“And after all the violence and double talk,
There’s just a song in all the trouble and the strife.”
—Dire Straits, ‘Walk of Life,’ Brothers in Arms (1985)
Though I didn’t feel bad about hooking up with Caroline, I was aware of how it might look to the larger group, and I was more than a little nervous to see how Karl would react, so we decided to keep everything quiet for a while. In the meantime, we snuck around, sneaking kisses in the shadows like two teenagers, hiding from their parents after curfew.
I stopped going to class altogether by the middle of April. Our new recruits were doing just fine on campus, and my grades were becoming a foregone conclusion. I wound up spending many of my afternoons lounging around in Caroline’s bed, begging her to skip classes. Most of the time I was unsuccessful, but every now and again, she would blow off a class and lie with me under the covers, listening to music on my iPod.
“I can’t believe that thing still works,” she said, tossing the iPod on the top of her dresser.
“It’s a classic,” I said, pulling her closer to me and wrestling off her belt. “They don’t even make those anymore. That thing can hold more songs than you could imagine. I’ve got over 10,0000 songs, and it’s not even a quarter of the way full.”
She pushed back away from me, kicking off her jeans as she flopped back on the bed. “Whatever you say Mix Master D.”
“It’s Mix Master Mike, and Mike D…you’re splicing Beastie Boys.”
She shrugged her shoulders, flipped off her shirt and sat back against the headboard. “Whatever.”
“I think you’ll like this one,” I said over my shoulder. “His name is Jason Isbell.”
I plugged the iPod into her small stereo and played the first song. When I turned back she was leaning against the headboard, smiling at me. Her blonde hair dangled down her chest, and she was completely naked except for a pair of lacey red underwear.
Seeing her there, I wanted to be able to drink her in completely, freeze the moment for eternity, to somehow capture the essence of her warmth and beauty in that one perfect moment. I thought about pulling out my phone and snapping a picture, but I knew that it wouldn’t be worth it. It would be like trying to take a picture of the Grand Canyon or capture video of a fireworks display.
Some sights simply will not translate onto film. Some beauty is too pure to be captured by artificial means.
As the first song on the album, ‘Cover Me Up’, started, I knew that I was experiencing another of Tommy’s moments. Synchronicity—the perfect song at the perfect moment in the perfect place.
…So girl leave your boots by the bed, we aint leaving this room,
Til someone needs medical help, or the magnolias bloom…
As I lay down next to her, I took a deep breath, smelling the pleasant aroma of her hair, lilacs or marigolds, or some other strong-smelling flower. It was a smell that felt vaguely comforting and terrifying all at the same time.
I have no idea why, but I felt something inside of me snap, and I was suddenly gripped by a strong and undeniable sense of panic. Though I hadn’t had an attack in a long time, it came rolling in abruptly, without any warning at all. I was suddenly gripped by the certain realization that I was trapped in some way, as if there wasn’t enough time left, as if I needed to hold tight against the storm.
She saw the strain in my face instantly, reaching up and calming me with a caring smile, a light brush of her hand along my face and down my chest. She had an almost mystical ability to bring me calm, to drop me right back down to earth.
Though we’d only been together a few weeks, she already had me under complete control. She had the power to devastate me or heal me with a single look. If she wanted to, she could have left me crippled and babbling, and she acted as though she had no idea.
…And the old lovers sing “I thought it’d be me, who helped him get home”
But home was a dream, one I’d never seen till you came along…
I reached forward, pulled her over to my mouth and whispered the words in her ears. Words that I’d only said to one other woman in my life, words that sealed covenants and built ramparts, words that could not ever be taken back.
She looked up at me and stared into my eyes, her eyes twinkling and full of happiness. “Me too,” she said. “Me too.”
A few hours later, I was working the door at Whistler’s Hall, waiting for Zevon to come and relieve me at eleven. I sat on a stool near the door, smoking cigarettes and enjoying the cool breeze of early spring. Behind me, I could feel the rhythmic bass of the dance room, reverberating through the brick walls in waves.
With no one approaching, I decided to step inside and take a break, drink a quick beer. When I walked in, I could see that some of the cloud that had been hanging over us the past several months had dissipated a bit. Everyone seemed happy and at ease. Flatrock and Farley were leaning against the pool table, laughing loudly at UB, who was clearly taking the evening to experiment with some kind of recreational drug. He was sitting on the couch drooling and mumbling to himself.
A few seconds later, Toke walked by and handed me an oven mitt that looked like a large, bright goldfish.
“Quick,” he whispered. “Show this to UB. Do it quick, then toss it over behind the bar.”
He disappeared, leaving the oven mitt in my hands. I slipped it on, walked quickly up to UB and flashed it in his face, opening the goldfish’s mouth a few times and then tossing it into the other room.
UB immediately jumped off the couch and started shuffling around the room, traveling in small, concentric circles. “Did you see it?” he asked, to no one in particular. “It was here!”
