Chain Smoke

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CHAPTER FIVE

The third-shift clerk wheeled a giant apparatus the likes of which Jack had never seen outside the post office. Imagine two back-to-back wooden bookcases tipped on their sides and set on wheels. These now-vertical shelves held stacks of bundled, shrink-wrapped magazines, collated according to route number. Jack had already cased his “tub” flats, so-called because they came in plastic tubs and were complete chaos, in no order whatsoever. So he took advantage of this brief lull to unwrap a Milky Way, subsidizing his prior breakfast of corn flakes. His heart went out to the clerk bringing the bundled magazines. It must be aggravating to be at the tail-end of your graveyard shift, dog tired from having slaved since ten or eleven, and then in traipse all these well-rested, well-caffeinated, joke-cracking mailmen, smelling of coffee and sunshine.

The separation of unions, he had noticed, enshrined an unspoken rift between clerks and carriers. Not quite the Jets and the Sharks, but something along those lines. Each department (or “craft” in the postal lingo) was convinced that the other underestimated them, whereas in actuality, Jack would have turned down the clerk role even if it came with a pay raise. (Which it did not. Au contraire, actually.) Being stuck in the office was his least favorite part, even during torrid summer days or plunging polar vortices. Supervisors on swivel chairs, always within earshot or eyeshot, monitored everybody for efficiency. Sure, they did it when you were on the street too, thanks to GPS, receiving computer alerts whenever a scanner remained stationary for ten minutes; but at least you couldn’t see the tyrants.

Lenny from Route 11 appeared around the partition of Jack’s case. He was a stout, furry little man whose face went red at the slightest provocation, positive or negative. He’d been a navy squid in his youth, retiring at the rank of Senior Chief Petty Officer, and Jack knew that under the sleeve on his right deltoid was inked a topless mermaid with nonsensically large breasts. The long scaly tail came scything out visibly along his tricep. Apparently, no one in management had ever asked to see the thing in its entirety, or they would certainly have made him wear long sleeves, just on the off chance that a customer might catch a glimpse of it—and then what? Get fucking aroused? Oh, be still my mastrophobic heart.

Jack happened to live on Route 11, ergo Lenny was his mailman, ergo he must have known Ruby was forwarding her mail but was gracious enough not to mention it. Every Christmas, Jack wrapped a pint of Jagermeister in tissue paper and stuck it in the mailbox.

“Looky here! A postcard from Finland. Who the hell do you know up there?”

“Don’t be cute, how’s my mother doing?”

“Says she swam in the Baltic. 42° water. No wonder she stays so fresh and pert.” Lenny knew Claudia from church. They were both potty-mouthed Evangelists who frequented the same post-liturgical watering hole, a rustic and little-known tavern down in the Black River area, where the elderly guzzled old-fashioneds in their Sunday best and bird-watched out the picture window.

Jack wiped his hands and took the postcard. The glossy side showed a Ferris wheel looming above a cobblestone courtyard strewn with colorful popup canopies. On the back was his mother’s longhand in blue ink, postmarked four days ago. He perused it as Lenny made small talk.

Jack,

Arrived in Helsinki safely. Flight was not too tiring. Beautiful city, the cleanest I’ve ever seen. Our sweet old Airbnb host, Nini, was complaining they no longer wash the streets 3 times a day, only once now. Can you imagine? So many trees and lush parks. Went to a beautiful old mental hospital converted into an artists’ retreat. Been to 3 saunas and counting, including a mini one ON the ferris wheel (look closely). The Finns like them so very hot. Then they jump into the Baltic. Yes, I tried it—42°F. Yes, I about died. Saw a maritime fortress on a beautiful island. Won’t even try and spell it. Think I’ll write my next book there lol. Oh, and I tried smoked eel for the first time in my life. Wasn’t bad! Came with the head still on though, which didn’t thrill me. Ugly buggers. Everything splendid. Hope you’re well. Give my best to Wyatt and Ruby.

—Mom

“So you’ll be at the meeting tonight?” Lenny was saying. “Don’t leave me hanging. You know how grim and tedious these things get.”

He folded the postcard into his back pocket. He could see her hesitating on whether to add and Ruby. “Sure, I got fuck-all going on.”

At this point, Jack’s bundled flats came around, so Lenny left to go pester someone else.

