Fiction by Jim Cheney
A skinny Metro cop is standing in front of me outside this deli over on Commerce Street. He’s got me cuffed, leaning up against the car, taking notes in his little pad, and asking the same questions over and over again. Then this big cop walks up and whispers something to the skinny cop who nods and smiles and then flips his pad closed. It was a hot day and standing in that parking lot I was sweating like a whore in church. Cops all sweating too. Only person I knew that was not sweating was my girlfriend’s father. They let him answer questions inside the deli, sitting down in a chair like a human being and sipping on a glass of water with part of one of those rough fast-food napkins stuffed up one nostril. I could see him through the big glass window, kinda from an angle, so he probably couldn’t see me. Like I said, I was leaned up against my car that was lava hot, and the skinny cop wandered off and the big fella stood there watching me. He had a tattoo of some goblin-looking thing on his giant bicep, and he walks over real casual and takes my arm and strolls me over to his cruiser and stuffs me in the back.
I was working this nice landscape job with my cousin, Anthony. He was this real stand-up entrepreneur type in our family and he had a bunch of trucks and guys working for him, putting in everything from swimming pools to putting greens for all these rich people over in this stuck-up part of town with neighborhood names like Palisades and Ash Grove and Sweetbriar Glen. The only reason for a person like me to be walking around a Sweetbriar or a Glen was if I was holding a weed eater or a sack of mulch on my shoulder, trooping up the side lawn to shape up a gazebo. I was working at one of these houses one afternoon digging a trench for an irrigation line that was meant to perk up these Yews, when I felt someone behind me, like they were sneaking up to spook me. Out of the corner of my eye, I tried to see if it was someone else on the crew cause I had this spade in my hand and if I turned around quick and the lady of the house was standing there, she might get spooked and then Anthony would chew me out for looking like a gardener rapist, or whatever. Anyhow, it was not a pillar of the community, but a girl not much taller than me in a pair of shorts and a bikini top. My insides went smooth like two-cycle engine oil just looking at her.
“What you doing there?” she says.
“Oh, just burying some treasure.”
“You are not,” she says.
“No, I’m not. I’m digging an irrigation ditch so these Yews can thrive.”
“Yews?” she says.
“Yeah, Yews,” and I turn around and point at the bushes with my spade, forgetting it was still in my hand. “These beauties here. See where the fronds are getting brown in spots?” She pretends to look like you might look at a snake someone pointed out sunning on a rock. Cautious but curious.
“Anyway,” I say to her. “Where did you come from? You’re like a little gnome or something that comes out from under a mushroom surprising folks.”
“What are you talking about?” she says.
“Oh, nothing,” I say. “I’m just hot and feeling a bit light headed.”
“I live over there,” she says and points at this house that’s about as big as the state capital.
“Jesus Christ,” I say before I can stop myself thinking she might not like that much. “Your dad the president of something?” She just shrugs like she gets questions like that all the time.
“My name is Crystal,” she says and I kinda wonder to myself when she tells me this because Crystal…, well that’s not the type of name you run across in Palisades. Most of the people I have met go by two names, like Mary Elizabeth, or Vaughn Cornelius. And one time even three first names like this one lady, Dawn Lafayette Jenkins Upchurch. She introduced herself to me and Anthony when we were about to blowtorch a wildflower bed to make way for a Pickle Ball court and before Anthony could stop me, I asked her if maybe she might want to get a nick name to save having to say all that every time she met someone. Anthony liked-to-have-killed-me.
“Is that your real name?” I say.
“Yeah,” she says. “You don’t like it?”
“Oh no,” I say. “I like it a lot. Real pretty. Just different for a Palisades girl, you know. You don’t have multiple names?” She looks real confused, so I pivot real quick which is something that I find I have to do quite a bit, like when me and my roommates play basketball in the driveway. They raise their hands up to intimidate me and I go around them like a ferret.
“My name’s Ellis,” I tell her and take a step forward and pull off my work glove and stick the spade into the ground real manly like, and reach out to shake. She takes my hand and gives it a pump.
“How long you gonna be working over here, Ellis?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “Couple days I suppose. We got other shi…, things I mean, to do. You know, after the irrigation.”
“You mean burying the treasure,” Crystal says.
“Huh?” I say.
“The treasure,” she says, smiling so pretty I almost faint right there and then.
