As the crowd started to disperse
it began to rain. Not the kind of hard driving rain that cleanses the air, the sidewalks,
and the soul. Nor a light steady drizzle that lays down a rhythm so insistent and
insidious it sends the mind into an extended alpha state. No, this was a mist so fine it
seemed to hang in the air like an invisible curtain, a mist you could walk through for
miles without getting wet, a mist only a weatherman would have the nerve to call rain.
This rain was so impotent it wasn't even capable of changing anyone's mood; not those who
are usually cheered by a good rain, nor those who find it depressing. The only effect it
did have was that everyone went right home and stayed there. Well, most everyone.
Johnny Kasouska sat in a
cell at the police station, shuttling packs of cigarettes around the top of his bed like a
nicotine shell game. He'd been questioned by what seemed to be every cop within a 200 mile
radius, each asking the same questions, then nodding and scribbling notes as Johnny gave
each of them the exact same answers. Only two of them, both rookie detectives who would
all too soon lose their naive zeal, showed any real interest in the thefts; the rest of
the cops thought Johnny was at least as much a petty nuisance as were his crimes.
The ritual worked like this: each
time a new cop joined Johnny in the clean, soundproof interrogation room, Johnny asked for
a cigarette. Thanks to a recent police training seminar entitled "Holistic Techniques
of Interrogation" where they learned a supposedly new ploy which the old-timers used
to call "buying shit from the asshole with no money down", each cop handed
Johnny a brand new unopened pack of Marlboros in response. Someone at the station must
have been holding stock in Philip Morris.
By the time Johnny was taken back
to his cell he had fourteen packs of cigarettes. He got two more when the Mayor, who had
no trouble recognizing a political opportunity when his aide pointed one out, came to
"So what made you turn
yourself in?" the Mayor asked.
"I didnt." Johnny
told him. "I was arrested."
The Mayor thought about this for
a moment. "Its for the best, son," he said. "Its definitely for
On the way out of the police
station, it took all the willpower the Mayor could muster not to ask about the police
officer who was sleeping in the cell next to Johnny's. The Mayor learned a long time ago
that ignorance isn't just bliss, it's a political necessity.
* * * * * *
The police officer in the cell
next to Johnnys was Milo Jenkins. While it wasn't unusual for him to be in a jail
cellhe was, after all, a member of the police forceon this particular night he
was laying on the upper bunk, fast asleep.
It seems the detective
divisionthe men at the rally wearing the beige trenchcoatstook Johnny in and
booked him before Jenkins and his task force even had a chance to question him. After all
his hard work on the case, Jenkins was pissed that the tecs sucked up what was rightfully
his glory. He wound up in the Moonlight Lounge downing double peppermint schnapps shooters
and telling anyone who would listen that his legwork was what led to Johnny's arrest in
spite of the fact that the showboat detectives were taking all the credit. He'd very
nearly run out of convenient earstruly sympathetic ones being virtually nonexistent
and, for that matter, decidedly too lofty a criterionwhen he found himself
recounting the day's events for a pretty young woman.
After two more shooters, bringing
his total intake for the evening to a whopping nine, Jenkins escorted the underage Candy
Warsh to his car for a bit of back seat bliss. By the time Candy's mother and the two
uniformed patrolmen peered in the car window, Candy had long tired of trying to
resuscitate Jenkins' alcohol drenched limpness and was busy painting her toenails with
Revlon Dusty Cinnamon Pearlescent Enamel while Jenkins snored soundly.
Without any fanfare, or charges
placed, the patrolmen deposited Jenkins in the holding cell for safe keeping. And
* * * * * *
The Turk felt mixed emotions as
he watched the police handcuff Johnny and take him to the station. On the one hand he was
extremely proud of his mentor, shackled by case-hardened steel and accompanied by a highly
protective phalanx in matching trenchcoats. Yet at the same time he was jealous, for he
would have liked nothing better than to have been cuffed and manhandled in front of
thousands of people along with his friend.
"Tell my mother I wont
be home for breakfast," were Johnny's last words before they hauled him away.
God, he was cool!
