancing behind the shoulder, the more he senses that there is a bit of a stalker in every person who happens to look his way. After all, why glance his way? Is there something particularly interesting about his use of the microfiche projector? Well, actually, what he is doing now is very interesting for a Beverly cop who wants to put him away, or for a private investigator who wants to get paid a huge bonus for snapping the photograph or writing down the observation that snatches Gary away from Billy Ray forever. 

         For that matter, what does an undercover cop or gumshoe look like? The popular image harkens back to film noir; but, really, should we expect that the man who watches us from a close distance looks and dresses like Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon? Maybe, he is a middle aged, fat guy in glasses, who is only pretending to stare into a microfiche projector screen, when in fact he is really keeping a close tab on yours truly. Maybe, he is a she, like the mousey assistant librarian in the granny dress and Birkenstocks, who steps in and out of the dark and cold room every second hour. 

         Billy Ray is so nervous when finally he stumbles upon the front page that he almost screams out. He holds back his voice, but he cannot hold back all the sweat that streams down his face like water bursting through a dam. 

         Billy Ray presses his face against the glass, even though the heat and the light from the projector lamp burn. He thinks that by staying this close, and so covering the screen with his head, no one will be able to see what he has found on the front page of an old issue of the Beverly Times.

         The photograph is pretty much as he had remembered it. There is David Trent, a beefy dude with a pockmarked face, a head of greasy hair pulled back in a ponytail, an Atlanta Falcons T-shirt, and a pair of jeans that look like they had been dragged through a swamp. His eyes are so dark brown they are almost black dots; but even more unsettlingly, they look out from within his sockets as if eyes peeping through holes in a wall.

         Or a narrow slit in between two blinds…

         David does not look at the world around him. He stares at it like an ugly, vicious Peeping Tom. Here he is standing outside in the light of day, talking to a coterie of local reporters, flailing his arms to add emphasis to whatever point he is making the very moment a Beverly Times photographer snaps his camera; and yet the eyes tell a different story. In those eyes, he is fading in and out of the shadows, waiting patiently, calculating the ideal time to strike. Those eyes belong in the face of a predatory cat, a hissing beast that flares its teeth just a second before it pounces out from its hiding place. 

         What did Donna see in him? Billy Ray thinks.

         He puts an end to that thought at once. He is in no position to judge. He married Stacey Bloom, after all. While Stacey never laid a hand on him (in fact, she did on several occasions, but he had been too drunk to recall the next day, let alone to make sense of the black and blue on his face and arms), she fucked with his mind, and tried to strip him of the childlike, creative, slightly reckless soul that had made him attractive to her in the first place. 

         Billy Ray does not want to rehash his failed marriage, especially given his discomfort with the fact that, notwithstanding all the ways he puts her down in his mind and his words, he still loves her. Still, he must think about Stacey now if he is going to accept a broader truth: People make mistakes. People fall, and remain, in love with the wrong people. Maybe, the lights of love and of hatred, the thrill of orgasm and the rush of an assault, are so similar that we moths are not able to tell the difference. We fly toward the light, hoping for the first but all too often encountering the second. Maybe, because of the mistakes that we make, the wrongheaded decisions that felt so good at the time, we are doomed to fly into the trap that has been waiting for us all along. Like moths lured into the most brilliant light of all, only at the very end do we realize that indeed we had been driven from the start into that light that zaps us dead. Driven by dark eyes that stare out at us, first from behind shut blinds, then from everywhere…

         Okay, so maybe Billy Ray is about to step into a trap. Maybe, he is going to be zapped dead when he gets too close to that son of a bitch. Regardless, he made up his mind, and he is not going back to the mattress to shed more tears. He has to go forward, even though he does not have any idea what he will do if and when he comes face to face with this pockmarked boogeyman. If he fails to do so, then he cannot claim ever to have loved anyone; and for all his childlike selfishness that is an emptiness that he simply cannot bear to have in his heart.

         Billy Ray focuses in on that house behind David Trent. It is a nondescript tract home painted yellow with white trim. Frankly, it does not look like a spot where a greasy woman beater would hang his bloodstained wrench. More likely, the Little Old Lady from Pasadena would live there with her fifteen cats and an ancient Zenith with rabbit ears. Perhaps, Jim got it for him, so that his brother might be a bit more respectable in society. Jim will keep bailing him out, to be sure; but even he must be tired of his brother’s penchant for crime and overall antisocial appearance and demeanor. The shtick gets old after a while even for the number one fan; and in Billy Ray’s view at least the house suggests a veiled director (probably Jim, perhaps someone else) changing the backdrop in order to put a brand new gloss on an old performance.

         The background image is very fuzzy, but Billy Ray is able to make out an address: 12501. Billy Ray’s observation over the years is that the vast majority of streets in the City of Beverly have only three digit addresses. He will ask the research librarian to help him find out which city streets have four or five digit addresses. He cannot trust her any more than the others. She has been kind to him in the past, but now everyone is a stalker. Paranoid, perhaps, but sensible given what has happened the past several days. Still, while he cannot trust her, he has no choice but to ask her just now to help him find the answers he needs.

         Time is short. God alone knows how long before that beast strikes again.

*   *   *

         The research librarian is a mousey, old maid hidden behind a pair of owl glasses, a furry scarf wrapped tightly around her neck, and a knitted, formless, red sweater. Her name is Claire Bruner. Because of the enormous, furry, musty ensemble that she has worn everyday for untold years, regardless of the season outside, generations of schoolchildren have called her ‘Claire the Bear,’ usually behind her back, but sometimes, cruelly, right to her cheeky face. She acts like she does not notice; and, perhaps, as the decades have caught up with her, she no longer does. In Billy Ray’s eyes, Claire looks no different than when he first had reached up to the research librarian’s counter and asked for help in finding a book. He had been in the third grade then. She had been just as ancient then as she is now. Billy Ray suspects she had been born with a pair of owl glasses on her mousey nose and a furry scarf around her neck. Nevertheless, while she has not changed much on the outside, her speech has slowed; and, whenever asked a question, her first reaction is considerably addled, as if she has been forcibly awakened from a deep sleep. 

         Still, when Claire sets her mind upon a research question, she appears at once to jettison all of that old lady slowness. Billy Ray imagines a stripper, who is dressed like a fat bear, and who has convinced the crowd that she is no more than a beast about to sink into its last long hibernation. There is a brief twinkle in the stripper’s eyes, and then the bear fur falls away to reveal the soft curves and the pure skin of an unblemished beauty. Hers is the beauty of a strong and resourceful mind zeroing in on a question in need of an answer. Hers is also the beauty of an ageless woman whose kindness and empathy so clearly reflect her wisdom. Perhaps, what seems like dementia, when she is not tasked with some sort of research question, is not in fact an addled slowness, so much as a quiet, unassuming insight on what really warrants taxing her mind in her winter years.

         Billy Ray walks up to her counter. He is as frightened as he had been the time he first had walked up to her station and stared into her owl eyes, and for much the same reason. Back then, much of the world outside the walls of home had been so new to him still that he felt as an astronaut abandoned on a rocky, unexplored planet. On paper, the planet is lifeless, and thus harmless; but with his imagination stepping away from his limited knowledge of this new world, he senses aliens hiding in the shadows cast by the desert rocks; aliens with the red eyes of ravenous rats, and the kind of whiskers that are as slimy as they are hot to the touch. Billy Ray almost had screamed when he first saw the mousey face of the research librarian looking down on him.

         Today, he is a man surrounded by enemies, set adrift in a hostile land of stalkers; and this dark land is as foreign to him, as this public library had been to a third grader wearing a Popeye shirt, jeans, and sandals. What is this world, where he cannot even trust ‘Claire the Bear’ in this time of need? Can that lost astronaut actually accomplish what he has set out to do, when aliens are ready to pounce out from every corner, and the air in his tank is as filthy as it is thin? If he cannot answer that question in the affirmative, then why is he setting out now to find the man, who stripped him bare and nearly took the life of his best friend? Is this a kind of self-indulgent suicide? If so, then what does this fact say about himself, given that he is the only man who possibly can save his son from his manipulative grandfather and cold mother, not to mention those Jesuits? He has every reason to be frightened, not just of the stalkers, but of the darkness, the suicidal self-indulgence, lurking somewhere in the shadow of his own heart.

         Billy Ray almost turns away from the counter. He actually looks over his shoulder to see if he can get to the front door before a stalker can force him to the floor. He then sees how Claire looks at him, and at once his fear falls away.

         Hello, Billy, Claire whispers, as she is ever mindful that a library must be as silent as it is well organized. 

         Billy Ray folds his hands penitentially on the counter. He could be a boy saying his First Confession, or a seasoned booze hound whispering his latest sins to the man with the bad body odor sitting on that stool beside him. Either way, he is happy to get the shit off his shoulders, even if that self-disclosure ends up stinking the library to high heaven and attracting the eyes of all those stalkers.

         Miss Bruner, I need your help, Billy Ray whispers.

         Claire’s eyes twinkle. She leans forward, and places her pudgy hands on his. So far as Billy Ray recalls, they have never touched one another in all those years that he has brought her research questions (usually quests to find arcane, but beautifully written, plays and film scripts). He is taken aback, but then he lets himself accept the obvious affection offered him in her touch. 

         I know you do, Billy, Claire responds. The grownup bullies can be just as hardhearted as they were on the playground. Come back with me. 

         Claire gestures toward her private office. Billy Ray has never been back there; and so far as he knows, no one else has, except for the big bear with the mousey face. He feels privileged, like a boy asked to step into the lair in order to confide face to face with that kind beast that is so misunderstood. 

         Misunderstood, and reviled, as he has been…

         Stripped bare by those unkind stares, as he has been…

         Billy Ray sits on an undersized chair appropriate to a child. He should be uncomfortable; and yet he feels more relaxed, and clearheaded, than any time since the rat man pounced through his window. 

         He looks around the office. It is a cramped hideaway with library posters from yesteryear. Most of them feature small boys and girls from the early 1960s staring into open books. One features an old lady in a rocking chair. She has set aside the knitting sticks, in order to read Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The caption reads: ‘Knitting Sticks may break my bones, but sexy books will never hurt me.’ There is a twinkle in the old lady’s eyes that calls to mind the stripper inside of Billy Ray’s imagination; and as a smile breaks across his face, he thinks that the hideaway is certain proof there is always a secret life just beneath the surface. 

         Claire sits across from him. She reaches under her desk, and retrieves an old bottle of gin. Without ever taking her eyes from his, she pours some of that gin into a plastic cup, and hands it to him. 

         She sniffs the open bottle, considers a moment, and then bottoms up all that is left in there. She slams the bottle down. Her eyes almost cross, and she has to grab the edge of her desk not to fall over. The gin slap passes, and she is able finally to sit back in her chair with a sleepy grin plastered on her face. For all that, the twinkle never leaves her eyes, as she waits for Billy Ray to sip a bit of gin and to loosen up.  

         Strangely, this does not break Billy Ray’s illusion that he is a child about to unload his fears on a responsible parental figure, even though on the surface the booze makes it very clear that he is not a boy, and she is not as responsible as she suggests before the public. So she too is an actor, Billy Ray thinks. I truly can trust her, for a clown on stage must be an honest person backstage and out of costume. She had used up all her antics to get a response from the audience out there; so then she has no choice but to be herself with all the other actors.

He hates himself for not having trusted her. That self-pity lasts about as long as it takes him to swallow a mouthful.

Feels warm in the tummy, Claire remarks. Doesn’t it, Billy?

Yes, Miss Bruner, Billy Ray answers while wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. It sure does. 

There is an awkward pause, as both of them wait for the other to speak. Finally, Claire leans forward, folds her hands on her desk, and stares kindly into Billy Ray’s face. She is as empathetic still, but there is a mama bear earthiness to her manners that takes her down from the pedestal. That is just as well, for Billy Ray is much more comfortable talking with a woman, who may have rolled in the mud at Woodstock, or distributed banned books as a part of some sort of ‘Anti-Fahrenheit 451 Underground,’ than in confessing to a saint.

I don’t know where to start, Billy Ray whispers sheepishly.

From the beginning, of course, Claire says with the kind of patient smile a more mature woman will have upon her face, when first showing a young man how to make love. Swallow another mouthful, if that will help you.

Billy Ray takes her advice. The room spins once. It is about to spin again, but then settles back into place. He sets the plastic cup down. Notwithstanding all that booze gurgling through his veins, he is deathly afraid, if only for a brief moment, at having to come clean about all that has happened since that night.

Oh, fuck it, he mutters. 

Those three words are enough to knock the fear aside. He glances again at that old lady in the poster. No doubt, she is reading just then ‘the best part’ of D.H. Lawrence’s novel. There is no ‘best part’ to the story he is about to tell his Mama Bear Confessor, no moment of levity, no suggestion of hope. Frankly, it is a downer sparked now and then by the kind of melodrama that suggests an abysmal playwright. Maybe, God is a playwright wannabe; and the sick universe that He created is in fact the bloated verse of an amateur dramatist. So be it if that is the case. Right now, though, Billy Ray needs to knock this perverse mind fuck out of his head and to focus in on the task at hand.

