“I can think of a shitload of things you could be doin’ instead of that.” Marsha’s voice was a buzzing in Bernie’s ear and unconsciously he fanned her away without taking the binoculars from his eyes.
“You could fix the bathroom faucet. Or,” she paused, softening her voice, “you could come up with a plan to get us some cash. The balance in our check book is looking piss-poor.” He looked up in time to see her yank her hair back into a virtual ponytail and then release it, lowering her raised shoulders in a shrug.
He put down the binoculars. “Or maybe you could help us out.” His voice was even quieter than hers. Marsha didn’t flinch; the issue of her working had been laid to rest years ago.
“You oughta at least take up some kind of hobby till your knee heals—that’s all I’m saying.” They both looked down at his cast, one of those bumpy plaster ones from the middle of the last century. The doctor who’d fixed him up was from that time too.
It hadn’t been like Bernie could just turn up at the local hospital. Someone might’ve seen him take that header off the fire escape. Or heard the rusty structure give way. Or found some of the stolen goods he’d left behind in his gym bag. Because of this, he’d been forced to go to a doctor whose license had been revoked for various misdeeds thirty years ago. “Look, it was mostly for performing abortions before Roe v. Wade,” the doctor told him the first time he’d gone to him a few years back. Bernie nodded halfheartedly, not being on the approving side of that law.
“Grown men don’t do fuckin’ hobbies, Marsh,” he told his wife. “You think I’m gonna take up macramé or paint-by-numbers?”
“You could plant a garden. You seem keen on the out-of-doors lately. Anyway,” she continued, “I just don’t get why you’re looking at out that window all day long. You’re making a gully in the kitchen linoleum.”
She stood next to him at the window, following his gaze, both of their eyes trained on the small boy in the yard next door who was feeding his iguana. “It’s like you’re casing the place, Baby.” Her voice was a whisper in his ear. “Or maybe you’re turning into a ped?” He smelled strawberries on her breath and inhaled. It was probably just that cereal with the blow-up berries ‘cause fresh strawberries in winter were out of the question.
She’d called him worse, but this accusation stung and brought the glasses down. “I don’t even like kids.”
“You think peds like kids?” Marsha made a face. “They gotta hate them to do….to do what they do.” Her voice had a shudder in it.
“It’s the kid’s father I’m looking for. That fat bastard in the Olds.” Bernie turned back to the window. “Don’t he usually turn up on Fridays?”
“Only every other one,” she said. “She probably gets paid twice a month. That’s when he shows.” She gestured with her head toward the house next door.
She— meaning the kid’s mother. He watched as Marsha opened her gargantuan purse, withdrew a banana-yellow comb, and began to run it through her blonde hair; he could hear it pass through the spiky curls with an electrical charge. Lipstick came next: coral. Marsha never even glanced in a mirror—didn’t need to. She snapped her purse shut, reaching for her studded denim jacket on the peg.
“Where you going?” He considered telling her about the trace of lipstick on her teeth but decided not to. Let her look a bit unkempt, though some men went for that too.
She must have either tasted the lipstick or read his mind because she tongued it away. “Someone’s gotta buy the food you wolf down, Bern. Someone’s gotta pump gas. Pay bills. Run over to the post office.” She stretched to her full 5’ 6. “Remember, I take care of business now, Bub.” She waved a manila envelope at him. “I got a promotion when you took your fucking swan dive.”
“Nosedive,” he started to say, but stopped, hurt. Leave it to Marsha to bring that up again. He felt like smacking her. He never had and never would, but thought about it two to three times a day. Mostly, though, he thought about chasing her into the bedroom, laying her down on the chenille spread and doing what they’d done a million times before. Good thing she liked to be on top so he could protect his knee while she went about it.
“Hey, do you have that script for Vicodin?” The thought of some Vic or even Soma cheered him up for a second or two, but then he remembered that damned envelope again. The bogus name and genuine address on the envelope she held in her hand was written in bold black letters with one of those Sharpie pens. This delivery arrangement had been the drill for the last few years. He wondered how many other envelopes found their way to P.O. Box 409. Did the post office even think about the contents of the boxes they were so eager to rent? How many of them held stolen goods, payoffs, bribe money, drugs?
Marsha looked pissed as she fished for car keys in her bottomless bag, probably thinking this “being in charge” thing was getting to be too much like work. He watched her hunt with curiosity, guessing at how long it would take her to come up with the keys. She was deplaning calendars, combs, unopened bills, Kleenex, Xanax. She rattled the keys in his face thirty seconds later.
