Rough, Grooved Surface

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Chapter 39


“Still, a man hears what he wants to hear,

And disregards the rest.”

--Simon & Garfunkle, ‘The Boxer,’ Bridge Over Troubled Water (1970)

I walk into the Hall with Zevon as my massive escort, and I look around with wonder, as if I were seeing the place for the first time all over again. The ornate woodwork doorways, the old, handcrafted trims and moldings lining the floors and ceilings.

This place was been built generations ago by dedicated, hard-working craftsmen. I wonder what they would think if they saw it now, the fruit of their labors turned into a beer-stinking party room with stained linoleum floors.

I drove into Chicago once with Karl and Bonnie, not long after I started hanging out at the bar. Karl knew a bouncer at a club downtown, and we were taking an impromptu road trip. The club itself should have been nothing special, the kind of little chic neighborhood hot spot that tends to pop up in big city neighborhoods. Of course, that phrase, ‘up-and-coming’ is nothing more than a smokescreen for the repurposing of poor people’s land and position, urban gentrification. It’s no different than what those original explorers did to the natives when they first came over. Taking what was previously ignored and claiming it, without regard or value to its current owner. Like nature, society has a life cycle, and it’s often vicious and cruel.

This particular place would not have been special at all, if it weren’t for the building’s former purpose. When I first walked in, I was surprised by the interesting, gothic architecture of the interior—grandly-carved woodwork lining the ceilings, and high, arched ceilings. The bar was impossibly intricate, covered with hundreds of tiny details.

Behind the bar was a long mirror, outlined with carved wooden embellishments. As I stepped closer, I could see that the embellishments were actually religious iconography, small cherubs and intricate crosses. Finally, I understood the strange interior. The bar had formerly been a church or some kind of chapel, holy ground repurposed as trendy nightlife.

As I walk into the foyer of the Hall, I realize for the first time that this place is exactly the same as that little night club, intended originally for some higher purpose, but renovated into a poorly lit den of iniquity.

Zevon shoves me into the bar room and then jerks my arm towards the table in the back corner. I can’t tell if he’s just doing a good job of acting or if these are genuine outbursts of minor violence. A hard lump forms in the pit of my stomach as I realize something that has been at least vaguely clear all along—this is a terrible idea.

Whistler is sitting in the exact same spot he was on the night that I met him, perched in his chair behind the card table, a grin welded to his lips. That first night, his face had seemed so inviting, strange and complicated but welcoming none the less. Though the grin is vaguely similar, this face is strikingly different. His cheeks are stretched tight across the gums beneath, his cheeks looking vaguely plastic, like an ill-fitting Halloween mask.

Zevon shoves me down into a chair opposite Whistler, who waves a hand in Zevon’s direction. “Thanks, Z, I’ll take it from here.” Zevon leaves Whistler and I alone in the room, staring at one another across the table in silence.

“Hello, Travis, how are you?”

Whistler says my first name with bitter spite, enunciating the syllables with venom.

“I’m fine, Xavier, how are you?”

Whistler smiles as he picks up a tightly-rolled joint from the table. He lights the paper, inhales and blows a thick waft of smoke in my direction. “If we’re going to use first names, let’s at least be proper,” he says. “I haven’t gone by that name since I was a boy. It’s Francis, please.”

I smile and nod, playing along with the charade of polite pleasantries. “I’m betting that Xavier just sounded a bit more cool when you were younger, right? A little less apt to inspire ridicule from the other boys.”

“That’s right,” he says, wagging a finger in the air. “Of course, Xavier wasn’t all that much better. I would have given anything to be named Ben or Robert, but we can’t exactly choose our parents, can we?”

“No, we can’t.” On that point, we most certainly agree.

“Especially, if our father is a deadbeat, low-level bag man for a two –bit riverrat gangster. Am I right?”

He’s fishing for weak spots, looking for kinks in the armor, but even with our recent reconciliation, Marvin is nowhere near any of my pressure points.

“That’s right,” I say. “He wasn’t exactly Ward Cleaver.”

“No, certainly not. He’s dead, you know?” I had been wondering what might have happened to Marvin, but I had yet to look into the situation. I kept staring ahead, maintaining my poker face. “In the papers this morning,” he continued. “He managed to get a shot off at Mr. Grady before he died, but Grady’s alive. Still in serious condition, but they think he’s going to make it.”

I shook my head, silently absorbing the news. “Something like that was bound to happen sooner or later,” I say. “It’s a dangerous profession.”

“That’s true, that’s true!” He takes another pull of the joint and lazily expels a breath of smoke. “But we know those dangers, too, am I right? We understand the perils.”

I am struck with a sudden, panicked thought. What if I don’t know what I’m doing? What if I can’t make him talk?

“Well,” I say, “you certainly know about risk. And violence…I suppose that the rest of us found out along the way.”

“Oh, come on now, let’s not delve into revisionist history.” He points at me with the smoking nub of the joint, and for a second I get side-tracked watching the waves of smoke lifting into the air. “You came into this with your eyes wide open. Besides…” he pauses for a moment to catch my eyes. “I’m not the one who split a guy’s head open on floor next to the goddamn pool table. You remember that, now.”

