KEITH WOOD

Knowing Randall

          The porch light was on, which meant that Randall was home and accepting
visitors. I stood at the front door for a second, knocked, then went on in. Randall
was in his usual place, kicked back in the recliner, a few empty Red Stripe beer
bottles clustered around his feet, the TV tuned in to CNN with the sound turned
down, a little Miles Davis going on the stereo, and "The Big Kahoona" sitting there
on his coffee table. This was his pet name for the two foot water bong he'd made
out of a bamboo trunk.
          Flopping down on his couch, I reached for the bong and fired it up. It was
always packed and ready to go. Randall believed in southern hospitality. After the
first twenty times of him offering it to me when I visited, I just naturally started to
help myself after that. Randall was generous with other things, but especially his
smoke. He could afford to be. It was potent and didn't take much to get your head
where it needed to be.
          "It's March," he nodded to the TV screen, "anything can happen in March."
          I got a good hit and held it in. Texas tornadoes were ripping through Corpus
Christi, Houston, and MaCallister, flash floods were drenching Atlanta, South
Carolina, the Virginias. It seemed odd that we had lucked out with a cloudless,
unseasonably warm night. In fact it had been warm all week.
          I put The Big Kahoona back in his place. That's when I noticed his .357
nestled against the ash tray. Randall was an exceedingly cautious dealer, not like
the others I knew. He had a select group of customers. He'd never ripped
anybody off, drove a new fire engine red BMW 533i convertible, wore tailored
shirts, got his hair cut every two weeks. Still, the gun threw me. It didn't belong in
the picture. Not that I didn't know about it. Hell, I had let loose with it many times
out behind his house. You know, beer bottles, cans, just plain old redneck fun. But
I had never seen it laying out on the table like that.
          Randall got up, went into the kitchen, came back with what I wanted, then
tossed it in my lap. I didn't inspect it. I laid the cash down. He didn't count it, just
eased back in the recliner again. This was our usual routine, no rush, no fuss. I
decided not to ask about the gun. He'd eventually get around to it if he wanted.
Wasn't any secret that Randall enjoyed his firearms. Someone told me he had a .50
caliber hidden in his laundry room, several AK-47s stowed away in the attic, cases
of ammo, explosives. I didn't believe half of this crap. People in Vernon Hill liked
to talk. Wasn't much else to do.
          My friend Billy claimed that Randall had a meth lab set up in the work shop
out behind his house, and that he also had sheets of acid hanging up to dry in the
rafters. And it wasn't just Billy running his mouth. Randall was a hometown
legend, but not in the traditional "good" sense. He was similar to Fitzgerald's
Gadsby. Everybody in Vernon Hill had a story on him. On the rare occasions when
our conversations did turn towards his past, he would admit a few details, then
immediately contradict himself. I never called him on it. I think Randall liked me
because I didn't ask questions.
          Randall picked up the stereo remote and bumped the Miles up a hair.
"They're watching me," he mumbled, leaning in close.
          "They?" I asked, shoving the baggie down the front of my jeans.
          "Two unmarked Dodge sedans out by the bridge." He got up, walked over to
the front window and picked up a pair of binoculars. "You'll spot 'em when you
leave."
          "Who is it?"
          "Don't know yet."
          I got up, went over to the window. Randall handed me the binoculars and
pointed them in the right direction. "You gotta wait until a car passes to see 'em."
          The woods were dark in front of his house, but there was just enough of a
clearing out by the main road. A set of oncoming lights came drifting into view.
Sure enough, two Dodge sedans were parked beside the bridge, lights off, waiting.
Shit. If they were watching Randall, they sure as hell were watching me, too. I dug
the baggie out of my jeans and held it out for him to take. I already had one
possession charge against me.
          "Put it back," he shoved it away, "they ain't gonna stop you. They've been
out there for three weeks now, on and off. They haven't stopped anybody leaving
this house."
