Visit us on our Ironbear Facebook page by clicking here!
Watch David perform excerpts of his work on
the DAVID R LEWIS YouTube Channel.
(Just click on his name.)
And then, there is TWITTER!
Martha McGill had been dead for slightly over two hours before she realized she’d passed away. She was sitting on the ground near her beloved fish pond when she noticed that, although she felt fine and solid enough, the blades of grass did not bend under her weight of her right hand, resting on the lawn. As she was absently studying this curious phenomenon, the memory of her death came flooding back. Pain returned to her left arm in a rather distant way, a knife-edged ache that seared down the inside of her nearly paralyzed limb from just below the bicep to the inside of her elbow and on into the wrist and hand. The pain also flashed upward into her neck and jaw, bringing toothaches to her lower teeth, teeth that had been replaced by man-made products nearly four decades before.
Martha observed the recollection in an innocent bystander sort of way, unable to turn from the scene before her, but far too full of the memory of pain to participate in the process again. Next came the cramping in her upper chest, and she felt herself fall to the grass with it, slightly stunned by the power of the malfunction. The roaring in her ears, the uselessness of her arm, the rigidity of her diaphragm, the ragged cacophony of her heartbeat as it was bone conducted to her middle and inner ears all revisited her with clarity, and she knew she was reliving what had happened just a short time before. Martha sat, nearly frozen in position, waiting for the fear she knew had to come with her passing. But, it did not. Confused by her lack of panic and slightly frightened by how calm she seemed, she prepared herself to rise.
She, as with almost all elderly people, was no stranger to death. Noble, her husband, had been gone for well over a decade. She’d been through the loss of her grandparents and parents. Her son, Macon, and his wife Cindy, had been killed in an auto accident while on vacation in Montana. Martha, who had volunteered to keep their son Paul while they went on their trip, had reared the boy as her own, grandmother and mother combined. Her older brother and sister were also gone, as was her spinster daughter, Verna, to cancer when she was only fifty-one. Martha had suffered the bereavement of abandonment, dealt with her own status as an orphan and a widow, and come through it all with an appreciation of inevitability that, in its way, was balm for the wounds of time. There was a peace about her some people said, and that was how Martha preferred to view eternity. A time of peace.
She still attended church when she could, a less than fanatical Baptist who found more pleasure in the association with the congregation than she did solace in the interpreted words of a one-time carpenter from Nazareth turned political activist and thorn in the establishment’s side. She was as much Christ’s savior as he was hers, and she knew it. That very attitude of shared responsibility also brought her peace that was noticed by those around her and she was often admired for what others assumed to be the steadfastness of her faith. Martha found it a bit amusing and let them have their illusions. For without illusion, faith of any kind is impossible.
As Martha prepared for the effort of rising, she found herself on her feet. Stunned by the ease of it all, she concentrated on keeping her balance and was further surprised by the lack of need for such concern. For the first time since she found herself sitting in the grass, she felt a tingle of fear. How could this be? She had gotten to her feet without getting to her feet. There had been no exertion. No careful levering of herself away from the earth. No precise positioning of her body. No vigilant attention to her hips and back. No pain in the straightening of her spine. No acclamation to the upright whatsoever. She was sitting and then she was standing, without even the fluidly awkward grace of a child.
This was remarkable. As a test, she began to lay down in the yard again and was suddenly on her back, her cotton and rayon housedress immodestly above her knees, the toes of her sensible black shoes pointed skyward, her arms out flung from her sides. Not only had there been no effort in assuming the position, it was a position that her body had denied her for years. Here she was, at her age, splayed out in the back yard as if she were preparing to make an angel in the snow. Oh, my!
This was what people feared? This was what caused them to rush to both religion and judgment? This was the truth that was so simple as to be unbelievable and unacceptable? If this was death, and that binding and restrictive eighty-seven years from which she had just escaped had been life, the terms life and death needed radical revision. No wonder so few seemed to grasp the nature of it all. No wonder that dogma seemed to be such a human imperative. No wonder people were so prone to huddle in their little enclaves and sneer at the rest of those misguided fools who had it all wrong, clinging to the tenuous fact that only they knew the way to the real truth.
Where was the distant beckoning light? The hordes of waiting virgins? The savior on the other side of the river? The nothingness in preparation for the second coming? The rapture? The agony of purgatory? The thousand burning Christmas trees into which we sinners would be plunged? Where were the streets of gold behind pearly gates, administered to by Saint Peter and his massive book of admittance?
Martha McGill, feeling younger than youth in her old age, more alive in death than she had ever felt in life, lay on her back and giggled with the effortlessness of it all.
David Allen Crockett poured a splash of cream in the mug of Blue Kona and stepped out onto his porch in the twilight just before dawn. It was still early enough in the spring for the air to be chilly, and he cinched his oversized terry robe a bit tighter as he sipped his first coffee of the day. A mockingbird started up in the distance, as it had for the past few mornings, intoning a medley of other bird’s calls. Crockett had counted seventeen of them, avian impressions that came in the same order every day. He eased himself onto the porch swing, took another sip of coffee, and lighted a Sherman MCD, one of ten or so he would smoke before the day was over.
