“And we fill our hands with wood and steel,
And grace is a woman we all long to feel.
You know someday we will…you know someday we will.”
—Gregory Alan Isakov, ‘John Brown’s Body,’ That Sea, The Gambler (2007)
It turns out, the final step in winning the complete and unadulterated trust of the Whistler Hall crew was collapsing a man’s skull with a baseball bat.
After our disposal at the Audubon Society, I went to the Wrastle Castle, took a shower, and then passed out in a back bedroom. I spent the day tossing and turning, each time fighting off strange dreams. Though I might have expected to have nightmares after my experience, the dreams weren’t really nightmares as such. They were more like the dreams I always get when I am sick, repetitive and weird. In this case, the dreams were strange amalgams of random images and concoctions of foreign-looking landscapes. I kept seeing the lights of the Hall floating in sparse timber, the bloody Louisville Slugger lying in the bottom of a creek bed, and it was all permeated by the repetitive sound of hollow pumpkins smashing against cold asphalt.
About six-thirty Karl came bursting through the bedroom door, abruptly waking me from my restless sleep. “Jesus,” he said. “You look like shit. You need to get a shower.”
Wiping the sleep from my eyes, I groaned back in response. “I already showered.”
“Well do it again. This whole room smells funky.” He flicked his thumb over his shoulder and pointed out towards the road. “And try to be quick, Whistler wants me to bring you up to the Hall.”
As I stepped into the shower and felt the warm water flowing over my head and down my back, I thought again about the police. I kept telling myself not to worry—Whistler seemed so sure—but I couldn’t stop the questions. What if…what if…what if? If that body washed up in a hard rain, there would be an investigation. All it would take would be a few shreds of evidence, a random witness that spotted a car pulling out of that field, or a nosey neighbor that saw the man lurking around the Hall the night before. If it led back to me, it would be awfully hard to argue self-defense after we buried him in a hole and burned the corpse.
My mother is a big fan of true crime news broadcasts. When we were young, it was ‘Unsolved Mysteries’ and ‘20/20.’ Later, she watched ‘Dateline’ and an American crime series on A&E. All of the programs were essentially the same. They started with some murder, one that usually pointed to a red herring. Then, as the story progressed, you would realize that the murderer was someone else entirely, the person you had not expected.
Nine times out of ten, the true killer would be undone by some simple, overlooked piece of evidence.
As I watched, I always had the same reaction. How could you be so stupid? How did you forget to clean the blood out of the shower drain? Why would you leave that evidence on your hard drive? How could you leave such an obvious hole in your alibi?
The truth is, criminals don’t make those mistakes because their stupid. They make them because, no matter how big a bad-ass you are, or how smart you are, it’s absolutely terrifying to snuff out another man’s life. You can make all the judgements you want, but when you’re mopping up a gallon of blood off the floor, you tend to lose sight of the details, and when you wipe a soul off of this earth, it leaves a hole in the very fabric of the universe around you.
I don’t know if you call that God or something else, but I know that it’s true. I know it because I’ve felt it.
I thought again about Whistler and his stones. Self-defense or not, I had cast a pretty big fucking stone, and there was no bringing it back, smooth surface or not.
We took the short drive up to the Hall in Karl’s Blazer. “So what’s Whistler want?” I asked. It had occurred to me that I might be in some kind of danger. After all, none of these men had even flinched when faced with the prospect of sponging bits of skull and brain matter off the floor or dousing a cadaver in gasoline.
Logically, I knew I should be scared, but I couldn’t believe that these men would turn on me. Over the last few months, they had grown to be more than friends. Even after a short time, I felt the same way that I did about David or Mark—even Tommy. And because of that I believed wholeheartedly that none of them would ever hurt me or sell me out. Ever.
It seemed inconceivable that I could be that wrong about someone.
When we got to the Hall, Karl patted me on the back and told me to go and meet Whistler in the back room as he headed into the bar room. As I walked down the narrow foyer hallway, I had flashbacks of sneaking up one the intruder. Raising the bat above my head. The look of stone panic on his face when he turned and saw me in that flash of light.
