Rough, Grooved Surface

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Chapter 38


“Well, there’s a line, that you must tow,

And it’ll soon be time to go,

But it’s darker than you know.”

—Elvis Costello, ‘Complicated Shadows,’ All this Useless Beauty (1996)

When I drive out of the Poole compound, it is the middle of the night, maybe two or three in the morning, but despite my sips of moonshine, I’m not even tired. I drive along the gravel roads towards nowhere, exhausted and numb, yet fully alert at the same time.

Before long, I find myself sitting at a turnout next to the Mississippi River. I’ve sat in a gravel turnout like this a thousand times in my life, staring out at the river while I drink through a warming twelve-pack of Natural Light with my friends. Occasionally, I would bring Aimee to spots like this.

Though she liked looking at the water, she preferred spots that were more open. The overgrowth of trees in a place like this always made her feel slightly claustrophobic.

For me though, this always felt like the very best kind of spot. The river raging out in front of you, while the thick branches cover you in a protective umbrella, a mighty oak or maple shielding me from all that is above with its great boughs. Hiding me away from the larger world around me and the heavens above.

I walk towards the river and sit down in the grass at the top of the bank. I take off my shoes, roll up my pant legs and inch myself down the muddy bank, the cold mud slipping up between my toes as I slowly walk into the shallow water at the edge of the bank.

A few feet down the river, a small offshoot of water has created a small oxbow, leaving a silt bank and a shallow pool of stagnant water. I walk down until I’m standing on the silt bank, my feet turning blue from the chill of icy mud.

I root through the rocks and detritus of the muddy bank with my toes until I find a few medium-sized flat rocks. I remember spending hours making small piles of the perfect skipping stones, piling them up on the bank in preparation for a throwing war with Tommy.

The perfect skipping stone has several attributes. The obvious ones—flat sides and soft, rounded edges—are easy enough to come by, but the third attribute is rare. The perfect density, a bulk that is hefty enough to facilitate a hard throw, while still being light enough to carry across the surface.

The line between perfection and failure is so sharp. The edge of a newly sharpened blade.

I pick up one of the stones and cast it across the water. The rock skips twice before catching a ripple on the water and careening off at an odd angle, the rise of the stone’s flight path altered by a random, rogue wave. The rock sinks below the surface with a slight plop and disappears in a fraction of a second.

I think again about that night on the beach with Whistler, the night he revealed a little bit of his past, the drunken omission that led me to this place.

The river valley was filled with the chirps of crickets, their high-pitched love songs echoing across the water and down the bank all night long in constant, cacophonous waves. Some parts of the year, it can be almost deafening. The sound was a constant backdrop of my childhood, the soundtrack to growing up alongside the river. The white noise of country life in middle America.

Of course, if just one of those little buggers gets loose in your house, the effect is startling. The same sound that is capable of creating tranquility in the wild is jarring and ear-splitting within the confines of your home.

I grab another rock and fling it out over the water, this one sailing straight and true, skipping five times before dropping below the surface. That night on the shore, just before he stumbled off down the beach, he had talked about skipping stones, but it wasn’t just the idea of throwing rocks. It was our desire, our need to pick up the rocks and hold them in our hands like talismans, feel them slip from our grasp as we flung out our wrist towards the open water.

…They say you shouldn’t throw stones, especially those in glass houses…

He had talked about the stones like they were part of our fate, the inevitable collision course that we all set ourselves upon. Someday, somewhere, we are all bound to meet back up with the stones that we’ve thrown.

I look down at the last rock in my hand, a perfectly flat piece of chert bedrock with smooth edges. The density was perfect, a slight bit of heft buoyed by pockets of air trapped in the pores of the stone.

If we are really in collision course with the stones why do we throw them? If we’re responsible for our own, disastrous fates, why don’t we make another choice? Why not leave the stone where it lies, semi-buried in the mud?

I juggle the stone gently in my hand, then pull back my arm, ready to sling it side-arm across the water.

