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Authors: Jonathan Valin

Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #General, #Hard-Boiled

Fire Lake (4 page)

BOOK: Fire Lake
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"Could you look and see?"

"Uh-huh," she said. She dropped the phone
with a thud. I could hear her shouting, "Mommy, Mommy."

While she was off the line, I picked up the snapshot
I'd found in Lonnie's pants and stared at it curiously. It just
hadn't seemed possible that a guy like Lonnie--a guy so obviously at
the end of his rope--could have had a pretty wife and two beautiful
kids. I studied the room with the Christmas tree in it. There was a
white sofa along one wall. A fleecy off-white rug. A mahogany coffee
table with fluted legs. Plenty of gifts beneath the tree, including a
new bike. It looked like a typical middle-class household at
Christmastime. Certainly nothing to be ashamed of or disappointed in.
Nothing to run away from--to a run-down afternoon-delight motel in
Miamiville. As I was thinking about the picture, someone picked the
phone up again.

"Yes?" a woman said warily. "Who is
this?" She spoke with a husky lisp. Like Lizabeth Scott.

"Mrs. Jackowski?" I said.

"Yes," the woman said. "I'm Karen
Jackowski."

"My name is Stoner, Mrs. Jackowski. Harry
Stoner. I'm calling you from Cincinnati."

"Oh, yes," she said, with sudden warmth. "I
remember your name. Lonnie's mentioned you many times, Harry. You two
used to room together in college, right?"

I took a breath. "Mrs. Jackowski-"

"Call me Karen, please," she said.

"Karen. It's about Lonnie," I said.

"What's wrong?" she said sharply.

I sighed into the phone. "He tried to kill
himself last night, Mrs. Jackowski," I said, getting it over
with.

Karen Jackowski didn't say anything for a moment.
When she finally spoke, her voice sounded measured and cold. "Did
he succeed?"

"No," I said, trying to disguise the shock
I felt over the way she'd taken the news. "He's all right. At
least, he's not dead."

"And what do you want me to do about it?"
Karen Jackowski said with that same measured coldness.

"You're his wife, aren't you?" I said with
some coldness of my own. "Don't you care?"

"Harry, Lonnie and I have been separated for
better than two years. Besides, there's nothing new about Lonnie's
trying to kill himself. He's been killing himself for as long as I've
known him. It's what he does, Harry. Kill himself and everyone else
who cares for him." Her voice broke.

I started to feel very bad. I shouldn't have made the
call. I should have handled it on my own. "I'm sorry," I
said to the woman. "I was trying to help. I didn't know you two
were . . . separated."

"It's all right," she said, but her voice
still sounded broken.

"Is there anyone else I should contact?" I
said.

"No," she said in a whisper. "His
folks are dead. I'm the only one left." She took a deep breath.
"I guess I'd better come there."

"No." I said firmly, "I can take care
of him."

"Want to bet?" Karen Jackowski said
bitterly. "You don't know him, Harry. You really don't."

What could I say? I didn't know him.

"I'll have to find somebody to look after the
kids," Karen Jackowski said. "Thank God it's a weekend. At
least I won't have to explain it at work."

"Look," I said, "you don't have to do
this."

"Yes, I do," she said, as if she felt an
obligation. "He's still my husband. It's not fair to saddle you
or anyone else with Lonnie Jack."

I hadn't heard anyone say that name in so long that I
smiled, then felt foolish for having done so.

"Could you pick me up at the airport?"
Karen Jackowski said.

"Sure," I said. I gave her my phone number
and told her to call me collect when she knew her flight number and
arrival time.

5

Karen Jackowski called back around four-thirty to let
me know that she'd be coming in at eleven. I tried again to talk her
out of making the trip, but she was adamant. I arranged to meet her
at the airport when she arrived.

After talking to her, I fell asleep on the couch.
When I woke up it was fully dark outside. The living room was quiet,
except for the sound of the rain on the windows. I walked through the
dark over to the desk, clicked on a lamp, then went back to the
couch. As I sat down again, I realized that Lonnie was sitting there
too--in my easy chair.

"Christ!" I said, startled. "Are you
okay?"

He nodded, his lean, battered face coming into the
light. "I didn't know where I was," he said. "It was
dark. I thought maybe I'd died."

He was sitting Indian style in the chair. Jay naked.
A blanket wrapped around his shoulders. In the dim yellow lamplight,
he looked like the kid I'd known in 1967. So much like him that I
felt a chill run up my back.

"I guess I fucked up," he said with a
forced smile.

"Do you remember last night at all?"

Lonnie shook his head and winced. "God, my head
hurts."

He coughed-a deep, hacking cough. "I caught a
cold, too. My throat hurts like a son of a bitch."

"You threw up a lot," I said. "It's
probably pretty raw."

He smiled at me. "You brought me here?"

"Had to do something with you, man," I
said, smiling back at him.

"You couldn't just let me die, huh?" He
said it like a joke, but it didn't come out funny.

I had the feeling he was going to make a lot of jokes
that didn't come out funny. I decided, on the spot, just to ignore
them, until he was ready to talk seriously about the suicide attempt.
"You want some coffee?" I asked.

He nodded. "Something warm would be nice."
He coughed again. "Is this where you live, man?"

"This is it," I said, getting up from the
couch and walking into the kitchenette.

"It's like Lyon Street," he said.

"Not much better."

"You remember Lyon Street, Harry?" he
called out hoarsely from the living room.

I doled some coffee into the machine. "Yeah. I
remember it.

"I stopped there yesterday. At least, I think I
did. It hadn't changed much."

"The rest of Clifton has," I said.

"Yeah, I could tell. All Styrofoam now. No more
Black Dome. No more peace and love."

