It was raining hard and heavy by the time I got back to the Grunge. Drops pelting the windshield and hood with splotches of black and yellow dribble; probably acidic chems from China or some blasted industrial system on what was left of the Pacific. Each drop seemed to congeal and create fissures here and there like lepro-pustules on a dying cow. I edged up to JoJo’s Diner down on Cobain Dr., sat there for minute or two deciding whether it was worth it or not. My stomach growled after a while…
Yea, it was worth it.
Pulled an old AV-Poncho from behind the seat, made sure my hunting rifles and other weaponry were still set and locked in the welded cage I’d had specially built after the war. Pushed the button on the tire-sieve, and gently let out all the air from back tires just in case. Yea, had to be careful, didn’t want the jackals to snip my ride before the night was over. They’d killed my dog, Lester Young last month. Dam, son-of-bitches! Needless to say I’d found them. Let’s not talk about that.
I studied the clientele through the grimy windows of the old converted bus JoJo used for a neighborhood eatery. He’d made this metal trap out of a couple old rusty greyhounds: pre-war jobs; welded them end-to-end. Looked more like two trains passing in the night that had ended in an apocalypse, teeth bared to the world like two wolves in heat. Wasn’t anyone to worry or fret over I could see. Two young guys, hoodies, sitting back playing and fiddling with electronics; flip-scale gibs, prongs, floaters – the usual netcrackers. Nothing much. Two-time bitcoin traders most likely. Otherwise it was a quiet, lonely night. Everyone else looked normal. Working stiffs either coming on, or going off salv-shift. Short for salvegers, scrammers, diggers and shovebone men. Too dead tired to cause any trouble.
Saw Tully at the cash register. She smiled. That old woman been there from eternity it seemed. Still had those missing buck-teeth smack in the center of her mouth where she’d been kicked by a couple of Bogan’s Boys way back. Those boys looked worse after it was over. Six feet down worse. Didn’t bother Tully none about the teeth; in fact she grew used to it, and kinda liked it after a time. She could whistle through the empty space between her teeth like a siren on a dog patrol. She had a laugh that would make you jiggle right along with her, a gut slinging cackle laugh that reached all the way down and grabbed you, and wouldn’t let go till the tears dropped like flames, bitter and painful.
“Sup, Tul?” She eyed me cautiously. Old eyes. Then I saw the slow recognition seep in as she snickered, then said: “By God, Jonah,” she motioned to the kitchen, banging the pot down a few times, “Jonah, wake up, it’s Rider he’s come home for a visit…”.
Jonah – or his facsimile, peered around the corner of the serving iron: “By dam if it isn’t,” he said. “What the hell you doing out in this mudslide, Jessie? And so far from your Lady?”
“Business, Jo,” I said. “Just business…” And, left it at that.
“Humph… talkative bastard tonight aren’t you…” Jo said, and smiled, then slapped his hand down, yelled at Pris to pick up, then turned back to his fry-line, turning a row of burgers over – or something that passed for burgers. With Jo you just never knew.
Tully motioned me to the far seat next to the window. My usual spot. I didn’t like my back to the door. She knew. She walked up with a pot of steaming coffee, sat a big mug down and plopped the whole pot down, saying, “Guess you’ll need this, Jessie…”. She knew I would. She knew things about me I didn’t know myself.
After the war when things had gone south, it was her and JoJo had fixed me up with a place out back in a tool-shed. Wasn’t much, but hey it served the purpose. And, at the time beggars couldn’t be choosy. Even if I wasn’t a beggar. I remember one night when we were all alone, probably 2 a.m or so, she was watching me. Gave me the creeps, as if she was reading my soul or something. I kept spinning an old dollar piece while sipping some nasty dregs she’d laid before me. After a while I finally just said: “What the freck you looking at old woman, giving me the hebe jeebies.”
Those coal black eyes set back real far in her skull focused to a point on me and she spoke softly, saying, “Jessie there’s death in your body: a ghost, a terrible thing riding you like a hellborn.” I had no idea what the hell she was talking about. She spoke again: “It’s following you, Jessie, its got its mark on you. I can see it. It’s like a small black knot on your heart, sucking at you, a parasite eating away at your mind.” She coughed. Went on: “If you don’t get rid of it it’s going not only kill you, but kill everything you ever loved. You understand?” I didn’t. Thought she was whacked.
After that I kept pretty much to myself. Didn’t eat there unless the place was so busy she’d have a hard time looking at me much less talking to me. But that was all history now, as they say. Water under the bridge. After a few years I discovered what she meant. The hard way – the dirty, nasty, screwed way. The way a man screws over his best friend after he’s gone and fell in love with his girlfriend. A sort of sucka-punch to the throat kind of screw. Not pretty. But who ever said life was pretty was an idiot. And I knew: I was one, an idiot and a sucker. And, yes… a killer, to boot. That, too, was another piece of the puzzle, a piece of history that had brought me to this moment. One doesn’t fight fate so much as hinder its success. Fate and freedom are just the sisters of some turnstile mobius-strip on the road to hell.
After a while the Kid – as I called Pris, walked out from behind the counter and laid that patch of vittles down across the formica tabletop. Lunch-loaf was the blue-plate special today with mashed, green beans and cauliflower, and a side of cornbread made with spiced peppers (hot ones!). She smiled at me, popped a bubble, and smacked her lips: “Hey, Jessie, you never come by anymore. Why? I scare you away or something?” I laughed. “Nah, Kid, I’ve just been to blame busy doing what a guy’s got to do out there.” I shook my head toward window into the night rain.
Pris was another reject, another lost soul on the mend. Tully and JoJo seemed to have a knack for such things. Acting like magnets for the detritus and misfits of the world. She was a good Kid, still a little innocent around the edges. Wore her hair in a pigtail. Smiled and laughed too much. Came from farm country farther south and east of Grunge City. All wastelands now. Parents had died years ago. Left her with her Uncle and brothers. They’d abandoned her here one day, driven off without her and never come back. Guess they had their reasons. Who knows? Probably the best thing for her though. At least now she ate, had a bed, warm clothes, a place to rebuild her life. Even if it was a anti-life. What else would you call it?
After eating and finishing off the pot of coffee. I sat there brooding. That’s what I do, brood. Helps me forget things. But not tonight. Tonight I was thinking long and hard about ghosts, about Talia, and most of all… about Falcon. That bastard was back in town. My best friend, or what used to be my best friend. Now he was my enemy. Probably had always been my enemy.
So I sat there all night thinking about what I’d do next. Tully didn’t mind. She kept refilling the pot. Clucking away about all the nonesuch crap going on in Grunge. Didn’t bother me in the least. By the time the sun came up I knew what had to be done. I also knew I needed to check in on Betsy. There was an order to things, even if one didn’t always know what it was, or how to act on it.; and, one of them was to make sure your woman knew you were still alive. The other was to make sure she was alive…
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– Steven Craig Hickman ©2016 Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited.