So I only noticed that the door to my tattoo shop had been kicked in after I put the key in the lock. I slid the key into the cylinder and twisted it, but the door didn’t move. Through the tunnel of a receding hangover, I saw that the frame had been cracked near the lock, but the door hadn’t quite been kicked open. I pulled away in surprise, the blood receding to the back of my head, and looked around. A shard of the door frame lay on the ground, cleanly broken away. The glass next to the lock was undamaged. It was too early for this shit.
A black and green lamppost, tall with chipped paint, across from Bryant Park, in front of a classic brown and gold twelve storied building, the wind reeking of the park’s dead yellow grass, cigarette smoke, automobile exhaust and blood. Hanging from the lamppost is a half-skinned, large white male wearing only trousers, supported by ropes about his torso, legs and arms. In agony, still alive but barely. New York City is some kind of town these days. He will be dead in less than a day.
A witness mark is a groove, a dent, left by people gone before. Sometimes they’re deep, gouged, gone over so many times by people, living and reliving moments on moments. Sometimes they’re just a scratch, easily sanded away.
It was Catia’s first time waking up in a coffin. It would not be her last.
When you’re crawling in the dark towards a desperate destination you can’t drink or drug, you can’t play the guitar, the goal is to duck under the barbed wire fence, under the surveillance and arrive undetected to attain your purpose. You’re crawling with a swede saw round your neck, and you’ve driven all the way from the Rockies, a giant circle travel to this vineyard once again. To exact vengeance. You’ve filled five weeks pruning grapes for nothing, with an oral contract signed by two voices, yours and the owners. And the owner won’t pay. After three weeks, he said the job wasn’t complete. You knew it was. But you wanted the cash. So you did the extra work. Pruning the vines down to the nubs. You laboured two weeks more. And afterwards the owner sighed and said “the field must be weeded and the debris hauled away,” and you said “No. That wasn’t in the contract. I don’t have a pickup to do that”
And so, it had come to this… nothing would ever take him from his steely promise to extract, once and for all, total redemption from his old pal and teammate, Greg Lumbada, payment of the highest order, Amontillado on the instant air. So be it.
Spiel: I am tone-deaf, and as my father used to say to me, “You couldn’t hold a note in a briefcase,’ but I love music in many levels, like Sole O Mio by the great baritones, tenors,. country guitars, opera and good musicals, and was brought to this story by that drive in me for connection.
His stature, what there was of it, was the cause of it all. From a meek and mild beginning, barely making it into the world, to the inevitable and cataclysmic end.
Banjo. He was called Banjo, not because he was bow-legged (which he was and, at 5 feet 1 7/8 inches and stretching for all he was worth, quite pronounced); not because most of his life he could play without a single lesson any instrument that had strings and required picking or twanging (from balalaika to ukulele and zither); not because a lost testicle at the start of puberty had driven his voice two octaves up the scale, but because he was born of a blind mother, named by his hard-drinking, puzzle-playing, acronym-bedeviled father, raised at times of critical issues by a maiden aunt, all as Benjamin Arthur Norman Jobleski. Banjo, short for short.
His father, Joe Jobleski, pipe wrapper of the old school, a man of fists and thrust jaw, sitting at his favorite stool at the club, always remembered Banjo being born, how he came weak and wimpy into this world, the runt of the litter, scrawny, red as a tossed new penny, bony and near fleshless, fingers like Q Tips, toes like firecrackers in the gutter on the morning of the Fifth, a chicken lobster, a cull at the pound, and born of a blind woman who had not so sinned before.
“The smallest Jobleski in two centuries,” he’d often said at the Vets Bar, an empty glass never in front of him for long, where two of his older sons had already found similar and lethal tastes. It was here where nights and weekends were spent away from home, where the eyeless scourge that was his wife Mary could not penetrate the leaden and stark sanctuary of peers.
“Came like a chip of wood on that salty water, did Banjo,” he had exclaimed to his constant companion, Big Mike Shigalski. “Flushed out of the tube, riding the waves. Maybe he can go out in a blaze of glory. Huh! Maybe! Maybe not! Not enough fuel to light a lantern. A friggin’ candle. Bless Mary, she can’t see him. Held him like a doll, though, crinkly, like crepe paper. Afraid he’d break up right in her hands. His arms so puny, his legs, sticks and twigs. I was scared of holding him myself. Could lie like a pack of hamburger right in my palm. One of those special four-pound jobs, and half of it’s fat at that.”
