UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION
Scales From His Eyes
The guy up ahead drops his cane and starts to shudder, his battered penny loafers tattooing a rumba on the sidewalk. Max rubs one sweat-greasy cheek and squints behind his wraparounds, trying to get a line on it.
The diners in the scabby brick box that houses Mary's Kitchen are looking, jaws sprung mid-chew as they point. Too late to edge past, to pretend he didn't see. The old man's still kicking away, face like rare steak under his gray crewcut, so something's gone right--maybe only have to talk to a medic.
Max hunkers down into the layer of furnace air waiting just above the gum-spattered walk, knees twinging as he undoes the top button of the guy's shirt. He nods sympathetically at the questions that bubble tepidly from the old man. After a while, a tall, black medic shoulders him out of the way without a word.
A mop-haired waitress comes up beside him, wringing her blue apron, and for the first time he notices a rapidly approaching warble. She's cute and nineteen, he decides in a glance--legs like a gazelle and a mouth he'd pay for.
"Is he gonna be all right?" she asks. "I called 911."
"That's good," he says, nodding, frozen. "That's real good."
The cop car is a shot of adrenaline in Max's heart, light bar still flashing as the siren dies mid-whoop. The medic doesn't look up, but then, he's used to it, doesn't have a reason to worry. The officer who steps out is six-foot-five, a valkyrie with mirrored shades and a pistol on her hip that looks big as a sawed-off. Her face could have been cast from the same mold as that of the girl who'd been slinging back margaritas last night at the Three Monkeys. Expression like new-cut granite, and there's nothing weak about this one. The heels of her boots clock the pink, sun-faded asphalt like a metronome.
"What's the story?" she asks the medic.
"Short. Guy's got diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension. Decided a long walk was just the ticket today."
"Ask that guy," he says, jerking a thumb in Max's general direction. "He loosened Mr. Jackson up, maybe saved his life."
"Thanks for your help, sir," she says, turning to flash him a cool, perfunctory smile. "Always nice to see a citizen step up."
In the dim squalor of Slawson's living room, Max shakes the last amber drops of Old Crow into a coffee cup. Slobbery grunts from down the hall, and my god how he wants a blackout, has since they left the Three Monkeys in a laughing whirl. He'd been ready first, youngest and least drunk, and he's already dropped his load. Shower's still broken, Slawson said, so he sinks into a sprung blue corduroy recliner and wishes for a clean towel. He's still there ten minutes later when a slap echoes through the apartment, followed by a curse.
"Wha...?" comes a low, slurred female voice. "Where am I?"
Not for the first time, Max closes his eyes and listens to the sobs, half-wishing he felt dirty. Eventually they get louder, and he notices a stirring down south, so he unzips and finds he isn't out of ammo yet. He heaves himself from the chair and heads back to the bedroom to party.
"So he was dancing in the middle of the sidewalk," the officer says, frowning as she watches the medics transfer the old man onto a gurney, cursing even as they made their efficient, practiced movements.
"Yeah, that's right," Max says. "Then he fell down and raped his skull. Rapped. Rapped his skull."
She swings around to look at him, one eyebrow raised. He opens his mouth, trying to think of anything to say--anything at all. It's one of those moments when he hates Richmond: sitting at a dirt-crusted keyboard all day, always short on cash, the way the city sprawls like a corpse around the James River. Cars are passing--sleek bubbles that barely slow to look, and he wishes he were in any of 'em.
"Sounds crazy, I know," Max says, trying for a natural-looking smile.
The tall blonde woman bows her head and removes her sunglasses, massages the freckled, sunburned bridge of her nose. Max sneaks a look at her rack: gorgeous, blouse-stretching tits, mirror of the girl they'd taken back to Slawson's apartment.
Twin, has to be. Goddamn.
He rubs his own forehead, thinking that there's too much sun in the sky today, an impossible luminescence, enough for a dozen lightless worlds. The sweat's running off him, gently spattering the concrete. All of a sudden his groin feels uncomfortably hot, and he thinks of sourdough starters, Peruvian jungle caves. He hasn't showered yet, and the girl's fluids are still gummed into his tight n' curlies, guilty secrets still waiting for a bar of soap.
Jesus it's hot, he thinks crazily. Can she smell her sister on me? Is that it?
At last the officer stops rubbing her nose and puts the shades back on. She watches dispassionately as the medics close the back doors and take off.
"No," she says eventually. "It doesn't sound crazy. Happens all the time."
The confusion must show on his face, because she barks out a dry laugh.
"Crazy happens every day and every night in this town. Here."
She shoves a card into his hand. Name, rank, phone number. Half a dozen emotions jockeying inside, and what wins out is a glistening and shameful pride as he sees the faint blush in her cheeks. Not that he'll use it, but... a trophy? Is that what you call this?
"We'll let you know if you have to provide a statement. In the meanwhile, call if you think of anything. Have a nice day."
"You too, officer."
His heart is pounding like a bongo, and he stares at the smooth curve of the seat of her pants as she slides into the patrol car. About to pull out, she looks over, gives him a smile that manages both plaintive and sexy. Candy from a six-foot-five waif who carries a gun.
What do I do if she calls me? How am I supposed to hit that?
Max sits at the rough, cigarette-scarred bar inside The Back Alley, relishing the cool darkness even as he watches the heat shimmer outside the window. A few daytimers boozing it up, but otherwise the place is dead. Marilyn Monroe and Jimmy Stewart watch from their frames up on the wall, judgment in black and white.
"And then," the sallow, piggy bartender is saying, "we gotta toss the guy. Tipped great, regular customer, but he went mean that night."
"Sounds like you did the right thing."
"Sure 'nuff," the bartender says as he draws another Yuengling and sets it in front of him.
Max nods a silent thanks, takes a pull. Outside it's got to have passed a hundred. Two girls ride by on pink banana-seaters, bells tinkling and streamers flowing from their handlebars. Muffin tops, cutoffs, and lipsticked mouths like gashes, and he's Obama if they're in high school yet.
Not too shabby. Maybe in a few years.
The card is still in his pocket, already limp from his sweat and the muggy air. He pulls it out and runs a thumb over the name, thinking about how you can never get a cop when you need one, about how Justice is supposed to be blind.
"What about you, pal?" the bartender asks, sweeping a rag over the bar in slow circles. "Not to pry, but it looks like you've had a tough one today yourself."
"You don't know the half of it," Max says, shaking his head slowly. "You don't know the half of it."
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