          I shoved the baggie back down in my jeans again. "Three weeks? Jesus...
why are they waiting for?"
          "I think they're scared," Randall shook out a cigarette, laughing. "I think
they know I've got a few things in my closet that would ruin their day. Shit, you
think Waco or Ruby Ridge was bad, just watch them fuckers come and try to take
me. It'd be like the last fifteen minutes of Scarface."
          "Pachino didn't make it out of his house alive in that movie."
          "Fuck Pachino !" Randall snatched the binoculars away. "He made too many
mistakes. I don't make mistakes."
          Randall talked big when he was stoned, but didn't we all. I walked back over
to the couch. A CNN reporter was on the TV screen, his hair blowing all over the
place. Behind him, a group of trees were all bent nearly to the ground. This
reporter was in Fort Worth. The tornado was listed as an F-4, nearly a mile wide
angry mass of black wind. I tried to imagine CNN mobile unit getting dispatched to
Vernon Hill if Randall did get himself into a nasty standoff. Hell, they might even
send in the same fool that was standing in the middle of that F-4 monster. But
Randall was wrong. His standoff wouldn't be nearly as bad as Waco, probably not
even as bad as Ruby Ridge. He was one guy and he'd be fighting for his cause--not
A cause, his cause. The American public barely remembered Waco or Ruby ridge
anyway. CNN didn't like rewinding those old tapes, didn't like reminding their loyal
viewing public that the past could be repeated--easily; the same mistakes made, the
same breakdowns in communication that would inevitably lead to intervention,
violence and death. What a bunch of suckers we were.
          The one Kahoona hit had started to loosen the muscles in my shoulders and
neck. I wanted another one, but I could sense that Randall wanted something. I
needed to be straight when he asked, no cobwebs clouding my judgment. He was
stalling, so I decided to help matters along a little. I clapped my hands together and
said, "So, what's the plan here?"
          Randall jumped like a spooked alley cat. He stormed into the hall. I heard a
cabinet open, then slam shut. He returned carrying a piece of paper, which he
dropped into my lap. On the paper, he had drawn a very neat map, typed out a set
of detailed instructions, and towards the bottom he had scribbled down two phone
numbers, along with a long string of other numbers and letters. At the very
bottom, a Master lock key had been carefully tapped down.
          "You got anything planned for tonight?" he asked, gently picking up the
.357, then easing himself down beside me on the couch.
          "Well...no..." I wasn't worried about the gun. It was the key, the instructions,
and the numbers that had me.
          "How long have we known each other, Jimmy?" he asked.
          "About two years." I knew it was going to be a favor, a very big favor. I had
just started to read over the instructions and each paragraph began with "You
will..."
          "That's enough time for some trust to develop between us, isn't it?"
          I nodded, glancing at the key. Randall went on: "Trust has to be earned,
nurtured." He rested the gun beside him, leaned forward and laced his fingers
together. "Now, someone ratted me out..."
          I felt my stomach drop. The situation had changed. This I hadn't expected.
Anything can happen in March...
          "I'm not saying it was you," he continued, "maybe someone you know.
Maybe it was someone who just got popped and decided to roll over on me.
Whoever it is, I'll find them, but these things take time. Unfortunately, I don't have
that time right now."
          "It wasn't me," I whispered. I could feel my heart thumping hot against my
ear drums.
          "Hey," Randall held up his hands and shrugged, "if it wasn't you, it wasn't
you--which brings us to the key." He pointed to the paper. "That key is to a storage
space out on Highway 82, out by the new video store."
          My eyes looked beyond the paper and found the TV screen again. The
reporter had finally sought shelter inside, but like an idiot he was standing in front
of a large plate glass window, still doing his bit, while the tornado was throwing
around cars in the parking lot behind him. I wondered how many tornadoes that
guy had been through, and how many more he would have to cover until he came
to the one with his name on it. In other news, Miami Florida, a small Cuban boy had
gotten himself trapped in an abandoned well. A reporter was trying to interview his
screaming mother. Behind the screaming mother, an army of firemen and state
troopers were huddled around a small hole in the ground. They had brought
sandwiches, water, soda, oxygen, flood lights, a bullhorn, and lots of nylon rope.
