“Can we be there? Oh just think of the time,
Thought of love so strange, said you never knew.
While I try my best, to cover our eyes.
It’s a common way to blame and hide the truth.”
—Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats, ‘I Need Never Get Old,’ Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats (2015)
I felt a little dizzy as Bonnie led me down the dirt road towards the back gate. “Let’s go through here, and then cut back around to the car,” he said. “You gonna be alright?”
I nodded my head and followed him through the gate, sucking in my stomach and squeezing through the crack in the gates below a chain and padlock. “Wait,” I said, “I need to sit down for a second.” We walked twenty or thirty yards off the path towards an old maple tree and sat down on a small hill.
We clicked off the flashlights and sat, listening to the sounds of insects buzzing in the timber, a few coyotes howling somewhere in the deeper woods. “When I was a kid, they used to scare the hell out of me,” I said. Bonnie looked at me strangely. “The coyotes,” I explained. “They’d run up and down the riverbanks back home, howling all night long. In the river valley, sounds echo for miles.”
He nodded, saying nothing. A quick flash of light illuminated the ground at our feet while he lit a smoke, then we drifted back into darkness again, Bonnie’s face oddly illuminated by the cherry glow of the cigarette’s end.
“My grandfather always told me not to worry. ‘They’re more scared of you,’ he’d say.” He was right, of course. I’d heard thousands of coyotes in my lifetime, but had never seen one clearly in person, not in the wild anyway. “That’s how things are, though. The monsters we don’t see are the toughest to kill.”
We sat quietly on the hillside, swatting at mosquitos while our eyes adjusted to the dark of the moonless night. After a few minutes, my sight cleared enough that I could make out a pond at the bottom of the hill. “Come on,” I said. “There’s one more thing we need to check out.”
I’m not sure what I was looking for, but something told me that more pieces to the puzzle were lying near the bottom of the hill. Of course, the evidence could be buried in muck at the bottom of the muddy pond, but I still felt the need to look. When we reached the edge of the pond, we shone our lights for a few seconds. Then, I spotted a burn pile off to the right, just at the edge of the timber. “Over there,” I said.
I held a light while Bonnie fished around with a stick in the ashes. “Hard to say,” he said. Then he kicked up a piece of cloth from underneath the ash. The cloth was covered with a few blackened rivets and metal buttons. “Looks like a pair of jeans, doesn’t it?”
“Or overalls,” I said.
Most of the time, Brisby would come up to the Hall in tight-fitting dresses and backless tops. She called it “Dressing to catch some cock.” It was that kind of weird shit that made me like her from the start.
But when she wasn’t dressing for the catch, she was usually wearing denim overalls, her standard dressed-down garb. Though the overalls weren’t really keeping with any particular style or trend, Brisby tended to be the kind of girl that didn’t give a shit about trends.
“We don’t know that,” Bonnie said. “Could be anything…”
Of course, we both knew what it added up to.
On the trip home, we formulated a plan. Bonnie insisted on going to Whistler first. “Let me talk to him,” he said. “The way he’s been acting lately, I think it will be better coming from me. Besides, you and Karl have a complicated history. Better if we leave you out of this all together.”
That night I slept at his place, rolling back and forth uncomfortably on the couch. When I finally was able to fall asleep, I kept have strange dreams about the pond behind the junkyard. A white-haired man with a vague face trying to force me to drink from the algae-covered water.
When I woke the next morning, Bonnie was gone, but he had left a note on the counter.
Going to meet with Whistler. I’ll catch up with you at the Hall tonight at 11. DON’T SAY ANYTHING…
I spent the majority of the day driving, following random roads outside of town towards unfamiliar intersections and strange landscapes. I realized how much I missed driving and listening to music. For the first time in a long time, I thought of Tommy. The hours and hours we would spend driving to nowhere, looking for the right song for that particular day.
