Honestly Kid

by Daniel Damkoehler

 

Archive for November, 2006

Burnt

Wednesday, November 29th, 2006

William walked home in the dark feeling stupid. In the downtown residential streets of Brenlee, each block had it’s own streetlamp. It was usually enough. On most nights like this one – warm and dry, summer or autumn – the sounds of kids playing late into the evening or muscle cars revving filled the air. Tonight, only the buzz of the high metal arc lamps and a slight breeze.

Still, down here on the sidewalk, it was dark between the lights. It felt darker than usual. Darker even, than those late nights during winter when the fog is so thick that people lose their way and walk into telephone poles. William could see only the ground before his next step. After leaving the walkway from Hernandez’s apartment, he moved carelessly along, not trying to see his own way. He just felt it. Knew it. He let the gravity of failed dreams, burnt memories, and loss pull him homeward. That gravity had never failed him. It didn’t tonight.

He sat on his porch and looked out at the darkness, behind and through which neighbors, teachers, parishoners, children, parents, and someone who killed children and childhoods moved. Breathed. Slept. Cried. Laughed. Forgot and remembered. He didn’t want to cry, but felt he should. He rubbed the corners of eyes. Dry. He couldn’t sigh anymore, his stomach couldn’t take it, so he took in only shallow draughts of the ubiquitous darkness.

Nothing he could do would fix this feeling and so he would never change. He had tried running. Leaving Brenlee in the dust. Not even mentioning this tired old town for years at a time. Now he had tried returning; he felt some part of himself gagging and struggling and failing to emerge into his polluted life. It felt stupid. Like puking over something he had seen years before. Like not having puked in the first place. Like going to Hernandez with no idea what he wanted. Like being so Californian everywhere else he went that he could never stop saying ‘like’, and so everywhere else when he was here that he could only hate it for its beauty, size, attitude, and misuses and abuses of language.

Then, finally, William, Billy, Will – this earthbound, profane three-in-one – stopped thinking. The darkness grew still. He hadn’t noticed it moving before, but would later remember this stillness and the million crawling fingers of grasping dark that inhabited that night. He let his eyes close, but he did not sleep. Without trying, his breath grew a little deeper and a little calmer. He did not move. He and all his pain, all his memories both miserable and wonderful, became a pillar of ash awaiting the wind, longing for and dreading that final collapse and disappearance into the fabric of the things of this earth, solar system, galaxy, universe.

He awoke in that chair on the porch early the next morning. As far as he knew, he had not moved. He did not remember his dreams. He could feel the air growing warmer as the sun rose over the Sierras. He was still here in Brenlee, but for the first time since he returned and buried his mother, he knew he would leave and this time for good.

Friends By Coincidence

Monday, November 27th, 2006

“So, you gonna eat tonight or what?”

“Just like that, you’re talking about dinner?”

“Yeah.” William finished off his beer and turned around to get another from Hernandez’s refrigerator. “Just like that.”

“You’re as bad as my grandmother.”

“She a big beer drinker?”

“Right. Food. Everything is about food. Feel bad? Have some food. Cold outside? Have some food. Bit by a dog? Have some food.”

William crossed the living room and folded himself back into the couch, “So, when do we eat?”

“I can’t eat today.” And he turned the game back on.

William felt the beer kicking in. He needed food soon or he would drink himself sick. He realized he really didn’t get Hernandez. He felt like a friend by coincidence. And, then again, Hernandez didn’t get him either. Maybe that’s what made him start talking or maybe it was just the beer. “Luke and I found Tommy before the cops. I stuck my fingers into his throat trying to find his pulse the way they showed us in school. No pulse, but some blood. We freaked out. I think Luke punched me in the arm and I know I pushed him down into the dirt. We were foul-mouthed kids so we swore a lot too, but I don’t remember either of us saying anything that made any sense until we were down at the canal. We ran the whole way. A mile or a mile and a half. I jumped into the canal even though it was pretty low and I got more muddy than clean, but at least the blood wasn’t on my hand and my head was wet. Luke just watched me. Later, we called the cops and they made us take them back to Tommy. Right up to him, because it was getting dark and they didn’t know their way through the orchard the way we did.”

Hernandez had muted the television and then turned it off during William’s story. “Was there a lot of blood? Around the body?”

“No. It was dry.”

“Was he cold when you touched him?”

“A little. But it was a pretty warm day.”

“How close to the road was he? Did someone drive him there or carry him?”