Walking home in the mist, the
Turk passed the Our Lady of Ransom Church when a 240-volt surge of long lost Catholic
guilt shot through his left side, forcing him to stagger to his right, which happened to
be in the direction of the church. Without realizing what he was doing, he walked up the
long flight of well worn stone steps, entered the church, climbed to the choir loft, and
sat on the first pew.
Directly beneath him was the
confessional. Leaning over the railing, he could hear two hushed, yet distinct voices
rising from the lattice-roofed booth. One, of course, was Father Sturdevant, who from time
to time said a few well chosen words in his most reverent tone. Most of the talking,
however, was being done by a young girl with a very distinctive hiccuping giggle in her
voice. It didn't take an expert in linguistics to know it was Diana Perkins.
As the Turk strained to listen,
he heard Diana tell the priest how she had lied to her mother, stolen a small box of
super-absorbent Tampons from the drug store, cheated on a biology test, and hiked her
skirt up during class on days when she wasn't wearing underwear just to drive Job and the
other boys crazy. The Turk rubbed his enlarging crotch, fully aware that masturbating in
church had to be a mortal sin but not caring. This was too good for words.
* * * * * *
Jackson Robert, who spent the
rally standing at the side of the stage ostensibly offering silent support to his wife
while actually tuning out the whole thing, decided it would be a good idea to hold a
victory celebration, and what better way to celebrate than with ice cream. On the way home
he stopped off at Brunkie's, where he bought a quart of hand-packed rum raisin, banana
chocolate chip, butter brickle, and heavenly hash. Heavy on the butter brickle.
On the way home, he became
intrigued by a brand new Chrysler LeBaron he was following down Broad Street, for it
wasn't every day one saw two men wearing full beards and turbans riding around town.
Especially in a brand new convertible. On the rear was a bumper sticker which read:
Just as Jackson Robert
spotted the bumper sticker, the car stopped for a red light, something Jackson Robert
failed to do until he plowed into the rear of the LeBaron. When he finally got home it was
with a car in need of $665 worth of body work, a quart of melted mud ice cream, an empty
house, and a hammering urge to clean the house from top to bottom. Which, of course, he
* * * * * *
No matter how he looked at it,
Jet left the rally with mixed feelings. On the one hand he felt bad for Johnny, who was
spending the night in a chilly jail cell for crimes he didnt commitwell,
definitely not all of them, anywaythough Jet knew he was actually doing Johnny a
favor by helping build his resume. He felt a little sorry for himself, since the rally
ended up being quite the unsocial event, having spent the entire evening looking for
friends without ever coming across the first one. But most of all he felt bad for his
mother and Jem Marconi, for after all the planning and hard work their first venture into
political activism was cut short by an unexpected case of premature victory.
"Well, youve got to
face lifes frustrations," Jet thought as he walked down Broad Street near
Cordins Jewelry Store.
Old Man Cordin was locking the
front door at the same time a carpenter was putting his tool box in the back of a pickup
truck. The carpenter had spent the last couple of hours repairing the shelves in the
window display, the same shelves Cordin had battered when he took his tumble while showing
Jem Marconi the ukeleleor was it a guitar?charm.
The carpenter drove off in one
direction, Old Man Cordin and his wife drove off in another, all of them happy with the
work that had been done. Had they been paying more attention they would have noticed that
the carpenter, having been distracted by live news coverage of the rally on the radio,
scraped one of the new boards against the fragile, aging paint on the front window,
flaking four more letters from the sign which now read:
Watches * Rings * Go
d ou t and old *
Precious and Semi-p ious Jew s
Had Erta seen this sign, she
would have been aghast at the sacrilegiousness of it, vowing to never again shop at
Cordin's, something she hadnt done in all the years shed lived in town anyway.
Jackson Robert, on the other hand, would still be so focused on the "Semi-pious
Jews" that he wouldnt notice anything else had changed.. As Jet walked by he
thought the new version of the sign made perfect sense. God, after all, didn't keep
regular hours at Cordin's, so it would logically follow he was out. And since he had,
according to most accounts, created the heaven and earth, it would also follow that he had
to be pretty old. In human years, anyway.
