Authors: Willy Vlautin
Tags: #Fiction, #General
‘Did I wake you?’ she asked.
‘Can’t you sleep?’
‘No,’ she said and I got up and went to turn on the small lamp I had on my dresser.
‘Please don’t turn on the light,’ she said.
‘It’s all right, Jerry Lee can sleep through anything.’
In the dim light I could see her in her underwear and bra. Her left arm was turned palm up with a pillow under it and I could see three marks running horizontally across the inside of her arm.
‘What happened?’ I said.
‘I burned myself with my curling iron.’
I moved closer to her and looked at them. They were dark red with patches of white from blistering.
‘You don’t curl your hair,’ I told her.
‘Sometimes I do,’ she said.
‘Jesus,’ I said, ‘you don’t have to stay there. You can stay with me. She’s crazy.’
‘I want to leave,’ she said. ‘But you don’t mean it, do you?’
‘You can stay here for good if you want.’
‘I might have to,’ she said finally and tried to keep herself from crying. ‘Are you sure it would be okay?’
‘I am,’ I said.
‘You think Jerry Lee would mind?’
‘I’ll ask him but I don’t think so,’ I said. ‘He likes you. We could get your things tomorrow.’
‘Let me think about how to do it without her going nuts,’ she said. ‘I’ll figure it out, okay?’
‘All right,’ I said. ‘Does it hurt bad?’
‘I put some burn cream on that I got from the drug store and that helps.’
‘We could go get breakfast if you’re hungry,’ I said.
‘I’d like to but it hurts too much to put on a shirt. I know what you could do, you could tell me a story like the ones you tell Jerry Lee.’
‘What do you want it to be about?’
She was silent for a time then said, ‘Maybe it could be you and me on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. With the sun and we could go swimming all day long and sleep on the beach. But like in James Bond, you know? Like the one where he’s on that island. The one we saw the other night. If you could, you could make us like that.’
’ I said.
‘Maybe. We watched a whole bunch of them, it was a marathon, don’t you remember?’
‘Yeah,’ I said.
‘Will you tell me one?’
‘I’ll try,’ I said and turned off the light and lay next to her on the bed.
‘One morning, and it was a cold one too, we went down this deserted road towards town. I was walking you to school. We were eating donuts and I was drinking coffee. You were drinking hot chocolate,’ cause you don’t like coffee. Even soaked in sugar and milk you don’t. So we walk towards downtown to where you could catch the bus, but all of a sudden a car pulls up. A big black
Cadillac with tinted windows, and these two big guys come out, and they’re really strong and they grab us. One guy gets you, one guy gets me, and they put us in the car. Luckily we still had our donuts and our drinks because they drove us all the way to San Francisco without stopping. We asked them what was going on, but they wouldn’t speak to us. We were both really scared. But it was warm in the car and we just sat there waiting.
‘Well, they took us into a warehouse on some pier. Then they separated you and me. We were yelling for each other. “Annie,” I yelled. “Annie, I’ll find you,” I said. “Wait for me, Frank,” you said. “Don’t give up hope!” Then they took me to this room and made me change clothes. They gave me an orange jumpsuit and I put it on. They put a chain around my neck that had a small tag with the number fifteen on it. The chain I couldn’t get off, it was that tight, they had permanently locked it on. Then this guy came, like a doctor, and he said, “Fifteen, roll up your sleeves.” And so I did. He took a blood sample, then he took my temperature, checked my heart, all that sorta thing, and then they led me onto this yacht, and that’s when I saw you again. You were dressed in the same orange jumpsuit and your number was sixteen. The boat was huge, but it wasn’t like a ship, like a naval boat or anything, and it wasn’t as big as a cruise ship, it was just a big yacht. A boat for rich people. Well, this other guy, who was Number Four, told us to follow him. So we did, we didn’t know what else to do. We went below deck and then you could hear the ship moving and we left San Francisco. They stuck me in the kitchen. As a cook’s assistant. The fat-ass cook, he was Number Seven. You were stuck in house cleaning, with a lady, an old mean bag, Number Ten. No one said anything. I asked and asked Number Seven about you,
and each time I did the chain around my neck would shock me, and let me tell you it hurt like hell. So we’d cook, bake, fry, cut and chop. That’s all I did. For eight hours, maybe twelve hours, that first day. We made some great stuff, though. Soups and casseroles, Chinese food, Mexican, even pies. I made Number Seven make a few peach pies ’cause I know it’s your favorite. We even had a prime rib cooking, and it was twice as good as at the Fitz. That night, after shift, they took me to a room and threw me in. It was dark inside and when I found a light, I turned it on, and there you were laying on the bed. It was a nice bed too. A queen size with good sheets and a warm blanket. There was a big window and if you looked out you could see the moon and the stars and the rolling sea. We lay in bed together, and you said, “I hate cleaning, but everything is clean already so we quit early. Number Ten, at first she was a mean old bag, but then we started playing cribbage, and then we ate this great prime rib dinner. They even had peach pie.”
