I get uncomfortable when people know too much about me.
It’s been a few months since they mopped up the blood and the other fluids that only coroners have polite names for. Telling you what I did and why I did it probably won’t help me. I think that whole “You’re only as sick as the secrets you keep” saying is as profound as a bug’s ass on a windshield. When someone shares all their odious private garbage, it’s no more redemption than the sound of that insectoid splat on the glass is a song.
But I’m willing to make a deal. I’ll pretend that I’m afraid all these memories are ripping at my soul — kind of like I hear some old man’s heart still beating under the manufactured, plastic-coated, simulated oak grain floor that they sell at Home Depot and the sound of it is driving me mad, and you try to keep up.
Standing outside the police mausoleum, I was having way too many feelings. Where to now? I knew it was Monday. I knew it was the first week of November. A few ripped up Halloween decorations skittered down the street in the wind. Holiday litter is always so festive. The chill in the air matched my mood. The low scudding Midwestern clouds racing south made it one of those days when there was only one place to go — Abe’s Bar. I took the first step in that direction, then the second, and so on. Just the process of knowing where I wanted to go helped. Though it’s difficult, making the first alcohol-related choice of the day takes some of the pressure off. I was building some momentum.
Since I just couldn’t pick my feet up right, I shuffled the two or three blocks to the joint. I thanked God for Abe’s one attraction; his eight a.m. opening time. I pulled open the squeaky steel door and let the ambiance wash over me.
Advertising posters dating from when a Bush was Vice-President featured scantily-clad, over-inflated, nineteen-year-old chicks. The formerly glossy young things touted Captain Morgan or any number of Lite Beers. All the skimpy Santa costumes, seductive Leprechauns, and bikini drill team babes covered one wall. Abe doesn’t sell any of the proffered brands. The posters were free, and they hide the gaps in the old plaster. Abe is a pragmatic man.
“Beer,” I said, even before I made it to the barstool. There was no time to waste, it was almost eight o’clock.
“Got it,” said Abe. He almost creaked when he stood up, and he drug his left foot like the Mummy moving towards the tap. Abe was in rough shape.
“How old are you, Abe?”
He slid the beer, sloshing my way, across the bar. “Fuck you.”
Some people like noisy bars. It’s easy to fit in where the decibels coat everybody like paint and make differences disappear. Some people like friendly bars. Like a sitcom where everybody knows your name, your business, your address. Both kinds of places take too much energy. I like Abe’s place. At Abe’s, Cheers’ obese everyman, Norm, would not be greeted by a chorus. He’d sit his fat ass down in stony, suspicious silence.
Abe is the most sullen, unpleasant, unhappy person I have ever met, which makes him a natural for the hospitality industry. His bar is in a bad location. It’s dirty and dark. The beer and booze are cut rate, and the place smells undefinably wrong. The regulars are as surly as Abe, but for obvious reasons, there aren’t many of them.
I didn’t respond to Abe’s cheerful repartee. I inhaled the beer and slid the glass back towards the taps. “Another.”
Abe pulled me another. The glass was a little on the dirty side. Oh well, it’d be cleaner after I rinsed it out a couple more times.
Abe slid me the third beer of the morning. “You heard?” he asked.
I tossed down number three. Sure enough, the sediment was gone. The glass looked cleaner. My head was clearer. I returned the empty for a refill.
“Did you ask me a question, Abe? You never ask questions. That’s why I like the place.”
Another saloon slide brought me beer number four.
“Just wanted to know if you heard about…” His voice trailed off.
“Yeah, I heard about Terri.”
“You used to call her Terri the Head.”
“Yeah.” I could only sip the beer. There was something in my throat.
“Boy, she sure could give head.” Abe said it like he was talking about a car salesman, or a plumber. “Sold a lot of cars … He sure could fix a drain.” It was a simple statement coming from Abe. Like I said, he was a pragmatic man. “You gave her that name, didn’t you?”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Sure you did. I remember. You hung around her all the time. Then she started working for Mikey, and you were real drunk and started calling her Terri the Head. Sure, you were sitting right where you are now.”
“No, I didn’t. Give me another beer.”
“Have it your way. But I remember.” He gave me a refill.
“I didn’t.” I chugged the beer. It was cold. I wanted cold. Abe was positively chatty today. I didn’t like it much.
“Terri was one woman I didn’t mind hanging around. I even liked that poetry she used to read to you. What was that stuff?”
My throat tightened with the memory. “It was Chaucer.”
