“Yes, you can stare into the abyss,
But it’s staring right back.”
—Dawes, ‘When my Time Comes’ North Hills (2009)
The grounds of the Poole Sanitation Company sit only about five miles outside of the Obsidian city limits, but despite the aid of Dolores’ map, it takes me several hours to find the place. The grounds are spread out over at least ten acres, which are only accessible via a maze of country roads and derelict byways running alongside the river.
Eventually, I find the turnoff listed on Dolores’ map, a gravel-road intersection near a massive old gambrel barn. I follow the road, pock-marked by increasingly deeper potholes, as it winds back towards the river. After about a half-mile, the holes have grown into cavernous craters that spew a thick brown sludge as Karl’s sports car bottoms out on the packed gravel road. At the end of the winding lane, I pass through a high, rusted fence whose gate is standing ajar.
It is just barely dusk when I stop the car in the middle of a square yard that is lined with three ramshackle buildings and a few stacks of empty dumpsters. A bonfire is blazing beyond one of the shacks, sending up bits of glowing ash into the early evening air. I see no one, and the yard is completely quiet, save for the crackling of the massive fire.
Stepping cautiously from the car, I shout “Hello,” a little unsettled by the echo of my own voice. A few seconds later, a shirtless and bearded man wearing ratty, stained jeans bursts from the front door of one of the shacks, his tremendous belly spilling over the band of his ill-fitting pants.
“Can I help ye?” the man yells, waving his arms wildly.
He is still at least ten feet away when I catch a whiff of him, reeking thickly of booze and sweat. An old, mangy hound trails slowly behind him as he walks towards me. “I’m looking for Nathaniel Poole,” I said. “I heard he’s a friend of a friend, and I need to talk to him.”
The old man snarls as he scratches his greasy, matted hair. The thick scruffy beard covering his mouth is covered with bits of stray tobacco and a few remnants of his latest meal. “Well,” he said. “Yer gonna need to be a little more specific,” he says, random globs of chew spit flying out of his mouth in every direction. “We don’t like people showin up unannounced.”
“I understand that, sir, but it’s kind of an emergency…”
“You don’t get me, son.” The man reached forward, pulling a long fillet knife from behind his back. “You can shove yer sirs up yer ass, and go fuck yourself with yer emergency.”
I stumbled backwards towards the car, muttering nonsensically while I fumbled for the door handle. Content that he had achieved the desired result, the shirtless man lowered the knife and stopped, absentmindedly scratching his massive gut.
Before I could open the truck door, a group of three younger men appeared from the shack off to the left, near the blazing fire. “Billy,” one of the men yelled, “Who the hell is that?”
I flung open the door, jumped into the cab, and turned the engine over as quickly as I could, but before I could put the car into gear, the group was upon me, surrounding me and blocking any possible escape. A large, thin man wearing a sleeveless white undershirt stood at the front of the car. He was holding a club of some sort which might have been a broken chair leg. He pointed the ragged end of the lumber at the front windshield and shouted, “Turn it off, and step out!”
I comply with the order and slowly open the door. I lift myself out gingerly, holding my hands in the air. “I’m not looking for trouble,” I say. “I just wanted to talk to Nathaniel briefly.”
The skinny man laughed wildly, slamming the club into the ground three times. “You here that PJ, he wants to talk to Nathaniel.”
The other man, PJ, grumbled and huffed as he continued to stare at me. He outweighed the skinny one by at least fifty pounds, and he was a good six inches shorter—a squat, harry, bowling-ball of a man wearing a burnt-orange Allis Chalmers cap.
“Shut the fuck up, Daryl.” The third man, who had been standing at the back of the truck, walks around and stops a few feet away from me. He looks me up and down a few times before slowly continuing. “I’m Nate,” he says, “but I don’t know you, and that makes us all a little nervous.”
He is of average height and build with curly black sprigs of hair covering his forehead and hanging down into his eyes. When he speaks, he seems to carry more authority than the others, even though he appears to be the youngest man in the group.
“I’m looking for a friend of mine…” I say slowly, inching through the conversation like a bomb technician inspecting a package. “I was told that you might know him.” He stares at me steadily without moving a muscle, waiting for a name. “Xavier Patterson?”
Nate nods slowly and walks towards me, placing a hand on my shoulder, without saying a word. In a sudden movement, he punches me in the stomach, doubling me over and dropping me to the ground. I roll down onto my hands and knees as my chest heaves. Though I am gulping up panicked breaths, I can’t get any air.
As I struggle to fill my lungs, I feel a hand grab hold of the back of my neck, I look up and Nate is kneeling down, his face inches from mine.
“Any friend of that piece of shit is no friend of mine.”
He raises up and I roll backwards, leaning against the muddy back tire of the car. Air finally starts to fill my lungs, as stabbing pains run up the wall of my chest. He motions towards the skinny one, who steps forward to grab me. As he hauls me to my feet, I get enough air to finally speak. “Wait,” I say, coughing heavily. “He’s not my friend…” I keep trying to speak through the coughing fit. “He killed…my friend…a train.”
