“It’s hard to believe it, even as my eyes do see it,
The very things that make you live, are killing you.”
—Ray Lamontagne, ‘Shelter’ One Lonesome Saddle (2002)
As I slowly emerge from the fog, the voices come through before the light. I try to look around for faces, but my eyes are still too heavy to open.
He’s moaning again….Nope, still out…How much did that kid slip him…
As I struggle to raise my head, I can here three or four different people moving in and out of the room.
He’s getting up now, go tell Gil that he’s waking up.
When I finally manage to raise my head and open my eyes, I can see that I am in one of the old Piedmont motel rooms. Aside from the chair that I am tied to, the room is barren of furniture, though the discolored outline of the old bed is still visible on the shag carpeting. I look around on the walls and see that two paintings hang on the walls at odd angles, the few remnants of 70’s décor left over from the last major renovation to the building. Someone’s desperate attempt to save the old business before it succumbed to the normal life cycle of rural American commerce.
I look down at my hands and see the bindings that hold me to the arms of the chair. White plastic zip ties bound at my wrist and elbow. A lean, dingy-looking man with a sharp chin and straggly goatee is standing across from me, leaning against the wall near the door. His muscular arms are covered from knuckle to shoulder in cheap, monochromatic tattoos. I try to focus on his face, but I feel myself slipping away.
“Oh, no you don’t,” says the lean man. “Time to wake up, Gil is on his way up.” The man walks up to me, grabs my chin. He pinches something in his fingers and holds it under my nose. Instantly the smell of ammonia fills my head, and I feel as though someone is slapping me in the face, a burning tingle reaching down into my chest.
The lean man steps back towards the door and drops the smelling salt packet on the floor. Now fully alert, I can see just how dirty the floor is. The used salt packet is lying next to several cigarette butts, and the carpet is covered with various burns and brown stains. The only part of the floor that seems immune to the grime is the section of the room that contained the bed, the carpet below still holding on to some of the original brightness, seventies shag in all its fluorescent glory.
Looking back up at the thug leaning against the doorway, it occurs to me that I have much bigger problems than the state of the carpet. I had envisioned a thousand different scenarios for how this meeting was going to go, but I never pictured this. Though I’ve been afraid for my life since the last time I saw Whistler, my current predicament has made the prospect of death seem suddenly very real. I’ve told myself for years that I am not afraid to die, that Tommy and my mother have given me some kind of bone-deep immunity to the natural terror of personal mortality, but the zip ties and the bourbon-drenched thug standing across from me make it painfully clear that I am full of shit.
When pushed to the precipice, everyone is afraid. No exceptions.
I hear slow, lumbering footsteps coming down the hall, and the tattooed man quickly reaches for the door and steps out. When he reinters, the hairy, four hundred pound man that I saw earlier follows him in. He is wheezing deeply and carrying a large wooden chair, which he sets down immediately in front of me. The effort brings on a deep, thick coughing fit. After a few seconds, he snorts loudly and spits a thick, gooey pile of phlegm onto the floor.
“Jesus, Louie,” the skinny man says. “You’re gonna fucking keel over if you don’t lose a little weight.”
The fat man stands erect and returns a deep, hateful stare at the skinny one. “You keep making corrections like a wife, I’m gonna treat you like one.”
Despite the jail ink and the tough guy persona, the skinny guy has absolutely nothing more to say. He lowers his head and returns to his post leaning against the wall like a disciplined puppy, while Louie takes a post on the opposite side of the room.
After what seems like an eternity, Gil Grady finally enters. Given the minimal lighting in the room, when Grady stops in the doorway for a moment, he casts a long shadow that splits the room in two. I shake my head, but the effects of the sedative still linger, and it’s hard to shake the notion that this is all still a dream.
Grady walks slowly, stopping in front of the chair that Louie carried into the room. In one swift, deliberate motion, he pulls slightly up on the legs of his jeans as he bends to sit in the chair. He stares at me with the deep, intent eyes of a man who has found himself in this position, or a similar one, more times than he can recall. The fact that he is alive and walking freely while I am tied to this chair belies the one undeniable fact of the whole situation—however many times he has played this game, his record is perfect.
That is, after all, the only way to become the man in charge—an unspoiled winning streak.
Though it’s been years since I have seen him, he looks roughly the same as I remember, a little thicker around the mid-section and a bit less hair, but he is otherwise the same individual. Though he isn’t overly muscular, his mass suggests a man who is quite strong, capable of holding his own with just about anyone, including Louie—who is still wheezing over in the corner.
Of course, I saw Gil many times when I was growing up, on his daily meet-and-greets about town. Though he rarely wore suits, he often wore a sports coat and dark jeans, dress that articulated wealth without straying too far from the Midwestern roots. I have always felt the strong impression that everything about Gil Grady is carefully groomed and planned. Be it fear, or respect, or humility, all of Grady’s appearances leave the public with exactly the impression he wishes to create. He is the ultimate politician—not only because he is good at the game but also because he is not bound by the limits of law or morality. Even in a forgotten corner of the Midwest, the wheels of commerce and justice are dictated by power and influence, and Grady has never been afraid to push as far as he needs to go. Everyone in Culver County knows that much.
