I’d only been out a month or two, and I was out near Skillet Rock, fishing, not catching a thing. And it was okay they weren’t biting. The motions were enough. That’s how the whole day went. Not really fishing, just holding a pole and reeling in an empty line time and again.
Linda was all made up with her cowboy boots on when I got home, a short white miniskirt pulled tight as cellophane around her ass. She was bulging out of a barely-there t-shirt with a black leather vest stretched smooth all over and buttoned up. The perfume she had on made me sneeze.
“You wearing a whole bottle of that or what?”
“No. Just a dab on each wrist, then rubbed into the neck. Like so,” she demonstrated.
“Smells like a whole damn factory of the stuff.”
“If you don’t like it, you shouldn’t have bought it for me.”
“When I last had a whiff it was in moderation.”
She ignored me, checking her makeup, and then she pulled her boobs up again, checking their curves and mass against a photo of a supermodel taped to the mirror.
I sat on the bed and took my shoes off, kneaded my heels, and then went to the bathroom to freshen up a bit. I looked in the mirror and thought about shaving. Linda was humming the tune to M*A*S*H and scattering her nail polish collection across the top of the dresser.
Her scattering sounds and long hums made me curious. “Parker’s going to be there, isn’t he?”
“If he is he is,” she said. She sounded winded. “It don’t matter anyhow. Parker’s a big boy. He can do whatever he wants to. It shouldn’t be any business of yours what Parker does anyway.”
“I just don’t want any trouble, that’s all,” I said.
“Maybe you should think about trouble before you go killing people’s brothers.”
“We’ve been over this a million times,” I said. “It was an accident. You know that. I didn’t see him. It was dark. It was like he came out of nowhere.”
Linda ignored me, kept pinching her cheeks and fluttering her eyelashes in the mirror.
I put my head in the crook of my hands, smashed my eyelids shut.
“You shouldn’t have given it up so freely,” I said. “You’re lucky enough I forgave you for that.”
“Oh,” she said. “Is that right? Don’t forget—you killed him. You killed him. I don’t care about whether it was on purpose or not, because either way you look at it, you are the one that killed him, you and you alone.”
“I may have killed him,” I said, “but at least I didn’t twist his heart and fuck with his love.”
“You sound like an idiot.”
“Do I have to spell it out for you!”
“You’re right, Linda. I killed him. I did it. I killed that moron. But I only killed him because I love you.”
“For me,” she said, and she laughed briefly. Then silence pooled around us as clear and prophetic as twilight.
After a few minutes she came to the threshold of the bathroom. “Sweetie,” she said, “you about ready to go?”
And just like that, it was like nothing had ever even happened between us.
So I told her, “Give me a minute. I’m thinking about shaving.”
And she went, “Sure, honey, take your time.”
Twin Spine and Malone Street: the exact stretch of asphalt I killed him on. We parked the truck in the baseball diamond and walked the two blocks. Nedham’s Watering Hole had never seen such action on a Thursday night. Not since Claire Dustard started doing her buck-fifty striptease out back after dayshift. Hank Jr. greeted us on the juke, warming my ears. Then old Jeff Grange waved us over to his booth in the far corner near the cig machine quicker than our feet would lift us. The lights were bright pinks and blues. We waded through the bodies and took our seats on the poorly stretched red-and-blue vinyl. Jeff was a big burly bastard who’d known my father going back thirty years. They’d worked the service desk at the post office together. Good ole Jeff. He liked to think of himself as the overseer of my life since my father got colon cancer and died a decade and a half ago in hospice, a tin pennywhistle in his mouth signaling the failure of his last weak breath.
Right away Jeff told me I looked like shit and I needed to start wearing sun block when I went fishing. Then he started sweet-talking Linda like he does. Said she had a body that could raise the dead. “And I’m talking body parts, sweetheart,” he said. Then he laughed, a slim cigarette hanging from his old brown lips.
“Oh, pooh,” said Linda, “you just like getting me all red in the face, don’t you?”
“You got me,” he said. Then he laughed. “Shit, with a pretty face like that you could buy the moon.”
She worked a cocktail toothpick in her mouth between plump painted lips and told him that if he was trying to butter her up, he’d have much better odds if he indulged us and bought the first round.
Jeff was drunk within the hour, talking about his kid brother, Elvis, who had come back from Vietnam thirty years ago with a little brown shoebox full of ears. “Never got a wink of sleep,” he said. “The sound of bullets and bombs never left him.”
“I miss the little bastard,” he said. “Wish he would’ve called me before putting that rope on his neck.”
“Shame,” I said.
Linda grabbed Jeff’s arm lovingly. “War makes a man forget himself faster than anything. He didn’t do anything wrong, and neither did you. After what he went through, you have to know he’s in a better place.”
“Damn shame,” I said, sloshing my beer in circles and staring into it as though awaiting some cheap fortune to come floating to the surface.
