Drip … Drip … Drip … The glistening drop of water condenses on the leaf’s edge, swelling until its very weight tips the leaf and launches the sparkling orb through bright shafts of sunlight as it plunges towards the earth. A garden so thick and lush that only a fine lattice-work of golden sky is able to pierce the foliage and give warmth to the fragrant soil. A new day brings a promise of renewal and hope.
Drip … Drip … Drip … A flash of red … Hot searing pain. The world twists around in a dizzying motion. I clasp my hands to my skull in an attempt to keep it from cracking open like an egg. My eyelids flicker to the painful light as I sit with my head between my knees. Drip … Drip … Drip … A pool of blood on the cracked concrete between my feet. Drip … Drip … Drip … I watch the red droplets splatter against the floor.
The left side of my face feels wet and sticky. Swimming against ragged waves of nausea, I slowly raise my head upright and rest it against the cool cinder-block wall. I gingerly touch my face and wince — my fingers are bloodied. Taking slow deep breaths, I shudder as the sharp pain eases into a dull throb. My eyes gradually focus and I try to pan around the room without actually moving my head. Ouch! It’s starting to come back to me. The welding tanks, the open floor safe beyond the desk, the scattered tools on the floor … and the heavy steel pry-bar. Yeah, now it all comes back to me. Reality sucks!
I gotta get out of here, must have been out for a while. First, I stagger towards the office bathroom to assess the damage. The image in the mirror repulses me. No wonder I feel so bad. My left temple is swollen up like a goose egg. My cheek is split open, and I swear I can see my cheekbone beneath a hanging flap of flesh. Well, at least it missed my eye — guess it could have been worse. “Yeah, you could have had your skull caved in,” I tell myself.
No time to marvel at my beauty. Soaking some towels in warm water, I blot away the blood. The bleeding from the gash in my cheek has slowed to a trickle. Snatching the first aid kit from the wall, I find a gauze pad to stem the bleeding and cover it with a butterfly bandage. It needs stitches, but I don’t have time for that now. I’ve been here too long already. I grab the dark wool cap from my jacket pocket, put it on and pull it down low. It covers the knot in my dome, but I still look like I’ve been in a wreck. To top it off, my eye is starting to purple. At least no one’ll call me pretty boy.
I’m out of the office and heading through the shop. Past the mills and lathes, I stumble around some computerized gizmo that cuts steel with water jets. Amazing. And beyond that, the small restroom with the open window. I climb through, hang from the ledge and drop. It’s only about eight feet, but I land badly and take some gravel in the knee. Of course, the truck is gone — what did I expect? “You’ve got some serious thinking to do,” I tell myself as I limp down the alley and try to formulate a plan of action.
It all started last weekend. On Friday nights, after knocking off work, I’d have a couple beers at the Carnival Bar. Sometimes, I’d share a beer and a couple jokes with Vicki. I liked her. She lived on the same block: a bunch of old houses converted to flats. Not much more than glorified shacks to me, but Vicki always took pains to fix her place up nice, on account of her kid. She wanted him to have a home. That was one of the things I liked about her.
Vicki worked the Carnival Bar. She didn’t work for the bar, but she worked the bar. She was picky about her clients. It was like those soft eyes could look right inside you and read your heart. She would never go without weirdos; there was just some things she wouldn’t do for money. That’s another thing I liked about her. And she was my friend. If I had some money or a real job, I’d buy that home for her, and we’d live together and be happy. But, I’d been working construction since I’d gotten out of prison, and with the housing market on the slide, I was doing side-jobs just to tread water.
So, last Friday I stop by the Carnival. I see Vicki down at the far end of the bar talking to Big Tony, the owner, and two other guys I’d never seen before. Vicki sees me and gives me the sign to hold up, so I grab a stool at the other end of the bar. Sure enough, a moment later Vicki is heading my way with a couple of Millers.
“What’s the occasion?” I say as she hands me a beer, “I’m usually the one trying to ply you with alcohol.”
“Oh, you owe me for both of these.” She smiled. “But I wanted a quick chance to talk to you.”
“Always my pleasure.” I nodded. Vicki pulled her stool close.
“Those guys talking to Big Tony, they were asking about someone with a truck and extension ladder to help them with a weekend project. They say they don’t have a permit, but need a simple upgrade to their building without the city tying them up in red tape. Looking for a contractor to work under the table. They got money, but there’s something about them I don’t like. Anyway, Tony mentioned you and I offered to make introductions. But I wanted to warn you to get your money up front, ‘cause they both give off a bad vibe. I’m just not sure about them.”