Moving into the middle of nowhere, surrounded by woods and wildlife, had been the smartest thing he had ever done. His past few years had been rife with emotional and physical ups and downs. Rachael’s murder, the loss of his leg, his encounter with the Amazing Disappearing Woman, the rescue of the lad, Zeke, from the separatist enclave, Ruby’s abduction down on the Spring River in Arkansas, the threat to Carson Bailey, and Ruby’s subsequent death during the armed attack at Ivy’s home in Barrington Hills had left him with little more than the desire to put it all behind him and find some tranquility for a change. He’d stopped looking for happy endings by the time he was thirty, but some peace was wonderful. He sat, listening to the mockingbird and attempting to visualize how the bulldozed draw in front of his cabin would look when full of water.
Movement to his right toward the distant dam caught his eye, and he smiled as Dundee, his Cattle Dog/Australian Shepard mix came sniffing her way in his direction, busily attending to her self-imposed duties as property inspector. In her wake was Nudge, Crockett’s immense tomcat, stepping slowly through the undergrowth, a slight limp from the arrow wound inflicted on him by the Boggs brothers coloring his gait. Crockett gave a low whistle. Dundee froze, glanced toward the porch, grinned, and broke into a run, heedless of the soft and gooey terrain between her current location and her desired destination. Nudge ignored the entire display and continued his deliberate stroll, carefully avoiding anything that might soil his buff-colored coat or his coaster sized paws.
Carrying enough clay for a pottery class on each of her four limbs, Dundee, scattering mud in every direction, galloped up the steps, across the once clean deck, and, despite his protests, plopped her front feet onto Crockett’s lap as she strained to cover his face in dog spit.
“Quit it! Dundee, I just got this robe out of the dryer. Get down!”
The dog’s butt hit the floor, her bobbed-tail vibrating madly, and she looked at him, her entire body in motion from the violence of the wag.
“You are a worthless animal, and I despise you completely.”
Dundee’s reply was quiet and intense.
“Oh yeah? Look at this porch. You’re grounded, young lady. No TV or internet for a week. And, you can forget about going to the mall.”
“And don’t argue. There’s military school too, y’know.”
Unable to restrain herself, the dog put a forepaw on his knee.
“Oh, hell,” Crockett said, taking the dog’s head in his hands and roughing her up. “You win.”
As the dog crouched to jump onto the swing, Crockett heard the sliding door open behind him. The dog barked again and disappeared under the porch swing on her way to the door. Satin Kelly’s voice cut through the still morning air.
“Dammit, Dundee! I just got this robe outa the dryer.”
“Won’t help,” Crockett said, not turning around. “I told her the same thing. Didn’t do a bit of good.”
Battling the excited dog, Satin worked her way around the swing and flopped beside Crockett as Nudge, daintily avoiding the globs of mud, attained the top of the steps and sat by the edge of the deck, regarding everyone with slitted eyes and owled ears. Dundee, the gathering of the entire pack achieved, lay down by the railing in front of the swing and began to chew on her paws to get the clay out from between her toes. Crockett, careful to avoid the mud spatters, patted Satin on her terry-covered thigh.
“Mornin’ honey lamb,” he said, his tone less than sincere.
“Good coffee,” Satin said, taking a sip from Crockett’s cup.
“Want some of your own, sweetie-pie?”
“Naw. I’ll just have some of yours.”
“More coffee in the kitchen. Got a mug or two in there that would flatter your eyes.”
“This is fine,” Satin said, taking another sip.
Sighing, Crockett lurched upright and limped inside. When he returned, he was carrying a large dragon flagon he’d gotten years before at the Kansas City Renaissance Festival. A sickly yellowish green in color, the mug featured a three-dimensional, wart-covered dragon whose head thrust outward from the front of the vessel, peering at the world through bloodshot eyes. One curved and taloned paw made up the handle. Satin hated the thing.
“I hate that thing,” she said.
“Want a sip?”
Satin grunted and disappeared inside with his original cup. When she returned, she kissed him on the back of the neck and took a seat.
“Coffee of your own?”
“Bite me,” Satin said, and snuggled into his right side as the sun cast its first golden shafts through the trees from the direction of the unseen dam.
It was several minutes before either of them said a word. At length, Crockett spoke up.
“I want an island,” he said.
“You want an island?”
“Aw,” Satin said, “that’s just a fantasy.”
“A small island.”
“If it’s small enough, you could get it covered in real Corinthian leather, Ricardo.”
“Why do you always step on my dreams?”
Satin’s voice became thin and scratchy. “Da plane, boss,” she said. “Da plane!”
“And,” Crockett said, “I want a boat.”
“You could set a course for adventure; your mind on a new romance.”
Crockett forged ahead. “As with the island,” he said, “just a small one. One of those little bitty pond boats.”
Satin batted her eyes. “Captain Stubing, have I ever told you how much I love a man in uniform?”
“If there’s one thing worse than a smartass,” Crockett said, “it’s a smartass that’s stuck in the past.”
“Is Gopher up on the Lido deck?”
“I really hate it when you behave like this,” Crockett said.
Satin nuzzled his ear. “How ‘bout when I behave like that?”
“I don’t hate that as much.”
“I’d do almost anything for a man with his own boat and island.”
Crockett tossed his dragon flagon over the railing and onto the ground in front of the porch, peered at Satin, and bumped his eyebrows.
“Oh, hell,” she said. “I feel so cheap.”
A little over an hour later, as Crockett whipped eggs for French toast, Satin, dressed in loafers, jeans, and a threadbare flannel shirt, walked into the kitchen and headed for the coffee pot. Crockett grinned at her.