A route case was essentially a three-sided standing cubicle outfitted with a narrow metal desk, its graycoat abraded down to the brown dermis by decades of paperwear. The three sides were gilled with metal slots. Each slot represented a different address. “Casing” comprised of throwing the right mail in the right slot and took up about the first ninety minutes of Jack’s workday. While the carriers cased, the clerks sorted packages into route-numbered bins, which the carriers could easily roll out to their vehicles, be it a van or LLV or the highfalutin new ProMasters which Jack had yet to be trained on. Seemed like management was only letting the neophytes drive those things—sleek, top-heavy panzers, with more shelving and standing room in the back.

Casing was so routine for Jack that he could let his mind wander, and he smiled as he imagined the events described in Claudia’s postcard…

“The Democrats are promulgating a woke-scold, holier-than-thou message that a lot of Americans find cynical and disingenuous. As unpopular as Trump supposedly is (and yes, his approval rating hovers right around 40%, but look back and Obama’s were the same at this point in his presidency) find me a Democratic candidate who fares much better. Politicians in this day and age are largely held in contempt, often for good reason, and regardless of party affiliation. I watched the climate-change town hall last night and man, it was a symposium of bluster and superlatives. They are gifting us a communist Christmas present wrapped in pretty ecological bows and ribbons. Tax this, ban that. We’ll run our economy into the dirt, but at least we’ll tax and ban global carbon emissions down by an insignificant amount. It’s places like India and other developing nations that we really ought to be woke-scolding, but in doing so, we would clearly be operating from a place of privilege. And unutilized privilege at that, which is the real sin here, the really offensive part. The Dems will state to roaring applause that once they’re in office they will ban fracking and nuclear energy: two of the cleanest, most cost-effective and tangible alternatives to burning fossil fuels. America, in the past decade, has already decreased its net electric power sector emissions by 27%—this is according to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions—and it’s due almost exclusively to the conversion from coal to natural gas. Yes, the same natural gas Democrats want to ban! Because in their half-baked utopian minds a developed industrial nation, riddled with cities and factories and trade routes, can just harness the wind and the sun and subsist off that. Maybe one day, folks, but it is simply not feasible right now. Not even if we all drive Teslas and stop eating hamburgers. Transportation and agriculture combined, by the way, account for 38% of America’s CO₂ output. Industry and the power grid really are the main offenders… And speaking of offensive, how much are you paying for life insurance, folks?”

The Jabberwock approached wearing bib overalls, a black nylon jacket, a mesh trucker hat, big dirty steel-toe boots. His white beard grew out of his face like mushroom spores. His moony blue eyes seemed to stare in opposite directions, giving him the look of being in a trance, a delirium. This effect was bolstered when he opened his mouth and proceeded to spout nonsense.

Jack could catch a word now and again, something about German immigrants, something about Spanish Flu, something about Ellis Island. He held a cane in one hand which he did not use when he walked. He held an empty coffee mug in the other, emblazoned with a Garfield cartoon. There appeared to be soup spilled down the front of his overalls. Jack had named him after the fantastical monster from a Lewis Carroll poem he liked to read Wyatt. He called him the Jabberwock because the man jabbered. Years of being accosted by this itinerant jester, and still Jack could not determine where he actually lived, whether his residence was even on Route 19, for the Jabberwock could be found wandering all over town, haunting gas stations and bus stops and Dollar Trees and most commonly, the public library, where Jack avoided him whenever he went to rent movies. The Jabberwock was often being beseeched by a librarian to not jabber quite so vociferously.

His jabber was especially indecipherable today, so much that the encounter alarmed Jack, inured as he was to that dead stare and seamless babble. Clearly some vital medications had been omitted from the morning regimen. There was a park nearby, and his countenance, if it unsettled Jack, surely had the potential to scare small children. A kind of crust or black grime was coagulated in the corners of his mouth. His lips were dry to the point of splitting open and bleeding… “And, as in uffish thought he stood/ The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame/ Came whiffling through the tulgey wood/ And burbled as it came!”

Jack looked up and down the sunlit residential street. Not another soul in sight. The distant thrum of a push mower. “Come on. Follow me,” he interrupted the Jabberwock, who by no means altered his burble, not even when Jack took the coffee mug from his hand and started crossing the lawn of 1907 S. 15th (Marcus and Winnie McLaughlin). The Jabberwock followed him to a hose reel mounted on the side of the home’s brick foundation. Jack loosened the spigot with a rusty squeak, which sent a bobtail cat scurrying from the bed of russian sage and black-eyed susans at his feet. The Jabberwock turned to track the cat’s course with his wayward eyes, as Jack tried juggling the mail and the mug and the hose all at once. Once he had filled it with water, he passed the vessel back to its rightful owner, retightening the spigot. “There. Drink up. Hydrate. It’s important.”