“Oh yeah, right” I say all jerky and heart racing and I can’t hardly remember the joke about the treasure, cause mostly I’m looking at how short she is, but put together really nice, almost like a really well wrapped small present with something extra special inside.
“You want to go out tonight, maybe?” I say and put what I think is a cool look on my face like I just rode into town on a big horse.
“Sure,” she says.
“Really,” I say back. “Just like that, huh?” She nods and does this little dance-like shuffle in the grass.
“You think I walked over here to talk about bushes?” she says and smiles.
“No I guess not,” I say. “I’m not sure why you came over, but I’m glad you did.” She laughed and I laughed a little too, feeling really nervous and too much out in the open.
“Meet me over at that park by the river,” she says. “The one where all those food trucks go. You know where I’m talking about?”
“Yeah, I know where you are talking about.” I look back toward our truck and I see that Anthony is watching me closely so I need to move it along.
“Sure, I know where that is.”
“Okay,” she says and gives me another one of those sly little smiles and then trots off across the lawn. I turn around and look at the ditch that I’ve been digging, confused how it got there and where it’s supposed to end up.
The back of the cop car was really hot, and with my hands cuffed I couldn’t even pull the underwear out of the crack in my ass without throwing my back out. Just miserable. The cop took his time and when he got in the car I stared real hard at his rearview mirror to try and make him look at me. He never had put the windows down and I was losing weight by the minute. He put on his seatbelt, said something into the radio, and then, finally, looked at me using the mirror with these little marble eyes in a big broad face.
“You ready to go?” he says.
“You leave your kids in a hot car like this, goblin man?” I say.
“What did you call me?” he says and now he turns around instead of using the mirror.
“Forget it,” I say. “Can you please just make some air move in here?” He looked a minute longer and then started the car and I could feel the faintest traces of dusty, conditioned air coming through the cage holes. We ride along awhile and I started to get bored which is something that happens to me pretty easily and usually gets me into some kind of trouble.
“What’s that tattoo,” I ask him. He waits a minute and I can tell he’s trying to decide whether to talk to me or not. If you’ve never been in the back of a cop car on your way to lock-up, then you’re probably not too familiar with the delicate balance between the cops and you. Most of them are moody cause of the paperwork and shitty hours.
“It’s Zeus,” he says.
“What the fuck is a Zeus?” I say, looking out the window at a Volvo with some little kid staring at me from the back seat. Probably old enough to know what kind of person rides in the back of a cop car, I think. His Spiderman doll sure as Hell does.
“Seriously?” he says.
“Yeah, seriously,” I say. “I might ask you the same thing, painting something on your arm that people have to ask you what it is. I thought it was a goblin or that frog thing in the movies with all of those midget people and that old bastard with the big stick.”
“Naw man,” he says. “Zeus is a Greek god. He’s the strongest of all the gods in mythology. A bunch of us got tattoos when we got out of the academy. My family is Greek so I got this one, and that movie is called Lord of the Rings. It’s a trilogy. Based on the books written by…”
“Whatever,” I say, losing interest and afraid to ask what a trilogy is.
“How did you get yourself into this mess?” the cop says.
“Which mess is that?” I say. “I’ve been in a bunch of them.”
“This one,” the cop says. “This one now.”
“Oh,” I say and try and move my ass back and forth on the seat to loosen the underwear which seems like it’s trying to cut me in half. The air condition in the car works like an old person breathing through an oxygen tank waiting on his bagel in the nursing home. I think about how best to answer the cop’s question.
When we got done with the Yews and the irrigation, Anthony dropped me off at this house I was renting with two other guys. None of them were working so when I came in stinking and tired they would be on these couches that we got at the Goodwill, drinking beer and smoking weed and watching some show on television. It’s almost funny that we went to Goodwill for the couches because everything in that place looked like a Goodwill show room, like we should have been the ones selling shit to other poor people.
“I gotta date,” I told them and they looked up quick and surprised. Girls were about as common as a winning Powerball ticket around that house. We had some come over one night, but Dale and Eddie got into a fist fight in the kitchen and when Eddie hit him with a coffee pot that still had some coffee in it, and Dale grabbed a knife off the counter, they left. Those girls knew better than to stick around a bunch of derelicts that hit each other in the head with kitchen appliances.
“I got a date,” I said again. “Real nice girl. Her name is Crystal.”
“Damn,” Eddie said.
