Fiction: Caesar Machiavelli

By Zach Dundas

The women walked over to us just after Teddy, white-haired and wiry, pulled a standing backflip in the center of the room. He did it to distract Old Starla from her pain; she had an ice bag over one eye after falling off the bar while performing the Funky Butt. Tending to Old Starla was a priority. We aimed to shuffle her off to bed sometime and retain possession of the premises. 
She was at our table—I say our table, but none of the other tables were occupied. We had the place to ourselves in that drowsy afternoon moment except for the two women: Connie and Marne, we learned. They fiddled with the old jukebox in back until it finally hiccuped on and played Buck Owens, which I appreciated, then approached, evoking a pair of cats in the mood for comradeship.
“We’ve been trying to guess,” Connie said, cigarette between two red-tipped fingers, polish bright but chipped. “Youth pastors?” 
This brought a giggle from everyone but Dwight, who stared at his notebook with a booze-slackened expression.
“Co-captains of the rugby team?”
I said, “Getting warmer.”
“Convention scouts for the Man-Boy Love Club?” 
Abe clapped Teddy’s shoulder. “Theodoric here dissembles that remark. Everyone needs a drink.” He went to the tin bucket sweating on the bar and started tossing High Lifes.
“Just such a tight-knit group. Laughter, revelry.”
“Pleased to have you join us for a relaxing beverage and conversation,” I said. “We sell encyclopedias, door to door across the land. It’s thirsty work, and lonely.”
“Bringing knowledge to the people.” This was Marne, shorter and black-haired versus Connie, a rangy type, eye to eye with me. Granted, I’m no giant. Connie’s shag cut was a neutral pale, like beer foam or French vanilla.
“The gift of wisdom to every town and holler.”
“We need that here, for sure.” Connie caught a flying beer in her free hand. “On the other hand, you could probably use pointers yourself, hanging out here.”
“We’re friends of the proprietor.” Old Starla rose to amble around the bar and pour herself a vodka, still clutching the ice bag.
“We’d be happy to show you around, would we not, Marne?”
“You betcha.”
“As long as we’re not up past bedtime.”
“Hell, sunset is the big show, then they roll up the sidewalks. Though it does help to enhance your appreciation, if you catch me.”
Teddy went to the jukebox, Abe returned with stubby bottles laced between his fingers and hip-checked Marne. She checked back with a muscular jut of her denim cut-offs. It all seems quick in the recounting, but I have seen it go quicker. 
“I wouldn’t say no.”
“We’ll have to excuse ourselves. I mean you and me.”
The bathroom was a dim, toxic affair, faucet leaking so bad it was basically just turned on. We had to stand close.
“For clarity, we will not be fucking in here.” Connie produced a plastic bag from her shorts’ back pocket, half-full of a brown mass like forest floor.
“There’s two ways to take that.”
“You’re the encyclopedia man, take it how you want.” She shook a few lumps loose and offered them. A fertile smell cut the stench. “What they call a natural high.”
“In my experience this makes you puke,” I said, chewing hard against rubbery textures.
“Only every other time. Now good—we’re practically blood brothers.”
“Our secret, huh?”
“Absolutely our secret.”
However, when we went back out, Marne was in my former seat with more baggies out, stuff spread all over the table among the Miller bottles and ashtrays, Teddy and Abe nibbling it like canapés. Dwight had gone rigid. But Abe gave me a bright wink. 
“Let the games begin, man,” Abe said.
That weekend, we called ourselves Tom, Abe, Teddy and Dwight—a presidential name for everyone. We had taken up an interesting situation, six blocks from the beach. 
One angle was, Old Starla had decided to shutter her bar after Young Starla moved out. Due to pain, suffering and lack of cheap labor, this would be her shithole’s last weekend. Said shithole shared a wall with a bank: the second angle. Dwight rented the apartment upstairs—whole floor, not well kept—by giving Old Starla a hundred bucks, to which she said, “You can fucking stay—as long—as you fucking want.” 
Yes, Old Starla was already pretty drunk on Thursday. All week she unlocked the door at noon and held court, buckets of bottles on ice after the kegs blew. Old Starla knew us somewhat from times passing through. She didn’t remember, or perhaps care, who was Dwight or Teddy or whomever. She deemed us friendly presences, and as a result, we were likewise drunk by Friday. By Saturday, we felt like locals. 