‘So the next day came and the next day went, and it was like that for a long time, for weeks, for months. Then one evening there was a terrible storm out, and Number Seven was worried as hell and told me that we were gonna just make sandwiches, that he was too scared to cook. So I chopped up carrot and celery sticks while he made them. “We’re so damn close to our destination we can’t sink, can we?” he would say as sweat poured down his face. I didn’t know what to think, so I went into the fridge and took out the last peach pie and I set it on a tray, and then I made a thermos of coffee, got a few Cokes, and a couple cold turkey sandwiches and I told him I was gonna head back to the room and wait it out. When I got there, you were sitting at the table looking out at the
rough sea. I set the food down, and we ate lunch and watched. Then we got sleepy and took a nap but when we woke, it was to lightning. The loudest lightning you’ve ever heard, and after a while the ship got hit. “Holy shit,” you said and we got dressed and went out to see what was going on. It was crazy, we saw the old man, Number One, he was in a gold wheelchair. He had a metal eye, and his hands were just hooks. “Looks like we’re done,” is all he said and then the speedboat that was hanging on a crane broke free and fell on him. I told you to hold on and I went below, and I filled a bag full of food and water. Hell, I took a whole prime rib and three pies and a ton of other stuff then I came back to where you were, and suddenly you were wearing a bikini.’
‘I was wearing a bikini?’
‘And you looked great.’
‘What color was it?’
‘I like black,’ she said.
‘I know,’ I said.
‘We have to be quiet,’ I said, ‘or Number Seventeen will wake up.’
‘I’m sorry,’ she said.
‘It’s okay, Sixteen,’ I said in a whisper and continued. ‘So I throw the food into the speedboat, which was still sitting on top of Number One, and then we both get in and wait until the ship sinks and the speedboat’s free and we head off to this island which we can just make out through the rain and darkness. The storm’s rough, I mean ten-foot waves, but I handle it okay, and soon, just as the sun’s coming up the storm eases and we head into this
beautiful bay and we stop at this dock and you jump out in your bikini and tie up the boat. I get out with all the food and we walk up to this large mansion sitting on this bluff overlooking the sea and a huge beach. No one is inside, just us. There’s electricity and we walk around. There’s a jacuzzi inside with a slide, a huge movie room, and an ice skating rink, which is good ’cause I know how you like to ice skate. We sit on this huge deck and they have a telescope and we try to find our crew, but no one’s in sight. We move a bed out to the deck and we just lay out on it and watch the waves crashing the beach. “I guess we’ll stay here for a while,” I said. “I guess so,” you said. The End.’
‘I wish that were true,’ she said. ‘I wish more than anything in the world that was true.’
‘It is,’ I said. ‘It just ain’t happened yet.’
I was at the counter staring off like that when the lady came up to me and gave me a western novel called
. She said she thought it might pass the time, and so I spent the rest of the day getting wood, shoveling, eating, and trying to read that book, which turned out to be a pretty good one.