“I know it, but it’s never left me. Thirty years later and I still wake up in the mornings and hear his voice.”
I shook my head. “I think Linda’s right,” I said. “Elvis is up in the clouds somewhere, just learning how to live again.”
“That’s right,” said Linda. “He’s some kind of angel now; he knows no pain.”
“I still have his ears,” said Jeff. “They smell something awful. Most days I want to throw them away.” He paused, shaking his head, and I noticed the beginnings of tears in his eyes. “I stop myself because they aren’t mine to get rid of. I know it sounds crazy, but they remind me of him something awful, and that’s all I have left of him.”
“Those ears,” I said. “Jesus. What can I say? They’re only bringing you down.”
“But they’re sentimental,” said Linda. “Aren’t they? You can’t get rid of the ears.”
“He doesn’t want to get rid of the ears,” she told me.
“It’s the ears that are bringing him down,” I said. “You have to get rid of them—give them a proper burial.”
“Sometimes they talk,” he said.
“What do you mean they talk?”
“I hear them talk at night.”
“What’re you saying, Jeff?” Linda said.
“What I’m saying is them fucking gook ears talk to me some nights when I’m trying to go to sleep.”
I grinned wide. “Well,” I said, “what’re they saying?”
“All kinds of things, but quietly, real quiet, and it’s hard to tell what exactly it is they’re saying, but I hear the words, lots of words—like brothers, mothers, sisters” (he started counting them off on his fingertips) “fathers, cousins, nephews, nieces, uncles, aunts, grandmothers, grandfathers—and they keep going like that straight into the greats and the great-greats—and for hours on end, too. It’s nearly impossible to get any sleep, and when I finally do, I have horrible dreams.”
“First off,” I said, “and don’t get mad at me for saying so, but I think that it’s unhealthy hanging on to those things, either mentally or spiritually or whatever. Think about it, they could be diseased, or worse, you don’t know—I’ll tell you what, we need to get rid of them.”
“What do you mean: we need to get rid of them?”
“Don’t you figure you’ll need some help?”
“I don’t figure I’ll need anything. I’ll take it, but I don’t need it. And wipe that stupid fucking grin off your face. I’m telling you that they talk because they really talk, alright. I’m not crazy. They talk more than any spic I ever heard talk in my whole damn life, and that’s saying a lot.”
“Out by Skillet Rock,” I said, “there’s a nice little plot to put those ears, filled with dandelions and tiny pebbles of gypsum. Don’t suppose you’d want to bury them there? I mean if the fucking things are talking I think you may be running out of options.”
Suddenly there was a shift in the air, a stirring of voices. Linda lanced her gaze into my right side, then let it slide off and land on the table. Things started to quiet. My gut retched into my throat. I slid down into the booth. Down there, I breathed nothing but smoke.
When I looked up, there he was, Parker, all flashy in tight dungarees and snakeskin boots, a wad of chew the size of a golf ball tucked up under his bottom lip. He was just as I remembered him, only slightly older. I grunted a greeting of sorts, but my wind was all gone, pushed out of me by cowardice, and I started choking.
Parker pounded my back like an old chum, loosening the phlegm from my ribcage, and rubbed away at the knots in my shoulders and neck. “Calm down,” he said. “It’ll be all right. You’ll be all right,” and then he climbed into the booth beside me.
“Well,” said Parker, “now that this murdering piece of shit is done choking, maybe we can get some conversation going.”
“What do you want to talk about?” said Linda.
“Whatever’s on the table,” he said.
Jeff grinned. “Well Park,” he said, “at this table, everything’s on the table.”
“Sure,” Parker said. “If that’s the case, let’s just get out with it then.” He stared me down, lighting a cigarette, and said, “I want the truth, that’s all.”
“Now,” Jeff started.
“Shut up, old man. This is between us.” Parker waved his hand between us.
Jeff retreated, gave Linda a look.
“Tell me,” Parker said. “Just tell me you didn’t kill him on purpose.”
“Not on purpose,” I said.
“Don’t be smart with me.”
“Come on,” said Linda. “Shit’s getting old.”
“I didn’t ask you,” he said.
“Say,” I said, attempting diversion, “don’t you play chess?”
“Don’t go changing the subject on me. You know I play chess. Don’t be playing games with me.”
“Tell you what,” I said.
“Tell me shit,” said Parker. “All I want is the truth.”
“Truth is: it was an accident.”
“That’s all you got?” Parker started.
“That’s all I have,” I said.
Parker downed the rest of his beer, gave me silent eyes.
“So—you play or not?” I asked him.
“I was the state champion in high school, you fool. You know that.”
“Well, I said. “If that’s the case, tell you what. You play me in a game of chess. If you win, I’ll say what you want me to say, and if I win, you drop the whole fucking business—like it never even happened.”
