Skywriting at Night

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Chapter 20

     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 visit.

     "So what made you turn yourself in?" the Mayor asked.

     "I didn’t." Johnny told him. "I was arrested."

     The Mayor thought about this for a moment. "It’s for the best, son," he said. "It’s definitely for the best."

     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 Johnny’s was Milo Jenkins. While it wasn't unusual for him to be in a jail cell—he was, after all, a member of the police force—on this particular night he was laying on the upper bunk, fast asleep.

     It seems the detective division—the men at the rally wearing the beige trenchcoats—took 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 ears—truly sympathetic ones being virtually nonexistent and, for that matter, decidedly too lofty a criterion—when 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 sleeping.

     * * * * * *

     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 won’t 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:

       I Heart Allah

     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 did.

     * * * * * *

     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 didn’t commit—well, definitely not all of them, anyway—though 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, you’ve got to face life’s frustrations," Jet thought as he walked down Broad Street near Cordin’s 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 ukelele—or 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:

     Cordin’s Jewelry
     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 hadn’t done in all the years she’d lived in town anyway. Jackson Robert, on the other hand, would still be so focused on the "Semi-pious Jews" that he wouldn’t 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 didn’t 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. They’d come separately—she rode with Jem, the boys walked, and Jackson Robert had driven himself—but she'd assumed they'd all ride home together. That’s 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 asked.

     "No, but I think my husband and children are."

     "Perhaps I can help," he said gently.

     "Do you know what they look like?"

     "The lost all look alike."

     "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 interested in."

     "I can't wait until my husband and children are found," Erta said, "otherwise I may have to walk home."

     "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 mother—who had drummed it into her head countless times—would 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:

at an old fashioned revival
featuring the
Quite Reverend
John Joseph Matthew Paul III.

* * * * * *

     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 wasn’t 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 wasn’t the Woolworth’s—hell, she could buy plastic place mats in any of a hundred stores—it 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," she said.

     "Where are they?" he asked.

     "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 Kasouska’s 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 he’d been raised to believe was life’s 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 knowing—and it's doubtful it would have made him feel any better had he been aware of it—that it’s 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 is.

     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 desk.

     "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 Hannah’s 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 me."

     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?" Hanner’s mother asked.

     "It'll just take a minute," her father replied.

     "Well, that's one minute too long."

     "You seem to forget I'm the president of the bank, and unfortunately there are times when things need to be attended to."

     "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 you?"

     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.

     "Do I?"

     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 you."

     "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 don’t become the president of a bank without knowing when to cut your losses.

     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 father’s secretary’s 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 this argument."

     "We're not arguing, we're discussing this like rational people."

     "No, I'm arguing," her mother said. "You’re...shit, I don’t know. You're not even discussing it."

     "Then what would you call it?"

     "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 who’s having their period, a mailman can just as easily turn a return addresses into an exercise in deductive reasoning. There’s 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 Calvette—who weighing in at 550 lbs. rarely leaves the house except to see the doctor—who gets two packages the same day, one from Weight Watcher’s 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 last-chance-to-pay-before-disconnection notices.

     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. Tripoli’s writing was adequate at best, but what caught the editor's attention was the headline he submitted with the story:

Doctors attack babies from behind—
No ifs, ands, or butts!

     Since then he’d 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 obscure—and conveniently incommunicado—Third 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 reverse—this 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 spree—and with it his writing spree—was 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 ]

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  Skywriting at Night - a novel by Mad Dog

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