“Since you’re still here,” he said, “I assume you don’t work today.”
Satin put her cup into the microwave. “You think I’d be here if I had anything else to do?”
“Well, I would,” Satin said, moving behind him and putting her arms around his waist. “I’m down to just three days a week at the Café. Gives me more time to keep you on the straight and narrow.”
“You think I need to be looked after?”
“I think you need a keeper. You know, constant supervision so you don’t injure yourself or something.”
“Recalling our recent amorous encounter,” Crockett said, “if I hurt myself it will probably be because of your efforts, not in spite of them.”
“Not my fault if you can’t keep up, old man.”
“Your compassion is underwhelming.”
Smiling, Satin removed her cup from the microcave. As she formulated a reply, the distant strains of Yankee Doodle wafted in from the living room. “That’s my cell,” she said, and departed the area.
Crockett had the bread soaking and the skillet warming before she returned.
“What’s up?” he asked.
“That was my kid,” Satin said. She was still clutching her cell phone and didn’t seem to notice.
“The only kid I got.”
Crockett raised an eyebrow and waited.
Satin’s eyes vacillated between anger and fear. “The asshole is threatening her again,” she said.
After a time, Martha got to her feet and looked around the yard. The sight of her own body lying a short distance away made her flinch and close her eyes. Her fear of seeing what she really looked like, especially in death, made her stand that way for a moment before she marshaled the fortitude to actually look at herself.
She was smaller than she had believed herself to be, an actual little old lady. In her mind came Johnathan Winters’ wonderful character, Maudie Frickert, who rode a Harley, lived in a nursing home, and enjoyed listening to her fellow inmates digest their dinners. She found herself a little shocked by her cavalier attitude toward her own dead body, but she felt so much better than she had in so long that the freedom from what she had been far outweighed the loss of the husk that remained in the yard.
Her body lay on its left side, knees drawn up to nearly a fetal position, the head tucked down toward the chest. Her right hand still clutched at the left arm, just below the bicep, no doubt a reaction to the pain. Her face, however, appeared relaxed and at rest. Although Martha vividly remembered the heart attack, she could not recall her actual death. Looking at her calm face, she believed that she must have had an inkling of what was to come that had made her smile. Perhaps the promise of relief had aided in her passing.
She moved to the body and was attempting, unsuccessfully, to smooth the skirt down in a more modest manner when her neighbor of six or seven years, Mary McClugen, exited the back door of her home to place a sack of kitchen trash in the covered barrel that resided on her tiny patio. Mary froze in the middle of that chore and, dropping her bag to the cement below her feet, uttered a small cry and came running, literally vaulting the four-foot chain link fence that Martha’s late husband, Noble, had insisted they install. Mary slid to a stop on her knees beside the body, shouting Martha’s name. Martha answered her, standing as she was, less than three feet away, but Mary could not hear or see her. Mary shouted Martha’s name a few more times and even lightly slapped the body’s cheek, but to no avail. After a moment or two, the obviously stricken woman sank back on her haunches, straightened the body’s rumpled skirt, unclipped a cell phone from her waistband, and made the inevitable call.
Unnoticed, Martha watched as the paramedics came and went. Unseen, she maintained her vigil as the police waited on a representative of the Coroner’s Office to make the official pronouncement. Beyond the awareness of the living, she looked on when her body was removed for transport to the Blair Funeral Home. Glad it was finally gone, she had no desire to accompany herself to the final round of indignities that would be visited on what she once was. Instead, she followed Mary into the house as her friend gathered numbers from the list beside the kitchen wall phone, and then back outside while Mary made sure the place was locked up. Martha attempted to follow her home. As she tried to tag along when Mary went through the gate between their properties, she could not. It was not as if something outside was keeping her in, it was as if she were being restrained by some force that kept her from going out. As she approached the boundary she could almost lean forward against the pull of some power that lay behind her; an ethereal tether that tied her to the yard she in which she had spent so much of her life. If she stopped struggling against it, the bond disappeared. If she attempted to overcome it, it balanced against her strength and would allow her no headway. Fascinated by the phenomenon, Martha walked the property line of her home, finding the same restriction wherever she went.
Nor could she enter her house on her own. It made no difference if the doors were locked. It was as beyond her to grasp a knob or latch as it was for her to leave footprints on the grass. Had she been alive, this new situation would have vexed her intolerably, but she was not and it did not. She accepted this vagary of her new reality with calm ease, returned to the backyard, and went to her beloved fishpond.
Martha had added the pond to her back yard about three years after her husband’s death. It measured twelve by twenty feet and was slightly over five feet deep at the big end, three at the small. In it she had built barriers to protect her water lilies and bog plants, then she had installed two-dozen, minnow sized, Japanese Koi. During the nearly ten years since their introduction, the fifteen fish that had survived the first two years had grown to massive size, a couple over thirty inches long. They knew her, and she knew them. With the exception of very cold weather when the pond iced up, she spent time with them daily, lavishing on them the same care and concern she had displayed for other meaningful entities in her life. Over time she added a rock garden and waterfall. Once, her creation had appeared in the style section of the Kansas City Star.
