Chain Smoke

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CHAPTER FOUR

Miguel wrote algebraic equations in the air with his cigarette like it was a piece of chalk. He spoke with such animation, such frenzy, such devotion to the game; but all Jack could think was, “It’s insane how much he fumigates this little apartment. It’d be one thing if he were a bachelor. But what about Yola? She’s probably developed brain polyps already. She’s a bright thing today, but by her freshman year she’ll be eating pencil shavings.” Fortunately, she was being spared the nicotine exposure today and off playing at a friend’s house.

“Pay attention here,” said Miguel, indicating the TV, where the Brewers were in their third inning with the Arizona Diamondbacks. The men sat side by side on the same couch where Jack had fallen asleep learning about Baptistina. So how was he now expected to stay awake for something as non-eschatological as baseball? “Yellch has everything riding on his shoulders right now. He needs to guess, will Kelly’s pitch drive up and in? Will it be a fastball, a slider? And he needs to guess correctly, Benno, because he only has a microsecond to respond. If he swings for a fastball but gets thrown a changeup, he looks like a dick.”

“I know all this,” Jack moaned, looking at his watch. “I know how the fucking game works by now. Don’t be so dramatic. How is ‘everything riding on his shoulders?’ We’re not even halfway through the game yet and Milwaukee’s ahead.”

“I’m trying to convey to you, Benno, I’m trying to make the drama real for you.”

“You’re no Bob Uecker.”

The camera cut to a wide-angle bird’s eye. “Look at this,” Miguel persisted. Jack pretended to cry. “See how the outfielders are arranged? It’s not just a bunch of guys grabbing their junk out in the grass, ese. There’s strategy at play here. They stand where they stand based on scouting reports of this individual hitter. They’ve studied Yellch’s batting style the way a hitman studies his mark. For the next batter they’ll reposition themselves, you watch.”

“When’s this arms dealer guy expecting us anyway?” Jack said. “Does he even exist? I’ve been bamboozled into watching another stupid game with you, and what’s worse is you haven’t even offered me a beer.”

“Soon, soon,” Miguel fanned him away, leaning in to watch the pitch. “We’ll leave soon.” It was Sunday and he was still dressed for morning mass. Oxblood penny loafers, chinos, an Easter-white guayabera, and a gold cross around his neck. His hair was slicked back, held in place for the moment with a nylon net. Jack tried to avoid making broad racial generalizations—because he felt it was something very much in vogue on the left—but in his humble opinion, a certain amount of melanin was required to pull of penny loafers and a hair net.

At that moment, as Miguel leaped to his feet at the crack of the bat, in walked Rosario. She wore a form-fitting navy dress and had recently curled her hair. Jack could smell the lightly singed follicles. To him it was a pleasant smell, one that reminded him of Ruby taking an hour in the bathroom before they could get out the door to meet friends. Miguel was too busy roistering, so Jack said his line for him, raising his hands to the heavens, “Rosario, you’re a vision. The angels are jealous of your beauty.”

“Gracias,” she smiled, giving a small curtsy.

This brought Miguel back to his senses. He took his wife by the shoulders and kissed her. “Of course, my love. You’re radiant. Enjoy your time with Tina. Is she here now?”

“Five minutes, she texted me.”

“Where are you having lunch? What movie are you seeing? Are you guys meeting anyone else?” Jack sat there and watched the interrogation, some in English, some in Spanish. Ruby would never have tolerated this level of scrutiny from him, but Rosario seemed to be treating it as par for the course, rifling through her handbag, checking her makeup once more in a compact mirror. For the first time in his life, Jack focused on the game. It helped to submerge some uncomfortable inklings of jealousy.

One of the only memories Jack had of his father, which did not involve fearing for mother’s life, was going to see a Brewers game at the old County Stadium. Even at that age, America’s pastime had not impressed him. The crowds were a different story, the illusion of shared destiny. He had never before seen so many people in such close quarters able to stay in a tangentially good mood, fraternizing and buying hot dogs and yelling invectives at the top of their lungs like it was some kind of cathartic release. And he had never been back to a baseball game since, despite having a son of his own.

Wyatt was a bookworm, an introvert, gangly and awkward but smart as balls. Maybe he ought to try and instill some athleticism in the kid. It might help him out in the future with girls and bullies and jocks and all that. Where to begin? Playing catch in the backyard? They had no backyard. Send him off to baseball camp and hope he comes back a converted shortstop, all scuffed knees and smiles, rather than prematurely resentful? The fact of the matter was, Jack felt clueless, and he wished he could confide as much to Miguel.