His words must have cut through the wall of verbiage, because the Jabberwock raised the mug to his sere, flaking lips, and Jack got some idea of how soup had come to stain his overalls—the Jabberwock jabbered even as he drank.


Grandpa said dreams were funny things, that they sometimes reflected the dreamer’s state of mind. An anxious or worried person might have dreams laden with dread, even if the dream itself was nonsense, or had nothing to do with what the dreamer was actually bothered by. Sometimes they did, though. He relayed a story about Wyatt’s grandma, how her sister Dianne living in Maine had died several years ago and they had booked a flight for the funeral. The eve of the flight, a man dressed circa the 1920s—with a waistcoat, pocketwatch, and drooping mustache—had walked into their bedroom and told grandma in a dream not to get on the flight, she and grandpa would not be safe.

“The next morning we deliberated what to do. I’ll be honest, I was still in favor of getting on the plane. I knew your grandma was no great fan of flying to begin with, so I figured this 1920s man was just a manifestation of that. A very specific one, right on the nose. Unlike your nightmare.”

“Did you get on the plane?” Wyatt asked.

“I couldn’t talk her into it. We drove. We drove straight through and nearly missed the funeral. Honestly, we pulled up just as services were starting and I didn’t even have time to change into my suit. Which was awkward, since I was a pallbearer.”

“Did the plane crash?”

“Well,” grandpa chuckled, “there wasn’t anything in the news about a plane crash, no. But who’s to say? Who’s to say what would’ve happened if we got on board? Your grandma was transporting a very precious piece of embroidery her grandma had done way back when. It was a family tree. She wanted to display it at the funeral. Maybe the airline would’ve lost our luggage or something. You never know. It’s possible everything would’ve been okay. That’s what I think. I think everything would’ve been just fine. And part of me wishes we had got on that plane so grandma could’ve seen that. Just like you’ll see, Wyatt, nothing bad is going to happen to you. Ruby and grandma and I would never allow it. Your life is a little hectic, a little upended right now, especially for a ten year-old, and so it makes sense that your dreams might draw from worries you’re having deep down.”

They were walking along the Red Hawthorn Bike Trail. The overarching foliage still dripped from a morning shower. They had the whole trail to themselves, except for the occasional gray squirrel or chipmunk. It was not uncommon to spot a white-tailed deer either, grazing on the hawthorn berries. This was the same trail grandpa biked every morning, taking it to the ten-mile marker before turning around, out past the ski hill quilted in Neveplast snow matting. Sometimes Wyatt joined him on shorter treks. They would bike to the nowhere-town of Colbridge and stop for a milkshake at a small cafe.

At the one-mile marker, the trail crossed an old railroad trestle. The blacktop path continued forward, but there was also a hiking route made of woodchips which branched off down a glacially-cut ravine and led under the trestle. The route turned into a rickety boardwalk as it passed through marshland. There were birdhouses set on posts for robins and swallows. Cigar-capped cattails rustled in the wind. The springy planks underfoot squelched in the mud. Farther still, the boardwalk ceased, joining with a forested dirt path. Wyatt never tired of these excursions. They never lost their freshness, their novelty, as the forest was never exactly the same. Grandpa could name all or most of the trees. Northern pin oak. Bigtooth aspen. American basswood. They were frontiersmen, they were Oneida trackers, they were the French fur trappers whose names he had memorized in school and had been the best in his class at pronouncing: Jean Nicolet, Médard Chouart des Groseilliers, Pierre-Esprit Radisson, Jacque La Ramee.

The best part was the rock formations—outcroppings of Cambrian sandstone from the towering bluff that ran parallel the trail. They were formed, grandpa said, during the last ice age, and were like striated calluses, ninety-degree staircases up the bluff’s gradient. Wyatt’s dream was to climb one of them one day, specifically the Gorilla Head, which he had named owing to the particular arrangement of its shelves and crags. There was a heavy cro-magnon brow, deep-set intelligent eyes, a curling lower lip, and a great domed cranium. It had taken some time before he could get grandpa to see the likeness, but now he too referred to it as Gorilla Head Rock.

It had never occurred to Wyatt to fear the woods. He had not yet seen enough horror movies to instill this bias. So it was out of the ordinary when a shiver ran through him on their hike and he suddenly thought to ask, “Where do kids go when they disappear?”

Grandpa frowned, resembling, for a moment, the visage of the gorilla in the background. “Which kids? You mean the girl on the news?” He snapped his fingers, groping for a name. “Kylie?”