Even though she was now dead, Martha held no fear for the fish. Her granddaughter-in-law, Cheryl, would receive the house. Cheryl and her two daughters, Amanda and her older sister, Sarah, would be glad for the home. All three of them, especially little Mandy, loved the pond and enjoyed the fish almost as much as Martha did. The house, Martha’s modest estate, plus some additional income from a trust she had established in Cheryl’s name, would be very welcome. Since Martha’s grandson, Cheryl’s husband Paul, had vanished, things had not been easy. When Paul went into undercover work with the State Police, she’d had many reservations about his safety. The nearly two-year investigation into his disappearance had led to no conclusions or answers, and the case was still listed as open, but the simple truth was that there was no Paul and no explanation. Nearly everyone connected to the case believed him to be dead, but without proof, Cheryl was not entitled to any insurance or pension benefits.
Martha approached the pond and watched the fish swim toward her. Smiling as they clamored for food and attention, she felt sorry she could not enter the house and get some pellets to toss into the water. They would just have to wait for Cheryl and the girls if they wanted to eat.
“Babies, babies, babies,” she said. “Begging from me won’t help. There’s nothing I can do. You’re too greedy, anyway. You’re not even grateful! After everything I’ve done for you, you still just want…”
Martha’s head swam and she sank to her backside on a stone at the water’s edge. For over an hour she had moved among paramedics and policemen, onlookers and do-gooders and rubberneckers, and not one of them noticed her, even when she waved her arms and shouted. But these fish, her beloved Koi, had come to her for food. They could see her.
My dearest God, the fish could see her.
Crockett freshened Satin’s coffee as she sat in a kitchen chair and stared blankly into the middle distance. He gave her a few moments to gather herself before he asked the inevitable question.
“Who’s threatening your daughter?”
Satin gave a small start and looked at him as if he’d just appeared out of thin air.
“Train,” she said.
“And Train would be…?”
“This immense black guy.”
“I see. And Train’s pissed off at your kid because she kicked his bicycle over at recess, right?”
Satin stared at her coffee for a moment, then turned her eyes to Crockett.
“What?” she said, trying to focus.
Crockett smiled. “I need a story here,” he said. “At this point in time you are not an overly effective communicator. If I’m not digging into your private life too far, talk to me.”
Satin eyes were full. “You are my private life, Crockett”.
Crockett smiled. “Relate,” he said.
Satin took a hit of her coffee and collected herself.
“Danni and I are not close,” she said.
“Danielle. Danielle Connelly. She kept my husband’s last name. I went back to my maiden name.”
“I believe you once mentioned you were a grandmother?”
“What was Danielle’s married name?”
Satin shook her head. “Danni was never married. She had Lucy when she was eighteen.”
“No shit. Same age I was when I had Danni. She ran off when she was seventeen. I didn’t hear from her for over a year, then she just showed up one day with a baby and expected me to give her a place to live, food to eat, and baby sit the kid anytime she wanted to go out and party. Now and then she’d be gone for a couple of days at a time, and show back up high or drunk, sleep for twelve hours, and take off again. Meantime, I’m a mom again. Christ, Crockett, I paid for daycare for the baby so I could work and support everybody while Danni came and went without a care in the world.”
“That’s bullshit,” Crockett said.
“There’s a lot of bullshit in this story. Danni’s no dummy. She graduated high school when she was still sixteen. She’d skipped two grades.”
“Jesus,” Crockett said. “Why the hell does a kid that bright run off and blow it all?”
“She blamed me for a situation with my husband, I guess.”
“No. I didn’t marry her father. When she was six, I married Lee. He started molesting her when she hit puberty. It came early for her. I didn’t know about it until she was nearly fifteen.”
“Oh, hell. You go to the cops?”
“No. I knew it would be his word against hers. I threw him out. Told him if he ever came near Danni or me again, I’d kill him. I would have, too. She hates him. She’s never forgiven me for not knowing what was going on, I guess.”
Crockett shook his head. “And you haven’t forgiven you either, huh?”
“Almost. Guilt is a real sonofabitch. Probably why I’ve put up with so much crap from her.”
“I let her come and go and took care of her daughter for about three months until I got fed up. Told her she’d have to get her shit together or get out. No matter what she thought of me, I was not going to enable her to be an unfit mother.”
“How’d she take that?”
Satin sipped her coffee and grimaced. “As usual, I was the villain, of course,” she said. “But I was also a free ride. A week or so later she came home claiming she had a job as a waitress at some truck stop in Independence or Grain Valley or somewhere, working from eight at night to four in the morning.”
“Uh-huh,” Crockett said. “I assume that was a lie.”
“Oh, yeah. But I didn’t want it to be. So, for the next few months, I worked all day, took care of the baby at night, and put up with a daughter who was running around until all hours of the morning, who never turned a lick to help keep the apartment up or contribute to the financial end of things, and laid around all day in a stupor doing very little to care for her child. Then one night as I’m putting Lucy to bed, the phone rings. I let it go while I finished with the baby. When I checked the message, it was from some guy named Benny wondering why she wasn’t at work and complaining that there were customers waiting for her. He threatened that if she screwed up one more time, she was fired. The last thing he did was call her a dope-headed little cunt.”
Satin went to the counter and freshened her coffee as Crockett, controlling the standard male impulses, kept his mouth shut and waited. She returned to the table, shrugged, and continued.
“I checked the phone for the return number and called it. I got a message machine advising me I had reached Heels, the Kansas City area’s finest gentlemen’s club, with live and lovely entertainment twenty-four hours a day, both on, and off, the stage.”
Crockett slid his chair back shook his head. “Shit,” he said.
