Writing

The first chapter of The Fat Man

Chapter 1

I became the unnatural son of a few score of beaten men. ~ Neal Cassady

The ringing phone brings me back into the space where I am. I look at the wall clock behind me and the desk, see it’s seven, and morning. No one calls this early. I’m up because I couldn’t sleep and I wanted to check the mail. The phone doesn’t stop, is just about to swing over to the answering machine when I pick it up—reaching my arm in a slow motion arc to prevent any more pain than necessary.

“Hello.”

“Under? What the hell are you doing?”

A lot of people call me Under, the shortening of my last name, but only one person makes it sound like laughing and spitting at the same time and that’s Paul Abernee. Paulie to me—I haven’t called him Paul in years.

“Hey, Paulie. I was thinking about calling you. But I was going to wait until a decent hour to do it. What do you mean . . . what the hell am I doing?”

“Ya gotta know I heard. It was the talk of the station about someone getting the crap beat out of him last night at Lucky’s. Soon as I heard it was Lucky’s I just knew it was you.”

“Figures. So Mel must have called the cops, huh?”

“Well, yeah, kind of a mess you left behind. You all right?”

“Nice of you to get around to that. And I am. Don’t know why but I am. I’ll live.”

“Who did it? Why?”

“Wish I knew. I’m just sitting here running through it all trying to figure it out.”

“You want me to come over? I can right after I get off. No, wait, I could come over before then if I can get some official time on this.”

“Paulie?”

“Yeah?”

“I don’t know. I’m thinking maybe I could sleep for a while. Why don’t you make it after your shift and we can have a beer together?”

“All right. Under?”

“Yeah?”

“You sure you’re all right? You writerly types aren’t exactly the kind to think of a beating as an everyday thing.”

No we’re not. Unless you’re Hemingway or Mailer, which most of us aren’t. “Fine. I’m fine. No, it’s not normal. And I’m sore, not normal, and tired. See you around four, okay?”

I put the phone down and notice that the message light is blinking but decide to ignore it. I’ll pick it up later, after I take a hot bath, soak in some Epsom Salts, crawl into bed. I don’t want even Paulie to see me as bad as I look right now. I know the blood in my hair that didn’t make it to the barroom floor probably makes the hair look darker—taken the sandy picture of boyhood and turned it into something of a fashionably spiked and plastered mess. Not that I’ll tried to comb it—lifting an arm that high to wash or comb just won’t work. Maybe impossible. The normal stockiness of my body feels like it’s been swollen into a body bag. Of course it would—that’s how it was used. I know the bruises and cuts on my face will add character—make me look like someone who’s been around and knows the ropes. Not at all my normal persona. Kind of fun to take on that character. Really? No, not really. Just goes to show what kind of BS-er I am.

The least I can do is wash the caked blood off. I make it stiffly into the back room, the room off the kitchen, and let the new dog out, tell her to stay in the yard. The yard’s fenced, but there are two open gates, front and back, so she could leave if she wanted to, same way she got in. And she doesn’t look any too bright anyway. Who knows what she understands? Probably just as much as the rest of us—exactly what we want to.

Thank God there’s a tub in the bathroom, not just the shower. Nice one at that, large, and fitted with huge old-fashioned claw feet. Something out of one of those designer magazines. But large is the best word here, meaning as easy as it can get to manage in and out. I make the water as hot as I can stand it and dump a whole carton of the salts into it. I also offer up a thank you to Maggie for insisting on the bath staples, and in large quantities. I ease myself into the milky water and let my mind go. I make it back into bed around eight in the morning.

Next thing I know there’s pounding on the back door, Paulie shouting something and the dog barking. Good God, what time is it? A glance at the bedside alarm clock tells me it’s 4:30. Unbelievable. I’ve slept all day. At least I can hope it’s just one day. I’m pretty disoriented.

But the pounding doesn’t stop and the dog doesn’t let up. I push myself out of bed and struggle with a bathrobe, pull it around myself more like a towel than a robe.

Paulie’s face greets me on the other side of the door—looking pretty startled. The dog runs past us both into the house.

“Holy shit and for God’s sakes, Under. What the hell?”

“I told you. I got beat up. Anyway, you knew that.”

“I think you need to see a doctor.”

“Nothing’s broken, I’ll be fine. It just takes time, you know that too.”