          Randall was saying something, but I had him tuned out while I thought about
things. He knew I wouldn't ask what was in the space. Trust. I trusted Randall not
to burn me. He'd probably trust me with his car in a beer run. But what he had put
down on paper was something else. This was a job, a job he couldn't or wouldn't
do himself. What he needed done scared me, but I wasn't about to say no. Not yet
anyway. I had wanted to know more about Randall from the day I first met him. He
had Vaguer, Chet Baker, and Motorhead in his CD collection, he liked foreign
movies, Fellini, Truffaut. I had seen him in restaurants, dining with gorgeous
women, at a bar here and there, but never with the same woman. He wore a
wedding band, but never mentioned a wife, no pictures, nothing. Although, once I
did happen to get a glance of a framed photo he had hanging in his bedroom. I had
used the upstairs bathroom because he was taking a shower in the one downstairs
at the time. Of course, I got in a little snooping time while I was up there. Oddly
enough, the woman in the photo was no raving beauty. I had never seen here
before. Plain, dull brown eyes, gaunt cheekbones, thin parted lips. Forgettable.
But what did I know.
          At the time, I wondered if this could be his fabled, waifish, Gadspian Daisy.
Did he have her discretely tucked away somewhere, sequestered in some quiet
trailer park on the east side of town? Or was she married to someone else now?
Children, big house in the suburbs. I'd never know, and I'd never ask.
          What I did know about Randall wasn't much: he had money, but no job,
aside from dealing. He liked his house and his car clean. I had never seen a dirty
dish in his sink, clothes on the floor, cigarette ashes on the couch, nothing.
He had a mother and a father. He'd even let me talk to them one day while he called
to wish them a happy wedding anniversary. He'd let you in on a very private
moment like that, then turn around and lie about something else. Not a bad lie.
None of them were bad lies. But lies added up quick.
          All idiosyncrasies aside, he was there for me once a month, always at home
when I called, always holding whatever I was in the mood for, ready to do business,
even during a dry spell. You just didn't meet that many intriguing professionals in
the drug world; at least not around Vernon Hill you didn't.
          Slowly, I tuned Randall back in: "...And the dumpster is on Spivey Road. It's
a small gravel path, so drive slow. I know the guy who services it every week. He
knows where to deliver--oh, and wear these." He reached down under the coffee
table and tossed me a box of disposable surgical gloves. "Just in case, you know."
          I couldn't help laughing. "It just keeps getting better and better." I shook my
head, trying one of the gloves on. It was a perfect fit. Somehow I knew it would be.
I glanced over at Randall. He wasn't smiling.
          "You will do this for me, Jimmy?"
          I leaned forward and put the box of gloves between my feet. "I got one
question."
          "What?"
          "Have you asked anyone else to do this for you?"
          "No."
          I believed him. He didn't even blink, which, oddly enough, made me feel
slightly less queasy about the situation. Oh, he'd owe me for this one. But that
wasn't why I was gonna do it. I guess I knew him well enough. Still, there was a
sizable amount of risk I had to consider. I needed a back up plan. I could only
think of two things, so I let him know: "If I get popped doing this, you gotta make
my bail, then back me up with your lawyer--not A lawyer, Your lawyer."
          "Deal," he stuck out his hand. I grabbed it and shook.
          Randall gave me an extra set of keys, then took off in his BMW. I stayed
behind and watched trough the binoculars. The two sedans followed him, just like
he said they would. I locked up, hopped in my car and headed for Highway 82. It
was around 10:30, a bright half moon was out, just bright enough to work in. I
figured the job would take a couple hours, tops.

