copyright © 2017
"Hard wired" photo borrowed from Mitchell Haindfield on Flickr, courtesy his creative commons attribution 2.0 generic license. His photo was modified for use in the cover image.
And for Kiddo, the Crescent Hotel,
and our friends at Hillspeak.
That doorknob cut him again when he turned it, sliced right across his palm. Who would have made a razor knob? How had it gotten that way? Who had wielded the hammer that had bent it so? He walked into Legends and saw his family sitting around the poker table and all was right with the world. They were not his family as such, but the only family he really felt like he had, his friends: Mark, Alison, Kallie, Jerome, Thomas, Ingrid, Clemente, Brady.
Mark had his weaponry. Ali her apathy for the badge -- you could see it in the eyebrows, the way they didn't scour the bar for mysteries to be solved like Ebur's did. Kallie's ranger green. Jerome's one-handed tamping of that puck of chew, the thwack of it catching the attention of the barflies. Thomas' handsome should-have-been-a-model face. Ingrid's necklaces and hair talismans. Clemente's weathered hands. Brady's childhood still lingering in his cheeks -- he had to be seventeen. All of them family. All of them safe.
"What happened to you?" Ali asked.
They turned and said hellos but mostly noticed the hand's blood.
"Knob get ya?" Mark asked.
Ebur nodded, procured a bar towel, wrapped it and waited until Ali came back with the first aid kid from her squad car. The blood stopped eventually and he asked, "Who would do that to a knob?"
"It's a mystery," she said, implying too that it was unsolvable.
He snorted. The worst ones were always the mysteries no one cared to solve, the undomesticated mysteries beneath all crimes and gnostic ceremonies, the great answers to the great questions. Who can tame the Leviathan? Who has tackled Behemoth?
He gave his money, they dealt, and played some hands. After a few, he got into a hard spot with a hand. "Raise," Ebur said. He knew how to raise well and so he bet the pot.
"Raise?" Mark asked.
"Isn't that how you do it at your auction house?" he asked.
"Woodham, I closed that months ago." He was holding his cards as if through mittens. Arthritis.
Alison said, "This isn't high school football."
"Ebur," Mark added.
Ebur Woodham said, "You still scout the roads for antiques thrown out or'd you stop that too? And yes, I'm still raising like a champion."
"I'm calling him," Alison said. And winked at him.
Ebur did not wink back.
"Yes, Officer," Mark said. "You do that."
"Insult me all you want," Alison said, "but don't insult the badge."
Mark gestured at her with his whole bent hand without looking and said into his cards, "Forgot I'm not the only one supposedly cleaning the streets."
Kallie called without saying anything, watching them. Brady agreed and threw out chips. Jerome called and chewed his chew. Ebur hated that smell. Thomas, Ingrid, and Clemente folded. Ingrid took off her glasses and cleaned them with the paisley red handkerchief tied around her long white braid of coarse hair and then tossed it back out of his line of sight. Clemente popped his scarred thumb knuckle with his other thumb.
Ebur asked, "Even though the auction house is closed?"
"Surprised you can still lift it, meaning no offense," Ebur said.
"Weight's not a problem for me, I've got the rheumatoid housebroken for that," Mark said and barely flexed. "It's the little bends that get me."
"You on duty, Ali?" Ebur asked.
"I think Kallie's the only one on duty. How's Turpentine?"
"Lunch break," Kallie said. "New interns have never touched raw chicken. You?"
Mark sighed, then folded. Sighed again.
"See," Ebur said, "worked. Just like bidding at auction."
"No what worked is none of these fools know how to fold."
"I know how," Brady said.
"Scuse me," Mark said. "None of these fools know when to fold. Screwed up my pot odds." He took a sip from his gin and limejuice and then tamped his pipe as if through mittens. Ebur watched him look around Legends at the kids shooting cutthroat on the green felt like golf grass and the cute little college sophomore mopping up beer with a holey old green bathtowel on the other side of the barstool trunks and then, at last, to the TV screen and the endless babble of bullshit. The distraction was a looping video of some gorilla dragging a kid through its creekwater who now had been shot by animal control. They were interviewing the family. They were interviewing the biologist. They were interviewing everyone but the gorillas. Mark said, "Wish I could have shot it myself. Ain't no kid that should worry about getting flung around like a ragdoll in no city zoo."
Kallie gaped at him. "How can you say that it was good for anything -- ever -- to die?"
"Stuff has to die for you to eat it, Kallie, biology or no."
"I'm vegetarian," she said.
"Vegetables still have a life and still have to die." He sipped his gin and winced his good eye at her as if sighting in a rifle.
Ebur got a chill at the gesture.
"I don't celebrate its death," she said. "I express gratitude that it offered itself that I might live."
He scoffed. "You and your Osage Indian Myths."
The shuffling of clay chips and the slow sheeooohw of a card burned, a card dealt face up at the hand of Officer Alison. Ebur saw her wink over at Brady, trying to lighten the mood for the kid and he giggled a teenage giggle. It was not the same wink she'd offered him.
Mark broke the silence. "We got a regular old Lone Ranger here to weigh in. What do you think about all this monkey business, Ebur?"