“You’ve always been a good judge of character.” I nudge her. “Let’s finish our beers, then make introductions and we’ll have a little chat.”
Vinny and Lester. Like a couple jokers out of a new deck of cards. Vinny was tall, athletic, and did most of the talking. Lester was skinny, gray haired, and had the look of a weasel — I disliked him on sight. After Vicky and Big Tony left to take care of their business, we got down to our own. Seems like they did have a little job for next weekend.
Tony told them that I’d done time, and Vinny wanted to know if I’d mind stepping over the line again for a quick smash and grab that paid six grand. I told them I might be interested as long as no one got hurt. Lester did his weird little hyena laugh and Vinny elbowed him in the gut. Vinny offered that it was a quick “in and out” of a business that was closed on the weekend — no guards, nobody in the building, and the owner was insured. I told them I was game and they laid it out.
Seems that Lester worked for one of the big automotive suppliers. He would be dropping off a load of chrome ingots at one of their specialized manufacturing facilities in the area. Good old Lester had been making deliveries there for several years and was familiar with operations and security, or lack thereof. The only adequate alarm systems were at the front of the building, and he knew his way around those. Means of entry would be a rear window, with a defective latch mechanisms, that bordered the alley. The ingots would be in an antique floor safe. Although Lester didn’t know the digits, the hinges could be cut by torch and the door pried open with Vinny’s skills and the tools right there in the building.
“Sounds like it’s all covered,” I say. “Why do you guys even need me?”
“‘Cause you work construction.” Vinny grins. “And you don’t look suspicious with an extension ladder on your truck. Besides, those ingots could weigh quite a bit. I’d rather have a truck to haul that weight than have my car bumper scraping the ground. And we could use the extra muscle to insure we get out fast.”
Vinny smiles as he pounds me on the arm. It smarts, but I don’t let it show. I just smile right back at him.
Sunday morning in the West Side manufacturing district. I can’t spot a sign of life: not a bird, stray cat, or mangy dog scrounging around for food. Hell, if there were, the rats in those empty buildings would probably have made a meal of them, anyway. Strange though, not even a zombie-eyed doper wandering the streets. I sure hope it doesn’t have anything to do with my personality, but that’s okay — I’m not really looking for company.
I turn on Clark and head east, past the old Cadillac Plant and on towards Vernor. A few more blocks and I’m starting to see signs of habitation. Beyond the burned out hovels and dope houses, I come across stoic old homes whose owners stubbornly resist the ravages that time and pollution have infected upon these dwellings. Life somehow lingers. Time to get off the main drag and travel by alleys and vacant lots — better not to be noticed. I don’t want to be answering questions.
Eventually, I cut through a yard across from my block. I’m leery ‘cause old man Bennett lives here, and he’ll shoot if he thinks someone’s trying to steal parts off these old cars strewn around his lot. The odds are with me, though, ‘cause he usually puts away a twelve-pack of Red White & Blue on Saturday night. I creep up behind the three-tone black, white, and purple ‘55 Dodge in the driveway and take a peek down the block. Unbelievable! My truck is parked in front of Vicki’s place. Even more shocking, so are two cop cars. My head is spinning. No good hanging around here, and I’m sure not going home. I better go see Big Tony.
The bar is not going to be open until the afternoon. The original owner built a set of spacious apartments above the bar and raised a family over his place of business. Years ago, many merchants lived above their shops as members of the community. As the place changed hands, the second apartment was refurbished as four smaller places with their own bathroom and kitchen area. Big Tony has these rented out and lives in the remaining original apartment which took up the other half of the second floor. That’s where I’d find the big guy.
I don’t take the direct route, and it’s nearly 10:30 a.m. by the time I’m near the Carnival Bar. More people are about. Some glance toward me, then quickly look away to avoid eye contact, like I’m some kind of decrepit character. I guess that I must be a sight; I can use this to my advantage. Walking by the garage, I open the gate that leads to the small, grassy yard behind the bar. I grab a garbage can, like I’m just doing my chores, and carry it to the back of the building. Standing on top of the can, I can just reach the ladder. I swing myself up and climb onto the fire escape.