          I knew where the place was. The code to get me in the front gate was on the
paper. Everything I needed was on that paper. Randall had even put his cell phone
number at the bottom, and his lawyer's number, "Just in case, you know."
          After punching in the code, I started into the well lit maze of aluminum doors
and red brick, hoping he hadn't rented one of those big fuckers with enough square
footage to throw a dance in. But of course, knowing Randall, he had.
          I parked, got out, peeled the key off, popped the lock, and pushed the door
up. I didn't have to turn on the light. The smell hit me so fast and so hard, I
instinctively yanked the door back down and stumbled away, trying to suck in as
much fresh air as I could.
          That I hadn't expected.
          Logically, it could have been a dead raccoon, a nest of rats that had gotten
trapped, a guard dog that he had neglected to feed. But I knew it wasn't any of
those.
          "No way in hell," I whispered to myself, looking around for a night watchman.
The lot was still. The stink was fading, but the memory of it was still in my nostrils.
Trust my ass. It was one thing to ask a friend to dispose of several hundred
pounds of illegal substances, firearms, explosives, or stolen goods, which is what I
had expected.
          I walked up and down the corridor of locked silver doors, trying to consider
all the possibilities, the risks, which were infinitely greater now. The more I paced,
the more pissed off I got. Was this the real thing? Or had he dreamed up some
sort of demented loyalty test for me? If I could go through with this, he could
finally trust me? That sick fucker.
          I put the lock back on, drove to the nearest quick mart, and called him on a
pay phone. He answered on the second ring. I tore into him real good and proper.
"Are you fucking serious!" I yelled into the receiver as loud as I could.
          "Jimmy," he laughed. It was a nervous, forced laugh. "I see you made it."
          "You know, Randy, I hate to admit it, motherfucker, but I underestimated
you!" I dropped the receiver, stepped back and kicked the phone a couple of times,
pretending it was him. It was stupid, but it felt pretty good while I was doing it.
          When I got through, I picked up the receiver and he was still on the line.
"That is some serious rank, dangerous shit you want me to fuck with, man!"
          "I'm sorry, Jimmy. I didn't mean for that particular project to sit for long,
but with company, there was nothing I could do, and until you called earlier today, I
couldn't think of anyone else to ask."
          "What the hell is it?" I yelled, "Or who the hell is it?"
          "Can't talk like that on this phone, darling. A later time, and I'll fill you in. If
this is turning into a financial situation, give me a figure and I'll see what I can do."
          I thought for a minute. Ten...twenty grand. What was a job like this worth?
How much time was I looking at if I get popped? I was too cute and too skinny to
go to Parchman for one of Randall's fuck ups. This was a job that required several
days of contemplation, strategy, rehearsal, back up. He could have warned me.
Trust. This was so wrong. He'd never do something like this for me. I could hang
up, walk away, let them eventually break down his door at 3 am with drug dogs and
a swat team. If he wanted to go out blasting like Pachino, that was his pseudo
Hollywood death wish, I wanted no part of it.
          "Jimbo, I gotta have an answer on this..." he trailed off.
          I squeezed the receiver, pretending it was his neck. "I'll let you know," I
mumbled through clenched teeth, then hung up.

          Back at the warehouse, I left the gate up for twenty minutes to let the place
air out. There was an old shirt in my trunk and some visqueen sheets. I tied the
shirt around my nose, spread out the visqueen in my trunk and back seat, then
went to work. Each box was the same shape, size and color: kraft brown, about two
foot by two foot; each one weighed roughly about thirty to forty pounds; each one
was neatly taped in long, wrapping winds. A swarm of green bottle flies had
gathered on the ones near the bottom. I decided to save those for last.
          On the floor, towards the back, a window unit sized air conditioning unit sat
in a small scorched black circle. The compressor had probably shorted out from
constant wear. No telling how long it had been running. Randall was lucky it
hadn't started a bigger fire. Then I wondered if that might have been the plan all
along.