“Ya think? The next day was Saturday. Danni came home as usual. I left the baby with her after lunch and drove out to Kansas, just outside the city limits on K-10 on the way to Lawrence, to check out Heels.”
“How’d that work out for ya?”
“I went in the place and was stopped in a vestibule area by this huge black guy who informed me that unescorted women were not allowed inside unless they were looking for a job. He went on to say that, while I was one fine looking piece, I was a little old to be a dancer.”
Crockett couldn’t help it. He grinned.
“Fine,” Satin said. “Keep it up, laughing boy.”
“Keeping it up has never been a issue with you.”
“Oh, shit,” Satin muttered, fighting a smile.
“Continue with the story,” Crocket said. “I find myself getting very involved with the plot. I’m nearly emotionally erect.”
Satin stood up, leaned over the table, and kissed him on the cheek. “So,” she said, sitting down, “while I’m trying to decide if I should kick this big fucker in the family jewels, this other guy walks in. Short, chubby, balding, about forty. Introduces himself as Benny, and asks if I’m looking for a job. I told him maybe I was. He took me inside and bought me a drink.”
“Lovely,” Satin said, not rising to the bait. “Bar with stools, booths facing the room around the outside walls, tables in the center, and a stage on the far wall. Two girls on stage dancing and rubbing on each other, twenty or thirty guys around, some of them with lap dances in progress. The women on stage were stripping. The lap dancers were wearing nothing but high heels and G-strings.”
“Oh, my,” Crockett said. “Exactly where is this place?”
Satin ignored him. “Benny gets me a scotch and tells me how attractive I am, how they don’t use dancers much past age twenty-five, but that if I wanted to make some real money, there were three private cubicles in the back for special guests, and that I could make as much as seven or eight hundred bucks a night. Of course, the house took fifty percent. He then went on to say that I could start that evening if I checked out okay and invited me back to his office to determine my worthiness to be employed at such a fine establishment. I told him I’d be in touch, and left. On the way to my car, I saw a guy in the parking lot getting a blowjob in a Lexus.”
“Jesus,” Crockett said.
“When I got home I confronted Danni about the phone call and my trip to the strip joint. She got defensive, then admitted that she’d been dancing at the club and that she’d had a fling with the big black guy. That’s when I learned the only name anybody ever called him was Train.”
“The locomotive as opposed to the air conditioner, I bet,” Crockett said.
“The man is a monster. Seven or eight inches taller than you, three hundred and fifty pounds, maybe more. Shaved head, mustache, all dressed in black, shoulders like bowling balls. Massive. I only stood beside him for a couple of minutes, but he seemed to suck all the air out of the room.”
“Terrific,” Crockett said. “The bigger they are, the harder I fall.”
“Danni told me that he was the bouncer at the club and was also involved in running the place. She’d tried to break it off with him, but he wouldn’t leave her alone. That’s why she hadn’t gone to work. He’d told her that if she wouldn’t be with him, he’d fix it so she couldn’t be with anybody. Danielle said she saw him beat up three or four college boys one night. He liked it. She packed up her clothes, took the baby, and left. For two weeks I had no idea where she’d gone. Then my sister called from Sikeston. Said Danni had been there with her, left the baby at her place, and took off to Oklahoma or Arizona, or somewhere. That’s when I left the city and moved to Hartrick.”
“You have a sister?”
“Yeah. She’s almost ten years older than I am. We don’t get along. She was always jealous of me. I was the baby in the family. Velvet resented that.”
“Satin and Velvet,” Crockett said. “You don’t have a brother named Oilcloth or something, do ya?”
“I heard from Danni around last Christmas. She’d come back to town, was dancing at a club south of Independence on 50 Highway part time, and working three days a week at a Babette’s.”
“What’s a Babette’s?”
“A string of stores in this area that sell all kinds of kinky clothes, costumes, boots, sex toys, porn movies, stuff like that.”
“You seem pretty familiar with the inventory.”
“I visited her at the store once. Very neat and clean. Not sleazy at all, if you discount a wall full of battery powered fulfillment and racks of DVDs with bunches of naked people doing obvious things to each other on the boxes. A lot of the dancers and models get their clothes at the Babette’s stores. That’s how Danni got her job there. She was a customer before she was an employee. I looked around. They really do have some cute things that you damn sure won’t find at Victoria Secrets.”
“Maybe we should go shopping.”
“Not necessary. Danni’ll be out to my place early this afternoon. Train found her. She’s scared.”
“Can you reach her?”
“I could call the store.”
“Good. We don’t want this idiot to find out where you live. Tell her to make sure she isn’t being followed. If she is, and she can’t shake the tail, tell her to call you and we’ll meet her someplace.”
“We?” Satin asked.
“Sure. If you’re in this, so am I. Worse comes to worse, I’ll have a talk with the lad.”
Satin peered at him. “Crockett,” she said, “this guy is a force of nature. He’s almost a fucking continent.”
“Hard to stop a train. Easier to derail one.”
“What are you gonna do?”
Crockett slipped into his best Godfather dialect.
“I’ll make him an offer he can’t comprehend,” he said.
