Seven minutes to Midnight

Salvador Dali, Exploding Clock
Justine & Johnny

         Friday the 13th and Boss tells me to take the afternoon off. He’s nearly seventy, former Army guy with two teenage sons and a runty wife who’s out of town. I suspect he wants to get home early, drink up, and plug some porno in the VCR. He’s left me in the shop alone before but for some reason he wants me out.

         “Ain’t going to hurt you to relax, Pete,” he says, hitting the no-sale button on the cash register.

         “I could do the floors.”

         He looks up over his glasses. “Pete, world ain’t going to end.” He stuffs carbon receipts, money and change in a canvass bag, folds it over and jams it in the front pocket of his baggy blue jumpsuit. “Go down to the beach,” he says. “Take a walk, relax a little.”

         He’s coming toward me, key in his hand, expecting me to move but I don’t. “What about UPS? Should be here today with that part from Tennessee. Higgins been waitin two weeks...”

         “Out,” he says. “Now.”


         I’m sitting in my truck, parked in a little lot near the sea. It isn’t working, relaxing. Seagull lands on my hood and struts. I stare it off, start counting waves, get to a hundred when this blue import car drives in.

         Justine steps out. Mid-thirties, auburn hair, nice skin. She’s not in sweats or jeans, attire you’d expect a warm-blooded woman to wear to the beach on a breezy January day. No, she’s black cocktail dress, short and tight, and high heels. She looks my way, pretending I’m not there, opens the back door on the driver’s side and reaches in for something over on the passenger’s side. Her little dress rises up past her waitress thighs and she’s not wearing any panties. She hops a little and her butt shimmies and she can’t locate what she’s looking for.

         For a solid twenty, Justine flashes fanny, a round and firm one. She straightens up, empty handed, little smirk on her red lips. Then she starts all over again in the front seat, looking for something that isn’t there.

         She heads down to the beach but doesn’t go far. Or turn around. It’s damp and the sky is tinged with tangerine. Justine tosses her heels on a beach towel owned by a smiling punk Cobain coming out of the surf with his board. Little bastard’s name is Johnny. Johnny, the waiter. Johnny, the surfer. Johnny, the gigolo. Local boy. Son of the mayor. I hate him. Uses women, leaves them like kelp.

         Light fades and dim makes them brave, bold. Towel drops. They kiss and the little bastard warms his cold hands under her dress. Those should be my hands, on that ass. My lips on hers. Our grind.

         I crouch down, pound the sand, and watch their rapture. He’s bad. She’s bad. I’m bad. I know where she lives. I know her schedule. And Johnny’s.


         I go home. Sew legs on my pillow. I make a head with another pillowcase and sew that to the torso. It’s 5:45 when I finish with the dummy, which I dress like a Central Coast surfer.

         I drive north, knowing Johnny, smooth talking little bastard, will be late for work. The owner’s wife will forgive his tardiness. She has a crush on him, as do all the women her age. They don’t see what I see: a slug, a grub, a maggot with aphid wings stuck to his smile.

         Just past the Hamlet restaurant there is a stretch of ocean and pasture and Johnny drives this road five nights a week and he’s always speeding, always two drinks into his evening. I pull over, step out with Dex the Dummy in my hand. It’s murky and damp and car lights approach. But the speed is not right for a late lad in a BMW.

         The driver is Hank, shit-faced from spending the afternoon in the saloon. He’ll not remember passing, let alone my truck parked off the road, rear license plate removed.

         It’s 6:05.

         I love this game.

         There, hear it: high whine of an engine running on a quart of oil?

         Come on, Johnny.

         His high beams barely budge the dark. I pitch the dummy up in the air. His car thumps over the body, his brakes lock, the Beamer rolls and Johnny flies. The car lands on its roof, smoking, wheels turning. Johnny staggers up. I pitch Dex in the truck, flick on my high beams. I hit the gas, aim for the kid that gets the most pussy in town. I crank the wheel at the last moment, fishtail.

         The thud of his body against the truck makes me smile, the first one, this winter.


         Sheriff Charlie

Johnny lives. Head trauma. Fourteen broken bones. He’s in a coma. I don’t like comas. Been there. Unless you have a purpose, why return and be someone like me?

         “Kid’s tough,” says Earl the Barber.

         Earl’s sitting with a group of old timers at the Klatch, a local hangout where a buck gets you all day coffee. Used to be a deli but now it’s serving Denny’s style starch and fat. It’s about 9 a.m. Last of the raindrops fall outside and I wonder if they can see my smile.

         “Charlie thinks he swerved to avoid a deer,” Earl says.

         “No,” says Jake, a guy with a belly, red suspenders and no job. “The kid ain’t the type to swerve. He’s straight ahead.”

         They agree to that. I’ve been up since five, speculating on what others would speculate. So far, they don’t suspect anything odd, which I didn’t think they would. This town hasn’t had a murder in a decade. People here feel protected, believe in trust and divine intervention. Guy like me can stay invisible if he works hard, keeps his mouth shut and avoids the bars. I leave the Klatch a little before ten, drive to the shop and wait for Boss to arrive. As usual, he’s late. Probably woke up with a stiffie and started calling 800 numbers. When he pulls up, I know right away why he’s late. He’s heard about Johnny. His face is gray, his legs, unsteady.

