Authors: Kevin Hardcastle
By the time we got the second tow trailer loaded Dan was already pegging it across the frontlot, screaming bloody murder, but we couldn't make it out. Before he made it over we could hear the sirens. Faint as a whistling breeze but getting louder by the second. Pa mounted his sled and rode up over the trailhead lip, careful until he made it onto the trail proper. All of the gear and booze went with him into the dark. Dan and Doug followed and I brought up the rear and stopped just inside the path, got off my sled and used a length of busted plywood to shovel over the snow at the trail gap. I threw it sidelong into the woods and hopped onto my sled. Gunned it for the bay.
I seen my uncles ahead like two cat's eyes, my own headlamp shining at their back reflectors. They got bigger and bigger. I tried to look back to shore but I was going like a rocket and couldn't bring myself to turn entire. The near naked ice played hell on the sled skis and my arms were already bone-sore. I held the handlebars as hard as I could. Up ahead, the two lead sleds were bigger yet and then one of them took a cut to the side and it was off the goddamn surface, swelling and narrowing in size and casting light like a flashlight thrown and spiralling. Then all I could see was the brake lights of the other sled and a round circle of shadow atop the ice that took shape awful quick as I closed on it.
My Uncle Doug lay sideways on the ice with his arms pinned between his thighs, like he had to take a piss. His right leg had been turned at an impossible angle and was too long by inches. I got off the sled and slid over on my knees. His helmet had a nasty gouge out of it and the visor was gone. I shook him and could see his eyelids twitch by the headlamp light that spilled over us. Uncle Dan had wheeled around and now he pulled up and got off his sled. For a second he just stood there with his helmet in his hand. Then he dragged me up by my armpit, turned me to where we'd come from. Far out in the black there were lines of blue light shifting every which way.
“Go on, Charlie,” he said. “I'll carry him. Tell your Pa what happened.”
Not a half-mile gone, I came upon my Pa, standing on the ice beside his idling sled. He held his hand up for me to stop, about twenty feet out. He had his helmet off and his facemask at his neck. Frost clung to his beard. His one arm hung low at his backside and I could see the shotgun steel behind the leg. When he saw it was only me he set the gun down on the seat of his sled and came over by long strides.
“Where's the boys?” Pa said.
“Doug's sled caught a rut in the ice, threw him.”
“He was out when I left 'em. Uncle Dan told me to go on. Said they'd be along directly.”
The big man turned and hustled to his sled. He came back with the shotgun and had me hold it while he fixed his mask and put his bucket on, opened the visor. He stared at me. Took the gun.
“Get up, son,” he said.
I cleared off of my machine.
“Head for the shore on my sled. When you get there don't you wait on us. Ronnie'll want to wait but you knock him out if you got to and drive on.”
“Do not go home 'til I come for ya.”
He settled heavy on my sled and took off, circled wide and started back across the ice. The skies had cleared and a sliver of moon shone meagre above us. Tiny lamplight at either shore where people had cut their homes. Treetop shadows like thousands of bottom-row teeth. Pa but a scrap in the white as he sped away.
We waited as long as we could, but then we did go home. By the pale daybreak. On foot and frozen through to the bone, shuffling side by side through the thick of the wood. Ronnie couldn't keep it up so we found the sled trail and walked the old, ice-hardened tracks. At the back fringe of my yard we crouched behind trees and watched the sun come up, scouted the place and saw not a sign of life.
The fire would not burn high enough for Ronnie. He kept feeding it until the flames choked and all but died. I ran a near-hot bath and made him get in it. Told him to get used to it before filling it hotter. I gripped his hand like men do, thumb locked to thumb. Then I left him there with a half-bottle of whiskey, the base of it underwater and pinned to his middle with both hands. I sat in the living room armchair in my underpants with four layers of blankets over my chapped hide. Whiskey and beer at the side table. I had the house phone and a
radio within arm's reach.
No call ever came because my dad and his brothers went through the ice that Sunday in March, one brother perhaps dead already but we would never know for sure. They fell under the weight of their sleds and went down to the black and were not retrieved until late the next day, stropping the underside of a thin sheet of ice near the eastern shoreline. They had all bunched and froze together like mussels. Had to be chipped apart with a hammer and chisel in the hospital ambulance bay before they were brought to the morgue, so as not to unsettle the podunk doctors and orderlies. At least that's how it's told in town.
