by Leonard Schlenz
Hardly out of Oklahoma, Lefty McCabe put his hand on the metal flask by his heart under his ratty coat. A bad move. Bad poker. Bad company. He saw vile intent in the other man’s eyes, black eyes set deep in folds of sleepless skin. Lefty was a little guy. His size should have made him mean, but it never had.
The big man licked his lips. He was bulky-big, like an old steam tractor, and he wore overalls over a t-shirt. The big man spoke with a small vocabulary, foul and way backcountry.
Lefty hollered like never before in his life, but the clickety-clack overwhelmed the screaming that only cows would hear anyway. He felt the rails rattling in his bones, he felt the flask being untangled from his stubborn fingers. Then he felt nothing as the old freight train rumbled through Crawford County. The flask was a little pewter souvenir thing that said ‘Wall Drug South Dakota’, over an etching of Mt. Rushmore.
Lefty was dead, yet he smelled the dusty wood flooring of the boxcar. He smelled cow dung and straw.
Long after the big man in coveralls jumped train near Wichita, a hateful thing awoke Lefty’s corpse, a spirit sort of thing that took on a pale resemblance to its owner, its veins boiling with wrath, its sightless eyes gel globes of swirling steam. The thing jumped train in Burlington, softly, plumb naked in two inches of powder snow, thirsty for blood and with a score to settle.
* * *
Later in the week in Denver’s Union Station, a ghastly, ghostly, pale-looking poor thing wearing the baggy clothes off another’s wash line, says, “My name’s Wrath. I’m look’n for a man.”
“Why would I care what your name is?”
“I’m just sayin’.”
“Coveralls. Black mustache, around five-ten or so, built like a hog. Mean man with eyes fixed in his head like black maggots.”
The giant clock at Union Station says 5:10. It doesn’t say if it’s evening or the start of day, but it don’t matter at all.
“You seen a man like that?”
The clerk stutters, “You know how many men come through here, mister?” He plainly squints, in search of eyes behind the Hollywood dark glasses.
“This man was uglier than most.”
The clerk says, “You from around here?” He looks out past his little secure enclosure, to maybe the policeman or somebody. He seems pretty rattled, like he’s never seen such a peculiar man; like the man asking him these questions is blind, but sees.
“You seen him or ain’tcha?”
“No, sir. No such fella.”
“Where might a poor man go to stay for a night or two if he had little cash?”
“The Oxford, I suppose. Just down the street.” He looks out past again, to snag the attention of the copper with the billy club.
“Then I think that’s just where he might be.”
Wrath is unshaven, bum-dirty and for a dead man oddly hungry, oddly thirsty. He has no score with the policeman. There’s no pain. He supposes the dead therefore have no pain, except the mindful sort, the yearning for payback.
Every single thing around him seems so very alive, vivid. But slow. Little fairy things are fluttering around the giant clock like lighted moths. He hears the clang of the streetcar outside as if it’s clanging to him alone.
“You think your man might be there?” The clerk’s voice is squeaky now. “What makes you think he’d be there, I mean, at the Oxford?” He seems to be stalling for time, for the police officer to share witness to this... odd, questioning man.
“Call it a hunch.”
The picture on the wall says you should buy a 1950 Oldsmobile, and the man he talks to with the green, gambler’s visor gives up any pretenses and starts to wave down the copper.
A new train moves into the station and toots, before exhaling a belly full of steam as though calling it a day. The policeman is approaching, chewing gum, the kind of copper who has an axe to grind. Wrath has no patience for more talk. He turns and leaps onto him like a rabid dog.
* * *
The Oxford has rooms to let, but the dead have no money; nor do they seem to need it. There’s an empty bed on the second floor and plaster walls present little impediment.
Wrath is bleeding from his forearm, sort of, from the copper’s handgun, but it’s more like a tire hissing black bile, or something, and he can put his finger over the hole to make it stop. His energy is seeping badly, so badly that even the little murderous play acted out in his mind gives him little contentment.
The flowered paper on the old walls of the Oxford flutters with the draft of long-dead residents, and the walls lose their coloring as he stares; from other rooms come muffled sounds. He can almost smell the big ugly man in this very room. His hunch was right; there’s only one memory that comprises his life, the big man prying loose the flask from his dying hands. Even that moment is fading.