I mean Jesus, how the hell was he ten years old already?

There was football. Render him the spitting image of his old man. Jack had made a decent name for himself as a running back in high-school. But those were different times. We didn’t know then what we know now about head trauma, CTE. Was it still responsible to enlist a kid in that barbaric sport, even on the admirable grounds of building character? Again, there was nothing to Wyatt, no meat on the bones. Jack grew up eating steak, dry overcooked steak for almost every meal. Not the fancy cuts, we’re talking chuck eye or flatiron, but red meat nonetheless, usually with a side of quick-braised greens. And meatloaf. Tons of meatloaf. Meatloaf by the pound. Whereas Ruby, she could work some magic in the kitchen, to her credit, but half the ingredients came from a can. Canned or frozen vegetables and meats, swirled in with a starchy pasta. They say it screws with kids’ hormones, all this malnutrition. You got fifteen year-old girls getting cat-called on the street because in profile you’d swear it was Dolly Parton. You got fifteen year-old boys picking off bank customers with daddy’s thirty-ought, saying the pomeranian down the block made him do it. And now Jack was supposed to heap the brain-thumping savagery of football on this precarious fulcrum?

Running bleachers, three-hurdle drills, box blasts, lateral bounds, burpees and squat jumps. Who was he kidding—it’d been fucking miserable. The only payoff was that unparalleled adrenaline rush of hitting the field. Meeting the enemy on the scrimmage line, rank nervous breath pluming from their mouthguards, the crunch of frosted turf beneath their cleats. Stadium lights giving the colors on their helmets a cartoonish vibrancy, everything just a little unreal. Single-minded survivalism. A glutting of some primal fetish for violence.

That’s what it was, Jack conceded. He missed playing the warrior, with safe rules and parameters in place. He missed being applauded for his baser instincts.

Someone beeped their horn outside the apartment building. Rosario said, “That’s Tina,” and give her husband another kiss before walking out the door.

Miguel sighed, gingerly removing the hair net. “What’d I miss? Did Woodruff make it home?”

“He the one in the hat?”

“Alright, I’ll go change. Then we should get out of here.”

“While you’re changing, I’m gonna slam a beer.”

“It’ll take two minutes. Don’t be such an alcy. Pull it together, borracho.”

Miguel said this over his shoulder as he walked to the bedroom. It stung Jack hard enough that he didn’t explore the refrigerator. He sat back down and kneaded his hands, watching the Diamondbacks first baseman drive a pitch to the catcher, watching Woodruff slide onto home plate at the last second—or so he thought—then watching the ump declare him “out.” An uproar ensued in the Brewers dugout. They had the whole stadium at their backs, the whole mad colosseum. But the umpire didn’t bat an eye. There wasn’t a trickle of doubt on his brow as he spat on the earth and hoisted his belt buckle. The whole sky roaring down on him, and Jack recognized what kind of man this was. A man who couldn’t sit through a movie, who couldn’t take a compliment. A man in his element.

Miguel came out soon wearing khaki shorts and a #8 Ryan Braun jersey. With reluctance, he clicked off the TV and they headed downstairs. Through the door’s leaded window, Jack saw a man in a business suit loitering outside the entrance. He thought nothing of it. Miguel stopped in his tracks however, and muttered something Jack did not catch. “Just keep walking. Walk straight to the car. Ignore this loser, whatever he says.”

“So who is he?”

“Come on.” Miguel shoved through the door.

The man jumped, not like he was alarmed but like he had been waiting a long time and was ecstatic to see someone, anyone tied to the building. “Excuse me, gentlemen, if I could borrow a minute of your time. Neither of you happens to be acquainted with a Rodrigo Peña? I’m trying to get in touch with him.”

“Good for you.” Miguel snapped on his sunglasses. Neither he nor Jack slowed their pace. The silver Toyota Tundra was parked nearby. On the bumper were a Mexican flag and a “Don’t Tread On Me” sticker side by side.

The businessman, or whoever he was, trailed alongside them. “You don’t happen to know if he resides in this building.”

“Go eat shit.”

The solicitor stopped walking at this point. He called after them, “It’s a matter of governmental importance. I feel obligated to inform you that you may be flirting with a future obstruction charge.”

