Honestly Kid

by Daniel Damkoehler

 

Archive for December, 2006

Grady’s pt. 1

Wednesday, December 20th, 2006

“Who’s at the counter?”

“What?”

“Without being too obvious about it, tell me who’s sitting at the counter this morning. You didn’t think we just came for breakfast did you Adderley?”

“Well-“

Charlie Oliveri smiled across the booth at his young intern. “Curse of the local newspaper reporter, Adderley: you’re always on the job.”

Adderley’s eyes lit up. Whatever bug it is that drives perfectly intelligent individuals to work excessively long hours trying to report true stories back to an often unreceptive public had infected young Nathan Adderley so thoroughly that he hadn’t yet learned to hide it in fashionable journalistic cynicism. “Right.”

“Open your menu and just glance up there once in a while, then tell me who you see. Start with the person nearest the register.”

“Okay.”

“And when Grady comes over to take our order, don’t be surprised if I’m talking baseball.”

“Well, right off I see Mr. Langen.”

Oliveri nodded. He knew that one. Langen taught high school Civics and owned almond orchards and pasture to the east of town. He started his days early at Grady’s. Oliveri spotted Langen’s white pickup truck in the parking lot as they pulled in a few minutes ago. Langen had nodded hello to Oliveri when they came in and would come over for a word before he left. In old Europe, Langen would have served as a town Burgher, in the rusty towns back east he would have been an Alderman, down south, a good old boy, but here in Brenlee (incorporated as a city in the State of California in 1952) for the past 17 years he had consistently won a seat on either the City Council or the School Board. This year and next he was on the City Council. He had an easy manner and reminded Oliveri of a greying Gary Cooper. The fact that he sat near the register today raised questions for Charlie. Did he arrive late? Was he watching for someone? Avoiding someone? Anxious to eat and get going?

“Next to him is Mr. Buedall.”

“Another Council member.” And a Real Estate agent who had moved to Brenlee only ten years ago. Always wears a jacket and tie; half the town thinks he’s a preacher. He’s not usually up or out this early.

“Mr. Rocha.”

“Which one?”

Nathan looked at him a bit anxiously. “The one on the City Council.”

“Frank. One more and they have a quorum.” Frank Rocha was a Contractor and his brothers owned and operated a large local dairy. He was a regular breakfast nuisance for Langen and Grady, with a habit of showing up not quite entirely sober on Friday mornings.

Nathan chuckled and then looked seriously into his menu.

“What’s funny?”

“Rocha is talking to Buedall and Buedall is talking to Mr. Langen. And Mr. Langen just looks bored and kinda funny.”

“Counting the coffee filters on top of the machine no doubt.”

“Yeah.”

Oliveri spoke as though concluding a long and detailed explanation, “So, Bonds is great but he’s a lot better if he’s hitting behind someone who can get on base… Morning Grady.”

“Good morning Charlie. Staff breakfast, yah?” He poured them both coffee and water.

“Sure. Important edition today.”

Grady’s moustache rolled and bristled with concern. “Too much news.”

“You said it.”

Grady arrived in Brenlee purely by accident thirty years earlier as an overgrown young German hippie whose car stopped running in front of the Bait Bucket. Grady’s parents had been great fans of all things American and named him after a jazz drummer virtually unknown to most people in Brenlee. As soon as he was old enough he had worked his way across the Atlantic on a freighter and began working west across the states. He started working in the orchards picking fruit, then driving fruit trucks, and before long fell in love with a local. Within a few years he had saved enough money to buy this small restaurant which had stood boarded up for several years. He moved calmly and seriously, if not gracefully, around the place, working the kitchen and front in the morning and relying on his wife Josefa for help waiting tables in the evening. Oddly, while his body remained strong, his accent had thickened with age, so now “What would you like?” sounded like “watt wud tchew like?”

Oliveri and Addlerley ordered. Adderley prepared to continue, but interrupted himself, “I’ve- I’ve never been here this early.”

“Why would you be?”

“To find out what’s going on.”

Charlie smiled, “Just come in and listen in, huh?”

“Right.”

“I tried that. At first. Doesn’t work.”

“Why not?”

“First of all, it’s hard to notice things that you’re too close to and second, nobody really ever speaks off the record. Not for long, anyway. Unless they’re drunk and then you can’t believe what they’re saying even if you understand it.”

“So why are we here?”

Oliveri looked out the window at the small parking lot and the construction site next door that would, according to a large garishly painted banner, soon be an auto parts store. He looked back at Nathan Adderley. He didn’t want to explain it, but it felt like his job. “We’re here for breakfast and a Geological survey.”

