Cold in july, p.2
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       Cold in July, p.2

           Joe R. Lansdale
 
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  “The officer told me any time we wanted to clean up to go ahead. They’ve taken photographs, done all they intend to do.”

  “I’ll help.”

  · · ·

  We got a plastic bucket of warm, soapy water and rubbed the couch down, threw the painting away, and wiped the wall as clean as we could get it. The couch was ruined. The blood had soaked into it, turning it dark in spots, giving the room a faint odor to remind us of what had happened.

  We cleaned up the carpet and put baking soda down to get rid of the smell of vomit, and it helped a little. When we were finished, I poured the soapy water into the kitchen sink, watched it swirl darkly down the drain, tossed away the rags we’d used and sprayed some air freshener about.

  I don’t know why, but the freshener struck me as funny in a grim kind of way. I kept imagining a commercial for air freshener where the announcer was saying how it covered up not only the odor of fish and onions, but blood, brains and vomit as well.

  Ann showered and I washed up in the bathroom sink, feeling like Lady Macbeth struggling with her damn spot, even though there wasn’t a drop of blood on me.

  Death in reality certainly wasn’t like television death.

  It was nasty and it smelled and it clung to you like a bad disease.

  Self-defense or not, I didn’t feel like Dirty Harry. I just felt bad, worse than I had ever felt in my life.

  “Let’s go to bed,” Ann said. She was stepping out of the shower and she looked good. Thirty-five years had been kind to her. Her breasts sagged a little maybe, but the rest of her was nice and the breasts were nothing to run me off. She was my woman and I loved her, and I knew she was offering herself to me. I could tell by the way she moved as she pulled the shower cap off and let her long blond hair fall like a shower of light onto her shoulders, by the slightly exaggerated stretches and the way she slid the towel slowly up her long legs and moved it seductively over her damp pubic hair.

  She smiled at me. “We can snuggle, you know?”

  “I’m not really sleepy,” I said stupidly.

  “So, we can snuggle a lot. Sleep later.”

  “We can try that,” I said. “Go ahead, and I’ll be to bed in a moment. Got a few things to do yet.”

  She finished drying, stepped into her panties, extending her legs through them nicely. It was almost enough to excite me, even after what had happened earlier. Almost.

  She put on her robe, kissed me on the cheek and went out of there with her soft soap scent lingering in the air.

  I took a leak, showered, and brushed my teeth. I put on my robe, went through the house testing locks on the doors leading outside. They were all fine except for the jimmied door, of course. I checked the windows too, and when I was finished in Jordan’s room, I stopped by his bed and put his teddy bear back under the covers and tucked them around him. I felt like dragging up a chair and watching him sleep, but I went out to the garage and got some wire and pliers and rigged a sort of latch on the door Freddy Russel had broken.

  Then I went into the kitchen and poured myself a glass of milk. The house felt strange to me, like it wasn’t mine anymore. It was no longer sanctuary. It had been invaded. I felt like a rape victim. Violated. Our house was no longer private, full of our spirits, thoughts, even our arguments. It was nothing more than a thing of glass, wood and brick that any thug with a crowbar or a screwdriver could bust open.

  The milk tasted like chalk and rested mercury-heavy in my stomach. I poured the rest down the drain and went to bed.

  Ann was asleep, and I was grateful for that. I had feared she would insist on a mercy fuck; sexual first aid. She worked that way sometimes, and I hated it. She meant well by it, but that didn’t make me like it. Tonight I would have despised it, no matter how much I loved her or how enticing she might be.

  I lay there looking at the ceiling, listening to Ann breathe. My stomach kept churning the milk around and around, and an instant replay of what had happened earlier was whirling endlessly through my head: swirls of shadow and muffled sounds, a flashlight, revolver steel, the wind from a bullet against my ear, the report of my own gun, the lights going on, the empty eye socket, blood and brains on the landscape painting and the very wall on which we taped our yearly Christmas cards. It wasn’t until daylight that I felt like sleeping.