Mike knew the way to get additional rounds, how not to cut a night right in half, how Joe Jobleski turned on his bar stool to look around the room any time one of his four other sons or his daughter Aleksa were mentioned, always seeking approval, nodding in a strange self-centered way, waiting for the odd clap on the back, the soundless clap on the back, approbation, approval in the gesture, words held back as though all in attendance understood the non-speaker, the back-slapper. It was not an emptiness about his friend that was most pronounced to Mike, but the constant dread swirling about him, a threat swinging itself, a pendulum cutting through the air. Trouble or pain waiting to happen, sharp as a knife. The dark eyes under the mass of gray eyebrows, the jaw set as stiff as an anvil back at the shop, did not allow much expression on Joe’s face. Stolid, rock-ribbed. Stubborn might have been said of him, but never to his face.
Mike looked at the hulking shoulders he knew were as powerful as his own, riding clean and confident like bareback riders on bones that would never break this side of collision.
“Can’t win them all, Joe. You got yourself a handful of giants. The boys will do you proud, you can bet on them, and Aleksa…well, no one’s ever going to screw around with her, unless she wants them to, that’s for sure.” A small laugh was punctuation, an afterthought. “Paulie, he’s going to be the best running back this town has seen since what’s-his-name went to Tech or Charlie Choo-Choo at Chapel Hill. He’s got a ton of you in him, Joe, a whole ton! It’ll break out before you know it. And Andy looms like Bronco, only a freshman at that, lots to learn. Coach says he can hardly wait on him. Knees like trip hammers. Puts his shoulders where they belong, squared away, downfield all the time, a real North-South runner. No East-West shit for him.”
“Yah!” threw in Joe, “and his baby brother won’t even be big enough to make the cheering squad.”
“You can’t win them all, Joe. You got to take something like this in stride. It’s not the end of all things Polska.”
He smiled a self-effacing smile, felt himself pandering, thought light of it, stared at the neon of the night light above the rear door blaring EXIT, the ring of redness becoming once again, as it did nightly, a mushroom of red, a blare of red that might otherwise be a trumpet of sound. He said, “Shit!” under his breath as if a decision had been made, though he knew he’d go through the same torture time and time again, sucking up.
Joe had thought about those things for a long time. Some days and evenings he would sit at the club, if Mike wasn’t around to engage him in useless conversation that always turned on one thing, and think only of how he had been cheated of another robust son. They were his pride and joy, like medallions he could wear at a minute’s notice, extensions of himself, his name now and then in print. Christ! He could feel them in his backbone. And Banjo, the tiny son, the aberration, the anomalous offspring, seeming never to leave the hands of his blind and now utterly sexless mother for the better part of five years, grew slowly and aching as the neighborhood target runt of all runts. Banjo was persecuted, dawn to dusk, hounded, driven, plagued by all those his age, and some even younger. Pinched. Kicked. Bitten. Cussed. Punched. Knocked down. Back pockets ripped wide apart so that the seam of his pants would snap and his drawers would show. No Jobleski ever came to his rescue. Never once. No Paulie or Mike or Andy or Stash. No
Aleksa either. They barely abided him, not wanting to share any of his deformity. Touching surely was sharing.
And Aleksa, secretly, down in her stolid, unyielding body, in her man-looking body, behind her deep eyes and Jobleski jaw, behind the air of nonchalance she was able to evoke at will, hated her runty brother, and absolutely, positively hated her mother for mixing up their places in her womb. She had thought, from the early days when her breasts began to fill themselves, when strange things happened within her and odd delights came sliding and slipping through her, that her mother had placed her in the wrong niche in that dark cavern, on that hidden sea, carried her in the wrong place, gave to her brother Banjo the body that was supposed to be hers. “I hate the two of them!” she would mouth deeply while in the shower, her lips curling her testament, her hands finding secrets, sources of electricity, discovering that proportion and graceful symmetry were not to be her choice attributes.
So Banjo grew, unwanted, unloved, object of utter derision, nearly cast aside from the bosom of the family, held only by the arms of his blind mother, her fingers touching, measuring, finding in the dark silence some of the same pains that the rest of the family found, and held by Aunt Stacy only when men of the house were away or Banjo would slip over to her house for a visit, for cookies, to have her rub his feet and little legs for hours on end, as if the chilblains worked in him. Stories would fall from her red dialectal mouth until he fell sleep. Dreamed about her red mouth, he did, how it was wet but vise-like the way it held the bare tip of a cigarette for hours on end, dangling, bringing now and then of a smile the final curve to her lips.
