SKELETON UNBURDENED CHAPTER TWO
I wake up on the bad side of a good hangover and the good side of a bad bed. My temples pounded in my head like the rain against the windows. It courses down the eves and washes out the people below; frothy rivers between street puddles.
I open an eye that feels rusted shut. It musters a little bit of vision before swelling stops it halfway. I take in my sweat yellowed sheets in a bunch on the floor. My left foot howls when I stand. I limp to the kitchen faucet trying to piece together why my apartment is ransacked. My scuffed leather suitcase lay open on the chesterfield, a pile of laundry scooped from the bedroom clumped in its gaping maw.
I see the half full bottle of whiskey planted on the top like a mountaineers flag.
My temples beat like a marching drum and my throat begs for something to chase the iron tasting tap water. My throat burns after the first two swallows. The fire working down my chest and into my stomach threatens to bring up anything i’ve eaten in the last twelve hours; which to my memory is only the cup of joe from Nancy's. I pad to the bathroom fooling myself that the limp is better. A goblin waits for me in the mirror. Red tendrils snake through the gloss of eyes that peer out from a swollen and bruised face. A distant memory from last night blows through my mind. Hogan’s cigar addled voice saying I looked like hell, me replying he should see the other guy.
Then I remember everything.
Harry’s threat bubbles up from the depths of my aching head and I have just enough time to wonder how much truth there is to it before the floor seems to shift and my guts decide they don't want to stay put after all. I race to the bathroom and bring up enough to remember I haven’t eaten since lunch yesterday.
When I finish, I try to take stock, but thinking is a chore. I sit with my back against the teal tub letting its cold touch radiate shivers through me. I fumble the curtain aside and turn on the cold water. Before I can chicken out I spin and douse my head under the stream. I suck air through a mouth that feels like I've been eating sand. The water spreads numbness from the base of my skull to my aching jaw.
I pull the plunger and listen to water shriek through the shower head, giving the hot facette a few healthy turns before shedding my long johns and rolling into the downpour.
I step out of the shower wishing I felt like a brand new man, but the road map of lines still weaves through my nose and dark bags hang under my brown eyes. I have a fragile alliance with the man looking back at me: I keep him flush with hooch and he doesn’t remind me of Louise or the war. Looking around the apartment I see her in almost everything. The long maroon curtains wet from the wind; the floral pattern vase that held a steady rotation of live flowers until this past year; The book shelf that’s collected as much dust as books.
I shut my eyes and listen to the spigot drip its steady urgency. When I open my eyes I see a silverfish crawl out of the drain and into a crack in the tile wall.
I don’t remember packing, but I can piece together what I was aiming for. Harry gave me a day, I’d be gone in twelve hours. He wanted me to tie up any cases I was in the middle of, which was a laugh. I hadn’t been on a case since-
“You’re doing it again.” I mutter, the whiskey bottle enticing me. It could take it all away, but I had to ration until I could establish a clear objective.
I step through the living room around two pots catching rainwater. The drops keeping time with the wall clock. Louise once told me how romantic it was to catch rainwater and then share it with someone you love.
The memory stops me dead. I feel something in my chest like the slice of a cleaver. It reminds me there’s still a motor pumping away in there.
I remember seeing her in the alley. She looked the same as she did standing in the kitchen, or sitting across from me holding a hand of Gin, her eyes unreadable. She looked the same as she did on that day.
I take another nip from the bottle to stop the thoughts from going any further. I knew seeing Harry would do this, stir up memories best left buried.
“Stupid.” I mutter while fishing the depths of my closet for anything overlooked last night. “He just comes back and uproots me like this.”
After a few drops of whiskey in my coffee my thoughts would usually clam up. This morning proved different. God damn Harry. After running into him how could I keep the memories at bay?
I remember getting out of the July heat in Nancy's. I sat nursing a cup of coffee despite the sun. I hadn’t slept in two days tailing a bookish husband as he cavorted through the brothels and underground casinos with a vigor that would make the Romans blush. After tailing him to the Crimson Lady I’d earned a break. His wife would get her divorce, or enough hush money to move out of the dive they shared, which meant I just might get a bonus.