  4

  I could have slept in, but I didn’t. I got up, dressed for work and went into the kitchen to sit at the table with Ann and Jordan.

  Jordan was playing with his food, as usual. Seldom did a morning pass without some sort of fight between me and the boy, or between the boy and his mother. Something to do with the way he ate, or playing at the table. The kid couldn’t get out of the house until he had spilled his milk. It was like a morning ritual that had to be observed.

  And there were thousands of little things he did that made me climb the wall, and it was the same for Ann. She and I went through each day joyful for him and mad as hell at him, trying to figure if we were overly demanding of a four-year-old, or if he was a real life Dennis the Menace. Or worse, some sort of criminal in the making, created by us, seasoned by our impatience and anger, tempered by his genetics, having acquired all the things we hated about ourselves, and none of the things we prized.

  I thought too, each night as I went to bed, that no matter how hard I tried, it wasn’t good enough. I never missed a day yelling at the little guy, or losing my temper in some way, and I certainly told him no more often than yes. Though I tried to listen to him describing what the Pink Panther and Woody Woodpecker and the Pokey Puppy did, there were times when his little voice was like chalk on a blackboard and I would tune out his enthusiasms, and I knew he could sense it.

  Then too, there was the other child, the one I thought about more often than I ever expected. The one Ann had carried inside her for eight and a half months and I had felt move inside her and had heard gurgling around in there when I put my ear to her stomach. The same child that filled her with poison and sent her to the hospital for days and prompted the late-night phone call in which she told me, “Our baby is dead,” and then began to cry.

  They used drugs to make her deliver, then offered us the body. A little girl. They said if we didn’t want her they would autopsy the body for research and dispose of it. Later, I found out if we had asked for her they would have handed her to us in a black garbage bag.

  At times I thought we should have at least looked at her. Maybe given her a name and had her buried. Other times I felt we had done the right thing. But right or wrong, the face of the child I never saw came to me in my dreams; a cold, gray face with its eyes open, and the eyes were like Ann’s, bright, bright green. And I would awake. Sweating.

  Sometimes I would drive by the hospital and see dark clouds, hanging over it, clouds that seemed full of storm. But I would know that it was smoke from the black incinerators out back; incinerators where placentas and lab experiments were disposed. And I wondered if my unnamed child had gone there after autopsy. Just so much ruined meat in a black garbage bag, cooked to past done, transformed to soot that would cling to the hospital roof and outside walls.

  And when I dreamed or thought these things, I would always think of Jordan and wonder how he put up with my inadequacies as a father. Times like that, I felt like a bad actor masquerading as a parent in a school play.

  I determined that this morning I would let nothing he did irritate me. It was the millionth time I had turned over that leaf in my mind. Each time I had failed to live up to it, but like some sort of Zen exercise, I thought repetition might make it easier for me eventually. And after what had happened last night, I saw the world in an entirely new and vulnerable light. It was just good to see the boy sitting there with his cereal, and as always, I took a secret pride in seeing my features on his little face. His hair was blond like his mother’s, but the almond shape of his eyes, the prominence of the lips, the cleft in his chin, were mine.

  Looking at him now, I hoped I was more of a presence in
his life than my father had been in mine, and I hoped I wouldn’t haunt him the way my father haunted me. That when it was all said and done he would have more than some uncertain memories and that there would be more between us than Christmas cards from distant cities with “love” written at the bottom.

  I leaned out of my chair, kissed and hugged the boy. “Good morning, big guy.”

  “What was all that racket about last night, Daddy?” Racket was his new word. He used it every chance he got.

  “Some people we had over.”

  “Why?”

  “We needed them.”

  “Why?”

  “Just for some things.”

  “What things?”

  “Nothing much. You like that cereal?”

  “Yeah.”