The big man has moved on.
A day or two ahead.
California. More than just another hunch. A knowing hunch.
Los Angeles, California.
Fatigue is wearing down his blood thirst. Let California have the SOB. People like that always get what’s comin’.
Leroy Lefty McCabe feels himself fading right into the flowered wall, hoping heaven, and not hell, awaits him behind it, or at least something in between. Roses turn the color of coffee, as if his whole life is fading into some historical photograph; the greens turn gray; then dark.
But Leroy Lefty McCabe’s glimmer of a hunch pays off. Glimmer is born whole from those very walls, the hunch of Wrath, a not so pretty hooker who squeezes red lipstick out of a tube, lipstick that matches the red roses on the wall paper, and applies it to her lips, the very color of the pink carnations in that same wall.
She passes out of the Oxford in front of the Coke-bottle peepers of the night clerk and struts right past the ruckus inside the giant halls of Union Station where police have taped off a crime scene of some sort and are writing down what folks say on their clipboards. They have no interest in her and let her pass to the ticket booth. “Los Angeles, please,” she says. “Los Angeles, California.”
* * *
L.A.’s a big city and three months a long time for an ugly hooker. She eyes her next John with distrust. She’s somehow used to the smell of city cowboys and losers though she don’t know why. She can’t remember where she’s from but is told she has country and boxcar written all over her powdered white face.
She’s got no past: no schooling, no nothing she can boast of. The police picked her up last week. She said she didn’t know who she was, only that her name was Glimmer.
They said, “Sure, Sweetie, just a little case of amnesia.” They didn’t believe she was looking for a particular man. She didn’t know his name, but she’d know him when she saw him.
And so now she’s never seen a man so ugly and brutish, and it does seem odd this is the man she knew she’d know, like some map brought her here. She’s not up to it unless there’s cash up front and lots of it.
She’s no fashion statement but doesn’t cater to men in coveralls, let alone a man dipping sips from a tourist flask that boasts Wall Drug South Dakota. Damned if she doesn’t think of herself as somebody else, sort of like, well, she’s reading a book or something, having a he-said-she-said sort of being, though she doesn’t recall ever really reading a book.
The big man stinks to high heaven, and Glimmer is thinking maybe he can’t pay. “Why you gals think you have to make up silly names for yourselves? I never met no dame called Glimmer for damn sure.”
“It’s my name and all. People don’t name themselves. You got a fifty or not? I don’t got all day, you know.”
“Sure, sure, I got money. Maybe not that much but let’s have a go at it first. Why, a guy like me just walks around all day with fifties fallin’ outa’ their pockets. ” He puts both his farmer hands on the arms of the chair and helps himself up with a grunt.
He seems unsteady, and he walks over by the door, where he turns and backs his big farmer butt against it. He looks down and turns the skeleton key, then rattles the knob to be sure it’s locked. “See, I don’t need no money ’cause you’re lyin’ to me and you sure ain’t pretty.”
Glimmer ain’t scared. She’s got him just where she wants him; she just doesn’t know it. And she knows the guy, and she doesn’t know why.
He tucks his little flask from Wall Drug into his bib overalls. She could scream, but she doesn’t. She knows his type. She has a stiletto from Tijuana and a smile from Hell.
He doesn’t seem to hear the click of the blade snapping into place. She’s glad he’s so bad. She doesn’t back away; in fact she moves towards him. His eyes turn wide, confusion wrinkles up his nose.
The first jab is swift and strong and does the most damage. She backs off to enjoy his anguish. As he falters she moves in again for sweet revenge, a revenge she doesn’t quite own, let alone understand, hoping there’s something gained from this odd life. There’s a vague hope for something better, a near grasp of something completed.
And then handcuffs. And tears, which she’s never known before. The coppers were like those TV guys, the dragnet guys: “You did this, ma’am?”
“Yeah. What of it?”
“You a hooker, ma’am?”
“Why don’t you tell me what happened. Just the facts. Was he trying to harm you?”