When Job walked by the store
fifteen minutes later he didnt even notice the sign, for he was way too busy ogling
the massive men's silver and onyx ring in the window that he'd asked for each year at his
birthday and Christmas and still hadn't gotten, though he was consoled by the thought that
since it was still in the window no one else owned it either, a concept that could only
appeal to someone who held an eternal grudge because, try as he may, he couldn't convince
the rest of the world that the universe revolved around him.
* * * * * *
Erta spent a good twenty-five
minutes looking around the emptying parking lot for her family. Theyd come
separatelyshe rode with Jem, the boys walked, and Jackson Robert had driven
himselfbut she'd assumed they'd all ride home together. Thats why she told Jem
to go on without her.
Before the rally, she had felt
like a baby on a raft being uncontrollably dragged out to sea by a rip tide. When she
arrived and saw the crowd in the Food House parking lot she became excitedly frightened.
Standing on the stage, basking in the limelight and orating in tongues had left her
feeling wonderfully exhilarated. But when Johnny was arrested and the rally petered out,
Erta found herself standing in the parking lot feeling let down. Rally interruptus was
enough to give anyone the blues.
"That was a very inspiring
speech," a young man dressed in a navy blue suit said as he handed Erta a printed
flyer. "I think you might find this to be of interest." Erta absently took the
flyer and continued looking around.
"Were you lost?" he
"No, but I think my husband
and children are."
"Perhaps I can help,"
he said gently.
"Do you know what they look
"The lost all look
"I guess it really doesn't
matter what they look like if they're lost," Erta said, "now does it?"
"It's the found that we're
"I can't wait until my
husband and children are found," Erta said, "otherwise I may have to walk
"I'll be glad to give you a
ride," the young man said without the slightest trace of malice.
"Thanks anyway," Erta
replied, knowing she could never accept a ride from a strange man under any circumstance,
something her motherwho had drummed it into her head countless timeswould have
been delighted to hear. "I'm sure I'll find them in a minute."
"God bless you," the
man said as he turned and walked away.
Erta absently rolled the flyer
into a tube as her eyes scanned the quickly thinning crowd for a sign of her family. As
she walked past a trash can she automatically dropped the flyer on top of the spent soda
cans, crushed fried chicken boxes, and empty pints of Johnny Walker Black. As she took the
first steps of her long walk home the flyer unfurled, revealing a headline that read:
COME PRAISE THE LORD!
at an old fashioned revival
John Joseph Matthew Paul III.
LIVE AND IN PERSON!
* * * * * *
Jem made one stop on her way home
from the rally, a diversion that should have taken less than fifteen minutes but ended up
delaying her by more than two hours. She went by the Woolworth's in the small Broadlawn
Commons Shopping Center to buy a new set of easy-to-clean plastic place mats to replace
the ones her son Ralph had melted in the oven that morning. He said it was a failed school
science project but she knew it was actually in retaliation for her having issued an edict
that the lawn had to be mowed before he could go out and play.
As Jem entered the newly paved
parking lot the front wheels of her car bounced hard. She stomped on the brakes and froze,
her hands tightly gripping the steering wheel. She'd run over a body, she knew it.
Stepping on the gas and slowly inching forward, she felt the rear wheels bounce. Yes, it
was definitely a body.
Jem wondered whether she'd killed
whoever it was by running them over or whether the life had already been drained from the
body before it was thrown out of a speeding jet black car and left for her to drive over.
She rode down two aisles as she thought about this, then circled back to the spot where
she'd run over the body. She got out of her car and looked. It was a speed bump.
She got back in the car and
circled around two more times, trying to convince herself it was indeed the speed bump
she'd run over and not a lifeless corpse which had since disappeared. Feeling mildly
reassured, Jem continued through the parking lot towards Woolworth's. Suddenly the front
of the car bounced up.
Shit! Another body.
She made a left down a parking
aisle, turned left to the next one, then drove back to the scene of the accident. She
looked out her window at another speed bump. It took three more tours through the aisles
to convince herself it was in fact the speed bump she'd run over, and not some high
society matron or underworld figure.