Cheryl and the girls arrived in the late afternoon and came into the back yard. Cheryl’s house key fit only the rear door. Martha watched as the three of them went into the house, but declined to go with them through the open door for fear she might become trapped inside until she could follow one of them out again. She was rather surprised to find she felt no sadness in leaving her only surviving relatives. The joy of her own freedom canceled anything as mundane as grief or depression. Her perspective on life and death was radically altered. Knowing that the girls would soon come to feed the fish, she waited by the pond and turned her attention to the begging koi. It wasn’t long before the door opened and Sarah and Amanda came walking in her direction, their hands cradling fish pellets. Three-year-old Mandy left a trail of them behind her as she walked. Cheryl shouted from the doorway.
“You girls stay away from the edge of the pond! Sarah, you watch your sister!”
The fickle koi turned their attention to the new arrivals and swept the water nearly into froth as Sarah tossed her two-handed burden into the pond. Mandy was more deliberate, attempting to throw what remained of her portion to the fish one pellet at a time.
“You’re dropping it in the grass,” Sarah said, but Mandy ignored her, preferring to do it the way she thought best. Martha smiled at Amanda’s independence. That little one had always chosen her own path. It vexed Sarah that she, the big sister, had so little effect on Mandy, but she continued to try.
Their personalities were near opposites. Sarah was introspective and careful, a deliberate child that colored inside the lines and made effort to assume responsibility. She was tall for her age and leggy like a colt, concerned with her appearance, preferring dresses to jeans. She was pretty in a delicate and pale way. Where Sarah was porcelain, Amanda was Raggedy Ann. Even at three she was opinionated, determined, and much more likely to ask for forgiveness than beg for permission.
Martha thought it had a lot to do with Paul’s disappearance. Sarah had spent four years with a daddy. She felt his loss deeply. It didn’t change the girl as much as it seemed to redirect her. It was as if Sarah chose to take life more seriously, to assume family responsibility and share some of the burden that came with Paul’s absence. She was not depressed or downtrodden, far from it. She had an excellent wit, was very bright, got nearly perfect grades, and only rarely caused trouble or misbehaved. Sarah was a contained child, however, rationing her time in the most effective ways, prioritizing her tasks and play, making sure what she needed to do took precedent over what she wanted to do.
Amanda, on the other hand, was born three months after Paul vanished. She never had a daddy, never went through the trauma of loss, and never realized anything was missing. Where Sarah walked through life, Mandy hit it on a dead run. She was a climber of bookshelves, a bouncer of beds, a grabber of curtains and a spiller of milk. Mandy could figure a way to move a chair five times her weight if she thought it necessary. The fact that she lived in a world of giants did not intimidate her in the slightest. Cheryl often called her a thirty-year-old in a kid suit. Amanda was trouble looking for a place to happen, but her hugs were given with reckless abandon, and her kisses with sloppy joy.
The girls stayed by the pond until nearly dark, Sarah fussing almost constantly at her sister to keep Mandy from getting too close to the edge. Martha spoke to the children several times, but they could not hear her. Her disappointment at being unnoticed was more than balanced by the hope that she would now get to see the girls grow and blossom. She had always felt a bit of melancholy when she considered the fact that she would not be around to see her great grandchildren develop and mature. Now it seemed that might no longer be the case. Perhaps that was why she had not gone on, but was still in the yard with her beloved fish.
She could see or sense the fish down among the stones, under cover, seeking the solitude of the night. She sat beside them and sighed, anticipating the boredom of waiting for the morning, but it did not come. She felt relaxed, she felt complete, she felt at peace. In the face of peace, noting else really mattered. She was not waiting, she was existing, and that very fact brought serenity. Maybe this was what true meditation meant. The feeling of fulfilled oneness. It was very pleasant and the passage of hours and minutes no longer concerned or affected her. Martha was Martha, beyond and not needful of time.
Dawn found Martha returning from what she called meditation. Time spent in that state meant nothing, was nothing. She still sat on the lawn and looked around as the golden early morning overtook her. The yard was covered in a heavy glistening dew, but she was dry. Had the dew settled through her? She got up and looked at the ground where she’d sat. Sure enough, the grass was not depressed, and its content of droplets was the same as the rest of the space. For a few moments she walked around the yard backwards watching herself leave no footprints on the wet grass.
How could such a thing happen? Martha had an active mind and had watched the Discovery and National Geographic channels on a regular basis. Perhaps, with her death, her mass had been shifted to pure energy. Nonsense. Her mass had gone to the mortuary and would soon be committed to the ground. Maybe she was what some people referred to as a soul. But wasn’t a soul supposed to be free of mundane encumbrance? She certainly wasn’t. She couldn’t even get out of her own yard. Maybe she was in an alternate dimension only peering into the one that she had left behind, little more than vibration with memory, some sort of proof for the ever malleable String Theory. That, too, was nonsense. The fish could see her.
Whatever she had become, Martha decided, defining her condition would certainly have no bearing on it. She was what she was. Massless energy, the sum total of inter and intra dimensional vibration, an immortal soul, a spook, specter or ghost, a pawn in a cosmic game of religious one-upmanship, or nothing more than the imagination of some massive mind that thought things into existence and then forgot them into extinction. She was Martha Charity Boyd McGill, she was dead, and yet she, for whatever reason, had been given another chance to peer through a metaphysical window onto what she had left behind. There had to be a rationale for her still being where she was. Martha, with the patience she had learned over a long lifetime, resolved not to let it worry her and spoil the privilege she had been awarded. All would be made clear in good time. And that’s exactly what it was. A good time.