I reached the office door and knocked apprehensively. Whistler called from the other side and told me to come in. When I entered, he walked over to me, and grabbed me around the shoulders in a warm, extended embrace. “How are you doing?” he asked. “I’ve been worried about you.”
I sat down in a metal folding chair sitting at the corner of the desk and nodded, unsure how to honestly answer the question.
Whistler sat in a rolling office chair in front of the desk. He leaned back, sighing deeply, then rolled the chair slightly forward and hunched over, a foot or so from my face. “I know you’re probably scared,” he said, “but you have to trust me on this. We’re ok. You don’t need to worry.”
He was talking in the some honest, slow tones that he had used the night before. “I just don’t know why…”
He raised his hand to stop me. “I know,” he said. “You wanted to call the cops. That’s why I had Karl bring you back tonight.” He leaned forward again and put a hand on my shoulder. “There’s something you need to understand about this place,” he said. “It’s not just a bar.”
He reached over and pulled up a blanket that had been covering a bag, sitting in the corner. Inside the bag, I saw various bundles wrapped in plastic. He reached down and pulled up a large baggie of pills from out of the bag. “The bar is not really a source of income,” he said. “It’s a cover for a more lucrative operation.”
I nodded silently, and he slowly dropped the pills back into the bag. “This,” he said, motioning to the large duffel bag stuffed to the brim with narcotics, “is a pretty small shipment for us. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
I nodded again, still unable to speak.
“It’s important,” he continued, “that you know the truth.” He paused and took another deep breath. “It’s also important that we understand each other moving forward…that we’re on the same page.”
He paused and waited for me to speak. It was the kind of moment that should have rung alarms in my head. The type of life decision that led a person permanently down the wrong path. Logically, I understood that immediately. The moral implications were instantly and instinctively clear. I didn’t need my mother or the D.A.R.E. program to tell me that this was wrong.
But as I looked at Whistler leaning back in the rolling vinyl office chair, lording over his bag of drugs, none of that seemed to matter. The men in this hall, the man sitting in this chair, had been there to pick me up in the exact moment that I was hitting rock bottom. After cancer and car crashes, and turning to run from my past as fast as I could, it had seemed as though rock bottom didn’t really exist. The thud of that gangster’s skull told me otherwise. In the moment that his skull cracked, I realized all too perfectly how real rock bottom can become.
And this man saw me through all of that.
“You don’t need to worry about me,” I said. “I get it. I’d never do anything to put you guys at jeopardy. You were…I mean, you helped me…”
“It’s ok,” said Whistler, reaching forward to pat me on the shoulder once again. “I knew, you’d say that, and I’m glad. Because there is something else I think you can do for us.”
That afternoon, Whistler called an informal meeting to apprise everyone of the situation. “I honestly believe we are fine with the cops,” he said to the group, which was gathered about the Hall in a loose collection, lounging on couches and random chairs. “I’ve reached out to my contacts, and I’m not worried on that front.” He walked slowly around the room, his hands folded behind his back. “Tae, however, might be another story. That little prick has certainly escalated the situation. It’s a minor disagreement, but he seems to think it’s something more.”
As Whistler talked, I looked around the room once more and considered the faces. When we see people, make new friends, whatever, we rarely stop to consider the lens through which we view them. I met these men and, at face value, assumed they were like me. Not wholly the same of course, but similar in background and personality. As the weeks bore on, and I became more and more comfortable within the group, and I assumed that my first impressions were legitimate. Sure, it was obvious that there was a small amount of shady activity going on, but it never occurred to me that Whistler could be some kind of kingpin, or that the back office was the central hub of a large-scale narcotics operation.
As I looked in their faces, I considered them in the newly casted light—their identities as criminals now revealed. I stared at each of them, pondering whether my impressions of them had changed. No matter how long I looked, nothing seemed any different. Bonnie was still the baby-faced smart ass, UB was still goofy-looking and full of shit. They were all still the same people I had grown to know and love. Finding out that their money came from a less-than-respectable source didn’t change a thing.