I shake my head in agreement. There was no avoiding his point. A man with bloodied hands can’t exactly take the high road, and I wasn’t exactly wearing the pearly-white garments of the innocent. “I remember,” I say quietly. “I remember all of them. I remember Bonnie and Brisby, too. Do you remember them?”

He wrinkles his eyes up in his best impression of a wounded parent. “Of course! I loved them both dearly, and you know that. I don’t know why you chose to try to blame this all on me!”

I think about the phone resting in my pocket, the Spycorder App churning away as we speak. To Zevon or anyone else that might be listening on our channel, his voice must sound convincing. The tone and infliction are perfectly dramatic, the lines delivered with the practiced timing of a well-rehearsed actor.

Of course, they aren’t looking at the mad glint in his eye. They can’t see the twisted face that I’m staring at, the face that belies any and all chance of sincerity. In a panic, I wonder if he knows. Was he two steps ahead? Did he already guess about the recording device in my pocket?

“Of course not,” I say. “Brisby was probably fucking some other guy that randomly killed her, and our little discovery at the junk yard has nothing to do with Bonnie’s death.” I leaned over the table, staring into those crazy eyes. “Bonnie just became a lush overnight, and passed out on the tracks, the same exact night that he was supposed to talk to you about your little bulldog. It’s all a big fucking coincidence.”

“That’s right,” Whistler said, snapping his fingers. “I’ve meant to ask you about Karl. I haven’t been able to get ahold of him.” He motioned towards a stack of newspapers sitting on the bar. “That’s how I found out about your father, and his buddy Gil.” He started laughing, but not his usually high-pitched cackle. This laugh was deep and thick, almost like a groan. “You know I had to drive an hour to find those papers. The local stories online didn’t have much detail, and your backwoods, little podunk county doesn’t seem to be really big on expanding their internet footprint.”

He rises up, grabs one of the papers and slams it down in the middle of the table. “Plenty of info about your old man,” he continued, “but nothing about Karl. You got any ideas about that?”

I lean back in my chair and smile, hoping that my glee might put a crack in the façade. “Not really sure,” I say. “But it’s possible he got swept up in the river. The river can be dangerous this time of year, but you know all about that, don’t you?”

He shrugs, staring ahead blankly.

“Didn’t you ever get caught in an undertow on the Mississippi?” I ask. “Maybe following in your adopted big brother’s footsteps?” His eyes dart sharply back to me as he tries to figure out whether or not I know something, or if it’s all just a bluff. “Come on,” I say. “You remember your poor old cousin, right? Everybody in town had so much to say about old Bruce Patterson. He was beloved!”

Whistler slammed his hand down on the table. “Congratulations,” he says. “You’ve managed to crack the code, find a few details about my past that the others haven’t so what?”

“I’m just wondering,” I continue, “whether old man Patterson really knows how his son died. I wonder if he knows that he never drank anything. That he was a good, dutiful son right up until the end. Avoiding all those terrible vices.” Whistler sits down again, and lights a cigarette, and I notice the tiniest of trembles in his hands as he holds the lighter. “Because he was the good son, right? He was the one that Old Judge Patterson really loved, and you couldn’t stand that, right?” He continued to stare ahead, the calm exterior not cracking. “I wonder what he’d think if I bring up the image of his dead son, twisted up in a mangled wreck, just like our friend.”

Suddenly, Whistler breaks out laughing, this time in the shrill, high-pitched laugh that I’ve come to know so well. His laughter continues for several minutes, to the point that I wonder if it’s bordering on mania.

“Oh my god,” he wheezes between laughs. “Please tell me that my god-father is not part of your fucking plan!” He squeals again. “You’ve got to be kidding me!” He leans forward and points at me again. “Didn’t do enough research there,” he said. “You couldn’t get to him if you wanted to. Had a stroke a few years ago. Has a nice cushy room up at Bissell Village.” He leans back with a satisfied grin. “The only news he gets comes from me. He can still communicate a little, though. Enough for me to use his connections when I need to.”

He stares ahead. Utterly smug and self-assured. Though I want to reach out and punch him, I force myself to stay calm, keep my voice even and clear. He starts laughing again as I start to talk.

“Did you stay and watch, that night?” I ask. “Did you wait for the midnight train to roll into town and smack into Bruce’s car? Did you get a glimpse of the wreckage? Find little bits of Bruce lying in the weeds?” He stops laughing and levels his gaze across the table. “I’m thinking probably so. I mean, a guy like you likes control, right? A guy like you sees to the details.”

He leaned back in his chair, his jaw slightly churning as he grinds his teeth.

“Was there even enough of them left to see? Any parts big enough to identify?” I could see the tension rising in his body, as various muscles flexed. “I’m guessing probably not…but I’m sure there was a hell of a lot of blood.”

He slams his fist down on the middle of the card table, the loud smacking sound echoing through the empty bar room. “You think you’re so fucking smart, right? Like you’ve got it all figured out!”