This bothered poor Dwight. Now and again he’d snap out of alcohol and squint like a health-department inspector. He didn’t like the security. That upstairs apartment was already lousy with loose cash, fingerprints and DNA. (Dwight could go on dark tangents about new discoveries in forensics: cloth-fiber evidence, hair chemical analysis and so on.) Nor did he like the operational outlook. Dwight fancied himself a tend-to-business type. He would suddenly demand councils of war and plans of action.
Abe walked into the kitchen early Saturday afternoon in gas station sunglasses, glossy shirt half-buttoned, blond hair wet and architectural like a butter sculpture. He had consumed as many drinks as anyone but didn’t come off as drunk, rather cheerfully sunburned—beachy. A beachy guy with whom one wanted to commune: such was the magic of Abe.
Dwight was by the wall phone, fussing with his notebook. He spent hours hovering there, flipping pages, muttering low on brief calls as if we didn’t already know his real name, putting chicken-scratch on crinkling pages. As drinks went down the hatch, his declarations after hanging up grew ever more morose. 
“Well, shit is officially fucked up in Enumclaw,” he’d say. Or, “Huh—guess we’re not going to Medford any goddamn time soon.” 
I was at the crooked-leg kitchen table opposite Teddy. We’d tried to play Risk, but the set from the apartment closet was lacking many pieces. Teddy fidgeted with a token in the center of Europe, whispering “Edelweiss.” Two beers sat before me; I kept losing track of which one was coldest. That weekend, I was Tom. My role was, basically, quartermaster. I made stews everyone liked. I could stretch a cheap cut of meat into two dinners so we didn’t show up as big spenders at townie markets.
Abe lifted a can of Oly and cracked it. “To success, men,” he said. “We got this lined up.” 
“From the beginning,” Dwight said, goggle-eyed, tapping pen to notebook.
“I have like six new best friends already. A lot of knowledge about that bank rattling around out there. A real old-time operation. The bank prez is big in Rotary and will make you a loan if you’ve got a firm handshake. That kind of bullshit.” 
“Uh-huh, uh-huh.”
“Not much modern technology, I’m saying. And—like you thought—they loaded up on cash yesterday, because just about every business in town syncs with the mill’s payday, and that was last Friday, so they know that come Monday, everyone will be broke. Place is puffed up like a mosquito before you squash it.”
Dwight huffed and looked over at Teddy: “Hear that? You got your shit together?”
Teddy patted a duffle bag while rolling his eyes so only I could see. He and Dwight were in a tiff of some sort. “Si patrón. All the toys for all the boys.”  
Dwight folded his arms, notebook flapping to the side, awkward. “Alright, assholes. We need to have a talk about professionalism. One thing for fucking sure, we’re not going down to that bar until I say so.”
But we knew we would go down to the bar very soon. That’s when we met Connie and Marne.
I did vomit. Golden suds arced into the canal in front of Old Starla’s place. Three kids had a pleasure craft out, a fiberglass boat shaped like a giant swan and propelled with foot-pedals. After the third heave, I wiped my jaw and said, “Cost of doing business, kids.” One of them lifted a middle finger.
“Good thing I gave you triple the normal amount,” Connie said, leaning against the concrete barrier, smoking next to me. “You still have plenty in your system.”
“A minor inconvenience to perceive the motion of the spheres.”
“This will be excellent. You’ve got a gift for it.”
Abe and Teddy and Marne roistered out the bar door, Dwight teetering on the threshold, red-faced, gesticulating at the tavern dimness behind him, toward wherever Old Starla might be.
“Hold down the fort, patrón,” Teddy called, aviators slanted on his long pale nose. Abe told Dwight we would return by nightfall. Marne undercut him with a snorting laugh. 
The light was late-season, faded mistiness that said the ocean was close. Landlocked by birth, I am always struck by the snap in the air even out of sight of the breakers. 
The timing felt good: Dwight with the best of the day to tour-guide Old Starla into unconsciousness; hours for roaming; cavernous, hard-working night beyond and Sunday after that. I felt the seaside town stringing along the beach—streets, bars, chilly garages with ping-pong tables and deflated bike tires, vacation houses silent, dust motes floating in sun, fat paperbacks with cracked spines, battered surf boards, closets hung with other people’s clothes, drawers stacked with other people’s money, bedrooms still and musky, comforters in rusty colors tucked tight over clean white sheets—all the way to where pines and dune grass took over. 