“Stubborn.”

“Yep.”

We walk into the kitchen where I ease myself into a chair at the table and Paulie busies himself by putting the twelve pack he’s brought into the refrigerator. Two he keeps out and grabs two mugs from the freezer to go along with them.

“Hey, that new dog you got, what the heck is he? Scruffy looking thing. And boy was he glad to see me. What’cha do, leave him out all day?”

“Yes . . . there’s food and water in the garage. And she’s female. Must be some sort of mix—who knows? Just showed up one day on the road and followed me when I pulled the truck in. I tried to find her people, ran ads, made phone calls, even thought about turning her in to a shelter, but after a month it was too late.”

“Fate. Especially since you’ve been without Morrie for long enough. Plenty long enough.” Paulie shakes his big head from side to side. “You’ve always been the lucky one, Under. Lucky with dogs, lucky with women, always flocking around you.”

I don’t take the bait. “Back to last night—you know of any cops who’re really big and dress in dark clothes, at least have the black pants, sweater, jacket—that sort of thing?”

“You’re kidding me, right? You just described half the department including me.”

I assess the man who sits down in front of me, now chugging from his beer mug. He usually doesn’t bother with a mug until the third one, the first two go down pretty fast. Indeed he can fit the description of the men who beat me up. Big head and large frame, though surprisingly in shape for someone who looks like and is a grandfather at the same age as me. And heavy—pushing fat.

That’s what he looks like today, our builds having nothing in common but height. We’re both around six feet tall. But I’ve got sandy hair to his dark with some gray. And I’m only slightly heavy where he’s in a wrestling class less a few of the muscles. I’m lighter in complexion, I guess my eyes are sort-of blue. He’s dark all the way, skin tone and eyes. Maybe a more reddish face. And he does dress in dark clothes. Put a wool cap on his head, pull it down around his face, and you’ve got the man, and the cop. Along with twenty others.

I’ve known this guy a long time. We grew up together. Same age means both of us just past fifty. Okay, fifty-five. At least it’s still on the sunny side of sixty. We went to the same schools together but we weren’t pals in grade school. Paul Abernee was a runt back then, someone who hid out from the bullies and who hated the ones the bullies left alone, the tall muscular types like me years ago. Compared to the rest of the class anyway. Neither one of us fit in but for different reasons. I didn’t have any friends on the principle of it, or at least that’s what I told myself. Who knows. I was a reader and not a troglodyte, as puzzled and surprised by the behavior of the other kids as I might have been by alien life forms. Paul and I were polar opposites, didn’t become Under and Paulie to each other until we reached eighth grade. That’s when a mutual need overcame whatever barriers or indifference existed between us.

Paul’s story and mine are the same, but we tell it differently. It doesn’t matter. The result is the same. From my point of view there wasn’t a lot of build up or thought, just the action. That seems to be the trajectory of my life—maybe it started then.

I was coming out of my grandmother’s house right down the alley from mine where my mom and I lived alone—which was where I was headed. I’d gone to Grandma’s after school just like I did once or twice a week to help out. That day I’d been moving a bunch of lumber that the handyman had more or less tossed by the side of the garage; he was building a shed for her by the alleyway. Grandma didn’t like the way the disorder made her lawn look, and the hazard it could be if little kids played on it. But mostly Gram didn’t like messes. Probably why she didn’t like Mom, a total mess. So Mom had sent me over to make the place neat and safe, at least from Gram’s perspective.

I had either just picked up a nice two-by-four or reached for one when I heard the scuffling and shouting behind me, coming from down the alley by the street. I recognized the boys from Holy Redeemer grade school where Paulie and I went. I could hear Marco Schmitz hollering in his pipsqueak voice that was in the process of changing, and Red Felder shouting a mocking, “Oops, oops,” with a deeper resonance. They had someone between them—Paulie as it turned out—but back then I couldn’t tell who it was. He was pretty much bent over with his face out of sight. Three other boys followed behind them, jeering and taunting.

I turned toward them with the board just as someone stuck out a foot and tripped the lump in the middle and dumped him into the alley—dirt, sand, cinders and all. It looked like they were all going to pile on him and by that time I’d reached the huddle. Somehow the two-by-four had slid down my hands to become a bat. I swung it. It was a lucky blow, but fate would intervene and turn it into something of a myth that followed after me, not least of all through school. The myth would come in handy in the future. It’s nice when a reputation saves you rather than having to spill out your own blood and guts.