Miguel threw him the middle finger as he got behind the wheel. Jack climbed in the passenger seat. They reversed out of the parking space and left the lot, Miguel squealing his tires, revving his motor in a further show of defiance. The suited man sauntered back to his post at the entrance, head down, clutching a clipboard, which made him look all the more sad and officious. Jack could practically hear him muttering, “I don’t get paid enough for this shit.”

Before Miguel could even deign to explain what had just happened, he first had to fiddle with the radio dial, searching for an AM transmission of the game. “These pricks show up every few months or so. I don’t even know specifically what they’re on about, because they never tell you, they’re always super vague, but it’s always the illegal ones they wanna ask about, or the ones I suspect of being illegal. So you know, I can wager a fucking guess.” He had cracked the window and was lighting a cigarette. Jack joined him. “You know how I feel about aliens, Benno. Parasites, every last one of them.”

“Right.”

“But they also busted their asses to get here, and I know it ain’t easy living in the cracks. The most dogshit thing you can do is send one of them down the river. That ain’t my job. The DHS, ICE, whoever these chicken-head bastards are, they shouldn’t be asking you and me, private citizens, to do their fucking jobs for them. That don’t sit right with me as a Mexican, and it don’t sit right with me as an American.”

Jack recognized when he was a sounding board, when his presence was incidental, and when someone was really perorating to himself.

They took Kohler Memorial Drive to the interstate, merged onto the northbound ramp, and sped toward Green Bay, not leaving the left lane the entire way except to occasionally pass someone. Before they cut across city limits, Jack happened to glance at his wing mirror. Half of it was dominated by stars and stripes. Red, white, and blue. The world’s largest free-flying American flag had been erected outside the grandiose headquarters of Acuity Insurance in 2003. It stood 100 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty, weighing in at 340 lbs bone-dry. Each individual stripe was over five feet tall, every star three feet across. There were 680 cubic yards of cement poured for the foundation, over 500 gallons of paint used to cover the pole itself, which was eleven feet at its base diameter, weighing more than 200 tons. None of this was surprising when you looked into what Acuity’s clientele paid for premiums.

Twenty-some miles down the road in Manitowoc County, and visible from the interstate, lay a salvage yard made semi-notorious by a Netflix mini-series called Making a Murderer. The charred bone fragments of a missing woman had turned up there in a burn pit. Now there was this Kylie Cho business over in Oshkosh, thought Jack. Between Jeff Dahmer and Ed Gein and Stephen Avery, he suspected that whatever reputation Wisconsin had staked in the world had little to do with its vaunted dairy production.

Speaking of which, they passed more farmland, more grazing pasture, Holstein cows whipping at deer flies, lashing their own backsides in the process like flagellant monks. Fissures of sunlight opened in the cloudbank, a blue anodized underbelly of stratus, and put divine spotlights on the swimming alfalfa, the tasseled corn stalks, the leafy carpets of soybean. They passed blip towns with agrocentric economies, Rockwood and Francis Creek, Cooperstown and Langes Corners, billboards heralding the one decent restaurant, or a historical landmark worth exiting for, or a towing service that could drag you back to civilization. Then the interstate widened and you knew you were nearing Green Bay.

You crossed the Fox River by way of a tied-arch bridge spanning 1.5 miles long. From up there you could see the nexus of the harbor and downtown. Lambeau Field, Hyatt Regency, the Cofrin Memorial Arboretum, an estuarial sanctuary, and the Resch Center, where Jack had last been to see alt-rocker Chris Cornell perform a year before he died. Hanged himself. At the Leo Frigo Bridge’s terminus, Miguel merged onto Highway 41, streamlining the Toyota true north, past wetland meadows and vernal pools. There were regular sightings of blue herons and sandhill cranes, distinguishable in flight by the angle of their necks. The air rushing through the windows smelled of boggy-rich mud, brackish reed ponds, the combusted fuel of cargo boats. Then it all dissipated back into farmland.

Miguel took 41 for half an hour. He exited in the apparent middle of nowhere. Not a building in sight, only mass-cultivated GMO corn, seeds patented by Leaf Tech according to the posted signage. Jack thought you could get lost forever running around inside that six-foot-high congeries of spearheaded stalks, having to sustain yourself on rock-hard kernels and by sucking out rainwater collected in the dirty husks.