         He tells her everything, including how he pursued his fool’s errand. He is ashamed pretty much the whole time he speaks. His feelings range from a mild bout of embarrassment to a near suicidal self-loathing; and yet, for all that, he presses forward with his confession. 

         When he is done, Claire explains in a calm, businesslike manner how she can help him find the street address. The casual way she speaks to him then is, perhaps, her greatest expression of empathy. She is totally nonjudgmental, for Billy Ray has done nothing for which he should be judged. This implied message is not lost on the boy man sitting across from her with the plastic cup in his lap.

         And one more thing, Claire says. You are not a ‘derelict actor’ (referring to the article in the Beverly Times). You are not neglectful of your craft. Actors indeed cannot be neglectful. They are always onstage, even when the blinds at home are drawn, and they are wandering about in their skivvies. 

         Always being watched, Billy Ray mutters.

         So what if you are? Claire continues. Keep them on the other side of the fourth wall. Never let them get in here (poking her chest). And when the time’s right turn the tables on one of them. Put him on the stage, and take his seat in the front row. Let that damned jealous critic feel what it’s like to be disrobed. He’ll melt beneath the hot lights; let me tell you. He’ll cry out for mercy, and I suppose even then the little, white angel in your soul will urge you to hold back from the kill. But you won’t, and you shouldn’t. Just don’t overkill in how you laugh in his face. Murder is most foul when it is melodramatic…

         What do you know about murder? Billy Ray asks, when Claire permits her last comment to hang over both of their souls like a sharpened guillotine blade.

         Claire does not answer, though the distant look in her eyes then suggests that she has taken a brief step or two down memory lane. 

         Billy Ray notices the plastic cup in his lap. He places it on the desk, and prepares to stand up. 

         Claire reaches forward, and takes his hands into hers. At first, there is a frightened look on her face, like when a mother first puts her boy on a bus. Her face then relaxes. Her smile pushes her apple cheeks into her owl eyes. She is a proud mama now, confident her boy can and will do whatever it takes to make everything right, and certain that he will be stronger later for waging this fight.

         David Trent deserves what’s coming to him, Claire says. Don’t you feel a sting of guilt, okay? There’s plenty of guilt flying around, but none of it has any right to land upon your head; not on this matter, anyway. And when you simply have to act, don’t hesitate. Your conscience can replay the tape in slow motion later, as it tries to figure out how it should feel about what happened. But that last moment is not the time to try to rewind the tape. Do you understand, boy?

         Yes, Miss Bruner, Billy Ray responds.

         And, indeed, he really does believe he understands her. The actor who is about to deliver a monologue on stage should not attempt to replay in his mind that tricky verse that he has misspoken before. Even less so should be consider all the possible emotional truths to be unearthed in the story about to be told. There is a time and a place for such examination; but under the hot lights, and in front of those ravenous rat’s eyes, is neither the time nor the place. There is nothing else to do then, but to plunge into the pool, and to feel how the water slaps against his face and rushes into his nostrils. The actor relishes how he has to free fall every time he hits his cue. Apparently, he is not that different from the murderer a second before and a second after he thrusts his knife into flesh.

         Claire releases her grip. Fog descends over her eyes, as she sits back into her chair. She has expended all that she can right now. It is best that she sits in her hideaway a while, before returning to the counter to address the mundane, connect the dots research queries she usually gets out there.  

         Billy Ray leaves the public library with no weight on his mind. He will do what he must, and he will do so without any guilt on his conscience. That is the main gift that Claire Bruner has bestowed upon him. 

         What Billy Ray forgets is that gifts can have unintended consequences. It is sometimes a blessing in disguise to have that unsure step that comes from an overbearing sense of guilt and unworthiness. The unsure step, the timid breath, the lack of resolve at the last moment, all these indications of moral cowardice in fact can save the man from charging into the line of fire before it is too late.

*   *   *

         Billy Ray is the last passenger on the city bus. 

         This is not good, Billy Ray thinks, as he leans the right side of his face on the greasy bus window. There will be no distraction when I disembark from this bus at the end of the block; nothing to stop the driver from looking at me in his oversized rearview mirror, while he is reaching for the pack of Marlboros inside his shirt pocket and contemplating where he is going to park for his ‘end of the run’ smoke. If the cigarettes had not been so easily accessible, if, let’s say, the pack had been hidden away in a bag beneath his seat, or stuffed behind the old safety manuals in his glove compartment, then perhaps I would have been able to slip out the back door unnoticed, while he reached down or to the side. That is not going to happen, though, for the driver is already tapping his shirt pocket in anticipation of the nicotine high he will get, after he looks at my face in that fucking rearview mirror. That damn thing looks big enough to magnify even the small razor cut on my chin. If he is not able to identify me in a lineup, then the Beverly Bus Authority is so committed to maintaining ‘a diverse workforce’ that it is now hiring blind men to drive its gas guzzling death traps. 

         Billy Ray laughs nervously at the image of blind bus drivers crashing their buses one by one into the same ditch. ‘The blind leading the blind,’ oh, that is so very true, is it not? Physical blindness is a handicap, of course; but it is truly child’s play in comparison to the moral blindness with which we all suffer every now and then. We wake up from our indiscretions as if climbing out from a dark and slippery ditch. Our first thought is: How the hell did I get down there in the first place? We sense that perhaps we went down there of our own accord; but before we can carry that thought to its logical conclusion, we mutter under our breaths that someone else must have pushed us down there. We are not sinners wallowing in the mud when that dark passion hits us; but rather we are victims, blindfolded by someone stronger than ourselves, and pulled into the ditch so as to appease the whims of a trickster god. Don’t blame us, we say. If you want to blow steam out your ears on account of what happened down there in that dark ditch, then focus your wrath on the Cheshire cat hovering over my left shoulder just now. Now, that is the essence of moral blindness; and that poor, old driver who slams his bus into the ditch on account of his physical blindness is no more than a small time crook in comparison to the man who presumes to pass on his guilt to the smiling cat fancied by his ear. 

         Do I count myself among the morally blind? Billy Ray thinks, as the bus is pulling over to the side. Claire said I had no reason to feel the heavy weights of a guilty conscience; and, as she spoke those words, I had believed then that no truer words had been uttered. Now, I am not so sure. I can make a good case to the skeptical, white angel in my head that, indeed, I am not now setting out to commit murder. What I am doing can be summed up in one word: self-defense. Moreover, how can I be so certain that this visit will end in a homicide? Sure, it is not likely that David Trent and I are going to come to a meeting of the minds and that as a result the thug bastard will turn himself into the authorities. Still, are there not many other scenarios between war and diplomacy? 

         Billy Ray wants to answer that last question in the affirmative, but he is not able to shake the slow, cold, logical voice in his mind that reminds him that indeed the ‘long spectrum’ of choices between war and diplomacy is illusory. It is easy enough to maintain that illusion, when overall life is good, or appears to make sense at least; but when the illusion has been stripped from us, torn from our minds and splashed onto the walls to form ghoulish bloodstains, are we not compelled to acknowledge that, indeed, war has no actual meaning apart from peace, and vice versa? That hidden in each act of chivalric love is cold revenge? That hidden in each kiss is the passion of a cannibal? A man lovingly kisses, but does he not also lovingly taste the flesh he will devour when his strange hunger indeed gets the best of him? In fact, there is no ‘long spectrum’ of choices with war on the one side and diplomacy on the other. There is simply the moment of action; and every moment of action is as much war as it is diplomacy, perverse passion as it is ordered reason. In every moment of action, there is undeniable, unsettling moral ambiguity; and if that is true, then what choice does any man have but to do his best, and then to try to pass the judgment for his own moral failings onto someone else? Try to do good, then kick your neighbor in the balls? 

         If I answer these questions in the affirmative, then I am as morally blind as the worst psychopathic serial killers, Billy Ray thinks, while wringing his cold hands in his lap. If so, then my oft stated devotion to my friend and my son, my determination to make everything ‘right,’ is just the craven rationalization of a disturbed man, no, not a ‘disturbed man,’ but rather an ‘evil man.’ The kind of man so self-indulgent in his darkness that he leaves his friend alone to go after what he truly had suspected from the start to be no more than a fool’s errand…

         Billy Ray stops wringing his hands. Still, his mind proceeds down its path.

         If I am that ‘evil man,’ that bloodstain sliding down the wall to form the likeness of a ghoul, that dead thing that is there when I am stripped nude, then who will be the ‘Cheshire cat’ to which I shall point to deflect judgment? There are the more obvious boogeymen: Detective Ringwood, Stacey Bloom, the dyke attorney, the stalkers. No doubt, I shall finger them before the others; but like all of those sad sacks, who have taken no more than one or two steps down the wrong path only to discover then that they are already lost, I probably shall not stop with them. Oh, no, when the specter of judgment is bad enough, I’ll point my trembling finger at my best friend, now languishing in a coma, hell, even at my only son. For the morally blind man abandons everyone before the last act… 

         Last stop, the bus driver screams when he swings open the rickety doors.

         Billy Ray manages to crawl out from his stream of consciousness. He very well knows that the thoughts are proceeding still down that treacherous ravine, but for the time being at least he can walk on dry land. Thank God, because he would have drowned altogether, if he had bobbed about the stream any longer.

         He slinks out the back door. He keeps his head down, and stuffs his cold, raw hands into the deep pockets of his overcoat. He has no idea if the driver in fact took the time to look at him. It does not really matter if he did, since Billy Ray is going to go forward, regardless; and in a way, that fact calms his nerves considerably. There is a strange peace in knowing that the door behind you has been shut and locked. He had not thought that way, when he had all those sick nightmares about being locked in the Fed Ex office with a rat cashier; but here, where the evening wind snaps against his back, and the bus roars back towards the center of town, those nightmares are beside the point. He is here, not lost in his bed back at the apartment, not tracing the bloodstains on his filthy walls (ghoulish faces that will not vanish completely, no matter how much he applies soap and water), but here on the corner of Lizzie and Borden.

         And there is only one reason to be standing on this corner at the farthest edge of town, while the sun sinking beneath the horizon casts maudlin, purplish faces across the western half of the sky. And that reason has nothing to do with entertaining nightmares…

         Or so Billy Ray tries to tell himself, as he flaps the collar of his overcoat up, and turns right on Borden. No, he insists in the self-conversation he thought he had escaped; this is not about entertaining nightmares. This is about putting an end to them, once and for all time, so that he and the people he truly loves can go forward with their lives (assuming Donna pulls out of her coma) without ever again having to undress themselves before the dead stare of a lurking rat…

         Hey, buddy, watch it, the little boy on the tricycle scolds him.

         Billy Ray shivers. He is momentarily confused, like he supposes his friend Claire can be when she is not working on all cylinders. Perhaps, he is walking in his dream? Perhaps, bumping into this dream boy will be enough of a jolt to lift one of his heavy eyelids. He really hopes so, because this particular dream is in fact turning out to be much more unsettling than his all-nighters with that tall, stupid, rat boy in the Fed Ex office downtown. 

         Billy Ray looks down. He is not waking up, for he is awake already. There will be no waking up from what he is setting out to do this evening. 

         Billy Ray focuses on the boy, who is a seven or eight year old squirt in an oversized Atlanta Falcons shirt (just like what David Trent wore when he spoke to the press years ago), baggy jeans, and Keds. The boy has a peeved, freckled, moon face. His eyes do not look, so much as they glare. 

         What? Billy Ray says vaguely, while stepping back from the tricycle. 

         What are you? A doofus? The boy asks with an irritation intended to mask his fear. It’s not cold.

         What do you mean, ‘it’s not cold?’ Billy Ray asks. 

         The boy does not answer. He studies the tall man in the overcoat a little longer. Then, he tricycles away, as if it is beneath him to talk to such a doofus.

         Actually, the boy is right. It is not cold this evening. It is balmy; and any tall stranger wandering down Borden in an overcoat, collared shirt, blue jeans, and boots cannot but stick out like a sore thumb. 

         Do I want to be picked out of the lineup? Billy Ray thinks.

         No, he answers himself. But even more so, I do not want to be disrobed, not by the rat’s eyes, not by anyone’s eyes. What distinguishes man from beast when all the cards have been dealt? The man has secrets, and he will secure his secrets with the thrust of his knife, if he is forced into a corner. Does that then make man a bit of a doofus? Maybe so, but better a doofus than that dead man with the knife handle poking out from his bloodied chest. 

         Billy Ray continues down the street. It is a dreary stretch of pockmarked asphalt in a neighborhood of low to middle class tract homes. Most of the tract homes look like they were built in the early sixties. Many still have the old T.V. antennas on their shingle roof, though there are no longer analog signals to be picked up. Others are decorated with clotheslines that run from the huge olive tree in the front yard to the gutter.