If Beginnings Matter

Monday, December 18th, 2006

“Billy, where are you?” Tamra asked him before he could put in his cell phone earpiece and say “Hello.”

“In my car.”

“Yeah. Where?”

“On 99, somewhere between Merced and Fresno.” He looked down the freeway for signs, but he couldn’t be sure.

“What?”

“I’m driving to Fresno.”

“Billy.” Tamra sat down in the same wicker chair on William’s porch where he had spent the night. “Why?”

“I’m going to see Phillip Bergoyan.” He felt a little excited and proud to actually be doing something instead of sitting at home.

“Who’s that?”

“The guy who used to run the paper in Brenlee. When we were kids.”

“Okay…”

“I need to talk to him.”

“Today?”

“Yes. He knows something or maybe lots of things about Tommy.”

“Shit, Billy. How old is that guy?”

“According to my $40 online search for him, he’s 81, collecting Social Security, and he lives alone in an apartment building in downtown Fresno.”

“You’ll be lucky if he still remembers his name.”

William hadn’t thought of that. “He’ll remember.” William needed him to remember.

“When are you coming back?”

“I don’t know.”

Tamra didn’t say anything. She looked at the old white BMW convertible her stepfather had rescued from a junk yard for her seven years ago. With the top down it became more obvious than usual that it needed body work and a paint job. If she squinted and blurred her vision she could almost make it look like a giant floral arrangement instead of all her most cherished belongings protruding from the passenger and back seats: clothes, snow skis, duct taped laptop, yearbooks, jewelry, a small silver box from her grandmother, shoe boxes and albums of photos, and a cardboard file box full of her banking records.

“Tamra.” Emotional panic and caffeine cut a temporary narrow path through the effects of William’s morning joint.

“Where are you?”

He heard her sniffle and sigh more clearly than he made out the words, “On your porch.”

“What’s wrong?” He pulled into the far right lane of the freeway and started watching for a good place to stop and talk, maybe to turn around.

“Nothing.” And then quickly correcting herself, “Chad’s a dick and I think maybe I’m a slut.”

“You’re not a slut and Chad was, is, and always will be a dick.” He took the first exit into Madera, California and parked in the McDonald’s parking lot.

She didn’t respond at first and then said, “You’re so unreliable, Billy.”

“But I know a slut when I see one.” He hoped she was at least smiling, because he didn’t hear her laugh. “What do you need Tamra?”

“Someplace….”

“What?”

“Can I stay with you?” She sounded as though he had made her ask, but he really didn’t know what she needed.

“Of course.” William rolled down his window and felt suddenly overwhelmed by the smell of deep fried hash browns. It reminded him of an old hangover remedy.

“Thank you.” After a long pause in which he thought he heard her wiping her nose, Tamra said, “How do I… I need to get inside.”

As he told her which flower pot on the back porch to look under for the spare key, William felt that first wave of emotional panic subside only to have another wave trigger a more general interior panic. What was he doing? She was moving in? He was barely over his divorce? This could only end badly. He wouldn’t be good to her and she would resent him. What was she thinking? But he wanted to find her there when he returned from Fresno.

“The place is kind of a mess. Don’t clean.” He told her.

“Okay. But I’m not working, so I might anyway.”

“Please don’t.” Then William decided, all too quickly, that he had to treat this like a roommate situation. “We’ll discuss the house rules when I get back.”

“House rules?”

“Meanwhile, um… make yourself at home. It’s yours as long as you like.”

“I’ll pay rent, Billy.”

No, not this talk, not while soaking in the stench of fast food and still high enough to say something paranoid and honest. “No. Look, Tamra, you aren’t paying me rent for a house I own. Not yet, anyway. We’ll work out money, if we need to, when I’m not so fucking high and freaked out about Tommy and everything –“

“You’re driving high?”

“I’m drinking coffee.”

“What?”

“Hey, I’m almost there. It’s freeway driving. I’m fine now.”

“Billy.”

“Tamra.”

And they both held their breath for a moment. Each one ran backwards through memories of failed relationships – his marriage that just ended, her marriage too soon after high school, his live-in girlfriend during college, her five year affair with a lawyer from Stockton, his post-college live-in strict Buddhist (no dope, no meat) girlfriend, and most recently, her disasterous two years with this insurance salesman cum sherriff’s deputy Chad who grew up (and still loved, modern science or logic could never explain why, his old home of Glendale). None of these things ever worked for long, but none of them ever started quite this way, so maybe, if beginnings matter…

William spoke first. “Move your stuff in. Do whatever you want, just don’t rearrange my office. The rest is yours. You can store stuff in the spare bedroom if you want.”