Around dusk the bus showed up. It was three hours late and by that time it was snowing again. I bought my ticket and sat in the back, near a window, and fell asleep. Hours later I got off in Boise. I had just enough money for a ticket to Reno.
WHEN I GOT HOME
I didn’t do anything but sit in my room and watch TV. I didn’t call anybody, not even work. I just lay in bed and waited for Jerry Lee, hoping that he was okay, hoping that he’d come home.
On the third day Polly Flynn, the girl who burned Jerry Lee’s pants that night, came to my room. I opened the door in my underwear and a ski cap.
She entered wearing skin-tight jeans, a light green parka, white earmuffs, and leather boots.
‘What happened to the window?’ was the first thing she said and walked over to it and looked out.
‘A duck,’ I said.
‘What do you mean?’
‘A duck flew into the window.’
‘You’re not funny. Just get some clothes on.’
I closed the door behind her and got back in bed. She sat in the chair I have by the window and began crying.
‘The reason I came,’ she said finally, ‘is that Jerry Lee shot himself last night. Didn’t you know? Hadn’t you heard? He shot himself in his bad leg. They might have to amputate the rest of it. Isn’t that just the most horrible thing you’ve ever heard?’
I got out of bed, put on my clothes, took the last of the reserve money I’d hid in my work boots, and we left.
While she drove us there she said Jerry Lee had told her that he had tried to kill himself, but that he didn’t have the nerve to shoot himself in the head and decided to shoot himself in the thigh and bleed to death. He’d come by her house yesterday and asked to borrow her car. She gave him the keys and he left. He didn’t say where he was going or what he was doing. Then he drove to Horsemen’s Park, shut off the engine, turned up the radio, pulled out the gun, pointed it at his head, then at his leg, and fired. Turned out the park he chose was near a firehouse. The firemen heard the shot and called the police.
When the police found him, he was unconscious and bleeding heavily out of his right thigh. He had a loaded .357 in the seat next to him. The fire department then came, put a tourniquet on his leg, wrapped it in a bandage, and called for an ambulance.
She parked the car in the lot at Saint Mary’s Hospital and we walked in the side entrance and took an elevator up to the third floor where Jerry Lee lay in intensive care. He had an IV in his arm, all sorts of wires coming from his hands, and a tube in his nose. There were a few machines gauging things. His bed sat near the window and he was awake.
Polly Flynn began crying.
Nurses kept coming in and out, making me nervous. There were other patients in the room, two of them. Old men, alone and watching TV.
Jerry Lee wouldn’t say anything much. He just stared at the TV. Nobody said anything and the whole time you could hear the sound of Polly Flynn crying. Everyone began staring at us.
‘Look,’ I finally said to her, ‘would you mind leaving us alone for a bit? I got a couple things I want to say.’
She took a Kleenex from her purse and wiped her eyes. She stood up.
‘You heal up, kid,’ she said and kissed him on the forehead. ‘I’ll be back. Don’t you worry about a thing.’
He smiled at her and then she walked out of the room.
I pulled up a chair and said as softly as I could, ‘What the fuck were you thinking?’
He remained silent for a time then said, ‘Why should I live if that kid doesn’t get to? There ain’t no reason, is there? I’m a loser, Frank, and I know it, and I don’t want to talk about it right now. I’m too tired. Could you just find us something on TV?’
I took the remote control and began switching channels back and forth. I found a movie and left it on that. He showed me his leg and said a few things about the operation. He looked awful, all sweaty and pale.
I stayed there all day, but he was asleep most of the time. When I left I bought a six-pack of beer at the first mini-mart I came across and walked to a dollar movie house. I snuck the beer underneath my coat, and sat in the back drinking and watching this movie about a waitress and a busboy. It was a love story. I’d
seen the movie a couple times before. I knew all the words and the shocks and when everybody was supposed to cry. I knew when the bad parts would happen, and I knew I could just go to the bathroom during those parts and make it back to the parts that weren’t so bad, and the parts that were good. But when it got real bad for the last time, and the guy in the movie was ready to die, I finished my last beer, put on my coat and hat, and left.