Martha McGill sat by the edge of her pond and watched the Koi come to her and beg for food and attention. She smiled at them and talked her fishy baby-talk as she had done thousands of times before. They saw her and perhaps even heard her. Martha wanted to be seen and heard. Existence, she now realized, was an extremely tenuous condition. The fact that she existed in the awareness of her beloved fish was great comfort to her. Martha needed that comfort. Martha needed to exist.
Crockett and Satin went into town around noon, Satin in her Jeep, Crockett in his truck. He parked across the street from her place, went into Wager’s Café, and took a booth near the front window to keep an eye on Satin’s apartment above the post office. Satin turned down the ally and parked behind the building in her customary spot. Crockett had just received the usual bad cup of coffee when a city cop car pulled up in front of the window and he was joined by the Hartrick chief of police, Dale Smoot. The big man eased himself into the other side of the booth, finger combed a strand of gray hair back where it belonged, and peered across the table.
“You buyin’?” he asked.
Crockett smiled. “Sure,” he said. “Especially since I may have to ask you for a favor in the very near future.”
Smoot grimaced. “Always strings attached with you, huh, Crockett? Never just a free lunch.”
“Hell, Dale. If I didn’t feed you two or three times a week, you’d have to ask the city for a raise.”
“That’s true enough. If it wasn’t for you I’d have to take a second job. What kinda favor you need this time?”
“Maybe none if we’re lucky. Satin’s kid is coming out. She’s having trouble with a man threatening her or something. I don’t have the whole story yet.”
Smoot signaled the waitress for coffee. “I thought she took off someplace,” he said.
“She’s back now, and asking Mama for help.”
“And, therefore, you, right?”
“And, therefore, me.”
“Right again,” Crockett said.
Dale shook his head. “I doan know. Seems to me like this free lunch could get a little expensive.”
“Shit,” Crockett said. “If you didn’t have me stirring up some hell now and then, you’d waste away from boredom in this one-horse little burg.”
“Everything’s temporary. I been givin’ some thought to retiring.”
“Yep. Maybe movin’ down to the Stockton area and gittin’ me a little place close to the lake. Or maybe back up to Nebraska. Spend the rest a my days worryin’ about fishin’ instead of long-haired old bastards like you.”
Crockett grinned. “You are getting pretty feeble. It’s about time for you to take to the rocking chair and dream about the good old days. Get yourself a hound dog, some chewin’ tobaccy, a Barlow pocket knife, an’ set out on the porch in the sunshine while ya whittle and complain about your rhumatiz.”
Smoot returned the grin. “The perfect life,” he said.
The waitress brought Smoot’s coffee. He ordered the meatloaf special. Crockett settled for chicken strips and fries. As the waitress departed, Crockett watched an old Honda Civic drive slowly down the street, a woman behind the wheel. In just a moment the car returned, made a left down the drive by the post office and disappeared into the alley behind the building.
“That’d be her,” Crockett said.
“Who?” Smoot asked, his back toward the window.
“Satin’s kid. She just pulled in the alley.”
“So now what?”
“Now we see if she’s being followed.”
“By an immense black guy called Train.”
“Dammit, Crockett. What are you getting’ me into this time?”
“Evidently this guy is giving her a lotta grief. He needs to understand that his conduct is unacceptable. As soon as I get what I need to know from her, I’ll make sure he gets the message. Meantime, he does not need to know who Satin is or where she lives. He may be the type of individual to take out his frustrations on the mother if she attempts to help to the daughter.”
“And you want me to do what, exactly?”
“If he’s followed her out here, I want you to stop him and delay him long enough that I can get Satin and her kid out to my place without him seeing where they went. He damn sure doesn’t need to know where I live either.”
“Must be nice to have your own personal police department around just to keep your dick outa the dirt,” Smoot said. “And just what grounds do I have to stop this law-abiding citizen?”
Crockett chuckled. “Racial profiling,” he said. “This guy’ll be the only black man that’s been inside the Hartrick city limits in a decade or two. Pretty suspicious, if you ask me.”
“Well, shit. Now you’re draggin’ the A.C.L.U. and the N.A.A.C.P. into this mess. Maybe you’d like my job if I retire. That way you could throw your weight around instead of mine. Lotta damn trouble for some bad meatloaf.”
“Meatloaf may have to wait,” Crockett said, watching a massive, light blue, Lincoln Mark V cruise past. The car was immaculate, decades old, and showroom new.
Smoot looked over his shoulder. “Never saw that ride in town before,” he said.
“That’s probably our guy,” Crockett said. “Go get him, tiger.”
Smoot grunted as he got to his feet. “Tell ‘em to keep my meatloaf warm,” he said, and headed out the door.
Crockett watched him go, then reach for his cell phone. Satin answered on the third ring.
“Your kid there?” Crockett asked.
“Just got here.”
“In spite of cautioning her to the contrary, she let herself get followed.”
“It’s under control for the moment. Now, and I mean right now, have her follow you out to my place. I want the two of you on the road in less than a minute. I’ll see you there in a little while.”
“Gotcha,” Satin said, and Crockett was left holding a dead phone.
The Chief and their meals arrived at Crockett’s booth at almost the same time.
“Damn!” Smoot said as he sat down. “That was one big sumbitch. Jesus. That fucker could shade the water tower.”