“Chaw Seer?” Abe came close. “How’d that one thing go she used to recite when you came in the door?”
I put down the glass. A little booze goes well with poetry. I could see Terri’s face. I could hear her greeting me as I entered Abe’s.
She would look up from whatever table she was at, no matter who was with her, and say, “The hindmost of our group. The Summoner is here with us in this place!” Her stage voice and her big dramatic gestures were all so clear in my memory. “He has a flushed red cherub’s face.” She would stand and approach me. “Pimpled with desire and his hips so narrow. Hell’s hot he is, and lecherous as a sparrow.”
“Yeah that was it,” said Abe. Jesus, I’d recited it out loud. “Then you’d say something back.”
“I must eschew your company. For that is my remedy against my lechery.”
“Is all that Chaw Seer?”
“Canterbury Tales.” I slid the glass back to Abe. I had lost count. That was a good sign.
“She was pretty smart. Shame.”
“A shame.” My hand intercepted the next beer way before it reached me. I was in a hurry. I wasn’t drunk enough.
“She did a job with you once, didn’t she? Blew a security guard while you popped a safe? That’s right ain’t it?”
Abe had a better memory than I had ever expected. He was right. The job was a simple one, and Terri had taken the guy on while I was in the next office doing my professional thing. I could hear him as he got happier. The pimply-faced jerk didn’t deserve it, and I have to admit I was just a bit jealous. Damn, he was stupid. The guy runs into a beautiful woman and thinks she just can’t help herself. She has to suck him off or she’ll die. He must be irresistible. What a schlemiel. Val taught me that word.
Most men are morons like that. I’m not. The problem was, Terri was so fast at getting guys off, I almost didn’t have time to close the safe and neaten up. Because after about ninety seconds, he made the dumbest orgasm sound I’ve ever heard. It sounded like a mule colliding with a fart. Terri started to laugh. She laughed right in his… er.. face. While in the nearby office I desperately covered my mouth and almost lost it. It was live TV sketch comedy. Terri giggling and me shaking with my inner clown. It was just like Harvey Korman and Tim Conway. The skit was out of control.
“Yeah, that’s right, Abe.” That was the night I gave her that Terri the Head tag. She even laughed. We became friends, and that surprised me. Pals or not, I was always on my guard around her. I instinctively knew that, for me, she had to remain out of reach. Sexual power like that would have eaten me alive. Every man knows a woman like Terri. I was smart enough to keep it platonic; most men wouldn’t have.
She knew Chaucer — great stuff; sex, violence, and as many fart jokes as a Jim Carey movie. She read Ken Kesey, too. But that was early on before the drugs ate her up.
“I hear they’re looking for Mikey,” said Abe.
That didn’t surprise me. Terri had one of her sweet misguided deals with Mikey. The bargain was standard in the industry. If she sold a lot of dope and screwed the distributor, Mikey, and his friends on demand, she could keep a little for herself — that kind of deal. She sold to some state legislator’s kid. That was big trouble for her. Val became her lawyer. That was big trouble for me.
Defendant Terri told Lawyer Val everything. She was naturally honest, which is very unusual for a coke head. So somewhere in the story, she told Val how she had helped me on that job. Like I said; trouble for me.
Eventually, Terri had to fuck for money. Things took longer and didn’t pay as well. Once, some judge sent her to rehab. I was there at the same time. We skipped out together, split up on the sidewalk in front of the treatment center, and, as they say, “relapsed” the same night. I don’t like the word “relapsed.” As far as I was concerned, I’d never “lapsed” yet. I still haven’t. But I don’t do drugs any more. I stick to God’s natural way out; liquor.
Jeez, it was noon already. I could tell because the Channel Six Lunch Bunch show was on the greenish-tinted screen of the color TV over the bar. No big screen at Abe’s. There was Liz Nice again. After ten beers, it took awhile for my ears to focus.
“…The autopsy has concluded that Theresa Header died of a broken neck. The victim of a brutal sexual assault was then dumped at the Old Roman Road location by her assailant. Fear is spreading among the other prostitutes of the seedy south side.”
The picture cut to a woman with the bluest eye shadow I’ve ever seen. She looked like some unholy cartoon character. Maybe it was the bad color adjustment of the old set or maybe it was the beer, but it was like a 3-D effect. Her eyes telescoped out of the picture tube like something from the director’s cut of “House of Wax.” When she spoke, I recognized her.
“I’m afraid to leave my house. She’s not the first to die, let me tell ya, sweetie, there have been others. I’ve told the cops but they don’t listen. There’s evil loose in the streets. Honey, the beast is loose.”