I knew criminal behavior because I had grown up around it. For eighteen years, I watched my father around Gil Grady’s illicit little world. From the time I was very young, I knew that he was not a respectable man, whatever that meant. After years of listening to the court of public opinion, I grew to hate him and resent him. He was a criminal and a scumbag, nothing more and nothing less.
I tried to envision this group of men working for Gil Grady, towing the line as my father had for so many years. It all seemed inconceivable. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t envision Flatrock or Karl sitting in a booth at the Piedmont, but how much different could they be? How much really separated the thugs at the Piedmont from the men in this room?
The biggest question, of course, the question that I wasn’t ready to answer, was where did I fit into all of this? The word criminal kept reverberating through my head, and it felt like a wall, a separation between them and me, but in truth, there was no separation at all. I was one of them—christened, accepted, and approved as a bona fide member.
When I heard murmuring throughout the room, I crawled back out of my own head to listen to Whistler. “What I’m proposing,” he said, “is a road trip. A few days’ siesta away from the Hall, that’s all.”
Farley stood up, “I don’t like it,” he said. “We’d be running off like a bunch of pussies.”
Whistler stood up and spoke with finality. Though his voice remained calm, I could tell that his blood pressure was rising. “This is not up for debate,” he said firmly. “We are going, but we’re also not going to run away, either. We’re just taking the temptation to start an all-out turf war out of everyone’s hands.” He pointed at Zevon and Flatrock, who were standing behind the bar. “I’ve already spoken with Rock and Z. They are going to stay behind as emissaries to deal with Tae.” He pointed over in the corner. “Toke is staying, too. Rock will be do the talking, and Zevon will provide his usual physical presence.”
“What about Toke?” Bonnie, grinning widely.
“Toke adds a calming presence to the room,” Whistler said, politically.
“He needs a black guy to talk in case Tae sends a couple of black dudes,” Toke said.
Bonnie nodded. “Thanks. Clears that right up!” Several people giggled softly until Karl interrupted the mood.
“I don’t like it,” he yelled. “We need to stay together, show strength in numbers, be ready for…”
Whistler walked over and put his hand on Karl’s shoulder, looked into his eyes the same way he had looked into mine in the office. “It’s going to be fine,” he said, in a soothing tone. “I’ve already worked it out. The meeting will be safe, guaranteed by a party that neither Tae or myself is going to risk upsetting.”
For a second, Karl’s anger flashed. Though Karl losing his temper wasn’t exactly an unusual sight, I had never seen him lash out at Whistler in any way. “And who the fuck is that?” he snapped.
I once again saw a rise in Whistler’s blood pressure, a glint in his eye and a sudden shudder that ran through his body. Though there was no mistaking that the anger was there, he managed to swallow in a matter of seconds. “That’s not your concern,” he said calmly but firmly.
Karl stared back at Whistler. Though he was still noticeably angry, he chose his words very carefully. “Then, I want to stay,” he said. “I want to be at the meeting.”
Whistler let out a low gasp of a laugh. “I think it’s obvious to everybody why that is a bad idea.”
“I just want to…” Karl continued to push the issue, but Whistler shut him down with a thunderous yell.
“I don’t give a fuck what you want!” he shouted. “Who I’m sending is not your concern. Who is facilitating the meeting is not your concern. When you need to be concerned, I will TELL you to be concerned. Until then you need to shut…your fucking….mouth.”
Though his voice trailed off and became softer as he spoke, everyone in the room could feel the rage hanging in the air, boiling just below the surface. The room was completely silent for twenty seconds or so as we all digested Whistler’s rare outburst.