“Billy-“

“I’ll be back tonight probably and then we’ll talk, okay?”

“Thanks. Bye.”

“Bye.” William hit the red phone icon on his cell phone. He didn’t know why, but for the first time in a year he wished he weren’t high.

Slow, Muddy, Sleepy Swirls

Wednesday, December 13th, 2006

His mother’s car smelled of potpourri. He turned the key on and put down all the windows to let the smell dissipate. William rarely drove the well-traveled (170,000+ miles) maroon Nissan Sentra. He drove it down to the store, out to the lake a couple of times, and once all the way to Berkeley for a badly needed trip to a place with some Goddamned culture and a decent bookstore or two. Today, it needed gas and oil if he was going to make it to Fresno, but first…

William drove to the banks of the narrow Brenlee Irrigation District (B.I.D.) canal on the edge of town bordered on one side by the sun bleached wooden fence and dangling tree limbs of a small housing development built in the 80s and on the other side by an ancient looking walnut orchard. A large wooden sign posted on the edge of the orchard so it could be seen on the way into or out of town advertised the sale of 47.7 acres of land – Brenlee sewer and electrical connections, surveyed for subdivision, interested parties should contact the seller, Kenneth Sneed at his local phone number listed on the sign. As he parked the car and prepared to mask the biting scent of potpourri with the sweet mellowness of his morning joint, William wondered how they would deal with this canal once it no longer ran near any farms or orchards. How long would it last?

He took a deep drag on the joint and as he waited to release it, felt the seat under him grow softer, more comfortable. He sighed and exhaled into the car vent – no more lavendar or the cloying sweetness of dried rosebuds soaked in some sickening oil. Ten minutes later the car reeked of pot and William was on the verge of napping. He got out of the car and sat on the canal bank. The low water moved in slow, muddy, sleepy swirls. In the distance it reflected the yellow, grey haze of the sky. William had never seen smog here as a boy. His first memory of smog was on a visit to Disneyland with his family. He remembered feeling the sky clear as they drove north towards home. Now the entire midlands between the coastal mountain range and the Sierra Nevadas hid under a blanket of exhaust and smoke. It felt disgusting.

The butt of his joint sailed from his fingers, caught some tiny updraft and then drifted with no splash onto the surface of the water. It wasn’t far from here that he and Luke found Tommy’s body 20 years ago, maybe a half a mile, but it felt further away because he still made out the distances of this town as he did as a boy – gauged by the peddles of his small BMX bike and how far outside he roamed from the area his parents allowed him to play. A shake of his head couldn’t erase the thought of Tommy, so he returned to his car and headed to the Speedy Stop for gas and breakfast.

Now, as the Nissan Sentra sits poised to make the left turn that will take him out of town, William wonders if he should call Tamra. Maybe from the road. Then he double checks things: sickeningly sweet coffee cake – check; package of small chocolate covered donuts – check; coffee in the cupholder – check; Teriyaki beef jerky – check; and directions printed from the Internet with two possible addresses – check. “Okay Mr. Bergoyan,” he says to the windshield, “I sure hope you’re still alive.”

Hell Once And For All

Monday, December 11th, 2006

Pickem Sneed’s mind felt claustrophobic. The boy. The trees. Pruning to be done. Sheriff and police officer’s questions. Mable – a man has to protect his wife and family, doesn’t he? That poor boy and his small strong hands. Like his grandson, who’s job it is to deal with this now. But he doesn’t know. He’ll make the same mistakes. And he’s got orchards to tend to, a family of his own and everything else. And fracturing what room remained in his mind for peace and rest were the dark lines of a pattern that formed a face. The face of a man that hadn’t aged in his mind these 20 years. Where was he yesterday? Dead. Still dead. And the old man awoke.
Pickem hadn’t made it from his recliner in the living room to his bed last night. It happened, but not often, so he wasn’t too confused when he woke up and didn’t see Mabel’s face half buried in a pillow next to his own. Instead, he saw his reading glasses reflecting light coming through a living room window. The first dim light of the day opening the orchard and falling to this house. His home. Under his reading glasses, a copy of last weekend’s paper, but he hadn’t been reading that when he dozed off, he’d been fighting sleep as he read and re-read a paragraph of a true story about a man who tried to bring the Bible to China. Mabel said it was as good as The Good Earth. It wasn’t, but it passed the time.

