Billy Ray Blaise opens his eyes. He winces in reaction to those fluorescent lights that the hospital staff refuses to turn off. It does not matter if he actually wants to go to sleep for a few hours. The court psychiatrist has convinced the judge that Billy is a bona fide suicide risk. The moment he is unseen, even if only for a few minutes, he is going to slit his wrists, though God alone knows how given that nothing even remotely dangerous is kept in this small, out of the way, hospital room.
And so the minutes pass into hours, the days into weeks, and those damned lights above his head provide the same illumination, and buzz with the same electric charge, no matter the changes in the season outside. In here, above his head, it is always the subdued light of late afternoon; but for the rest of the room, which remains untouched by the fluorescent lights, it is always three in the morning. Witches hover beyond sight in the shadows; for the third hour is the witching hour, and that is when old nightmares come true. Billy Ray cannot see his witches, but he imagines how their beady, red eyes glow above their long noses and whiskers. His witches are rats; and one of these days, when he lets down his guard, they are going to finish what that fat fuck Walter Whipple had started. They will step into the light cast by those buzzing fluorescent bulbs above his head; and before he can call for the nurse, they will open his veins, and feast on his blood. He will lose consciousness to the dreadful sound of rat squeals; an awful way to go, but a sentence he deserves given how he had been willing to abandon his son to his ex-wife to pursue a pipe dream theater career on Broadway.
Living a life beyond the gate is a pipe dream, Billy Ray now realizes. There is no real joy beyond the sunset. There is nothing out there, but rats gnawing ravenously on the carcasses of those dreamers and weekend warriors who had tried before to outpace the sun. Billy Ray will be one of those carcasses. It is only a matter of time. When you think about it every twist and turn along the path is only a matter of time. Just wait a few decades, or maybe a few lifetimes, and you will learn for yourself that the highest mountaintop is actually the lowest point in hell. We think we are up, when in fact we are down, because those witches out there hold up dresser mirrors that disorient a lot more than they reveal. That is what the witches do before they descend upon our flesh.
Billy Ray rattles the handcuffs clamped around his right wrist. One of these days, when the judge thinks he has enough marbles to sit upright in a criminal courtroom, he is going to be prosecuted and convicted for assaulting a security guard and for evading arrest. They would love to hook him into a meat locker for the murder of David Trent, but there is no corpus delicti. The corpse remains buried; and until his bones are found, David Trent is just a ‘missing person.’ Even Jim Trent cannot mastermind a conviction for murder when there is no body, no weapon, and no witness.
Actually, there is a witness; but Claire Bruner is not speaking. The prosecutors, the police, the politicians, they are all leaving her alone, even though they know damn well that she was the one shielding Billy Ray from justice. Claire knows where the Big Men on Campus hide their skeletons. It turns out she has been a ‘research librarian’ for a lot longer than she has worked in the public library. Heck, even those rat witches stay clear of her. Billy Ray envies the fact that when the hospital releases her, she can and will return to her cabin. She will vanish into the remoteness that she has carved out of the woods for herself. One day, she mans the research desk at the local public library; the next, she is so far gone as if never to have been there. Billy Ray cannot imagine a better way to live out this maudlin, Victorian, horror show we euphemistically call life.
It turns out that life is a series of pipe dreams. Forget Broadway. Even his small time career on the local stage is over. His face will never be cast in anything, except perhaps Doctor Frankenstein’s Monster, or the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Yes, he can dance again, after a long period of rehab pain; but who wants to jack off to a fucking freak show cowboy? Mentally, he already has hung up his shit boots and his Wranglers. It does not matter how much pain he endures. He will not dance again, except in how he twitches spastically when, finally, he has enough gumption to slice open his wrists.
Billy Ray looks at the door across the room. As always, there is the emotionless face of authority staring back at him. The suicide watchers change every six hours, but the face is the same: Aryan, contemptuous, hoping that he will try something, so that the suicide watcher can storm into the room and beat him to an inch of his life. These bastards do not want to keep him alive, so much as they do not want to be denied the opportunity to do the honors for him. Morality is about who gets to pull the trigger; and in the minds of cops and suicide watchers, everything is fine, if they get to be the ones pulling those triggers in the end. Only one side gets to win, and it is not Billy Ray’s side.
