“What’s the first thing you remember?”
“My first real, complete memory? Hmm, I was young, about three. Somehow, I snuck out of the house during the night. Woke up with my blankie under a big cardboard box in the middle of the road. An Avon lady found me, brought me home. I remember everything was pink or powder blue and it smelled of perfume. You know, the kind old women wear to hide the fact they’re dying.
“Even so, I didn’t want to get out of the back of her car. I buried myself under the bags and boxes of skin cream and death repellent. Maybe, I knew I was in trouble or, maybe, I just didn’t want to go home. She flipped over my St. Christopher bracelet though, found my address, and drove me home. Practically drug me up the walk to my house; my blanket trailing behind through the puddles and mud.
“She banged on the door forever, peeking in windows, rapping on the glass. Finally, my mother answered and snatched me off the stoop. The Avon lady felt she was entitled to a lecture for her efforts, but my mother wasn’t having it. She pulled me into the kitchen and slammed the door. I could still hear her shouting outside as my stepdad stumbled in, drawing the belt on his stupid Hawaiian print bath robe.
“They kept a Bozo the Clown ping pong paddle hanging from a nail in the kitchen. On one side Bozo was happy and smiling, on the opposite he was in tears. He flipped it from the smiling clown to the weeping one, then asked me if I knew what that meant. Of course I did. He pulled my pajamas down right there and paddled my ass with that bipolar clown. I remember crying out and hearing the Avon lady start banging on the door again, sternly protesting ‘Don’t hurt that child!’
“I almost escaped.”
“That’s not what I meant, James. Can I call you James?” the faceless voice crackled through the receiver.
“Sure, sorry, Doc.” said Sunny Jim.
“I’m not a doctor.”
“Would you like to be?”
“No, James, I think it’s too late for that.”
“Aim for the stars. Isn’t that what they say?”
“Look, I’m here to help. I just want to understand what’s happening, how we got here.”
“Because I’m in trouble, is that it?”
“Something like that, yes,” said the man on the phone.
“No offense, Doc, but this doesn’t feel very helpful,” he said as he set the olive-green receiver down on the hook and the cord coiled up behind it.
He sank into the destroyed couch. The springs groaned and dust danced in a thin square of sunshine slicing in from the tiny kitchen window. His fingers explored the cushion, cratered with cigarette burns and stained with decades of unknown contaminants. The carpet was an extension of the sofa, colorless and calico with shades of puke and piss. A candy dish on the coffee table spilled over with cigarette butts like twisted and pestilent marshmallows, garnishing the greasy bags, burger wrappers, soda cans, chicken bones, bent spoons and blackened bits of tinfoil. The walls did have a color, they were yellow, sweating nicotine like a flood in stasis. No pictures or decorations adorned them, save a faint and blurry portrait of two stick figures: one child and one adult, holding hands under a sun. Executed in magic marker, now bleached and scrubbed over. It was the cleanest spot in the apartment.
Sunny Jim stood up and followed the beam of light through the gloom to the kitchenet. There was a window above the sink, it looked out into irregular angled brick walls, pocked with tiny windows barely big enough to frame a face. Only the smallest sliver of blue was visible. If he craned his neck, he could see the perfect angle that the sun had found, but the sun was sinking. Half a bottle of Smirnoff stood as a monolith among the counter trash and mounded ashtrays. He filled his hand with the familiar curve of it.
“Is this where it began, Doc?”
The phone was ringing.
“You still with me James?”
“I’m here, Doc.”
“I hope I didn’t upset you before, I’m only trying to help.”
“Straight truth, I swear,” said the man on the telephone. “Is there anything I can get you, a sandwich, cigarettes, anything?”
“I don’t smoke,” said Sunny Jim. “I never have. The smell just gets to me, you know?”
“I understand. Let’s talk then, like before. Tell me what happened to the boy?”
“I’ve always hated the smell of cigarette smoke. I used to have nightmares about having butts stuck in my throat.”
“What happened, James?”
“We moved to California when I was five, drove there in a LTD, real boat, dragging our shit in a U-Haul. It was awful. They chain-smoked the whole trip with the windows up. I’m sure that’s where the butt dreams came from. Seemed like they were always tired, slumping over and snapping up. Sometimes they’d drop their cigarette, pop up and light another one; a wonder we didn’t burn up on the road. I thought it was the long drive, but it wasn’t. Once, my stepdad pulled over and slept behind the wheel in a turn out. After a while, I got out, stretched, and walked around.