Nine eyes turned to him. Plus a couple from the bar. Even the sophomore who had finished hand mopping.
"What of it?" he asked.
Kallie bet. Brady, still in agreement with Alison's humor, folded and reclined in his wooden chair. Jerome called Kallie and spat into his green soda bottle. Ebur called. Ali.
"Don't you miss playing detective?" Mark lit up his pipe while sighting in Ebur now. He had an arrangement with the regulars and the barkeep -- off-peak season, he could smoke. The locals needed peak season to make their money, but they wanted off-peak to live their lives away from tourists especially the half-million that came to Bikes, Booze, and BBQ. Smoking indoors on off-peak was one of those subtle rebellions by which Eureka stuck it to the rest of the state. Though Ali hated the smoke and would have fined Mark easily in peak season, even she enjoyed their little corner of resistance. Mark smoked, waiting for Ebur to answer.
Ebur said, "I'd be lying to say I didn't. Don't get me wrong, Texas Hold'em nights make everything better -- I look forward to Sunday every week."
"Me too," Brady said.
"But yeah, I do miss rolling into the townships around here and figuring stuff out the feds never bother to come down and investigate. Everyone's always so safe all the time, so trusting in cameras to do the trick but cameras don't catch everything out here and even when they do catch everything -- even in... hell I don't know, New York City right at the base of the new World Trade Center with all of those little black bubbles and the cameras inside of them, well they still don't make crimes stop happening or even give us all the facts, do they?
Motive. Opportunity. You need a guy on the ground for that."
The sheriff grinned at him.
Ebur ignored her. Poorly.
Mark pointed to the zookeeper and directed a question at her. "You really think the kid fell?"
Kallie said. " That's my whole point: none of us can know from here and now."
Mark said, "I'm glad the gorilla got shot. Need to make sure the world knows who its tamers are." His eyes glazed over. He was somewhere else away from Ebur and the rest, remembering.
Ebur shook his head. "See, that's where you're wrong, Mark. I think we can build levees but the seas still rise. I think we can build tornado shelters but every now and again a mammoth twister's gonna come along and suck you out like a sky-high anteater anyways. You can't scare off the wild with a pistol shot. Nature keeps on coming like a Black Irish boxer."
"Kallie would disagree," Mark said. "All those cages."
"They includes you," Mark said. "You women forget that mankind's an inclusive term whereas womankind ain't."
Ebur had never thought about that before.
"The Most Dangerous Game," Ali said and sipped her lager with a headnod to Jerome. She pulled out her bowie knife from where she kept it on her leg and began to clean her nails.
No one made the connection she had made and so sat awkwardly.
Ebur hated it when she tried to sound smart. She was smart enough without needing to sound like anything at all.
"Game?" Jerome asked through a mouthful.
"Big game. You know the story?" Ali asked.
Jerome shook his head and further spat.
She sat down the knife and she picked back up the deck of cards. "Well it's a great story, it begins..." Ali started and dealt a card. It was a wild card, a joker. "How'd that get in there?" she asked.
"Dammit," Ebur said. "Deal another card."
Kallie said, "Hand's reneged."
"Fine by me," Mark said and slammed down his hand and reached for his chips.
"Wait, wait, wait!" Brady said. "What if we just called the game a wash, took our pool and bought several rounds for all of us?"
There were several calls of no! from Ingrid, Thomas, Clemente.
Brady said. "We don't have to just compete every week."
Ali said, "Sounds like a good idea to me."
"Hell, Ali, I'd be driving home drunk at that point," Mark said.
She sighed. "I'll drive you home, Mark, have a little fun with us."
Mark made very blatant, very flamboyant raises of his eyebrows. Ebur watched him check out her overfit form, her short blond hair, her mannish biceps.
Ali said. "You're not my type. We've been through this."
"Men don't come in types," Mark said. "They come broken or in working order." He looked at Brady, elbowed the kid and said, "And this old man works, let me tell you."
"Umm..." Brady said, regaining his balance on the chair.
Ebur sipped the last of his Jack and Coke. He hated Coke. "Marie?"
"Can I get another Jack and Coke, hold the Coke?"
"In my hand?" Marie asked.
Ebur smiled a tamed smile.
Marie giggled at herself and went to work.
"What do you say?" Brady asked.
"Brady," Ali said, "Aren't you still in high school?"
"Seventeen going on twenty-one."
They laughed at that, all but Ebur who had already figured that one out within the first few minutes of meeting the boy.
"Off-peak," Mark said and smoked his pipe.
"Off-peak," Kallie agreed.
The chorus was taken up and everyone -- even Officer Alison -- agreed they could buy rounds for the group and Brady too. Everyone except for Ebur who fiddled with the tassels on his plaid scarf. He looked at all the money in the pot, money he counted on winning almost every week despite Mark's constant talk about pot odds and bankroll management. Money he risked to win that was now being turned to a lesser -- but guaranteed -- night of fun. Ebur looked around at the people at the table and Brady who obviously hadn't had much, if any, alcohol in his life. Didn't matter that Ebur knew how to beat all of them badly. Didn't matter that he had the chips to push them around. Didn't matter that he was sitting on four of a kind. All the skill in the world couldn't trump the feral will of the crowd. "Sure," he said and considered flipping his cards face-up, but what good would it do other than give him a sense of pride by way of a martyr complex? He tossed the four of a kind one at a time under the deck.