Further told as myth and legend are all the accounts of people who sat at the Anchor Tavern the day before Pa and his brothers were buried. Police Chief Donald Moreau had just come off a news show where he talked all about the outlaws he ran down and who sadly fell victim to their own hubris that cold fucking night. Way he told it was the cops tried to throw lines to the three men when the ice gave out. Could not save them. But the chief didn't know, and nor did I, that Ronnie went to the site where my Pa and uncles fell in the black of night and he crawled to the hole belly-down. Found buckshot in the gnawed up brink, same gauge that might be fired from a standard police scattergun. And Ronnie had those pellets in his jacket pocket when he came into the Anchor, rancid from Pa's wake, and blew a quarter of the police chief's head off with a sawed-off .22 rifle.
There are quiet days now. Calm days and I wake up most mornings cold in my bed. In a very clean house that has long been paid for and runs little hydro and commands next to nothing in property tax to the county. I don't see many visitors. The old cop Francis came out once to tell me he wasn't at the lake. That he was sorry about my Pa. I didn't let him past the foot of the drive. I hear he's since retired. I been trying my best to keep a real garage running out of the place and I often set to work on the old Mercury coupe. Even ran it without plates or insurance through the backroads with a pretty young girl under my arm. Just the once, or twice. I spend as much time as I can at my Aunt Colette's house, trying to help her when she'll let me. Round as she is and fit to burst, she still won't let me stay long. Claire goes there often and sometimes she stays late into the night, talking about possible futures. Colleges that could be. Babies that will be. Lonely homes with just one person in each, how to make them full.
If Claire comes over of a night from my aunt's, we curl up and play house. I drink a lot and she drinks less and less. She always falls asleep before I do and that is when I miss my mother and father. Talk to them long in the thinnest hours of the night. Drunk and damned and waiting for the answers, a girl's head by my heart that by God scares me more than the quiet.
ONE WE COULD STAND TO LOSE
rthur walked the lobby of
the hotel in his suit-trousers and stopped by framed photographs of the place lit in gold and silver light, black limousines waiting the length of that city block. Behind one picture there was a faint stain from a blast of blood and vomit and he knew it because he'd fixed the frame over that ruined patch of wallpaper. He knew the layout of each floor and what rooms were hired and what rooms were condemned and bolted shut. Arthur walked to the office and relieved a young lady with black, black hair and a bullring in her nose. She took her things and left without a word. He sat behind the desk and slid the window open. Sound of thunder from below. Nightclub that ran all hours underneath the hotel. Arthur felt it by the soles of his shoes.
A tall Jamaican man came through the front doors in a tank top. He sidled up to the front desk. Sweaty skin of his arms and neck. Eyes red and sunken.
“Arthur, my man,” the Jamaican said.
“Hi, Ollie. How many?”
The man dropped a ten-dollar bill on the counter and Arthur took it, ducked low. He spun the dial to a safe built into the floor under the desk. He came back with two mason jars of still whiskey and slid them over to the Jamaican.
“Whoo,” the man said.
“That'll put some hair on your chest,” Arthur told him.
The man bagged the jars and walked through the lobby, waved as he left by the streetside doubledoors. Panes gone foggy with grit and glass-splattered insects.
In the early morning Arthur
heard two drunks screaming at each other through the plaster walls. One woman called another woman a cocksucker. He turned his radio on and sat on his mattress. The bed linens were clean because Arthur bought them long ago and laundered them himself. He had torn up his carpeting near the turn of the century and carted it down to the alleyway dumpster piece by piece. When Arthur got up to piss at night he walked barefoot on creaky hardwood, and he often sat in his chair barefoot and read late with his feet on the cedar planking.
He'd not slept long when someone knocked his door. By the clock it was eleven a.m. Arthur got up and went over to see by the peephole. He opened up on a frantic clerk who worked the morning shift. The man was near dancing on the hallway carpet. Eyes agog and his face gone red.
“What is it, Tim?”
“It's goddamn chaos down there. They come in through the front door and then came some more and they just started goin' at it.”