They drove on a nameless blacktop road for five minutes when a sad, dusty gas station appeared, followed closely by a one-engine firehouse, a post office, and a bank, a bank asking to be robbed by bandana-clad men in a Studebaker. They were in Threshton, population: 1,607. The main drag grew residential, punctuated by a saloon here, an antiques store there (open by appointment only). It was spaced with elm trees. Leaning forward to peer up through the windshield, Jack commented, “Every goddamn tree has a plastic bag in it. Is that supposed to signify something? It can’t be coincidence. Lookit—every last one.”

“Forget it. Help me find Russet Road.”

Jack pointed out the turnoff when he saw it. A little girl stood on the corner holding half a broken jump-rope in each hand. She was staring at their truck, tears not yet dry on her apricot cheeks, wearing a Depression-era pout. Back then even children learned quickly the futility of crying. He had to laugh. “Jesus, this is bleak.”

“What’s bleak?” Miguel was squinting at house numbers, too focused to appreciate the milieu. “228. It should be on your side.”

Jack saw a man coming down a jigsaw pathway of concrete pavers, a black man, late forties or fifties, wearing blue mechanic coveralls and a weatherbeaten green baseball cap. He waved uncertainly at their approach.

“This him?” Jack asked.

“Dunno. We’ve only been in touch by email.” Miguel pulled over in any case.

Then Jack saw the numbers 228 stenciled on the curb in white paint. “This is him.”

The nametag stitched on the left breast of his coveralls read, Ernie. An American bulldog was in the front window of the prefab home. Aluminum siding, tar shingle roof, single story, and the glass pane smeared by the dog’s snout marks.

“Heya.” Ernie ducked his head to get a look at the driver. “You Miguel?”

“Yep.”

Head nods, handshakes abounded.

“Park here. Come on in.”

They did as they were told. They followed Ernie up to the house. The bulldog was barking but Ernie assured them she would stop once they were invited inside. Jack quipped that he was a mailman and he was used to it anyway.

“Bessie loves our mailman,” Ernie turned back and grinned. One of his buckteeth was solid chrome. “He bring her Milkbones.”

“That’ll do it. Dogs are as susceptible to bribes as politicians.”

Ernie laughed real hard at that, like he hadn’t heard a joke in awhile. Bessie behaved exactly as he predicted, sniffing the newcomers’ crotches and letting her ears be tousled. Jack was impressed with the home’s interior. Small, yes, but neat and orderly and somehow inviting in a utilitarian-bachelor sort of way. An olive-suede sectional. A beveled glass coffee table arrayed with Guns & Ammo magazines, like stepping into the waiting room of some militant dentist. A practically sized flat-screen, maybe 36 inches, 40 at most. And then a collage of framed photographs taking up one entire wall.

“Can I get you boys some coffee?”

The guests declined, hands in their pockets or arms folded, trying to be compact, not wanting to overextend into this foreign space, the vulgar intimacy of a stranger’s home.

“In that case, let’s get down to business. I suppose you want to see the piece.”

Miguel said, “That’d be cool.” His performative nonchalance betrayed some unease, but Ernie probably couldn’t pick up on it like Jack could.

Ernie opened a closet. He took out a green plastic case like a hardshell attaché, only smaller, though not by much. Jack’s jaw dropped when Ernie set it on the coffee table and undid the clasps. “Smith & Wesson 460XVR. Motherfuckers be wearing this on their hip in Alaska. Bears, wolves, moose, boars. This here could fuck up a boar at 100—shit, I bet you 150 yards. No BS, a mean piece of metal right here. About the highest velocity double-action revolver on the market. Five rounds. Adjustable rear sight. Drilled here, you see? Tapped for optical sights.” He passed the gun over to Miguel. “G’on and feel this honey. Stainless steel. Damn near five pounds. Comes with ammo, like it say in the ad. 300-grain Buffalo Bore. But if you don’t need that much power it chambers .45s and .454s. Shit, what else… You get the idea.”

But did he? Jack stole a glance at his friend, who was palming the rubber grip with open awe, and to Jack he looked like a man who hadn’t quite known what he was buying. He had never heard Miguel express a specific interest in guns, just an occasional encomium for the 2nd Amendment. Jack himself was as pro-right-to-bear-arms as Charlton Heston, had in fact carried a 9mm in his dashboard until Ruby made him get rid of it when Wyatt was born. Pried it from his cold dead hands. This 460 was a goddamn cannon though. Totally impractical for domestic/personal security. How the hell do you conceal a five-pound bulge on your person? Miguel would brush this off with a joke about being well-hung. There was no dissuading his friend from this purchase, not after the time and gas money that had already gone into it, so Jack spared himself the effort.