Things had been much better between them when he’d been able to run this errand himself, keeping her from knowing about the worst of his misdeeds. There’d always been those two sides to Marsh. She was both the deer caught frozen in the headlights and the Ford pickup speeding wildly toward the blinded animal. You never knew which Marsha you’d find on the road. But letting her get the upper hand too often made him the deer.
He looked down at the plaster cast again, wondering if the pin the doctor had stuck in his knee was rusty yet. Or maybe it’d traveled to some other spot in his leg and a fatal infection was coursing to his brain. He’d heard of such things on the Discovery Channel when they still had cable TV. “The fucking envelope can wait,” he said at last, sitting down heavily on the stool he’d dragged to the window. “Not due ‘till the end of the month, is it?”
“Last time you were late, Buzzy bent my finger back, and gave me a good slapping. Fucked up monster.” She lit a cig with her free hand and squinted. The burst of smoke made him squint too. “Remember that, Bern?”
Like he’d ever forget that day. He’d come in shortly after Buzzy’s departure and found her sobbing that her front tooth was loose. It’d taken some doing on his part to calm her down. He’d been shocked into silence for a second or two since Marsha never cried. That was before his knee got busted though. When there’d been some chance for a reprisal. Now he was an invalid, and stuck at this window. Or at least that’s what he told himself.
Leave it to Marsha to remind him about her altercation with Buzzy every chance she got. Find Buzzy standing at your door and you practically wet yourself—especially when you barely cleared 5’9” yourself. Bernie’d never get over the fact that the thug had laid a hand on his Marsha. But what was he gonna do about it?
He should have asked old Tom Tepper to place his bets back then. So what if Tom forgot to place a bet from time to time. So what if he paid up short now and then. Mike Overman ran a very different operation. Tom didn’t have a giant like Buzzy to knock women around. It was a friendlier arrangement all around.
“Anything you need in town?” Marsha sounded excited; no, no, it wasn’t the tone to her voice that made him think this. It was the glaze of sweat on her nose, a certain rustling tenseness in her movements. On the back of her jacket was a hand-painted hawk—its eyes jeweled studs. The joke was she had the same bird tattooed on her actual back—minus the jewels—though she’d given their future addition some thought. She might pierce the skin with tiny pearls if she got up her nerve again. Only a few people knew about the tattoo. At least, that’s what Bernie hoped. Either that hawk was jittery or Marsh was. It looked about to take off.
“Some bourbon might be nice,” Bernie said under his breath as Marsha stood at the door. She rolled her eyes, flipped him half-heartedly and walked out. There’d be no liquor for him till he went back to work. As soon as she crossed the front porch, he reached down inside the cast with the long, thin stick he kept for that purpose and scratched away, blissed-out with the relief of it. She hated seeing him do this. “You look like you’re masturbating your knee. You even get the same funny look in your eyes.”
The scent of strawberry hung in the air for a minute and he let it wash over him. He suspected Marsha had a drink or two every time she went into town. And why shouldn’t she? Though he certainly didn’t like to imagine her sitting at the bar alone. He knew just how she looked too, because they’d met at Hy’s Hidey-Hole seventeen years ago when she was a sweet-assed, fresh-faced twenty-two year old. She’d been wearing red, patent leather sling backs and one of the shoes was dangling from her red-painted toenails. It was damned sexy: the red of the shoes, her naked heel, and her jiggling leg. The other men in the bar stared too, but he was the one who took a chance and bought her a drink. “Sex on the beach,” the bartender told him out of the side of his mouth. “She always orders that one.” Fuck me, he thought to himself, sending over the girliest drink he’d ever seen. It seemed like an invitation when you lived in Florida.
Anyway, there was nothing he could say about Marsha stopping in at a bar because of that envelope and what it meant, and what Buzzy had done to her, and what promises were not being kept and—well—because of pretty much everything. He watched Marsha’s still first-rate fanny from the side window as she headed for the Corolla. You couldn’t slip a feather between Marsha and her jeans. The mint-green Corolla hummed smoothly as she turned the key. He hated the car and that fruity color just made it worse. Until two months ago, they’d owned a black Jag that roared and bucked with power when you turned it on. It could have eaten the damned Corolla for a snack. She’d traded it in as soon as he fell off the fire escape, pocketing the difference without revealing the amount. “This’ll tide us over,” she said, making him run his hand over the fake leather seats. “You’d never know it wasn’t real leather.” Fuck, he’d know it in a second. The Jag’s leather was butter-smooth, rich.