Plague is a word and a condition that is long apart from us, long apart from Jobleski and the tenor of their times. Except for Banjo. Somewhere in his sixth year, the runt, the family failure, the blot on their fair horizon, tired of the pounding, tired of the smashing, tired of the soreness almost a permanent part of his body, began to hit back.
Oh, Lord! Banjo began to kick. Began to punch. Began to stand against the armory that gathered in all the other Jobleskis. He fought tooth and nail their fingers in his ribs, their knocking-rapping fists on his skull, their aimless but aggregate punishment, their name-calling and diatribes, the jokes about Tom Thumbs and little peckers and dwarfs and pygmies and midgets and half-grown jockeys, the incredible allusions to the blind woman who had carried and delivered him, the distances they tried to put between themselves and him, the endless assault against kin.
More than once he believed himself kinless, stray, urchin, orphan. But rising in his small and abject frame, like it did in cubs or pups coming eventually of age, predators at length at their appointed places, came courage and ingenuity and a will to survive that belied such territory.
Paulie: The first time you put your dick in, kid, you’re going to fall right through. Balls out you’re going, right on through. They’ll be looking for you for a month of Sundays and nobody in high heaven will be able to find you. Don’t let go, Banjo. Don’t ever let go the last cunt hair you grab onto because it might be the last lifesaver you’ll ever know. If you go down that long tunnel, kid, you’ll never come back. What the hell would we do without you? Why we’d be friggin’ lost. That’s where we’d be. No more friggin’ punching bag, no more little shit of shits to make our days. You can count on that. We’d be lost without you. Can you imagine it, the runt adrift on a cunt hair and never seen again!
A rock the size of a baseball suddenly off Paulie’s head. A knob just as big coming along shortly thereafter. Another rock and another hit and Banjo escaping under a fence, his route secret and sacred and plotted well in advance. He’d show them a thing or two. He’d bust balls or die trying. Pursuit would be over in minutes, he knew. They could never catch him, never go the places he went, never put themselves through the smallest slot or space where only light had gone before him. And under Aunt Stacy’s rear porch, tight up against the decking, he slipped into and through the smallest fissure of all, letting himself into a sanctuary of stone that no man had entered since it was sealed for structural safety. A root cellar long passed over and forgotten, buried under the addition of the wide screened porch. His Shangri-La. His oasis. Twenty-one square feet of bliss and darkness.
When he slipped down to the familiar floor, felt his secrets and collectibles, touched the skins of their miniature bodies, inhaled their steep and lovely aromas he had refined with sprays and perfumes stolen from innumerable sources, when in that darkness he could almost see the eyes of each one of the dolls, he said his prayer, as if it were an entry code, curse of passwords: When the time comes, when the whole wide world knows the great Jobleski brothers are just doll collectors, they’ll shit their Jobleski pants from one end of town to the other. I’ll see to that. I’ll show ‘em!
Andy: Let me settle it right up front, kid. Something is out of whack here, way out of line, like the milkman coming up the steps when he should have been going out with the empties. Fell on the old dame on that friggin’ couch and she never knew the difference, milkman or drunk at prongin’, makes no never mind to the blind except in the final counting. Could probably tell the difference in your bone structure or fingerprints. If you ever get the red-eye, why, we’ll know for damn sure! Christ, he used to look at me sometimes and I thought he was going to set me on fire. Hated empties that were dirty, cluttered with white sop and stinking with sour milk. Hated to stoop when any one of us was within fifty feet of him, the lazy bastard! Hated every goddamn one of us! Hated every Polack this side of Warsaw, and them there just as much. Just a shanty Irish bastard with the awful red eye who you might be looking back on one good day like you owe him special. Rootstock from the grand island of eternal sotted souls, and all that diminutive crap that goes with little people. For that’s just what you are, one of the fuckin’ little people only drunks own up to!
Andy’s creamy white, almost delicate Ford hard-top, shiny, sun-catching, spit-polished like the elite in military circles, chromed grille sole residue of a Packard nobody had seen in thirty years, suddenly sitting on four flat tires, a dead chicken floating above the front seat with his neck still twisted in that final knot, a slowly running hose caught up by a rear window tight against the upper edge and yet pouring a second cubic yard of water into that yawning cavern.