We toss the stone because it is there, and it begs to be tossed. We toss it because we have a bone-deep craving to feel the smooth surface in our hands, and then to watch it sail across the water. In such a moment, the future is meaningless. All that matters is our desire to see that perfect arch as it glides across the surface.

We throw the stone because the collision course that follows has no meaning in the moment, no bearing on the present.

As I let the rock slip from my fingers, it bounces hard against the water, and takes a high, ranging leap before connecting again, followed by five long hops and a slew of tiny bounces, maybe ten or fifteen in all.

Then, like the others, it falls below the surface, the rippled path still visible on the surface of the muddy, brown water.

The road back to Whitehaven is a four hour drive. Four hours to second guess my decision. Four hours to unceasingly wonder about my fate—nightmare scenarios and horrifying what-ifs. More than anything, I want to say the hell with it and turn the car west, opposite of the rising sun. I want to drive and not stop until the tires hit the sand of a Pacific beach. I could stroll the sprawling city of Los Angeles for days upon days, walking without end until I find her.

I’m not going to do that, though. For the first time in my life, I’ve found myself confronted by wild, uncertain terror, and I’m heading back into the teeth of it, driving headlong towards the monsters and demons of my past.

It’s not just my suspicions that he would follow me, to the ends of the earth if he had to. It’s Bonnie, too. And Brisby. Even Nate’s friend Bruce. Someone has to speak for the dead.

On the drive, I listen to old albums. With the Beatles, and the Stones’ Beggars Banquet—a bit of early Aerosmith and Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever. The albums are filled with songs that I can slip into easily like an old ball cap or a pair of worn shoes—lyrics I know so well that they hypnotize me and distract me from that gnawing, perpetual fear.

I have no idea if my plan is good. In fact, it’s probably completely stupid, but it’s the best bet I’ve got. Logic would dictate that I go to the authorities, find someone out of the reach of Whistler and come clean, but even if I knew where to look, there would be no guarantees. Besides, even if I can take care of the Whistler problem, there’s always Gil Grady to worry about, and I’m quite sure that he has a longer reach than Whistler ever could. But Gil is a tomorrow problem, and one way or another, I’m going to put an end to the Whistler affair first.

When I reach town, I drive north, towards a house I have only visited a few times, hoping like hell that I survive the next few minutes.

The house is old, overgrown with large, evergreen bushes and some kind of ivy. I stand on a dry-rotted front stoop, anxiously shifting my weight from one foot to another. Though the situation seems to demand some sort of grand gesture, I can’t come up with anything more poignant that knocking on the front door.

After some time, the door jerks open, and I see his massive frame filling up the bulk of the doorway. Before I can even open my mouth, he punches me square in the chest, and I stumble back off the stoop, my shoulders landing flat on the hard-packed earth behind me.

I don’t know if it was the force of his punch or the impact of the ground, but my lungs are completely emptied by the blow. I take short, hollow breaths as he descends upon me.

Just before he grabs me, I catch a glimpse of his eyes. In that brief instant, I catch a tranquility that terrifies me more than anything. It was the same look I saw in my father’s eyes when I was six years old. Our family dog was sick, covered in cancerous tumors. One day, Marvin told me that he needed to go. “He’s suffering,” was all he said.

I saw the look in his eyes as he drug the dog towards the patch of timber in the back of the house. A cold, nonchalant certainty of what needed to be done. I sat in the front yard crying, unable to follow. Three minutes later I heard the shot.

It is this same look of cold determination that I see in Zevon’s eyes as he grabs me by the shirt and drags me towards the garage on the side of the house. I kick and struggle against his grip, but it’s no use. He pulls me along with the ease of a child dragging a plastic doll.

By the time he drops me in the middle of the oil-slicked garage floor, I have gotten my wind back to talk. He turns and walks towards the back corner without saying anything, but I plead for him to stop. “Just wait!” I yell. “You don’t know the whole story.”

Zevon shrugs as he walks to the corner, pushes a button to close the garage door and picks up a three foot-long piece of black steel rebar. I strain to hear his calm voice over the loud clank of the garage door, lowering on its track. “The story doesn’t matter,” he says. “The ending is the only thing that counts.”