Billy Ray looks down his own flesh. When sleeping, he had kicked the sheets to the foot of the bed, so now he gets to see yet again just how much life has scarred his flesh. Oh, sure, that fat fuck Walter Whipple added more than his fair share of scars; but by no means can he be blamed or honored for all of them. Even now, Billy Ray can make out a few marks from when his marriage had been swirling down the drain. There is a particularly vicious wound from when ‘the lady of the night’ turned out to be ‘the tranny with a pistol and a bag’ (too many whiskey shots that night at the Kingfish Saloon, he remembers sheepishly). There are lots of other blemishes from when he had been so shitfaced drunk he fell into a gutter or a rosebush on the way home. Okay, so Walter made a mess of his life; but the more he stares at his flesh, the more he comes to grip with the fact that life makes a mess of a man’s life more than anything else. We do not die, so much as we are beaten to death by ex-wives, IRS audits, snide remarks, cancers, whatever life sees fit to throw at us. It is amazing we manage to live as long as we do.
Now, life is not totally bleak. There are good moments: Billy Ray’s conversation with his son, Gary, about how to get a mint condition Orel Hershiser baseball card; the nights alongside Donna watching Bill Murray and John Candy; the most memorable lays (married Asians, for some goddamn reason); the jokes that are ten times funnier than they really are because of how much liquor has been consumed.
But Gary is gone. The bitch, Stacey, won permanent custody as soon as the D.A. officially levelled charges against him. Donna is still around. He suspects she will be for as long as he is alive. Nevertheless, he has seen the sadness in her eyes, whenever the powers that be give her permission to hobble into his room for a few minutes of closely monitored chitchat. Eden has been stolen from them. She knows as well as he does that this stolen property will not be returned to them, no matter how much they talk about getting together for a night of DVDs and booze as soon as he gets out of prison. Likely, they will go through with their plan: Chill a couple bottles of cheap wine, roll a couple of joints, pop a bucket of popcorn, pick a half a dozen early eighties comedies from the DVD basket, take off their clothes, and let the hours pass them unnoticed. But they will not experience that innocence that they had known. The fear will remain, even if it is buried under a lot of inane laughter. Every now and then, they will glance at the grimy, old window blinds to see if, indeed, someone is watching them.
Billy Ray looks to the left. The window is there. The blinds are always drawn.
And yet, if he looks closely enough, Billy Ray can make out the eyes staring at him from the tiny space in between two blinds. The eyes never blink. They just watch, judge, and condemn, the charges and the verdict read simultaneously forever and ever.
* * *
The old man’s face sways side to side, like he is watching an invisible tennis ball knocked back and forth across a court. His eyes nearly bulge out from their sockets. His tongue hangs out from his open mouth, like it is being pulled down by stones. The man has a long, thin face with which to begin; but with his tongue overhanging his chin like that, he looks cartoonish. Nevertheless, the visceral fear in his eyes makes it clear that this is no laughing matter. He will die while seated at his desk at the township junkyard.
Just one week before this night, the old man had been as giddy as a schoolboy. He had gone to the sheriff’s auction without any particular vehicle in mind, when quite literally he stumbled into the side of a restored, all black, 1931 Marmon Model 16. Most of his life he has been a fan of midcentury muscle cars; but in his twilight years, given over to the romantic allure of nostalgia, he has become a devotee of vintage vehicles. These automobiles suggest long and lazy ‘Sunday Drives,’ when couples with more than a few pennies to rub together drove out to the countryside with umbrellas and picnic baskets. They call to mind whiskered gentlemen and smiling ladies. The ‘best people’ drove these automobiles the generation before the sexual revolution and the anti-war bums. Maybe, these oldsters still had a bit of that nostalgic magic beneath their hoods.
The old man had heard vaguely about a kidnapping and murder spree further up the Manchester River. The suspect had owned this fine automobile. Since the suspect, his cat, and his house had been long gone by the time the forensic crew had arrived at the scene of the crime, this automobile became the last connection the rest of us had to that misbegotten life. The Marmon made the Beverly Times. The people came from miles away to sneak a peek of this piece of history parked for several months behind a high, barb wired fence. Even the backwards, countrified folks out there in the Redwood Township heard about the ‘Ghost Car,’ as it came to be known.