Marsha still kept him in cigs and he lit one now, taking up his spot at the back window. The kid, whose name he didn’t even know, was feeding some other animal. He couldn’t identify it, coming as he did from folks who didn’t take teaching kids their animal names seriously. He’d learned the brands of cigarettes, whiskey and beer earlier than the names of animals ‘cause he’d gone to the store for one or the other of those items every single day.
The barnyard menagerie next door had taken shape over the last three months, starting a few weeks before Bernie got laid up. First a rabbit appeared, then a snake. Soon there were frogs, iguanas and critters too small to make out from his back window. Cages came soon too, probably lifted from lobster boats on the Gulf, other ones were made out of twine and sticks, sanded smooth by the kid.
One day he watched the kid build an exercise yard out of chicken wire. The boy couldn’t have been more than ten or eleven. It took him most of the day to do it, sitting on his heels and creeping around on the hard-packed dirt that came after weeks of no rain. What was the payoff? Despite what he’d told Marsha, it was the kid who interested him. The father, he dreaded. The kid could end up dead if he got his father too angry someday. Sometimes, Bernie felt like chasing those animals away himself just to avoid the next altercation.
The father was a fat fuck if ever there was one and Bernie put off a badly needed trip to the john so he wouldn’t miss his appearance. Arvis Hobbes, if the name on the mailbox was right. Even with the windows closed on the rare cool day, he could hear Hobbes ream the kid out on his bi-weekly visit. If Hobbes really got going, which he’d done more than once, he opened the cages and chased the critters away, yelling “E-ow” like some crazy cattle driver.
Once he’d waved a gun in the air, firing it when nothing else got the animals moving. The kid stood frozen and watched, waiting till his old man left before he started to bawl. Then his mother, fat fuck that she was too, came to the window, a lit cigarette in her mouth and watched the kid cry. “I think she likes to see him cry,” he’d told Marsha last time this happened.
“Nah, she’s scared of him.”
“Scared of the kid?”
Marsha sighed. “Scared of the father, Bern. Don’t you see it in her eyes? He fired a gun out there today, for God’s sake! We should’ve called the cops.” She gave him a look and then shook her head. After that, she began to keep an eye on things too, even if she didn’t like to admit it. She was soft on kids, had even wanted one till it was clear Bernie wasn’t loaded with the right ammunition.
Bernie didn’t see anything going on in Mrs. Hobbes’ eyes—if that was even her name. Her pupils looked blank to him. Dark marbles in a pasty white face. Hobbes didn’t live with them, so why did she let him sashay in and pounce on the kid and his pets? She could’ve shoved the money into his hands and pushed him out the door. The only answer he could come up with was she was waiting for the next time he crawled on top of her. Giving her kid up for another go with that asshole Hobbes.
The phone rang twenty minutes later and without thinking, he picked it up. “Someone took the envelope off the backseat while I was in the Safeway.” It was Marsha, out of breath and sounding scared. “I don’t know how it could have happened.”
“Didn’t you lock the car?”
“I beeped it. I’m sure I did.” But she didn’t sound sure and what was the good of talking about it now anyway.
“Fucking keyless locks. Are you sure it didn’t fall on the floor?”
“I looked everywhere. I even crawled underneath the car to check.”
“Why didn’t you mail it right off? Damn, woman!” He hung up suddenly, cutting it off before he said anything more, cursing her when he was sure she wouldn’t hear him. But it wasn’t all her fault. The post office, a two-person counter in Gasparillo, FL, closed between twelve and one for lunch. It was just one p.m. now. She couldn’t have dropped it off first.
The envelope he mailed each month held seven one-hundred dollar bills fanned out in a large zip lock bag—so they wouldn’t look lumpy. It didn’t sound like much but he’d been paying Overman off for almost a decade. He hadn’t seen him once in the last seven or eight years and he only ran into Buzzy when he was late. Coming up with the dough was getting damned hard now that he couldn’t work. Coming up with it twice this month might be impossible. For a split second, he wondered if this was what his wife had been excited about when she left the house. Was she scamming him by pretending the money was stolen, figuring he deserved it now that he couldn’t keep up his end? He decided against this discouraging thought, giving Marsha the benefit as usual.
Work. He robbed houses for a living. Mostly the homes of middle-class people who were off at their offices. He took his time with each job, staked out the place, learned the routine of the house and the schedule of their close neighbors. Burglary wasn’t as popular as it once was. Jail terms had grown too long. Small-timers disappeared into the system every day. It was easier to sell drugs, steal cars or cheat people on the Internet than rob houses.