The women wanted to take us places. 
“I told Mark we’d stop by,” Marne said.
Connie applauded. “You fuckers will love Mark.”
We left Teddy at downtown’s last stop-lit corner, mesmerized by a chisel-jawed guitarist playing Woody Guthrie tunes. Abe, Connie, Marne and I crossed the state highway into a quarter of weedy yards and chain-link fences. Mailboxes bore signs like “Captain’s Quarters” or “Seagull Shanty” or “Ocean View Villa,” though here there was none. 
“Welcome to bohemia,” Connie announced.
Mark lived in a ranch house, green siding bleached by sun and salt air, the dim sort of house that smells of cannabis and counter-cultural hair oils, with furniture from second-hand stores. Paintings filled the walls: oils, seascapes in blustery moods. More canvases leaned against floorboards and piled up on a coverless dining room table. In a room off the main hall I saw a bed littered with open suitcases, half-packed or unpacked.
“My friends,” Mark drifted into the main room holding a Modelo, blue work shirt unbuttoned over a paint-speckled white T. Black ringlets to his shoulders looked glossy—yes, hair oil. He tapped the bottle and I noticed his long fingernails. “More where this came from.”
Abe extended a genial fist. “Oh, hey man, we meet again.”
“Oh, man, that’s right. My man from Tootle’s.”
“Mark, is it? Mark’s one of the guys who told me all about this town.” Abe could collect people like the rest of us age. As often I did, I regarded him now as a majestic, magnetic force. Then the granular texture of the brown couch’s upholstery caught my attention.
“The fuck you doing today, Mark?” Connie landed on the couch beside me, pleasantly heavy and close. “Breakfast at Tootle’s, boozing with tourists?”
“I sought out the third place, to see if the muse awaited me there. Instead I met this fine man.” Abe and Marne went to the kitchen to rummage for beers.
Connie exhaled a plume. “Mark is an artist.”
I looked again at a painting on the wall and saw a sail-rigged ship sinking in stormy seas. I realized all the paintings showed distressed ships, of many designs.
“Your paintings?”
Mark yanked a wicker-bottomed chair around from the table. “This is the stuff alright. Did you know there are over three hundred documented shipwrecks on this stretch of coast? Graveyard of the Pacific. My project is to paint every single one.”
“I’m an artist too.”
“Very cool.”
“My work also deals with calamity.” 
“What kind of stuff do you do, man?”
“Hard to describe. Performance. Very site-specific kind of a thing.”
(I had four years of college—everything but the degree. I refused to write the final thesis on principle, and due to cocaine. But it wasn’t all gone. I was now talking more urgently—a tribute to my senior year.) 
“Oh, I get it. Time-based art.” (This mention of “time”: I once read about a concept: when an action occurs, it then recurs in an accordion of timelines. Six nights before in Astoria—Abe and I wearing security guard uniforms, walking toward an armored van, faces very casual—did that repeat into infinity? The driver’s big-eyed surprise?) “Interesting.”
“It does sound super-interesting,” Connie added. “I’ll get us all some of Mark’s real high-concept Mexican beers.” 
“Not much of that kind of work gets made around these parts,” Mark went on. “I’d love to see a piece sometime. So much art comes of turmoil.”
“There was the Italian painter who was a fantastic murderer.”
“I know who you mean. Starts with a C or an M.”
I snapped my fingers. “Caesar Machiavelli.”
“Of course, of course. That famous Machiavelli light.”
“Now in your work——by contrast——I get this real deep sense of, almost I want to say, claustrophobia.”
Mark pulled a canvas off the table and regarded it. “You’ve got a real eye. Think of it: down, down, down to a watery grave.”
I saw myself in a freezer chest at the bottom of Puget Sound, a giant octopus wrapped around that freezer chest, squeezing with strong arms.
Mark grinned at me. “I really would love to see your work sometime.”
I found a black marker in Mark’s kitchen and created geometric designs on both my forearms. Then Connie told me to come down to the river. 
Abe and Marne sat in frayed lawn chairs amid dandelion stalks and stared at the sky. Mark’s backyard, fenced on either side, rolled downhill into cottonwoods. Connie and I, between us, carried an unfeasible number of beers.