“Damn,” Dale said.
“Yeah,” I said. “We’re going out to dinner and Anthony paid me early so I can treat her.”
“Where’d you meet this Crystal?” Dale said.
“Just work. On my lunch break.” Thankfully they left it at that. I didn’t think they needed the whole Palisades back story.
“You gonna bring her back here after?” Eddie said, looking at the TV while he asked the question. “Let us get a look at her?”
“Yeah,” Dale said. “Kinda like bringing her home to meet the parents,” and this made them laugh together. It was almost like the two of them were using the same brain. They spent so much time in that room it was like their minds were soldered together. It would have been spooky if they weren’t so simple.
“Fuck no,” I said. I could see there was no offense taken. Even with two minds working together, they missed a lot.
“Can I borrow your car, Eddie?” I said.
“Sure,” he said, and then asked Dale, “You think that’s a real courtroom or do you think that they just made it to look like one?”
“Is there gas in it?” I said.
“Is there gas in what?” Eddie said.
“The car,” I said. “Is there gas in the car?”
“I don’t know,” he said
“It’s fake,” Dale said. “Actors too. That guy didn’t run over that girl’s dog. I’d bet you ten bucks.”
I went back to take a shower hoping that they had not forgotten to pay the water bill which was about three weeks overdue and had been acting as a beer coaster on the table in front of the broken easy chair which was just another example of something in my life that needed to be thrown out. Anyway, they must not have gotten around to cutting off the water because the shower came on and I cleaned off all the grime and sweat. I had to dry off with a hoodie that had been left on the bathroom floor though cause there weren’t any towels except for the one balled up behind the leaking toilet that had been there for as long as I could remember, daring someone to pick it up like a pair of underwear that you sometimes see at the playground next to the see saw. I put on a pair of jeans that did not have too many grass stains and no rips and a clean t-shirt and went back out into the front room where Eddie and Dale were now passing a joint, still watching the fake court show on TV.
“You want some of this?” Eddie said holding the joint out to me.
“Naw,” I said. “I want to be right when I meet Crystal. Where are the keys to the car?”
“In it,” Eddie said sucking on the joint. I started out before I let myself change my mind about the weed.
“Good luck,” Dale said taking the joint and examining it like he had found something shiny on the sidewalk.
“Yeah man, good luck Ellis,” Eddie said exhaling and starting to cough.
I knew Eddie well enough that I had not volunteered to pick Crystal up in any car that he owned. Aside from the chance that it would die on us wherever we went, the inside was exactly as I thought: fast food trash, beer cans, and something that smelled like cigarettes and feet. Palisade girls like to party just like the rest of us, but they got better sense than to throw everything in the floor board. So we met at this little park that runs alongside the river where they have food trucks come in and you can order your dinner or lunch and stroll along the bank with your sweetheart and all that sappy shit. Except that night I did not think it was sappy shit cause I was the one doing the strolling.
That night was beautiful. The air cooled down and there was a breeze and when I parked the car where I knew no one would see me getting out, and came up the sidewalk, she was there in these really short, shorts and this tight little t-shirt with some band name I did not recognize, and her legs were tan and her arms were tan and her hair was so blond it looked like it had trapped star light. I was just beside myself seeing her and I ran up and stopped and told her how nice she looked and even gave her that description of her hair with star light in it cause I was so nervous and was talking without thinking.
We got tacos from this Mexican truck and took them over to this bench that sat up on the river bank and ate out of those little paper boats they give you so you can walk around with your food like I guess they do in Mexico. I never had any problems with Mexicans, myself. I heard lots of people talk bad about them like they all got together on their side of the river and decided to come over here and put us all out of work. For me, all you had to do was go home to that little shit box of a house I lived in with Eddie and Dale and there was your American work ethic problem. Far as I was concerned, a border was nothing but an imaginary line that someone on horseback with a load of cattle behind them thought up, and if Mexicans wanted to work with me putting in irrigation trenches I was just fine with that.
“You like your tacos, Crystal?” I said. She nodded and had this little dab of sauce on her chin that was really cute and I reached out and wiped it off with my thumb.
“You’re real sweet, Ellis,” she said.
“Nobody really ever called me anything like sweet,” I said.
