Monday, August 27, 2018

Ask Me Tomorrow by Rob T. White


Ask Me Tomorrow

I wasn’t going to do it. I hadn’t had a good night’s sleep ever since she started begging me to kill her guardian. 

“Guardian, shit,” Marcie Jean whines, every time we met up, “the bastard’s been molesting me for months—and getting paid from my grandfather’s trust fund to do it!”

Trouble is, I never believed Marcy Jean’s story of being abused.  The man was a harmless drudge going to his law office every day at seven-thirty and leaving at five minutes after five every afternoon. He had a near-sighted wife and a pair of buck-toothed twins. I was insane for even thinking I could get away with it. She never had proof. No bruises except some finger pressure marks on her triceps and thighs she could easily have given herself.  Her stories about being raped grew were more melodramatic every time. It was like listening to a reality show where rooms of tattooed egomaniacs talked about themselves and schemed endlessly against the others in torrents of four-letter words.  Besides, the details she gave me were so ridiculous and unreal; how, I demanded, does he manage to sneak out of bed beside a snoring wife every single night and creep down the hall past the kids’ room and never wake anybody? 

“He just does,” she spat out; “he won’t stop!  Why don’t you believe me, Eugene?”  I knew, deep down, she was lying like a rug.

Once, she slipped up.  She told me how he had gone crazy with lust one night and “put her in the buck”—you know, like the Niggers With Attitude song where you grab a chick’s ankles and hold her legs up high before you stick it in. She said her head banged against the headboard so hard she had a concussion. Imagine a sleeping wife snoring through that?

But I knew she lied because a drug dealer I used to go crossbow hunting with once made a joke about doing that to her while he was field dressing a buck he’d brought down near the West Fork River. Marcie Jean used to go to Clarksburg to buy her dope like all the college kids in Salem.  That’s how she met the guy.

Salem’s my home, I grew up there, and it’s where she lived with her guardian’s family. It’s way too small for any partying except what you can manage with some beer out in the hills with your friends. Beer and weed, though, were never enough for her.  She’d been hooked on five-dollar hits of flocka on the streets of South Florida before the authorities found her delirious, running naked through Liberty City screaming that a bunch of “shadow men were trying to kill her.” They sedated her and a week later sent her back home to West Virginia.  Then her parents were killed in a crash near Parkersburg. At seventeen, she had no choice other than a foster home except to stay with her guardian, a second cousin of her mother’s, named in the will as executor. Marcie Jean can’t collect a dime of her trust fund until she’s twenty-one. If you knew Marcie, you’d know that’s like asking her to wait until Niagara Falls dried up.

I had just about made up my mind to break up with her.  I’d had it with the melodrama, and what was once a bizarre fantasy of hers, a never-ending din in my ears to commit murder for her.

The weight was being lifted from my shoulders on the day I decided to break up—and then that news crawl caught my attention.  I wasn’t listening to the television at all because of this mental trauma she was putting me through every day, demanding I kill her so-called rapist.  Two newscasters, a pair of Barbie and Ken-types, were yapping like fools over some trivial thing one of them had said. I hit the mute button. My brain slid into idle, but I took in the words passing below their giggling faces. They etched themselves into my brain as if dripped in acid. Just a couple, three sentences was all; a tragic story of a dozen school children burned to death in a bus down in Mexico somewhere.  The bus driver had told one of the kids to put gas in the tank and left them to go for a drink or a quick piss, whatever. The randomness of that, those innocent little lives all snuffed out, the sheer horror of it, hit me like a fist in the solar plexus. I looked up: the two newscasters were still yukking it up over their stupid joke.  The woman wore a gold necklace with medallions the size of doubloons hanging over her chest that bounced from the movement of her boobs when she laughed. 

That’s when my brain did a one-eighty, and I decided I would do it.  I would kill her guardian for her.  Just like that.  No other reason. The crazy bitch had me by the balls. 