This wasnt a new, nor even
rare, occurrence. Jem had first manifested this obsessive-compulsive trait when she was
eighteen years old, but over the years she'd been able to hide it by avoiding parking lots
and access roads that had speed bumps. The main reason she'd come to this shopping center
wasnt the Woolworthshell, she could buy plastic place mats in any of a
hundred storesit was because there were no speed bumps in the parking lot. At least
there hadn't been until two days ago when it was resurfaced.
It took Jem over two hours to get
out of the parking lot, for the more she tried to find a route that would be less likely
to include speed bumps, the more she managed to run into them, and each time she did she
had to circle around at least three times to convince herself that this time hadn't really
been an accident. When she did finally make it home, her husband asked her where she'd
been so long.
"Buying place mats,"
"Where are they?" he
"At the store," she
replied, just before running upstairs and burrowing under the covers of her bed.
* * * * * *
Rubber Boots' family left the
rally without him. They tried to get him to come along but he begged and pleaded and
whined and sweet-talked them until they decided he probably wouldn't become a crime
statistic even if he did end up walking home by himself. After all, the serial robber was
in jail, right?
Rubber Boots stayed in the Food
House parking lot because he needed to find Jet. Not because Johnny Kasouskas arrest
vindicated his theory and he wanted to play I-told-you-so, but rather because he suddenly
felt let down. While he should have been happy that the crimes were solved and life would
return to the normalcy hed been raised to believe was lifes goal, he instead
discovered a great big gaping black hole in the pit of his stomach which had until
recently been filled with excitement. Rubber Boots had no way of knowingand it's
doubtful it would have made him feel any better had he been aware of itthat
its very common for police detectives to develop the same post-apprehension
apprehension at the resolution of a lengthy major criminal case.
He wandered through the parking
lot, eyes skimming over the diminishing crowd. Wending his way to the stage area, he came
across Erta, who had no idea where either of her sons or her husband were. Rubber Boots
saw several cops standing together and wanted to ask them about Johnny, but try as he
might he just couldn't get up the nerve.
"Jet would ask them,"
he thought. "Jet does whatever he wants."
The crowd had pretty well
dispersed, except for a few vendors desperately trying to sell the last of the big foam
rubber shamrocks, small green plastic bowler hats, and brightly colored balloons shaped
liked Mickey Mouse, Santa Claus, and George Washington to the Department of Public Works
crew that was laconically sweeping the cups and cans and fried chicken boxes from the
street into the Food House parking lot where it would become Whitey Heppelwhite's problem,
not theirs. Taking a final look around, Rubber Boots shrugged his shoulders and headed for
home so he could phone Jet.
He spent most of the walk with
his hands thrust deep in his pockets, unenthusiastically kicking soda cans or anything
else that got in his way, all the while pondering the bleak prospect of life without the
break-ins. It had only been a matter of weeks, yet somehow they'd become a major part of
his life, a part that felt like it had always been there and always would.
Until they arrested Johnny, that
Rubber Boots walked across the
baseball field behind the school and through the teacher's parking lot. He was almost past
the building when he noticed an open door near the dumpsters. He crept towards the door,
back flattened against the wall, knowing that any second one of the custodians would jump
out of the open doorway screaming, "AND WHAT DO YOU WANT, YOU NOSY LITTLE
BRAT?!" sending Rubber Boots' heart into double time fibrillation while his hair
turned pure white. He stuck his head in the doorway and saw no one.
Bravely entering the school, he
tiptoed down the hall, walking as quietly as a twelve-year old is able. An empty school
building is a very scary proposition, for the uncommon silence is as beautiful as it is
unnerving. When he got to his English classroom he walked in and sat on Miss Hellstrom's
"Today class, we will
discuss whether Moby Dick is a whale of a story or whether it just opens up a whole new
can of worms."
He strolled to the blackboard and
picked up a piece of chalk, poised to write an anonymous message to Miss Hellstrom's
homeroom class. As the chalk touched the green surface Rubber Boots stopped and looked at
the chalk in his hand, then at the pieces in the tray by the board. He put the white stick
in his pocket and smiled.