He only hit apartments occasionally because exits were usually more difficult. His escape that day, after he thought he’d heard a key in the door, forced him out onto a fire escape that gave way and dumped him two flights. He’d crawled to his car, muffling his screams until the windows were closed, his measly haul left behind. And that’s why he stood staring out the window all day now, a victim of the incompetence of the only doctor known to treat accidents for guys like him. Maybe he was an abortionist and had never set bones before. Maybe Bernie’s knee would never be the same.
Bernie still had a few weeks to find the money for Overman. He wasn’t going to fret over it yet; he’d been in worse spots. He picked up the binoculars just in time to see Hobbes stroll into the yard next door. The kid was pretty cool today; he’d give him that. He barely looked up.
“Get yourself a dog,” Hobbes shouted to his son after a brief inspection of the yard. “Not these sissy-assed ‘phibians. A man wants a dog!” The kid didn’t say a word. He never did and Bernie couldn’t decide if it was bravery, cowardice, common sense or experience that kept him quiet. “You look like a pansy-in-training playing with these zoo creatures. I got half a mind….”
“You sure do have half a mind,” Bernie shouted from the window before he could stop himself. Hobbes wheeled around squinting, looking for the source of the voice.
“You shouting at me from that house over there, old man?” Hobbes asked. It wasn’t really a question. “Why don’t you show my boy how a real man acts and come out here right now and say those words to my face?” He was still squinting, sun-blinded, not sure where Bernie was yet.
It took Bernie a moment to get used to the idea that he was an old man when Hobbes seemed much older to him. “Why don’t you show the boy how a real father acts and stop scaring the shit out of him?” he said at last. It was a lame retort but Bernie never did think too good under pressure. His first words, “you sure do have half a mind,” would have to carry the day. He repeated the words to himself, preparing to replay the scene for Marsha later—if he were still alive.
Hobbes waited, thinking more words were probably forthcoming and when they didn’t come, he trotted toward Bernie’s window, having finally spotted him. He was surprisingly light on his feet for a big man. Bernie slammed the window shut and yanked the shade just in time. But the shade rolled right back up and he could see Hobbes laughing at him as he pulled it down again. Then he hobbled into the living room and turned the TV on, hoping Hobbes didn’t take it out on the kid.
It was hours before Marsha showed up and when she did, she was limping and had a large hole in the knee of her favorite jeans. She slapped some money on the table and took off for the bathroom. He heard the water running and only then did he limp over and add up the dollar count. Four hundred bucks. Marsha must have staged two accidents then. Damn, his girl worked when she had to. She hadn’t done this scam in years. And she hadn’t even hinted at her intention. Did she decide to do it before or after the theft?
“Where d’ya pull it off?” he shouted into the bathroom. It wouldn’t do to enter before he knew her mood.
“Fort Meyers. Then Naples.” A sort of neutral tone. He pushed the door open a bit.
“Driving about ten miles an hour.” He peeked in. Marsha was naked and leaning over the tub, pouring in bath salts. There were several other budding bruises on her body and he felt sick, though strangely aroused. “The first couple didn’t even touch me and handed over the two hundred without a whimper. I think they were on their way to the airport and anxious not to miss their plane.” She grimaced as she stood up straight. “But this old man in a rental Prius knocked me down good and hard. I misjudged his speed ‘cause I’m outta practice.” She paused. “I probably should’ve asked him for more. He knew damned well he had out and out knocked me down.”
“Oh, baby,” Bernie said, mournfully. He wanted to hug her, but knew better by now.
“I hope nothing’s broken.” She looked herself over in the mirror on the back of the door, “cause I’m fucking not going to that butcher of yours. And I’m also retiring from this business. I lost the touch somehow.” She sounded sad as much as angry.
He backed out of the room and listened till he heard the sound of her slipping into the water.
Two weeks later, still short a couple hundred bucks, Bernie got his Smith and Wesson .22LR out of his bureau drawer and began to clean it. He never took it with him on house jobs, had actually not used it for several years, and never once on a person. If Buzzy came again, he wasn’t going to slap anyone in this house around. He loaded it and put it in the bedside table. “What the hell are you planning to do with that?” Marsha stood at the bedroom door, frowning. Things still weren’t entirely right between them.
“Nobody’s bending back anyone’s fingers today.”
She smiled slightly. “You heard he’s coming?”