“I guess maybe they carried him. It was after they irrigated this big Walnut orchard. Maybe a week or two after, so it was dry, but it was also flat not rough and tilled between the trees. It’s almost like pavement, you wouldn’t see footprints too easily.” The memory began to make him queasy.

“Did you happen to notice his body? The lower half, I mean. Did it look heavy or bloated? Did his pants look tight?”

William’s eyes were closed and all he could see was Tommy’s face folded down over his knees. “His arms were spread out and he was hunched over. Doubled up. It was hard to see his body that way.”

“Did he have his shoes on?”

“Yeah. I think so.” His stomach twisted.

“Did his legs look spongy or swollen?”

“No. I don’t know. He looked thin and wasted. He didn’t have any life left in him. I didn’t want to touch him. Or look at him. Why does it matter? Aw shit.” And he got up from the couch and bolted into Hernandez’s bathroom where he puked up all his beer and what looked like a little of his lunch.

Hernandez followed him, waiting in the short hallway connecting the bedroom and bathroom to the rest of the apartment. The bathroom door was open so he looked up at the ceiling and kept the beer bottle close to his face so he would smell beer instead of vomit. “You all right?”

“Yeah. Sorry.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

“I never even puked when it happened. I don’t know-“

“You gotta puke sooner or later.” And he walked away. William heard the front door to the apartment open.

After he rinsed out his mouth in the sink and splashed water across his face, William looked at himself in the mirror. He couldn’t shake feeling like that 12 year old he was, even though he looked almost nothing like him now. He went out and found Hernandez sitting on the step where Charlie Oliveri sat a few hours before. “So, you just wanted me to puke or what?”

After a long pause, Hernandez took his head from his hands and spoke. “Your friend and this kid today were killed and left to be found the same way.”

“That means it was the same guy, right?”

“Maybe.”

“Maybe?”

“It means something’s messed up, William. The whole damn town. That’s all it means right now. Until I know more. The autopsy reports and everything. Until then, it’s just fucked.”

Time For Bed

Monday, November 20th, 2006

They said Gabriel is dead, but they’re lying. They hadn’t shown them any pictures. They just didn’t want to tell all the kids they didn’t know where he went.

He went to Mexico. He always said he would. He’s probably not there yet, but that’s where he’s going. He probably just got to the Aquaduct way over past Livermore. That’s a couple hours in a car, but not as far as the Pacific Ocean. He’s probably camped there on the bank or sleeping in someone’s barn or something. Or maybe still going.

He’ll walk down the canal until he gets to Los Angeles and then find Jaime’s cousin who will take him to Mexico. He’ll be there next week.

He should have told me. He could have taken my old back pack and some of the food at the back of the cupboard mom always forgets she has.

Why did they tell us he died? That was stupid. They should have said he moved away.

“Time for bed, kiddo.”

Why is everyone acting so weird?

“You okay?”

“Yeah.” He’s not dead.

“It’s been a tough day, huh?”

“I guess.” Maybe not everyone knows.

“You know, you don’t have to go to school tomorrow if you don’t want to.”

“What?” Just the police and the principal.

“You can stay home from school.”

“Why?”

“Because of Gabriel. Because of what happened to him today.”

“Okay.” Nothing happened. He just ran away.

“You want to stay home?”

“I dunno.” Why won’t she just stop acting dumb?

“Well, we’ll see in the morning, alright?”

“Yeah.”

“You sure you don’t want to talk about it?”

Yes, you wouldn’t get it. “Time for bed.”

Alone, with the light off and the smell of the orchard at the end of the block coming through the window, it’s easy to see Gabriel on the canal. He’s walking in the moonlight. He’s not afraid of anything. He’s just walking along.

I bet he took it with him. Maybe not. It’s kind of heavy, but it changed everything a little bit. Just for day or two, but that’s what probably gave him the idea. If he could go in and take that thing just like that, then why not go to Mexico?

I wonder if his Mom and Dad know. They shouldn’t worry. He’s just fine in the moonlight…walking along…going to Mexico…because he’s not afraid…not anymore…not since the other day…not dead…just gone…didn’t say goodbye…somebody would have told…he just went…in the moon…gone…

Dirty Work

Wednesday, November 15th, 2006

“How do you know?”

“What?”

Neither William nor Hernandez had spoken in the last half hour as they sat drinking beer and watching the Giants struggle against an old pitcher from Chicago who had no business doing so well.

“How do you know?” Hernandez asked again.

William looked at him, but Hernandez’s eyes remained directed at the TV. “How do I know what?”

“How do you know it’s the same guy? How does Oliveri know? How does everyone know so damned much about this murder?”