“All of them. The ones on the flyers, like on the corkboard at Walmart right when you walk in.”

“All sorts of things happen to them. They get taken, they get lost. That’s why you always hear, don’t talk to strangers. Not everyone is trustworthy in this world. Most of them are, but unfortunately you can’t make that assumption right off the bat. Trust your instincts, Wyatt. That’s why God gave them to you.”

He settled a hand on the nape of Wyatt’s neck, threaded with its own sandstone calluses from woodwork and paperwork, the volunteer bookkeeping he did at St. Luke’s. Wyatt would sit in the office and swing his legs and read, or draw in Christian coloring books, illustrating scripture, or he’d study the black-and-white portraits of bygone clergy. Sometimes he’d furtively sniff the cracked-glue bindings of dusty yellow tomes, decommissioned hymnals, each playful note paired with a syllable. Re-joice! Re-joice! Or he would play with the brass armillary on the lacquered sideboard, making its Copernican orbits dance in wild spaghetti unison. Celestial longitudes and latitudes. Tropics and colures.

God’s ball of yarn.


“Tell him about the dead broad, Abs. You got all the best stories. Let the kid know what he’s in for.”

Lenny Landsgraf was belly up to the bar in the south annex of Maple Lanes bowling alley, designated the “Maple Lounge.” The monthly meeting of NALC Branch 102’s union meeting had just adjourned in the basement, down in a drab little conference room which now stank to high heavens of slow-cooker German potato salad and simmering hot dog water. Beside him was Don Spielvogel, a carrier on the brink of retirement, tall, slim, and stately, with parted gray hair, wire-framed glasses, and a lampshade mustache. He was one of four elder-statesman types entrusted with training the newbies. Jack, who hadn’t the patience for training anyone, respected him not only for this, but also because his son Martin was one of 4,424 U.S. soldiers to die in the Iraq War.

Beside Lenny and Spielvogel there was a fresh new face: the “kid” Lenny was referring to, and Spielvogel’s latest trainee. Dylan something-or-other. He was jacked, walleyed, towheaded, and looked to Jack like a future felon, but then again he was predisposed to think that about anyone with a neck tattoo. Spielvogel had invited him along to the union meeting to get better acquainted with everyone outside the strictures of the office. Then, somehow, the kid ended up tailing them up here, to their usual spot at the horseshoe bar where they like to bother “Abs,” or Abner Clinton, a retired mailman-turned-bartender.

Abner had quit before Jack started so he didn’t know him all that well, except that he had two daughters, three grandkids, a dead wife, and a girlfriend fifteen years his junior. A veterinarian named Shelly. Abner was a natural extrovert, well-suited to bartending, and it was hard for Jack to picture him making those solitary rounds on his route for thirty-five years without losing his mind.

Lenny bought the next round, and Spielvogel swore, as was his wont, that this would be his last one. He had already declined a round of shots spotted by Jack. But the kid was game, Dylan the towhead, and Jack already had designs to see how smashed he could get him, i.e. how hungover for his fifth day on the job.

Abner said, “Christ, that story depresses me more every time I tell it, I swear.” He had a face ravaged by the elements. His nose in particular was a shapeless wad of raw hamburger, pockmarked and perpetually red. It reminded Jack of the moon cactus Claudia kept in her window sill. “This was January of, oh, 2003, 2004.”

“ ’04, I think,” said Lenny.

“Yeah, me too. It was nasty out, that wet snow, a lot of sleet and slush. I come up on this woman’s porch, and I’m looking down fingering the mail, and then bam, all of a sudden there she is in my line of sight. Two dead eyes like demonic pink, I’m telling you, a blue swollen face, and her mouth open like she’s stunned, like she can’t fucking believe it, and neither can I.” He glanced around to ensure there were no other customers who needed service, or who might be made uncomfortable by his morbid tale. “I go, oh christ. We’re right on a busy street here, people driving by left and right, but how often you look at someone’s porch when you’re cruising along?”

“Something tells me you do,” said Jack.

“Bet your ass.” Abs exaggerated a shudder. He faced the kid, whose benefit the anecdote was expressly for, as the others had all heard it multiple times, always the same cadence and interjections and inflections and mannerisms. Always oh, 2003, 2004. Always demonic pink. Jack felt that he had lived it. He could see the open front door, the terrified lhasa apso shivering in the gap between the wall and the sofa, eyeing him with combined fear and supplication. He could see the lady’s pink bathrobe, as pink as her eyes, flung above her waist by the fall, her huge varicose legs and beige granny panties, crusted with frozen piss. Abs claimed he could smell the piss. The ignominy of her final resting place. He always voiced the same rueful thought, “Thank god it was me, a stranger, who found her. Can you imagine coming upon you mother like that? Or your wife? I mean, she wasn’t married, but I didn’t know that at the time.”