         One unpleasant house had been egged and toilet papered recently. Much of the house is hidden in shadows cast by the olive tree and the reams of toilet paper. Nevertheless, Billy Ray eyes what he presumes is the owner peeking out  from behind shut blinds. The old man is keeping score; and that means there is every reason in the world to believe that he has been watching Billy Ray pretty much nonstop, since Billy Ray stepped off the bus. 

         If and when the cops come traipsing into the neighborhood to investigate the demise of David Trent, then that geezer will have a vivid account for them, Billy Ray thinks. Whatever meager chance there had been of slipping in and out unnoticed is now completely gone.

         Billy Ray looks away. He tries to act as casually as he can, but he knows damn well that he is not fooling that old man. 

         Billy Ray whistles Camp Town Races. It is something to do, and hopefully it will set his mind at ease until he is far enough removed from him. His task is creepy enough without having just now to think about that old man back there.

         Unconsciously, Billy Ray strolls down the middle of the street. Of course, he is much more conspicuous here, especially when a breeze ruffles the bottom of his overcoat, like a sail pushed backward by a crosswind. Indeed, the breeze is balmy, as the boy had suggested; and yet Billy Ray folds his hands in front of his chest. He could be a priest in a cassock on his way to prayer, except for the hard look in his eyes. That look suggests that he is far removed from the God of the New Testament. Perhaps, the Old Testament God is closer to the mark, for he feels judgment pressing down on his shoulders and dropping his chin unto his neck. Whatever sense of purpose and of righteousness that Claire had inspired, whatever reasoning had justified the knife stuffed in between his waistline and the inner lining of his leather belt, all that is gone. Instead, he is haunted, cold and diminished, by the fear snapping at his heart in sync with the billowy wind; a fear augmented by the judgment in the dusk sky. The purple ghouls up there are receding with the sun, but they are dragging him along with them into that dark pit beneath the western line. They are dragging him, because now he is as dead as they are; cold and clammy skin hidden beneath his overcoat and boots.

         And yet for all that Billy Ray pushes onward, sometimes so mindlessly he has no idea of time passing by him; other times vaguely aware, but disoriented, like a man floating in and out of a dream. When conscious, he tries to convince himself that indeed this is a dream (albeit much more realistic than the others) and that it is only a matter of seconds or minutes before he awakens on his old, bloodstained mattress. 

         Except that he does not really believe that. Somewhere along this filthy, pockmarked road, he stops whistling Camp Time Races. He glances at an empty lot to his right. It is a mess of weeds and thorns, a bit of graffiti painted by the hand of Mother Earth. The bramble rustles in the evening breeze, and it smells sticky, sweet, and hot (if indeed heat can be said to have a distinct odor) upon his dried tongue. Surely, with all these sounds, smells, and textures pressing on his flesh at once, he cannot really believe that this is all in his head. 

         In a way, it is a lot easier if the horror has been consigned to the depths of his imagination. When there, it is at least somewhere, defined by the priests and the psychiatrists, and presumably excisable by various incantations and gift offerings; but when he can sense it outside of his mind, in the receding light of a spent day, or in the sad hiss of an evening wind through a bush, it is no longer somewhere, but rather everywhere. The horror is so much more oppressive, for it cannot be attached to any one particular guilt or fear complex. The horror is alive, breathing with the wind, snapping the bottom of his overcoat, and toying with the indecision in the back of his mind.

         Billy Ray approaches an abandoned park. There is an old, wooden sign on the side of the road. The carved words have faded with time, but he barely can make them out in the last reach of the sun: Pleasure Island Park, Beverly Parks and Recreation, Open 6:00AM to 10:00PM, Absolutely No Firearms or Fireworks!

         Billy Ray leans against the sign. He scans the park. Like the empty lot, it too has been overtaken by the kind of thorny, entangled, sticky sweet flora life that thrives on rocky, thin soil. God grants even the devil a field for his seed. It is an ugly patch near where the flat earth gives way to the endless abyss, but it is a spot for the devil’s handiwork, nonetheless. 

         Still, for all the blight, there is hope in this dead children’s park; hope in the form of a seven or eight year old girl sitting on a swing set. She is a fragile, quiet blond swinging listlessly on the one usable seat. The other seat is missing its left chain, and so it is just a snake composed of rusted, loosened chain links hanging from a bar. The jungle gym behind her moans so sadly when the breeze flows through its pipes that it is probably no more capable of holding up a boy or a girl as would a granny on a rocking chair. The children must recognize this, for that old claptrap of pipes and steps looks as if it has not been used in years.

         As such, the little, blond girl is swinging on the only seat in the park that has not yet been given over to the ghosts after hours. That is not much, maybe; but it is something.

         Billy Ray strolls toward the swing set. He stuffs his cold hands again into his deep pockets. He looks like a stereotypical pedophile on his way to his next date. If he had had more of his wits about him then, then he would have known how he must look. In that case, he would have left, before the little girl looked up and started to scream. Nevertheless, he had lost his wits about the moment he had seen that peculiar, old man staring out at him through a slit in between his blinds. The stalkers are on to him. The Old Testament God has his number, and He has seen fit to inscribe his name beside Job and Holden Caulfield. All of this is to say that he is fucked up already, so why not approach a little girl with a band aid on her knee like he is some sort of sicko on the prowl for under aged pussy. Forget what he thought earlier about not wanting to get caught. There is no other logical explanation but that he wants to get caught, before he follows through with his ill conceived plan of action. 

         Except that the little girl does not scream, when finally she lifts her face just enough to behold the strange man walking up to her. She studies his eyes a moment. Then, she once more stares disconsolately at her sandals. Her legs are not long enough for her sandals to dig into the tanbark as she swings downward from the back of the swing set; and yet she skims the surface just enough to be able to kick up a reddish cloud. In a way, this cloud adds a kind of brilliance to her innocence, for in contrast to the filthy dust she is strikingly fair and pretty.

         Billy Ray leans against the swing set. He watches that little girl swing up and down, like she is the most beautiful thing he ever has seen. There is no sex satisfaction on his face, though; nothing to suggest a prurient interest. His face is calm, contented, almost contemplative. He does not feel that peculiar boost that Claire had inspired in him, nor does he feel afraid and disoriented. Though he cannot really put his finger on it, he thinks that ‘coming home’ is the closest to the truth of his feelings just then. This fair girl is what it means to be home, at least for him; and for that reason, he feels a keen desire to protect her from all the monsters out there that come alive after hours. 

         Isn’t it a little late for you to be out here? Billy Ray asks.

         The little girl does not respond, unless perhaps there is a message in the fact that she stops swinging up and down. She looks neither scared nor angered by the intrusive man leaning on the swing set. She is just sad and tired, focused on a drama about which the intrusive man is unfamiliar, and doing her best not to shed little girl tears all over her yellow, ruffled, polka dot dress and sandals.

         Billy Ray can see that she does not want to talk, and yet he persists with his questions anyway. He senses vaguely that this little girl needs him. Perhaps, she is the reason he had ventured out this way. 

         Are your parents around? Billy Ray asks with real concern. 

         The little girl sighs. Billy Ray follows her gaze. She is staring blankly at a shabby, termite infested, tract home across the street. The overgrown foliage, the broken windows, the ‘no trespassing sign,’ all these expressions of hostility suggest a house long dead and offered over to the shadows cast by that gnarled olive tree out front. The dead do not want to be disturbed, apparently. Neither do most of the living, no matter the time of the day nor the season of the year.

         Do you want to talk? Billy Ray continues after a while.

         The little girl remains silent. She looks down, and kicks her small feet up and down, while off in the distance the first tiny star of the night emerges from behind the last receding ray of the sun. Billy Ray thinks that the ‘star’ in fact is Venus, the allure of the Amazonian women, the promise of love now no more in his eyes anyway that the very coldest sparkle in the sky. So much from so little; the smallest hint of love growing ever more warm and beautiful, if only given a chance to mature in time. 

         All she needs is time, Billy Ray mutters, as his thoughts slide over to that cold, dark intensive care room he has yet to visit in reality, but nonetheless has visited many times already in his imagination. 

         Time to get better, before the bastard can beat her into the grave, Billy Ray concludes in his mind. 

         Why don’t I walk you home? Billy Ray asks.

         The little girl looks at him. It is too dark now for Billy Ray to make sense of her facial expressions, but he senses that she trusts him. He suspects that if she did not trust him, then she would have screamed and ran away a while ago.

         You’re not going to hurt me, the little girl whispers. Are you?

         The question seems perfunctory, like she is fulfilling a promise she made to her mother. Though her voice is soft, there is no traceable fear in it tonight. Billy Ray senses that this has less to do with courage than with the fact she has seen everything. She appears resigned to the fact that the world is her endless, commercial free horror show of Indian givers and creepy strangers. Whatever is handed to her will be taken away, her soft, miserable voice suggests to him. No point in getting all that excited about an overdressed man who will be gone too soon to mention. 

         Come on, Billy Ray urges. Take my hand. Let me walk you home.

         The little girl stands up. She walks over to Billy Ray without uttering one word. In Billy Ray’s eyes, she is now no more substantial than a shadow coming out from an even darker shadow. She could be one of those stalkers, except for the fact that he has ascertained already that she is innocence incarnate nicely wrapped in a yellow, ruffled, polka dot package.

         They walk hand in hand towards Borden Street. They hear the crickets in the thorny bushes beside them come alive, just as they turn down the sidewalk and towards the dead end. 

         They hear the wild screech of a bird overhead. Is that a black crow now trying to get up close and personal enough to gauge just how long this man and this child will be strolling among the living? Or is this just another expression of the horror beyond his imagination that is figuring out yet another way to creep into his head and to raise holy hell? Perhaps, these two scenarios are the same.

         They pass their time together in silence, as more twinkling stars emerge from behind the heavenly veil. One of the houses on their right is alive with the sounds of a boxing match on the boob tube and the smell of barbecued burgers. Otherwise, the houses are dark, cold, and dead, like corpses left in the morgue after the coroner has decided to call it quits for the night. Many of them are no doubt vacant. The rest of them reflect that oppressive sadness that the owners or the tenants must endure every night they persist on this long stretch of road into nothingness. Really, they should let the rats and the weeds take over what little they have out here, since assuredly that is the intended endpoint anyway.

         Finally, they stop in front of an unremarkable tract house with a gigantic station wagon parked on the driveway. There is a light on in the kitchen. There is also the down home voice and mannerisms of Paul Harvey on the radio inside this kitchen. Paul Harvey has been dead a while now, so presumably this is one of his oldies, but goodies. No matter truly if it is Paul Harvey or Lawrence Welk wafting out from the speakers of an old radio, persons invariably find just what they need to get back home, even if only in bits and pieces in between heating up the leftovers or scrubbing the snot nosed kiddies. Billy Ray prefers ‘Coast to Coast AM’ after hours; nothing says ‘you’re home’ more than a story relayed by a long haul truck driver about his close encounter with a space alien. 

         This is where I live, the little girl says after a while. Where’s your house?

         I lost mine, Billy Ray answers. I’m out here tonight trying to get it back…

         Billy Ray lets his comment linger. He cannot see the little girl’s face well but senses that she is thinking about what he said. 

         You’ll find it, she says. Mama says that Great Uncle Robert is sleeping in his head most of the time. Sometimes, he walks off, and doesn’t come back for two or three days. But mama says, ‘Don’t worry, ‘cause a house is much too big not to see it one of these days.’ He’ll just keep walking around the block, until he sees our house. 

         Great Uncle Robert always comes home? Billy Ray asks.

         Yep, she says. He always does. 

         Billy Ray has no idea why she had been sad earlier, but now she appears to be just fine. He wants to hug her, but he decides it is best to play it cool. He instead places his hand upon her right shoulder.

         Go on inside before your mama gets worried, Billy Ray says. 

         The little girl does not say anything, but Billy Ray senses that she has the kind of mama that does not worry about her daughter much, if ever. Hopefully, when he is lucid, Great Uncle Robert wonders where she is now and then. Little children know when someone cares enough to worry, and sometimes that is all that they need to be able to make their way years later in our sad, adult world.

         Thank you, Billy Ray says, as the little girl turns and skips up to her door.

*   *   *

         The Camaro is idling in the driveway. 

         Billy Ray hides behind an olive tree across the street from 12501 Borden Road. He cannot make out the yellow paint with the white trim. Until the moon rises higher in the sky, everything is cast in the same dull grey, like tombstones beaten down by the years into jagged rocks with faded inscriptions. There is an old T.V. on in the house behind him. He barely hears the rapturous theme song and opening applause for American Idol. Otherwise, there would be nothing out here to break the illusion of an endless graveyard populated by nondescript old rocks lined up in a row, gnarled olive trees similarly spaced, and rustling weeds springing out from the earth every which way. 

         So he cannot make out the color of the tract house across the street, nor can he make out the color and license plate number of the idling sports car. He knows from the distinctive shape that it is an older model Camaro, though; and thus far, there has been no other sports car of any model or year on this street. Process of elimination, and gut intuition, work wonders when the eyesight fails.