“Most of 'em ran. But the dude from two-sixteen is face-down in the lobby with all kinds of stuff comin' outta him.”
Arthur cleared out a small and
stumbling crowd to better look at the downed man. He'd ended up mouth to carpetfabric and blew laboured breaths into a little pool of his own blood and upchuck. Arthur tried to speak to the man but he wasn't conscious. The cops and ambulance had long been called and Arthur set the man into the recovery position and held the man's sweaty head in both hands. The man trembled steady like a current had been run through him.
The paramedics took the man out on a gurney with a tube down his throat. He had his eyes closed and a bubble of mucus and plasma swelling at the corner of his mouth. Arthur stood beside the morning clerk as he tried to spit out his story to the cops. Then Arthur spoke to them awhile and to the smattering of firemen and paramedics that kept on in the lobby.
“You fellas always come in pistols drawn for an injury like that?”
The one cop shrugged.
“We ever answer a disturbance call here we come in pistols up, period.”
He tended the whiskey still in an
old boiler room below the hotel proper. The elevator and stairwell went down to a sub-basement that only he and the building owner could access by master key. Nobody but Arthur had been down there for years. He spent many of his off hours in that room with its centenary bricks chipped and sweating. He wore his undershirt over his small belly, forearms thick with cord-muscle, old merchant navy tattoos about his shoulders and biceps. No matter the time of day or night he felt basstones through the heavy stone. Liquids rippled where they were flasked and bottled. He'd come to not mind it.
By bulblight he worked and checked his watch. Half-hour until his night shift at the counter. He took up a crate of jars packed in newspaper and cardboard egg-cartons. On his way out he flicked the light switch with his elbowbone, hefted the crate with just his right arm as he closed the boiler room door.
The black-haired girl spun in her
chair when Arthur came in. She had a tiny ceramic bone through the centre-hole in her nose now. Skin around her eyes dark with make-up, drawn to a point toward her ears. She stared at him and he just went about signing in and checking the booth. He'd set a canvas bag on the counter with another half-dozen jars in it.
“Can I have one?” she said.
“If you got five dollars.”
She dug in her pocket and held out a crumpled bill. He looked at her then.
“Sweet Jesus,” he said.
“Think it's too much?”
“What you mean?”
She flicked the nosebone.
“Oh that,” he said. “I didn't even notice. I was just overwhelmed a minute by the smell of whatever hippie concoction they sold you for armpit deodorant.”
She smiled white, white teeth. Dentist since childhood teeth. He handed her a jar and pocketed the five. She put the jar in her purse but didn't leave.
“Want to have a drink with me? Gotta pass some time before I meet a friend.”
“I'll have a sit with ya. Just keep that low in case somebody comes in.”
The girl set up on a low stool in the front corner of the office, just her head showing over the countertop. Took the jar out again and uncapped it.
“Tim told me you helped save a guy the other day.”
“Don't know about that.”
“How many people you seen get hurt in here?”
“More'n I'd like to say.”
The girl sipped at the jar. Tilted her head back and breathed hot through her mouth. Kept it open.
“Holy shit,” she said.
“Are those old black and whites on the wall legit? With all the fancy limos and movie stars and shit?”
“Yep. Was a nice place.”
“I don't know. What ever does happen? It was for a long time and then it wasn't.”
The girl's pants-pocket started to sing and she slumped to pinch out her cellphone. She looked at it and stood up. Capped the whiskey jar and put it inside her purse again.
“You gonna tell me about what I first asked?” she said.
Arthur had his palm against his cheek and the elbow of that arm on the counter. He used it to turn on the stool.
“I'd already lived in the hotel for three years when I found the first body. Some Indian fella. Pock-scarred face. No shirt on. An' he was slumped over dead in the elevator car. Had a buck-knife buried in his chest to the hilt. That body left in a plastic bag and the carpet it bled all over was torn up and replaced. I figure by 'bout ninety-four I seen five more bodies leave the building on hand-stretchers or gurneys. I didn't find none of those but I knew two of 'em by name.”
The girl looked like she might smile but couldn't get her cheeks to do the work. Arthur stared at her plainly.
“I'd better go,” she said. And so she did.