“Well, I’m not anyone,” Goddamn right, I thought, watching people walk by us on that promenade or whatever these rich folks called sidewalks. The park used to be this dingy little place where you could pick up a bag of weed or maybe some of those pills that sucked you in like a backpack blower in reverse. But they had come in and made it look real nice with new trees and flower beds and a path that wound around the river almost like the water had carved it out that way. Real nice, and now you had to look like you had a reason to be there or you’d get hassled by the bike cops. Dale said one time that he thought that he could outrun a cop on a bike, that all you had to do was weave rather than run in a straight line, and Eddie told him that he would be lucky to outrun his next shit to the toilet and man, that broke me up.
We threw our trash in one of those new cans that look like spaceships and we walked around talking about all sorts of things. She asked me a bunch of questions about how I grew up and stuff like that and I told her that there was a story there, but probably not one worth telling, but she wanted to know anyway so I told her that I was not sure where my mother was and that my dad worked at the discount tire store over near the mall, but that I never really saw him that much cause he was not exactly what you would call a nice person. I told her that I had an older brother who had been a Marine, but he got killed in Anbar and she was nice not to ask too much about that.
“You miss him?” she said. It was starting to get kind dark by then and we had stopped by this little fountain like the ones that I helped build for people like her parents. It spurted and trickled water and because everyone had started to go home by then, it seemed louder than it should have.
“James was a real good brother,” I said.
“You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to,” she said.
“It’s not that, so much,” I said. “Just don’t have a whole lot to say.” We stood there quiet for a moment and then she leaned over and kissed me, right there in the park. It was magical, and I almost wish more people had been there to see, just so someone besides me would know that it was true.
The air in the cop car finally cooled down and I kept looking out the window. I did not feel like telling the police or anyone else about Crystal and that night in the park or the nights that we spent after that first date. It wasn’t any of their fucking business as far as I was concerned. We turned down Columbia, the road where the county lock-up was. There’s all these shitty little businesses on that road. Muffler shops. A place that fixes catalytic converters. A brake shop. Someplace that sells gravel. Those places were full of guys just like me, working for a living and getting nowhere. We pulled into the County parking lot and into a space up next to the door where you went in to get booked. He started to turn the car off and then he must have thought of something because he turned in his seat and looked through the cage at me.
“Listen,’ he said.
“I’m listening,” I said.
“What happened back there at the deli? I mean, you don’t seem like someone who would pick a fight without a reason.”
“What does somebody who would do that look like?” I said. He sighed real heavy.
“All I’m saying is that you need to have your story straight before you go inside.” I looked at him real hard. He seemed like he was really trying to be nice, but I got trust issues.
“Okay,” I said finally. “You really want to know?”
“Yeah,” he said. “I do.”
Crystal and me had got real close. Like real close and one night we were in her car out by ourselves on this county road. She had a red BMW convertible and we would take it out, riding around and talking and other stuff that we did in the back seat. She was talking about how nice it was with me and how she was ready to be out of her house and out from underneath her mother who was always telling her how to act and what to wear and what kind of boys she should be seeing. I listened to her real close and when I came home that night after she dropped me off, I decided that I would do something about all of that.
The next morning, I borrowed Eddie’s car and I met Anthony at Palisades where we had picked up another job after we got the Yews spiffed up and what-not. It was only a few houses down from Crystal’s, but I did not see her that much during the day cause she was in school. But I noticed that her father left late in the morning and when I saw him come out of the house and go over to his BMW which was bigger, but not a convertible, I told Anthony that I had to go down to the CVS and get some of that medicine that keeps you from shitting your pants. I told him I ate something out of a Chinese buffet the night before and he told me to go on and take care of what I needed to cause he didn’t want another problem, especially not one like that. I got in Eddie’s car pretending my guts were on fire and I followed Crystal’s dad back toward downtown. When he pulled into the deli on Commerce Street, I pulled in too and waited for him to go inside and then I followed him. I hung back and let him order and they gave him a number and a glass of tea and he went over and sat down to wait. I went in the bathroom and made sure that I really didn’t need to shit and washed my face and hands and tucked in my shirt and then came out and went straight over to his table and said “Mr. Blevins, my name is Ellis and I would like to speak with you about something.” He snapped up from his phone with this look on his face like I’d come in to tell him I had just put my trailer hitch into the grill of his BMW. Then he said, real quiet, “Okay…. Ellis.”