Stash: You were probably adopted and she didn’t have the heart to tell you, once you began to grow—or not grow, fact is. Never told one of us either. Was her painkiller, you were, her mighty small aspirin, killjoy, all in one. When you bleed, the blood’s not the same. Take it from me!
Stash’s card collection withered: Ted Williams’ card, the Splendid Splinter, Terrible Teddy, .406 and balls out for the batting title like nobody else in the whole world would have dared, went in one hurry to fifty pieces if one, like Chipper’s rookie card. Stan Musial and Red Schoendeinst, teammates, glued together upside down as if they had been having fun in the back of the locker room. Even in that pose, no longer of prime value. No longer pristine. No longer neutral in the Polish community all around the Jobleskis, and a forevermore different. Potato Man Yaz, Red Sox’s Yaz’s card split up the gut. Whitey Ford, rookie card, face of a newborn, gutted dead center. Frankie Sinkwich gone forever.
Aleksa: She cheated you and she cheated me. You could have had these arms, these shoulders, these wrists born for swinging, for driving balls to dead center on a line. I could have been you and you could have been me, but no way was she going to do that, so we’re stuck, me here in this weight lifter’s garb and you there in your pygmy pants. We’re going to be locked up here forever and she’ll have a last dream of us as we might have been. If we count our blessings, we’ll be in the minus column, and you know it as well as me. She played a rotten goddamn trick on us!
Run up on the flag pole, standing like a singular white birch of lonely beauty in the front yard of the Jobleskis house of odd additions and strange angles, for all the world to see on the following morning, was just about every unmentionable Aleksa’s chest of drawers would yield. Slapping in the breeze were assorted bras, black to flesh colored, pockets turned out to the wind, stringed, wired, strapped, all making as much noise as the underdrawers and panties and plain old fashioned snuggies that lay straight out on the taut rope. Body messages. They talked on the wind. They spilled secrets. Body remnants. Portions of her loose on the world. Cups filling now and then with masses of air. Bloomers for bare seconds stuffed with the shape of her more-than-ample ass, all the odors gone, all the aromas tossed freely to clouds and other spirits of the air, discolorations and other stains still hard in some crotches.
Burning clean out of her skin, cursing at the top of her lungs the language stolen from the backroom of the PAMVETS, pounding up and down stairs and in and out of each room of the house, she sought her runty brother. “I’ll kill that goddamn runt, that little shit poke. I’ll kill the little bastard! If anyone gets in my way, he gets it, too!”
Banjo, of course, had long since departed, slipping out of the house just before 2 A.M. as quietly as he had slipped into her room, rifling her secrets, and slipping just as noiselessly into Aunt Stacy’s unknown sanctuary, hiding a pair of autographed panties, Aleksa indeed would kill for, in a pocket of fieldstone.
Banjo thought about his loot and his articles of revenge often enough, how to widen his collection, how to strike the deadliest blow. But he always stayed away from the football trophies of his brothers, a mass of gold and silver and mahogany wood adorned with running backs and stretching ends and bruising tackles at deadly mission. These mementos would, he knew, be the most fitting salute of all. None of his family could ever approach his thoughts, his calculations, his absolute deviltry. Every punch, every kick, every slap had its due. It was all coming around again. What goes around comes around. It made him smile a small smile. Disparity in life can be ennobled.
In the dark hideaway he slept peacefully.
He slept there many times over the next few years, there, or upstairs in the house with Aunt Stacy who loved to have him over. She couldn’t stand the others, even Aleksa, at least not for very long. She found them too cruel and too boring and, in spite of their obvious strengths, to be too weak at will. The first ally of Banjo would have been this quiet woman who wore a little too much rouge, a lipstick perhaps two shades too dark for her face, the clothes of a woman who had no one man to live up to, to please, but delighted in many acquaintances.
That she loved Banjo was important to her and to her blind sister. One was a springboard and one was a sounding board, and at the core of their relationship they had made the puny little boy becoming a puny little man the secret of their existence. They did not live for each other, but for him. And when Mary died in her sleep one night as Banjo was approaching his sixteenth birthday, him still plagued, still persecuted, still a virgin and the lone one in the family, Aunt Stacy was impetuously proud of his survival, all the facets of it. “That little man of mine,” she would say to herself, “will outlast all of them.” And in the periphery of her hearing, at the edges of her memory, all the castigation and curses they had hurled down upon him came back to her with incredulous clarity. Too often the broad-shouldered, big-armed, thick-skulled hulks had centered their attacks on Banjo’s male equipment: His dick’s so small any chick’d say he had no visitation rights…even after he had been there! D’ja see the size of his balls? Like peas they are, or IT is, the last ball remaining from the master set. Pea-Ball is what we shoulda called him, or Pea-Balls Minus One, or Pendulum Without Affair, or Who Gives A Shit Anyway!