On his night off Arthur went
next door to the adjoining blues bar. That place still jumped if they got the right band in there. Arthur drank a ginger ale and watched a triple of young men hammer their way through a blues-rock set. There were neon lights hung around the place on the exposed brick and hardwood walls. They'd re-upholstered the booths and benches and had weatherproofing done on the windows and roofshingles. That stage kept on drawing blood and guts players from all over the map. Not a one stayed in the hotel.
The bartender topped up Arthur's drink and wiped down the patch of bar top that the old man held. He stayed there awhile and let the other servers take customers.
“You hear that the O'Flynn boy is gonna sell?”
“Got papers filed with the city, proposals about knocking your place down and turnin' most of the block into student housing. They says they don't plan to flatten the bar but it'll go too, I'm sure of it.”
Arthur scratched at his head and heard but didn't hear the band. He stared long at the barman.
“Arthur,” the barman said. “You still with me?”
“Ain't no way,” he said.
The barman shrugged, shouldered his towel and rested heavy against the bar. “That true you signed a hundred-year lease to rent your spot?” he said.
“Somethin' like that, but it don't matter.”
“They gotta honour it.”
“Well, the old man is long gone. An' I suppose I can't lease the room if they knock down the buildin'.”
“What'll you do?”
“The boy O'Flynn had those tenements up north that turned slum. That's well known. So, I guess I'll just keep goin' to work and hope that the city tells him where to stick his plans.”
Near shift's end Arthur started
head-nodding at the desk. He was looking at an empty lobby then he was looking at nothing. Then he was looking at the lobby again with a giant drunk called Papamanolis pinwheeling around the place, casting about every which way.
“Good God man,” Arthur said. “What are ye doin'?”
The man sidestepped twice to his right and then stopped. Looked like he might list that way but he came back straight like a wind-bent pine finally let alone. Papamanolis stood about six-foot-eight and his head was built right into his shoulders. He'd a barrel chest and beer gut but his gorilla-muscle arms had held their ridges and rises, blue weld-burn scars spread out over the skin from wrist to shoulder. The man studied Arthur from across the lobby.
“I gotta find Rosa,” he said.
“She ain't here. You can leave a message with me if you want.”
“I'm goin' up.”
“You're bloody well not.”
Papamanolis wobbled once and then he bolted for the stairs. Went up three steps at a time with one huge hand on the banister and the other flat to the wallpaper. Arthur got on the horn with the cops and told them the necessaries. Then he came out from behind the desk, locked the booth and made for the staircase.
The giant had already put his right arm through the door and he was stuck there to the shoulder. Shrieking from inside the room. Sound of metal being rung. Papamanolis managed to pull his arm free and take a step back. An iron skillet flew from the hole and glanced off the huge man's elbow, took another angle and went down to the hallway carpeting like a shot fowl. Papamanolis had his arm back in the hole again by the time Arthur got to the last turn in the staircase. The door bowed with the man against it and reaching blindly for the deadbolt inside. Arthur sucked wind and hustled up the last few steps, turned and measured the giant up. He swung the shillelagh against the big man's right knee and Papamanolis sagged to that side, arm pinned yet in the door. He'd started to roar when Arthur came back the other way and hit him by the temple. The giant dropped and he was limbstretched and gurgling when he carried over the stairwell lip and thumped down to the uppermost landing.
The paramedics spent about ten
minutes trying to figure out how to get the man out of the stairwell. Finally they got him to come around, hair matted with blood and his shirtcloth soaked maroon in places. He ended up being more trouble conscious so they sedated him and ran him down the stairs using the gurney as a sled. It took six of them to get him into the ambulance hold.
“He took quite a wallop 'fore he went down, I imagine,” the cop said.
“Couldn't say,” Arthur said.
“He was down when you got up there?”
“Figure that skillet did the trick. Thrown with enough mustard on it.”
The cop nodded.
“The lady. She won't press charges. Doesn't know she doesn't have to. He'll go away for this, record he has.”
Arthur shrugged. The cop left him and started clearing the scene of other officers and fireman. When the cop came past to the streetside doors Arthur was standing there with a bucket of hot bleachwater. He waited a minute and then he started hauling it up the stairs.