“I found a huge layer of hard, red clay in the strata of the hillside next to the highway. However long we were there, it was enough for me to carve out a bas-relief of a baby elephant about the same height as me. I had to make the trunk and tusks kind of short, the clay wasn’t that great. I thought it looked pretty cool, rearing up on a stool like a circus elephant and trumpeting, or whatever elephants do when they shout. It was almost dark when my mother came to find me. I was about a hundred feet up the road. I cried because she wouldn’t take a picture of the elephant. That woman took pictures of everything, but she wouldn’t photograph my masterpiece.”
“So, you’re from California?”
“No, I moved there from here.”
“Yeah,” said the man on the phone. “But you lived there?”
“Stepdad was a fisherman, his ol’ man had a boat called the ‘Patience’, docked in Long Beach at Fish Harbor. We lived in Redondo.”
“How long were you there? Were you registered in school? Were you ever arrested?”
“What the fuck kind of question is that? I was five, dick!”
“Sorry, James, it’s important that I know who you are. I need information and you’re not being very cooperative.”
“I’m trying to tell you,” he said, picking up the phone from the flotsam of the table leaving behind a perfect outline of ash and dust.
“I’m listening, James.”
“There’s so many songs about California, you know, but none of them really tell the truth. California may be a dream, but not all dreams are good ones,” he tilted the bottle back and swallowed several mouthfuls of vodka.
“You don’t like to surf?”
“You’re a funny guy, Doc,” laughed Sunny Jim.
“Not a doctor…”
The square of light had faded to a dim trapezoid and the swirling dust escaped into the darkness.
“You ever see a shot in a movie where it’s just a dark highway with a cracked yellow line down the middle? You know, you’re looking over the dash through the windshield, the headlights are dim and all you can see is that yellow line coming at you, eating up the pavement like a laser?”
“Sure, I think so.”
“That’s what California was like for me. Always night, always driving. Maybe driving around filling forged scripts at drug stores, or maybe he was just high and driving us home. Me in the back seat, wide as a boat, trying to peak over the headrest, watching that line making sure it stayed in the middle. When we stopped it was always in some strange place like a cluster of warehouses, a cannery, dry dock, trailer park, or industrial complex. Sometimes they were selling, sometimes buying. There were always paper bags and rattling orange cylinders.
“Once he parked by the train tracks and left my mother and I in the car, took the keys with him. He didn’t come back that night. My mother slept like she was dead in the front seat. I shook her a few times, but she didn’t move. About every half-hour a train would come blasting its horn and shaking the car, I swear they were a mile long. We were only a few feet off the tracks, I’m sure the conductor thought
“When the sun came up, a food truck pulled up nearby and a bunch of Mexican workers came to get coffee and breakfast sandwiches. I was hungry, asked my mother to get me some food but she didn’t have any money. Eventually, she went and talked with one of the men and went away with him behind some portable buildings. She came back with a small cup of orange juice and a donut.
“After a while, she left to go find my stepdad and I stayed behind in the back seat of the LTD. Night came and she hadn’t returned. The trains passed, blew their horns, and the car shook all night. Eventually I fell asleep. When I woke up, we were driving again. The sun was up and no one was talking.”
“That’s awful,” said the man on the phone.
“At least we were parked. More times than I can remember, we’d be driving back from one of those places and he would fall asleep at the wheel. I’d sit behind him and watch the yellow line. Whenever we drifted, or his head would start to dip, I would hit him on top of his head. Sometimes, he wouldn’t wake up right away and we would drift over the line where dark shapes lurked just outside the headlights.
“One time, when I wasn’t with him, he left the road completely and drove through the front window of a Korean family’s home, right into their living room. I remember he had the audacity to claim they stole his fake Rolex before the ambulance came. Not long after that he went away. We visited him a couple times in prison. My mother said he had to go away for poaching wild boar on Catalina Island, she never could tell the truth. I was five, not stupid. At least that LTD was gone for good.
“Wasn’t long after, that my mother and I moved back. This time we flew, it was my first time on an airplane, and it was awesome.”