While the seller and buyer talked more nuts and bolts, he gravitated toward the collage of photographs. Roughly a third were the usual filial commemorations, an enormous family huddled into frame beneath the shade of a sycamore, or around a picnic table. The rest were unanimously devoted to other black men wearing black berets and leather jackets, at times going about their business candidly, at times shoulder-to-shoulder in military formation before the portico of some government building, and at times pumping one fist in the air behind the mic of a podium, or in the face of some baton-wielding police officer.

Ernie caught him inspecting the pictures and cracked an arid smile, breaking off his shop talk with Miguel. “That there’s my family legacy you’re looking at. I grew up in Oakland. It’s a long-ass story how I wound up here, but my old man, he was a primary player.” He came up beside Jack, pointed a finger at one particular portrait of a heavyset, handlebar-mustachioed brother glaring from behind a set of aviators, brandishing his shotgun at a count two drill position. “That’s Pops. He joined up with the Panthers in ’67. Knew Huey and Seale personally. They put him in charge of the free breakfast program at St. Augustine’s. Sounds innocent enough, right? Tell you what, motherfucker got raided more times than I can count. Especially after Huey got put away—you know. For icing that cop.”

Jack grunted in a way meant to sound agreeable. He mostly knew who the Black Panthers were through their trademark fashion. Such a world seemed lightyears from anything he had grown up with. Banana splits after Evangelical service at the little Missouri synod church on County C. Baseball games with other bowl-cut boys at the public diamond, which had been paved over with bitumen decades ago. Gathering crawdads out of the slimy river, trying to keep them as pets in slipshod terrariums. He had only seen his first black person in the flesh at seven years-old. A babysitter named Cheryl let him stay up as late as he wanted and watch The X-Files—even though it often gave him nightmares—provided he didn’t divulge to his parents when she had friends over. One day she asked him point-blank whether he was afraid of “black people.” He said no, not really registering what she was asking, not until a posse of her friends showed up and one of them happened to be a tall, lumbering black kid with an untempered afro and hands—or so it seemed to him at seven—the size of hubcaps.

“Mulford Act,” said Ernie, turning now and again to keep an eye on Miguel, who pretended not to be listening to a single word by scratching Bessie along her withers and making puppy talk. “That ring a bell? One of the first acts of gun-control legislation ever proposed in this country. The Panthers marched right into the State Assembly. Walked right in—can you imagine? Armed to the teeth. Protesting its ratification. Know who ultimately had to sign off on the thing? Make it California penal code?”

Jack shook his head, wetting his tongue with spit, thirsty all of a sudden.

“The governor of course. Ronald Wilson Reagan. Think about that the next time a sumbitch starts waxing poetic about the good ol’ Reagan years.”

They did not stay and pester Ernie for much longer. Miguel hastened the transaction by pulling $750 in cash from his wallet. There was no talk of FFL intermediaries, no allusion to ATF protocol, no request to see the buyer’s permit. It was what they call a textbook “straw purchase,” defiantly laissez-faire at the cost of being illegal. At one point, as Ernie was showing them to the door, he boasted, “I size a man up on the spot and I know generally if he can be trusted.”

The word “generally,” in this context, seemed to Jack a troublesome caveat, but he wasn’t about to voice a wonky bureaucratic hangup to two self-avowed libertarians. They bade Ernie and Bessie goodbye, then proceeded to leave the hamlet of Threshton behind them in a whirlwind of dust and confetti-like corn silk.

On the way home they stopped off in Suamico, a similarly small town just north of Green Bay.

Jack was blinking at a half-naked woman haloed by the neon circumference of a wall clock. Its three hands came sprouting from her navel. They sucked down two-for-one Bud Lights, nourishing themselves on burgers and fries that came in red plastic baskets lined with wax paper. The beer put Jack’s arrhythmia back on an even keel. He felt returned to his own skin, like he could summon thoughts at will again.