         The front door opens. A single ray of light emerges from inside. It shines on the post outside. Sure enough, as anticipated, this is 12501 Borden Road. He has reached his destination, which is only two houses from the dead end and an endless expanse of bramble and weeds beyond that. 

         The front door shuts. A shadowy man steps away from the door and over to the Camaro. It is impossible to make out his features, except that he is a tall and surefooted man, who clearly knows his way around the driveway when it is dark outside. The man slides into the Camaro, turns on the headlights, and revs up the engine, like he is at the starting line of the Indianapolis 500. Within the driver’s imagination, the flag is lowered. He does not reverse out of his slightly sloped driveway, so much as he pounces backward to get into position and then pounces forward to chase whatever phantoms he fancies on the road.

         A thick layer of exhaust gurgles over the roof. For a moment, it seems as if the tract house at 12501 Borden Road has its own bleak weather system. The image calls to mind a cartoon castle always covered over by its own dark storm cloud, no matter the clear, blue sky everywhere else. 

         Then, the exhaust dissipates; and soon enough, there is nothing to stoke the flame of imagination but a silent house. There is a light on behind the front door, but it is so tepid as not to interfere with the general sense of gloominess. Billy Ray imagines that he will not be walking up to an actual house, so much as crawling up to a tombstone fashioned out from the darker bits and pieces of his dreamscape. The hopeful part of his psyche still expects to open an eyelid, and to slip out from this creepy dream, the next time he hears a sudden loud noise.

         So the bastard has stepped out, Billy Ray thinks, while sliding his fingers over the handle of the knife he has tucked beneath his long overcoat. And I am left out here with nothing but my blade and my wits to pass the time. Actually, that is not true. I can hear American Idol pretty well from where I am standing behind this tree; and somewhere off in the distance, or maybe inside my head, I can make out barely the savory scent of Kentucky Fried Chicken. So, no, truth be told, it is not accurate to say that I have nothing out here but my blade and my wits. Indeed, the more that I listen, picking up the crickets from the thorny wasteland beyond the ‘dead end’ sign, sensing (but not hearing) the roar of the traffic closer to downtown, the more that I realize that there is quite literally a universe of distractions. I easily could stay out here all night, picking up this or that, fancying the phantoms that stroll passed the ‘dead end’ sign and into the wasteland, and then going home tomorrow morning with nothing to show for it.

         Billy Ray continues to think about staying behind the olive tree and doing nothing, while he walks across the street. His conscious thoughts are one thing, but his much deeper determination to see this through to the end is something else altogether. He senses that this is how a suicide must feel in those slow and plodding minutes before he puts the pistol into his mouth. The mind gives voice to all of those doubts and alternative scenarios it had only vaguely suggested to him when the suicide had been no more than a strange, unsettled fantasy. This makes sense, of course. Now that the moment is near, the instinctual desire for self-preservation kicks into high gear. The problem is that the determination to see it through to the end, the cold and hard logic of suicide, is going to prevail, when the pistol is in hand, or in this case when that bastard’s nondescript tract house is right in front of his face. Is standing behind an olive tree, and listening to American Idol, really a viable alternative? Did Eve really have a choice when beholding the forbidden fruit within arm’s length? Oh, sure, we know what that Good Book says; but when all of the theology has been set aside, did she really?

         No, Billy Ray mutters in answer to his own question.

         Billy Ray steps onto the front lawn. The low grass crackles under his boot heels, like human bones dried out by the sun. Apparently, though the bastard is willing to cut his lawn now and then, he will not water it. 

         The olive tree has much deeper roots. Therefore, it is going to take a lot longer for it to die; but the lazy way its diseased branches bend downward, and the haphazard way its leaves shed their ripened olives, suggest a tree that even now has resigned itself to its pitiful end. Billy Ray looks up from the base of the olive tree. He sees how the gnarled branches above his head obscure the initial hints of moonlight; but even more so, he sees that it is death himself, actually, that looms over him; a many armed, stooped, and jowly Grim Reaper, swinging his scythe when the wind blows especially hard, but mostly just standing in the way of the greying tombstone on the other end of the lawn. 

         Billy Ray passes the olive tree. He steps onto the driveway. It still feels a bit warm from when the Camaro rocketed away, though Billy Ray is pretty sure that that is his imagination. 

         If the house had been equipped with a motion sensor light then surely he would have triggered it by now. Indeed, there does not seem to be any signs of a security system; not even the grunt and the slobber of a pissed pit bull in the backyard or along the side. 

         Strange given how reviled he is, Billy Ray thinks. The bastard must think he is too badass to require a security system. So much the better for me…

         And yet it really is not so much the better. There is something wrong. He cannot put his finger on it, except that is feels like a man is inside the grey and silent house staring out at him through a slit in between his blinds. This is not a rational thought, since of course he saw the bastard drive away in his Camaro a few minutes ago. Nonetheless, this is how he feels standing upon the driveway, staring at the façade of the tract house, and rolling his dried up tongue against the inner lining of his mouth. 

         There is a screech overhead. Billy Ray drops to one knee. Something flies over his head and out to the wasteland. He imagines a large, prehistoric, black crow, flapping what looks more like bat wings, and darting its radiant, red rat’s eyes every which way in search of an animal corpse on which to gnaw. For that wasteland over there is really the clearinghouse of spent lives…

         Billy Ray breaks away from that morbid thought. He stands up. He is still frightened of somethingabout that house, but at least he has set aside for now the unsettling fancy that the bastard is inside watching him. For Christ sake, he saw the bastard drive away. The bastard simply cannot be back in there. This is a very dreamlike experience, to be sure; but the laws of physics still apply; and in Isaac Newton’s rational and observable world, it is impossible to be standing at two places at the same time. 

         Billy Ray laughs. It is a nervous and unsettling sound.

         He walks over to the side of the house. There is a wooden door on rusted hinges. It is not locked, but because of the general disrepair of the hinges he is forced to put his left shoulder against the door and to push it open. The hinges, awakened from their long slumber with a sudden jolt, scream holy hell into the otherwise still and silent night. 

         Billy Ray is sure that one of the neighbors at least must have heard him. He stops cold. His heart rattles like a snake’s tail inside his chest. His breathing seems to have stopped altogether, though a dim voice in his rational mind tries to remind him that that is actually impossible. 

         A dog barks somewhere in the distance. Billy Ray just presumes that it is in response to the racket he made with the side yard door. He wants to kick his own balls (an acrobatic feat that, if successful, would be almost worth the sick, hot pain) for not climbing over the door. He is physically younger than his years and particularly dexterous. So why is he blustering forward like a bull with four or five martinis already sloshing about its stomach?

         Because I want to get caught, remember? Billy Ray thinks irritably.

         Except if that is true one moment, then it is just as untrue the next. His plan of action thus far consists of little more than surprising that bastard when he gets back. Nevertheless, the fact that he is acting on a whim, and therefore increasing his risk factor exponentially, alone do not mean that he really wants to be hauled back into Detective Ringwood’s interrogation room. If he actually wants to be in the pokey, then all he has to do is to walk back to the police and to confess to the crimes of murder and attempted murder. 

         About five minutes later, the dog finally stops barking. For Billy Ray, the five minutes take about an hour. He is sure that the Camaro’s strong headlights will be sliding up the driveway any minute now.

         The smart thing to do then is to head on back. After all, for this to work, he will need time not only to break into the house, but to decide inside a dark and unfamiliar interior where he should hide. If the rooms are as cluttered with junk and booze as he anticipates, then that will slow him down considerably in there. Moreover, what if there is a dog inside? He did not hear anything bark in the house, but some dogs are trained to stay silent until they can pounce upon the intruder and go for his jugular vein. These dogs are trained to kill. They are not trained to scare away. Billy Ray is pretty sure that, if the bastard has a dog in there, then it will be one of the killer varieties. 

         So, again, the smart thing to do is to retreat back to the bloodstains that he cannot quite manage to scrub off the walls or out of his mattress. His dream life back there will become ever more dark and perverse, as the Fed Ex rat boy jettisons his uniform altogether for the clumpy, furry flesh of a rabid soul eater set loose. At some point, he will stop leaving his apartment altogether. A little later, he will hear a click in his head; and the madness will settle over him like an old suit taken off the hangar and pulled over his clammy flesh. 

         But at least he will not be here any more. He will not need to worry one bit if the Camaro’s headlights are about to slide up the driveway. He will forget all about the prospect of bumping into a dog in a dark and unfamiliar place. His world may turn into one, vast, padded asylum, but at least he will not be here.

         Billy Ray keeps thinking about the smart thing to do.

         It is a way to occupy his mind, while he walks into the backyard and tries to find an open sliding door or a window that leads into the house. It is strange, really, but the more he thinks that he may retreat, the less frightened he is by the task before him. Just the fact that he has given himself a mental ‘out’ from this madness is enough to slow down his heart to something like normal. By any normal standard, he is a basket case still; but in this surreal context, just being able to stand upright and to check for an open door or window is enough in fact to qualify for superhero status. 

         The sliding door that joins the living room to the backyard patio had not been locked. He slowly pulls it open on its old, rickety rollers. It too screeches, but not nearly as loudly as the side yard door. 

         Still, Billy Ray waits a moment outside, while a slight breeze pushes the sliding door curtains inward. He wants to see if that damned dog starts barking again. He hears nothing, but the faint sound of crickets in bramble. 

         He feels again for his knife beneath his overcoat. The handle is wet from his clammy sweat. The sharp edge is scratching against his inner leg. It is quite raw down there. If he is not careful, then he is going to slice into a vein. Then, he will be bleeding down the inside of his jeans, and dripping DNA evidence all over the bastard’s furniture and carpets.

         DNA evidence? What am I missing? Billy Ray thinks.

         It takes a moment, but then he notices that his hands are bare. He finds his gloves in his left overcoat pocket, uses one of the thick gloves to wipe clean the DNA and the fingerprint evidence on the sliding glass door handle, and then puts them on. They slide on easily because of the cold sweat all over his hands.

         Billy Ray looks over his shoulders. There are a few more stars in the dark sky. Soon, there will be millions; each star many lifetimes of interstellar travel from one another. The common denominator in this cosmos is vast distance and intense loneliness. In the end, we all confront the rat beast on our own. No one is near enough to hear us scream. No one will show up to sweep aside the blood and guts left behind, when the sick rat has had its fill and so sleeps contentedly in the shadows. No one will take us home when we are spent, dead, and alone.

         Billy Ray steps into the living room. As anticipated, he is not able to see anything at first; but then, as his eyes adapt to the intense darkness, he makes out a leather couch ripped open down the middle of each cushion, a flat screen perched on top of a wooden Budweiser box, a Nintendo play station with a slew of video game cartridges spread across the hardwood floor, a mishmash of old, but well lubricated, rifle parts, and then, lying open armed and face up on the hardwood floor in front of the couch, a woman…

         Wait, Billy Ray thinks. Are my eyes tricking me? Is that an actual woman?

         He steps forward gingerly. He is deafened briefly by how his heart is now pounding in his ears. He wrings his gloved hands together like a Nervous Nellie. Everything about the object on the floor suggests a recent corpse, perhaps still lukewarm to the touch.

         Or perhaps it has been there a while. After all, is there not a sour, fleshy smell in the air that suggests the first stage of decomposition? If so, then surely that corpse will be cold to the touch, probably a bit bloated in the midsection, no doubt more stiff than clammy; and if, for God knows what reason, Billy Ray proceeds to shine a light on her face, likely with the open eyes and mouth that speaks to the intense horror the woman experienced at the end of her life. It is going to be a long, ghoulish face, transfigured in eternal pain, and stitched into his lifelong memory of his present excursion into hell. 

         Billy Ray opens his mouth wide. At first, he thinks that he is going to cry out in total anguish; but then he sees that he is literally trying to snatch out of the sour air a mouthful of breath. He looks and feels like a drowning man trying in vain to open his mouth just an inch or so above the waterline.

         The anxiety passes. Billy Ray steps over to his left, so that he can bypass the corpse. He wipes his gloved hands over his overcoat, like he is wiping off all the blood that had been shed, when this woman had been forced to give up her ghost. He practically smells the blood on his leather gloves; and as a result, his knees almost give out on him.

         He does not fall to the floor, but he does stagger one or two steps closer to the corpse. Before he can correct his course, the tip of his right boot pushes against the left bare foot of the corpse. He is not certain at first that indeed he had hit the bare foot. It did not feel like something that once had been a living and breathing person. On the contrary, it felt more like a piece of furniture, or perhaps the largest ever container in a Tupperware set. 

         He first succumbs to a wave of fear; but then, within seconds, he climbs out the other end of that wave with a healthy dose of curiosity. Is this actually a corpse? Or is it something much more benign?

         Billy Ray switches on the lamp beside the couch. Sure enough, as he had come to suspect finally, the woman on the floor in fact is a mannequin. It is an odd pose for a mannequin, since the arms extend perpendicularly to the blond, straw hair and albino white face, until one realizes that the primary use of this mannequin is not to model the latest fashions.