William had never been interrogated before and it made him uncomfortable. He went to the kitchen for another beer and answered lamely across the formica bar separating the small kitchen from the living room. “People talk.”

Another Giants batter struck out and Hernandez turned off the TV. “They talk about the details of a body they haven’t even seen?”

“They don’t need the details, the general gist is enough. The details might slow ’em down.”

“You mean ‘us’. ‘Slow us down.'”

William wanted to leave. “So, it’s an ‘us and them’ thing now?”

“No, it’s a ‘all of you and me’ thing now.”

“Take it easy, man. You know it’s not that way.”

“Sure it is.”

“Then why did I come over here? Why did Oliveri? You sound like Luke Bettis.”

“At least his ass makes sense to me.”

“What’s that mean?”

“He wants to keep his dumb white ass outta jail. I can respect self-preservation. What do you guys want?”

William gulped down more beer. “We wanta do the right thing. To get whoever–“

“Bullshit.”

“–did this to this kid.”

“Bullshit. Bullshit.”

“Why else would we come here and tell you about Mike Boone and Tommy?”

“If you gave a shit about Boone and Tommy you would have spoken up a long time ago and so would this old newspaper man with his goddamned letter. Everybody wanted things quiet. You all just wanted it to go away.”

“Some of us couldn’t speak up. I was a kid-“

“You’re not now.” Hernandez finished his beer and continued quietly. “And now you want somebody to do your dirty work.”

William looked at Hernandez who was looking seriously down the neck of his beer bottle. He put on his best redneck accent and squirted a sip from his beer bottle the way a good redneck does before making a prounouncement. “Well, ya’ know what they say don’t ya’? There’s nothin’ like a Mexican for dirty work.” And then he waited, suddenly worried that Hernandez wouldn’t get the joke.

“Asshole,” Hernandez said into his bottle. And he smiled and shook his head, “That’s too close to the truth, bro.” He chuckled and looked over at William.

“It’s not funny. That’s why it’s funny.”

And Hernandez finally laughed hard. Too hard. “This fucking sucks. This is the worst goddamned day…”

The Perfect Downtown Location

Monday, November 13th, 2006

By the time Oliveri left Hernandez’s apartment the street lights downtown had come on. He walked down 5th street and turned right on Oak Street and stepped into one of those lights. In any other town Oak Street would be called Main Street, but Main Street in Brenlee was residential except for a church or two. In two blocks he would walk past The Brenlee News store front. He would turn right down the alley between the News building and the pharmacy, walk up the iron stairs on the side of the building and go to work in his office in the back corner of the building. The cluttered old office had a view of the defunct train station and rail yards in one direction and the town hall, police and fire stations in the other. Old man Bergoyan or whoever chose this location for the paper, knew what they were about. Between the editor-in-chief’s office and the store front, little of any significance could happen without someone at the paper knowing.

The only businesses still open on Oak Street tonight – the pizza parlour, the video rental store, and the Duck Inn Bar – all looked quiet and empty. He saw a car parked in front of the News building, some light blue American thing attempting to look wind resistent and big at the same time. Who was it and how long would they wait to see him? He checked his watch. Almost eight o’clock. His quick errand to Hernandez’s place had taken the better part of two hours.

How many times had Hernandez asked him, “What am I supposed to do with this?” Five times? Ten? It felt like twenty.

He asked at least three times before Loof took a guess, “Don’t go along.”

But that didn’t do it. That cop kept right on asking, “What am I supposed to do with this? What does he want me to do?”

What could he do? Loof’s reply was adament, if not useful. “Don’t lock up someone innocent. Again. Don’t let ’em railroad somebody like Luke Bettis.”

That kid would lose a lot of card games before he learned not to show his hand so early and Hernandez would win a lot with his terrifying eyes and springloaded anger. Oliveri mumbled out loud to himself as he passed the video store, one block from his office and his guest with the light blue American car, “I shouldn’t have opened by big mouth.” But he had to help Fran’s boys.

So, he spoke to them like he was some wise old codger in a Frank Capra film, “Luke Bettis could no more kill a child, then he could hold a steady job for more than a month. His whole problem is he lacks any purpose or what people call ’self-discipline.’ Besides that, he’s a thief and a cheat. There’s no money in this for him.”

Hernandez sounded confused. “Bettis wasn’t even on my list.”

“And Mike Boone wouldn’t have been either.”

“Who’s Mike Boone?”

“The one they locked up the last time.”