“But everybody knows they were fucking,” said Parker. He looked at Linda.
“Everybody knew you two were fucking,” he said.
She blushed, looked into her drink.
“Look,” I said, “we’ve been over that already, a million times. I’m no killer, though. I wouldn’t hurt a fly.”
“We’ll see about that,” he said.
“Just when exactly are we going to do that?” I asked.
“Tomorrow,” he said. “Two PM sharp, your place. I’ll bring the board.”
The next day, I woke up to the sun in my eyes and drank two ice-cold beers to kill the coming ache, watching fake-baked old people tell lies on the news networks.
The phone rang. It was Linda.
She asked me if I was all right and I told her, “Sure, I think so.”
“Are you sure you’re sure? You’re all right, right?”
“Yeah, I’m sure. I’ll be just fine.”
Then she told me how she would be home late, because they had a big ole pregnant cat in there, all swollen with breeched kittens inside, at least six or seven of them.
“That right,” I said, “that many? Well, I guess I’ll see you when I see you then.”
“Probably’ll be around six or seven,” she said. Then there was a short pause. I studied the rhythm of her breathing. Then she said she loved me, and that was that, her lunch break was over, it was time to go, and we hung up our ends.
Noon came and went. I tore the house apart looking for my old chess board so I could get some practice in with Jeff. Never found it, but, from the musk of the unfinished basement, I pulled dad’s dusty trunk out, dragged it to the bedroom and rummaged through his old military gear, whiling time.
Inside the trunk I found pictures of him as a young man surrounded by comrades; a few medals, of which, at the time, I couldn’t attach any significance; old combat boots; fatigues; a hat; a bowie-style knife, that had serration across the top edge; war paint; dog tags; knickknacks and curios of all sorts and sizes—all greens, silvers, and browns.
The boots were in pretty bad shape, but I found some oil and polish in the garage and made them gleam. They were a size bigger than what I usually wear, so I stuffed toilet paper down into the toes. When I put them on, they were as snug as a second skin. I stood on the bed to check myself in the mirror above the dresser. I liked the style. They made my feet look tough, the feet of a soldier, of a hero, and added the much-wanted illusion of beefiness to my tiny calves. Also, wearing them, I felt closer to my dad than I ever had before.
I fingered around inside the trunk for a long time before Jeff came banging on the door.
He said, “Say a word and I’ll tell you the first word that pops into my head.”
“Jesus,” I said. “What’s up, Jeff?”
“On me they are.”
“Look good,” he said.
“Don’t they?” I stepped back, leaving the door open. Jeff followed me inside and then out into the garage through the kitchen.
I grabbed three sweaty beers from the ice chest and tossed him one.
As soon as Jeff got situated on one of the folding chairs, he unloaded on me, again with how the box of ears was talking and the meanings of the words were becoming more and more blurred, obscured to the point, he claimed, that they were beginning to make sense, and how this scared him something crazy, like, he thought he might end up all wrapped up in white in the nuthouse or even killing somebody with a hammer. He just wasn’t sure which or when it would happen.
I laughed, and said, “Hold it. Take it easy there. They aren’t talking. You’re talking.”
“No, I’m telling you. This ain’t fiction. It’s real life. I don’t expect you to believe it. I don’t expect you to understand. But I do expect you to care. I’ve hit a patch in the road and all I need is for you to be my friend right now.”
“Believe it or not,” I said, “I always have been.”
“You wouldn’t mind taking them off my hands for a while, then, would you? I can’t take it anymore. I haven’t slept a wink. They keep me up all night. They whisper—they howl! They talk back and forth so fast it’s too hard to tell them apart anymore.”
“You bring them with you?”
It only took but a minute before Jeff had the box in my hands. I put my ear up against it and shook it like a kid would shake a Christmas gift. Sounded like a box full of twenty-year-old dried fruits. Like prunes or dates or apricots. I put it on my lap and took the lid off. A curious smell of rotten fruit and fertilizer wafted out.
“Wait till I’m gone,” Jeff said.
I put the lid back in place and slid the box onto a shelf next to a bunch of old paint cans. “I’ll take real good care of them for you,” I said.
Jeff stood up to leave.
“I’ll take care of them as though they were my very own children,” I said.
He nodded, tipped his hat, and left through the side door.
I dusted the cigarette ash off the field jacket slung over my knees, crossed myself like Christians do, grabbed Jeff’s box of Vietcong ears, and decided: I’ll be fucked if I can’t get any truth from this game.
I pulled an ear from the box, rubbed it between my fingers, sniffed at it, and then put it into my pocket before putting the box back on the shelf.
May be good luck, I thought.