Whistler took a deep breath and continued in a calm, almost jovial voice. “I’m sure several of you are wondering why I’m not going to the sit down, but unfortunately, that just isn’t a good idea,” he said. “I trust Rock unconditionally. He’ll settle everything up, and we’ll be back in a few days.” He paused and looked around the room once again. “It’s going to be fine,” he said. “We’ll spend a couple of days up at Lake Michigan, and then we’ll be back. As for tonight, we’re keeping the bar closed, just us and close friends, that’s all. We’ll meet here in the morning. We head out at 8 o’clock.”
Though I could still sense a bit of dissention in the group, everyone seemed to accept the plan for the most part. Flatrock started throwing out bottles of beer, and someone turned on the stereo, and the Hall sparked to life like it was any other night.
I sat for a long while staring at the spot that the intruder had been laying less than twenty-four hours before. In my head, I could still see the thick, black puddle of blood, right at the corner of the pool table. The cleaning crew had done a remarkable job, there wasn’t a scrape of the gore that will still visible to the naked eye. Still, though, I knew it was there, leaked into the tiny grout lines between the laminate tiles, soaked into the subfloor beneath. No amount of bleach or ammonia can erase it all. The truth was still there, hiding below the surface.
I stood up and walked towards the bar, Zevon was pouring from a round bottle of Blanton’s bourbon. I walked over and he slid a glass towards me. “No thanks,” I said, “I usually don’t…”
“Drink it,” he said. Of all the guys that routinely hung out at the Hall, I knew Zevon the least. Part of it was physical. He was an enormous person with a cave-man forehead and a thick uni-brow, and he typically communicated through a series of grunts. Still, from that first night when I met him, when I told him that I had been invited. From that moment on, he treated me with nothing but kindness. He was a looming, frightening presence, but he seemed more like an annoyed older brother than anything else.
I took the shot and threw it back, surprised by how smoothly it rolled down my throat. “That’s good,” I said, more than a little shocked.
“Yup,” said Zevon. “You guys always want to do shitty shots. Fucking Jack Daniels and Wild Turkey. If you’re going to take a drink, it has to be something worth sipping.”
I nodded and looked at the bottle. “You mind?” I asked. Zevon shook his head and poured another glass. This time I sipped slowly. We sat for a few moments in silence, enjoying our drink. “You ever done something like that? Before, I mean?”
Zevon looked at me intently. The moment the words came out of my mouth I regretted even saying it. Taking part in something like that forces you into a covenant of sorts, an oath that all participants tacitly agree to through their involvement—We shall never speak of this again.
After a moment of consideration, Zevon’s features softened. Then he poured another drink for the both us. “Not exactly like that,” he said, “but I’ve done things.”
He wrapped his massive paw around the glass and slugged back the half the drink. It was easy to see how Zevon could do such things. He was big, and strong, and he had likely been intimidating and confident his whole life. Going back to the dawn of civilization, human beings are hard-wired to follow strength. It’s part of why we idolize professional athletes.
“The guilt never goes away,” he said. “And neither does the fear.” I was surprised to hear him say it. Fear and uncertainty weren’t exactly new emotions, for me. I spent half my life swimming around in a pool of self-doubt, but I was surprised to hear Zevon say it—giving voice to the anxiety. “That part is the price of admission,” he continued. “You swallow it, and you move on.”
“Do you ever regret any of it?” I asked.
“Regret? No, that’s not the right word for it. I’m not sure if regret is even real.” He took another drink, this time sipping lightly at the glass. “I mean, I know that regret is a real thing, but it’s not tangible. You can’t touch it or hold it, and you don’t even really feel it.” I was surprised to hear so much coming out of him. He had probably said more in this one conversation than I had heard him say in all the time that I had known him. “Actions are tangible. Consequences are real, but I’m not sure about regret. It’s just a useless trick of the mind, like a mirage or a premonition. Regret seems real, but it isn’t really there at all.”
He leaned back and yawned. With his arms stretched out, he nearly filled the entirety of the space behind the bar. “So,” I said, “you don’t ever have regrets?”
“Not about this place. When I met Whistler I was pretty much on the street,” he said.
“I didn’t know that.”