“They locked somebody up for it?” Hernandez sat down on the edge of an worn wooden-armed recliner with cushions covered in Mexican blankets. He looked out of breath. He scanned the letter. “Why doesn’t he say that?”

“He moved away before the case was closed.”

“Before they even arrested Mike.”

Hernandez leaned back in the chair and looked at the ceiling. “Shit.”

Oliveri went reflexively into interview mode. “I guess they didn’t tell you about Mike Boone down at the station?”

“No.”

“What did they tell you?”

Hernandez glanced at him. “Now’s not the time for your story. This is all off the record.”

“Fair enough.” And he could have left it there. Could have let them work it out. Might have headed back to his office and not found his visitor waiting for him on the iron steps up to the outside door to his office. But he didn’t leave. He had to ask one more question, “Hernandez, what are your ambitions?”

“My what?”

“You aren’t the typical Brenlee cop. You have a college degree. You worked on a real city police force for a few years. You don’t want to be a regular cop forever do you? Even if you do, you must be smart enough to know you won’t be. This case is already a promotion for you.”

“I get it.” Hernandez cut him off.

And Oliveri stood in front of iron staircase and waited for his visitor to speak or to move. The light bulb over the outside door of his office cast strange shadows down the woman’s face. “Are you the editor?” She asked.

“Yes.”

“Good.” The woman stood up. She wore a slightly rumpled business suit and looked the kind of attractive Oliveri always associated with expensive shoes and city primping.

“How can I help you?”

Something about the way she dusted off her hands and squared off to face him told him she was a lawyer. She took a legal document and pen from her purse. Oliveri and the woman were the same height, so she looked him in the eye. “Mr. Charles Oliveri?” Her voice was low and hard.

“Yes.”

“I am here to inform you that Michael Jesse Boone, formerly of Brenlee, California, died this afternoon by his own hands in San Quentin State Prison. If you could please sign, date, and note the time where indicated on these documents. There are three copies, two for me and one for your records. Thank you.”

Haunting Old Man Bergoyan

Tuesday, November 7th, 2006

He makes out the grey shapes on this small black and white television only with some difficulty. He tries to think of it as an enhanced radio. When it is off, he hears only the sound of his dripping kitchen sink. He hoped he would die before he had to fix it again as he had hoped to die before repeating many things. Now. This boy. Another boy taken in Brenlee. Phillip Bergoyan turns off his television and cries.

To stop the tears, he begins whispering questions to himself. “Will the Italian pass on my letter? Will the man call? Does anyone remember?” That last only brings further tears because he knows they all remember, but will not retrieve the memory, will not share it, will not help the boys. This boy will surely find him soon enough and share in the haunting with the last one. It will take only that class photo shown on the evening news for the image of the two of them to ruin what little sleep is left for old man Bergoyan.

He tries to turn his trembling into a shake in order to pull himself together. He looks around the kitchen, so carefully cleaned by his niece last (and every) Wednesday. He wants to get up from the table and remove himself from the place where he saw this boy, disappear from the room where he learned the news, and hide with a bottle of cheap wine in the living room.

He moves slowly in his old age and by the time he escapes, the boys are waiting for him in the next room, gently swaying where they stand in front of the bookcase that holds his old favorites. They reach for him, but do not speak. The killer has cut away their voices. Their small hands make quiet snapping sounds as fingers rubbed against palms, attempting and always failing to grab something flying out of reach; a moth, a spider’s web on the wind, or some word only old man Bergoyan knows.

He shakes his head and moves as quickly as he can for the wine bottle and glass on the end table by the sofa, trying to ignore their wordless pleas as he passes. They will not follow him. They know the power of their position, guarding the Blake, Twain, Shakespeare, and papa Saroyan. Soon enough Bergoyan will be drunk and make the mistake of coming to them. Reaching for a book he will feel their small hands and fingers fluttering in his chest and look down to see their eyes like dark stones reflecting his fear. Again. Again. Again. No word he knows will ever end their grasping. Together, none of their spirits can know peace.

The Dog Would Not Stop Barking

Friday, November 3rd, 2006

“This is for you. From my predecessor.”

Hernandez looked at the old dusty envelope. It was addressed “The Next Investigator.” The return address was a slighly off kilter rubber stamp that said “The Brenlee News” and under it, the paper’s downtown address.

“I don’t get it.”

“Read it.” Oliveri wanted to see Hernandez’s reaction to the letter.

“Have you read it?”

“No, I don’t need to.”

“Why not?”

“The old man told me what it said.”

“Why don’t you tell me what it says.”