         “Hey, Boss,” I say.

         He looks through me, saying, “Pete, Johnny’s been in an accident.”

         “Is he?”

         “Just barely,” Boss says, wiping his eyes. He’s very fond of Johnny. His own sons are dull and bulky, lacking Johnny’s grace and gab.

         “I’m sorry,” he says. “I don’t think I can...” His hand covers his mouth, his eyes shut.

         “I understand.” He nods, gets back in his truck, breaks out crying. I almost feel bad for him. Almost. Easy to remember Johnny stopping by and making fun of me. Always asking when I’m going to get my teeth fixed, when I’m going to find a barber who can do something about my widow’s peak. Cheap banter that always amused the Boss.

         I start to itch. I want time to jump ahead six months; see Johnny’s surfer shriveled body in a wheelchair as I push him through his town, past his women, knowing his star has burned out. I want Johnny to live. His dying now would ruin truth, make him a mini James Dean, and I couldn’t live in that climate.

         When I get back to the Klatch, I notice Charlie’s patrol car out front. I buy a cup of coffee and a cinnamon roll and sit in a corner where I can watch Charlie eat and also see who else comes in. He looks up from his plate of three eggs, country potatoes and sausage and says, with a mouthful, “So, what do you think, Pete?”

         “About what?”

         “You haven’t heard?”

         “You mean, Johnny?” Charlie grins. “Damn shame, huh?”

         I grin back and Charlie says, “Tween you and me, I think the kid saw deer eyes and panicked.”

         “He does drive on the fast side.” The word “fast” stops Charlie. His little brown eyes narrow, his littler ears redden. Rumor around town was Johnny was doing Charlie’s wife. For a fat man, Charlie has a scrumptious little mate. Most of the time she’s well behaved but she does stray and most folks don’t blame her. Charlie gained 100 pounds after they were married and seemed to lose a hundred years of respect for his wife. People say Charlie’s house is wired and monitored by cameras and he spends his evenings watching his wife do whatever she does.

         Standing, his belly over his holster, Charlie says, “I knew this day was coming.”

         I nod. “Deeds do catch up with you.”

         Charlie waddles out without paying. He leaves a 75-cent tip. I toss a buck on the table. I’m thinking of Justine. She probably knows by now. Might remember flashing me, might recall not seeing me when her and Johnny returned to the car. I can’t trust her. Once she sets aside hysteria, she might think, Pete.


         Cop Watching

         I park down the street from the house Justine rents. Old folks are out walking their dogs. It’s going to be a clear and pretty day, the kind of day you mention to everyone and everyone agrees. Fresh, crisp, a day of possibilities.

         I get out, whistling. I’m wearing a blue cap, dark sunglasses, my blue shirt with the Gas Company logo, and carrying a meter reader I bought a few years back at a garage sale. Her house sits in the middle, on the low side of a half moon, unpaved street. Charlie’s car is parked in her driveway.

         I note which neighbor’s car is out front and who drives it. I scan the windows to make sure no one is looking down at me slipping into Justine’s backyard. There’s no fence or tall shrubbery to conceal me from the house behind hers. The owner works as a secretary for the school superintendent and she won’t be home for lunch for another thirty minutes. Tony Del Banco could see me from his bay window but this is Friday and he’s at work at nine.

         The little kitchen window is open and I can hear Justine sniffing. I’m guessing she’s had her crying jag. Crouching down, I waddle over to the sliding door that opens onto the deck. Justine’s back is to me and she’s dressed in a see-through exercise outfit. Charlie has sunglasses on.

         “So you came back to your place and then what?” he asks.

         “We had a couple drinks.”

         “Two, three?”

         “He had two, I had one.”

         “Then what?”

         “We fooled around.”

         “Kissing, groping, fucking, or all three?” Charlie asks. Justine turns and I duck out of sight. “That’s none of your business,” she says. A floorboard creaks and Justine yells, “Let go of me.”

         “Listen,” Charlie says, “Alcohol and serious fucking can impair...”

         She shrieks, “Keep your fat fucking hands off me, Charlie.”

         I scramble, dive off the deck as the screen door slides opens and Justine says, “I swear to God, you touch me again and I’ll...”

         “All right, all right,” Charlie begs, “calm down and come back inside.” She stomps a bare foot. “No, we can finish right here.”

         On my belly I crawl away, staying close to the house. Charlie’s voice thickens. “Fine. After you fooled around, then what?”

         “He left.”

         “For work?”

         “I guess so.”

         “Do you remember what time?”

         “No.” I can see Charlie’s profile now. Ass like two canned hams, round shoulders, a head a mallet couldn’t crack. He swipes at a fly buzzing around his face. “Approximately,” he drawls.

         “I’d say, almost six.”

         “So, Johnny’s late for work.” Justine steps into view, a bit of sass in her voice. “He’s always late.”