          I worked for a solid hour, packed my car full, locked the door back, then
headed for the dumpster. Of course, it was right where he said it would be and
nearly empty. Knowing Randall, he had rehearsed this drive many times.
          Driving back to the warehouse, I estimated that at least three more trips
would probably clear the place out. I was getting used to the smell. Not all the
boxes stank, and I hoped, for Randall's sake and mine, that they didn't all contain
what I feared. He had enough boxes in there to take care of an entire DEA drug raid
squad--all of them neatly and equally cut into sized portions, of course. Not only
DEA, I thought, but Mafia, delinquent customers who hadn't paid their bills in a
while. Hell, I didn't know how connected Randall was in anything. Could be
laundered stacks of 100 dollar bills stuffed into those boxes for all I knew, each one
complete with a decomposing rat: a symbolic present for the finder and keeper.
Does the stink of death wash off money that easily?
          Then, for some eerie reason, I suddenly recalled all of those smiling, young
faces on the back of each milk carton I had bought. I always took a moment to
inspect each photo, just to be sure that I didn't recognize any of them.
          "No," I whispered, shaking my head, "there's no way anything good or
innocent could be in those boxes."
          I pulled into the lot, popped the lock, and started loading again. Again, my
conscience wrestled with reality: the daily reports of missing prostitutes,
hitchhikers, traveling salesmen. I thought of his mysterious Daisy as well: a
woman whose existence I could never prove, let along some lengthy, covert affair.
And what if the affair had gone sour? What if he had caught someone else with her
one night? Her and her new lover? But there were too many boxes, and I had no
time and no desire to go digging. No, this was one secret I was going to let him
keep.

          Driving back home, I had all the windows down. It was around 1 a.m. and
Highway 82 was nearly deserted. I slowed down, trying to think the situation
through one more time, knowing I wouldn't be able to sleep later. Maybe not for
days. Was Randall an evil, homicidal, closet serial killer, or was there some silly,
misunderstood explanation? Either way, I felt screwed. Even though I hadn't
gotten caught, he had fucked me all around and now I would have to live with it. I
was now the guy who would do anything for him, no matter how dirty the job. His
little fuck boy on a short leash. The money didn't matter. It would help, sure, but
then I'd be hooked. He'd have another "job" lined up for me next week.
And the horribly ironic thing was: I still didn't know a goddamn thing more about
the sick fucker. I would keep buying my drugs from him, keep wondering who the
brown-eyed woman was in his bedroom, keep wondering what secrets his closets
held.
          Trust...I slammed on the breaks. It was Randall's car. No one else in town
had a car like that. It was parked in front of C's Lounge. I eased into the gravel lot
and parked alongside it. Empty. I checked the doors. Locked. No sign of the two
unmarked Dodges, but I was sure they were close by. What the hell was he doing
at C's Lounge? I wondered. C's was where all the old men in town drank: veterans,
masons, retired insurance salesmen.
          I dug around in my pockets and found the extra set of keys he'd given me
earlier. My right hand was shaking from fear, anger, self pity as I thumbed through
them until I got to the one that would open the BMW. Two suit jackets were laying
on his back seat. I covered myself with those, locked the doors and waited.
          After what seemed like half an hour later, I heard the front door to C's
Lounge slam shut, sinking footsteps in the loose gravel. I snuck a peek through
the back window. The night sky was immaculate, peppered with glistening stars.
The tornadoes ripping through Texas earlier were now long gone. I wondered
about the little Cuban boy trapped in that Miami well. I wondered about what was in
the dumpster. I had a lot of questions for Randall. I hoped he had all the right
answers.


Keith Wood lives and works in Philadelphia, but is originally from
Columbus, Mississippi. He has had work published in Negative Capability
and The Dilettante. He has written a slew of poetry, a collection of
short stories, and 2 books (as yet unpublished). And yes, he is still a
redneck.







2005 Underground Voices