Marcie Jean and I used to meet after supper when she had permission to go out for a couple hours unsupervised. One of the college dorms sits in a valley below a hill; there’s a sign in front of the dorm that reads:  The Valley of Learning. There’s a path behind the dorm the kids take at night when they want to have sex or smoke a little weed in private.  We’d meet farther back in a spot where I used to get drunk on a six-pack after football games back in high school. That was seven years ago, and I’m still working in the town’s only supermarket, packing groceries and taking orders from the owner’s teenaged son Chuckie. My mother developed Parkinson’s a few years later, so I used that as an excuse whenever I was asked why I stayed in town. I didn’t want to face the truth about my life.

“When . . . are you . . . gonna . . . do it?”

“Do what?”

“Don’t bullshit me,” Marcie Jean said between puffs. 

She didn’t vape just weed now.  She was getting Budder with the leaves and stems soaked in Butane. Marcie had started with bath salts in middle school. She was always looking for a higher high.

“How come your guardian doesn’t notice you spazzing and talking crazy at the family dinner table?”

“I don’t spaz and I don’t talk crazy, motherfucker. Don’t change the subject, coward,” she demanded.  “When?  How soon before you grow a pair?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

“Better be fuckin’ soon.  You know what I can do.” 

She threw her head back, eyes closed, feeling the rush while smoke surrounded her.

I thought of some cheap horror movie where the ghost suddenly appeared shrouded in mist. I’d explored these hills when I was a kid pretending to be a Confederate scout on the run from Grant’s Yankee troops.  I could never get lost out there even in the dark when the owls and bats came out.  Now I felt lost, hopeless, bullied by a girl whose breasts hardly made dents in her Metallica tee shirt. The guardian’s wife made her stop wearing black and dying her hair a soda-pop red, but she was still wild, untamed.

It was her constant threat nowadays whenever we met out of sight of the small-town gossips who would have reported me to her guardian if I’d so much as held her hand in public. I knew I was facing a statutory rape charge if he ever suspected I was involved with her.

The joke of it is I wasn’t the one who made the first move.  I haven’t had a girlfriend since my senior year of high school. Every girl I once liked took off with the sparks flying from her shoes as soon as she was old enough to leave Salem. The ones who stayed behind like me were stoners, unskilled laborers, or girls knocking out babies; most were skanks getting thrown against the sides of their trailers by their brute husbands or boyfriends. I was flattered a girl so young and pretty even spoke to me. Most customers never gave me a glance unless it was out of pity. She’d been in the store several times and never spoke to me.

One day she gave me a curious look when a box of tampons I was packing slipped out of the plastic bag and fell to the floor. I reached down for it and when our eyes met, I was blushing. She had a look on her face, sizing me up then.  Maybe she recognized me for the loser I was or saw something she wanted to use. 

“When, fucker?”

“Damn, Marcie Jean, let it go, will you?  I ain’t murdering nobody for you and spending my life in a steel box.”

“So, you like the taste of cock when you kiss my lips, you faggot?”

“Whose cock would that be, Marcie Jean?  Your guardian’s or the guy who’s been supplying you with gravel lately?”

“I ain’t had no damn flocka since I left Florida, you shit!”

“Right, sure.  That’s only because it hasn’t come to Clarksburg yet,” I said. 

I suspected she was still arranging to meet her drug-dealing ex-boyfriend on those occasions when I had to work during the week.  My calls always went to voicemail on Tuesdays and Thursdays when I put in twelve-hour days at the store. Without money of her own, I knew exactly how she paid him, too.  I caught her looking at a dick photo on her cell and last time I checked, my dick wasn’t brown.

Her face twisted in a familiar rage. I could sense these moments coming, doped up or not.  I realized for the first time how dangerous she really was. She had no more compassion or pity than an animal.  She came at me with her hands out like claws going for my eyes. I easily pinned her wrists.  She spat in my face.  She kept struggling against me, twisting her body this way and that.  Before I knew it, she was grinding her pelvis into my crotch and I was erect, crazed for her body.  We started kissing. I lifted her up and placed her against the trunk of a tree as I entered her. 

When I could speak words, I said, “I’ll do it.”

The crazy little psycho bitch was my own insanity drug.