Big Tony is cooking up brunch. I can smell the bacon because he’s left the window cracked. The stereo is blasting out “Crocodile Rock,” but I can still hear him banging around in the kitchen. I’m about to sneak a peek through the window, when the door buzzer goes off and I nearly jump out of my shoes. Big Tony curses and stomps away to answer the door. I take the opportunity to ease the window open and quietly climb inside. I hear Tony talking with someone at the door. I can’t make out the conversation, but by the tone, it sounds like the big guy’s annoyed. I grab some bacon and wait for Tony to deal with his unwelcome guest.
“Oh, shit, Brandon. You scared the crap outta me,” says a startled Big Tony as he enters the kitchen. “That was just the cops asking if I knew where you were. They found your truck over at Vicki’s and wondered if you knew anything about what happened.”
“What do you mean ‘what happened’?” I stammered.
“I mean what the fuck happened to Vicki. She’s dead.”
I felt dazed, like I took another whack to the head.
Tony gently grasped my shoulder and eased me out of the fog as we spoke for over an hour. I told the big guy about the weekend project Vinny and Lester had set up; how Lester had clubbed me with a twenty pound pry-bar and left me for dead; then, how I finally ended up in Tony’s kitchen. Big Tony fried up the rest of the bacon and eggs, and we ate while he pondered things. Finally, he told me what he knew about Vicki.
“The poor kid was at a ‘sleepover’ to the neighbor’s. You know, the nice Polish lady that watched Joey while Vicki was working. She treated him just like one of her own kids. Then, in the morning, she sees your truck there and sends Joey home. Imagine … finding your own momma shot dead! Geez … poor kid. Well, Wanda worked it out with Child Services, and Joey will be staying next door with her — at least temporarily.”
“I want to get those bastards, Tony.”
“I know you do. I feel the same way. And worse, it’s kinda my fault for puttin’ you together with those guys. I know you been bustin’ your ass and just wanted to throw a little bread your way.”
“Vicki told me those guys were shady.” I shake my head. “But I never expected anything like this. Those creeps are raving psychopaths. How could they ever expect to get away with something like this? Did they think that everyone would just let it go?”
“They figured that you’d be found with your head caved in. And Vicki was a little bonus — a treat they’d use up and throw away. The blame would point towards you. The cops aren’t gonna waste a lot of time over a hooker and an ex-con. They’d just tie it up and close the case.”
“Well, it’s not over, Tony.”
“I know it’s not. Let’s get you fixed up. Then we’ll decide what we gotta do.”
Big Tony dug up a sewing kit and bottle of Listerine mouthwash — not the minty fresh kind, but the old brown bottle, hardcore stuff that would sterilize an old, rusty hubcap. I also talked him into going downstairs to grab a bottle of Kessler’s. This wasn’t going to be fun.
After gingerly removing my bandage and gauze, I threaded the needle and soaked it in Listerine. I took a double shot of Kessler’s, then filled the cap full of Listerine and poured it all over the gash in my cheek. Yeow! It stung. Before the pain subsided, I started stitching the meat together. Whenever the feeling in my cheek started to return, I repeated the process. After about 25 minutes, I had some knitting that would have made my grandmother proud. I put away the Listerine and Kessler’s (the whiskey now being the lighter of the two bottles) and got down to making plans with Big Tony.
The big guy was going to let me crap out while he opened the bar and worked until closing. Sundays were slow and he usually worked the evening shift alone. I wouldn’t be able to stay here. Even if society didn’t consider Vicki as a person of importance, the cops would still be poking around for a couple of weeks — until they got busy with other cases. But, they’d keep the file open and hope I got picked up on the traffic ticket. I’d still be a person of interest.
We figured that we had a line on Lester, who, in turn, would lead us to Vinny. Obviously, fencing the chrome at a quarter value wouldn’t leave enough for retirement. Besides, Lester would have to show up to work and make his deliveries or it would look funny, and suspicion would be cast his way. So, we would stake out the machine shop until Lester showed up, follow him back to his depot and try to get the license number off his personal vehicle. Big Tony had a sister at the DMV, and I’d rather get an address than try to tail him all the way home. That shit always looks easier on TV. But I would do whatever I had to do.
I still had my ATM card and decided to drain my account. After scraping pennies for over a year, I had nearly $900 in my savings account. Trying to build up a nest egg for a better life. That dream was over and I was on a different mission, now.
I wanted to show these creeps that they couldn’t stomp on Vicki’s life and Joey’s life and mine like we were nothing more than bugs. I wanted them to regret what they did before I took their own lives away from them. And, somehow, I had to try to do something for little Joey. I owed that to Vicki. She would have liked that.