Two years had passed since victory against Germany was declared. Those of us who came back recognized each other by the shambling walk down or the way our haunted eyes met in the exhaust choked air of bus stops, wordlessly confirming the obvious: you were there.
When I wasn’t having coffee to stay up, I had whisky to black out. I slept soundly knowing I wouldn’t dream.
I must have been dozing because she appeared in front of me so fast my coffee sloshed over from the start she gave me. My reflexes urged my trigger finger and my chest tightened against the threat of gas. But that was all done. I was home.
She stared just for a beat. I watched the same thought pass through her eyes. The one that whispered maybe she left the stove on and had to run. The one that passed through everyone’s eyes that got a square look at me. Instead of beating feet she started talking.
“Spare a cup mister?” her eyes flicked to the door and then back to me, she was keyed up, I could tell from the way she tried to control her breathing and focus on me, but like a nervous tick her blues kept flicking back to Nancy’s glass door.
“Huh?” I sputtered, my mind overseas.
“Coffee, buy me a cup of coffee.” She spoke to me but looked at the door. I felt myself bristle, who the hell was this dame?
“You think I got coffee money? hit the road. You're barking up the wrong tree.” She looked square at me then, any thought of running gone. I knew then she must have been in real trouble. I’ve thought a lot about that moment in the last few months, how different our lives would have been if I’d have stuck to my guns and told her to hit the bricks. maybe we both would have been happier I'll never be sure. She would have lived longer, that’s for sure.
It turned out Louise was a card reader on the side. Though on the side of what she wouldn’t say. Her story was that she read a guy's fortune and told him something that he didn’t like about a young lady who wasn’t catching the woo he was pitching. The fink, her word, called her a fraud and threw her out. She swiped a cigarette lighter off the coffee table before leaving and He caught her halfway down the block. She bolted into the first door that would open. She picked me out of sheer dumb luck. Her story was backed up when a guy with a rat face bulldozed through Nancy’s door and Louise shrunk lower in the booth. The guy scanned the diner before Nancy got pissy for him letting all the hot air in. Rat Face left muttering with one last glance over his shoulder. Louise left her cup half finished.
“Thanks mister.” She said. She was almost passed me when I grabbed her wrist.
“Hold it, you owe me for the joe.”
“Like hell I am.”
“What? you want to walk me to the pawnbroker?”
“If that’s what it takes.”
I settled up and stood. The soon to be divorce could wait.
The memories evaporate as I put on my last clean suit. The pants are the colour of a dirt road mud puddle but they’re something to tuck my shirt into. I see the brown and yellow tie in the back of my closet, its design going nuts like two burnt out kids throwing paint against a wall. Neither one knows what the other is thinking, but damn if they aren’t trying to make a masterpiece. It was my last gift from Louise. I loved it. I despised it.
I undo the top button of my shirt feeling like the July heat has followed me from my memory.
A car horn blares from 12 stories below and the world crashes back into my senses. It’s barely eight and I’m already running circles in my head. I’d done enough thinking for one day. The bottle of Canadian Club stood next to the kitchen sink and a bag of frozen peas hanging limply halfway into the basin; a clue to the crash course in medicine I took last night. Bile stings my throat and I spit into the sink. My bag was packed but I’d need a fresh bottle if I was going to go underground for a little while. My eyes fall on the pile of loose change within the crevices of newspapers, bills, and a strongly worded letter from my landlord that fanned out on my kitchen table. There was barely enough to ride the bus to the pharmacy and back, let alone buy a fresh bottle. Tremors worry my hands and I feel a headache trying to break through my bruising. My stomach rolls.
A flash of lightning outside leads into a deep rumble. The living room pots fill faster. I glance up and remember the half mickey in the office.
I think of lamming it anyway, finding a bar where my credit was still good. I look at my suitcase. I’d be ten minutes, no more. I’d be a ghost by eight-fifteen.
I lock the apartment and clomp across faded orange carpet that looks like it was new around the time Noah sent out the dove. I sigh. My footsteps backed up by drips that sounded like tidal waves. The stairs creak and pop like rifle fire.