I connected with three of the boys—thud, thud, thud—and they went down screaming. The two others backed up immediately with eyes wide. Red was rolling around on the ground holding his gut and Marco started crawling backwards. The other lame one hopped over to give Red a hand and everyone began moving away. As fast as their pain would let them. I think it was the surprise that got them, more than anything. Surprise is a good thing to have on your side.

I think Paulie was as startled as anyone, maybe more. He was left on his hands and knees in the alley, snot running out of his nose and tears from his eyes. But I recognized him then, just as he did me. He was pretty much blubbering. “I’m okay, I’m okay, Jesus. Jesus. Ah, Jake, Jake Underman?”

“That’s me.”

“Hey, thanks, man.”

“No problem. Didn’t seem like a fair setup.”

“Not that I couldn’t ‘a taken them with enough time. I could’a ya know. Bastards. Damn mafia.” The Ridge boys, the kids that had just been beating up Paulie, were known as the mini-mafia. Laughable now, but kids take those things seriously and no one in school messed with them.

Apparently Paul had been walking home from school, taking his usual path of resistance through a series of connected alleys that led from Holy Redeemer to his home on twelfth Street. The mafia must have staked out his route and lay in wait to rush him as he walked by.

To hear Paulie tell it later, he and I had joined forces and we were the ones doing the ambushing. A planned takedown of the bully pack to end their reign of terror. He started calling me Under immediately after that, along with referring to himself as Paulie.

At first it was pretty damn annoying having Paulie follow me around all the time, doing little things for me, even springing for lunch from time to time. That made me really uncomfortable. I knew the kid could barely afford  to buy his own lunch, much less someone else’s. I’d seen him go without, and skip some of the movie nights, extra books the nuns sold. Not that he was interested in books anyway. But after a while I got used to the squirt hanging around. I even started looking forward to his jokes, his version of a New Jersey accent, and the plot lines of old black-and-white movies given in movie-star accents. That’s what made us Paulie and Under. We started going to the movies together and never came back. We lived in the plot lines and dialogue. We acted the parts of cops and punks, cool bums and cooler PIs. Before long it became habit and the habit became us. A continuing story. Just like today—modern throwbacks to the 30s and 40s.

Our names stuck right along with the myth of the two of us combined as the bad asses in school. Not much individually, but together a mighty duo. And oddly enough—and to my great relief—the mafia never sought revenge. I never knew why but finally quit watching over my shoulder. Maybe they figured we’d just up the ante. And maybe, like most bullies, they were actually cowards.

When we hit high school Paulie outgrew me in girth and acceptance. He was one of those guys who did all his growing as he got older, even developing a large lumbering walk and bulky body shape that added to his formidable appearance. His face turned red and grew with him into the body size. He learned to be the comedy relief, the Falstaff buffoon who could not be pushed around. And all of it, as if predestined. The rules changed for him as his size and affability made him more acceptable.

I didn’t know or care if I could have been accepted myself; I still walked around the edges, circled like a satellite, and wrote down my observations in a school notebook. Even then searching for the just-right sentences. The best words.

Paulie and I stayed friends, Paulie coming by to shout over the back of his mother’s hedgerow, “Yo, Under . . . how they hanging?” Just when I thought it was the end of it, that we’d drift apart and go our separate ways, live our own lives. Right about then, just as that thought began to pass through my mind, I’d be walking down a sidewalk and suddenly feel the push into the back of my knees. Paulie’s version of an arm punch. If I couldn’t catch myself before the sidewalk did, it would take me down.

As much as that was not my style and as much as I really didn’t like the idea of needing someone else—or admitting to it—I came to value Paulie and our friendship. Value and depend on it.

College, time out for girlfriends, and two failed attempts at living in New York brought me back to the Midwest. Along with that came the Mississippi River, the town of WillowPoint, and Paulie. Paulie never left town, studied hard enough to pass the tests they gave him to qualify as a cop, and worked his way up to detective. He’s good at it, has a nose and a gut for it as the guys say. He’ll dog after something until he can wrap it up, and the stink and stench doesn’t seem to bother him. It’s a calling that fits him, and he revels in it.