I end up at the flea bag motel in Taylor. After putting up a month’s rent in advance, I was nearly halfway through my savings. But, I needed a place to heal up and reboot my brain. I only left to walk to the supermarket or restaurant down the street. No booze. Nothing but sleep, eat, push-ups, crunches, a little TV, then back to sleep.
Big Tony would stop by or call every few days to keep me up on the status of our mission. He’d finally managed to catch Lester pulling out of the West Side manufacturing shop and followed him to the depot of Dix Road, in East Dearborn, near the Rouge Plant. Tony had to get back to the bar and didn’t have time to hang out until the end of Lester’s shift, hoping to spot him leaving in his personal vehicle. But, there was a bar just outside the gate, and Big Tony promised he’d be sitting in that parking lot at shift change, all next week, until he spotted the bastard leaving.
True to his word, Big Tony came through. The following Tuesday, Lester decides to grab a beer before the drive home and parks his ‘71 Chevelle just three spaces from Big Tony. What a break! With those dark tinted windows, Tony would never have spotted Lester driving out the gate. Through dumb luck or fate, the weasel had stumbled into our trap.
The plates were registered to Lester Elvis Primrose and listed the address as a trailer park in Ypsilanti. Big Tony wanted to drive out with me, but I told him I’d rather take the bus. I just intended to hang out for the day and scope it all out. When I knew more about his living situation, we could return.
Besides, I didn’t want to drag the big guy in any deeper than I had already done. He’d turned out to be a real friend. When my cash was running short, he flipped me a couple hundred bucks without wincing. when I asked about a handgun he just grinned, then unwrapped a towel holding a .44 Ruger revolver with a half box of shells. Tony warned me that it could be traced back to a B&E a few years back in West Bloomfield. I said that it seemed a shame to use it then throw it away; Big Tony sighed and said he thought so too — it sure was pretty!
I caught the SEMPTA Bus on Michigan Avenue at 6:30 a.m. The driver seemed pretty friendly. When I asked about the Ypsilanti address, he said he knew it and agreed to drop me off a block before the park. About a mile past I-725, he pulled over and told me it was just ahead on the right. The driver wished me a good day and I bid him the same.
The park was back off from Michigan Avenue, behind a used-car lot, near a copse of woods. Most of the trailers looked old and run down. The place must have been operating under a grandfather clause, because even I could see the place wasn’t up to code.
I’m walking down the center row, looking for lot numbers, when I hear the low growl of glasspack mufflers. Off to my right, I glance between two trailers to see a silver and black Chevelle rumbling down the next row headed for Michigan Avenue. Dark tinted windows, it’s got to be Lester the Molester. I watch him spin gravel as he pulls out on Michigan Avenue heading east.
Checking the numbers, I see that I’m in the 500s. I head over to the next row, where I saw the Chevelle, and the numbers are running in the 600s. I’m looking for 619 and bingo! It’s one of the double wides, butted right up to the woods. Doesn’t look like there’s much activity, but I’m not sure. So, I walk back out of the park and loop around through the woods, where I hunker down out of sight and just watch for a little while.
My ass is getting numb after about an hour, and I decide — screw it — I’m going for it. I open my jacket and loosen the Ruger tucked under my belt. As I approach the door I pull out a five-in-one (a painter’s tool with a strong wedge-shaped carbon steel blade) and shove the blade alongside the lock, between the door and jamb, then smack the handle with my hand. The door pops open and I’m inside. I pull the Ruger and cock the hammer. No one outside would have heard me enter, but anyone in the trailer would have been startled by the noise. It’s better to be ready. A cursory run-through shows the place to be empty. Plenty of time to explore the place at my leisure, while I settle in to wait.
At Wayne Metal Processing and Recycling, the phone rings. A hand snatches up the headset and a voice gruffly growls, “Vinny Ramono. This better be important, I was on my way out the door.”
“It’s Lester. Some shit has gone down. I came home from work and caught someone in my trailer. He’d gone through all my papers, receipts, address books and was trying to bust into my fireproof strongbox.”
“I told you not to keep your money in that cracker box you live in. You’re just asking to get ripped off.”
“Vinny, you don’t understand. He had papers with your name and place of business. It was that construction guy from the West Side —”
“What the hell you talking about?” Vinny growled.
“Relax,” Lester responded. “I got him in the truck —”
“Not over the phone,” Vinny screamed. “Get your ass over here, now!”