         Billy Ray falls to one knee to investigate more closely. The mannequin is nude from the waist down. There is a downward pointing arrow where on a real woman the pubic hair would be. 

         Billy Ray thinks of Donna. He has not seen her in the intensive care unit, but he imagines a grown woman slowly, imperceptibly, devolving backwards in age, appearance, and substantiality. By now, she would look like a little girl on an oversized pillow. Her skin has lost much of its color. It is not albino white so much as blue tinted marble. Her lips pucker, like when a baby is learning what it means to dream; but unlike a real baby, she never cries out for food or drink. She does not need to do so, for nurse hands resembling feeding tubes nurse her at all hours of the day and night. Soon, the intertwined feeding tubes will form a kind of cocoon over her; and then she will be back in the womb. Faded away, an insubstantial thing that needs to be checked every hour and scrubbed every day; and finally, when no one is around, just another tagged toe in the morgue.

         A corpse, a mannequin, a woman fading away in intensive care, all much the same when we turn off the lights. Maybe, the light fools us. Maybe, what is closer to the truth is what we intuit when we enter into a dark space. If indeed that is so, then why the struggle, why the chivalric love, why the sacrifice for a friend who has been left to die alone on a hospital bed?

         Because I have to do this, Billy Ray answers his own question, while he is standing up again. I have to put that bastard down. I have no choice. 

         He turns off the lamp. The junk spread all over the place is actually a lot more distracting than the darkness. Moreover, Billy Ray cannot tell if the living room light can be seen from the driveway. Better not to take that risk.

         Billy Ray enters into the kitchen. The sour, fleshy smell that he first had associated with decomposition is much stronger here. Indeed, it is so odious he briefly searches the counter for a wash towel that he can press against his nose and mouth. He does not stumble upon a wash towel; but he does trace his hand over several knives, pots, and pans that have been left unwashed for so long he imagines a rotary hammer will be necessary to chisel off the dried food. 

         The refrigerator door has been left open. The light inside flickers on and off repeatedly. The smell comes from in there. Billy Ray imagines road kill with guts spewing out from a jagged tear in the soiled, musky fur. He does not want to test his guess, and so he closes the refrigerator door without glancing inside.

         Billy Ray steps out of the kitchen and into the foyer. The light beside the front door is no more than a child’s nightlight plugged into the wall. There is an image on the outer shell. Billy Ray bends closer to the light, and makes out the image. It is Barney the Purple Dinosaur skipping beside a field of roses. As usual that fucking dinosaur is full of good cheer, since ‘we are one big happy family.’

         Billy Ray thinks about his son, Gary. He should be in bed by now. Stacey, as punctilious with time as she is coiffed in her designer suits, will take him by the hand the moment the grandfather clock chimes, no matter what he may be doing at that moment. She will lead him upstairs without so much as a syllable spoken between the two of them, until he has brushed his teeth, put on his soft pajamas, and said his prayers. Billy Ray cannot quite imagine the prayers. He is sure that they are Jesuitical, perhaps even in Latin; notwithstanding how much the Pope claims to embrace the modern world. What is much more clear, like a 3-D IMAX image played out behind his eyes, is the expression just then upon his ex-wife’s face. She stands in the doorway, while Gary bows his head. She stares at him with a jealous, controlling love; the kind that makes her even more hard and cold. She says something or other when tucking him into bed, but she is too hard and cold then to communicate much. Gary feels as if he is going to bed on his own, and every night that that happens a bit of his innocence dies when his mother turns off the light and shuts the bedroom door.

         Okay, so ‘we are one big happy family;’ and we know instinctively that, even at great cost to ourselves, we must endeavor to hold our family together; but more often than not, we try to do so with the thrust of a knife or an unkind word. What does it means, if anything, to say that we love the little child, the innocent one, when in one way or another we are willing to forsake his childish innocence to preserve the family? Is there any room for manipulation, scheming gossip, and even first-degree murder in love? The answers may seem obvious to us, and yet are not the passions of love and of hate experienced really as much the same? Are they not the same excited butterflies in the stomach? Does not a man preoccupy himself as much with the object of his love, as with the object of his disdain? This is an uncomfortable conundrum, hard to endure by a person who insists on living a moral life. So much easier to jettison all the ambiguities that are out there with a vicious, snarling thrust of the knife; so much better to wash over the uncertainty with a blood geyser gurgling out from some sad sack. Better his blood shed than mine, even if the other fellow is the person we love.

         Billy Ray wants to step out of this stream of consciousness. He zeroes in on something small he catches scrawled on the outer shell of the nightlight. He is sure from the start that it is not a part of the original image. The letters are too coarse, like something a third grader might chisel with a Swiss Army Knife. The content is coarser still, though graceful in the way of brevity: Fuck Barney.

         Billy Ray stifles a nervous laugh. He stands up, and looks out the window beside the front door. Everything out there is as still and as silent as a painting.

         Is it silent, though? Or is he unable to hear anything, because of how his heartbeat thumps in his ears? Maybe, he is too frazzled still to realize that that painting beyond the front door is moving; that that painting is alive; and finally that that painting is just as likely to impose itself on Billy Ray, as Billy Ray is to impose himself on the canvas. Billy Ray may be hiding; but if the painting really is moving, if it is as capable as he is now of setting the stage, then the bastard is as likely to catch him unawares as the opposite. 

         Preposterous, Billy Ray mutters. I’m in here, and he’s out there. I’m the guy in the shadows this time, and he’s the guy driving up in his fucking Camaro.

         And yet Billy Ray does not really believe what he just has said. Life does not always boil down to a simple game of cops and robbers. 

         Something slides a few inches across a hardwood floor. It could be a very heavy foot, such that the heel did not lift off of the floor when taking a step. It could be a critter pulling something in its teeth across the same surface.

         Or it could have been a figment of his imagination.

         Billy Ray remains where he is beside the front door, but he turns to face into the living room. Because of the nightlight shining into his face just now, he cannot see anything at all back there. It is as if he is staring at a big black wall.

         Seconds pass like minutes. At some point, Billy Ray distinctly hears night breezes tapping against the front door. He knows what it is from the start, and so he is unfazed. He just keeps staring into the living room, while his sick heart sounds again like a snake’s rattle in his head, and while his mouth slowly opens to an unvoiced scream. 

         Something slides a few more inches across the same surface. 

         Billy Ray retrieves his knife. He holds it straight up in his right hand, like it is a candle in a procession. 

         That does not last more than a few seconds. His right hand is trembling, and the handle is hard to grip on account of the sweat that had accumulated on it. The knife slides through his fingers, and falls onto the foyer floor. 

         In Billy Ray’s heightened imagination just then, the sound that the knife makes when striking the foyer floor could wake the dead. He expects that mad dog down the street to start barking again. He imagines that the bastard, while returning home from his errand, hears the dog bark, and accelerates his vehicle to get home toot sweet. Not a rational notion, but reason is an orphan tonight…

         The better question is: Why am I thinking about the bastard, somewhere out there, maybe gone for good, when that sound is right here? Billy Ray thinks.

         Because I didn’t hear anything for real, Billy Ray answers in his mind. No doubt, it seemed real at the time; but let’s face it, as an actor I realize when a sound or a sensation is nothing more than a figment of my imagination. My life, after all, is focused on harnessing my imagination, keeping it wild still, but also something that I can ride. This dragging sound is just nerves, that’s all. There is no man with a heavy boot heel in the living room; neither a critter dragging off some treasure in its sharp teeth. I am here alone; remember? Like the decades or centuries of space in between the stars…

         Something slides a few more inches across the same surface.

         Now frantic, Billy Ray bends down to retrieve the knife; but in his hasty, nervous movement, he only manages to kick it towards the living room. 

         He staggers forward, facing the foyer floor, wringing his gloved hands in the manner of an old, confused woman. He could not have kicked the knife too far. Goddamn it, he barely tapped it with his right boot toe. Still, for his effort, he sees nothing, but one hardwood floor panel after another leading into a dark and cramped living room. 

         For Christ sake, where is it? Billy Ray begins to say aloud…

         And then something hard, cold, and unforgiving (an object exhibiting the same personality traits as his ex-wife) slams down upon the back of his head. It seems to have flown out from the shadows. Or perhaps it fell down from one of those stars in the sky. Those two possibilities flash through Billy Ray’s mind in a half second or so of conscious analysis.

         Then, the back of his head feels like it is inside a pressure cooker turned up high; and Billy Ray is no longer able to entertain much of anything in his sick and confused brain. He is a stumbling zombie man right now. He can feel awful pain, and moan inarticulate nonsense in response, but cannot craft a sentence.

         Billy Ray stumbles forward, and then turns on his heels. He sees a man in T-shirt and jeans illuminated by the nightlight behind him. The man has his oily black hair in a ponytail, drags a silly grin almost from ear to ear, and holds up a rose. No, it is not a rose, but a wrench drenched in blood; and the blood slides down the man’s hand like a melting ice cream cone.

         One more thought pops into Billy Ray’s mind: He is a little child of seven or eight. His mother walks him into Thrifty’s. He has been a good boy, and thus he has permission this clear afternoon to use some of his allowance money on a single scoop cone. He gets his cone, but because he is a slow eater much of the ice cream slides down his hand and drips to the floor. He cries, as children do…

         The memory fades into blackness, as Billy Ray first falls to his knees, and then kisses the hardwood floor. 

         There is no peace in the blackness. There is the sound of his heartbeat, rattling at first, then declining into the slow, base thud of a funeral procession.

         And then, for God knows how long, there is nothing at all.

*   *   *

         I’ve got the weed, a young, eager voice says. 

         Billy Ray cannot tell the sex of the voice. He has a vague impression that it is coming from the front door, and yet it sounds in his head like an echo from one of those distant stars. What does it mean to remark that that eager beaver voice is coming from the front door, when finally everything is infinitely distant from everything else? Doesn’t mean jack shit, and yet Billy Ray hangs onto that conscious insight like it is his last, tenuous line to the land of the living. 

         Fuck the weed, a stronger, definitely male voice responds. Help me with this cocksucker here…

         Cocksucker? Who is he calling a cocksucker? Billy Ray thinks. Good. Good that I am indignant, because that means that I am alive. The dead do not suffer assaults to their dignity.

         Billy Ray senses that, if he really tried, he might then be able to open at least one of his eyes. Probably the right eyelid, since the left one feels like it is a window shade that has been pulled all the way down and tied to the leg of an enormous chair.

         Does that mean he hit me on the right side of my head? Billy Ray thinks. Like how a stroke on the right side of the brain will immobilize the left side of the body? Hard to tell, since the throbbing pain back there is not localized to a portion of the head. Indeed, that pain is not even localized to my flesh. It feels like the hardwood floor, the walls, the night sky above the ceiling, the universe is in pain. Now, what did Saint Paul say about how all of creation groans for the coming of the Lord? And why am I thinking about Scripture, when I do not recall the last time I sat in the pew of a church? I remember the last time I sat inside a confessional, but that had been on a dare to make my girlfriend (Amber, that was her name, no, not Amber, but Alice) come inside a confessional before the rehearsing choir finished the Ave Maria. That one probably does not count, yes?

         Before Billy Ray can answer his own question, he falls back into the deep well of darkness. He forgets all about opening his right eyelid. That is probably just as well, because if the stronger, definitely male voice (What’s his name? Is it actually David? Seems more like Goliath, a Goliath holding up a rose/wrench) had seen him open his eyes, no doubt he would have landed another hard blow. The first blow may turn out still to be fatal. The second blow surely would have been; and though Billy Ray wants an end to the pain, he is not yet finished with life. So, yes, it is probably just as well he kept his right eyelid shut. No room in this drama for hijinks. Best to tune out and to let the darkness sweep over him.

*   *   *

         Where am I? Billy Ray thinks, when the back of his head bounces against a carpeted surface. 

         He does not even try to answer his own question. He is overcome with an electrifying pain that spasms out from the back right part of his head. This pain is no longer some sort of vague, universal fact that he either can feel or ignore, as he is prone to do at any given time. Instead, it is a living, breathing beast in its own right, a creature inside the back right part of his head that is scratching at his skull and jumping up and down on his grey matter. It squeals whenever it presses into his brain, and pisses a jolt of hot, liquid electricity down his spine.

         It squeals like a rat…

         A rat with glaring, red eyes and long, drooling fangs…

         Billy Ray wants to scream out in fear, but he is in too much pain to do so just then. The most he can do is to squirm. Perhaps, he moans as well; but that very well may be what he imagines, because his throat feels as if it is much too tight to allow anything more than a whistle of air in and out of his lungs. So the imaginary moan may be a way of blocking out that tuneless, wheezy sound that calls to mind the emphysemic just before his heart and lungs monitor flat lines.

         Again, the back of his head bounces against a carpeted surface. There is another jolt of pain, even worse than before; and yet this one is welcomed, for it temporarily breaks open the fear lodged in his throat. 

         This time, he clearly moans for real. He can hear the desperate sound in his ears (more so his right ear), rather than vaguely sense it in his mind. 

