by Alec Cizak
Gilbert’s mother sat on the couch with him. She wore her usual baggy, sky blue muumuu and a clear shower cap. They’d been watching Family Feud when the old-fashioned flip model in Gilbert’s pocket chirped like a parakeet. He palmed it and answered. As Seth Short gave him instructions, Gilbert’s mother tapped his elbow, repeated, “Where’d you get that?” She pointed at the cell. Would not let Gilbert focus on the conversation with Seth. He said, “Hold up, boss,” and put his hand over the mic.
“You know I can’t multitask,” he said to his mother.
“I want to know where you got that.”
Gilbert stood and started for the front door. His mother said, “You ain’t working for them rednecks again, are you?”
He stepped onto the stoop outside and slammed the door. That would let her know to mind her own business. “I’m back,” he said into the phone.
“Stink,” said Seth, “how’d you like to drive a car to Chicago for me?”
Seth lived in a two-story shithole near Lublin. What lawn remained hadn’t been mowed in a quarter century. Rot plagued the house’s cedar walls. Termites, Gilbert assumed. Smoke lolled over the edges of a leaning chimney. Seth lumbered like Lurch, from the Addams Family. He hated jokes about his ungodly height. He walked Gilbert around to the side. Slipped him the keys to a maroon Honda Civic. Nothing flashy, nothing to catch the beady eyes of Lake County or Chitown pigs. He punched an address into the car’s GPS and said, “You ask for Diego when you get there. He’ll be expecting you.” He explained how to hide the package in the trunk, underneath the factory-provided spare tire and flimsy jack. “Stink,” he said, “I’m glad you’re with us again.” He waved a finger in his face. “I want New Stink on this job, not Old Stink, you dig?”
Gilbert told him he could count on him. Promised he wouldn’t fuck things up. Seth sent him on his own. A relief. Gilbert’d gotten in good with Seth once more by accompanying Crank Baxter on a hit the previous week. A nasty task. Hadn’t slept well since. Crank had picked him up in a rusted Ford Courier. It coughed and choked as he urged it to seventy miles an hour. They pulled into Haggard after midnight. Parked across from the underground bunker at the water plant. Crank Baxter resembled a World War II tank. Squat, sturdy frame built in the mills in Gary. He stalked the bunker’s green haze hunched over; a cat poised to kill. Shoved his way through clusters of junkies. He grabbed people by their throats, lifted them off the ground, and Darth Vader’d them about a guy named Bobby Arnold. A young woman with honey-brown hair directed them to a concrete lip just above the sewage ducts. Rodents nipped at Bobby Arnold’s toes as he scrunched himself inside the narrow space. Must have figured it an easier fate than dealing with Crank Baxter. Mud stained his jeans and trendy Johnny Cash T-shirt, the one with the Man in Black showing the camera his middle finger.
Crank dragged him through the crowd. The junkies cussed, threatened to kick his ass. “Help me get this piece of shit to the surface,” he said to Gilbert. For a junkie, Bobby Arnold looked healthy. Overweight, but youthful, shiny skin. Probably new to the scene. Gilbert struggled to keep his balance as he pushed Bobby’s feet through the steel-rimmed portal leading to the sane world. Crank hoisted him from above, his monster hands clutching the junkie’s shoulders. As Gilbert climbed the iron rungs to the street, Crank Baxter thwacked Bobby Arnold in the side of his neck. The junkie collapsed. Crank dragged him by his ankle to the truck. “Let’s go, Stink,” he said. Gilbert wished he had the balls to correct the gangsters, tell them nobody needed to call him Stinky anymore. His underarms and unwashed Haynes begged to differ. He helped Crank chuck the junkie onto the bed of the pickup. Two five-gallon gas cannisters and several coils of chains had been secured behind the cab.
As they bounced and slid over a gravel road near Pawpaw Grove, Gilbert asked, “What’s the deal?”
Crank stared at him for a moment. “Bobby’s been busted seven times now and never once been tossed over the wall.”
Gilbert ceased thinking of Bobby Arnold as a junkie. Junkies deserved sympathy. But rats? They required swift execution.
“Going to take him for a ride.” Crank steered the Ford onto a wide, dirt path at Pawpaw Hollow. He brought the truck to a halt among cedars and birch trees. “Let’s get the snitch prepped for his last meal.” He clarified: “Bobby’s going to feast on twigs and pebbles before meeting his maker.”
They secured the rat’s legs with the chains and attached the other ends to a hitch on the tail of the truck. Bobby stirred as they set him on the ground. “Why not just shoot him?” said Gilbert.
“Boy needs to think about his mistakes as he’s dying.” Crank walked back to the cab.