And then they bought about $200 in drinks, give or take.
Outside after, with Brady walking funny, Ebur sat down in the wooden rocking chair on the wooden porch like a stockman from the 1800's. And he gave into the rocking, let it wash over him like his mother's had.
Ali leaned against the wall beside.
He waited as he rocked.
"Nature keeps coming?" She had her woolen cop hat on like a cute little black chipmunk. A very strong chipmunk. A porcupine.
"I sure hope it does," he said.
"I don't," Ali said. "Couldn't bear to see Eureka burn."
He said nothing, rocking still.
"You don't believe in global warming?"
"Drastic climate change doesn't mean we'll get fire and brimstone here," Ebur said. "Maybe we get a slow winding down. Didn't John Milton freeze over Hell at the end of Inferno?"
He realized that it was Dante. And he almost corrected himself, but she didn't know Dante either, so ignoring the mistake would help him save face.
She said, "This is hell to you?"
He said, " I do better with an untamed life, I think."
"You don't plan on settling down?"
He looked at her.
She looked back.
He searched for something there he couldn't find. Not yet, anyways. "Eat something before you're back on patrol."
She squared off her stance as he rose.
"You need a ride home?"
"I'll walk," he said. "Thank you."
"I'll take that ride," Mark said.
"Come on, Mark." They climbed in together, a beautiful Amazon and the village codger. She drove around the corner to the diner and they got out and got something to eat, as far as Ebur could tell.
Walking was a couple-hour-long enterprise and the city looked like a smattering of stars under the trees, warming the world from within, staving off the endless hunger of night. He passed the JOY motel -- someone was renovating it, the old pastel coloring from the sixties now back in style. Strange to be so irrelevant you're suddenly relevant again. Made him care less about relevance. He passed billboards: Bikes, Booze, and BBQ (the noise alone...), the Passion Play and its GIANT (shittily-made) Jesus statue (that had oddly revived Eureka mid-century), the treehouse cabins, canoeing and kayaking, the farmer's market with the chocolate challah bread and 1880's breakfast, Turpentine's big cats and monkeys, another one about Basin Spring and its alleged healing powers -- he'd heard that Joplin had found a revival in the local healing power of those waters but they were probably just coattailing off of Eureka for marketing purposes, another billboard about a gun show (he thought of their loopholes and shivered, even as a gun owner), and they went on and on.
He could have easily taken the short way home after that stretch of billboards and arrived on his doorstep before sunrise, but sometimes he liked to see the city at sunrise so he walked on and ascended hills and delved into valleys until he found himself on top of the Crescent Hotel overlooking Eureka and its green heights and dark depths. The sun came up timid behind the hills and cloudbanks,
giving off girlish hues, blushing at seeing the backside of Jesus. He sat out there -- they often let him sit there long after the pub had closed. And he got himself a drink and left money on the table. One of the morning shift girls was cleaning up and nodded at him. He raised his glass and then walked out to the balcony again and watched the day come on. Someone asked him if he wanted food and that seemed like a good idea so he ordered something but he couldn't remember what. He sat up there, watcher on the wall, worried no one would ever come to Eureka and relieve him of his shift. When he was finished, it was afternoon. He rose to leave and heard a cry down in the valley. A young man. Brady?
He wished he'd heard a second sound. Nothing came. As he searched around and about with those old hawkeyes of his, he thought he saw something in the winding roadway far below, that led up to The Crescent: a flash of orange. And maybe a leg.
Leaving his glass and his meal unpaid, he ran to the elevator. He pressed the button and heard the old groaning of hundred-year-old equipment and went to the stairs, hustling down in his bowlegged way, old and steady, winded and winding. Down and out and down the hill rather than taking the path -- a dangerous way to go for sure, but he gave no damn about that now if it was Brady or some other high school boy in trouble. He wished he'd had his pistol handy. He'd stopped holstering after that mall shooting.
Down and around the trees and the tall grass and the cold hard ground and leaves they'd let decompose on their own (how the hell you gonna rake a forest? Mark had said once), and he couldn't think about that now because he was coming around the bend and saw the leg. He walked up slowly, eyeing the brush partly out of habit and partly because he dreaded what he might find. And after walking even that slow, after padding along the roadway towards the ditch where someone might have thrown off an old piece of furniture, Ebur found what he dreaded.
Brady's body was face-up, eviscerated there on the edge, mangled with the vines of the forest and the inner vines of his gut mixed, his orange vest to protect him from renegade cars hanging impotent and aimless on his shoulders, a cup carrier full of coffee spilt and steaming off to the side, his boots still laced up tight. He looked as if he had gone to-to--toe with a hydra and lost. Ebur went to him and checked his pulse. He was dead, so even though he wanted to hold the boy and weep, habit stayed his hand. Instead he called her.
She said, "I have the worst headache."
"About time. Your place?"
"Not that," he said. "It's Brady."