He thinks he should call his son Kenny. He might be at the Fire Station, but he should try his house first. Kenny would know what’s going on. He would know what to do. And what to say if they asked about the other boy, the one from before. But what about the man? And that fella in prison? Pickem closes his eyes and tries to take a breath, clear his mind, and break out of this bad dream. The morning sun stretches across the carpeting and up the arm of his chair, warming his fingers. He can’t see a way out, trapped by things that never should have happened. Surely he must be dead already and all this some elaborate trick of the devil to steer him to hell once and for all.

Ballast

Wednesday, December 6th, 2006

His only dream was an aggressive slideshow full of images of the day behind him and imagined scenes of the day ahead. It repeated itself with subtle variations throughout the night. By 4:30 AM Hernandez felt more tired than he had when he went to bed four hours earlier. He sat on the edge of the bed. He pushed his fingers through his hair and leaned his forehead into the palms of his hands.

“Unplug man. You gotta unplug.” He whispered to himself. He felt dry and heavy. He staggered to the bathroom hoping a shower might wash his brain into focus. It didn’t.

He dressed in his newest uniform, double checking everything because he knew he couldn’t be trusted. In the living room he realized he had not holstered his weapon. He found it on his nightstand near the alarm clock and a picture of Theresa. She would hate that, he thought. Frustrated with himself he stood up straight and took a deep breath, eyes closed and hands at his sides.

What would make this better? How could he sleep finally? Breathe easily? Feel at some kind of peace with the world? Why was he here? Why was he in this uniform with a gun on his hip? He didn’t really believe that catching the person who killed the boy would answer all or any of these questions.

He looked at himself in the mirror one more time and then down at his picture of Theresa. He pulled his gun case out from under his bed and kneeling down, unlocked and opened it. He took out his ankle holster and strapped the small Beretta Tomcat to his ankle, pulling down his pants to conceal it. He had tried to give it to Theresa two years ago, but she had refused it. He kept it. Only firing it once every few months, just to remember how it felt, which was light and basically reliable, but strictly for backup. Bringing it is an act of desperation, but it makes him feel better. He has ballast.

The right side of his mouth bends into a smile and even though he feels a headache coming on, he feels clear all of a sudden. He knows how to start this day. Where to go and who to talk to and maybe, he thinks, even what that old man who ran the paper was up to.

An Empty Morning

Monday, December 4th, 2006

The phone rang six times before Bergoyan answered. “Hello?” Irritated and groggy, the old man’s voice was dry leaves against rust.

“Bergoyan?”

“Yes? This is Phillip Bergoyan.”

“This is Oliveri. Charlie Oliveri.”

“Yes.”

Oliveri waited. He didn’t want to kill the formalities himself, just to let them die in a long pause. They withered and he spoke, “I have some news.”

“Please.”

“There’s been another boy killed.”

Through the receiver, Oliveri could hear something catch in the man’s throat before he replied, “The same way?”

“Same way.”

“I’m sorry. I had hoped–” Old man Bergoyan trailed off lost in a thousand hopes too small and important to name.

“I know. I know.” Charlie Oliveri shifted back into his desk chair and watched the darkness of early morning over Brenlee through his office windows. “Also. By coincidence or maybe not, I had a visit from a lawyer last night.”

“Oh?”

“From Sacramento.” He read the name of the firm from the papers on his desk. “Finster, Windham, & Marshall.” He waited for that to sink in.

“The Boone boy?”

“That’s right. They didn’t give me the details, but he died up in Folsom Prison yesterday.”

“Yes. Yes.”

“You okay?”

“No, but that doesn’t matter.” The old man sounded angry.

“Hey, Phil-“

“I had hoped to be dead before any of this happened again, Charlie.”

Oliveri bit back a dozen cruel ways he could have answered the man’s self-pity. “I delivered your letter to the investigating officer. He’s a good man. Name of Hernandez.”

“Mexican?” Oliveri didn’t answer. “That’s good.”

“Well, he’ll probably be getting in touch with you soon enough.”

“Will he? They will let him?”

“I don’t know the situation or him all that well, but I get the feeling he does what he wants.”

There was a long pause filled with the blank modulating hum of the open line between the two men. Finally, Oliveri spoke, “Why did you wait, Phil?”

“I… it couldn’t be touched, Charlie. But now… maybe…”

“What?”

“I should go. You have a paper…”

“Maybe what, Phil?”

“Thank you, Charlie. Good morning.” And the old man disconnected.

Oliveri almost called him right back. He put the phone in the its cradle and looked at the empty streets of Brenlee and the desolate rail yards. The only word he could find to describe this morning was ‘hollow’, so inexact and vague, yet so perfectly apt. A thick black three column headline: Brenlee Morning Feels Hollow.