When I say the word, Nate spins around and gently pushes the skinny man aside. “What the hell did you just say?”
He stars at me for a moment while I finish coughing. After a full minute, I’m finally able to stand. I stare directly into Nate’s eyes and say the words again. “He’s not my friend,” I say. “Well, he was, but then he killed someone I cared about…stuffed him in a car and left him parked in front of a train.” I can see his eyes glass over as he drifts back to an ancient crime that sounds all too familiar. “I need information…I need your help.”
Thirty minutes later I’m sitting in an old canvas lawn chair next to the bonfire. PJ, the skinny one, and the shirtless man have all disappeared into other buildings, and I’m sitting alone with Nate. He hands me a glass of clear liquor. Before I even raise the glass up to my lips, I can smell it, thick fumes that burn my nose.
“Go head,” Nate says, “but sip it, don’t take drinks.”
I take a sip from the glass, and the liquid burns my throat all the way down to my stomach. I’ve never sipped Kerosene before, but the clear liquid tastes exactly how I imagine Kerosene would taste.
“Is this moonshine?” I ask.
“No,” says Nate. “This stuff is light compared to the shine that my dad used to make. This is gin.” He leans over and clinks glasses with me. “Bathtub gin,” he says with a wide grin.
I spend the next thirty minutes giving him a complete run-down of my experiences with Whistler. The Hall, the murders, my subsequent days on the run. The only major details that I leave out is the body buried in the creek.
“Sounds about right,” Nate says, swilling the last of his glass and refilling from a label-less bottle. “The guy you call Whistler came here in the summer before my sophomore year.” He leans back in the chair and gazes upward at the expansive night sky. “He was Bruce’s cousin. Came over from Iowa after his parents died in a car crash.”
He pulls out a pack of Marlboro Reds, and then offers me one. When he struggles to find a light, I reach into my pocket and pull out my lighter, flipping open the top and extending the flame.
“Thanks,” he says, leaning in for a quick light. “Anyway, here’s the thing you have to understand about the ‘Great Reginald Patterson.’ Everyone around here idolizes that fucker, but he was a piece of shit. I know because I practically grew up in that house.” He reached over and took another swill of the toxic liquor then leaned back again. “Course,” he said, “he chased me off as often as he could. As you can see, I don’t exactly hail from the same social circles.” He made a sweeping gesture at the shacks surrounding us. “But Bruce and I were best friends just the same.”
“I heard he wasn’t as squeaky clean as everyone thought. Any truth to that? Drugs maybe?”
Nate snorts loudly. “Drugs? Weapons? You name it. Mr. District-Attorney-Circuit-Judge was about the most crooked piece of shit in the county.”
A corrupt politician, ruling over the whole town with an iron-clad authority. It all sounded oddly familiar.
I wondered how many quiet little towns like Obsidian and Drury, all secretly run by half-assed Mafiosos and backwoods gangsters. People like Dolores sit in beat down recliners every night, sucking down their evening dinners while watching the nightly news. All they see is the death and violence and corruption of the ‘big city,’ and they say a little prayer—thanking God and all his creation that they live in a simple place, far from the arms of such violence.
All the while, they remain blissfully unaware that the evil is not miles away in some city—It’s only a stone’s throw away.
“For a while, Xavier seemed to fit into the family quite well. He was the prototypical shy, quiet kid, you know?”
I try to reconcile the man I knew as Whistler with the shy, quiet kid that Nate is describing, but it just doesn’t seem to fit.
“Then, after about six months, things started to change.” He leans forward and grabs another smoke, lighting the new cigarette with the glowing cherry of the last. “You see, Bruce was always perfect in Daddy’s eyes. After Bruce’s momma died in childbirth, Judge Patterson made it his life’s mission to raise the perfect boy, except that rich son-of-a-bitch didn’t know the first thing about raising a man. He thought that meant giving him everything he wanted. As a result, old Bruce never did anything wrong in his Pappy’s eyes.”
Nate turns towards me and points, the glowing cigarette perched between two fingers. “I mean, he was my friend and all, but he was about as spoiled as they come.” He points around at the shacks behind him once again. “Of course, nobody ever gave me much of anything, so we made a nice pair.”
I lean forward and motion toward the pack of smokes sitting on the arm of Nate’s chair. He nods and picks up the pack, offering me a smoke. “So how does Xavier fit into all that?”
Nate leans forward again, once again pointing wildly with his cigarette, the glowing cherry trailing figure-eight puffs of smoke as he talks. “You’ve heard of a whipping boy, right? Late middle ages? The poor little orphan who took all the punishment for the perfect prince?”
Though I am certainly familiar with the concept, I am more than a little surprised that the man sitting before me, swilling bathtub gin and dressed in a stained tank top and grease-covered cap, would speak of such things. Clearly, Nate’s intellect is vastly superior to his surroundings.
For a moment, I feel a pang of pity for him, the underachieving intellectual, raised in a junkyard, but the thought quickly fades from my mind. We all have our own choices to make, and we all have a cross to bear.