In the cottonwoods, light pulsed across the canopy at a high frequency. I detected energy networks webbing tree trunks, weaving into the moss and dirt.
“So interesting—the interplay of acceleration and deceleration,” I said.
“See, you were supposed to say that. Right when you stepped on that twig.” I looked down, and I was standing on a twig. “‘Foreordained’ is the word. A concept difficult to reckon with under ordinary circumstances. But for example, I’m getting in the water and you’re getting in the water.” Connie kicked out of her flip-flops and dusty black shorts and walked into the shallows in sky-blue underwear and sweat-stained T-shirt, which commemorated a volunteer firefighters’ barbecue.
I did likewise, up to my waist. “I don’t know if I can accept that logic. That I was always going to meet you and your friend today? That you and I were destined to be in the river behind the home of Mark, depressing seascape artist? Improbable.”
Connie began making angular hand gestures. “More like when a given thing occurs, A, a reaction begins—B, C—that ultimately contains within it occurrences ZZABZ, et cetera.”
“So like—”
“So like—I met Marne when we both got cast as the only freshmen in Twelve Angry Men in Drama Club. Occurence A, which connects inevitably to this moment, which we might as well designate as occurrence BQX. In other words, this is happening because that happened, but also that happened because this is happening.”
“I was just thinking about this exact concept, except the opposite.” I wandered into deeper water and felt my shirt billow around my ribs. “Which occurrence is Mark?”
“Maybe like AP, somewhere in there. Early in the chain. We met Mark because he sold pills to the senior boys in Drama Club. We had senior boys in common.”
“Now the boys are gone, but Mark remains?”
“All the world’s a stage, and Mark plays many roles. Artist, chemist, mentor to youth. You don’t fuck with Drama Club bonds, theater kids being the only ones who want to get the fuck out of a town like this. Mark and his magical medicine cabinet keep the dream alive. Let’s eat more of the stuff—it’s time.”
We found Teddy at Tootle’s, the big main-street tavern, a structure suggesting a barn designed by a whaling captain. Tootle’s had layers of one-dollar bills tacked to its ceiling. I considered what kind of tool could scrape them into a waiting satchel.
Happy hour at Tootle’s felt like a thousand people, smashed along the bar in a tangle of bare limbs, tank tops, bra straps, random haircuts and beach-blown faces. A lot of bright-red skin and glazy eyes in that bar. When we walked in, Teddy was doing a handstand, Keds pointed straight at those dollar bills, in competition with a woman whose sundress unfurled all the way to the floor. Otherwise she was wearing a mismatched bikini.
“Ugh, there is so—much—ass in this town,” Connie said. “Exhausting.”
The handstands ended in bear hugs, and Teddy collected his ensemble from strangers’ tables and beneath barstools. He’d hit a vintage shop or the like and acquired a feather boa and a tan leather jacket, too small even for his bony torso. He and Marne swapped clothing in the small space at the end of the bar, to the point where Teddy wore Marne’s black Speedwagon T-shirt, which came almost to his navel, and Marne lounged against the bar in Teddy’s new jacket and old sunglasses, flicking the boa back and forth, saying, “Who wore it better? Who wore it better?”
“Babe-raham, we need you to order,” Teddy said, Marne’s heart-shaped sunglasses stretched around his temples. “This motherfucker can’t even look at this kind of beauty. Get us sambucas. Get us so many sambucas. Let’s be on Capri. Let’s be on the Amalfi, Abraham.”
Abe raised his left forefinger and a bartender appeared. Tootle’s didn’t have sambuca, but it did have tequila. Teddy had never been to Capri, but I knew he’d been in Mexico.
“To Teddy’s time in Tijuana jail,” I said, raising my shot.
“And all the loves I’ve loved before in mi casa di amor.” Teddy was wasted.
“In the encyclopedia business?” Marne asked as she poured her own shot down Teddy’s mouth, open like a baby bird’s.
“You don’t even know,” Abe said, waving again at the bartender. “People get real mad if there aren’t pictures on every page.”
I met Dwight and Teddy—when none of us went by any of those names—at the Golden Coin in Portland, a bar with a pu-pu platter where people could meet, talk and sell each other stereo components. Dwight’s big face was as pink as the barbecued pork. Teddy reminded me of Warhol, all in black. Dwight did the asking.
“We don’t want to know everything, but a few things.”
“Of course.”