They had all laughed and back-slapped and hoisted off another drink, and Stacy, in her cool aura, not batting an eyelash over her rouged cheeks, managed a slow interior laugh and said under her breath, “Watch your ass, Stash. Remember what happened last time!”
Two days after Mary was buried, Banjo sat in front of the library thinking about his mother, how horrible the funeral had been, how much crap and derision was still tossed in the air by the whole family, as if she had been a simple hired hand, a maid servant, a ball of lint which had just blown through their lives. Her hands had been soft and warm and the tears on her cheeks were forever pearl full of special light, and none of them ever could tell him that his mother’s eyes were lifeless. The pearled tears were special, jewels they’d never seen, but he would carry them always—he’d even carry them in the growing and continually fermenting hunger and desire to bring to his siblings the ultimate pain.
Inside the library he saw the tall blonde sitting off in a corner. She had been there before, at the same table, a little lax about how her dress rode up on her thighs, long and valley-like, a summons, the mystery of her crotch seeming to call out to him. He prayed she would not cross her legs, and took a seat with the surest tunnel of vision possible. Black or purple panties, he decided. Black or purple. His favorite colors. Now and forever. Every so often a squeeze of one thigh or the other, or both in concert, and the dark image would narrow, gap down, slink, like a wondrous eye winking at him. Back to him came a choice reading and some author he’d never remember, talking about The Seven Cities of Cibola, or The Mound of Venus, or the graffiti he’d seen on a wall once, When you come right down to it, guys, there’s nothing like cunt. He lay the Atlas of the whole United Sates of America and all its territories over his lap to hide his erection, and liked himself at that particular moment because he’d never allow any of his brothers’ or father’s aspersions about penis or testicle, or lack of, or the small bunch of his ass to come back tauntingly upon him. He could now cast them over the side as if he were throwing out an anchor in the middle of the river,
Intent on that long vision, driving his eyes past the faint barrier that lay at the end, purple or black it didn’t matter now, he flinched when her white thighs locked up completely, then opened slowly, oh ever so slowly, like the drawbridge over the river when a grand yacht was heading out to the lake. A pair of deep green-gray eyes was staring at him. In his chest he caught more than an ounce of breath. The erection might sound out a warning alarm. It came up so hard against, he guessed, South Dakota. That made him smile, and that smile, South Dakota and all, made its way across the room to the warmest reception this side of Aunt Stacy. She didn’t move her legs again. The thighs stayed white. Her look was soft and appealing. His erection burned. The book in her hand was raised so that he could see the title, DREAMS WE DON’T UNDERSTAND. A light went on at the back of his head and it brought another dimension of smile to his face. A smile, a wider smile, came back to him. He thought his pecker was going to explode; there’d be a Minuteman Missile going up from one of the silos near Bismarck or Lincoln, whichever one of those cities belonged in South Dakota. He could never remember. He’d never forget this smile coming across the silence of the library, across the deep red rugs, moving its aura on air already filled with aura. Nor would he ever forget the most personal signature ever sent his way.
Outside, in ten minutes, they found that their fathers had named each of them with some deviltry, or rancor, for unknown reasons. Banjo was explained, and she was Eloise Abelard, a joke of her father’s, she was sure. “My mother cut him off at three months of her pregnancy and I think it was his way of getting back at her with sarcasm if nothing else. I don’t think they ever slept together again, each going at the other in their own way. I didn’t like growing up.”
“So here you are talking to the smallest guy in the library, on the street, in the whole town practically, maybe even this side of South Dakota.” He looked at her with clear eyes.
“What’s that mean?”
He told her. She laughed as he had heard no one ever laugh, throaty, honest, without any crap or flip in it, no phoniness, just plain laugh. It had fur on it. It warmed him. He told her. She said that she had seen him before, had seen him looking up her dress, had been warmed by it, flushed but warm.
“You have the whitest thighs in the whole world. I can play anything with strings.” His eyes were so clear she could have been startled. She should have been startled. Clarity is precious, she thought. So much in her life had not been clear, but this was special. She had a vision of what his life must have been like. Pain came on her. It was in his aura and she felt it. But he didn’t bring any of it to hurt her. He came at her clean and clear, out of crystal. The real pain was disparate, separate.