I push myself backward, walking with my hands and kicking with my feet. My hands slip in the oil and grime on the concrete floor as he inches toward me. He stops and walks a few feet in the opposite direction, grabbing a can of gasoline.

“What are you going to do?”

“Don’t worry,” he says. “The gas is for after. I’m not some kind of goddamn savage.” He holds the rebar in front of his face, studying the ribbed surface of the bar. “I take no pleasure in this whatsoever.”

“Because it’s your job,” I say, waving my hands in front of him like a stranded motorist, desperately trying to flag down a passing car, “but as long as you listen to what Whistler is telling you, you’re not doing your job.”

He walks forward, unswayed by anything I have to say. “At the end, everybody talks. Just like this. Doesn’t mean nothing.”

“No!” I shout. “You were supposed to protect him! That’s what you said, protect your family or…or find a reckoning. That’s what you said!”

He stops in the middle of the floor, his massive shoulders dropping down as he stares at me in quiet contemplation. So often in our lives, the pivotal moments—the tiny seconds that determine the course of our future—they drift by us without any hint or suggestion of their importance. We walk past them blindly, and it’s only in retrospect that we recognize them for what they were.

That last trip I took with Tommy, before he got his diagnosis, we were heading north up the river road, listening to the MTV Unplugged Nirvana album. It was one of those albums that cycled regularly through the rotation, a disc that we could agree on and play from the first track to the last, without stopping or skipping.

There was absolutely nothing special about that day, nothing we hadn’t done dozens of times before. When I heard Kurt Cobain’s tortured voice screeching out the lyrics to the Ledbelly track at the end of the album, there was no great epiphany or vision. There was no tingling or warning that this trip, the tenth or fifteenth time we’d listen to that particular album, would be the last normal day that we would ever share.

Just as there was no warning from the heavens on the last morning my mother left the house. She just went to work, as she always did, and then never came home.

Staring into Zevon’s eyes, this crossroad is much easier to spot. The next few seconds are going to decide whether I live or die. All of it, the good and the bad, the mounds and mounds of colossal bullshit, all boils down to this one moment.

“Whistler killed Bonnie,” I say quietly. “Brisby, too.” I struggle to get to my feet, my ribs sharply aching as I stand. “I don’t know what he told you, but he killed them.” I hold my hands up in the air. “I can’t exactly prove it, but I know.”

For a second, I can’t tell if I’ve convinced him or not. His hands tighten around the rebar, and I assume that everything is over. I expect him to raise the bar over his head and end my life with a single blow.

I close my eyes, waiting for the pain. Then, I hear the clank of the rebar as he drops it on the cement floor. “Ok,” he says, “you’ve got five minutes, but if I don’t like what I hear…”

I look at the rebar lying on the ground. “I know,” I say, waving my hands in the air again. “I know.”

Twenty minutes later, I’m sitting at Zevon’s kitchen table, and I’ve told him everything. From our discovery at the junkyard, to Karl showing up back home, to my conversation with Nathaniel Poole.

As I nurse a warming can of Coors Light, I rub the knot that has formed in my chest. “Jesus,” I say. “I think you cracked my fucking rib.”

Zevon shrugs and stares at me, waiting for me to say more. He’s clearly not yet convinced.

“Look,” I continue, “I know this is a lot to take in, but you have to believe…”

“No,” Zevon said firmly. “I don’t have to believe anything. I have to find the truth, and the truth aint necessarily what you say it is.”

“I understand,” I say, “but I have a plan.” I take the last gulp from the can and crumple it in my hand. “Just give me one chance to prove it to you. Let me talk to him one time, alone. Just make sure that I have this.” I pull my phone out of my pocket and set it on the table. “You still have the app, don’t you?”

Zevon sighed and shook his head, then turned slowly around and grabbed a bottle out of the cabinet behind him. It was a bottle of his good whiskey, the ones he reserved for the best, and the worst, of his nights.

“One way or another,” he says. “I’m going to need a drink of this at some point tonight.”

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