They were in an empty bar called The Green Sturgeon. Anywhere within a hundred miles of Lake Winnebago, sturgeon was the regional deity. Annually a sixteen-day run was sanctioned on the slippery leviathan. Shantytowns were erected overnight on the lake’s frozen surface. Portals, not to exceed 48 ft², were augured into the icy black water below. Therein dwelt the world’s largest self-sustaining population of sturgeon: anadromous bottom-feeders who had hardly evolved since the Triassic period. Spears and gaffs, often homemade, were the traditional appurtenances. It was a primitive crusade. Men hunting dinosaurs. Jack had tried it one year with two mail carriers named Spielvogel and Lenny, only to come back empty-handed and cynical regarding the venture.

A ten-footer hung displayed behind plexiglas over the bar’s jukebox. “Caught by Theodore Dabrowski. February 19, 2004,” read the brass-inlaid plaque. Jack thought it an unappetizing embellishment. He elected to study the sexy clock instead.

Miguel was in a slightly sour mood. The Diamondbacks had won 4-2, and his shiny new handgun seemed to bring little consolation. They sat in a booth along the wall. There was a circular bar in the center of the room where the bartender stood watching a mounted TV. Everything was floor-to-ceiling knotty pine, from the tabletops to the hefty joists overhead. No windows except for a transom above the entrance.

“Was is just me,” Jack said, dabbing burger grease from his mouth with a coarse brown napkin, “or were you surprised, in that cracker-ass town, when a black dude came out and shook our hands?”

Miguel gave a brooding half-shrug, the right shoulder too despondent to comply. “Not really. Seemed like the sorta place where men go to duck child support.”

They let the bigotry in that statement stew there unchallenged. Jack only realized he was expected to challenge it when Miguel said nothing more, merely gazed at him, a sardonic glimmer in his eye. He was going to make Jack pay for the Brewers’ incompetence by being aggressively contrarian the whole ride home. Jack wasn’t biting. His beer was empty and he tried to catch the bartender’s eye, but the analysts on Sports Center were advancing too percipient a point.

“The company had to fire another one just the other day. He was supposed to show up and clean Wells Fargo. Never found the time. Me and Gordy had to cover for his ass.”

“Another janitor?” Jack said, being disingenuous.

“Another black guy. It’s almost getting funny. How predictable, you know? None of them want to work.”

Jack sneered, and purposely left it unclear if he was sneering in agreement or derision. Miguel took it as the latter.

“You think that’s racist, what I’m saying? I’m talking raw data here. The brothers we get in just don’t stick around. Why? Because they all been lazy as fuck. There’s no getting around that.”

“Okay, and what?” Jack relented. “There’s a genetic explanation, is that what you’re saying? It’s bred into their African blood? Come on.” He flicked the wadded-up straw wrapper from his water glass and it pinged off Miguel’s collar bone.

“Let me turn that around on you. What’s your explanation? I’m thinking it must be your fault somehow, you being the white man and all. The great patrician… No, why you laughing? I’m being dead serious. What the hell are you doing to keep these guys down, Benno? You gotta cut that shit out.”

“That’s simplistic and you know it.”

“Simplistic. How so.”

“Go ask a tenured Berkely professor. Fuck do I know?”

“That Berkely professor would say I’m right. It is your fault. You vote in racist Republicans. You turn up your nose at socialized medicine. You don’t want your tax dollars going in the welfare coffers, man. You think Affirmative Action is a crock of shit. You’re the problem, Benno. All you want is the status quo maintained, even if that status quo includes—” he tallied on his fingers “—black ghettos, black prisons, daddyless black kids, and blacks trying to sell their EBT on the street ’cause they finna go get they nails did.

“Jesus Christ,” Jack muttered, then all but hollered at the bartender, “Yo, can we get a couple more Buds over here!”

“Aww shit, look at that,” his friend simpered. “The white guilt’s creeping in.”

“Oh, fuck off.”

“Why don’t I see any black mailmen, Benno? Seems to me there’s plenty of two-legged colored people—excuse me, people of color—walking around town. Mírame, I’m a fucking janitor. When are you whites gonna quit hoarding all the good jobs? What’s a beaner like me gotta do to see a pension?”

The bartender came to the edge of his pinewood island and trussed his hands on the bar. He said in a drawl that complemented his double-breasted denim shirt, “You wanna try putting that to me in a more civil tone?”

Jack could only gawk at him, as Miguel bent over laughing. “Be civil with the man, Jack. Hell’s the matter with you?”

“Forget it,” Jack said finally. “We’ll take the bill.”

“I’m more than happy to serve you gentlemen, I just ask to be treated respectfully. And I’ll do likewise.”