I lean back and pray. Please God, please. I’m not much for prayer…

“You don’t know shit!”

Please let him say it...Just let him say the truth…

“Bruce was a fucking asshole, and he was going to ruin everything with me and my father. And he was my real father, the one I was supposed to have!” He slams his hand down on the table once more. “I dealt with one asshole of a father for fifteen years! I wasn’t going to give up my new situation for that spoiled little shit!”

“Ok,” I say softly, “so maybe he deserved it, but what about Bonnie, huh? Or did you call him Brett before you stuffed him into that car? Did he lose the fucking privilege of your goddamn pet name before he died?”

“You’re so fucking ungrateful!” Whistler snaps. “You were nothing but a whiny, little shit when I found you, and so was he. You were so impressed with him when you showed up here. You got drunk and repeated yourself over and over again…talking about his toughness and his confidence.”

He jumps up and grabs hold of the back of my hair, his face a few inches from my own, showering my brow with waves of spit as he talked. “He was a whiny little pussy just like you when I met him. Whatever fucking confidence he had, it was because I gave it to him! Do you hear me?”

I push myself up to stand in his face, though Whistler is at least three inches taller, I do my best to stand and stare him in the eye. “But your little creation figured out you were full of shit, right? So you had to shut him up?”
He shoves me back down in the chair with the force of both palms. “He wouldn’t give it up,” he says. “Just like you. I caught him in my house snooping around once before.” He looks off at the window, as if he can see the memory playing on a screen outside. “I told him to let it go, but he just kept pushing it…”

“What about Brisby? What precious code did she break? To deserve what you did to her?”

He turns around and throws a punch that lands on the side of my face, sending a bolt of pain shooting from my eye directly into the back of my skull. “She got sloppy,” he says. “Fucking around with some guy that was an informant for the police. It made things…complicated.”

I’m still bent over, rubbing my swelling eye with the palm of my hand. “So it was a business decision, then? Not simple jealousy?” I sit up and look him in the eye once more. “You sure you weren’t pissed that she had the nerve to go fuck some other guy than you?”

He winds back and hits me again, this time spilling me backwards out of the chair. I lay on the ground for a few minutes, opening and closing my eyes as I try to stop the room from blurring.

Whistler doesn’t lunge at me to continue to fight. Instead, he stands staring at me at breathing heavily, his chest raising wildly as he stares at me like a mad dog on the end of its chain. Looking up from my back into Whistler’s crazed, desperate eyes, I can see that the moment is near. He’s either going to kill me, or his going to break.

When the stone’s surface makes contact with the water, there’s no telling which direction it could go. It could skip in any direction, glance off at any angle, or it could meet up with the rough grooved surface of the water at the wrong moment, the edge dipping below the surface with a quiet plop.

I look up into those manic eyes, and I know it’s time to throw my final stone.

“Just tell me,” I say, my voice cracking into quiet sobs. “I need to know if he was alone at the end. I need to know if he was dead before the train hit.

He kneels down close to me, his mouth curling once more into that contorted, plastic grin. “I saw him moving just before it hit,” he says. “That train whistle must have been the last thing in the world that he heard.” He leaned even closer, drenching my face in spit as he talked. “And the little shit got what was coming to him.”

I push myself onto my side and reach into my pocket, flipping the phone out and showing it to Whistler. “Was that enough for you?” I ask the phone. Then I turn the screen around to show him the interface of the Spycorder App, running on the phone.

He stands abruptly and bursts out into another wild fit of laughter. “You just don’t fucking learn,” he shrieks. “You think the cops give a fuck about your little tape?” he asks. “Didn’t you learn anything from your last visit.” He waves his hands around in the air in gleeful amusement. “The cops are in my corner, and they don’t give a flying fuck what you have to say! I’ve already made sure of it.”

“No,” I say, a smile crossing my own lips. “Not the cops.”

Whistler turns from me to look up at the door. Zevon is standing at the door, holding up his phone, a grim and determined look plastered across his face. For a moment, Whistler continues to laugh, but his laughter subsides when he realizes that Zevon is staring at him, and not me.

“Z, I need you to take care of him,” Whistler says, kicking at my feet. “We’ve got to get him out of here to do it, though…”

Whistler stops talking when he sees that Zevon isn’t moving. He’s just standing in the doorway, holding the phone and staring at Whistler.

Starting to backpedal, Whistler waves his arms around, gesturing towards the walls on all sides. “I did this all for you,” he says, “I did this all for us.” Zevon continues to stare ahead, unblinking. “You know that there is nothing more important to me than…It’s about our family, and I…”

As Whistler begins to fumble over his words, Zevon walks slowly over to me and hoists me to my feet. He points behind him towards the door as he continues his march toward Whistler.

“What are you thinking, Z? You’re going to listen to him?” Whistler continues to shout, his voice rising an octave as he’s overcome with panic. “I said what the fuck do you think you’re doing?”

As I reach the doorway, I hear Zevon finally respond, his voice calm and even. “I’m doing the job you gave me…”

The door shuts behind me with a soft thud, muffling the sounds of Whistler’s cries for help.

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