“How clean are you these days?”
“Doing good. High functioning is the term.”
“Anywhere you need to be at Christmas? I usually just call these days.”
“Boys? Girls?”
“Girls—if, like, anyone’s asking?” 
Teddy nodded wisely. “We’re pretty open-minded.”
A month later I met Abe, running a sports book out of a motorcycle shop. I lost $200 on the basketball playoffs and got a feeling about him—I sensed complications might lurk behind his crinkly smile-eyes and easy banter. Indeed, the sports-book business was plagued by assertive creditors, and Abe soon joined us on the road. 
I envisioned the four of us as a bright thread of disruption skeining around the land, incident and momentum woven across the map, charted by an unknown mind. Or maybe a comedy troupe, or mustachioed characters from French novels of derring-do, or grit in the gears of a world-eating system, or wiseacres making smart cracks out of the sides of our mouths in black and white. We would, eventually, of course, all go to prison for many years or die by violence, but I had ways of thinking that made those eventualities fade away, seem less than important, or feel like narrative logic. 
The other possible endpoint would be a collective decision that we had enough money. My issue there was, I wanted every last scrap and droplet of money in the world stuffed into my waistband, rammed into my pockets, or secreted in my future Swiss accounts. I awaited the day I could set one hundred dollars on fire without compunction, or fold the bill into a paper crane and set it free. (I would not do that, but could I do that?) We seldom got as much money as Dwight expected. Other hand, we didn’t have anything to spend it on, except motel rooms, laundromats, steak dinners with baked potatoes and these occasional nights of oblivion. 
Teddy watched old movies and read gossip magazines sold by grocery registers. Abe could sniff the air and find a craps game. Dwight lived among ragged-edged road maps and small-town newspapers, analytical notes and crude diagrams. Many nights, a TV played, muted, as I stretched out on a polyester bedspread and lived in the moment.
I stood at a urinal in the Tootle’s men’s room, craning my head to watch bugs flit around the single, very yellow light.
“You need to zip it up there, trail hand?” Abe had finished at the next station.
“Just thinking, I’d like to read more about science.”
“Fucking for sure, dude. We’ll hook you up with a library card.”
“Laws of nature, or laws of man, you know?”
“We are in for some natural-ass Wild Kingdom shit tonight. Marne and Connie—into basically whatever. Put on show, merry-go-round with both of us, I think we pick our poison.”
I remember these words sliding up a scale, bursting into a mental strobe of skin smoothness and half-lit images, Connie slithering around Marne, short legs and long legs crosshatched to form a primitive lean-to; me, wriggling among those arches and columns. Long, gilded Abe, fine blond fuzz glossy with sunscreen, lean hunks of muscle and scallops of bone stretching up above us, lopsided smile sliding around and around. 
“Dwight?” I said. “Dwight won’t like it.”
“I got my mind on the clock. I never missed a plane in my life. The calculus is not difficult, man. You know how long we have from this very second? Like approximately sixty hours. You and me can puppy-pile with those two loons, no problem.”
I splashed cold water out of the sink, let it run all down my neck and chest. I couldn’t remember if I’d bought enough breakfast food for two extra people.
Back out in the bar, Marne had Teddy in a massive lip-lock, dipping him like it was the last day of the war, the boa looped around them both.
“Shit,” Abe said. “I bet her twenty bucks she couldn’t make it happen.”
As a youth, I spent a lot of time reading, and even more letting my brain wander over what I read. This habit attracted praise and wonder, and adults often suggested that my literary bent would unlock future wealth. In fact, books charted and illuminated my path to a life of crime. I do appreciate the sentiment, though, in context. My mother worked in nail-care, my father as a third-tier administrator at our town’s largest employer, the aluminum plant. Both professionals by their own lights, self-made through night school and mail-order training, they actually had absorbed certain practical texts and improved their standing as a result. My interests simply lay elsewhere. I since have been encouraged by agents of authority to pin some terrible wrongdoing on them, but there was none, except being fucking boring. If I wanted to be mean, I could say they lacked culture, apart from television in tired off-hours. Then again, colossal work days were not any design of theirs. We all woke up in the morning and did our best. I walked myself to school from first grade on, after opaquely reasoned schedule changes at both places of employment. Not long after, I realized the secret gift of afternoons between 3:15 and 7, an international airfield of space for my mind.