The coffee machine started burbling. I poured two
cups of coffee and brought them into the living room. Lonnie looked
like he'd fallen asleep again--head back out of the light. When I
walked over to him, I saw that his eyes were wide open, staring at
the ceiling. I handed him the cup of coffee and he glanced at me.

"I'm sorry, Harry," he said with real
feeling in his voice. "Forget it," I said. "Drink your
coffee."

He took a sip of coffee, choked on it, but managed to
gulp it down. "Tastes good." He took another sip. "Remember
the Toddle House restaurant on Clifton Avenue?"

I laughed. "Yeah. We drank a lot of coffee
there."

"And killed a lot of time." He grinned.
"Picked up a lot of chicks at chez Toddle."

"You picked up a lot of chicks everywhere."

"You did all right too," he said,
charitably. "What happened to that one--that Linda."

"I don't know," I said. "We lost
touch."

"
Ou sont les
Lindas
of yesteryear, huh, Harry? I think about that a lot."

"About what?"

"About how people go different ways. They spread
out so far . . . you can't call them back." Lonnie dropped his
eyes to the floor. "This talking over old times isn't doing me
much good," he said heavily. He put the coffee cup on an end
table and covered his face with his hands. "Oh, God. What the
fuck have I done?"

He started to weep. Hoarsely. Uncontrollably. His
hands and shoulders shaking as if he were being shaken. Pulling the
blanket tightly around him, so it shielded his face, he cried to
himself.

I got up from the couch and walked down the hall to
the bedroom. Caught a glimpse of myself in the wall mirror and didn't
have the guts to look into my own eyes. I dug an old plaid lumberjack
shirt and a pair of jeans out of a drawer, sat down on the bed, and
waited until I could hear Lonnie's sobbing die down. Then I walked
back up the hall.

"Here," I said, tossing him the clothes.

They fell at his feet. He wiped his red eyes with the
corner of the blanket, reached down, and picked up the jeans.

"They're going to be a little long," he
said hoarsely.

"Roll the legs," I said.

He picked up the shirt, then glanced down at himself.
"I could use a shower, I think."

"Down the hall on your right."

He rubbed his jaw. "You got a razor I could use,
maybe?"

I must have given him a startled look, because he
said, "Don't worry, Harry. I wouldn't do that to you twice."

"There's shaving stuff in the medicine cabinet,"
I said, trying to look unconcerned.

He folded up the shirt and pants, got up, and walked
down the hall. When he got to the john door, he looked back at me.
"You haven't asked me," he said.

"What?"

"Why I used your name."

"Why did you?" I said.

"'Cause if I croaked, I knew you'd look after
me. And if I didn't ..." He waved his right arm. "Here I
am." Lonnie dropped his arm and said, "Nobody else I know
would have come through for me like that."

"How did you know that I would?"

"I knew," he said softly as he stepped into
the john.
 

6

When Lonnie came out of the shower, he was singing,
in a mellow baritone that brought back memories of Calhoun Street.

It was a Bob Seger song full of motorcycles, leather
jackets, and beautiful women. Lonnie toweled off his wet hair. "You
like Bob Seger?" he said, as he walked into the living room.
He'd rolled the jeans up at the ankles, although they were still a
size too large at the waist.

"Yeah, I like Seger," I said.

"I used to do a lot of his stuff with my last
band."

"What was that?" I asked.
"The
Hawks," he said, dropping into the easy chair and crooking a leg
over one of the arms. "We called ourselves the Hawks. Like the
Band, when they backed Ronnie Hawkins. Christ, did you read about
Richard Manuel?"

I nodded.

"That's some sad shit there, buddy," he
said, wiping off his ears. "That's a real loss. Not like some
nobody who never was nothing, swallowing pills in a fleabag motel."

I grunted and he smiled.

"It's okay, Harry," he said. "It's
gotta be talked about. No way to avoid it. Everything's connected,
after all."

"How are you feeling?" I said.

"Don't know yet," he said. He started to
cough again and pounded his chest, theatrically, with his fist. "Who
knows? This cold might kill me."

I leaned forward on the couch. "I need to talk
to you about something. You feel up to it?"

Lonnie gave me a tentative smile. "Depends on
what it is."

I glanced at my watch. "It's ten o'clock. I'm
going to have to leave here for a while. I've got to pick someone up
at the airport."

"I could come along, maybe," he said, as if
he really didn't want to be left alone.

"Sure," I said. "You're welcome to
come."

"Who you picking up?"

"That's what we've got to talk about," I
said.

"This is making me a little nervous,"
Lonnie said with a sick grin. "You aren't going to spring any
doctors or shit on me, are you, Harry? You haven't been making a lot
of calls, have you?"

I said, "No."

"Good," Lonnie said, looking relieved, "
'cause I've had my fill of doctors. And I'd just as soon nobody else
heard about . . . last night."

I could see a problem coming up. But there was no way
around it, except to lie to him. And that would only create more
problems. I decided to give it to him straight. "I did make one
call, Lonnie. Earlier today I called University City, trying to track
down someone who knew you. You know it has been eighteen years, old
buddy."

"Aw, fuck," Lonnie said, with a bloodless,
horrified look. "You called my old lady, didn't you?"

"Yeah, I did."

"Aw, fuck!" he said again, loudly. He
jumped up from the chair and began to pace the room. "God damn
it, man! I wish you hadn't done that."

"I didn't know, Lonnie," I said, feeling
bad for him.

"God damn it!" he said. "Is she the
one you're going to pick up at the airport?"

I nodded reluctantly.

"I don't want to see her, man," Lonnie
almost shouted. "I don't want her to see me."

"She wanted to come," I said, even though
it wasn't true.

BOOK: Fire Lake
11.16Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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