“Your eyes say you’ll never lie to me.” Her hand was in his. “You’ve music hands.”
They saw each other just about every other day, at the library, at the edge of the river, back on the hill out behind the Evert’s Florist Shop and flower gardens. He kept her away from the Jobleskis. She kept him by her side. They had their intentions. She was seventeen. He was sixteen. She was 5’ 6’’. He was 5’1 & 7/8″ stretched out, proud, not minding his height for the first time, not sworn to revenge, not filled with plans for coping and getting even for the constant transgressions.
One day, just about at the top of the hill after a slow meandering walk, a faint mist cutting across the sunset, a bird calling uphill, smell of new grass making them heady, she took his hand and put it on her breast. “I’ve been dying for you to touch me,” she said. “I’ve been practicing on myself, but it’s not like this. I like this. Here,” she gestured, “go underneath. Touch my nipple.” She took his hand with her hand, fire must have been at it, and slipped it inside her bra. “Be easy.” Her lashes came down over her eyes. Mouth open. Lips red as a forgotten sunset. Moist. Shiny. A breath catching itself in her throat. If she told an absolute outright lie, he’d believe her until the very end of the world came throbbing under them.
“I love you, Eloise.”
She laughed a little laugh, her chin shaking lightly, and said, “Maybe tomorrow we’ll get to Louisiana.”
Both of them laughed long and loud, tears in their eyes. He saw his mother’s tears on Eloise’s cheeks. True crystal. Gems. Life! He took his hand away from her risen nipple, which had stayed against his palm as certain as a nail halfway through its job. The bird called back up the hill waiting for an answer. Grass continued to be cut somewhere over the hill. Any pain in the world he could stand. He had come this far in life and it had all been worth it. Clear across the library again he saw her white thighs. Perhaps he might tell Aunt Stacy about her. Maybe he wouldn’t. Maybe she was just for him forever. A bird answered. More cut grass news came on the wind. Fuck Stash and Andy and Mike and Paulie! Even fuck Aleksa! Fuck the old man!
Now, his world was different.
A week later, all the Jobleskis but Banjo at the Flag Day picnic in the Vet’s grove beside the river, Eloise and Banjo slipped through the back door of the house.
“They’re all gone, Benjy?” She looked around and felt the pain flowing about her. An old wound rode about in the air, a cry. “Why did we come here, Benjy?”
“I wanted it to be here because of my mother. You remind me of my mother. Your hands are so warm.” He took her down to the den. She saw shelves so heavy with trophies they made her eyes blink. Gold and silver and stained wood and colored enamels and plastic inserts and the family name repeated endlessly, and a great variety of athletes in poses cast in cheap metal. None of them, she knew, were Benjy’s. There would be justice, she thought.
Laying back on the couch, almost giddy, loving the daring he placed them in, the idea of sharing consuming her, her legs out in front of her, longer than they had ever been, she said, “Benjy, put your hand under my panties. Go easy. I’ll tell you what I like. You tell me what you like.” His fingers felt the thick hair, then softness, then mystery, then depth, then more mystery, then a little knob she introduced him to, then more moisture than he had dreamed. He kissed her and her mouth opened like Ali Baba’s cave. “We’re going to call this Going to Louisiana. But don’t laugh and don’t stop what you’re doing, and a little harder and a little faster if you want, and if you like it.”
And his mind was going to explode and every pain he ever felt in his life was long gone and her legs opened wider and he saw all that whiteness and his mouth was dry and he couldn’t swallow.
Then he heard the funny sound, from another room, and raised a finger to his lips, and moved away from her and slipped quietly from the room. The hand that clapped over his mouth, the arm that squeezed his body as hard as a vise, the other hand that slammed
under his crotch and lifted him a meek feather into the air, had to be a Jobleski arm. He could not see, but he could smell a Jobleski. His voice was stuffed back into his mouth and he was carried from the house.
“Old Pea-Balls, you’re going under cover.” It was Stash and a fist hit him on the side of the head. He was being carried over one hip like a frigging rag doll. Hatred surged and seethed in him. The whole coming scene ran through his mind in a mere second, then he was slammed into the trunk of Stash’s car and the trunk door slammed down on top of him. Buzzing ran through his head. Darkness clawed its way into his eyeballs. “You, prick!” He screamed, “I’ll kill you. I’ll kill you, you rotten son of a bitch!” But he didn’t scream for long or hate for long or waste his time for long because Eloise was out there with him. He had to get out.