One particular book had a blue cloth cover with embossed gold type—that I remember, can see and feel. I want to say it was The Boys’ Big Book of Sea Stories and Ocean Lore—it definitely bore a title no one would put on a book now. The text mixed up naval battles and pirate yarns with naturalist notes, one of which obsessed me. It explained the “green flash,” an optical phenomenon best witnessed against maritime horizons, when a trick of light and atmosphere splinters the sun’s edge into a green band. The illustration on this page portrayed a chlorophyll spray across the sky and a delighted family on a pier, the square-shouldered father pointing. 
This image cast into sharp relief the truth that my parents showed no signs of taking me to the ocean. The green flash was just one thing I would never see in that aluminum town.   
We foundered through the seaside dunes that evening, out to the beach. Abe had gone astray for maybe ninety seconds and reappeared with a tidy bundle of firewood, which he kindled in a ring of blackened rocks we discovered. A couple other fires scattered down the shore and I thought that this would be what the first sundown after the end of civilization looked like—a few brave, celebratory signal fires. 
A realignment had occurred. Now Marne huddled against Teddy by the fire, both trying to squeeze into that leather jacket. Abe did not mind. He sang quietly to himself as he built the fire (one match), then jogged away down the beach, though he had lost his left shoe somewhere. 
Connie and I wound our way out to the water’s edge. We had not touched except incidentally. We circled each other haphazardly, like damaged fighter jets, as icy incoming tide washed over our feet and drowned footprints in the smooth sand. I felt the urge to drop to my knees and raise my arms to the ocean and yell out, “Hail to thee, destroyer of worlds!,” and I may have done so—I don’t remember. At some point, we both had our shirts off. I was close enough to Connie to see gooseflesh rise across her chest in the fast-cooling breeze, to note an oval birthmark just off one hip, a cryptic plain star tattooed to her right shoulder, pinpoints of dark stubble under her arms. We yell-talked at each other incoherently. When the moment for the green flash came, I was too distracted to watch for it. But I did feel that my project, whatever it was, had brought me here—a mark of success.
At Old Starla’s we found the door still propped open. I locked it from the inside. Old Starla herself was passed out in the only proper booth. It seemed Dwight and perhaps others had knocked the tables and barstools around in some festive mayhem. Dwight sat in one chair with his feet propped on another, just in front of the jukebox, as settled as if he weighed a thousand pounds. He caterwauled lyrics as Patsy Cline songs came from the juke, “Crazy” crackling right into “Faded Love.” Abe started slow-dancing with Marne, a one-shoe waltz. Connie went behind the bar and began shaking up cocktails. Teddy was out the back door and back again with his duffel bag. 
“Ethel Merman here, look at him. Look at this fucking mess.” Teddy unzipped the bag atop the bar while he fired invective at Dwight. “Mission accomplished, patrón. Misson fucking accomplished. Dead soldiers everywhere back here. Jesus fucking Christ. Put yourself to bed, put yourself right to bed you fat piece of trash—” He kept talking as he set tools on the bar: twisty hand-drills, meaty hammers, old-time-looking chisels, a gnarl-toothed mushroom-shaped thing I once struggled to use while Teddy and Abe mocked me for failing to “master the badger.” Tools clanked and rattled as Teddy arrayed them. Marne soon broke off dancing to lead Abe over and ask slurring questions, which stopped Teddy ranting at Dwight and elicited loving answers.
“Amazing that it took, what, ten thousand fucking years, but they figured out they could put a teardrop nail puller on a crowbar. Now, look at the bevel here—”
Connie handed me a pint glass of martini and sipped from her own. “Marne has always been mechanical.” Dwight bellowed the first line of “You’re Stronger Than Me.” A draught of the cocktail felt like being put to sea on a chunk of polar ice; I took a second before I noticed Connie wanted to toast. 
“What are we drinking to?” I may have only uttered sounds.
“Summer love,” she said. “It’s time to go upstairs. Show me your etchings.”
Memory transports to the apartment kitchen, as if we levitated through Old Starla’s ceiling to get there. I was leaning, or listing, against the sink and counter, Connie sitting on the table, bare sandy calves crossed, blackened soles showing. We had our martinis, and she took demur sips while I sloshed mine around. I realized I was talking—about what, no one could say. 