* * * * * *
Hanner and her family stopped at
the bank on the way home from the rally. While the bank was closed at this hour of the
night, that carried absolutely no weight with Hannahs father. Being the president of
the Penultimate National Bank has its privilege.
Hanner usually liked going to the
bank with her father. When she was younger she used to go to work with him a couple of
times a year just to "see what Daddy does all day". Her father always said he
"supervises the overall funds management, human resources, and day-to-day banking,
mortgage, and consumer loan operations. You might say I'm the ultimate at
Penultimate." After several visits Hanner decided that what he really did was
"sit at his desk, listen to people's problems, tell them what to do, and call them
idiots when they left his office."
"That's what I've been
trying to tell her," Mr. Myana told his wife, "but she didn't want to believe
On the night of the rally the
trip to the bank was decidedly less fun.
"For once, can't we just go
home and forget about the damned bank?" Hanners mother asked.
"It'll just take a
minute," her father replied.
"Well, that's one minute too
"You seem to forget I'm the
president of the bank, and unfortunately there are times when things need to be attended
"And you seem to
forget that you have a family who wouldn't mind being attended to once in a while."
"Oh, like I haven't provided
well for the two of you?"
"That's not what I mean and
you know it."
"Honey," he said,
looking at Hanner in the rear view mirror, "do I not pay enough attention to
Hanner stared out the window. As
long as her hair was in front of her eyes she could feign ignorance and pretend she
thought her father was speaking to her mother.
Hanner considered answering, but
wasn't sure if a 'yes' would mean he did, or didn't, spend enough time with her. God, she
hated it when her father spoke in double negatives.
"Hanner, I'm talking to
"I'm sorry, Father,"
she finally said, knowing it would be a stretch of just about anyone's imagination to
think masses of hair hanging in front of her eyes would affect her ability to recognize
her own name. "Were you talking to me?"
"Never mind," he said
disgustedly. You dont become the president of a bank without knowing when to cut
Once at the bank, Hanner's father
silently walked into his office, followed closely by his huffing wife. As Hanner started
to enter the room, her mother turned suddenly, causing Hanner to walk right into her.
"Honey, would you mind
waiting outside while I talk to your father?"
Hanner instantly translated this
as "we haven't finished fighting and I'm sure you don't want to be around for the
fireworks." She was right.
Hanner climbed into the swiveling
chair at her fathers secretarys desk, first idly tapping the keys of the
computer keyboard, then banging them quietly with her fist. She could hear her parents
through the office door.
"You couldn't leave this
office for one lousy evening if your life depended on it," her mother said, her voice
rising. "If we meant half as much to you as your precious job we wouldn't be having
"We're not arguing, we're
discussing this like rational people."
arguing," her mother said. "Youre...shit, I dont know. You're not
even discussing it."
"Then what would you call
"You haven't said a damned
thing. All you do is play moderator, pretending there isn't another side in sight. Somehow
I become the bad guy because you act like I'm not even talking about you."
Hanner brushed her hair down,
making sure it covered her eyes completely. She walked away from her father's office, away
from the increasingly loud arguing. Standing in the center of the lobby, she surveyed the
long line of empty teller's cages along one wall and the row of desks and chairs against
the opposing wall. In the middle of the room was a long mahogany stand-up writing table
with its stacks of deposit slips, withdrawal slips, and chained up ballpoint pens.
She crept downstairs to the first
basement, where she could see the night watchman sitting at his desk, drooling over the
latest issue of Studly magazine while watching Japanese horror movies on the
television. The closed circuit video monitors were the last thing on his mind.
She walked back upstairs, her
parents argument filling the room, bouncing off the hard walls and floors of the
empty bank. Walking to one of the writing tables, she pulled a slip of paper from the line
of compartments and took a pen in hand. "Help! They've kidnapped me and are holding
me against my will!" she wrote on the back of the withdrawal slip before she slid it
into the middle of the stack. She picked up a deposit slip and turned it over to write
another note, then flipped it face up. She pulled out another one and looked at it also.