Bobby Arnold opened his eyes. He held his pudgy hands out to Gilbert. Baby hands. “Please, buddy…”
“Stink!” Crank honked the horn twice.
The engine growled. An impatient predator. Crank jammed his left foot onto the brake pedal and fed the engine gas with his right. The hood rattled. Crank released the brake and the truck coughed before taking off.
Not even the chorus of the wind harmonizing with the Ford’s raspy protests drowned the horrid sounds of Bobby Arnold’s shrieks. Fate must have blessed him, snapped his neck, early in the ride. Gilbert glanced at his sideview mirror. The rat’s limp body trampolined off the earth like a fish reeled in across a lake. The image visited him any time he caught a moment’s sleep the following days.
Crank slowed and stopped the truck in a clearing. He pointed at a parked violet Geo. “Our chariot home.” He directed Gilbert to reach under his seat. Said he’d find two sets of work gloves. “This is going to be messy.”
The road repurposed Bobby Arnold into a sopping crimson slab. As they heaved the dead rat onto the bed of the truck, his skeleton collapsed. Multiple bones must have splintered or broken. Crank instructed Gilbert to climb over the fleshy glob and retrieve the cannisters of gasoline. Gilbert handed them to him. “Jump down, now,” said Crank. He picked up one of the containers and splashed the corpse and the truck. He nodded to the other cannister. “Let’s go, Stink. This heap ain’t going to bathe itself.”
Gilbert unscrewed the lid. The container felt heavier as he doused the front end of the truck. He circled the vehicle several times. The air wobbled like a movie flashback, reeked of benzene. Crank threw his cannister onto the bed and told Gilbert to do the same. He produced a Zippo with a copper Grim Reaper etched into the side of it. “Stand back, Stink.” He lit the Reaper and aimed it at the Ford. Sparks jumped until a small fire danced where the Zippo landed. The flames mated with the fuel. A vicious gust preceded a blaze encompassing the truck and the rat.
Crank smacked Gilbert in the chest with the back of his hand. “Let’s go, Stink.” He threw a set of keys at him and walked toward the Geo. “You drive this time, buddy.”
A week later, Gilbert exited the Dan Ryan Express at 35th and crawled through cramped traffic to Union. The GPS directed him to a two-story brick building on the corner. A liquor store occupied the first floor. Men on the sidewalk asked for spare change from anyone entering or leaving the booze shop. Women in painted-on skirts chirped at him, asked if he needed some pussy. One woman, could not have been older than sixteen, offered to suck his dick. He patted his pockets, pretended he had no cash. He found the entryway leading to the apartments. On a keypad with scratched off numbers, he dialed the number Seth gave him. A man on the other end asked what the hell he wanted. “Name’s Gilbert,” he said. “I’m here to see Diego.” The door buzzed and he ascended a set of marble stairs riddled with cracks. At the top of the steps, a man wider than Gilbert, dressed in safari shorts and a wine-red Bermuda shirt, chomped a cigar. His snow-white eyebrows and hair suggested he had a decade on Gilbert.
In a polite tone, he said, “Please raise your arms.” He patted down Gilbert with one hand. A lazy inspection. “It’s cool,” he said. “Seth tells me you’re old school.”
Gilbert pointed to the gray patch of hair arcing over his left ear. “Been around a while, amigo.”
“Sí, ese.” The man appeared neither amused nor impressed. He directed him into a small room with torn furniture and a flat screen television mounted in the window. He rested his cigar across the top of a Coke can. From under a couch suitable for a museum—the ornate, wooden arms and legs carved to resemble the feet and claws of an unidentified animal—the man produced a briefcase with a broken combination lock. He opened it and pointed to a collection of plastic baggies stuffed with pills.
After closing the briefcase, the man stepped aside. “All yours.”
Gilbert did so and left the apartment. He recognized several of the pills—Vikes, Oxy, and Fen, ready to be crushed and snorted or shot into the arms of Lake County’s living dead. He never plugged dope. Considered it a waste. Better to pop a pill, let the body warm to the chemical seasoning. A couple of Vikes, he could haunt a bar and not make a fool of himself in front of women. Then again, he hadn’t gone out in years. He preferred to sit on the couch in his mother’s house and veg to late night television.
He roamed the liquor store. Pulled an RC from a cooler near the emergency exit. As he approached the counter, he noticed a young woman in cut-off shorts. Ass cheeks peeking out the bottom. Pink halter top. No bra. Honey-brown hair. His attention volleyed between her and the clerk as he paid for the soda. He told the clerk to keep the change.
He ignored the men outside asking for money, the hookers ogling him, as though he owed them attention. The young woman in cutoffs trailed him to the rental. He stopped and said, “Excuse me?”
“I know you.” She placed her knuckles on her hips. A nearby streetlamp, one of the few working on the block, washed out her eyes. “Met you in the bunker, in Haggard.”