  It was some sort of processed, multi-colored junk filled with too much sugar and air. I felt like hell for letting him have that garbage, but his mother liked it too, and there were those damn television commercials that offered toys and games inside, and that fueled him for it, and like so many parents, I had my weak moments. But I determined then and there that next time we went shopping we would come home with oatmeal and granola, eggs and bacon, a variety of fruits. Compliments of Richard Dane, part-time killer, full-time father.

  “Taste?” Jordan asked.

  I dipped my spoon into the mess and brought it back full of bright animal shapes. It tasted like shit.

  “See,” Jordan said. “It’s good. You can get a fwizbee with one bogs top.”

  “That right?”

  “Uhhuh.”

  “You finish the cereal, then we’ll send off the box top. Maybe you can start having some oatmeal when this is gone. Wouldn’t that be good for a change? Oatmeal.”

  “I don’t like oatmeal.”

  “Some eggs. Maybe some sausage.”

  “I don’t like that neither. Just seerul.”

  I nodded, not wishing to argue, but grateful I had gotten his mind off the police. I was even more grateful he hadn’t awakened last night and seen the dead man on the couch.

  “You going to work?” Ann asked.

  She could see that I was shaved and dressed, but she was giving me an invitation to stay home. It was an idea that did not appeal to me, however. Being in the house all day with her gone and Jordan at day school would just cause me to replay last night endlessly in my head. Every-time I looked at the couch or at the brighter spot on the wall where the painting had hung, it would come back to me.

  “Sure, I’m going.”

  “Feel like it?”

  “Close enough. It’s better than staying here.”

  “Did you sleep?”

  “Some.”

  “Sorry I was asleep when you came to bed.”

  “That’s all right. I was too tired anyway.”

  “That’s why you go to bed, Daddy, cause you’re tired,” Jordan said.

  I smiled at him. “You’re right. I should have known that.”

  “I know everythang,” he said.

  I winked at Ann.

  “What you doing with your eye, Daddy?”

  “Something in it.”

  “Gid it out?”

  “Think so.”

  Jordan turned back to his breakfast, and I found there really was something in my eyes.

  Tears.

  I excused myself before they could notice, went to the bathroom, washed my face and stared in the mirror. I thought maybe I should see a different face looking back at me, but it was the same goon I saw in there every day. Killing a man had not altered my appearance in the least I still looked like a fairly healthy, not too bad-looking, starting to bald, thirty-five-year-old man.

  Jordan appeared in the doorway.

  “God to go bad.”

  “Come in.”

  “You gid out.”

  I patted him on the head, closed the door and went out. The tears started again. Goddamn, I’d never been this weepy before. But then it hit me what the tears were all about. It wasn’t just that I had killed a man. It was that I was suddenly aware of Jordan’s mortality. I had accepted my own some time back, but not his. After the loss of the first child I felt that I had paid my dues. But I knew now that was ridiculous. There are no such things as dues. Nothing’s promised.

  I got to thinking about what might have happened had Ann not heard the noise and alerted me. What if Jordan had heard the sound, got up to investigate, wandered into the living room in his feeted Superman pajamas, clutching his teddy bear?

  A grim scenario formed in my mind. The burglar hearing Jordan, turning, drawing the gun, firing without consideration, a red blossom opening in my son’s chest…

  I heard the toilet flush, and I went into our bedroom and closed the door, sat on the edge of the bed and hoped Jordan wouldn’t come in. I tried to dismiss all thoughts of mortality from my mind, my family’s mortality and my own. I sat there for a few minutes until the lie of permanence and absolute happiness was once again real enough to hold and my inner eye was blind enough not to see it slipping between my fingers like sand.

  5

  After Ann left for work, I let Jordan watch a few minutes of cartoons while I had a last cup of coffee, then I drove him to his day school at the Baptist church and took myself to work.

  I parked behind my frame shop and got out. It was only eight-thirty and the air was already sticky. July in East Texas is like that. The trees hold the heat and smother you with it. Sometimes it’s so bad the humidity seems to have weight, and walking through it is like trying to wade through gelatin.