         Moreover, as debilitating as the pain is for a few terrible seconds, it is a clear indication that he is alive. He is not falling down a deep well. Perhaps, he had been for a while. Perhaps, he had just imagined it. Regardless, now he is a bloodied and beaten man on a carpeted surface. Yes, he is dying. He can sense the life snapping away from his nerve endings every time the rat pisses another jolt of hot, liquid electricity down his spine; but at least he can say for sure he is dying in a very specific place and time. He is not just going to float from one dark shadow to another. He is going to give up his ghost right here…

         Wherever here is, and so that begs the question: Where am I?

         Billy Ray opens his right eyelid. Actually, it is more accurate to say that he cuts the tight string that had kept the window shade from snapping upwards so hard and fast as to knock the rod off the wall. 

         Why had he kept his eye shut? Had he been afraid of what he might view if he had opened his eyelid, and his eye had adjusted to the darkness? There is the beast in our imagination, horrifying, but also sensed as unreal. Then, there is the beast we actually see before our eyes. Nowhere to hide at that moment, no way to claw out from beneath its rat face, nothing to do but to die in agony.

         Billy Ray looks, but he does not see a rat face. That makes sense, for the rat is inside his skull, is it not? 

         Still, he had expected something.

         Again, the back of his head bounces against a carpeted surface. He cries out in a voice that is much higher and more exasperated than the low moan. He senses that this is an improvement, like when a dead limb suddenly tingles hot, feverish vitality out from its comatose muscles. 

         When his eye adjusts, he sees that he is in a dark, cramped space. There is a thin whistle of air blowing in from what looks like a keyhole. 

         Of course, it is not a keyhole, Billy Ray thinks. And how do I know this? It is simple, really. I have been stuffed inside a coffin, and there is not a coffin in the world that has a keyhole. After all, what would happen on the Last Day if a coffin had been locked with a key, and neither the blessed angels nor the Good Lord Himself had seen fit to bring along a master key? That poor shmuck would lose out on all that Resurrection Power. He’d stay in his coffin, while his sordid drinking buddies and silly one-night stands were kicking it up Wang Chung Style in the New Jerusalem…

         Again, what’s with all this Scripture bullshit? Billy Ray thinks. Am I going all ‘Jesus Freak’ here, because I am afraid the end is near? Or am I really trying to avoid something? Thinking about Goliath, Sodom and Gomorrah, the Seventh Seal, so that I do not deduce why my bloody head keeps bouncing up and down?

         After all, since when does a coffin bounce up and down?

         When it is on a conveyor belt, and the belt is pulling it into an old oven…

         An old oven with just enough sparks in it for one more flame…

         Billy Ray squirms. He flails the back of his right hand against the interior lining of the coffin door. He is not strong enough then to curl his fingers into an obstinate fist. If he had, then he would have started to beat against that coffin door. Beat it hard, beat it senseless, until his raw knuckles fell off to reveal the clickety-clack bones of a deranged skeleton. 

         But he has no such strength. He just winces in pain from his bruised hand and lets it fall back to his side. 

         So the fire is going to consume me, Billy Ray thinks. Burn the walls down and then spread across this carpeted surface here until it kisses my flesh. What a kiss that will be! Sparks flying! Fever rising! Combustion Sex! Orgasm spitting up boiling stomach acid and cooked intestines, instead of the boring, run of the mill semen normally ejaculated. Sexual release in the arms of infernal madness for no other reason than that I am guilty…

         Guilty of abandoning my friend when she most needed me…

         Guilty of abandoning my son to my ex-wife and her father…

         Billy Ray breaks out in tears. He slams the back of his right hand into the carpeted surface. This just adds more pain to his electrified flesh, but he does not mind. He needs to let the tears flow. He needs to wallow in his self-hatred.

*   *   *

         He’s heavy, boss, the young, not so eager voice laments. 

         Billy Ray must have fallen back down that well, while shedding his tears, and beating the back of his right hand upon that carpeted surface. He is falling fast and furious into his despair one moment. The next, he can hear that young voice floating out from the fog. It is the fog in his mind. Billy Ray is sure of that much; but he also senses, however vaguely, that it is the fog that surrounds the dark and sordid affairs of men who have shed their humanity to commit a sick, twisted, beastly crime. It is the fog that prevents these men from realizing just how beastly they have become. It is the fog of self-delusion. It suggests power, when in fact the beasts are losing what is left of their minds and their strength.

         Hold him up, fuck nuts; the stronger, definitely male voice snaps back.

         Billy Ray’s right eyelid wants to snap back up, but he keeps it down. The less those two guys know about his physical condition, the better for him. He is aware now that they are hauling him over muddy terrain; the younger person is holding up his arms; the stronger person his legs. There must be a lot of leaves and sticks on the path, as he hears the debris snapping under the heels of their boots. The swoosh sound further off suggests mud sliding into a cascading river.

         He feels his butt sinking downward. Now and then, his butt crack slithers across a slimy rock. He imagines a corpse reaching up and fingering his asshole.

         He still feels that rat in the back of his head, but even more so it is that slimy corpse finger tracing up his butt crack that makes him want to scream. In those moments, it takes every last bit of will not to give voice to the icy, naked fears slithering up his throat. God alone knows that those yahoos may do, if out of the blue he cries out in horror, as they are carrying him into the dark woods.

*   *   *

         Billy Ray blacks out again, though this time he senses all along that he is not falling down a well so much as hovering in a shadow. It is as if his mind and body had conked out as a defense mechanism against the possibility that at any moment he would scream out in fear. Better to be dead weight carried into the old night, than a deranged big mouth in need of another ‘attitude adjustment.’

         He senses a rat’s claw repeatedly scratching against his left cheek. It is a menacing touch, like the fucking fanged beast is toying with him, before eating him raw. He imagines opening his right eye (and, perhaps, his left eye too, as it seems to be coming out of its coma) and beholding the creature in all its rabid, toothy ferocity. It opens its mouth into a devilish grin, but it is the radiant, red eyes that speak to him: I’m going to eat you. I’m going to gnaw on you until my own rat stomach cannot hold one more ounce of your flesh. Then, when I reach that endpoint, I’m going to take one more bite, and burst outward. You’ll have to see your naked flesh coming out of my belly. Forced to watch, bitch, ‘cause you’re guilty. Forced to see your own naked dead flesh intermingled with mine.

         This time, Billy Ray cannot restrain himself. He cries out in total despair.

         That breaks the illusion, and he recognizes that that is not a rat’s claw. Actually, it is something much worse, for this is a human hand. It is slapping his left cheek, not scratching it; and while it is now slapping him softly, it is doing so in such a way as to suggest that it will hit him a lot harder if he does not get up soon enough. The person slapping him now has little patience, and even less empathy, for the weak; and for now Billy Ray is the weak sister between them.

         Billy Ray opens his eyes. He stares into the horrible face of David Trent.

         Sleeping Beauty woke up, David says with a wide smile. 

         Shit, man, the young, tired voice says from behind him.

         Fucking right on, David responds, while looking over his left shoulder and chuckling. You owe me fifty dollars fuck nuts.

         David turns back to Billy Ray. The greasy, pockmarked creep is kneeling, so that his face is no more than inches above his victim’s. That seems to be his favorite position: Up close and personal, where the sad sack has no choice, but to smell his sour whiskey and cigarettes breath, and to observe every one of his premature wrinkles and blackheads. Most unsettling, though, is the insane look in his eyes. His pupils call to mind the smart, mercurial Cheshire cat, or maybe the Joker before he is about to let loose with mad laughter; but his squint calls to mind the growling, rabid dog at the end of its chain; just one more jump off of its hind legs, and it will snap those chains in two and tear off your face. Yes, from time to time, he may speak in a jocular manner; but his eyes always hunt you down. Notwithstanding all the mirth, they search for the weak point to kill.

         I knew you’d come around, David says with a knowing grin. Sure, you’re a shit bag; but if you’re ballsy enough to fuck my wife, then you’ve got enough jizz to take a kiss to the back of the head.

         A kiss to the back of the head, the young man repeats in jest. 

         Shut the fuck up, Weed, David says irritably, but without taking his eyes off of his victim. If I’d knocked you the same way, you’d be pushing up roses by your mom’s tombstone already.

         Weed snorts, like he cannot decide if he should laugh or snarl.

         David reaches into his pocket. He retrieves Billy Ray’s knife, considers it a moment, and then twirls a series of figure eights in the air with the tip just a quarter of an inch away from Billy Ray’s right eye. Since the right eye indeed is more open than the left, it is better able to express Billy Ray’s paralyzing fright at that moment. That appears to be the reason why David focuses his knife play there rather than anywhere else.

         Really thought you were gonna snuff me with this toy, huh? David asks.

         Billy Ray thinks he should respond, lest David feel insulted and get mad.

         Nevertheless, try as he may, Billy Ray cannot speak. The most he can do is to moan like a boy with a terrible stomach flu. He prays that the sluggish and irritable moan does not piss off his sick tormentor as much as his silence would have, for the insane look in David’s eyes suggests that anything can set him off at any given time. He fears that anything he does is a game of Russian roulette.

         I should stick you like a roasted pig, David snarls, as he lightly stabs Billy Ray’s right cheek. 

         Roasted pig, Weed repeats, and then laughs. 

         ‘Cause you’re a ballsy, son of a bitch, wife stealer, David continues. Just one of those shit bags that thinks he can take what’s not his, and get away with it. Well, let me tell you something. No man’s outside the reach of the law, and out here, where the Manchester River leaves Beverly behind, I am the law. You get that, you fucking wife stealer?

         Every time David snarls ‘wife stealer’ he stabs Billy Ray’s cheek just hard enough to shed blood. The blood slides down his cheek like thin, red tears; and with the facial bruises that Billy Ray sustained when falling onto the hardwood, and also the blood smear on his hair from the head wound, Billy Ray looks like a clown that has fallen on hard times. 

         David stands up. He slides the knife back into his pocket. He looks down at Billy Ray with absolute contempt.

         Weed stands beside him. For the first time, Billy Ray is able to make out the younger man. Weed is a scrawny, pimply man in his early twenties in soiled overalls and yellow rain boots. His long, scraggly, red hair drapes his shoulders. His eyes are slightly off center, which gives him the appearance of being a dim boy just off the old farm truck. 

         Weed has a shovel in his right hand. He cherishes it, like a Marine would his M-16. Judging from the spacey look in Weed’s eyes, Billy Ray presumes that David does not let his protégé handle any other weapons. 

         David reaches into his back pocket. He removes his favorite wrench. It is covered in blood still, though the blood has coagulated considerably. David has the wrench in his right hand. He taps it repeatedly into the palm of his left, not hard enough to inflict real damage, but nevertheless suggesting that the creepy brute may have a masochistic side to him. 

         I should kill you right now, David snarls. 

         Kill you right now, Weed repeats with a goony laugh that reveals an odd shaped mouth full of nicotine stained, chipped teeth. 

         It’d be in my rights, David reasons, while still tapping his left palm with the unwavering beat of a metronome.

         Be in my rights, Weed repeats.

         David shoots Weed a nasty glance. The young man falls silent, though his maniacal eyes imply that in his mind he is laughing still at Billy Ray’s weakness.

         Billy Ray winces. He expects David to kneel down and to slam his wrench against his forehead. Create another rabid rat in the frontal portion of the brain, and the two rats can eat their respective ways to the middle. Someday, when the authorities find Billy Ray’s corpse out here, they will see that his grey matter either has been digested or torn off the brainstem and tossed out every which way. That is the excruciating pain he will endure as soon as David kneels down and delivers the knockout blow.

         But I’m not going to do that, David continues. A head blow is like turning off the lights. It’s all over too fast. And if there’s any justice in this world, wife stealers deserve more punishment than that. Don’t you agree?

         Billy Ray moans. He tries to say ‘no,’ but in his ears anyway he sounds as if Jacob Marley wallowing in his chains. 

         The plan is simple, really, David continues. Weed here is going to dig out a grave, while I’m smoking a joint. Then, when its deep enough, I’m returning, kicking you in the side until you roll into your new home, and burying you alive.

         Billy Ray’s left eyelid shoots up also. Both his eyes practically bulge out of their sockets. He sits up briefly on his elbows, like he actually thinks that he can waddle away from the two lunatics. 

         Weed steps forward with a grunt. He raises his shovel, and swings it like a bat into Billy Ray’s stomach. 

         Billy Ray clutches his stomach. He is cocooned in pain. 

         In particular, the pain in the midsection feels like a bonfire swept up by the winds and spread passed the circle. It is going to ignite the forest trees out yonder; and when that happens, his mind and his body will explode. Maybe that will be better than what he is experiencing now, and yet he views the prospect with dread. Indeed, even then, the fear that this pain will ignite something far worse is much more powerful than the actual pain itself. 

         Weed’s gonna do what he does, David sighs. As for me, I’ll take my leave now, and see you again in hell. 

         Weed laughs. He spits out tobacco, or maybe a loose tooth.

