Rough, Grooved Surface

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Chapter 26

26

“And it’s quiet like snow through the trees
Well, I did what I did and I didn’t mean anything.”

—The Wild Feathers, ‘The Ceiling’ The Wild Feathers (2013)

Whistler listened my story about the girl without a single word. In moments like these, he was impossible to read. His hands folded neatly on the table in front of him, he sat nodding silently. I couldn’t tell if he was reflecting or brooding, and I had no idea what to expect.

When he finally spoke, his voice was quiet and restrained. “I’ll deal with this girl myself,” he said. “It’s hard to say what her angle is.”

“Are you sure you want to do that,” I asked. “I mean she could be…”

He held his hand up, showing me his palm. “It will be fine,” he said decisively. “I’m not worried about her.” He looked past my shoulder towards Karl, who was leaning against the bar, intently listening to our conversation. “I’m worried about something else.”

Though Karl seemed to know what Whistler was saying, I didn’t quite follow. Noticing the puzzled look on my face, Whistler leaned forward and put his hand on my shoulder. “He betrayed us,” he said softly. “Something has to be done.”

In all of the excitement regarding Angela, I had completely forgotten about the Oxymoron. It shouldn’t have surprised me that he would need to be dealt with.

“Karl,” Whistler said. “I need you to pay him a visit. Just send a message…” he leaned forward and pointed a finger at Karl, “but make sure you speak clearly.”

Karl nodded as he fished in his jacket pocket for a smoke. “You want me to take Zevon? UB?”

“No,” Whistler said, and he pointed across the table at me.

Like most of the brothers, I had grown to consider Karl a friend, but I always got the feeling from him that he never completely trusted me, as if he were constantly sizing me up. Re-evaluating his opinions.

“Are you sure that’s a good idea? I mean, he’s not…”

Just as he had with me, Whistler held up his palm, stopping Karl in mid-sentence. It’s funny how the slightest of actions can have more impact than the harshest of words. Karl stopped instantly, like a well-trained pet.

“It’s time,” Whistler said calmly. “He needs to see this.”

Karl shrugged in mute approval, and walked towards the door without another word, but as I raised up in the chair to follow, Whistler grabbed my arm. “You can’t let anyone cross you,” he said quietly. “You need to understand that.”

As I always did when I felt uncomfortable tension, I chuckled quietly to myself.

Whistler leaned forward, squeezing my arm harder. “No,” he said firmly. “This is not something that you laugh off. I need to hear the words.”

Though I had certainly seen Whistler’s intensity before, the look in his eyes was something different, something I can’t quite put into words. Anger isn’t the right word. Neither is determination. But they’re close.

“I understand,” I said.

Whistler let go of my arm and leaned back with a slight, satisfied grin. “That’s good,” he said. “That’s good.”

The car ride back to campus was quiet. The feeling of dread was so thick I could actually taste it, sitting in the back of my throat like a thick wad of phlegm. Though I wondered what exactly we planned to do, I knew it was better not to ask. Whatever Whistler meant by ‘a message,’ Karl seemed to understand immediately.

“You sure he’s going to be there?” Karl asked.

When it took a moment for me to respond, he thumped on the steering wheel impatiently. “Winner? Sure, he’ll be there. He never goes anywhere.” Though clearly somewhat skeptical, he seemed satisfied by the response. “It’s the one on the corner,” I said. “The green one.”

“That place?” Karl asked. “It’s a shit hole.”

“Well, what did you expect?”

We parked the car a half block down on a side street, and walked back up to the side of the house. The house sat directly across the southeast corner of the campus. The sun was just beginning to set over the horizon, and it was bathing the entire area in a deep, red glow. Even with a thick, anxious lump growing larger and larger in my stomach, I remember stopping in my tracks, mesmerized even then by the beauty of the sunset.

“Shouldn’t we wait for dark?” I asked. “I can still see some people walking around up there.”

Karl shook his head. “It will be fine, just go look in that side window. See if he’s in there.”

After wriggling through the remnants of an evergreen bush, I peered into the window. Billy Winner was sitting in a worn, old recliner in the middle of the room. He was slugging down a two-liter bottle of Mountain Dew while he pawed at an X-box controller, his eyes glued to a flashing screen in the semi-dark room.

I turned back to Karl and nodded, and we made our way to the front door. After tiptoeing across the rickety front porch, Karl gingerly twisted at the front knob, finding it unlocked. He turned back and looked over his shoulder, “Are you ready?” he whispered.

Though I nodded and did my best to look determined, I felt as though I might vomit on my shoes at any moment.

Karl flung open the door so violently that it actually cracked at a few of the hinges, the loud snap of the wood echoing though the foyer and into the living room, where the Oxymoron sat in his stained old chair.

As we walked into the room, he fumbled with the plastic two liter, which was spilling across his lap and soaking the game controller.

“What the fuck?” he squealed, his voice breaking at an impossibly high pitch.

“We need to talk, Winner.” Karl walked over to the chair and kicked it, tipping it over and spilling Winner onto the floor, despite his massive bulk. He rolled onto his back, and looked up into Karl’s face, zeroing in on the narrowed, rage-filled eyes looking down on him. “You talked about the stash,” he said, pointing down at the Oxymoron.