Paulie married and stayed with the first woman who would have him, Gail Rosenburg, and settled down into the rhythm of a life in a town he never left. When I came back this last time, as always, we picked right back up where we’d left off. And now here we sit across from each other at what passes for a kitchen table at my place.

I hear him talking. “So tell me what happened. Every part from the time you left the house.”

“Problem is, the night just won’t come together. But my personal favorite is the blond at the bar who thought Miles Davis was a track runner.”

“That’s an old joke, isn’t it? Seems to me I’ve heard it before.”

“Yes. An old joke all right. But she seemed to be playing it for real. Got a laugh anyway. That was right before the thug sucker-punched me on my bad side, the left side with the poor eye and slow reflexes. Almost as if he knew. Almost as if the whole thing was a setup.”

Paulie nods. “Maybe it was.”

“It just wasn’t the normal barroom brawl. It wasn’t provoked. And Lucky’s is my haunt, my stomping ground, and it’s my neighborhood. And there was something about the whole thing that felt terribly familiar and terribly wrong.”

Paulie’s really listening hard. Doesn’t keep him from tossing the beers back though. Maybe it helps.

I have to keep forcing myself into a focused review of the night. I’ve got to make some sense of the whole thing. Figure it out. The telling of it out loud helps. “Okay, kid. If I start at the beginning, I put in a full day of writing, so rewarded myself with the Friday night usual. You know, the trip to the bar. Took the walk down the alley from the back of the house to Lucky’s, five blocks.”  You get inside that old dark place, with the dank and moldy smell of age and all the prior years of tobacco smoke, you feel like it’s just another alley. And a step into the womb of history. But that’s the whole town now anyway.

“I didn’t have to order the usual—Mel [the bartender] always puts it in front of me. My shot of whisky and a Bud. Normally the place is filled only with the regulars—folks from the neighborhood, older women, older men and a few of the younger ones. The ones who used to come in with their fathers a few years back. They’re the ones who never caught a rung up the ladder or don’t choose to go to the more happening places downtown. You know those kids, the ones who are outsiders pretty much any place else in town. The odd one last night was a newcomer, a full-breasted bleached blond an old-looking thirtyish, slightly overweight, sitting at the bar wearing the classic low-cut dress that matched the green plastic of the bar stool. She was like a dream of the past and definitely out of place. Who wears a dress to a neighborhood dive anymore? And she was chatting away at Mel as if he was the most interesting person in the world, which we know he’s not. And she sure wasn’t playing coy.

“She wasn’t my type, so the interest in the babe was purely because it was so damn unusual. The few guys over shooting pool seemed to take the same attitude. Face it, the most interesting thing about Lucky’s is the alcohol and the jazz that’s always blaring out of the jukebox. Guys don’t go there to pick up women. Hell, those bums are lucky if they don’t piss their pants. And most of them are too cheap to buy anyone a drink, so that leaves out the sweet talk. Things only happen if someone falls into someone else’s arms ‘long about midnight. So there she was, drawing all this attention to herself, talking loud in a rough and low-pitched voice as if she had been drinking whiskey from a bottle since she was born. She looked and sounded like the prop from an old PI book, a character right out of Ray Chandler. You wouldn’t have been surprised to find a gun in her purse–the small and silvery-looking thing that was on the bar next to her martini.

“Like I said, Mel kept me in drinks, I didn’t even have to order refills. Sometimes I nodded, just for effect. I was on my third setup when the blond started at me. ‘Hey there handsome, so how’s your Friday night going?’ I waited a while before responding with a ‘fine.’ ‘Oh I see. Man of few words, eh? Or just playing hard to get?’ she says. Then she turned more to look at me directly, moving her attention away from Mel along with the jukebox where the record was  just changing. Like I said, you know it’s always jazz—Lucky’s signature—even though Lucky himself’s been gone for a lot of years now. Hell, there’s even a ‘Dizzy for President’ pin hanging up behind the bar. The 1960s were a fine time. So Mel made a comment about Miles Davis coming up and that’s when the blond asked why he was called Miles: was he a track star? That’s what got everyone’s attention. Even the cue ball was silent and the balls stopped their clack clack thunk on the green felt.