He briefly grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me back and forth before disappearing through the doorway leading into the dance room.
I walked over towards Bonnie who was working the bar. Flipping my thumb over my shoulder at door. “What the…”
“Well,” Bonnie said dramatically, “he says he took Peyote, but in my professional opinion, it was something else. Peyote tends not to have quite as hard of an edge.”
He bent down and picked up the oven mitt off the floor, slipping it over his hand. “How long have they been messing with him?”
“It was Farley’s idea,” he said. “They’ve shown it to him six or seven times in the last hour.”
“Isn’t he going to lose his shit?”
“It’s perfectly possible,” he said, with calm indifference.
I felt my phone vibrating in my pocket. When I pulled it out, I saw it was a text message from Caroline. I was expecting something warm and fuzzy, a follow-up to our afternoon together.
Instead, the message was two words long. Two simple, frightening words.
Before I could even really process the information, Karl was stomping into the room. I put my hands up to slow him, but it was too late. He came charging at me full force, lunging across the floor in a few steps. In the few seconds it took for him to close the distance, I caught a look at his face. Pure, unadulterated rage.
I was so shocked by the brisk reality of the situation, that I failed to even bring my hands up to protect myself. He slammed his shoulder into my chest, driving me to the floor and ricocheting my head off the brass boot rails of the bar.
My head filled with a fog, and for a moment I thought I might pass out, but then I felt Karl’s knee fall down on my chest, pinning me to the floor. The next thing I knew, he was raining blows down on my head, two or three sharp punches to the side of my skull.
Just as I was about to lose consciousness, I felt the weight jerk off of me abruptly. Zevon had arrived early for his shift and found Karl on top of me, the others watching in mute horror. He had walked through the door and grabbed Karl, tossing him against a back wall in a single, forceful motion.
I rolled over on my side, hacking up blood. My whole face was throbbing, deep and rolling waves of pain pulsated up my temples and across my eyes.
“I don’t care what he’s done,” yelled Zevon, “he’s my brother just like you are, and he’s had enough.”
Though Zevon was much too strong to overpower, Karl struggled against his arm, like a cat struggling to fight its way out of a burlap sack. The look on his face was primal—a wild, wounded animal.
Zevon grabbed him by the chin, forcing Karl to look him in the eye. “Do you hear me?” he said. “We’re brothers, and this is done.”
Karl relaxed and stared hard a Zevon for a few hard moments. When Zevon finally released him, he took one last hard look at me, still lying on the floor, and then he stomped out.
An hour later, I was sitting at the card table with Zevon and Whistler, holding a baggie filled with ice on my swollen face. It hadn’t taken long for everyone to put two and two together. Though I was worried that everyone would be on Karl’s side, it was quite the opposite. For the most part, everyone was supportive.
“They were already broken up,” said Flatrock. “I can see him being pissed, but that was way out of line…”
“…I agree,” said Farley. He flicked a thumb in my direction. “I mean, dipshit here could have handled this better, but there was no cause for that.”
I moaned and moved the ice to the other side of my face. “I know,” I said. “I fucked up. I thought he was going to kill me.”
Zevon patted me, too hard as always, on the shoulder. “I wasn’t going to let that happen.”
“A few minutes later, and it wouldn’t have mattered,” I said.
“But I was here, and that’s all that matters.”
Whistler was uncharacteristically quiet through the whole series of events. He had bypassed several opportunities to pontificate during the course of the conversation, but now he turned to Zevon and put his hand on his arm. “That’s right,” he said. “What matters, above everything else is that we protect each other, no matter what. Even from each other if need be…”
I looked around the room and could see that the whole crew, minus Karl, was assembled, and they were hanging on Whistler’s every word.
“Karl was out of line, and I’m going to make sure he knows it,” he said. “We still don’t know what kind of troubles we are facing. Just because things have gone quiet doesn’t mean it’s all over.” He looked slowly around the room, locking eyes with each of us. “I told Zevon a long time ago to look out for my brothers, but it’s not his job alone,” he continued. “That job is up to all of us.”
Whistler got up, patted me on the shoulder and then walked slowly out of the room.
Zevon watched him go, then turned back to me. “He’s right, you know. There’s nothing more important than protecting your brothers.” He tapped me lightly on the knee. “I’d fucking kill for you if I had to,” he said.
I laughed, though it made the pounding in my skull even worse. “You’ve already helped mop one of those up for me,” I said. “Why not?”
Zevon leaned back in his chair and took a sip from his glass. “That’s right, man. We’re here for each other, no matter what.” He stood up, finished his drink, then nodded down a me. “You’ll be alright,” he said. “Besides, you’re not exactly the first brother to bang an ex.”
“Well, is Karl the first to use another brother’s face as a speed bag?”
Zevon slapped me on the shoulder, once again, much harder than he needed to. “Not by a long shot, buddy.”