“I…didn’t…I don’t…”

As Winner stammered on the floor, Karl kicked him once, swiftly in his side. The Oxymoron let out a little squeal and he writhed around in pain. “Don’t fucking lie to me,” he hissed. “We talked to the girl.” Winner rolled over again, whimpering and murmuring as he rubbed his injured ribs. Slowly, a dark splotch appeared on the front of his stained, baggy sweatpants. “Christ!” Karl yelled, stepping back from the ever-expanding puddle of urine.

With a fresh wave of rage, Karl walked back over and began kicking him again and again, each kick landing in his sides or his soft belly with a dull whack.

When we were eight or ten years old, David and I had found a sick raccoon lying on a bank by the river. Reasoning that we should probably put it out of its misery, we each picked up a few big sticks and walked over to kill it. Truthfully, we probably were just curious to see what would happen, indulging that latent psychopath that we all hide somewhere deep down inside.

I couldn’t believe how long it took. Even in a diminished state, that raccoon held on dearly to its life, through blow after blow. We both went home feeling sick, and we never talked about it again.

As I listened to the thud of Karl’s steel-toed boots, I could see the eyes of that frightened raccoon, staring back up at me, the face twisting and contorting after each blow.

Finally Karl landed a kick to the Oxymoron’s face, the tip of his boot sending a tooth flying across the room, trailed by a mouthful of thick, red blood. Karl and I both watched the tooth fly through the air in slow motion before it ricocheted off the wooden floors with a soft click.

Winner groaned loudly and spit a mouthful of bloody vomit out onto his chest. His shallow breaths came out in short, wheezing bursts, oddly punctuating the happy, jilting background music from the video game, which was still chiming along behind us.

Karl stepped forward as if he was going to kick him again, but I grabbed him by the arm. “Whistler just said send a message,” I hissed. “You’re going to kill him.”

In a flash, Karl spun around and stared me in the face, and for a second, time seemed to slow. It was like looking into a barrel of fire, nothing but pure rage bubbling below the surface, and for a split second, I knew that it was all directed at me.

As realization slipped in, I could see his body visibly change, a slight droop to his shoulders as he turned away from the convulsing heap of Billy Winner. “You need to do something,” he said, his voice quiet and hoarse. “Whistler said to make sure you take part…”

Above everything else I had seen, the petty crime, the drugs, even that night with the intruder, that moment should have told me to leave more than anything. Though I will still plagued by nightmares about the night of the break-in—the sound of his skull collapsing, the slowly spreading puddle of black blood, the whisper sound of the flame—I could rationalize all of that perfectly within in my mind. Yes, we covered up the crime, but it was self-defense. Of that much, I was certain.

The string of choices that occurred after that moment seemed natural, and one decision made it easier to justify the next. I could rationalize it all pretty easily. We were just pushing weed and some pills to entitled, rich college kids. We weren’t hanging out at playgrounds, or roaming the halls of high schools. These kids, with their shiny new cars and fashionable wardrobes, they came to Whitehaven from upper-middle class homes in whitewashed communities. Some of them even had trust funds. So what if we were pushing some dope to them? We were just supplying a demand.

Every time I thought about my father or Gil Grady, this was the line I always came back to. Gil Grady and my father were preying on the poor, but I was feeding dope to the elite. At the time, that seemed like more than enough.

If Billy Winner’s quiet sobs weren’t enough to tell me the truth, Karl’s words should have sealed the coffin. Whistler wanted me to get my hands dirty, to make a conscious choice. This was something different than swinging a bat in the heat of the moment, and this was certainly more than delivering a duffel bag to a dark chapel.

I should have known right then.

Instead, I walked over to a bookshelf against the back wall. I picked up a small, pewter Star Trek figurine, a softball-sized, die cast model of the Starship Enterprise.

After bouncing the model in my hands a few times, I looked towards Billy Winner’s large and impressive-looking flatscreen. It was one of the older plasma models with the glass screen, but the image was crisp and bright.

It was the kind of television that I’d always hoped to afford but had never had.

I hurled the metal model towards the screen and a split-second later I was rewarded with the satisfying shriek of breaking glass. Shards of Billy Winner’s high definition picture splintered across the room, a few large chunks landing on Billy’s still quivering body on the floor.

Looking back on it all, I feel sick. Billy’s blood streaked vomit stinking up the room, his quiet whimpering punctuating the shrill video-game soundtrack, the shards of glass breaking under my boots.

With the benefit of hindsight, knowing all the events that would follow, it’s easy to see that I should have known something different in that moment. The dark omen burning in Karl’s eyes, the prophesy of Billy Winner’s quiet whimpering.

But I’d be lying if I said that I felt any of that.

When I threw that little metal ship through Billy’s crisp, clear little video world, I felt nothing but satisfaction. A kind of bone-deep gratification that spread from my toes through my whole body.

And of all the terrible things that I’ve done, all of the terrible choices that I’ve made, that small shudder of bliss might be my biggest regret.

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