* * *
I didn’t want to know any more about the man other than his name.  Marcie Jean had complained so many times about him “spending all her money with his lawyer tricks,” and his wife, “a creepy, hatchet-faced bitch,” or “the two snotty brats” that I already knew more than I wanted.  But he, this lawyer and family man, was going to die by my hand for no reason other than Marcie Jean’s greed and that was all I wanted to know.

I knocked on the door. My hands were sweaty.

“Hello, sir.”

“What do you want?”

The smell of his house, not unpleasant but rich with spicy food cooking behind him in the kitchen somewhere, took me off guard, and I had to stifle a gag urge.

“I work over to at O’Grady’s,” I said, fumbling, losing the thread of what I’d planned to say.

“I’ve seen you there,” he replied, assessing me.  “I asked what you wanted.”

“Marcie sent me to get you,” I said, my voice hoarse. “She was walking by the railroad tracks and she—she twisted her ankle.  She can’t walk. She said—”

“What was she doing on the railroad tracks?”

“I—I don’t know.  She just said to come get you.  I was coming out of work and I heard her calling out from the gulley behind the store.”

He almost bowled me over to get past me. I had to grip the porch rail to keep from being knocked over backwards into his flower bed.

“Don’t stand there gawking at me with that stupid look on your face!  Show me where she is!”

Being called stupid stung, but it helped stiffen my spine.

“We’ll need a car, sir,” I said. “The track is down by Sixth Street bridge over Parson’s Creek.”

“I live here,” he snapped.  “I know where Parson’s Creek is.  It’s not that far.  The two of us, we can carry her to the house.  It’s just a couple hundred yards.”

“No, sir,” I said.  “I don’t think that’s a good idea.  Her foot—”

“What about her foot, God damn it?”

“It’s almost twisted backwards,” I said.  “She’ll need to go right to the emergency room.”

“Je-sus Christ, that girl,” he muttered; “more trouble than she’s worth.”

But you like her money well enough, I thought.  He was making it easier for me.  Even if he wasn’t abusing her, he was a disagreeable snob with his clipper-cut hair and face shaved so close it had a blue gloss around the jawline. His ring had a stone the size and color of a robin’s egg.  The crease in his slacks looked sharp enough to cut paper. A thin black belt with a silver buckle showed his lack of belly flab unlike most men his age in town; his bone-white shirt with sleeves rolled to the forearms told me Marcie hadn’t lied about this part:  his breath was fruity; he liked to knock back a few glasses of wine when he got home and read the Wall Street Journal in his La-Z-Boy before supper.

The car was essential to the plan. We were going to blow town right after. I intended to drive south all night until we found a place to camp out near a bayou or a river.  She laughed and simpered, all sexy again now that I’d committed to it.  “We can have a campfire. Roast weenies and marshmallows.”

Marcie prattled on about how she’d reappear at the courthouse on her twenty-first birthday to claim her inheritance. I told her murder had no statute of limitations, but by then, I felt, we’d have made a life together, established a real home somewhere. Maybe even a kid or two of our own. Not much of a plan, all things considered.

“Wait there,” he ordered me and trotted off to the garage behind the house.

My heart sank when I saw a red Jeep back out of the garage instead of his pearl-gray Cadillac Escalade. 

“Why are you standing there staring like a moron?  Get in!”

I hopped in. Fuck a duck, I thought as soon as I saw the stick shift.  I can’t drive stick.

“What did you say?”

“Nothing, sir.”

“Christ, if she’s on drugs again—you better not be involved with anything, you hear me, asshole?  I know your family.”

He said it the way you’d describe a set of insects in a jar you were staring at. I focused my mind. Keep it up, shithead, I thought.

He was still threatening me as he drove.  “I don’t give a shit if your mother’s a spastic, a cripple or dying.  If you’re doing drugs with her, or providing her with drugs, I swear to God I’ll make your life pure misery, believe me.”

“No,” I said, “nothing like that.” 

“What’s that shit-eating grin on your face for?”