The most striking physical aspect of Gil Grady is his eyes. He has the kind of pale blue eyes that leave a clear and lasting impression. Though his round face and gradual chin are unremarkable and vaguely familiar, the eyes set him apart. A deep, clear shade of blue that demands attention. By the looks of him now, he has gotten good at using that cold gaze to his advantage over the years. He stares at me with an intensity that is slowly boring a hole into my skull.
I do my best to return a gaze that is respectful but also hides the rabid fear that is gripping my chest. I open my mouth to speak, but nothing passes my lips except a soft puff of air. I swallow hard and begin again.
“Mr. Grady, my name is…”
“I know your goddamn name,” he says, in a calm and even voice. “Your daddy has worked for me since before you were born.” It’s easy to see why Gil Grady has always commanded respect and fear from those around him. Though he has a casual way about him, he ends each sentence with the kind of firm emphasis that reminds you that he is in complete control. A man with the upper hand. “Knew your momma, too. A fine lady,” he says. “A nice piece of ass, too, though a bit long in the tooth for my taste,” he holds up his hands as though the truly offensive portion of his remarks dealt with age. “At the time of her passing, I mean.”
I’m not sure what his intentions are with the comment, but he looks at me with a grimy leer as he licks his lips. He pauses again, and I’m unsure if I’m supposed to reply.
“In fact, there aren’t a lot of folks from this river valley that I don’t know, but I expect you know that.” He reaches into his side pocket and pulls out a cigarette, flipping open a silver lighter and taking a long, deliberate drag. “I’m what you might call the founder of the feast.” He points, the cigarette at my face, holding the smoldering cherry a few inches from my eye. “course you know that, too. Everybody does,” he says with a wink. When he exhales, a waft of thick, white smoke billows into my face, and I can feel my eyes burning. I desperately want to rub my eyes, but my hands are locked tight to the arm of the chair. “That’s the thing about Culver County,” he continues. “Doesn’t matter how long you’ve been away, you still pretty much know the score. Ain’t that right?”
I gaze back and him, and he nods at me, wafting his hand towards me in a magnanimous gesture, then waits for me to speak. “I think there’s been a mistake,” I say. “I came back for your help. I don’t mean to cause any problems.”
He stands up and takes a few long strides towards me, placing his hand on my shoulder, the smoldering cigarette once again dangling perilously close to my face. “I know that, too, son, and I want you to know that I appreciate your family heritage and all.” As he pulls the cigarette away to take a drag, red-hot ash drops from the end of the smoke and lands on my arm, singing my skin. If Grady sees, he pretends not to notice. “It truly does mean something that you come from these hills, that your father has been of such service to me all these years.” He points the smoke back at my face and shakes his fingers back and forth. “That’s not just lip-service, either. Despite how this may seem, I’m really being quite hospitable, given the circumstances.”
I think about the alternatives to Gil Grady’s hospitality, and I feel my stomach lurch. I look again at the floor, suddenly quite aware of the origin of a few of the mystery stains.
He walks back to the other side of the room, stretches his arm up in the air, and stares at the drapes covering the window on the center of the wall. He stands looking through the closed curtains as though he were a plantation owner gazing out over his fields. When he turns back to me and looks at me in the face, I can almost feel the empathy in his voice, a softening of his eyes.
When he speaks, though, the menace immediately returns. “Thing is, though, boy, is that business is always business, and that’s just a fact that a man like me has to embrace.” He flicks a thumb back, pointing at his own chest. “A man of my position, I mean. My business don’t give two fucks about family ties,” he says, patting my shoulder once again, “but you’re a smart boy, you already knew that, too.”
As I sit staring up at him, trying to figure out what the hell is going on, another of Grady’s thugs enters the room. He gently pulls on Grady’s shoulder, and Grady turns towards the door as the man enters the room. The thug walks over and whispers in Grady’s ear. “Well I don’t give a shit what he’s doing, you take care of him,” he says to the man. “You really think we need him introducing himself to this situation?” The man nods and continues to whisper furiously in Grady’s ear. Suddenly, Grady shakes his head violently and points towards the door. “What part of get the fuck out of here and take care of it do you not understand?” The man staggers back a few feet and fumbles his way towards the door. Grady follows a few steps after him and sticks his head in the hallway. “Just keep him here until I get a chance to talk to him, you understand?”
Grady walks back into the room and sits down in the chair again. “Sorry about that,” he says. “Employee troubles.” Once again, we pass a long stretch saying nothing, just Grady’s stare and the bile that’s continually rising in my throat and threatening to lurch out of my mouth.