“Tell the rest,” Lenny urged him. “With the guy next door.”

“Yeah, so as dumb luck would have it,” his voice sobering up now, the emotional part over with, “I’d forgot my cell phone that day. Happens all the time really, least it used to. I’m so old I’m still not used to the damn thing. So I run next door, where I’d just delivered, and pound on the door, and this Arab guy opens it, a young guy, your age (Dylan’s age). And this cloud of marijuana smoke comes out with him.” Everyone started chuckling. “But that ain’t the half of it. He’s clutching in both hands—I shit you not—a fucking samurai sword, like Bruce Willis in Pulp Fiction. A katana, you call it. I remember he called it a katana.”

Dylan offered a polite, “Holy shit.”

“That’s what I said. And he was baked out of his mind, this Arab with a katana, this is what I’m confronted with, and remember we’re talking two, three years after 9/11, so I got prejudices firmly in place, I won’t lie to you. But you know what?” Always this pause, this beat of suspense, and always the same voila gesture with the hands. “Nicest guy ever. Gave me his cell phone ’cause he didn’t have a landline, and was genuinely heartbroken. Went over there next door—put the sword away first, which I put together I had just delivered him, this weird long package I’d figured was a baseball bat or something—the poor kid knelt down and put his ear on her chest, put his finger on her pulse. Clearly, you heard what I just described you, she was dead as a fucking brick. But he had to check for himself. Good kid. He called the dog, the dog came right to him. Ruthie, it was called. He scooped it up and was still holding the thing when EMS showed, police, fire department, the whole nine yards. I felt bad, dropping something like this on him when he was stoned, you know? Just whatever… having fun with his sword. The cops asked him some this-and-that. I guess they figured he’d been crying.”

Dylan asked the other three elders at the bar. “Anyone else ever find a dead body?” They all said no. “So this isn’t a normal part of the job? ’Cause that doesn’t sound too cool to me.”

“Nah, you’re a good lookin’ kid,” cracked Lenny. “The worst you’ll get is some old biddy trying to jump your bones.”

“Just hit her with the dog spray,” said Jack.

They laughed. Abner moved off to attend some other customers. Spielvogel, predictably, bade them goodnight and left. He wasn’t a gregarious man to begin with, but after a few drinks he got even quieter. Lenny went to take a piss, and that left Jack alone with the newbie, who he expected to bust out his phone, as that was the refuge from awkward silences nowadays. To his credit, he did not, so Jack engaged him by saying, “You bowl?”

With a smirk and a shrug, the kid said, “Nah, not really. I never actually been in here before. This always where they have the meetings?”

“Yeah, long as I’ve been on. I think Abner set it up for us.”

“That makes sense.”

They each took a sip of beer. Dylan was drinking some microbrew on draft the color of iodine. “Another shot? I’m buying.” Jack slid a Hamilton forward from his mess of bills on the counter.

“I think it’s my turn to buy.”

“Nah. CCA’s prerogative.” A CCA, or City Carrier Assistant, was the initial phase of becoming a full-time carrier, and ironically, they worked far more hours. There was a huge turnover among CCAs due to the massive workload, heaped on the frustration of being unfamiliar with a neighborhood. Jack related as much and said, “Don’t worry. It’s normal to want to cry. Just get over that hump, and eventually, once you have your own route, it’s a pretty cushy job.”

“How long’s it take to get hired on?” The burning question of every CCA.

“Varies. We got a lot of gray heads in the office now—case in point, Spielvogel—a lot of retirements coming up, so I’d ballpark that in 1-2 years you’ll be regular.”

“Fuck,” Dylan sighed.

“Don’t feel bad. Took me four. The upside is that I know every route pretty well now. All forty of them.”

Abner came back and poured the shots, not before shooting Jack a reprobative look that said, be nice. Lenny, for his part, never returned. This was his way, Jack explained. “He hates all the shit we give him for being whipped by his wife. So he excuses himself to go pee and then slips out the door. He’s fucking ridiculous.” Laughing at this, they said salud and downed their whisky.