Inside, back in the bedroom, I sheathed the bowie knife and slipped it into the boot on my left foot. I found some war paint under a stained, folded flag, and, utilizing Linda’s vanity, applied it to my face. The soldier staring back at me had a smudge on his tooth, which I wiped away with my thumb. I put the field jacket on over my tank top, and made my way back to the garage, where I would set up the card table, tidy up a bit, and wait for the war.
Two hours passed, Parker never showed, and I was getting antsy just sitting there, percolating—thinking of all the great chess strategies laid to waste inside me. So I started cleaning, easing into space and time, to settle my nerves into a state of stale mate, into a place of accepting certain failures in life.
I felt my pocket buzz while sweeping.
It was a text message from my shrink, Dr. Blatz.
He said: This is the second time this month you’ve missed an appointment.
I texted back: I’m just waiting for the war to end.
Seconds later, he replied: Can you meet me for coffee?
I typed: Noonish…tomorrow?
He replied: Now, my place.
Parker was no longer a threat. I’d called his bluff and he’d backed out, so I shot back: See you in a few.
Dr. Blatz’s place looked shorn straight from a page out of Home and Garden. There was a large fountain perfectly centered in a manicured lawn, and a heavy gate made of iron and brick at the entrance to the walkway. His house wasn’t a mansion per se, but something common folk would have no problem calling extravagant, or unreachable, or even grotesque in a way.
He had me come in and sat me down on a soft leather sofa in his den. He left the room and came back a few minutes later with a tray full of cookies and cream and sugar and a pot of coffee. I took my coffee black, waved away his other offers. The coffee was good, had a kick to get me feeling right and ready to talk, so I said, “Well, what did you call me out here for?”
“First off,” he said, “let me address the enormous elephant in the room.”
My look must have been a look of puzzlement, because he looked at me as though I should already know what he was talking about.
“The paint all over your face,” he said. “Were you and the wife having a good healthy go at role playing or is there something else at stake here?”
Shit, I’d forgotten to clean myself up.
“I was amped for a game of chess,” I told him. “Thought I’d intimidate my opponent by being a jackass I guess.”
Blatz wrote some notes. Then he set his notebook down and threw me a rag he’d brought in on the condiment tray. “Clean yourself up,” he said, “and then you can go ahead and tell me what’s been going on with you lately.”
I smashed the rag into my face, made hard circular movements until my skin hurt.
“You can just put it on the floor when you’re done,” he said. I put the rag on the colorful rug he liked bragging about so much outside our sessions.
“Now,” he said, settling in, “how are things at home?”
I told him things were good, especially with Linda working like she was—all day long, sometimes even nights—because it gave me some time to think, meditate, steady myself into the idea of getting one foot in front of the other again.
“You need that time,” he said. “How are the voices? Are you able to keep the old bad thoughts at bay?”
“I do the best I can,” I said. “Some days are better than others, always have been.”
Blatz shook his head, took down more notes, and then looked up at me, hesitatingly, and said, “Listen—I’d like to go back to your childhood, again. Seventh grade I think is where we left off.”
“You listen to me,” I said. “I have war paint on my face and an ear in my pocket and all you want to talk about is my childhood.”
“What?” I said.
“I mean, I just, I feel like…”
“I just spent ten months of my life in a cage picking fleas off my dick—and you want to talk about my childhood.”
What I really wanted to say was: How about the fact I don’t even feel bad the motherfucker’s dead? Let’s talk about that, fucker.
I pulled the old prune of an ear from my pocket and threw it on the coffee table.
“Look at that thing,” I said. “There are so many stories hidden down in those wrinkles.”
Disgusted, Dr. Blatz started gagging, pleading with me to put it away, but I told him, “No, face the reality, man. Face the music. That ear was taken off a man over thirty years ago. Probably had a family, a whole history, loves and enemies, but all that’s left to tell us his story is this little morsel you see before you.”
He looked at it, covering his mouth, getting closer and closer, intrigued little by little by what was laid out there before him. He even reached down to poke it. But eventually his eyes met mine, all serious and pleading. “Please,” he said, “put it away.”
I put the ear back into my shirt pocket and stood to leave. “Listen,” I said, “next week we’ll start fresh.”
Blatz nodded, didn’t vocalize a sound.
I showed myself out through the foyer.
Outside, I could feel the dead ear drum against my chest as the wind manipulated my shirt pocket. I started towards Nedham’s, hoping Parker would be there, slumped in a booth and ready to face me.
My blood boiled when I found him, for standing me up like he had. But when I got up close, I saw he was passed out, peanut dust caked around his sleeping nostrils, and my anger subsided. The ear in my pocket was taking in the foreign language of my blood. I got closer to Parker, dipped my eyes like a lazy ladle to take it all in. Under the glow of those neon lights, he looked just like his brother had—holy, serene, untouched by hate—and as I reached down to search for thuds in his bloodstream, I doubled over him, wiped the dust from his nose and mouth, and kissed him right on his cold dry lips.
Photo By: NapInterrupted