After several minutes, I can hear a several sets of feet stomping up the hall. “Ahh,” Grady says, “our other guest has arrived.” Though I have lost all touch with expectation and reality, I’m somehow not at all surprised to see Karl’s face when he enters the room. From the moment I left, I’ve been looking over my shoulder for one of Whistler’s henchmen, and Karl has always been one of Whistler’s elect, his favorite anointed bastard child.
Karl can hardly contain his glee at seeing me strapped to the chair. He stops in the middle of the room and literally slaps his knee. “Hey, Scribe,” he says. “I’ve been looking for you.” Though I’m not surprised to see the look of contempt on Karl’s face, I’m a little shocked to see the change in Grady’s demeanor. Though it is quite obvious that Grady has facilitated our little meeting, he can barely contain his outright contempt for Karl. He chews on his lips and stares daggers in Karl’s direction. Eventually, Grady’s devil-glare brings an abrupt halt to Karl’s joy.
Grady shifts his gaze away from Karl and points to Louie. “Cut the binds and escort them out to the sinkhole,” he says. “Make sure it’s done, then come on back here.”
Grady’s dismissive tone has an instant effect on Karl’s demeanor. I can see the rage welling up in his eyes, and I brace myself for the outburst. He’s not the kind of person who is used to being ordered about, even by Whistler. Though Whistler exerts complete control over his merry little band, his managerial style is a bit different from Gil Grady’s.
Knowing Karl the way I do, I can tell that he feels insulted, and an outburst is sure to follow. I’ve seen him lose his shit a thousand times and walk away clean, but I don’t think he has any idea what kind of snake pit he’s about to step into. “Fuck that,” he says, pointing a finger towards Grady’s chest. “Why don’t we just drag him into the bathroom and do it here in that tub.”
Karl and I are both caught off guard by Grady’s speed and agility as he bounds across the room and grabs Karl by the collar, slamming him against the wall. For a big man, he moves with a dexterity that belies his age and apparent fitness level.
“You need to get something straight,” he says, dousing Karl in a heaping mouthful of spit. “You don’t give any orders in this place.”
Clearly shaken, Karl begins to backpedal. “I’m just saying…I mean, Whistler told me…”
Grady slaps Karl with the back of his open hand, drawing blood at the corner of his mouth. “I don’t give a fuck what your little boss has to say.”
Unable to help himself, Karl opens his bleeding mouth again. “He’s not my boss.”
For a moment, I wonder if Grady is going to kill him right there in front of me. More than likely, I’m going to be next, but if it’s going to happen anyway, I wouldn’t mind seeing Karl go first. Instead, though, Grady takes a deep slow breath, calming and composing himself. Though his voice becomes tranquil, he doesn’t let go of Karl’s shirt, keeping him pinned securely to the wall.
“I could give a shit what you call him,” Grady says. “That ain’t the point I’m making at all.” Though he relents his grip slightly, he continues to stare into Karl’s face. “The point is that I’m doing your man a favor, given our business relationship and all.” Though Grady has now completely recovered from his outburst of violence, there is no mistaking the edge in his voice. “But you need to understand that my favor don’t extend to you telling me what I should or shouldn’t do, especially in my own place of business.”
Karl nods slowly, apparently now aware of the severity of the situation. He leans over and looks back and the lean man, who has been standing disinterestedly at the doorway. “The money?” Grady asks.
“Yeah,” the man says, “he brought money.” Grady continues to stare at him. After a few seconds, Grady grunts, clearly annoyed. The skinny man fumbles a bit and nods enthusiastically. “It’s all there,” he says quickly, “I made Louie count it, too.”
Grady grunts his approval, his anger now subsiding a bit. He turns his gaze back in Karl’s direction. “Like I said before,” Grady continues. “Louie will take you to the sinkhole. It’s a good spot. Secluded. You don’t need to worry about anything. Did you leave your car at the turnout on Highway 12, like I asked?” Karl nods enthusiastically. “Good, that’s good. I’m glad you know how to follow directions,” Grady says, “cause I’ve got one more little directive to follow.” He pushes his face forward, close enough for Karl to get a good whiff of his Marlboro scented breath. “You tell your boss that I’m all out of favors, you understand?” He continues to stare deeply into Karl’s eyes. “From now on, he doesn’t contact me for anything, you got it?” He punches a finger into the middle of Karl’s chest. “And make sure to tell him that if he does have the balls to reach out again, he damn sure better do that shit himself. I don’t deal with middlemen.”
Grady turns, leaving Karl standing dumbly against the wall. Before he goes, he turns back to me and pats me once again on the shoulders. “I meant what I said earlier,” he says, his voice just above a whisper. “If I had my way, I’d stuff that little prick back in his trunk and send him right back home in pieces, but even a man like me doesn’t get to do what he wants all the time.”
Grady turns and nods at Louie as he walks out the door. “Make it quick,” he says. “We do owe his daddy that much.”
As he slams the door, the vomit that has been rising in my throat for the last twenty minutes finally spews out on the floor in front me.