As the night wore on, the bar filled up. The various leagues finished up their games and then retired to the Maple Lounge to gloat over their victories or bemoan their losses. A virtual golf simulator lay dormant in the northeast corner: never the case during the winter months. There were two pool tables, a few lotto machines, some airborne TVs, and an internet jukebox where, back in the day, when Jack was a kid, used to stand a cigarette vending machine. Haven’t seen one of those in awhile. Claudia claimed they still had them in Germany, as well as Lucky Strikes, the brand her father smoked. She used to belong to a league in this very alley; that’s why Jack was hanging out in the Maple Lounge as a youth. He could recall their pink polos with the Fifties lettering on the back: The Pink Flamingos, choosing to be outside the box by not incorporating a bowling pun in their name. Or maybe they just couldn’t think of one… The bartenders then were happy to serve him Shirley Temples ad nauseum, taking time to add olives and cherries to the pick, and he sat there amid the cigarette smoke, billows and billows of non-controversial smoke, enjoying the scene around him. The scene of poolsharks and dirty jokes, argumentative couples and dice rollers smashing their leather cup against the bartop. Claudia would come and check on him between turns, always in the best of moods because Dad was not around, and she’d tell the bartender to pour him some popcorn as she bought a pack of Kools from the vending machine.

They got around to teasing the decorum of the union meetings: rising for the Pledge of Allegiance and taking roll call like it was primary school, reading the minutes of last week’s summit (which Spielvogel had to do with a straight face as Branch Secretary), motioning to adjourn, motioning to scratch your ass, and inevitably the whole thing turned into a bitch fest about the supervisors, who, despite what the stewards liked to think, were unanswerable to any of them.

“Of course, maybe I’m a little cynical,” Jack acknowledged.

Dylan insisted he could not leave until he had bought a round, shots included, and so Jack acquiesced, and it was halfway through this seventh pint of Miller when he realized, not only was he quite drunk, Dylan was absolutely frittered. The catalyst for this epiphany was a story Dylan told—not slurring or stumbling, pretty fluid actually—but it was not the kind of story a sober man offers up to a near stranger, especially a co-worker. Some people don’t exhibit their drunkenness in the conventional ways, they take you by surprise with it. They take themselves by surprise.

“I got my girlfriend pregnant in high-school. Alyssa. We’re still together. Her dad was well-off, a master plumber. Those guys make bank. She wanted me to apprentice under him, but the guy totally stiff-armed me. He hated my guts. Even after I got his daughter pregnant he didn’t want to help me out. So I’m like, okay, fuck you too, who needs ya? I got a job unloading trucks, graveyard shift, in a huge meat locker up in Manitowoc. Fucking worst. We both lived with our parents, but I stopped by every night to see the kid, or she came by my pop’s place. My mom died when I was eleven, so… I mean I’ll cut to the chase here.” He laughed the way people do when they’re about to reveal something shameful or embarrassing. “Pops and I hatched this little plot over beers one night, and I’m aware of how totally crazy it is now, we both are, but at the time we were 100% sold…”

“Yeah?” Jack prompted him, on the edge of his stool, watching the blood vessels dilate like parasites in Dylan’s eyes.

“We were gonna take the kid.”

“Take him?”

“Yeah, like for ransom.”

It was like blacking out. The next thing he knew, both he and Dylan were off their stools, hugging their stomachs and doubled over in wild peals of rib-cracking laughter. They fell to the carpet. They were on their backs like turtles in the fetal position, crying, shrieking, spasming, until Jack gazed up through his tears and saw Abner’s face passing judgement from on high. There was an undeniable trace of amusement locked away behind the stern veneer, like when your kid says something naughty but funny.

He said, “You boys wanna stay off the floor at least? Don’t put me through the embarrassment of cutting you off.”

So they obliged, clawing their way back onto the slippery vinyl stools, washing the laughter down with gulps of beer, and then Jack said, “Okay. I’m all ears. Resume. You’re gonna take the kid hostage—” Another small paroxysm, this one more quickly contained.

“Yeah, you know. No big deal. It’s half mine anyway, the little fucker.” There were tears on Dylan’s cheeks. He allowed himself a few deep yoga breaths before continuing. “But here’s the thing. It wasn’t like a real kidnapping, we figured, (A) because I’m the legal father, and obviously no harm was ever gonna come to the kid, and (B) we were gonna pay the ransom back, with interest.”

Jack started to lose it again, but he saw that the orator’s face was dead-serious. “With interest. Very good.” Clearing his throat, squaring his shoulders, and thinking, oh boy, this guy’s a headcase. I need to get out of here. But he couldn’t—and no, he didn’t really want to. He needed to ride this wave of personal mania and see it through until the point where it developed into a tsunami. But not a second longer. Maybe he’d better settle his tab on the sly so he could bounce when that moment came.