The old man had not cared much for the crime story. He had heard far too many blood tales from his brother, who had been for years the Chief of Police for the Redwood Township. He had loved the ‘Ghost Car,’ nevertheless, the first time he heard about it.
So he had been as giddy as a schoolboy, indeed, when driving it from the sheriff’s auction to his junkyard on the outskirts of town. Though the vehicle had been restored already, the old man spent hours imagining what he would do with it. He would begin his love affair with his newest purchase by conducting a thorough top down inspection.
That inspection had been scheduled for the next morning. It is cancelled, for the old man will spend that time offering up his dead flesh to the rodents and the maggots.
The old man gurgles something or other. A single thin tear of blood slides down the left side of his chin. Then, as suddenly as he had been consumed by his death spasm, he stops moving. His wrinkled cheeks sink to the bottom of his face. His eyes stare out in eternal fear. His tongue is a snake that had died when halfway out of a man’s mouth.
The balding, fat man wearing the Mulberry plaid bowtie, white, starched shirt, and checkered pants waddles around the desk. He wiggles his fingers daintily beneath his nose, like he can smell buggers on the tips. His cheeky smile is as cheerful, as it is insane. His eyes are blank, for his soul had departed from them long before this night.
He grabs for the axe handle, so that he can pull the blade out from the exposed heart. He steps back at the last minute. There is blood everywhere, and God forbid any of it should sprinkle upon his fine outfit.
After all, notwithstanding how he lifts his pinkies into the air like a man seasoned by old money, he has no other outfit but the one on his fat body right now. Thank God he remembered the Chinese laundry in town, after crawling out from the Manchester a quarter of a mile downriver. Otherwise, he would be hiding still in the forest without any chance of respectability.
The sign above the Chinese laundry had read, ‘No Tickee, No Washee.’ The chink chimp owner, as the fat man preferred to think of him, had thought that the sign was pretty funny. He would not be similarly amused, when the fat man cut his heart in two with an axe blade, and claimed his laundry without the requisite ticket.
The fat man had been careful to throw Mr. Chink Chimp into the Manchester by cover of darkness without getting blood on his outfit. Surely, he must be as careful now.
And so the fat man wraps the handle in a towel, and removes the blade slowly. He holds the axe at arms’ length, while removing it to the adjoining bathroom to wash off the blood. He lifts his nose disapprovingly at the blood mess, and mutters: Tsk-Tsk!
Having scrubbed the axe clean, the fat man returns his weapon of choice to his instrument case. He sees the car key in a bowl on the desk. He grabs it without looking back even a moment at the dead junkyard owner with the big eyes and the long tongue.
Come on, pussy licker, the fat man snarls at the Dragon Li waiting apprehensively for him outside the office. Don’t think for a moment I’ve forgotten how you failed me.
The fat man waddles into the junkyard. It is just after midnight. There is a huge light hanging over the dead muscle cars, so theoretically he can be seen now from miles away. Nevertheless, his gut tells him that no one is paying any attention. After all, the only folks out this way are white trash and coons, the fat man suspects; and both groups have learned over the years that it is best for them to stay ignorant and to see nothing.
The fat man finds his wheels beneath a tarp. He opens the door, and he places his instrument case behind the driver’s seat. He looks back at the Dragon Li behind him.
Okay, come inside, the fat man says begrudgingly.
The Dragon Li pounces into the automobile. He curls into a ball beside the case.
The fat man squeezes behind the wheel. He no longer has his walking stick and his bowler. Nevertheless, for the first time since that night, he feels civilized. Yes, he is about to live his life as an outcast, a twenty-first century Cain, but at the very least he can endeavor to do so in style. Surely, he need not add insult to injury in this regard.
The fat man starts the ignition. He grins, wiggles his fingers under his nose, and says, Ta-Ta! Indeed, the engine purrs so lovely that he has a valid reason to celebrate.
He pulls out of the junkyard, gets out of the vehicle, pulls shut the gate, returns to the vehicle, and starts down the two-lane highway towards God knows where. He is not aware that his latest victim is the former police chief’s brother. Nor does he suspect that that fact will come to haunt him years from now, when he is living a new life under a new name far from here. He should not be so blind, for surely he knows how hard it is for a good and hospitable man to keep his own peculiar ghosts locked in their tombs.
Take off your clothes, the night whispers, and in response the fat man shudders.