Stash, with quickness, perhaps expertness, had surprised Eloise. Had pinned her down on the couch where her dress was still up over her hips. “So, you were going to screw the midget, huh? I’ll show you what a real piece is, honey baby. A real piece.” He tore her pants off in one stroke. “You scream and I’ll kill that little shrimp. You got it? And you’re going to do some other tricks, too. Tricks I bet he never knew anything about.”
“Please don’t do this.” She didn’t want to scream. His hand was down there in Louisiana and a shudder went through her body. He began to explore slowly with that hand. His mouth came down over hers, yawning and wet and full of booze residue. She didn’t know what it was but knew she would remember the smell of it all her life.
She didn’t hear any sound. She only felt the abrupt and violent shudder that went through her attacker. Then he went limp on her, all his weight against her the way she had dreamed a thousand times, a thousand touches, a thousand reaches in classrooms, at the kitchen table, even in church. And Banjo stood over the two of them with a baseball bat in his hand and the ugly echo of provoked flesh and bone still sounding in the room.
They walked out of the house, past the car with one rear door open and the back of the rear seat pushed away from the clips that had held it in place. He did not say a word, just kept moving her away from the house, and the hatred and the seething and the mechanics of revenge fully operational in him.
That night, high on the hill, after he had entered her at her request, after she had argued with him for hours and moved his hands on her body and touched him as he had never been touched, they made plans to leave town. They’d go to a cousin of hers more than two hundred miles away. They’d never come back. They’d be together forever.
Later, Banjo thought long and hard down in his dark retreat, Aunt Stacy overhead telling company how much she liked her sex and what parts she liked the most. He thought about Eloise and then about a TV show on the wild dogs of Africa and how the runt of a litter had been given the hardest time of all and had finally walked away and died, the broad savanna flung out beyond the fallen body like space beyond a star. The image crushed him. The sadness of it all came over him with an extraordinary force, as whole episodes of his life came flooding back through the tight quarters of the old root cellar. And out of the clear blue sky came a vision of one of the old Minuteman missiles deployed across the north Central States, their huge silos extending like inverted skyscrapers down into all of Mother Earth, peckers screwing the old dame for all she was worth.
The clarity Eloise had seen in his eyes was in his head; he saw everything he wanted to see, needed to see, how all of it would come to pass. And on the Fourth of July to boot! In salute of everything grand and beautiful and majestic from sea to shining sea.
Remaining out of sight while any Jobleski was at home, he came back to the house on days only when it was empty, all of them at work or at school or practice for one team or another. He loosened the metal cover that had been placed over the old well in the back yard, the well Paulie had fallen into one day and would have drowned if Aleksa had not screamed the alarm. Making trip after trip, he lowered his special equipment and supplies into the well, cans and other containers of every odd description, all without covers, supporting everything by ropes from the flanged bar across the opening and just under the metal cover. Working assiduously, without help from any quarter, much as his life had been spent except for his mother and Aunt Stacy in the occasional breach, Banjo Jobleski primed the engines of revenge.
They had all gone to the Vet’s grove for the Fourth of July picnic and beer blast, Joe the father, stalwart daughter Aleksa and sons Paulie, Andy, Mike and Stash, still wearing from a mysterious source the ugliest of bruises and swelling. He could have been hit by a car or lightning. Nobody knew and Stash wasn’t telling. Somehow, most everybody who had known the Jobleskis over the years realized that inexplicable causes and happenings could be attributed without failure to one Benjamin Arthur Norman Jobleski, shrimp, midget, pygmy, dwarf, Peckerless, Pea-Ball, Shit Poke, ad infinitum, though such attributes were not openly discussed near Jobleski muscle.
So, while the beer flowed and prowess was being heaved on the air and broad backs were being clapped and slapped and a hundred hands would be run up under a hundred skirts even before dusk fell, Banjo came out of the vast savanna he had retreated to and went about his work.