“Yeah. Pops knew of some investments. He was in with some big-time city developers through his line of work in construction. Only problem was we didn’t have any capital. But if we did, god, he was certain we could make it back tenfold.”

“Tenfold. Gotta raise some capital.”

“You see how it kind of makes sense?”

“You got this kid. You got this master-prick plumber doesn’t want to throw you a lifeline.”

“Right, so that’s how I can say, yeah it sounds crazy, but those investments did come through just like Pops said. Buku dividends. And we would’ve made bank if we’d gotten away with it. That I can say as fact.”

“What happened?”

He shrugged, he scoffed, he fumed until the veins under his neck tattoo popped out. There was clearly still a boiling resentment leveled against his girlfriend’s father. The darks of his eyes were puddles of kerosene, and every now and then Jack swore he saw a spark. “Cops saw right through our bullshit. That’s all. Turns out Pops can’t lie for shit, that and we forgot to hide the squeaky frog.”

“Squeaky frog?”

“Yeah, it was his favorite toy.” Holy shit, what could this be? Tears? “We tried saying it was a dog toy, but we didn’t have no dog.” Definitely tears, and real ones this time. Jack soon learned why. Alyssa, the girlfriend, astoundingly did not press charges, said it was a misunderstanding on her part, covering both Dylan and his father’s asses. The master plumber, of course, was less forgiving. Over time he recorded one mini-fiasco after another, incriminating both Dylan and his own daughter as unfit parents, then presented it to a judge and ultimately got the State to come take their baby away. “—And she still talks to that piece of shit, can you believe it?” So emotional now Jack can see him vibrating, his face and eyes the same volatile crimson, his beefy hands ripping a cardboard coaster to shreds.

Abner was watching with something halfway between fear and disgust as he tapped a beer. Jack knew they should get going, yet when Dylan asked if he wanted to shoot a round of pool, he found himself waving Abs over so he could break a dollar.

“Thought you guys had to be up bright and early.” Abner set his hand on the currency without picking it up.

“The night is young yet, Abs,” Dylan flashed a cocky smile, even as he snorted mucus up through his sinuses. “You remember how it was.”

Jack said quieter, more even-keel, “We’ll be alright. I’m looking out for him.”

And Abner said without saying, merely with a passing look as he snatched up the dollar bill, That’s what I’m afraid of, thereby confirming Jack’s long-held suspicion that the man didn’t really care for him.

Things started out fine. They plugged the quarters, racked the balls, chalked their cues, and played in a semi-silence that wasn’t really silence thanks to the music and the din of the bowlers and that sweet, crisp knock that the acrylic made upon contact. Jack got the impression that Dylan had suggested this disport specifically so they could stop talking, stop talking but not go home. Going home was a terrifying prospect, to leave behind the obfuscation of all this noise and light, which came in through the senses and created a levee against the crashing gray floodwaters, the true vacuous dead-end of everyday life.

The middle-class exist within two concomitant realms: coziness and dreariness. The latter makes them dream lofty dreams. The former keeps them nervous and partly anaesthetized.

Maybe he had double-vision or something, but it turned out Dylan couldn’t shoot pool for shit. Jack was no hustler himself, but at least he pocketed one or two balls on his turns, and could put a little english on it, as taught to him in his twenties by an old cop named LeClair. Always dressed like a Fifties greaser, that guy, white crew-neck T tucked into his jeans, thinning hair dyed black and slicked back, and when he bent to take a shot Jack could see his scalp was dyed too. Showed him how to form a sphincter with his fingers, keep his chin above the cue—aim with your chin—lean into the shot, speed up as you approach, keep your head down afterward, watch the trajectory, see where you fucked up. They would play at a riverfront dive, now refurbished into a kitchen boutique, called Jones’ Wharf, one of the few bars in town with a free pool table. LeClair never talked about being a cop, much as Jack prodded him. He said nostalgia was the first sign you had one foot in the grave. Lung cancer took him in the end. Guy was a human smokestack. His throat was the oldest thing about him, so that should’ve been a premonition. Jack remembered how the skin would dangle when he was bent over, how it’d dance when he popped the cue like a valance in a strong breeze. He remembered the two of them standing out back having a cigarette, a suicide stick, a cancer straw, watching the river and watching this festively lit pontoon drift past, packed to its gunwales with partygoers, and one of the girls on board let out a “wooo!” so Jack decided to reciprocate with his own “wooo!” which made her look over and spot the two of them and pull her shirt up over her breasts. Jack had never seen something so beatific as LeClair the cop in that moment, like the guy was watching his very first sunrise.