“On my way,” Lester stammered over the phone.
A hand takes the phone from Lester’s grasp and slowly replaces it onto the cradle. “I did like you asked,” groveled Lester. “I even ad-libbed. Vinny will be waiting for you. Just drive through the gate and pull into the receiving bay at the back of the building. He’ll think it’s me. You can take him by surprise!”
“You did good, Lester,” said Brandon, “You did real good.”
“Now — now you promised me you’d go easy on me if I helped,” stuttered Lester.
“And I will,” promised Brandon. “I’ll make it easier than you deserve.”
Sitting in Big Tony’s kitchen, I clasp my hands around the warm mug as we both enjoy a coffee while Tony reads the article in the Metro section of the paper spread across the table.
“Says the fire was traced to the smelting furnace. The blaze was so intense, the entire structure was destroyed before responders could contain the flames. ‘Forensics examining the likely remains of two bodies assumed to be that of the owner, Vinny Ramono, and that of an unknown associate.’ Ahh, ‘initial test inconclusive as remains appear to be entirely cremated by intense heat attributed to specialized alloys and chemical compounds stored on the premises. Canton and Westland Fire Departments had responded to assist Wayne Country battle flames reportedly visible from as far as six miles away’ … yada … yada … yada.”
“Yada, yada. I like that. Kinda sums it up nice.”
“Those guys got what they deserved.” Big Tony nodded.
“Yeah. I know they did, but it feels like it cost a big chunk of my soul to do it. Like, somehow, there’s this big hollow space inside me now. Does that make any kind of sense?”
“Just shows you got a heart, kid. In time it will heal.” Big Tony reaches down and opens the duffel bag on the floor. “This is a lot of cash. Sure you trust me with it?” He grins.
“Forty-six thousand. Enough for that decrepit old Triumph in your garage and the rest to help out Joey.”
“Hey, that Triumph is cherry. The only reason I’m getting rid of it is ‘cause it rattles my kidneys. I need a smoother ride, like a Glide. I ain’t getting no younger. Besides, I’m not charging you for the bike — just sign off on the pick-up and we’re even.”
“That rusty old truck isn’t worth $300,” I say as I sign the title and slide it over the table.
“That Ford 300 Straight Six will last forever. It’ll still be running when we’re both in the ground.” Troy laughs. “Now, let’s go down and slap those new plates on your bike.”
I grab my old sea bag, which now holds everything I own, and follow Big Tony downstairs.
We roll the burgundy 650 Triumph out into the sunlight, and I gotta admit she looks like new. It’s an even bet that Big Tony has tuned it up, added new fluids, and filled the tank. After changing plates, we both stand back just to admire it.
“It’s an eyeful, isn’t it?” muses Big Tony, and his eyes kinda glaze over as his thoughts seem to wander.
“Speaking of getting an eyeful, what’s this about you dating Ms. Balooski?” I rib him.
“Oh.” Big Tony blushes. “Wanda and me have been going to bingo on Sunday nights. We’ve been talking about her guardianship over Joey — it’s still temporary, but she’s trying to adopt. Looking at a little place in Wyandotte, near the water, a nice place for the kids to grow up. Kinda been thinking of throwing in with her, you know, just to help out.”
“Well, you got the cash, now, big guy. It’s about time you settled down,” I tease him.
“I was thinking — part towards the house and part in a bank account for Joey’s future,” said Big Tony, looking a little perplexed.
“That would sure be a weight off my mind. And, I know that would make Vicki happy, too,” I say as I tie my sea bag to the sissy bar and straddle the bike. I kick the starter and she catches on the second try. The bike throbs with power beneath me as the engine rumbles to life. My grin must be from ear to ear. Gripping Big Tony’s hand, I say, “Thank you for being there.”
“Now you gotta keep in touch — just to let me know how you’re doing, all right?”
“You better believe it, big guy. You’re the only friend I have.”
With that said, I strap on my helmet while Tony smacks it twice for luck. I kick it in gear and drive off into the sunlight as it flickers through the canopy of tree branches crowning the road before me. And I do feel hope.
//Roger Stephenson is an artist and writer. His short historical fiction Blood of the Red Earth was serialized in the UP magazine Porcupine Press from 2001 to 2004. He was also published by the University of Michigan (Formal Count) in 2011 through their Prisoner Creative Writing Program, in Somehow I've Swallowed the Night, as part of the PCAP project. In addition, he has participated in the PCAP Art Show since 2000.