Hanner brushed the hair out of
her eyes and smiled as she slipped through the stack of deposit slips. Then she laughed
that strange wheezing laugh of hers.
* * * * * *
Tripoli, the Bankers' mailman,
left the rally and walked back to his car alone. He'd seen a lot of people he knew, which
wasn't surprising since walking the same route every day breeds intense familiarity. Each
day he entered the same stores and handed the same mail to the same people who stood
behind the same counters. And each day he met the same faces at the same front doors of
the same houses, hands hoping for checks and magazines but instead getting electric bills
and discount flyers from Dr. Krich's Happy Feet Podiatry Centre.
Tripoli prided himself on how
much he knew about the people on his route. While a grocery store checker learns a lot
about a person from the food he or she buys, and a drug store clerk instantly knows who
has diarrhea and whos having their period, a mailman can just as easily turn a
return addresses into an exercise in deductive reasoning. Theres Maggie Valenti, 65
years old and still single, who receives twice weekly letters from "M.K.W." in
Montana, each sealed with a red heart-shaped blob of sealing wax. And Nils
Calvettewho weighing in at 550 lbs. rarely leaves the house except to see the
doctorwho gets two packages the same day, one from Weight Watchers
International and one from Godiva Chocolate, the Godiva package outweighing the other by
at least 2 to 1. And his favorite, Jim Tully, who lives in the incredibly large and
amazingly unfurnished Tully House, getting a steady stream of pink gas bills, green
electric bills, and red telephone bills, all unsubtle indications of
Tripoli had seen all of these
people and many more at the rally. But had you asked everyone whether they'd seen Tripoli
they would have denied it, for not one person had recognized him in the grey tweed suit
with the mid-calf A-line skirt and kick pleat, white blouse with a large red jambeau,
smoked anthracite hose, black pumps, and short-haired brunette wig. It was a new outfit. A
nice outfit. And maybe the last new one he would be able to buy for a while.
This outfit had been paid for by
the Weekly World Scene. Not directly, mind you, but it was their money that paid
these particular bills. For unbeknownst to anyone outside of the editor, Tripoli was a
stringer for the Weekly World Scene. This side career began three years previous
when Tripoli heard about an operation which had been performed at the Retreat For The Sick
hospital. It seems a team of surgeons spent fourteen hours separating Siamese twins who
had been born sharing the better part of their derrieres. While the operation was a
success, the children left the operating room with less than half a backside each.
Tripolis writing was adequate at best, but what caught the editor's attention was
the headline he submitted with the story:
Doctors attack babies from
No ifs, ands, or butts!
Since then hed only written
a few stories, since he didn't exactly live in the fertile crescent of Weekly World
Scene material, an area of the world that largely included obscureand
conveniently incommunicadoThird World countries. Until recently, that was. For as
soon as the robberies hit, Tripoli started filing stories, never dreaming that the
newspaper would become so enamored of the spree. But in the world of supermarket tabloids,
bizarre crimes warrant banner headlines while routine arrests don't even rate a footnote.
Stories die with apprehension.
As he neared the Post Office,
Tripoli steered into the large unguarded parking lot as if on autopilot. He stopped the
car and put it in reversethis wasn't where he'd intended to go. He shook his head at
how easily instinct can take over. The loading docks were crowded with pallets and carts
and piles of empty mailbags, yet devoid of workers. He sat in the car for a long time,
wondering whether any of those sacks held letters for Maggie Valenti sealed with a red
heart-shaped blob of sealing wax, boxes of Godiva Chocolate for Nils Calvette, or more
disconnection notices for Jim Tully.
He turned off the ignition and
sat, sad that the crime spreeand with it his writing spreewas over. Looking at
his silver Lady Timex watch, he knew it would be another ten minutes until everyone was
back from their coffee break. He got out of the car, straightened his skirt, ran his hand
up each leg to draw any wrinkles from his hose and, with a smile, walked up the steps to
the loading dock.
Neither rain, nor snow, nor gloom
of night could keep him from his appointed rounds.
[ Chapter 21 ]