I also realized that, from the time I started working at the Hall, I hadn’t really spent much time alone. I was more or less constantly with one of the guys or hanging out at Caroline’s house. Though I often played half-assed DJ behind the bar, and I routinely listened to albums with Caroline, it had been a very long time since I had driven down country roads listening to whole albums and burning through a tank of gas.
Somewhere between Radiohead’s Ok Computer and Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy, I started to feel an old presence on the seat next to me. They were old, deep tracks that I hadn’t listened to since Tommy was alive, shaking his head next to me in the seat.
I tried desperately to find an answer, somewhere in the old tunes. I listened to the music and searched for a sign like some religious hermit, scouring old tomes.
Springsteen’s Nebraska, The Beatles’ White Album, Elvis Costello’s This Year’s Model—I listened to the songs hoping the answer would come, but nothing seemed to crack the void.
By the time ‘Like Suicide’ popped up on Soundgarden’s Superunknown, the sun had set, and I was nowhere nearer to clarity than when I began. I turned the car around, headed back west towards Whitehaven, and hoped to God that Bonnie’s talk with Whistler had gone well.
That evening was the longest, most awkward party of my life. Everyone was in great spirits because Flatrock and Farley had come back for a visit, and by the time I arrived at the Hall, everyone was half-lit. There was no sign of Whistler or Bonnie, and mercifully, Karl was nowhere to be found. Everyone else, though, was present and accounted for.
I felt like I was wearing a mask the whole evening, cracking fake smiles and laughing at stale jokes. I kept thinking that someone would spot the ruse, point me out like some interloper in their midst, but everyone was too drunk or too stoned to notice anything.
About ten o’clock I started trying to call Bonnie, but I was getting no answer. At first, the phone would ring a few times before going to voicemail, but by 10:45, the inbox message was picking up without a single ring.
I nervously sipped at a beer while I fought off the urge to vomit.
At midnight, Whistler arrived at the Hall and immediately shut down the party. He had Zevon kick everyone out, even the girls, and asked us to gather on the couches. I could tell that Whistler was carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, which left me feeling oddly reassured. Though everyone else left in the bar was frantically chattering and trying to figure out the news, I knew the shoe that was going to drop.
“There’s something terrible I need to tell you,” he began. I took a deep breath and looked around the room for Karl, but he wasn’t there. It was probably best for everyone, considering that Zevon might have killed him right there on the spot. “I can’t even find the words…” He looked genuinely pained, as if he were trying to pull a jagged splinter from meaty flesh. “…Bonnie is dead.”
Though the words sucked the air out of the room, I felt nothing but confusion. My head swirled as I tried to make sense of what he was saying. I was so sure that he was here to set things right, so confident that the nightmare was finally ending.
Whistler held up his hands, quieting the room. “I just got word about an hour ago,” he said. “His car was parked on a set of train tracks outside of town. Just north of the old high school.” We all knew the spot well. We sometimes had get-together’s at an old farm that had been in Zevon’s family for years. The tracks there sit on a high ridge, and though the intersection lies only a few hundred yards from a dramatic curve in the rails, there was no closing gate on the tracks, just a set of warning lights. “They say that there’s almost nothing left,” Whistler finished, and buried his face in his arm.
As the men around me started to cry and lean on one another for support, I looked back towards the doorway. Karl had walked in and leaned up against the frame of the doorway. He folded his arms over his chest and nodded, almost imperceptibly, in Whistler’s direction. I quickly looked back at Whistler and studied his face.
It was only there for the briefest of moments, a slight dropping of the veil, in between the crocodile tears. I was sure that no one else noticed. They were all far too wound up in their own grief to see, and they weren’t seeing Whistler through my eyes. None of them knew what I knew, and by now there might not be any way for me to explain.
Bonnie had gone to Whistler for help, but he was walking directly in to the Lion’s den, and that slight nod between them told me everything I needed to know.
Karl didn’t kill Brisby. He just helped Whistler clean up the mess.