He flips his thumb back toward his chin, the smoke from the cigarette rolling up into his eyes and glowing in the flickering light of the fire. “Well, in Pappy’s eyes, I was the whipping boy,” he said, “and Bruce was the prince.” He leans back sighing heavily and pulling another drag from the cigarette. “It wasn’t his fault,” he said. “He was a good friend to me. The rest of the town, though, especially the old man? They all blamed me for everything. If Bruce didn’t measure up, there was only one person to blame.”
I’m no stranger to the judgement of the nameless horde. I have felt the gaze of the small town populace, the searing white heat of the town rumor mill. My father’s questionable life choices had left me in a similar position more times than I could count.
“Ok, I get it,” I say. “The rich kid, and the poor boy from the wrong side of the tracks, no offence.” I throw my hands into the air, and Nate wrinkled his nose as he apathetically waves the comment off. “But, what does all that have to do with Xavier.”
“Well,” he says, lowering his voice an octave to build the dramatic tension, “it’s got everything to do with Bruce’s death. You see, the longer old Xavier stayed in that massive old house, the more he ingratiated himself to old Judge Patterson, and the more attention the Judge paid to old Xavier, the less Bruce shimmered and shined.”
This part of the story seems to mesh more with the Whistler I knew—the Whistler who could wrangle any situation to his advantage, the Whistler who understood the power of leverage. “So how did Bruce handle it?”
Nate laughs loudly, coughing up a plume of grey cigarette smoke. “Not well, not well at all.” He holds up the remainder of the clear liquid in my direction. When I put my hands up in deference to the vile concoction, he shrugs and empties the bottle into his glass. “Bruce was competitive,” he continues. “He didn’t like the kid stepping in on his territory, and it became a chess match pretty quickly.” His voice gets suddenly quiet and wistful. “He came to me two days before he died.” He stared blankly ahead into the dancing flames of the bonfire.
It’s a look I know all too well, staring into the abyss looking for answers. The harder we look at the past the cloudier it becomes. Over a long enough timeline, everything fades, and truth is generally the very first thing to go.
“He had caught him stealing,” he says after several minutes. “Some jewelry of Mrs. Patterson’s that had been in a box in the closet for decades. Xavier found it and sold it off for a bit of cash. Somehow Bruce found out.”
I lean forward, no longer able to contain my questions. “So what happened when Bruce confronted him?”
“You mean, what did Xavier say?” He stares at me blankly, with a look of utter helplessness. “I don’t have any idea. I didn’t see him for two days after that, on the third day the whole school found out about the tragic accident.” He spits out the last words with bitter, venomous irony. “They said he was passed out, drunk behind the wheel…”
His tone changes slightly from bitterness to outright anger. “Of course, everyone blamed me. Got pretty bad for my whole family for a while.” He flicked the butt of his cigarette into the fire. “One more sin of the derelict Poole clan.” He shrugged his shoulders and stretched his arms out over his head as he yawned. “We’re used to that, though.”
“Did anything ever come of it?” I ask. “Any investigation?”
“Naw,” he says, standing from his chair and continuing to stretch. “The old man had us to blame, and that was good enough. No need to prolong the suffering with formalities.” He coughs out a loud, scoffing cough of a laugh. “You’d think that a man like that would be interested in the truth, but he didn’t really care about that.” He begins to pace slowly around the fire, kicking at the edges with his boots. “He just cared about destroying us,” he says. “Not officially, of course. There was nothing to be done in that regard.” He stares, once again into the dancing flames, his face aglow in the orange light. “But when Dad lost the auto shop, and the tax men started to beat down the door, we knew where it was coming from.” He looks away from the fire and stares, instead, at the expansive sky above. “Dad took his own face off with a shotgun that December, a few weeks after we lost the house.”
I nod and look down at my feet, feeling vaguely guilty about approaching this man, dredging up the wounds of his past.
“Did you ever try to tell anyone your suspicions?” I asked.
He bends at the waist and laughs deeply, the sounds of his howling reverberating off the tin structures around us. “Who the fuck was going to believe me?”
He reaches over and grabs his glass, splashing the remainder of its contents into the fire. The flames spill out and explode in a bright ball of light, a soft whoosh rolling out as the fire gobbles up the liquor.
“The thing that was…” he stares down at the empty glass in his hands, “…Bruce never even drank. I’ve been to hundreds of parties and bonfires with him, and I never even saw him pick up a beer,” he continued. “Not even once…”
I stared at the fire, the orange flames rolling and dancing in gyrating waves, a pit of ever-growing red coals. In the heart of the fire, directly in the center, I can see the dancing blue flame, swirling just above the blood-red coals.
It’s not tangible proof, of course—not the tangible evidence of wrongdoing that I need to dig myself out of this mess—but it is undeniable, the kind of bone-deep certainty that enrages the masses, the fuel that drives the lynch mob. If any part of me was uncertain, if there were any shred of doubt still lingering deep within my chest, the story of Bruce Patterson had snuffed it out forever.
I had once asked myself, how far would Whistler be willing to go? And the answer was as tangible and clear as that little blue flame, flickering in the heart of the fire.
He would go as far as he needed to.