“She was on my right, and that was where I was looking because she was talking. And the pool table had gone quiet. Maybe I heard the door open behind me, off to the left, maybe not. I was pretty relaxed. The next thing I knew, my left ear was struck by a blasting burn sending lightning down the left side of my face. The shock of it went through my head and bounced right off my neck. All of it took way too long to register. What happened? Why had I turned to walk into a punch? Ah yes, there was a low sweet whistle that caught my attention the same time as the punch, mid-spin. From there all hell broke loose.

“I was on the floor before I knew it and someone big and dark was punching me while someone else was landing kicks in my side and legs. Escape wasn’t even a thought. Hell, just moving on my own was impossible. No matter how I tried to protect myself, whatever I covered up opened another area for attack. It felt like the whole bar had turned on me. The big fellow with the dark clothes straddled me and used my face for a punching bag.”

But I don’t tell Paulie everything. I don’t say anything more about the guy who was straddling me. The one who was landing big juggernaut punches with the fist pulled straight back and moving forward like on a spring—a haymaker—alternating with round-houses. To me that meant only one thing: a cop. Slugging like no one would dare hit him back. A cop that had beaten the crap out of me.

So I pick back up with Paulie. “And then it ended, just that long and just that quick. I heard feet thumping toward the door and the guys who must have been back by the pool tables rushing over to me. Then I passed out.”

“So how did you get home? And by the way, maybe the guys who were playing pool saw the guys coming in and that’s why they stopped.”

“Could be. I woke up in bed this morning so I don’t know anything for certain about how I got home. But it’s easy enough to put the rest of it together or make some pretty safe assumptions. The guys at the bar must have gotten me into someone’s car and brought me home, put me into bed. Good thing I never lock my doors. Good thing the new dog isn’t much of a watch dog, not yet anyway.”

“Not ever from the looks of her.”

I laugh. It is pretty difficult to imagine her chasing anything other than her tail.

“Okay. The more I think about it the clearer it is. Of course it was a setup. But there’s no reason in the world that anyone would want to teach me a lesson. About what? Maybe a case of mistaken identity. Still, there’s the left side bit, but maybe that’s just coincidence. If not, that’s not going to narrow down the field any. Everyone in this small town knows about that. Even if you didn’t know me, you’d have heard of the accident, would be familiar with the crash.”

What I don’t say out loud here is that it was a crash that changed things for me. It was so bad that the left side of my body felt no longer a part of me, as if had been pulled away from the rest of me. And it was the crash that killed the dog.

“Still, it sure looked like whoever did it meant for it to happen, knew where I’d be and knew enough to use where I’m most vulnerable. Likely the blond was a part of it.” And so was a cop. But I don’t say that part out loud either.

“Yeah. Sure seems like it. Either way, why the hell didn’t you call me right away this morning? When you woke up.”

“I didn’t feel up to it. Talking seemed like it would take a lot of effort. But I was going to. It could wait until the jaw didn’t feel so sore. Besides, I wanted to put a few of the puzzle pieces together myself. Didn’t do so hot.”

“Yeah,” he says, “ya always feel like there’s more information there, if you could only find it.”

“Right. That’s exactly how it feels.”

“And you’re sure you didn’t recognize anyone?”

I turn my head slowly from side to indicate no, then stand up. “Make yourself useful and order us a pizza or something. I’m going to go get dressed.” I take my time getting dressed, moving slowly and carefully. A pair of pants that are too big for me work so that I don’t have to struggle too much. I pull a dirty shirt out of the clothes basket so I can put my arms through, not over the head. And think of the country-western song when old Willie sang it about “my cleanest dirty shirt.” I dismiss the song, and thoughts of socks and shoes, pad back into the kitchen barefoot.

Paulie is just replacing the phone in the receiver. “Pizza’s on the way. Give ‘em thirty minutes or so.

“Ah, Under?” Paulie continues.

“Yes?”

“Have you heard that Maggie’s back in town?”

I feel a jolt in my chest, pull my breath in sharply. It surprises me, my reaction. “No. I didn’t know. Why’s she here? When?”

“Gail ran into her at the Mall in front of Sears. Said she was there picking up something for the funeral. Her grandfather died—don’t know if you heard that or not either—and she came back for that and to help her mom out. They talked for a while then Maggie took off. She’s staying at her mother’s house.”

I shrug to show how indifferent I am, and manage to hurt myself in the process. “Doesn’t matter. She’s entitled. I don’t hold a lock on the town you know. People can come and go.” I laugh. “Don’t look at me like that. It doesn’t matter, Paulie, it’s over. Done.”