         David gives Weed another nasty look, while David removes a small bag of pot and a piece of Zippo cigarette paper from the same pocket in which he had stuffed Billy Ray’s knife earlier.

         David looks away from Weed, while he packs and rolls his joint. There is a strangely contemplative look on his face. It is as if, somehow, David is able to intuit what will happen. He is ready for what will happen; and in a way, he has been ready since he first slammed a wrench on the backside of a victim’s head.

*   *   *

         Billy Ray must have blacked out again. He does not recall doing so, but it is clear enough that time has passed, when he turns his head slowly to the right side and observes the shovel leaning upon a pile of dirt. Moonlight shines off of the shovel; and in the soft, bluish luminescence, the dirt clinging to that shovel and clumped together in the pile seems strangely alive. This makes no sense of course to the rational mind, but the eyes see what they see: The dirt breathes. The dirt moves. The dirt lives for no other purpose than to clog Billy Ray’s nose and mouth and to press his chest into his back. The dirt is so animate right now because it senses that it is very close to fulfilling its one purpose. Much like the boy approaching the family Christmas tree the morning after Santa did what he is prone to do, the dirt is not able any longer to contain its excitement. 

         Billy Ray blinks his eyes. He hears the swoosh of a late night wind sliding over his face; and when he focuses his eyes again on the shovel and the dirt, he realizes that the dirt is as dead as always. It is movingonly to the extent that a gust knocks it up from the ground, or breathes waves through the pile, or kicks it onto his face. He spits out the dirt. He cannot deny the earthy, organic smell and taste on his lips; but it is, nonetheless, a dead mud drooling down his chin, and gathering upon his throat.

         Billy Ray hears the rush of the Manchester River. He vaguely remembers David referencing it, but he had not heard it then. No doubt, he had too much else on his mind when first staring into David’s ugly face and mad eyes. He has learned on stage that the mind blocks out much more than it gathers it, so that the person is able to focus in on what matters at the time. Actors learn about a ‘fourth wall,’ but their minds would fashion one (some admittedly more porous than others) even if they never heard the phrase mentioned in any acting class.

         He imagines that great river washing away whatever few minutes he has. To that extent, the river is a torment; but it is also a blessing. If Billy Ray truly wants to live to see another sunrise, then he needs to act now, no matter all of the throbbing pain in the back of his head and midsection. It may be futile, but it is better to struggle than to go quietly into that dark and wet grave, is it not?

         Billy Ray sits up on his elbows. The last time he had tried he had to slide back down to the ground when the hillbilly smashed him in his stomach. Maybe because of that mental association, Billy Ray is overcome by a wave of cold and raw fear at first. The moment passes; and he discovers that his elbows, indeed, are much stronger and steadier than anticipated.

         From this vantage point, he sees that he is in a forest clearing. The open grave to his immediate right is almost done. The river is behind him. He senses that, if he turned around, he would observe a dark blue snake topped here and there by white foam, cutting through a timeless ravine, and sprinkling nightlife when illuminated by the moon. The river is the life here. The trees, the shrubs, the open grave freshly dug from the earth, everything else is altogether dead in comparison. This very fact casts a shade of gloom over the space and the time; and in a brief spurt of his analytical, conscious mind, Billy Ray wonders if this is the essence of every graveyard. Perhaps, the graveyard is a dead place or time only in comparison to the vibrant life just beyond the Iron Gate. Perhaps, there is no such thing as life except in contrast to death, and vice versa. If so, then a vibrant, healthy person can never be more than a step ahead of the death grip.

         No time for a mind fuck, Billy Ray thinks with some irritation.

         And yet it is precisely because he had entertained that ‘mind fuck’ that, for the first time since being hit on the back of his head, Billy Ray is able to put his considerable pain to the side. He feels drugged. Sure, the pain is still there; but it feels like something that has been relegated to the sidelines. It is vague, ghostly, like a strange remembrance of what pain had been way back when. To that extent, the pain still inspires fear; but it is not the kind of fear that forces a man to stay put on the ground or in his hole. 

         Of course, a ‘mind fuck’ is not an actual pharmaceutical. The awful pain will return ‘after a word from our sponsors;’ and when it comes back, it will be worse than before. Now is the window of opportunity to act; not after a minute or two of gathering his thoughts; not even after thirty seconds of calming down his agitated nerves. He either gets off his ass, or he falls into the grave.

         Billy Ray sits upright. The forest spins a moment; and he leans back upon his right hand, until the nausea passes.

         He scans the forest clearing again. This time, he does not simply want to take it all in. He needs to find the other two men, before they notice that he is Lazarus unwrapping his bandages and staggering out from his tomb.

         David is nowhere to be seen. 

         Weed is sitting cross-legged about fifty feet away. He has his back to the open grave and to the bloodied and bruised man, who is supposed to be kicked into the open grave when David returns. Bluish, pungent smoke billows up from Weed’s face and lingers over his head as if an inflatable overhang. The howling night wind scatters the overhang soon enough; but in the meantime, it contorts it into the semblance of dragons or ghouls; and as soon as one of the overhangs dissipates, there is enough smoke to fashion a totally new one. In that way, the smoker remains a step ahead of his elements. So long as the joint does not give out, he will continue to be shielded by his devilish smoke clouds; and he will be alone in whatever insipid thoughts occupy his mind when he is at rest. 

         So Weed is in his oasis; and like Eve before him, he is too charmed by his own nature (and by the especially strong marijuana that Chuckles the Nightclub Owner and Friendly Neighborhood Drug Kingpin sells to his ‘best customers’) to pay attention to the snake with the shovel coming up from behind him.

         Actually, Billy Ray’s advance across the forest clearing can be described as ‘snakelike.’ He is not slithering upon his belly, nor is he hissing; but his hard stagger through the thick, smelly mud includes the kind of involuntary twitches in his legs and arms that can call to mind a writhing snake. Moreover, he is very slow and sneaky in his approach. There is no empathy in his eyes, just the dark, calculating look of a devil that has assumed the form of a serpent in the marsh.

         Billy Ray does not hesitate. He emerges from out of the smoke cloud. He raises the shovel above his head (considerable spasm of pain for a moment, but then the drugged feeling that had taken hold a few minutes prior), searches for a target on the back of Weed’s head, and swings. 

         Weed never knows what hit him. He is dead by the time he falls forward and swallows his joint. The fire inside his joint burns the inside of his neck, but he does not feel that sensation either. It is simply ‘lights out’ and ‘game over.’

*   *   *

         Billy Ray falls to his knees. He had had to tap into an unknown reserve of adrenaline to swing the shovel hard enough; and now, with his breaths labored, his body electrified by pain, and his mind spinning towards the open grave that had been dug for him alone, he is spent, lost, and afraid. He throws the shovel off to the side, and buries his face in his hands.

         Cold blooded, Billy Ray thinks. 

         Except that deep down he realizes that this had not been a cold blooded murder of a young man enjoying his last joint. At some point, Weed would have finished his trip in the yellow submarine. Then, he would have found David and brought him back to the scene. Billy Ray had acted out of self-defense as if the hillbilly stoner had pulled a pistol on him.

         So Billy Ray does not feel guilt, so much as intense fright of what his life will become now that he has crossed the line. Most of what we do in life can be redone or undone, though there may be a cost to the man who wants a ‘second try.’ Homicide is not one of those. Never before has Billy Ray done anything so final, and it is that fact more than anything else that makes him feel right now so very far removed from his own innocence…

         From the life that that bastard had taken from him…

         Bravo! Bravo! David says, while stepping out from behind a dense wall of trees, and clapping enthusiastically. 

         Billy Ray reaches halfheartedly for the shovel. He is weak from pain and exhaustion, but even more so he is resigned to the fact that his struggle against the open grave is about to end.

         David steps on the shovel, before Billy Ray can lift it. 

         Billy Ray looks up. He expects to see David’s ugly face, but first his eyes zero in on the muzzle pointed at the top of his nose. He cannot make out what type of pistol it is, but when this close it really does not matter anyway. When David is done toying with him, probably a matter of seconds instead of minutes because of the late hour, he too will experience ‘lights out’ and ‘game over.’ If this is not the fastest karmic turnaround, then he cannot imagine what is. 

         Fuck, man, the way you staggered and twitched across the stage, well, I know that the queer critics would call that ‘melodrama,’ but for me it was like the best scene in a George Romero flick, David continues with a chuckle. 

         Billy Ray cannot figure out what to say. He feels warm pee sliding down the inside of his jeans (mostly down his right leg, which indicates which side his pecker happens to be saluting at that moment), but most everything else is just a mad rush of thoughts and sensations over which he has no control. He feels as if his mind is a bucking bronco. He and the bucking bronco are in the very same arena; but he is on foot, and the reins of the bronco flap just beyond his reach.

         You’re not talking, huh? David says, while waving the pistol erratically in front of Billy Ray’s nose. Let me guess. You’re what those fucking queers call a ‘method actor.’ ‘Brokeback Mountain’ shit, like you’re ‘strong and silent’ while taking it up the ass. John Fucking Wayne with nothing to say to the man who is going to make you eat lead. Am I close? Come on, you can tell me. 

         Yes, Billy Ray finally manages to say. Brokeback Mountain…

         David does not respond, unless tapping the end of the muzzle against his victim’s forehead can be regarded as a ‘response.’ David loves how the bruised forehead freezes in fright every time he taps his pistol against it. The forehead alternates from flesh to statue with no more effort on his part than the forward thrust of his pistol. This is a power the Caesars understand and the cocksuckers do not. It is the insight that allows the Caesars to stand tall, while the others in one way or another have to bend over.

         I knew you’d get off your ass, and take care of business, David continues in an almost pleasant, conversational voice. You’re too fucking ballsy just to lie there in the mud. So I waited and watched…

         I don’t understand, Billy Ray mutters.

         David sighs. Cocksuckers can be so dumb sometimes.

         Weed was a loose end, David explains. The kind of guy you kill off before the fifth act, ‘cause you don’t know what else to do with him on stage. 

         Fuck that, Billy Ray remarks with unanticipated rage in his voice. 

         What the fuck? David mutters with a brief quiver of fear. 

         Weed had to go, because he’d talk, Billy Ray explains.

         Billy Ray cannot understand why he has broken out of his shell. Perhaps, he had not cleaned out his adrenaline reserve, after all. Or, perhaps, he is just sick and tired of being sick and tired. If he is going to eat lead anyway, then he may as well give that bastard something to remember at the bitter end. 

         Damn mouthy all of a sudden, David snarls. Like a fucking woman…

         Billy Ray imagines Donna in her medically induced coma. She is wrapped in enough bandages to look like a mummy in one of those George Romero flicks that David loves so much. Her mouth and nose are hidden behind her unsightly, bulky oxygen mask. She is in no condition to be one of those ‘mouthy women,’ because this damned bastard confuses his cock with a wrench.

         Billy Ray feels raw rage boiling up from his bowels. It is powerful, scary, probably more self-destructive than anything else; but, for now, this rage is his one source of strength and resolve. He is probably going to die in the next few seconds; but if, somehow, he does manage to pull himself out of this hell pit in time, then it will be because he focuses his hatred. The soldier who survives his charge into the bayonet line does so not because he is more principled than the other team, nor because he is on the side of the angels, but because at just the right moment he does a better job than the other boy in focusing the bellicose, unfed beast in his heart. He hates senselessly, without measure, when he must.

         So what’s with the pistol? Billy Ray asks. Your M.O. is a wrench, is it not?

         While you’re holding onto a shovel? David responds. You think I’m dumb, like that fucking hillbilly you wasted? Get up now. Let me show you something.

         Billy Ray stands up. Notwithstanding the adrenaline rush from suddenly, and unexpectedly, confronting the madman, Billy Ray remains in bad condition. His knees scream out in pain, when he tries to walk on them. His shoulder cries from when he had swung the shovel. His head wound has faded to the sidelines somewhat, but it will return with a vengeance sometime soon. When it returns, he had better be close to a bed (or an open grave), for he will not be able even to move, until the wound heals or the slow bloodletting finally finishes him off. Either way, he will be in no condition to struggle with this pockmarked asshole.

         David nudges his victim to the side of the open grave. A gust slingshots a bit of dirt into his face, but he spits it out without once removing his cold eyes from the back of Billy Ray’s head. He chuckles at an inane thought, but then he returns to ‘serious business’ by tapping the end of his muzzle against Billy Ray’s unseemly, coagulated head wound. 

         Billy Ray winches in electric pain, but he is careful not to give voice to it while standing so close to that pistol. A scream, a moan, even a croak could be just enough to excite David into pulling back on that trigger. He had pushed on David’s ego earlier, but now he senses it is best to keep his fucking mouth shut.

         Look down, David insists. What do you see?

         A hole in the ground, Billy Ray answers.