He downshifted and hit the brakes hard for the light change at the intersection, one of only two on Main Street, and I nearly banged my head into the dash.  One street over was the road to the college. My store, a place I had slaved in for the last eight years on minimum wage since my mother’s diagnosis, was right across the street.  I read the sign in the window:  6-Pack Scott Paper Towels - 99¢ with Cuopon. Limit Two. I recognized the boss’ son’s hand-writing even without the misspelling. My whole life was in front of me just then.

“How old are you?  You still work in a grocery store at your age?”

“That’s right.”

He muttered something that sounded like “pathetic loser,” shook his head, and shifted into third as we turned toward Parson’s Creek just past the college turn-off.

“Park here,” I said.

“Are we crossing the bridge?”

“No.  She’s lying at the bottom of the ravine just away from the tracks on the other side.  You can’t see her from here.”

Two cars full of young people passed us just then.  I turned away and waited until they were gone before I got out.

“What the hell’s wrong with you?  Get out of the fucking car! Come on, hurry up, show me, damn it!”

He followed me down the slope, slipping once to his ass and cursing. His shoes and pants were slick with gulley mud. Overhanging vines and creepers obscured us from any view of the street above the moment we left the road. 

“I think I can hear her,” I said.

“Where?”

“Just over there.”

I pointed.

He stepped in front of me, and I had a whiff of his cologne. Down there in the dim light with the funky smell of marsh rot and vegetation, my stomach clenched.

I stooped down and felt around in the dockweed with my hands, keeping my eye on his back as he worked his way farther down, still cursing at the filth on his pants and shoes.  I’d bought it at a crafts stall at the Italian Festival in Clarksburg a couple years ago at the time when my mother’s legs started to give out; she never liked using it. She went to an aluminum walker and then, a couple months ago, into a wheelchair. Hand-carved walnut, polished to a mahogany sheen, I used to take it out of the umbrella stand once in a while and take practice swings with it as if it were a Louisville slugger, and I was a clean-up batter facing down a three-two count in the ninth with bases loaded.  I imagined myself swinging for the fences, hearing the crowds go wild.

“I don’t see her,” he said.

He turned around to face me, wearing that same scowl that seemed painted on his face; it turned to surprise—too late. 

The crack of the wood across his temple sounded like a tree branch snapping off in an ice storm.

My plan was to call his name, say something memorable like “This is for Marcy Jean,” and club him once on top of the head. He’d drop without a word like someone holding a manhole cover in his hands.

He went down sideways into the weeds. A second passed, then two. I stood rock-still, unable to move or breathe. Cicadas made clicking noise above me in the locust trees; grasshoppers and cabbage moths fluttered around my legs in the tall grass. I heard a moan. 

“Hit him again.”

Marcie Jean appeared beside a tree.

What the fuck’re you do here!” 

She was supposed to be somewhere with other people, girlfriends who could alibi her if needed.

“Keep your voice down,” she hissed.  “He’s still alive.  Hit him again. Finish him off.”

He moaned again, louder this time. I jumped at the noise. My body seemed to go crazy all at once with adrenalin and perspiration.  Salt tears stung my eyes. I saw Marcy Jean standing there, a dark scowl on her face.

“What’s wrong with you, Eugene?  Hit him again, God damn you!”

I stepped toward him.  His legs stuck out of the weeds but his torso and head were hidden.

I raised the cane above my head and aimed for the place where his head would be.

“Do it!”

The cane slipped from hands.  I bent to pick it up but my legs buckled.  I dry-heaved, bent over, clutching my aching stomach.  I heard a rip-sawing warble of a scream ringing in my head and I didn’t know where it was coming from.  When I looked at Marcie Jean, her mouth was open in a pear-shaped O.  She was screaming but I couldn’t hear all the words.  I heard enough when my mind stopped buzzing: “Oh my God . . . he hit my step-father . . . help me!”

I threw up again, this time a ropy drool of yellow bile that splashed all over her guardian’s shoes.