He ducked into a shadow.
“Last week,” she said, “you barged through looking for that fat ugly snitch, Bobby Arnold.”
“No idea what you’re talking about.”
She waved her hand. “Oh, don’t worry none. Nobody’s going to miss that fucking skinhead.”
“I got to go.” Gilbert started for the driver’s side.
“Back to Haggard?”
Gilbert pressed the button on the keychain to open the door.
“Think I could get a ride?” The young woman tilted her head. “Really,” she said, “I promise I won’t tell no one you clipped the snitch.”
“Who said I did?”
The young woman stepped toward the passenger-side door and fiddled with the handle. “Come on, man,” she said. “I don’t get a ride, I’m going to have to spend the night with a creep. You know how dudes from Chicago are. Total douchebags.”
Gilbert’s lungs deflated. He’d yet to shake the moronic belief that doing favors for women led to sex. Sex he wouldn’t pay for in the most overt, socially unacceptable manner. He imagined the young woman in lingerie, after a shower and a makeover. She’d look good. What had she been doing in the bunker? No blemishes on her arms or legs from plugging dope. Did she pop pills? He could buy some from Seth and ask the young woman to chill with him. “Hop on in.” He clicked the trunk button on the keychain and wedged the briefcase between the spare tire and first aid kit.
As Chicago’s obscene skyscrapers diminished in the rearview, the young woman unloaded biographical details. Whether she told the truth, Gilbert didn’t care. She claimed a redneck shot her ex-boyfriend in the Van & Strack parking lot. Cops wanted to pin it on her. Not enough evidence. She laid low in the bunker to be safe. “Never know when the pigs might decide to take a closer look.” Gilbert asked if the man’s death had been her fault. She changed the subject. “Got a line to Classy Companions.”
“I won’t be selling my pussy, per se. Just showing it to douchebags while they tug themselves.” She stared out her window. “I know, it’s kind of gross. But I won’t cross that line. I won’t take money to let a man inside me.”
“You shouldn’t,” said Gilbert. “I mean, I’m not judging. I just think…You look like you have more respect for yourself, you know?” His mother would have laughed. She’d put her foot down a year ago, told him to stop bringing hookers to his bedroom.
A purple and gray sky loitered over the dead mills in Gary. The young woman mumbled. Something like, “Yeah, sure.”
Gilbert took the first exit to Haggard. He needed to gas up the rental and grab something sweet for his belly. He pulled into the Shell station overlooking I-65 like a parent at a playground. He asked the young woman if she needed anything. She said no. Very considerate of her. “Sit tight,” he said. He swiped his mother’s credit card at the pump and fed the tank. He greeted a posse of homeless cats he’d gotten to know in recent months. They stood by the door, opening it for customers coming and going, hoping for charity. “Get you on my way out,” he said to them. He perused the snack aisle, his mouth watering at the shelf of Hostess sugar bombs. He nabbed a cherry pie and stood in line. He used his own cash. On his way back to the car, he dropped three quarters in the smudged, free hand of the man holding the door. The guy sneered. “It’s all I got,” said Gilbert.
Guilt from not helping the homeless man buy a four-course meal and whatever poison put him on the street evaporated when he returned to the rental. The woman had taken off. Jesus, he should have known better. Good-looking twenty-something, even if she dwelled in the bunker, what the hell would she want with a rotting fifty-three-year-old? He grinned at himself in the rearview as he settled in the car. Half his teeth, missing. Blackened, chipped, crooked. A hillbilly Red Foxx. “Loser,” he said to himself. He took off and cruised to Seth’s place. The big man sat at a crumbling picnic table out front. Flaking paint suggested the benches had once been canary and the table itself, burnt orange. Probably stolen from the old Haggard public swimming pool. Gilbert parked and meandered to the table, wiping pie crumbs off the corners of his mouth. Seth picked up the barrel of a black revolver he’d disassembled and peered through it. “What’s the word, Stink?”
Gilbert clicked the keychain and popped the trunk. “No issues.” He walked with Seth to the car. Seth arrived a second earlier. His eyes rummaged the trunk.
“Johnnies pulled you over,” he said, “looks like you’d a had nothing to worry about.”
Gilbert’s throat dried. The young woman had robbed him. He’d failed to hide the dope the way Seth instructed. He’d fucked up. Again. He marched around to the driver’s side, bent down to examine several buttons near the emergency brake. “Shit…”
“Where’s my product, Stink?” Impatience colored Seth’s voice.
The young woman had found the button for the trunk, no doubt took a peek, and snatched the briefcase. He inhaled. Closed his eyes. “I guess…there was an issue.”
Seth slammed the trunk and circled the car. “How’s that?”