“What was your mother’s name?”
“I see what you’re trying to do here.”
“Work with me, James.”
He set the phone down on the table. The little bell inside rang out as soon as he returned the receiver to its cradle. He let it ring. There was a light switch outside the tiny hall that led from the bedroom to the toilet. He flipped it and a single bulb flickered to life, illuminating the yellowed light cover like a shadow box of dead flies and, somehow, more cigarette butts. He stood in the hall, the bloody handprint on the bathroom door had run all the way down to the filthy carpet. It looked like brown paint in the light, forgotten by a careless painter and too far gone to fix.
The phone continued to ring.
He stretched his hand toward the doorknob, lost his nerve, and finished the bottle instead. He looked mournfully into the uselessness of it before letting it fall to the carpet next to the .22 caliber pistol he had done his murdering with.
“Fine,” he said and returned to the telephone. “Yeah?”
“Don’t do that again, James, OK?” said the man. “I can’t help you if you don’t work with me.”
“Ok, Doc,” he sighed. “Whatever you say.”
“We’re running out of time, buddy.”
“No, we’re not,” said Sunny Jim. “You’re running out of time. I never had any.”
“What does that mean?”
“You’re the doctor, you tell me,” he laughed.
“What happened to the boy?”
“We moved in with my grandparents. They lived in a haunted house. Maxine, my grandmother, ran a daycare there six days a week. Because of her license, I had to stay in my room in the attic, or it counted over her limit of victims. She was insane. Boiled her silverware and scrubbed holes in her carpets. If I ever crept down to get food or use the bathroom, she would chase me with a wooden spoon or shake me until my arm came out of its socket. I learned to go hungry and pee on the roof. My grandfather stayed in his room most of the day drinking 151 and reading books by Louis L’Amour. He wasn’t a bad guy.
“My mother would be gone for days or weeks at a time, off with boyfriends I assume, always fishermen. It wasn’t bad during the school year when I could get out and eat more than one meal a day, but summers were miserable. The heat up there was unbearable and it was infested with spiders big enough to take down birds. They weren’t shy either.
“I got real sick when I was twelve, some kind of food poisoning or influenza. I thought I was going to die. Maxine never looked in, content that I stayed in my room and mom was on an extended absence. I puked on my sheets and had to sleep on them. I was too weak to peel them off. I don’t know how long I stayed like that, at least a couple days.
“Fever broke about the same time the weather did. Man, I was never so happy to see rain. My mother was still missing, and I was starting to get worried. I thought maybe she was dead, seemed plausible. Maxine knew something but wouldn’t say, wasn’t pleased with my inquiries either. My grandfather let it slip that she was in the hospital, but only on the condition I didn’t tell Maxine. Turns out she had tried to kill herself. How I’m not sure, nobody wanted to talk about it.
“That fall, she met another fisherman and future stepdad, and we moved out of Maxine’s house. That was a whole other shitshow. I’d had enough and it wasn’t long before I snuck out in the middle of the night, this time for good. By then, I had my own drinking to do and life to neglect.
“I came back a few years later for Maxine’s funeral, not sure why. Maybe I just wanted proof that she was dead. The family was in heated debate over the inheritance at the time, so the service was exceptionally awkward. It was open casket, because of course it was. As if she wasn’t terrifying enough when she lived. Probably the only time in my life I wanted to high-five cancer. The pastor played her favorite song by Kenny G on a portable tape recorder as they lowered her into the hole. There she went into the great beyond with a rose, a handful of dirt, and Kenny Fucking G warbling out of a shitty tape deck. A fitting monument to the soulless and pathetic pointlessness of her entire life. I wanted to clap.”
“You still with me, Doc?”
“Yeah, sorry James, there’s a lot happening out here,” said the man. The receiver muted slightly, as if he palmed the mouthpiece. He spoke briefly in muffled tones with someone in the background.
“I’m here, but this is it. I need you to tell me what happened, all right?”
“Yeah, ok, just give me a sec, I have to piss.”
“Don’t hang up!”
“Jeez, don’t sound so desperate,” he set the phone and receiver down on the ruined carpet.