Bernie shook his head. “But it can’t be much longer.”
“Well, you’re not going to pull that thing out.”
“Not use it—just have it ready.”
“What did the doctor say about that knee? Any chance of you going back to work?”
He’d gone to the doctor’s office—if you could call a room in the basement of a import business an office—that morning. The doctor, seeming half-lit, took a look at his knee and said, “Not healed yet. Give it another week or so.”
“You’re gonna have to go to a real doctor, Bernie. It might never heal otherwise.”
He shook his head, stubborn. “It’s been weeks since you fell, you old coot. No one’ll put you and that fire escape together now.”
“Never mind the medical advice.” He limped over to the bureau and handed her an envelope. The usual one.
“Where did you get the rest of the money?” She felt the envelope up.
“It’s just the four hundred from the scam. Your contribution.”
She sighed. “I’ll take it to the post office.”
“You can probably stick it in the mailbox on the corner. Can’t weigh more than a few ounces.”
“That’s okay. I have some errands to do.”
“Like what?” Didn’t she know they were broke?
“I got a life too,” she said. He could only wonder what that meant. There’d be no more accidents, though. She had made that plain in the weeks since the last ones. They’d have to invent something else.
Hobbes showed up next door around three. Marsha was back home by then and in the living room watching Ellen Degeneres. Bernie could hear that damned dancing music Ellen put on every day. But his attention was drawn back to the window when he saw Hobbes standing at the gate, looking around for the boy. He called out something and Bernie strained to hear. Was it Billy? Willy? He still didn’t know the kid’s name. The house seemed deserted today— surprising because the mother was usually home by now, likely working some six to two shift at some plant or a diner.
And then something strange happened and a chill traveled down Bernie’s spine as he watched mute. Someone had stuck a dog in the Hobbes’ yard—some ferocious beast like the kind you saw on the local news a few times a year. It crossed the yard at a good clip, circling the animal cages like the devil’s own sentry, looking hungry and mean. Bernie could imagine the beast clamping down on one of those baby gators the boy had brought home recently, shaking his huge head wildly as he swallowed it whole. The animal slunk around a corner just as the old man slipped the lock on the gate and stepped inside. For a minute Hobbes must have thought he was alone, that his chance to permanently destroy the menagerie had finally come. But then Hobbes’ eyes lit on the dog and he froze.
There was no more circling once the dog spotted Hobbes—just a straightforward attack. The dog was quick; Hobbes was not. Bernie’s vision of a small alligator in the dog’s mouth was played out, with it being a neck rather than a head between his teeth.
Bernie slammed the window to shut out the screams and nearly vomited. “I think we better call the cops” he said, limping into the next room where Marsha was watching Ellen pass out Cat Powers’ CDs to the audience. He meant her, of course. That she should do something. He never talked to the law on the theory they might be taping all calls. “Hobbes is getting torn to bits over there. Some dog got into their yard.”
“In a minute.” She was examining a mole on her hip. “Think I need this fucker zapped?” she asked him, pointing.
“Come on, now, Marsh” he said as the hollering grew worse. “What are you waiting for?” But she didn’t get up to make the call till the screams died down. Till the yard was silent except for the frenzied sound of an owl awakened early.
“Not every man wants a dog,” he whispered to himself as she finally dialed 911.
“Oh, but they do.” She looked at him oddly. “They cops are on their way.”
“I wonder what kind of dog that was anyway,” he asked Marsha, an hour after the emergency vehicles had come and taken the dead fat fuck and the muzzled dog away. Nobody knew where the kid or his mother were but Marsha said not to worry about it—that probably a social worker had taken them under her wing. To be on the safe side, she put a plate of leftover hoppin’ john on their back step.
“I think it was a Rottweiler,” Marsha said, beginning to salt the pan for their dinner. He watched her worriedly. Marsha considered herself a good cook and he didn’t like to correct her, but those chops would taste like leather before she dumped them on his plate.
“Didn’t your father raise Rottweilers, Marsh?” Damn, she was still salting the cast-iron pan.
She nodded and slipped the pork chops in. “When the money was there, he raised a few.” They had fried potatoes and sauerkraut out of a can. After dinner, they heard a loud knock at the front door.
“Bernie, you in there?” Buzzy.
Marsha scrapped the bones into the garbage and dragged a sponge smelling like chlorox across the counter. “Got another dog?” Bernie asked, scared again.
She nodded. “Just tell him his money’s in the car. Fritz’ll be real hungry by now.”