“First, I don’t know exactly, and second, a promise is a promise.”

Hernandez started walking to his front door. Oliveri and William followed. “What’s that mean?”

William piped up. “It means he promised the old man he would give you the letter and not tell you what it was about.”

“That’s about right.”

The short train of men stopped at the front door to Hernandez’s apartment. Hernandez hesitated. Open the letter now? Open the door? Send Oliveri away? Bring them both in? Why was everything such a pain in the ass? He unlocked the door and brought them both in, Oliveri stood near the door and William relaxed into the couch.

“Just a minute.” Hernandez went to his bedroom and changed out of his uniform and into jeans and a t-shirt. He heard William ask about the former owner of The Brenlee News. Oliveri said he was living in Fresno, but didn’t get out much. He returned to the living room with the letter.

Hernandez asked Oliveri, “Why now?”

“Because of what happened today.” The editor-in-chief took out a cigarette, but didn’t light it.

William told him, “It happened before.”

“What?”

“Twenty years ago.”

“That’s what’s in this, then?”

Oliveri waved his a cigarette in one hand and his lighter in the other. “That and some other things, I imagine.” He turned to William, “What are the chances I can smoke in here?”

“Nil.”

Hernandez stared at the envelope in his hand.

“You gonna read it?” Oliveri asked.

“If I do, I might not tell you what it says.”

“Sure, but you might.”

“Don’t you have a paper to get out?”

“It’ll wait.” The newspaperman smiled at the cop and William watched and waited.

Hernandez opened the letter. From where he sat, William could see that it was a one page type-written letter, single spaced and signed at the bottom. Hernandez looked but found nothing else in the envelope. The two men watched him read it. They heard the front door of the upstairs apartment open and close and muffled footsteps cross the carpet. Outside a dog started barking, probably the one they had seen wandering down the street.

Inside, they couldn’t hear Hernandez breathing. His only clocks were digital – the cable box and the microwave – so there was no tick. Time seemed to pass around rather than through them, the digital numbers watching and reporting on something outside. William remembered color photographs he saw in a modern art museum, portraits of lives frozen in a too real world, rich in color and all the people watching something beyond the frame of the picture. The shudder would not close, the dog would not stop barking, time would not move through this apartment again, until Hernandez finished reading.

The Boy Who Stopped Breathing

Wednesday, November 1st, 2006

Hernandez looked at his desk. He didn’t want to leave. He didn’t want to work. There was no more work to do today, anyway. Everything would happen tomorrow.

Tomorrow he would have a coroner’s report and a report detailing all of the other evidence from the crime scene. He would know what make of tires were on the vehicle that brought Gabriel to the orchard, he would know more about what material the person used to cover his or her footprints (the investigators could identify patterns in the way the fine dust along the side of the dirt road had been moved around), he would know the size and likely shape of the knife used to slice through the boy’s throat and whether or not that cut had killed him, he would know how much blood the boy lost, what he ate last, and what kind of rope had burnt his small wrists.

Tomorrow he and two other officers would begin calling the parents of Gabriel’s classmates. How well did your son or daughter know Gabriel? Did you know Gabriel? What did you think of him? When was the last time you saw him? May we speak with your son or daughter? Yes, you may be present, though we would prefer to interview him or her individually. If he was lucky, they would begin interviewing the kids tomorrow.

Tomorrow the county would release a full statement to the press. He would receive a dozen or more phone calls and who knows how many emails requesting a statement of his own. He would point them to another tomorrow and they would wait.

Tomorrow he would track down Gabriel’s parents, probably in the evening, in plain clothes. Someone would help him find their house. Maybe one of the other officers. Maybe one of Gabriel’s friends or someone like William. Maybe, though he doubted it, they would find him. Everything they said would be off the record. He would not report them. He couldn’t. No one in Brenlee would ever trust him again, even the ones who said they were tired of all the ‘illegals.’

Tomorrow he would wake up groggy from the sleeping pill and shot of Jack Daniels he would need in order to sleep tonight.

Tomorrow he would call Theresa and tell her what happened. She would be angry at first, coming off 24 hours at the hospital, but she would understand. She would probably wait to remind him that he should have stayed in San Jose. All of this would never convince her that being together would be worth moving to Brenlee.

Tomorrow maybe he would eat something finally and stop thinking of Gabriel’s open hand reaching across the dust and dirt of that orchard, reaching, he thought he knew, for him. And maybe tomorrow he would at last feel able to clear his throat and take the full deep clean breath that had eluded him since seeing the body that was once a boy.