“You sure? You’re not going to try and get ahold of her? Really?”

“You know, sometimes your cop nose isn’t all that great. Sometimes you make things up to suit the story you’ve got going—pretty good fiction writer yourself there, pal.”

So then Paulie takes his turn at a shrug. “Okay. Suit yourself. Just thought you’d like to know.”

“Thanks.” I’m doing my best to leave it noncommittal, feel myself withdraw from the topic, toss it aside—think about it later.

“By the way,” he says, “what’s that thing on your neck for?”

I reach up and touch the bandaged lump on my neck. “Someone put a pressure patch on my neck. Guess I was bleeding out so they capped it. It wasn’t bad, just enough to nick the artery, an easy fix.”

“That’s a good sign,” says Paulie.

“Really? How’s that?”

“Means they didn’t want to kill you. Just give you a message.”

“Uh huh. Well I’m glad they didn’t want to kill me. Or and unless it was one of the tavern guys in the aftermath. I don’t think any of the punchers stopped to fix me up. Maybe even Mel. I’ll bet he didn’t want my blood to keep shooting out all over. And I’m sure it was. Probably a fountain.  A geyser.”

We get nowhere on the numerous replays of the night before even though Paulie tries, pushes for answers, makes me recall things I didn’t realize I knew, like the brief sight of red-plaid from a shirt, and the scent of shaving cream or aftershave coming from somewhere. But nothing that leads to why or who.

I do ask if he knows of any dirty cops. “Hey Paulie, do you think there could be any dirty cops on the force?”

He looks at me, I see him struggle a bit, then he must decide to hand me the truth because he does. “Yeah, sure there are. You’ve got people, right? People, greed, power? That means you’re going to have some things a little off the line, somewhere. In some of the bigger cities you’ll have people who don’t even know what a line is they’re so far over it.”

“Do you know who they are? Do you have any names?”

“No. No idea at all.” But he answers too quickly. I drop the subject, see it’s not going to go anywhere.

We finish the pizza, drink all the beer he brought, and I tell him to go home. “Go home, Paulie,” I say. “Gail’s going to be wondering where you are and I have to go back to bed. The only thing that’s going to get me well is sleep. And I’m going to sleep when I can, and for starters that’s now.”

Paulie struggles to his feet, reaches down and pets the dog. “So what you gonna call her?”

“I don’t know. It’ll come to me when it should. Right now it’s just New Dog.” The dog thumps her tail on the floor, lifts her head and cocks it from side to side as we talk about it.

“She knows we’re talking about her,” says Paulie.

“Yes. She knows. She seems to know a little, and a little bit psychic too. Didn’t want me to leave last night.”

Paulie comes to attention, looks at me with a renewed interest. “What makes you say that?”

“She tried to block me from the door. Clearly didn’t want me to leave. I had to keep her in the house so she wouldn’t follow me. She was pretty wound up over it. I’d never seen her like that before.”

“Was anything different in the house or the yard? Anything look like it’d been moved or disturbed?”

“No. Why?”

“You didn’t think about what I asked, just answered. Think, man. Dogs aren’t psychic, I don’t care what you damn dog lovers believe. They act on clues, scents; they see things we don’t, and that’s what makes them react. Must have been a reason for her to act like that. What?”

At Paulie’s seriousness, the intenseness of his reaction, I make myself go back to the night before, before leaving to go to Lucky’s, and pick up at an earlier point from where we’d done all of the rehashing.

“I let the dog in and went into the bedroom to change clothes, searched out a clean shirt and a pair of jeans. I washed my face, shaved, grabbed something to eat, remembered I hadn’t put the tools back from the job at Bergers yesterday, and went into the back closet to get them to put out in the shed. That’s when the dog started up. She started sniffing and blocking me from the backdoor when I picked up the toolbox and the old ornate table leg that I’d brought home to fix. She didn’t like the tools and the furniture piece from the Bergers. That’s what started it,” I said to Paulie.

Paulie nodded. “Can I see them?”

“Sure, but they’re out back in the shed.”

Newly revived by Paulie’s enthusiasm and interest—and after all, Paulie is damn good at his job, it doesn’t take much for me to stand and start for the backdoor. Paulie might look and talk like a lumbering idiot, but he has a keen mind for details and always seems to know the right trail to follow. I flip on the outdoor light switch and the three of us—me, Paulie, and the dog—tramp out to the shed. Some of us with more spring in our step than others.