“Don’t bother.” Jack was already going for his wallet. “Respect never quenched anyone’s thirst.”

“It’s my fault,” Miguel apologized to the bartender, grinning. “I got him riled up.”

He just stared at them in a way that could almost be called sorrowful, then walked away to go tabulate their bill. Miguel made a comical “oops” expression. Jack flicked the guy off behind his back. After paying and leaving a conciliatory tip, they went to the bathroom and pissed in adjacent urinals, neither man wanting to have to interrupt the home stretch.


Eventually he stopped telling anyone about the nightmares. They made Wyatt feel foolish, like he was still a baby, having his mother come up in the dead of night to read him stories. By the light of day he felt fearless, imagined himself fighting monstrous foes. But as the shadows grew longer, black tentacles cast on the pavement by the shade of the catalpa trees, the first bellwether frissons began. He already knew by dinnertime if it was going to a bad night.

What helped him acclimate enough where he didn’t have call for Ruby was that the nightmare grew repetitive. It followed the same track every night, making it no less terrifying but at least allowing him to systemize a response. It generally started an hour or two after he fell asleep. Then he would blink his eyes open, seeing the familiar gradient of the ceiling with its bubbled wallpaper, thinking himself awake but lying there to find out if this was really the case. Then a dingy green light (“swampy” was how he described it in his mind) would start to pulsate from one corner of the room. Wyatt, in a fit of dread, would lift his head barely an inch off the pillow to look down at his feet. The door would have appeared. The little hatch door in the wall that shouldn’t be there, that linked to some other realm, maybe what grandpa and grandma called Hell. It would open a sliver and Wyatt would hear noises from deep within, miles within, resonating as though through a craggy wet tunnel. They were almost mechanical in nature—brutal, impersonal, pounding, mincing, hammering. But not half as terrible as what he heard next.

Wyatt slept with a GI Joe doll he called Thunder Jack. Thunder Jack wore criss-crossed bandoliers, army fatigues, combat boots, and normally carried a rocket launcher, but Ruby wouldn’t let him bring that to bed because she said it could poke his eye out. Even so, Thunder Jack had a backup weapon she didn’t know about: a service pistol wedged in his boot. Throwing the duvet over his head, Wyatt would extract the handgun and fit it into Thunder Jack’s opposable grip, training the muzzle toward the foot of the bed and the demonic dream-door. This offered little solace, however, once the giggling started.

Wyatt saw in his mind’s eye a spider-built man wearing a ratty old turban, a pointy chin-strap beard, so gaunt that his ribs all but sliced through his flesh, and never walking but crawling, crawling on all fours, maybe even with an extra set of appendages, arms or legs, sprouting from his back to help scurry him along. The more Wyatt lingered on the physical properties of this mutant, the more hellishly detailed they became. Lids shorn from the eye sockets, the jelly orbs within all bloodshot and raw, weeping a black discharge, a noxious fluid like burnt motor oil. Every cord in his neck exposed, laminated by flesh so thin it could easily tear, and when he breathed it was like a bundle of living serpents which connected his head to his shoulders. Fingernails that could infect, that could never chip or break, fingernails of polished steel—the only thing polished about the phantasm. But whatever imagery he conjured, the worst horror, the insuperable element by far, was the giggling. Wyatt even shrank when he recalled it at midday, sunlight streaming through the dining room’s glass doors overlaid with lace curtains, grandma humming to Big Band music as she prepared him a tuna melt. The giggles pierced through anything, any good feeling, any sense of security. They could eclipse the sun.

The turbaned apparition would crawl into his room, naked and sexless, foaming at the mouth from a dumb smile that rendered half its face a hole, a gaping cavity through which Wyatt feared he would see the flitting tongues of the pharyngeal snakeheads if ever he found the courage to look. He would feel the pressure of it lumbering onto his mattress, scaling up his legs, the suffocating weight of it straddling his chest, and the face bent so close, an inch away from his, with only the duvet between them. He could not breathe when it sat there, and it knew this. It would sit a little longer each time, taunting Wyatt with the certainty that one day it would never get up, it would never move on, not until the boy’s lungs were deflated, his ribs crushed, his soul raped.