         Charlie’s tone changes too. I sense they’ve played this game before. “Would you consider Johnny reckless?” Charlie asks.

         “No more than any late, just fucked, half drunk kid in this state.”

         “You’re a real peach, Justine.”

         “Are we through?”

         “You tell me? Charlie touches her hair. “I’m sure you’re aware his father doesn’t like you much.”

         “Says you.”

         “The mayor thinks you’ve been a corrupting influence on his Johnny and he’d be really interested in your attitude.”

         Justine pokes him in the belly and sneers, “Attitude is fucking the sheriff’s wife in his patrol car.”

         I brace for his reaction, a smack across her face. A dog barks. A breeze dies along this corridor of fence and then I hear Charlie laugh, low and greedy like Sydney Greenstreet in Casablanca. “That’s not nice.”


         RAT PACK

         I open the door underneath Josephine’s house. She’s at work, 62-year-old box girl with a silly nametag, square dance and bingo, her amours. Everyone loves Mother.

         I strip down to underwear and boots, set up the light and start digging the French drain I’ve promised her for two years. It’s humid, webby and mossy-smelling. There’s a ragged chair under one of the beams and empty Schlitz cans. She sits down here sometimes, although she says she doesn’t. Her memorabilia is in several boxes, mostly old movie magazines and posters and matches from Las Vegas hotels, bars and casinos. Josephine is a Rat Pack fan and she named me after Peter Lawford, her favorite rat. People say he was JFK’s pimp but Mother says he was only following orders. And the order of that era was to hang out, find fun with broads and have a great time. Mother’s part of that era but she’s prissy these days and her thing for Lawford hasn’t waned any. She still thinks bits of his cremated remains might float ashore one day embedded in a shell. She wouldn’t admit it but she spends a lot of time scavenging on the beach.

         Hour passes, then another. It’s raining and I’m sitting in a muddy shallow trench. I don’t have time to get the pipe and pea gravel. She’ll be home soon but I can’t move. I stretch out, thinking of Justine and Charlie and why? I lay down in the hole. I play with the mud. It’s grainy, cold. Spring runs underneath the house and the water table rises when it rains for a week. It hasn’t stopped raining since I left Justine. I saw her buying gum at the Exxon. I saw her at the post office and she said, “Hi, how’s your mother?” She was looking up like I had a streak of Peter Lawford in me. I tried to talk without showing my crooked teeth and finally gave up. I rattled off about Mother’s big bingo night, reminding myself that women get uncomfortable if you stare into their eyes longer than fifteen seconds. Her hair was pulled back and her forehead was oily. She wasn’t wearing a bra or looking sad about Johnny being in a coma. I talked about Mother’s square dance partners and fluffy outfits, talked like a politician while the real things I wanted to tell Justine leaked into a different corner of my mind. Mother’s doomsday clock and how she has it set to seven minutes to midnight, just like the cold war days, midnight being annihilation, the minutes corresponding to her tension. And as this clock ticked and I talked, I noticed Justine’s growing discomfort, her large waitress hands having nothing to pick up or put down. I noticed her gorgeous indifference.



         I’ve been sick. Fever, chills, body aches. I miss a week of work and lose 10 pounds. No one visits, except Mother and when she shows up she’s pissed because I missed her birthday. She suspects my illness is a reaction to bad thoughts or bad deeds and I tell her I’ve been too busy working to think of bad and his friends. Like any mother, she wants to believe me. She looks around, knows there’s nothing to tidy up because I’m clean about my space and orderly about my things. She won’t sit down. Or shut up. Her hair is black and poofy, face caked with a pound of flesh cream. Blue eye shadow. Lipstick red like her fingernails. Patches of brown fleck her doughy arms, which wobble when she’s animated about me and my future.

         “I’ve been thinking,” she says cautiously. “You ought to consider putting your thoughts down.”

         I pull the comforter up to my neck, glance at the empty soup bowl. I look at her. She knows I’m naked under this blanket.

         “It’s a way to deal with being alone,” she says, slyly, knowing my loneliness isn’t transient or chronic but terminal. “I’m not talking about a diary but there’s nothing wrong with having one.”

         “You’re saying I should write down what I feel.”

         She gauges my irritability, and approaches. I hold tight to the comforter. “Honey.” Her hand on my face feels like a skinned cat. “All I’m saying is talking, whether to me or to a piece of paper, is a good way of...” Her makeup smears against my face. “Oh, baby,” she whispers.

         I smell Vicks Vapor Rub. I feel bad. I didn’t know she’d been sick too. I drift. I don’t want to but I can’t help it. I remember the boy she held, small, fragile, a worm with a human head. I remember the boys in school, the glittery eyes of possums. Me on the edge of the grass, trembling as they rolled toward me and piled on and pushed me into the earth, their laughing a lesson to remember. I’d be dead if my Mother wasn’t so damn pretty.

         When I hear “baby” for the 25th time, I stop crying and she acts like she can feel the stubble on my face growing. She backs away. I feel alive again. The bug inside has been pinched in half like a flea.

         “You’re right, Mother, and, if you don’t mind, I’d like to start right now.”

© 2007 Underground Voices