It’s the typical fall night with a breeze stirring up the leaves that crunch beneath our feet as we walk to the shed. The dog is invigorated by this new action and is prancing around us, running back and forth from the shed to us, doing play bows and figure eights around the yard. I also notice she’s doing everything with a leftward tilt, like on a ship’s deck that’s leaning port side. Maybe I should call her Lefty.

“Doesn’t seem too upset now, “ says Paulie.

“No. We’ll have to see what she says when she sees the tools.”

“Hasn’t she ever seen them before?”

“Sure. Just never reacted like that.”

“Then what else did you say? What was the piece of furniture?”

I open the door and reach around to turn on the light answering at the same time. “Just the leg to a dining room table. Huh. Now there’s a surprise.”

I normally keep the place pretty neat and organized. It’s filled with all the tools I need for the odd jobs I do to supplement my income—or lack thereof—from writing. That and some yard tools, some for my place, others for the jobs. Now rakes and spades are on the floor, the tools on the work bench are out of their holders and tool boxes, canvas has been pulled off some flower bulbs and pots, and different sizes and shapes of wood are piled together as if they’d been tossed. Which of course they were. In a word: mess.

“The question is, “ says Paulie, very matter-of-factly, “did they find what they were looking for?”

“How would I know?”

“What’s missing?”

The dog is still dancing around, periodically sniffing and nudging at something on the floor, looking up at us in anticipation. Waiting to see what else is going to happen with this new game I expect.

“She doesn’t look upset to me. Are the tools still here?”

I’ve started looking around and go over to the workbench to see if everything’s there. “Yes, all present and accounted for.

“But you know . . .” I look around more closely. I don’t see the furniture leg. “I don’t see the furniture piece. Or the cloth it was wrapped in, if that matters.”

“Okay. So that’s what they wanted. And whoever it was sure doesn’t like you.”

“Why do you say that?”

Paulie looks at me then around at the shed. “They didn’t need to do all of this just to make off with a table leg. It may be about the wood, or it could be about you. Or both. In fact, it has to be about both. Let’s not forget, you got beat up. Whatever it is, the dog seems to be the only one who knows, and she’s not talking.”

I laugh. “I’m not forgetting. And why do you say it has to be about both?” There’s a lot I figure I can learn from Paulie.

“They both happened the same night and they’re both connected to you. That’s not a coincidence.”

I feel myself sigh. “I don’t have a clue Paulie, and that bothers me. None of this makes sense. And I suppose you’re going to say this has something to do with Maggie too because she came back at the same time—everything related to me?”

Rather than laugh the comment off, Paulie nods. “Could be. Could be doesn’t mean it is, but just that—could. One thing I’ve learned in all this time is not to write anything off. You never know. If it was anything obvious you’d know right away.

“So why’d you bring a table leg home in the first place? That sounds weird to me.”

“It was sitting on the dining room buffet cabinet. I’d just finished up some painting for Berger—the old lady—in the kitchen and happened to back myself into the dining room. I saw it sitting on the buffet shelf and had to pick it up to check it out. Ornate and carved as it was. I noticed it had a crack running down one side of it, so wrapped it up in the cloth it was sitting on to take it home. I figured I’d fill the crack, clamp it up to dry here, then bring it back. It wasn’t a big deal. Mrs. Berger has left things there for me more than once. Figured she left it there intentionally for me to fix. She’s not always home when I’m working on something.

“So how was the dining table supported? What was it, up on blocks?”

I laugh. “Hardly. It didn’t belong to that table—all of those legs were intact. I figured it went with something she had stored somewhere on the property and would be wanting to bring it in for one of the rooms. It didn’t exactly matter to me, just looked like a repair job.”

Paulie shakes his head. “Yeah. Well, someone didn’t want you to have it. Doesn’t that strike you as strange? Who’d care if you had some old table leg? And how’d they know just where to look for it?”

“Guess they’d know because this is a work shed and where you’d keep things you were working on. Either that or they were watching the house and saw me put it here.”

Paulie nods quite solemnly and we stand there in silence for a while. Then I decide nothing’s going to change by us looking at it. “Hell. I’m going back in. You can stand out here all night if you want to. We know everything we can for right now, don’t we? And I’m not going to start cleaning this mess up now.”