Crockett grinned as Smoot dug a scrap of paper out of his pocket, took a bite of meatloaf, and aimed his fork across the tabletop. “His name is Devon Washington, D.O.B August thirteenth, 1974. Six-nine, three hundred and seventy pounds, no wants, no warrants, and the car belongs to him. Lives at 9701 West 52nd Street in Merriam, Kansas. He got outa that Lincoln and it felt like there was a thunderstorm comin’ in. Got a voice that sounds like molasses bein’ poured outa a barrel. Accused me of stopping’ him because he was black!”
“What’d you say?”
“I told him he was dead right, thanked him for his cooperation, and sent him on his way. When he slammed his car door, I thought the windows in Marlene’s Beauty Shop were gonna blow out. Godamighty! He may have been carrying a gun. I didn’t want to ask. Holy shit, Crockett. You screw with this fucker, and I doan even wanna see what’s left of your body. I still gotta sleep nights.”
“You sound impressed,” Crockett said.
“Impressed? This boy oughta be playin’ for the Raiders or the Bears. He’d be the whole left side of the fuckin’ line. Next time you want my help with somebody make it a midget on a motor scooter, willya? I’m sick of giants drivin’ baby blue aircraft carriers.”
Short on appetite and laughing, Crockett got a box for his chicken strips and fries, accepted the slip of paper from Dale with Mister Train’s vital statistics, and headed home with a special treat for Dundee and Nudge.
Cheryl and the girls returned the next afternoon. Sarah and Amanda looked so cute in matching dark blue dresses with white trim and tights. Martha was glad Cheryl had taken the girls to the funeral. It was important, she thought, that death become an accepted part of life at an early age. There were a few minutes of respite after they arrived. Then, the visitation began.
Martha was rather surprised at the volume of cars that came and went, each with its cargo of well-wishers and food. My goodness. Her counters would be covered up with pies, cakes, fried chicken, green bean casseroles, and potato salads. Poor Cheryl. It would take a day just to get the kitchen straightened away. When the crowd became large enough to spill outside onto the patio, Martha retreated to the backside of the fishpond. She had no desire to eavesdrop on the people nearly vandalizing her home and yard. Now that her funeral was actually over, the conversations would be mostly about daily life and needs anyway, little different from any other time. Unless we are related to, or involved with, whoever has passed, we have a tendency to put death behind us quickly and move on. That was as it should be, Martha thought. Duty is both from and to the living.
By late afternoon, the participants had come and gone. A small workforce, headed up by her two oldest friends, Effie Hyde and Mildred Gossard, stayed behind to help Cheryl with the cleanup. God bless them, they even shooed Cheryl and the girls outside and out of the way. Sarah and Mandy brought the can of fish food with them and went directly to the pond. When the koi were fed, Cheryl sat on a stone by the water. The girls joined her.
Sarah stared at the fish for a while before she turned to her mother. “I’m going to miss Grandma,” she said.
“I know, Sweetie. Me, too.”
“Is she with Daddy?”
“That would be nice, wouldn’t it?”
“Uh-huh. Are we going to live in her house now?”
“Yes, we are. Only it’s our house. Grandma gave it to us.”
“She gave us her whole house?”
“Yep. Wasn’t that nice of her?”
“She gave us a lot of other stuff, too. Grandma loved us very much.”
“And she died.”
“Yes, she did, Sarah.”
“And she’s not going to be here anymore.”
“No she isn’t, Sweetie.”
Hot tears sprang to Cheryl’s eyes, and she put her arms around her older daughter.
“She and Daddy are gone,” Cheryl whispered. “Now we get to hold them in our hearts. That’s where they live now. Deep in our hearts.”
Sarah submitted to the embrace and became silent. Cheryl let her have the quiet and they sat, side by side, watching the koi trail Mandy as she played and peered around the edge of the pond. Time escaped them, and it was dusk when the last departing car caught Cheryl’s attention.
“Girls,” she said, “we’ve been out here for a long time. We should to go in now. I’ll get your bags out of the trunk so you can change. We’re gonna stay here tonight. Tomorrow’s Saturday. We’ll spend the day getting organized so we can move into our new house next week. Okay?”
The girls trailed her into the kitchen, and Cheryl was amazed. Everything was as neat as a pin, the fridge crammed with food, the house picked up and straightened away. Clean sheets were on the beds, garbage was sacked and left by the sliding glass doors, and even the living room carpet had been vacuumed.
She fixed the kids some cold fried chicken and potato salad, then put them in the tub. While they washed, she made up the long living room couch for the two of them, making their first night in Grandma’s house a treat. After she got them settled in, Cheryl took a soak and then a shower. As she was toweling off, she heard a noise in the kitchen. She finished drying, wrapped the towel around herself, and went into the living room. Sarah lay quietly asleep on the couch. Mandy was nowhere to be seen. Cheryl padded into the kitchen. The sliding glass door was open about a foot. Outside, on the edge of the patio, her youngest daughter perched on a concrete block with her bare feet in the grass.
“Mandy, what are you doing?” Cheryl asked as she stepped onto the cement surface. She picked the child up, swung her to a hip, and returned to the kitchen, this time locking the sliding door. She adjusted her daughter to a position on her tummy and held her with both arms. Amanda yawned and let her head fall forward onto Mom’s shoulder.
“Why did you go outside?”
Amanda rubbed her nose with a fist. “Say goodnight to Gramma,” she said and began to quietly snore.
Cheryl stared blankly into the backyard and felt a chill creep up the backs of her arms.