Wyatt knew he was awake when he felt the sweat pebbles on his flesh, shockingly cold. Even the blanket was damp where it touched his face. He still could not breathe, nor cry out, nor move a solitary muscle. He was paralyzed—Thunder Jack an inept hunk of plastic lodged in his armpit, a fruitless ally. The phantasm always cast this hex on him when it left, perhaps a residue of whatever magic powered its unalloyed evil. The panic would build until Wyatt became convinced he would pass out, never to wake. Only at this pivotal moment would his lungs fill, would the intake of air be permitted—the gasping sob of a much older man, nearly drowned—would the tears flow and his body twitch in a spate of pent-up psychosomaticism. The duvet was ripped from his face like an execution hood. The smell of grass outside: pure bliss. The feel of the wind: grounding, corporeal.

Wyatt would share these specifics with no one. Until one day, about a month into living on Catalpa Street, he told them to his grandfather...


Jack dozed off in the truck, his head rolling against the window, his legs heavy and full of sand and on the brink of sleep too. He was not experiencing a dream but a memory. Sitting in the cab of his dad’s old pickup (also a Toyota, incidentally) waiting for him to exchange a part inside the hardware store, the same True Value where he had last been to buy supplies for patching the door. What the part was exactly, and what it was for, Jack didn’t recall, but he spent the entire five minutes spinning the radio’s volume dial counter-clockwise. In his mind, it stood to reason that his old man would have to sit there twisting the knob clockwise for an equal amount of time before even a peep blossomed forth. His dismay was inordinate when The Grand Ole Opry resumed with a flick of his dad’s wrist.

Miguel’s cellphone woke him up. An aria, sung by a male opera singer. This was the ringtone he had programmed for Rosario. Jack had heard it before but never thought to ask what it was. He wiped some spittle from the corner of his mouth. The agrarian scenery, though homogeneous to an outsider, told him they were south of Manitowoc and would be home soon. Good, he had to pee again. He regretted snapping at that bartender. Another two-for-one would have hit the spot nicely, levied a proper buzz.

Miguel ended his Spanish conversation with an English addendum: “We’ll be there in five, ten minutes, okay? You and Tina sit tight… Okay. Ciao, te amo.” He hung up and reported to Jack, “Tina’s battery died on that hunk-of-shit Ford. We’re swinging by the movie theater to give her a jump.”

“Cool.”

They passed the first of three I-43 exits into town, chose the second, and rode the centripetal force of a winding off-ramp, which deposited them onto Kohler Memorial. They took a left on Taylor, then another left at the stoplight, and pulled into the giant parking lot that Marcus Cinema shared with a McDonald’s and a strip mall.

“It’s a blue Ford Focus. Help me look. This place is teeming, I don’t want to hit a kid... Her car’s had so fucking many recalls, I swear to god. In 2013 and 2014 the engineers must have been drunk, because those models have more wrong with them…” He let the thought trail off as he negotiated a sharp turn from one aisle to another, braking and waving through a family of five. The littlest one hugged a tub of popcorn, needing every inch of his stubby arms to do so.

Up ahead, beneath the marquee of the theater’s entrance, Jack caught sight of Rosario in her navy dress, along with another woman in a white skirt and red leather jacket. They were ignoring, but clearly being solicited by, the occupants of a root-beer colored station wagon, an old Bonneville. He could tell because there was an arm gesticulating out the passenger-side window at them. Everything was interpretable through those gestures; the limb in itself was like some needy and lubricious salesman.

He was about to look over and see if Miguel had noticed, when he heard the sound of tires squealing, and realized it was their own. The Toyota lurched forward—perilously, again, given the amount of foot traffic—and slammed on its brakes a few inches shy of the Bonneville’s bumper. Talk about interpretable gestures. Miguel unfastened his seatbelt and reached down, fishing around below the seat where Jack had seen him stash the gun case. He snatched Miguel’s forearm, met the bile in his eyes without backing down. “Get real. Keep your fucking head on. Are you nuts.” Unfastening his own seatbelt to show solidarity. “Let’s deal with this.”

The tiniest nod signaled capitulation, an iota of reason reintroduced.

Jack and Miguel got out just as two blacks and a white driver, guys in their twenties, were jumping from the car demanding, Yo what the fuck… A fight ensued. Witnesses coming in and out of the theater stopped to watch. One or two called the cops, but the scuffle didn’t last long enough for any units to respond. The Bonneville guys peeled off. The women were ushered into the backseat of the pickup’s cab. Then all four of them—Rosario, Tina, Jack, Miguel—went bowling, shared a few pitchers of beer, and allowed some time to pass, some police reports to be taken, before they returned to jump Tina’s car.

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