I call the dog over to me, slap a hand against my leg. Very lightly, cautious of bruises. Even in the light of the shed, the yard lights and the moon overhead, the play of shadow and light across the dog is pleasing. She’s mostly white but the splotches of black here and there make it look as if someone shook a wet paint brush at her. Nice. Though those splotches could be mud, dirt. No matter. I’m still glad she found me, even if she’s no German shepherd, no Morrie.

Paulie leaves in his big black police cruiser after going on about my taking care of myself, and for God’s sake to lock the doors. Something I’ve never done here.

“Kiss Gail for me,” I shout after him.

“Hell no. Kiss your own damn women. Stay away from mine!”

Instead of going directly to bed I decide to have another beer from my own stock. It doesn’t take much to convince myself. I’m hoping for a night that will offer more sleep than the last one did. And I’m tired of thinking about the action at Lucky’s. Instead I do a loop back to this morning. This morning and the trip out to the mailbox, before Paulie called. It’s a place I don’t go a lot but wanted to see if the long overdue check was there. The email had crashed so I couldn’t chew my agent out that way. I knew he wouldn’t take a phone call. It was a matter of forcing my way out to the mailbox. Going past the pain to make it where the body didn’t want to go. By the time I had made it all the way down the driveway to the gate and the mailbox, I had to drag one leg and was doubled over. Clutching my gut I leaned over and against the post, and saw a package. But I had no idea how long it had been there. It had been hidden in the tall stand of grass and weeds that I kept promising myself I’d scythe down to size. I hadn’t been to the mailbox since the beginning of the week, and it could have been there long before that. It took me a long time to bend lower and be able to pick the thing up. It wasn’t too heavy which was a very good thing. It was solid though, and heavy or not, it took longer to make it back to the house than it had going out. And that was a long time. Walking back to the house I felt like a one-hundred-year-old man in need of a cane. Normally I’m pretty robust even though slightly out-of-shape.

I made it back to the house—now home. Spend a couple of years somewhere and you can begin to think of it as more than where you hang your hat. I put the package on the desk and went to sit on one of the stiff formal chairs someone gave me when I moved in. One of those things so out of place it works. For me anyway. I picked that chair so it could support me and not manipulate the body into some type of curved torture. My body was and is still pretty pissed off at me—probably wouldn’t have tolerated much more in the way of punishment. I decided that I should make a list of possible candidates who would want to beat up one Jake Underman. I didn’t know if I’d be able to hold a pen much less write with one. But I was going to give it a try. So I went over to the desk that holds everything not nailed down in the place. The huge thing made out of two combined old library tables—used to be hippy chic back in the day—strewn with papers and pens and notebooks and a computer, a desk lamp, a telephone and several dirty coffee cups with cold coffee in them, a set of juggling balls, and the package off to the side where I had just put it.

To my surprise, the pen I picked up stayed in my hand and didn’t cause a lot of pain. Well of course not. I hadn’t used my own fists much. I eased myself into the firm desk chair and tentatively began to write in a notebook. Slow and cautious the way.

Problem was, I may be a jerk, but not one someone would like to demolish. Not as far as I knew anyway. There is of course Maggie, but beating someone up isn’t her style. Not even metaphorically. She’s just the most recent to walk out, the most recent woman to give up on me in some unforgiving despair, even though I didn’t do her the disservice of marrying her.

But Maggie, just thinking of her sends another shiver through me, just like before. Not from a likely culprit, but because of what we’d been together. Guess that’s just part of the human condition—a belief in the past when the present isn’t all that great.

And then Paulie had to come in and bring everything right back. Put it in front of me like a memory from a dream. But I’m finding it harder and harder to keep my head up. The problem with thinking and pain is that you don’t know which one’s in control. Right. Pain is.

I lock both front and back doors, see the dog tucked into Morrie’s bed, apparently her bed now, in the small room off the kitchen that passes for a laundry and storage room. Then I make it into bed. I don’t bother to take off my clothes. I don’t even bother to talk back to myself as the incessant chatter continues in my head about Maggie and the dog and Paulie and the beating and all of the questions that lead nowhere. It doesn’t last long. Before I know it I must doze off. I don’t bother to turn off the light.

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