“Naw,” he said. “You wouldn’t. Not many people do. Anyway, my old man was a mean son of a bitch, and he drank too much. One night he came home, piss drunk as usual, and started wailing on my mom.” He was staring off behind me as he spoke, watching the memory unfold on an old projector reel against the back wall. “I had always been afraid of him, but that was stupid. I had been bigger than him for years, I just didn’t believe it. Anyway, that night I stood up, pulled him off my mother and started pounding him with my fist. I rained down blows over and over again. Probably hit him ten or twelve times.” Still staring at the back wall, he absentmindedly rubbed his hands. “By the time I was done, my hands were aching, and his face was swollen up, like a puffy black and blue tomato.”
He took a deep breath, and continued to rub his hands. “Did you get your mother out of there?”
He shook his head slowly, never looking down at me at all. “Naw,” he said. “She stayed with him. She was furious that I hurt him. Threatened to call the cops and throw me in jail.”
I thought about my mother, standing beside my father for so many years. Marvin never hit us, but he left plenty of destruction in his path. I never asked her what finally ended them apart, whether she kicked him out, or if he left on his own. Somehow those questions never seemed important. “What did you do?” I asked.
“I packed my shit and I left. That night. I walked out with twenty dollars in my pocket and a duffle bag full of clothes.” He poured another glass, finishing off the bottle.
“We didn’t drink that whole thing, did we?”
“No,” he said, “it was less than half-full. I only drink it on nights I have something to celebrate.”
“Yup,” he said. “You put somebody in a hole, you damn well better celebrate the fact that it’s him and not you. That’s the way I see it.” Of course, he had a point. There’s no telling what that Tae’s thug would have done if I hadn’t swung that bat. I had been thinking about him lying there on the floor, envisioning the crater in his head, but I had been ignoring the look on Karl’s face as the man tried to choke the life out of him. “Besides,” he said, “I did my job, and I always feel good when a job is finished.”
He reached out his glass in a toast, and I raised my glass to his. “And what, exactly, is your job?”
“My job? That’s simple.” He pointed over at my shoulder at Whistler who was shooting a game of pool in the other room. “That man gave me my job when he invited me in hear almost ten years ago,” he said. “He gave me a cot in the back room and a weekly pay check.”
“So you mean bouncing? Working the door.”
“No,” he said. “Not that. Whistler still didn’t officially run the place.”
He held the drink to his nose, sniffed the glass, and then swallowed the last bit of bourbon. “He told me that he had a crew, a band of brothers that always stuck together, no matter what. A family.” I thought back to my first days at the Hall. It was exactly the feeling that I had when I met these men. Whistler was our deranged prophet, and we were his loyal subjects. In some ways, I had been his follower before I ever walked through the door. “He told me that my only job was to take care of my brothers. Protect them when I could, and—if I failed in that—I should find a reckoning, one way or another.”
I nodded and polished off my own glass. “I never told you thanks,” I said.
“There’s no need. I was protecting Karl, and I was protecting you, and that’s my job.”
I looked back over my shoulder at Whistler who was leaning on the pool table, laughing his loud belly laugh. “Why?” I asked. Zevon looked at me strangely. “I mean, why did you guys bring me in? Why am I a part of all of this?
Zevon reached across the bar and slapped me on the back, sending a slight sting across my shoulders. “Comes to a question like that,” he said. “There is no why. It just is.”
I walked over to the card table and sat down, where I could see the room in a panoramic view. Through the half wall, I could see into the other room. Karl and Whistler shooting pool, laughing at one of Farley’s loud, animated jokes. Bonnie and UB messing with Okie who was already passed out on one the couches. Flatrock running the stereo as he tried to teach an unwilling Toke an appreciation for ‘real’ country music.
Despite the violence of the previous evening, the whole organization continued on without a hitch. Calls were made, and girls showed up, and we drank into the evening, and the later it got, the more I realized Zevon was right. The guilt wasn’t going anywhere, but it was a waste of time to regret.
Because the regret isn’t even real.