The vodka had done its work. He was numb. He flipped the switch outside the bathroom and pushed the door open. One of her legs, the one with the butterfly tattoo on the ankle, protruded from the shroud of shower curtain, hanging over the edge of the tub. Blood streaked everything, casual, like the filth and grime between the tiles. In a less harsh light, it might even have blended in. He avoided eye contact with the mirror and stood at the toilet. His piss swirled pink in the bowl where errant drops of blood had fallen. He flushed the toilet but did not wash his hands, and exited the room, still unwilling to look in the mirror.
“I met her at the Scar Bar, or the Broken Heart Lounge, whatever they call that shithole on 23rd. In fact, I don’t remember meeting her, only leaving with her at closing time. I could smell the whisky coming out of her skin and it made me hard. I think we tried fucking in the park, but it rained. She brought me here, to her apartment. Pitch black and no windows, she dragged me to her mattress.”
“That would be Miss Kendrick?”
“I don’t know her name, maybe I forgot, I certainly didn’t care. I was behind her, fucking. It felt like if I fucked hard enough, I could consume her completely. She would just be gone, a used up and discarded husk, like a cigarette butt or a burger wrapper. We both wanted that, to be gone, and with every thrust, we were less there, dissolving to a stain of fleshy obliteration.
“Then there was a light, white and unnatural, not blinding, but enough to fill the room. I looked to the source; a small cherubic face lit up by the screen of a cell phone. I made eye contact with the boy who seemed entirely indifferent to my presence. The phone made some quiet beeps as his game booted up and his eyes fell to the screen.
“The shameful gravity of her flesh hit me and I was undone. I slithered into my jeans, sticky like a slug caked with garden dirt and fished around for my shirt. ‘It’s ok,’ she said. ‘He doesn’t mind.’ I looked at the kid in his Spider-Man jammies, sitting cross legged in a dog bed, tucked into the corner of the room. It was me that was obliterated. Didn’t feel like there was enough of me left to get up and walk out.
“She yelled at the boy and he silently absconded with the phone into the living room. She was tugging at my jeans, but I already had my jacket on. I could feel the weight of my pistol in the pocket, swinging as she pawed at me, pulling me toward the naked mattress.”
“Is that when you killed her?”
“Easy, Doc. Go easy, if you want me to talk.”
“That’s all you do is talk, James! And you still haven’t told me what I want to know!”
“I’m not a fucking doctor, God damn it!”
“Yeah? And my name isn’t James, asshole! Sunny Jim is what some drunk fisherman used to call me when he couldn’t remember my name.”
“What happened to the boy? That’s all I want to know! Is he in there with you? This is your last chance!”
“What boy? Do you know his name?”
“Don’t get cute, you sonofabitch!”
“You don’t, do you?” he sighed. “It’s Clyde.”
The sound of voices shouting in the void beyond the man filtered through the receiver. He figured it wouldn’t be long. He carried the phone to the kitchenet and opened the half-sized refrigerator. Fate smiled. He found a tallboy among the condiments and spoiled milk. It stood next to a juice box, the straw of which extended like a tiny hand toward the taller can.
“No, Doc,” he said cracking the beer. “I took them to the diner down the street for breakfast. Spent my last ten bucks on an apple pie from the case. Gave it to the kid and we left him in the park with a spork.”
“We left him and came back to the apartment. She went in the bathroom, was there for a long time. I think she was getting fixed. When she opened the door, I shot her in the neck, just once. She stumbled back in the bathroom, looking at the hole in her neck, oozing blood. The way she stood there staring, I thought she was going to cover it in makeup. Finally, she picked her phone off the toilet and started tapping away at it. She must have got through to someone. 911? I couldn’t tell. She fell mumbling into the shower curtain, took it down around her into the tub.”
“What about the boy? Tell the truth, did you hurt him?”
“He’s in the park, you can’t miss him,” he said. “Jean jacket, Spider-Man pajamas, and a red beany hat.”
“You get that?”Then, into the phone, “I hope you’re telling the truth. You don’t want this to get any worse.”
He slid down against a yellow wall outside the bathroom door, the pistol in his hand. He could hear the man’s breathing like static wind among the tiny shouting voices of the void.
“We got em!” one of them said and the shouting intensified. “Go! Go! Go!” they were shouting.
“Goodbye, Doc,” he said.
Sunny Jim set the receiver on its hook, put the barrel in his mouth and aimed for the stars.