“I gave a ride…”
Pointing at him with the detached gun barrel, Seth said, “Changed my mind, Stink. Not in the mood to hear the story. Get me my pills or get your affairs in order. I’m tired of giving you second chances.”
Technically, he’d only given him two second chances. Gilbert stuffed himself into the car and started it up without saying anything. Seth approached the driver’s side and tapped the window with the gun barrel. Gilbert rolled it down. The big man leaned in and said, “Got one hour, Stink. Beyond that, I’m sending Crank Baxter your way. You know how that’s going to turn out, don’t you?”
Gilbert’s mother dubbed Seth Short The Overseer. Said he’d have taken delight in whipping returned runaways back in the day. Gilbert considered these things as he climbed down the rusted rungs to the bunker at the water plant. Usual litter of junkies on the narrow lip beside the flowing sewage. They’d slumped against the concrete wall, huddled, on the nod. Shit. Common sense told him he’d retrieve nothing. Perhaps he could offer up the young woman as a sacrifice to Seth.
“Anybody seen…” He’d never thought to ask her name. Or did she tell him and he’d forgotten? Yes, yes. She said it once. Something fancy, something foreign sounding, like she belonged in a Hans Christian Andersen story. A junkie in a striped shirt and torn blue jeans raised his head. He squinted, as though staring into the sun.
“I’m looking for a girl,” said Gilbert. “Short shorts, pink halter top, dusty brown hair, possibly blonde, I’m not good with colors.”
“Think you mean Cym.” The junkie used his bulbous forehead to point down the line. “She’s earned a spot with Mitch.”
“Mitch Polk?” said Gilbert.
The junkie said, “Last names are still a thing in the world upstairs?”
Gilbert thanked him and walked into the tunnel. Mitch Polk had been a runner for Seth. Gilbert heard he’d died at some point. Overdosed. Or Seth had him eighty-sixed. Depended on who told the story. The bunker hid a lot of Haggard’s dirt. His eyes adjusted to the dim and he spotted the young woman’s legs, draped over another man in filthy jeans. “Hey,” he said when he reached her.
The young woman took her time facing him.
“What’d you do with it?” he said.
The man she’d wrapped herself around forced his chin higher. “Who are you?”
“Nobody calls me that no more.” He returned his attention to the young woman. “I need the shit you peeled.”
“No idea what you’re talking about.” The young woman flashed her teeth. So white they glowed in the dark. A flirtatious smile. No doubt certain she could tease her way out of trouble.
“Ain’t here to bullshit,” said Gilbert. “I just need that shit back.”
Mitch must have thought Gilbert couldn’t hear him. “He talking about the dope?”
The young woman played dumb.
“Oh, bro,” said Mitch, “that shit’s long gone.” He waved his hand back and forth. “Everybody got some.” He clutched the brick wall to help him get to his feet. “And thank you, if you’re the donor.”
Gilbert’s fingers clasped the junkie’s clammy throat. “You understand Seth Short’s going to turn your ass inside-out, right?”
Mitch laughed. “Wouldn’t be the first time.”
“Dude,” said the young woman, “the shit’s gone. Just deal with it.”
Gilbert released Mitch, let him drop to his knees to catch his breath. To the young woman, he said, “You familiar with karma?”
“That’s superstitious shit for people who can’t handle reality.”
“It’s very real,” said Gilbert.
The young woman shrugged.
The bunker’s emerald glow tapered. Gilbert knew he could pick her up, throttle her, throw her into the river of sewage. Wouldn’t matter. He’d still have to go to Seth empty. Still have to take his lumps. “Okay,” he said to the young woman. “See you on the other side.”
He climbed out of the bunker and drove to the Family Express on Seventh Street. He used his mother’s credit card to buy a bottle of Night Train and sat in the rental downing it. Before putting the Honda into gear and heading toward Seth’s, toward whatever harsh judgment The Overseer had in store for him, he called his mother on the disposable flip phone. “Hey,” he said. “Just wanted to thank you.” She asked what the hell had gotten into him. “You jet through life,” he said to her, “someone right next to you, telling you what you need to hear, and you don’t listen until it’s too late.”
“Well, yeah…” Her sarcasm? Music.
“I got to go, Mom.” He hung up and coasted onto Seventh Street. He fired up the rental’s satellite radio. Found a station playing songs from the nineties. All that grunge crap he couldn’t stand, taking him back to his days as a young man, when he still believed his future lay in Chicago and beyond. When he still believed he would not be buried in the same town he’d been born in.
Alec Cizak is a writer and filmmaker from Indiana. His recent books include Down on the Street, Breaking Glass, Lake County Incidents, and Cool It Down. He is also the editor of the digest magazine Pulp Modern.