“May I sit,” I said, remembering to use ‘may’ instead of ‘can.’ He looked even more confused so I took the opportunity to sit right then. I made more noise pulling out the chair than I wanted too, but the place was filling up so no one seemed to notice. He was still holding his phone, but by then I had his attention.
“What’s this about?” he said.
“Your daughter,” I said. “Crystal.”
“Is she all right?” he said, looking at the phone like there might have been an emergency message.
“Oh yeah,” I said. “She’s just great.”
“Then…” and just like when I had seen that dab of sauce on Crystal’s’ cheek, I knew what I wanted more than anything in the world.
“Well, see, me and Crystal have been together now for a while and we get along really good and we’re in love, see?”
“You’re in what?” he said.
“Love,” I said. “We’re in love and because I wanted to pay you the right amount of respect and all, I wanted to ask you if I could ask her to marry me.”
“You want to ask me what?” he said, and I smiled my best smile, getting ready to hit him with the next line.
“Marriage,” I said. “I wanted to ask if I could have her hand in marriage,” and that’s when he reached out and slapped me in the face. Hard, like when you want to end a fight before it actually starts.
“You must have lost your fucking mind,” he said and when I started to answer he slapped me again. “What have you done with my daughter!” he said, loud enough for everyone inside the deli to hear, and then he stood up real fast and came around the table where we were sitting, still holding the phone and I stood up too and started to say ‘wait a fucking minute, would you,’ but he was reaching for my shirt and that’s when I punched him right in his nose and it landed just right and blood was jetting all over the place and people started screaming.
“You know the rest,” I said to the cop sitting in the front seat, me in the back with my arms aching and my underwear still up the crack of my ass, watching the front door of the booking room, not opening or closing, like it was waiting on the two of us to make up our minds. I knew I was not going to see Crystal again. I thought that she might put up some kind of fight with her father, maybe even say what I had said. Tell him that what we had was love. Maybe cause a small scene and run up to her room and cry. But her father was not going to let me keep coming around, and I knew that just like I knew what the inside of that booking room was gonna smell like. Then I thought about how pissed off Anthony was gonna be, with me supposed to have been right back after going for the anti-shit medicine and the whole made-up story about the Chinese buffet. And looking at the back of the cop’s head I thought that this had all been one big fucking, stupid mistake, and from the very beginning I should have known better than to think someone like Crystal could ever be my wife. The cop got out of the car and came around the back for me and pulled me onto my feet and not seeing any other way around it, and seeing how he’d made an effort, I smiled at him.
“Okay, Zeus,” I said. “Let’s get to it.”
I was sitting in this holding cell and talking with a bunch of guys when this fat little guard came down and told me I was free to go. I’d just gotten to the part where I’d hit Mr. Blevins when she showed up and we all looked at her like her joke was not that funny.
“One does not walk away from a Palisades assault,” this old black man named Robert said. He was in there for kiting checks, a crime which had taken us all a while to comprehend.
“You got that right,” I said, looking over my shoulder at the rest of them sitting there, waiting.
When they brought me up front, Anthony was waiting too, looking really nervous, holding his hat. The fat little guard gave me my belongings and by the time I turned from the window, Anthony was already outside. I followed him across the lot and to the truck and then he stopped and so did I, knowing he was gonna chew my ass good.
“That girl’s father came to the job site this morning, Ellis. Do you know what you could have cost me, getting kicked out of that neighborhood? Fucking around with someone’s teenage daughter?” I did not need to answer that, but he kept going.
“You see me fucking around with teenage girls on the job?” I waited a second.
“Well no,” I said, “but you have a real nice wife and …”
“Jesus Ellis,” he said. He started for the door handle, then stopped.
“And then you go and attack him in a deli?” he said.
“Hold on. He came at me, man,” I said.
“That’s not the point, goddammit.” He took a second to cool down. “Anyway, he ain’t pressing charges. He told me she’s done this before.”
“Done what?” I said. He rolled his eyes
“Fuck around with the Help, man,” he said
“The Help?” I said
“Yeah, some hang-up she has. He said they were getting her some counseling. Just wanted this all to go away.” I went around the front of the truck and climbed in the cab. Tony got in beside me and asked if I wanted to go back to work or home. I thought about driving into the entrance to Palisades and then I thought about Eddie and Dale getting high in our little Goodwill den, watching court drama.
“Just take me over to that park,” I said.
“Yea, you know where they got all the bike cops. I think I need to take a stroll.”