Nikki…what was her last name? Nikki…Hell, it didn’t matter what her last name was. I knew her. Oh yeah, Nikki DiBelbis…Nikki “the Pelvis” DiBelbis, the totally psycho, half the time in five point restraint under state supervision, half the time waving a Bible around under your nose, Nikki DiBelbis with the blue eyes. She was kind of a “working girl.” She tried to sell it from time to time, but the word was out. “The chick is fuckin’ crazy!” Nobody would go near her, except for the occasional drunk out-of-towner. She was afraid to leave her house? She lived in a Tuff Shed with some lawn mowers. There have been others? Hey, “the Pelvis” lived in a world of “others,” and they weren’t from this planet. Liz had gotten a great sound bite. The beast is loose? It was great stuff. It was imaginative fiction. It was a real grabber. But then so was “The Lord of the Rings.”
“…Tirawa police continue their hunt for ‘the Beast.’ Our illusion of safety shattered…until the day is night and night becomes the day, until the trees and sea just up and fly away….until the day…” Wait a minute, that was Stevie Wonder flying through my head. Jesus, Liz Nice’s fantasy had morphed into music. She was a fucking genius, and my mind was slipping again. The Beast was loose. The buzz had slipped over to smashed. Ten beers? Twenty? God, “Wheel of Fortune” was on. Vanna White looked like Nikki DiBelbis. I got here around 7:45 a.m. It must be 2:00 or 3:00 in the p.m. I’ve been here more than six hours. There’s only, let me see, thirty-four, five dollars and, fuck dropped a quarter, eighty-two cents in my pocket. Did I have a hundred this morning? Man, I musta’ had twenty, twenty-five beers. “…Until the day that you are me and I am you.”
“Abe, coffee!” You know, now that I look back, I think Abe was reading a week-old newspaper. These are the kinds of details I observe — frequently, without actually noticing until much later.
That was the problem. I hadn’t had my coffee this morning. Valerie always screwed me up. You see, when I drink, the goal is not oblivion. The goal is “the buzz.” Like we said in the seminary, “Ut in Omnes moderato est.” All things in moderation, or something like that. My Latin was starting to dissolve.
Abe’s coffee was beyond horrible. It was perfect. Try some if you ever get a chance. Starbucks should sell his blend. One sip, and your adrenal glands kick in the fight or flight response. The saber tooth is nearby. Survival juices flow. Knock down a couple cups, and you could make it to the tree in time. I was climbing to safety when Mikey came in.
Mikey was a piece of work. He used to be a coke dealer, but he had seen the light and reformed a couple years ago. Now he sold meth. He could make it himself. The profit margin was better, and you didn’t have to deal with any friggin’ Colombians. People on the coasts think we’re slow here in the Midwest. Despite their elitist, fly-over mentality, we are the real innovators. Meth is our latest stroke of genius. Why import psychosis when we can cheaply manufacture our own homegrown, pure American, salute-the-flag variety? It was a huge step forward in decreasing our dependence on foreign drugs. Speed just like grandma used to make. Cooling in the kitchen window with that distinctive fresh-baked brain aroma. Meth was Terri’s last stop on the needle.
Mikey looked like Roy Orbison after a nine month speed spree. Greasy black, Grecian Formula Ronald Reagan-colored hair, garden-raked across a bald head, capped a steroid-swollen face with a pulpy nose and a weak chin, gave him that All-American charm. All that, and his speed-induced concentration camp figure made him a visual treat. He wore his usual tight jeans and an Old Navy rugby shirt. Mikey was always trendy, even when the trend wasn’t meant for him. He reminded me of the old guy I saw once wearing a Bare Naked Ladies tour “T” tucked into his Sans-a-belt slacks. I really didn’t like Mikey, and for lots of reasons beyond his fashion sense.
Mikey was out of breath. “Thought I’d find you here.”
I held the shit-brown stained cup up in Abe’s direction. “So it looks like you’ve tracked me down, Holmes. But I won’t go peacefully.” My instinctive sharp wit was coming back. The buzz was within sight.
“Can the crap, I don’t have time.” Mikey looked sincerely concerned — sincerely concerned about himself. I knew he should be concerned. You see, I felt it in my soul…Mikey was “the Beast.”
“You remember last night?”