         Bullshit, David snarls, while again punching Billy Ray’s head wound with his pistol. That’s not a hole. That’s the alternate story of what happened here. You were stalking me earlier this evening. I saw you from my kitchen window. I urged Weed not to leave, ‘cause there’s no telling what a madman like you will do. He insisted. He drives off in my Camaro. You hail a cab, and follow him out here. Oh, and don’t you worry about that little detail. I’ve got a cabbie friend. He owes me big time. He will tell the cops that you waved him down, while he was driving his taxi down to the end of the road. Anyway, once the cabbie exits stage left, you hide in the woods, and watch Weed do what junkies do in far off places. You get your rocks off. You see that Weed brought a shovel out here for God knows what reason. Junkies do junkie things, after all, like carrying around shovels when they have no business doing so. You wait until he’s looking away. You grab the shovel; and, well, you already know what you do then. What a big mess! Blood is everywhere, especially in your fucked up imagination…

         David circles around to the other side of the grave. Now, as he concludes his alternate story, he points his dark pistol once more at his victim’s forehead.

         You can’t get away from the blood, can you? David continues. The blood breathes and moves, like that blob in that old flick. 

         Billy Ray glances over at the pile. It too breathes and moves, whenever a howling gust kicks up a clump of dirt, or ripples through the mud. At times, the ruddy dirt even laughs at him, since soon enough it will be dining on his corpse.

         You find Weed’s pistol by his corpse, David continues. His pistol inspires one last performance out of you. Always the actor, you simply cannot avoid the melodramatic touch of digging your own grave…

         David returns to Billy Ray’s side of the grave. He stabs his pistol against Billy Ray’s forehead.

         But then the moment comes, doesn’t it? David continues. The bloodbath just before the epilogue, except in this play there is no sword fight for the love of a girl, no battle to save a magic kingdom, just one guilty man and his pistol…

         David pulls back on his hammer. There is a sharp click. In Billy Ray’s ears it sounds like a balloon the size of the earth has been popped by a needle. It is a simple, but horrifying, sound that shakes his knees and rips the breath out of his lungs. He cannot understand how it is that he is still standing on his feet, as the rest of his body and soul feels like dead foliage swept up by the night wind to God knows where. Clearly, he is not standing up by his own volition. Clearly, something (or someone) else holds him up, so that his head will take the bullet.

         A bush rustles loudly off to the side. There is a deep roar. It could be the roar of an enormous cat, except that it sounds much too unhinged to sound like the kind of feline we typically encounter in American forests. Once the rational mind discounts that possibility, the superstitious mind intercedes; and we think of the legendary big foot, or the ghostly banshee, or some other figment of our imagination somehow set loose to roam the shadows. Even if only for a moment we lose sight of what we had been doing just then. We are convulsed in a cold, paralyzing fear; and our conscious thoughts sway from dreadful, inchoate ideas or sensations to nothing whatsoever. 

         The paralysis ceases, like a statue broken apart from a whirlwind. David is the first to turn away from what he had been doing and to scan the trees for the source of that strange sound. Billy Ray remains frozen a second longer, and that will turn out to be his salvation at this time. The reason is simple: Because David had turned to look first, he had a little more time to focus on whatever is roaring out there. By coming out of his paralysis later, Billy Ray instead focuses on the fact that the man with the pistol is not paying any attention to him now.

         At most, Billy Ray has a second or two advantage; not enough time to try to put together the optimal attack plan. All he can do then is to lunge forward, knocking the pistol away with the back of his right hand, and collapsing the two of them into the open grave.

         A vicious fright erupts in the foul smelling dreck of the open grave. They flail their closed fists at one another erratically, missing more than connecting, pushing up mud that is then swept away by the howling winds. There is no clear rhyme or reason, until David manages to wrap his hands around Billy Ray’s neck and to squeeze hard. Billy Ray still flails wildly; but with his eyes bulging out of his sockets, and his face contorting into a grimace of pain, Billy Ray looks like a fish out of water more intent on grasping for air than on landing punches.

         Fucking wife stealer, you can’t get away, David mutters.

         The knife slides out of David’s pocket. Billy Ray is swaying both his hands every which way without any apparent intention on his part; and yet, when the knife scratches against his right hand on the way down to his feet, Billy Ray has just enough marbles left in his cranium to grab a hold of the knife. He is really not sure what to do with it, but at least he has it.

         Perhaps, David sees the knife at the very end. There appears to be some sort of awareness in his sick eyes; but even if so, he does not have enough time to defend himself, before Billy Ray lifts the sharp knife over his head and stabs David’s chest an untold number of times.

         David moans. His flesh spasms, like he is being cooked alive on a griddle. His blood squirts out of his chest like miniature geysers. Once Billy Ray hits one of his arteries, a gurgling mushroom cloud of blood and innards will replace the miniature geysers now on display. David is now, and will be even more so, a big bucking bronco of fear and pain; his whole body a writhing, unvoiced scream at the God who presumes to drag him into his eternal life.  

         And yet, for all that, Billy Ray manages to press his body weight against David’s waist and legs, while he stabs at that chest with the crazed tenacity of a beast. Billy Ray feels how David’s butt wobbles on the wrench he had stuffed into one of his back pockets, thus adding discomfort to David’s backside, while Billy Ray literally rips open the front side.  

         Billy Ray stabs one of the arteries. As expected, there is a burst of blood and innards into Billy Ray’s face. He spits away as much as he can; but he looks like a mad clown hiding behind a blood sprinkled mask, regardless.

         David is dead for some time, before Billy Ray senses vaguely that this has gone on much too long. He stabs the knife into the diaphragm, which by now is mostly exposed. The handle sticks out of the wound, as if a hitchhiker’s thumb.

         Billy Ray crouches forward. He wrings his gloved hands together, like he is simultaneously overwhelmed by grief and madness. His eyes sting from blood dripping into his tear ducts. His mouth looks as if it has been contorted forever into an unvoiced howl of despair. Far from triumphant, he looks and acts like a man so broken as to be inhuman; lost in his embrace of death; alone in his sins.

         I am not alone, Billy Ray mutters vaguely.

         No, you’re not, a strong woman’s voice states from the top of the grave.

         Billy Ray looks up and behind his right shoulder. The expression upon his face is that of a frightened, beaten dog; and yet already his heart is calming in his chest, and his bowels are relaxing. He knows that voice, though as of yet he cannot place its name. It is the voice of a friend coming out from the darkness.

         The woman is a mousey, old maid type. She has abnormally huge eyes on her heavyset face. He almost recoils from those eyes, but then he realizes that she is wearing owl glasses. Take away those glasses, and she is just a daffy, old woman, the kind normally found behind the research desk at the public library.

         Miss Bruner, Billy whispers in utter amazement. You’re not wearing red…

         Sure enough, though Claire is wearing her typical fur scarf, her formless, red sweater has been replaced with an equally formless black one. Strange that Billy should focus on her attire just then; but, then again, given his disoriented, taxed mind, it is the only detail on which he could fasten at that time. The fact that he can notice her different sweater is, perhaps, the only sign that he truly will be able to emerge from the depth of this awful experience sometime later.

         Claire seems to understand the importance of this observation. She grins and reaches forward with both her hands. 

         Come on, Billy, Claire says. Time to get out of the grave.

         For a moment, Billy Ray has no idea what she is saying. He then feels his knees wobbling upon the squishy legs of the newly minted corpse beneath him. It is just enough of a sensation to slap the here and the now back into his mind.

         What the fuck? Billy Ray mutters, before he rushes out of the grave, like a crazed man scrambling out from a fire pit. 

         Hold your horses, Billy, Claire says, while embracing him atop the grave.

         Claire turns out to be much stronger than she appears. She just manages to hold back ‘Little Billy,’ thus presumably preventing him from running like an escaped lunatic into the forest. All the time she retains a loving, calm smile, as if to say to the boy in her arms: Don’t you fret. The boogeyman is gone. 

         Billy Ray finally gets a hold of himself. He looks into the huge eyes of his friend. The moonlight reflected off her lenses gives her an ethereal appearance that suggests a guardian angel stepping out from his Midsummer Night’s Dream. He is as amazed as he is frightened, but he has enough of a spine now to retain his composure, no matter what strange turns may be ahead on his path tonight.

         What are you doing here? Billy Ray asks.

         I followed you here, Claire responds in the slow and careful manner of a teacher trying to explain a story to a Kindergarten student. I’ve been watching David Trent after work ever since I helped you narrow down his address. I knew that sooner or later you’d confront him, and I wanted to be able to back you up if something went wrong. 

         You did that for me? Billy Ray asks. 

         I’d do that for any little boy confronting a bully for the first time, Claire answers with a big grin. The runts need their guardian angel from time to time.

         Billy Ray turns away from Claire. He scans the forest clearing. There are two corpses, a pistol, a shovel, in essence enough incriminating evidence to put Billy Ray away for the rest of his life. Of course, in theory, he may persuade an impartial jury that he acted out of self-defense; but how likely is that when the cops will do anything to put down the scumbag, who had killed Jim Trent’s fine and upstanding brother. Moreover, even if he beats the rap, will he ever regain shared custody of his son, when the Beverly Times publishes every sordid detail of his nighttime excursion out to 12501 Borden Road? 

         I should call the cops, Billy Ray says, even though he knows already that he will do no such thing. 

         A boy’s got to clean up his own mess, Claire responds.

         Billy Ray looks Claire straight in the eyes. He wants to see if there is any doubt. There is none, because she knows as well as he does that the police are not going to give him a fair shake. He is equally sad and angry that he has been put in this situation, but the facts are what they are. He either hides all of this evidence and hopes for the best, or he calls the cops and goes to prison. 

         Billy Ray walks to the edge of the open grave. He really tries not to look at that bloodied, grimacing corpse down there; but the moonlight reflected off of the knife handle draws his eyes to what little remains of David’s chest. 

         What a fucking horror show! Billy Ray cannot quite believe that, indeed, he had anything to do with all that carnage down there. He thinks of himself as an innocent bystander, who has just wandered up to the scene of a crime. 

         Nice illusion, except that he knows it is bullshit. Actors should be able to believe whatever is necessary for the sake of the character; but here, standing atop the open grave, and watching how the moonlight moves across the corpse, he can do no such thing. 

         He finally looks away from the open chest. He considers the depth of the grave. Hard to tell for sure in this dim moonlight, but he will go ahead with the plan that has taken root in the darker recesses of his conscious mind. He senses that he may be acting from madness as much as reason, but he is too tired now to try to differentiate the two.

         Thus, while Claire watches, Billy Ray staggers over to Weed’s corpse and grabs a hold of his hands. The dead weight of this motherfucker calls to mind a huge chunk of petrified wood. Nevertheless, Billy Ray does not relent in pulling Weed’s corpse across the forest clearing and in dumping it into the open grave.

         Weed lands faced down on David’s upturned face. The two will kiss each other into eternity. 

         Billy Ray dumps the pistol, the shovel, and the half smoked joint into the grave. He experiences a moment of regret in tossing in the joint, since that shit is much higher quality than his normal stash. 

         Billy Ray looks back at Claire. She smiles back as if to state: You’re doing all right, Billy. Keep up the good work. This will be over very soon.

         Turning back to the pile, Billy Ray uses his arms to toss the wet dirt back into that hole. It takes a long time, but he finally covers them over completely.

         Billy Ray follows Claire out to the parked Camaro. He is way too tired to think about how to dispose of this piece of evidence. All he can do is to look at the automobile like it may be an alien starship that landed there moments ago.

         Claire takes the reins. She finds the key in the ignition, and drives it out to the edge of the deep and fast moving Manchester River. The roar of all that rushing water can be intimidating; but she pays it no mind, as she puts the car into neutral, climbs out of the driver’s seat, and pushes it slowly into that sink.

         The Camaro does not sink into the river; so much as the river appears to open its foamy mouth and to swallow it whole. It is as if the Camaro never had been; and in Claire’s mind, that is so much the better. Bad boys drive Camaros, after all; and these bad boys never pay their fines for late or lost library books, let me tell you. So one less sports car on the highway is like one more lawyer at the bottom of the sea. 

         Billy Ray staggers up to Claire. He looks and acts like one of the zombies in The Night of the Living Dead, though he lights up a bit when Claire pats him on the back for a job well done. 

         Time to go, Billy, Claire says. Passed your bedtime.

         Billy Ray chuckles a bit, but otherwise he remains subdued, while Claire leads him away from the scene. It is just as well that Billy Ray exhibits little to no emotion, for he has precious little energy left in his batteries this late night.

         Claire had parked her yellow Volkswagen Bug on the side of the two-lane highway that skirts the edge of the dark forest. She helps Billy Ray squeeze into her passenger seat. He is snoring by the time she shuts the door on him. 

         Claire will mend Billy Ray’s gory head wound, when she gets him back to his apartment. Then, she will head on out to David’s home to make certain that Billy Ray left no evidence behind. Judging by his wound, she likely will need to put some elbow grease into scrubbing his blood off of the floor. 

         So be it, Claire thinks, while driving down the two-lane highway towards distant city lights. After all, the work of a guardian angel is never done. 

*   *   *

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Published by Michael Sean Erickson

I write, act, and produce films in Los Angeles. Everything else is conjecture.

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