All the trophies, every last one of them, collected from the den and sundry bedrooms and out of closets and eventually from the cellar, like a rich vein had been found, were placed in the living room. Every bra and pair of underpants that Aleksa owned, except those that she was wearing at the picnic, were draped over and around the aggregate trophies, as if a window decorator had been employed. Next came from hidden places about the house every smashed instrument from which he had once extracted music, the clutter of ruin, the remnants made by Jobleski boots, the denial of dreams. Finally, deferring to age and for no other reason, the old man’s collection of anagrams and puzzles and acrostics and acronyms were placed across the front of the exhibit. Banjo looked down at odd papers
and read the acronyms the old gent had come up with for a variety of causes: ROMEO’s, for the older guys who gathered each Tuesday morning for breakfast at Sarah’s Diner, Retired Old Men Eating Out; ABRACADABRA, still a mystery, but not worth spending these last minutes on: BANJO in letters as broad and stolid as any he had ever seen, now faded and diminished on what was most likely the original paper, a memento of rancor saved for history. He thought of his mother’s tears and how he’d never know the full extent of her pain, because all her pain must have been much more than his. After all, he had survived, hadn’t he?
Outside, leaving the house for the very last time in his life, he walked all around the edge of the building, another one of the large cans tipped on his hip. He used a number of them, tossing the empties and near empties down in the well, careful not to hit any of his hidden assets still hanging by ropes. He took another piece of rope from another full can and laid it out from the house and played the other end down into the depths of the well. The crude metal cover was put back on top of the well and bolted down, drawing down the four nuts with a ratchet wrench. The wrench gleamed its stainless-steel brilliance on the rust-colored cover when he placed it perfunctorily on top. It was odd how the wrench caught in gleaming silver the last of the sun, as if it meant to hold on to the day for as long as it could. He hummed to himself. Memorialized. Memorable day. Fourth of July. Sea to shining sea. The Fat Lady singing. Sousa. Cohan. Kelley. Cagney. Connaughton Kate. Benjamin Arthur Norman Jobleski. The world, amen.
From a pod of dolls, as if they were swimming atop one another in boxes, arms out, legs back, heads down, he took one at a time those he had long collected and hung them in trees and scattered them as shot residue on Jobleski ground for all the world to see; Barbie dolls and cry baby dolls and Ken dolls and wetting dolls and sucking dolls and ballicky dolls, every one that had ever fallen under his hand for reasons he never knew and only now fully understood. Then, cool and collected and without any remorse at all, the tears gone, the pain gone, he knelt and flipped a switch on a device he had rigged and walked off into the broad savanna, off into that space beyond the star.
He was walking away from the whole brood!
On his own two legs, and walking away.
That other runt dog of the TV had walked a short way into that endless space and staggered and finally fallen on his side. There had been no ceremony. No yapping. No sniffing or final licks from any of the others. But he was walking away, all the way across that broad savanna. The pearls on his mother’s cheeks came back to him abruptly, then disappeared forever.
Benjy Jobleski and Eloise Abelard were two miles away, getting a ride from a salesman on his way to Harrisburg, when over the hill behind them, back toward town, a redness of fire filled the evening sky with a sudden clarity, and Banjo’s wondrous collection of
gasoline and cans and metals of every sort, and odd cases of shotgun shells and bullets and an uncounted number of stolen sticks of dynamite, and old powder wrappings and odd combustibles and exquisite fire and conflagration itself and dozens of the most special trophies of all that his brothers had been awarded, went absolutely haywire in his own Minuteman Missile silo and shot straight up from the precincts of hell.
He promised to keep me safe.
A promise that turned out to be total and complete bullshit. Brent also vowed to be faithful, stick around in sickness and health and a bunch of other things that went by the wayside the moment he decided to tell me about his ridiculous, “mid-life crisis” indiscretion.
“Your limbs grow weary, and the inn’s still far. Rest here. No need to punish your faithful and pleading flesh. Rest a moment, only a moment, and then proceed with new vigor and greater speed.”
“Foul specter, hush, quiet your insinuations and temptations. The inn’s fifteen easy minutes on a good road, and dusk stirs; the sun lowers, and your kind will be about soon. Still, still, it’s too soon to vacate your gloomy tomb.”
When I was young I had dreams. Lots of them. I would be a famous artist—struck with genius, creative, unique. Or maybe an inventor—ground-breaking innovations that would change the world as we know it forever. A brilliant scientist—discovering cures for the most devastating illnesses known to men, or decoding the last secrets on earth. Celebrated, respected and admired throughout.
The fork in the display case glinted under the lights. It rested on a shiny black plastic podium, and impaled on its tines was what appeared to be a human finger. He was pleased with the finger and gave a grunt of satisfaction. It was his own finger, pinkie of the left hand, plaster cast thereof. Title of work: give/take/eat. Listed in the catalogue as item no. 17, price £6,000.