I sat at the card table all night, nursing beers and keeping ice on my face. By closing time, I was finally able to walk around without bolts of pain flashing through my skull. Zevon came in to do last call and chased everyone out. “You need help cleaning up?” he called back to Bonnie.
“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “I’ll help him. You go home early. You earned it.”
Zevon nodded, waved at us both, and disappeared out the door.
I was wiping down tables and Bonnie was running a dust mop when Whistler walked back into the room. Neither of us had seen him for hours. “What’s up, Whistler?” I asked. “Where have you been?”
“What?” The question snapped out with uncharacteristic venom. He looked at me wild eyed for a moment, then began tapping nervously on the wall with his fingers. “I’ve just been in the back room,” he said. “Paperwork and shit.” Though his tone had softened, he still seemed frantic and tightly wound.
“You need help with anything?” Bonnie asked cautiously.
He stared off in the corner for a long while before answering, as if he were looking for something lying out beyond the wall. “No,” he said. “I’m going home.”
He left the bar without saying another word. Though it seemed a little odd, I kept wiping down tables and didn’t think much more about it. As I worked, Bonnie walked over to the window, pulled open the blinds and watched Whistler get into his car and drive away.
He walked slowly and deliberately to the main cooler and grabbed two beers. He gently set one down on the table that I was working on, then dropped slowly down onto the couch, a nervous and pensive look draped across his brow.
“There’s something I need to tell you,” he said. “Something I haven’t told anyone.”
I dropped the towel and grabbed the bottle of beer, twisting off the top and sitting down on the corner of the pool table. I had no idea where this was going, but it didn’t sound good.
“The night that Brisby disappeared?” I nodded my head slowly. “She was with Whistler. I stopped off at his house to drop off some papers, and he was there, with Brisby. I saw them inside but they didn’t answer the door.”
It had always seemed strange that Whistler had been so quiet regarding Brisby’s death. They were close. Though they made for a strange pair, I was pretty sure that they were screwing. “That doesn’t necessarily mean anything,” I said. “I think they’ve been banging for a while, and you know how secretive he is about everything.”
“Yeah, I know. That’s what I’ve kept saying to myself, but the whole thing just seemed off,” he said.
“You’re probably just reading into it, letting your mind wander. I mean, could you really see anything?”
Bonnie shook his head. “Not really. The blinds were half closed, so it was hard to see.” He paused for a moment, then swallowed hard. “There’s something else, though. Follow me.”
He walked gingerly down the hallway, almost tiptoeing, even though we were the only ones in the building. I had another flashback to the night of the intruder, but I shook off the image and kept walking.
Bonnie opened the door to the office and motioned me inside. He pulled out the bottom drawer of the desk and pulled something out. He held up a set of keys attached to a tiny pink poodle keychain. “The cops never found Brisby’s car,” he said, “but these are here.”
He was right. There was no mistaking the keys. For whatever reason, Brisby loved that stupid pink poodle, even though she had never even owned a real dog. I swallowed hard but found that the back of my throat had turned to cotton. “Still,” I said. “It could be nothing.” I looked Bonnie in the eye and realized that neither one of us believed that.
Unlike most of the brothers, I believed in coincidence and strange karmic twists of fate, and I tended to have an optimistic view of most situations, but the pieces of this particular puzzle were adding up to an ugly picture. Bonnie’s misgivings coupled with Whistler’s strange behavior were one thing, but the keys were pretty hard to explain away.
If the car had never been found, then someone must have gotten rid of it. “She might have lost them in the bar,” I said. “Maybe she had been driving around with a spare set.”
Bonnie nodded. “Yeah, I guess,” he said, “but why would someone have hidden them in the back of this drawer? Everyone knows that they’re Brisby’s keys.”
We both stared at each other in silence for several minutes, unable to find any other words. On the wall opposite the desk was an old bar mirror. At one time it had probably hung behind the bar, a long rectangular mirror with an oak frame and the “New Castle” logo printed across the middle.
I turned my chin up and looked at my reflection. I looked awful. Puffy red eyes, a black goose egg rising on my cheekbones. It was a face I didn’t recognize, and though I knew it was my own, I had the eerie feeling that I was staring at someone else.
“What are we going to do?” I asked.
“Nothing, right now,” he said. “I’ve got an idea, but it’s going to take some time.”
I looked back down at Bonnie, who was staring off into the corner. “What are you going to do?” I asked again.
“It’s better if you don’t know,” he said. Then, he stood abruptly and walked out of the office, turning as he reached the door. “Lock it up for me, will you?”
I nodded and watched him walk out of the door, wondering what he was planning on doing. As I stood up to leave, I stopped again in front of the mirror. It suddenly hit me why I felt so strange, why I felt that strange sense of déjà vu when I looked at my swollen eyes.
This was a face that I had seen before.
In a crime scene photo on an interview table, down at the county sheriff’s office.