  I stood by my car and breathed in the warm, small-town air. In spite of the heat, it was times like this that I was glad I lived in a town of forty thousand (counting ten thousand transient college students) instead of a place like Houston. Ann and I had lived there briefly when we were newly married, and we hated it. It was ugly, hurried and depressing. And there was all that crime.

  Crime. That was a hoot. Even a small town like LaBorde wasn’t free of that. Just ask me, the burglar killer.

  I got my key and went in the back and started coffee. At eight-forty-five the hired help showed. Valerie and James.

  Valerie is a bright, attractive woman and a good frame builder, if a little impatient with customers. James, on the other hand, is a so-so frame builder, and a master at knowing what the customer really wants. But he hasn’t figured out what Valerie wants. She snubs him. He spends a lot of his time with his eyes stuck to her ass, like a mountain climber mooning over a cherished but unattainable summit.

  I hoped plenty of work would come in today so I could stay busy, and maybe not have to talk too much. I knew if I talked very long about anything, I’d talk about last night, and I didn’t want to do that. Word would get around soon enough without my help. There hadn’t been any reporters last night, but it would certainly make the paper, if only in the abbreviated crime report section of the LaBorde Daily, which is as close to being a real newspaper as a water hose is to being a snake.

  While Valerie and James poured themselves cups of coffee, I went up front, turned the Closed sign around to Open and unlocked the door.

  · · ·

  About nine-thirty Ann called during her break at the high school.

  “Just a minute,” I said. I glanced at James and Valerie in the back of the shop. Valerie was working on a frame. She was bent over the table giving James a nice view of her buns; the red dress she wore was stretched over them tight as a bongo skin. James was gesticulating wildly, giving her a line of prattle between flashes of his teeth and puffs of his cigarette. I was somehow reminded of The Little Engine That Could. “Go ahead,” I said.

  “You doing okay?” Ann asked.

  “I’m not in the mood for a parade or anything. But yeah, I guess I’m all right. How about you?”

  “I’m getting off next period to go talk to the police. Richard, it’s all over school. I don’t know how, but it is. Some of the teachers have asked me about it. I tried to talk to them, but I c N=
"1em"0emouldn’t communicate too well. Even some of the kids have asked.”

  “Shit. Maybe you should go home.”

  “Got to deal with it sometime, and I guess now is as good a time as any… You’re sure you’re okay?”

  “Fine,” I lied.

  “All right. I got to go, baby. Love you.”

  “You too.”

  · · ·

  About ten-thirty Jack Crow, the mailman, showed up. He came in out of the July heat and it seemed to follow him, hung in the doorway like warm dog breath for a full fifteen seconds.

  Jack is one of those big men who thinks his size, rugged face and disregard for intellectuals makes him a man. He can’t just deliver the mail and say hello, he’s got to spend a few minutes each morning making catty remarks to Valerie about how he likes redheads, and how she’s a looker, all the usual routines men like Jack think are charming. He also likes to talk about his hunting, fishing and war experiences. To hear him tell it, Hemingway was a perch fisher and Audie Murphy was a windup soldier. And he’s the real thing.

  “Man, that air-conditioning feels good,” he said. “Cushy job you got here, folks. But tell you, wouldn’t trade. Mine keeps me in shape.” He slapped his stomach. “Course,” he said looking at Valerie, “you look in shape.”

  “TV dinners,” she said.

  He laughed. It sounded like something strangling. Well, one could hope.

  He came over to the counter and leaned on it and looked me square in the eyes, like we were secret comrades, but said loudly, “I hear you got you one last night.”

  The bottom fell out of my stomach. I knew it had to happen, but the fact that the first person who brought it up to me was Macho Jack seemed like cruel and unusual punishment. I didn’t know what to say back so I didn’t say anything. Jack was doing all the talking anyway.

  “Mack over at the newspaper told me. Said you shot that sonofabitch right in the eye, killed him deader than an anvil. Was it a nigger? Wetback?”

 
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