“Not really, looks more like I harmed him, huh? I can’t say exactly why I stabbed him. Had it comin’ I reckon. Life’s like that, ain’t it?”
“How’s that, ma’am?”
“Oh like we’re all living in some story, you know, like we’re on a stage and then things get strange.”
“You better get your things together, ma’am.”
“You takin’ me in?”
“I guess you know the answer.”
“Are those Chesterfields in your pocket?”
“Have one. What’s your name?”
“Don’t know. Just Glimmer I suppose... Thanks. Give me a sec, just let me put a little color on my face... It’s so confusing, but you know somethin’... I think I’mexpectin’.”
* * *
Big-boned big-hearted pretty Pearl barrels north on eighty-five out of Albuquerque in a big rig, an eighteen-wheeler loaded with heavy crates that leak dry ice and contain God knows what, and she doesn’t really care what, so long as she gets paid at the end of the haul with a bonus for getting it there quick.
But then something pulls her east, keeps tugging at all four hundred horses, maybe like the rig’s got alignment problems, but more like it has a mind of its own.
She says, “damn,” which is about as far as she’ll go with the cussing and lets the rig have its own way, letting it sniff its way north by northeast at Trinidad instead of heading straight. Something in her head tells her east is where home is and a message high up in the sky hints at the same thing, a clue in white that swirls a message clear as a crop duster’s banner over a country fair.
The same something in her head says the party’s over... closing time, settling up time... The last dance in a place she’s never really been into. She’s been tired of dancing for some time.
Between farm reports, the going price for corn and soybeans, she listens to country; her life’s a country song, after all. She’s confused all over again, never really knowing who she was in the first place and so she speaks to the country songs like she always does; she speaks to Waylon Jennings and then she argues with Hank Snow, in a kidding way; she listens to Peace in the Valley and weeps, and smiles, and thanks Red Foley for his song even though he can’t hear a word, mostly because he’s dead; and she cringes as she grinds her gears and double clutches into a slowdown near Rocky Ford to pick up another omen. Another sign.
This omen is a hippie going to Bird City, and he marvels at the magnificent chrome bumper on the big old Kenworth and gets in. “Bird City, it is,” she says. She gears down hard going through Ordway, sending up smoke signals from her twin pipes, signaling Bird City she’s on her way. She’s starting to get it now.
“You going to Bird City too?” The hippie is twenty and out looking for himself. He carries a knapsack full of books from the University of Denver and a toothbrush.
“I am now,” she says, turning down the volume on her private little party. “I just been waiting for instructions, that’s all.”
The hippie has a story, about who he is and why it should matter, and starts talking about reincarnation and hippie stuff, and Pearl listens because she’s nice but Kansas is calling her home and that’s why she’s smiling.
She’d always liked Kansas a lot and the endless flatness and the endless wheat, and the lonely trains loaded with corn that toot their whistles when she passes in her eighteen-wheeler, and she’s known to match them toot for toot with her rig’s full-bellied air horn. Sometimes an engineer waves and she waves back with the biggest grin and... who said it wasn’t the little things in life....
Just west of Bird she lets the hippie climb down from the rig with a handful of dollar bills in walking distance to town. It’s home for him, and it’s home for her, too. She’s got business to tend to now because she sees the biggest damn whopper of a dust storm rolling in that’s blocking out the sky like nothing she’s ever seen, and it’s covering up the road ahead in fearsome darkness.
But she sees a glimmer at the other end, a peephole of light, and she says to the hippie, “This is it, get you some coffee and get your head straight. I really don’t care your momma don’t love you. You move on. Get over it. You’re luckier than you know.”
And she pulls out her pewter flask, the only connection she’s ever had to her blurred history, passed on to her by way of Wall Drug South Dakota with compliments of the Los Angeles County Department of Welfare, and she studies the magnificent rolling mass of dust that engulfs the entire world before her.
She takes a healthy snort and replaces the cap. She snuggles the flask into her jean jacket, and gently snuggles her gear shift into its lowest gear; and she clicks on the daily farm report, and then eases the big rig forward with a rip of her air horn, saying, “Move on over; I’m comin’ home, Papa.”
Copyright © 2011 by Leonard Schlenz