* * *

They sent me to Denmar Correctional.  It’s in Pocahontas County where hundreds of men died in battles during the Civil War. Cheat Mountain in the Allegheny isn’t far off and you can see a blue haze settle over it at twilight.  My lawyer argued for Salem, a medium-minimum, based on my mother’s condition and her inability to travel, but that didn’t sway him at all.  He called me “more cold-blooded than a reptile.”  This place used to be a TB hospital.  When I first arrived, a veteran guard who likes to torment new fish like me told me the stains on the ceilings and walls are “ghost drops,” the results of former tuberculosis patients coughing up aspirated blood with white centers.

“They hacked up their lungs in here, boy. You can still get TB from touching the walls.”

My cellie told me not to mind him.  “They’s just big-old water stains,” he said. 

The place is overcrowded and understaffed like about every other prison in the state, but I’m doing OK. It helps to come in with a violent-offender jacket, they say. How long it’ll last until I get challenged by some bad guy in here is anybody’s guess, but I might could have fifteen years to think about it.

Marcie Jean got her money, after all.  My lawyer did everything to persuade me to finger her as “the mastermind” for a reduced sentence.  It’s not to protect her I refused; it was shame.  To get on the witness stand and bleat out my gutlessness and brain-dead stupidity like a sheep was too much. I’d rather do the time.  I heard through the grapevine she got herself some law professor at the college to file a brief, or whatever they call it, citing “special circumstances,” to enable her to collect the money sooner since her guardian was—to put it politely—incapacitated.  The guardian’s wife even supported her bid, which did surprise me.  Maybe Marcie promised to cut her in.

The guardian’s the same, according to a newspaper article I read last month.  He’s in a private rehab facility with a traumatic brain injury.  He has to be fed, washed, and changed like a baby. My mother died shortly after the trial.  Her heart gave out.  My sister in Moundsville said she’ll never speak to me again.

I still see him at night when the talking and yelling quiets down a bit.  He has a frozen look on his face as he turns to face me.  Who can say for sure whether he actually did?  In my mind, that’s how I see it.  He knows what’s coming.
 
Marcie Jean doesn’t write and I don’t expect her to.  I’m sure she’s far away in some warm place where palm fronds blow in a gentle sea breeze and water laps at her ankles, happy at last, maybe even free from all her demons. That, however, I doubt. Marcie Jean was cut from a different cloth than most girls her age.

She’ll be a woman in her thirties when I next see her.  Believe me, I will see her. When I was a boy, I spent a lot of time alone in the woods. It’s paying off in here.  I know how to be still, to watch and listen. I keep a hard rubber ball under my pillow and I squeeze it hundreds of times every day.  I’m up to six hundred now. I’m hoping for a thousand by the end of the month.  The most I can consecutively squeeze right now is seventy-nine. My hand goes numb and my fingers won’t grip a spoon after that. But I know I’ll improve. 

I want to hear a certain sound one more time. Not the crack of wood against the bone of a man’s temple.  The sound of ligaments and strap muscles tearing when my powerful hands squeeze her neck. I have one fantasy that plays over and over in my head like a film loop:  I’m approaching her from the front with a drink on a tray, an aging waiter, smiling in a white coat and black bow tie at some trendy resort.  She reaches for the drink and suddenly she looks into my eyes.  She sees me. But of course, it’ll be too late. No one, nothing can pull my hands from her throat in time. 

You might think fifteen years, if I do all my sentence, is too long to hold that kind of grudge.  But ask me about that tomorrow.   

-End-

Bio Robb T. White lives in Northeastern Ohio; he has published three hardboiled private-eye novels featuring series character Thomas Haftmann.  He also has over a dozen short stories of crime published in various webzines and print.  His latest Haftmann novel is Nocturne for Madness (New Pulp, 2016) and a recent collection of crime stories is Thomas Haftmann, Private Eye (2017).  A forthcoming novel by Hale Books (Crowood Press, U.K.) is Perfect Killer.  His website is http://tomhaftmann.wixsite.com/robbtwhite



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2 comments:

  1. Feed the authors, show ‘em some love.

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  2. Had me hooked from the first two lines, and the characters kept me interested.

    ReplyDelete