All The News

Friday, December 1st, 2006

He knows it was Bergoyan. He is the only one with a conscience and the boy’s (he was a man, wasn’t he?) family couldn’t have afforded the cheapest lawyer’s retainer, much less one who delivers documents to local newspaper editors after hours. The old man probably used the better part of his proceeds from the sale of the paper to pay the firm of – What was it again? Oliveri looked down at the documents the woman had handed him on the stairs the night before – Finster, Windham, & Marshall to keep tabs on Mike Boone up in Folsom. Probably a Sacramento firm specializing in this kind of thing. Does anyone anywhere actually do this kind of thing besides old guilty newspapermen? “Well, that’s probably enough business.” He mumbles half out loud to himself.

“What was that Mr. Oliveri?” The Adderley kid – Sports, Cooking, and Technology, also pretty good at layout and terrific at getting that furniture store over in Merced to buy full-pagers every week.

“Nothing. Call me Oliveri. No ‘mister,’ Adderley. Remember.”

“Right.” Wait for it. Here it comes. “Oliveri.” Like clockwork. Good kid. Fran would have told Oliveri to smile at the kid, but this kid has had too many smiles. Still, Oliveri looks up and smiles quickly so the kid will get back to work.

He doesn’t want to make the call, but he has to and he’ll have to do it before talking to the train wreck that is the Boone family. Will the old man be sober? What’s it been, two years since they last spoke? Bergoyan sounded wrecked, tortured by things that weren’t even in his head anymore, just inside him somewhere else. “He’s disturbed on a molecular level,” is what his niece had told Oliveri. She’s the only way anyone will know the old guy is gone when that overdue day of reckoning comes – her or the ‘Return To Sender’ stamp on one of the papers Oliveri drops in the mail each week.

“Adderly.”

“Yes, Mist- um. Oliveri.”

“You have a handle on things down here?” The kid stands amidst piles of the bundled mid-week editions, double checking the paper count against a list of delivery locations. The papers arrived about an hour ago and the two of them have proofread final copies, made note of any corrections that will need to appear in the weekend edition, and set aside copies for the archives. The delivery truck will arrive in a few minutes, Adderley will help load it and then probably crash on the couch in the lobby for a few hours before they open for business. Good kid.

“Everything looks good, but I think we have like six extra bundles.”

“Besides the additional ten I ordered?”

“Yeah.”

“They on the invoice?”

“Um.” Adderley flips through the pages on the clipboard in his hand. “No.”

“Give two extra to Harvest Market. One extra each to the Bait Bucket and Grady’s. Keep two here. Set ’em up out front. If nobody buys ’em or calls for ’em by noon we’ll run ’em over to the school.”

“Got it.”

“Then call the printers and make sure the bill’s right, but make it clear that we didn’t order ’em and we’re only paying for ’em if they sell.”

“Okay.” But the kid looks more red-eyed and overwhelmed than usual.

Oliveri stands up from the old vinyl rolling office chair where he’s been ruminating over these strange legal documents while the kid worked. “Nathan.”

“Yeah.” Startled the poor kid. He’s beat.

“How you holding up?”

The skinny junior college student adjusts his glasses up his nose. “Um. Okay, I guess.” He graduated from Brenlee elementary only six years before, didn’t he? Can’t even drink legally yet.

“It’s gonna be weird for a while, but I think it might get better. We have a chance. The town, I mean.”

Nathan Adderley glances down at his cheap sneakers, the same style Oliveri wore back in high school, and then looks up, “It’s always been weird in Brenlee. Everyday.” He says it like Oliveri is new to town and from a certain perspective he realizes, he is still new. He’s only ever caught glimpses of the way a local kid like Adderley sees this place.

“Right. Well, hang in there, okay?”

“What else is there?”

And now Oliveri really does smile and that only makes the kid sadder than hell. He clears his throat. “I gotta make some calls upstairs. Shout if you need anything.”

“Okay. Um.”

“Yeah?”

“You know it’s not even 4 AM?”

“Yep. Don’t run to the donut shop after the deliveries go out, Adderley. Breakfast is on me today. We’ll drive out to Grady’s.”

“Thanks.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

Oliveri’s body drags what passes for an aging small town newspaperman’s spirit up the battered old wooden stairs. He closes the door to his office, which he almost never does, and its frosted glass window rattles. He sits in the same wooden desk chair Phillip Bergoyan used for years and years and looks at the typewritten list of numbers he has taped to his tattered desk blotter. He punches in the numbers on the old push button phone and prepares to report.