Connie cocked and studied her left wrist. “Look at the time.” She wasn’t wearing a watch. I felt the moment echo itself: “Look at the time.” I took a drink of the cocktail, almost gone, felt several axes of weight distribution shift within me, and slid straight down to sit on the floor, back propped against unpainted cabinet doors that sagged inward under pressure. I could feel my wallet in my pocket, reassuringly thick. 
Connie hopped off the table and knelt just in front of me, face at an angle, examining. “Thomas is such a good choice, very resonant,” she said. “It was the Jefferson Administration that sent Lewis & Clark all the way out here, and can I tell you some shit about Lewis & Clark. That’s all they ever taught us in history class here. Fourth grade: time for the Lewis & Clark unit. Fifth grade: time for the field trip to the hole in the ground where Lewis & Clark boiled sea water for salt. America’s most stultifying historical site. Sophomore year—let’s debate colonialism through the lens of Lewis & Clark. I got to hear the pronunciation of ‘Sacagewea’ change year by year. Always pouring rain out the window during those discussions, as I recall. So for sense of place, Tom is best of the bunch. I told you about fore ordainment. It’s all happening. I told them it would. Comes word there’s a new guy at the bar. Somehow the bank keeps coming up in conversation. Like he’s circling back to it and back to it. Who’s got such an interest in small-town financial services? I read newspapers, Thomas—at the convenience store, we get them all from around here, from points north and south. Don’t need to be a genius to pick out a chain of events. Read a few stories over a few months and they start to rhyme. Do you wait around for the next day’s edition, or wander on down and see what’s to be done?”
Connie touched me then. She ran a finger from my hairline down the center of my forehead, down the bridge of my nose to the tip. After that, I was out.
The wall phone rang three different times—I think three times, each series of peals cut short—before I opened my eyes. Cold wind through the open door finally bothered me awake. I was still sitting on my wallet and it felt the same; I was still sitting against the closed cabinets, barricading them. The first straight sentence in mind concerned approximately $10,000 I’d shoved in there when we moved into the apartment. 
The second thing I thought about was the bedroom at Mark’s house, and the suitcases on the bed, half-packed. 
The sky was slate and fine rain drifted. I could tell it was still early. It was probably 52 degrees in that kitchen, the windows fogged over. The linoleum was wet, criss-crossed with muddy footmarks. Every other cabinet and drawer was open—one drawer was on the floor under the table, forks and spoons and butter knives sprayed around it in the muck. I knew before seeing that every closet door, cupboard and clothes dresser and every possible thing in the bathroom would also be open. I stood up, fell back down again, then stood up in more orderly, careful fashion—assembling myself. I smelled like sweat and campfire, with a rancid undernote. 
I heard fleshy snoring from the bedroom off a short corridor. Dwight was in there, vast across the bed, wearing nothing but his tightly cut underwear, wheezing and gurgling. I mindlessly thought: Dwight should see a doctor. I stood very still and didn’t hear any other human sounds. A few duffel bags, like the one Teddy used for his tools, were unzipped and empty on the floor. I stepped precisely over to Dwight’s large baseball-style jacket, hanging on a bedpost, and checked the pockets. I found the key to our latest car wrapped in a one-dollar bill. I wondered if I could remember where the car was parked. 
In the kitchen, I got in beneath the sink and scooped that pile of money, which was like shuffling three decks of cards at once, into one of the duffel bags. The refrigerator and freezer both stood wide open, refrigerator light flickering, and I no longer liked the look of the breakfast supplies. I moved to the apartment’s front room, which held a random set of furniture. Sofa cushions scattered around, slashed open across their middles; a dark wood side table stood upside down with its drawer, too, pulled loose and emptied. I patrolled around the room’s perimeter and peered under things, looking for money, though I predicted there would be none, and I was correct.
I ended at the window, edging my face around the ratty orange curtain. The canal looked like a black band stretched straight and long, town lurking low behind it, the beach somewhere beyond. The swan-shaped boat was adrift, just in front of the bar. Abe was in the boat, spreadeagled, shirt unbuttoned, shoeless food splayed to the side, almost in the water. I watched him for a slow minute. I was pretty sure he was still alive.

Zach Dundas is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. He's a co-producer of the crime/history podcast Death in the West, editorial director for Wildsam and the author of The Great Detective, a cultural history of Sherlock Holmes. Instagram @zachdundas.


Popular Posts