“God-fucking-damn it! Son of a bitch!”

Another unfathomable miss by Dylan. Jack had more or less handed him a drop with the configuration he’d left behind. Still he had managed to ricochet the ten off the tit wildly, a comet scooped into hyperbolic orbit, never to be seen again in the known universe. The stained-glass fixture over the table gave Dylan’s rage a harlequin coloration. There was a short hallway behind him, not really a hallway but an alcove, containing doorways to the men’s and women’s restrooms. Dylan swung his cue and impacted it right on the corner molding. It broke in half, the top part zipping like a stray harpoon above the heads of a nearby table, while a thin middle sliver landed right in their wonton platter. Someone easily could’ve lost an eye. Jack, mouth agape, saw that the corner molding was cracked too.

He heard hysteria bubbling all around him, then Abner’s voice cut through the melee and he was saying, “I’m calling the cops! I told you ratbags to go home!” Looking right at Jack while he said it, which Jack thought a little unfair. What was he, the kid’s father? He was technically a grown-ass man. He worked at the post office for crying out loud! A surreal calm descended on Dylan after his fury broke. He dropped the bottom half of his cue stick into the rack, but it was not long enough to stand upright anymore and simply fell through the hole, rolling onto the floor. Then, briskly but calmly, he strode out of the bar.

Jack wiped a hand across his face, as if, when he took it away, reality might have changed, or he would at least be sober enough to process the situation. There were still balls on the table. What he would’ve liked to do is move past the silly ordeal and practice a few trick shots, but Abner, on the phone with the police, cupped a hand over the receiver and barked, “Go after him! Don’t let him leave like that, you fucking moron!”

Weaving slightly where he stood, Jack said under his breath, “What did you call me—?” The insult fouled up his mood, enough where he no longer cared about the remaining balls, and he discarded his stick on the tabletop rather than putting it away in the rack, which to his mind was a valedictory fuck-you, a proud protest. He stormed off in pursuit of the CCA, trusting he had left enough cash on the bar to settle his bill. Like hell he was settling Dylan’s.

The air outside was warm, supercharged with electrons. Jack saw a thunderhead approaching from the north, visible only intermittently when it pulsed from within. Spasms of purple lightning. A womb of black vapor, pregnant with the apocalypse. He looked left and right for Dylan. Maybe he should’ve checked the bathroom? Could be relieving himself or puking his brains out, which in itself is a form of relief. A cyclone of leaves skittered across the asphalt. Jack had taken the bus here, knowing his propensity for getting lit after the Branch 102 meetings. The cops would be here soon and they would ask how he’d be getting home, uncongenial to the answer that he intended to walk. The PD’s punctilious hangup about public intoxication, Jack knew it all too well, had spent a night or two in the city drunk tank and was not partial to it. Dylan or no Dylan, he wasn’t setting foot back in that bowling alley under any circumstance. He started to chart a course home when he heard tires squealing, and spun around to find a white sedan careening out of the parking lot, eliciting honks, an abrupt chorus of brakes, from the traffic on Business Drive. The sedan revved off, well above the speed limit, weaving over the yellow line at times, then plunging toward the vanishing point, leaving just a sonic trace of itself on the air, an upshifting echo like a buzzsaw.

So that settled that. The kid’s life was in his own hands. We’ll see if he shows at work tomorrow. Jack set off in the same direction, toward the roiling black storm, toward home. It had been a fifteen-minute bus ride, so he figured he could walk it in thirty, forty minutes tops, and if they sky opened up on him, if it started dumping rain, well, there were plenty of bars along the way where he could pop in and call a cab, perhaps have one final drink while he waited. A whisky sour with an egg white, that’s what he was craving. Harry Ficke had turned him onto those, after much cajoling and arm-twisting. It sounded disgusting, but the light, frothy texture really made the whisky flavor dance and effervesce on one’s tongue. Yes, rain notwithstanding, he would pop in at Limelight and demand one of those. They had a kitchen in back, so there must be a fucking egg in the place. However, fortune (or more accurately, a fire hydrant) had different plans. His shin caught the cast-iron protuberance as he crossed a grass median. He let out an “oof” and fell face-forward, getting his hands up in time to lessen the pavement’s blow to his forehead, but not stop it entirely.

The thunder murmured its dark mirth, and a light rain peppered his splayed-out, motionless body.

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