That was always a tricky question when you were talking to me. Like I said, I always remember. I don’t have blackouts, just blur outs. But I wasn’t that blurry Sunday night. True, I had misplaced the fact that it was Sunday, but whenever I see Terri things sort of clear up. I saw Terri last night night. That’s what I was going to tell Detective Vandy about. That’s where the extra guilt load came from. I saw Terri the night she was murdered. But I didn’t talk to her. I didn’t do anything.
I saw Terri talking to Mikey. I saw the look in Terri’s eyes. They were real eyes again — not like they were in that photo on Vandy’s desk. She was straight, almost beautiful again. She was crying, and Mikey was mad. I saw them talking. Mikey saw me, too.
“You remember last night?
“Yeah, Mikey, I remember.” It’s a rule. Never volunteer information. Respond precisely, never elaborate.
“You saw me with Terri the Head? You know she’s dead?” When he rhymed it like that, I started to get angry.
“Yeah, I saw you, Mikey.” I enunciated the syllables of “Mikey” to warn him.
“She had a problem…”
“You were one.”
“Listen…she had a problem. She knew something. She needed some help. She asked me for help.” He almost sounded like he wanted me to believe him.
“So you gave her some?” I wasn’t being very empathic. Valerie says that’s one of my character defects.
“It was something I didn’t want to get involved with. I wanted to help her but…”
“Sure, Mikey. So where’d you take her when you left?”
“Listen, I’ll tell you the whole deal, but you got to get me in touch with your girlfriend. I need to talk to a lawyer.” Mikey was looking a little sweaty. It didn’t improve his image or my sense of compassion.
“You want to see Valerie?” The conversation was about to end.
A car, then two, then three screeched up outside. You could see the flashing blue and red through the milky-white window. Mikey’s eyes widened. He jumped down the dark hall towards the Men’s Room. There was a storage room back there, too. It was full of empty kegs, empty Cheetos boxes, empty crates, empty bottles, empty cans, and five empty boxes labeled “Empties.” For a junk-crammed room it was pretty empty. It was dark and reeked of Abe’s. Mikey probably felt right at home.
That’s when Carl Vandy took over the place. You knew he’d be coming through the door, didn’t you? Anybody coulda’ seen that coming. Vandy didn’t hurry in. Listen, when Vandy is there, Vandy is there. When he walks towards you, you feel like a rookie quarterback alone on the field with Ray Lewis. A certain amount of apprehension rises in your esophagus. At that point, there aren’t enough Tropical Fruit Flavored Tums in the world to help you.
“Well, my friend…” It was real trouble when he referred to you as his friend. “Well, my friend, there goes your thirty-day chip.” Just like Vandy to blow my anonymity.
“Just having a cup of Abe’s fine Colombian. Wish we had a Starbucks in the neighborhood, but until then…” I did a little fatalistic shrug. I sure hoped I wasn’t going too far. Vandy could be a really tough audience.
He reached over me to the bar. He picked up my cup. He moved it just out of my reach and set it down again deliberately, so as not to spill a drop. It was a meaningful little gesture. It was time to have a little talk.
“Have you been sober enough to hear that Theresa Header was murdered? She was your friend, wasn’t she?”
When he put it like that, I started to feel it for the first time. My eyes started to fill up. Swear to God, I had a lump in my throat. She was my friend. I didn’t want to feel what I started to feel. That’s why I was here at Abe’s, right? That crazy therapist I saw once would tell you that. But it would just be psycho-babble. I’d be here if my shoelace broke. It just so happened that Terri was dead.
I was almost numb again…almost. “Yeah, Vandy, she was my friend.”
“I understand you stopped by my office earlier today. Have something to tell me, Tools? Know anything about it?” Simple questions with so many implications. He leaned towards me. Vandy’s good at leaning.
So I broke my rule.
“Mikey’s in the back.” You understand the pressure I was under.
Vandy waved at Junior Detective Valasquez by the door. I hadn’t even noticed him. Vandy had demanded my complete attention. He pointed down the hall. In a minute or two Mikey emerged — under escort — in cuffs, of course.
The Beast was in custody. The case was solved.
You’re thinking to yourself, “Wait a minute! What a fucking scam! This slime ball promises me the whole story. We got a dead girl, a crazy cop, the vague suggestion of exciting blood-drenched adventures to come, and now it’s over quicker than one of Terri’s blow jobs?” If you’re a Puritan, excuse me for that crude sexual metaphor, but you get the idea. Go with me on this. You know in your gut, “This can’t be right.”
And, guess what? It ain’t right, but it is what happened. Sit back. Remember that it’s always darkest just before the gasoline catches fire. I’ll buy another round.
There’s a lot more to tell.