He was a Bostonian, forgetting his R’s and blasting the last syllable of every word across the room. Big and burly, his eyes too close together, his nose a boxer’s broken one too many times, he came charging up to my bar, all 250 pounds of him, and ordered a beer the same way you might tell someone their house was on fire. Two hours later he’s bleary-eyed and tearful. Shot down by every girl in the room. He sat at the bar rubbing two quarters together, the sound of sliding metal grating like his inner gears, worn down, rubbing, brakes that can’t stop. You notice these types of things when you’re coming down. You notice the littlest things and they mean something for the first time ever. I’d have felt bad for him but he opened his mouth.
“You ever heard of a buyback?”
“You ever heard of a tip?”
He wandered away from the bar, mumbling “fuck you.”
“Karma’s a bitch,” I said.
I might not have cared so much about the tips, but rent was due, I was clean out of dope, I was starting to get the jitters and Pasquale wasn’t giving it away anymore, so I needed to clear two hundred tonight or I’d be in trouble. Like I said, karma’s a bitch.
I didn’t own the place it but I ran it like I did. The Cousin didn’t come around too often but his girlfriend, Gina, was over near the pool tables, trying to be sexy after forty-six years in a bar. She kept an eagle eye on the place and on me. She was a typical underachieving, middle-aged woman, so afraid of her own pitfalls that she put her self-righteous nose in everybody else’s business. She didn’t have much left, the kids and the booze had packed some paunch on her midsection, so she wore high skirts, worked out at the gym to keep her legs and ass tight, and made sure you could see her tit job from across the room.
Things were slow tonight. There weren’t too many people here and the ones that were weren’t worth much to me. Outside and inside were dark.
“The till is looking a little short tonight, Ralph,” she said at the end of the night. I was rounding out my tips and counting the money in the drawer.
“Didn’t look slow from here.”
I looked up at her as she sipped her beer in front of me and gave a sly, knowing smile. “You trying to suggest something?” I said.
“You know how he gets,” she said.
“Yeah every four months he becomes interested in the place for a week. He uses it as his personal ATM.”
“And you don’t?”
“You got a lot of nerve,” I said.
Pasquale was an odd guy for a dope dealer. He was religious about it. But not just about the business, about everything. He had been a former altar boy and wanted to go into the priesthood, but his father got drunk and ran over some kid on a bike, went to prison and died there, and suddenly Pasquale had to make the money for his mother and sister. They had moved here from Mexico and since Pasquale knew people down there he started bringing in the drugs and selling in Small Town, USA. Cleaning up, really. I’d known him since high school. It was funny because I was always on my way down but he looked like he would get somewhere and really be something, but we met here at the bottom again. He supplied me, I supplied him; he needed it, I need it. That’s how it all worked.
He liked to meet at a Catholic shrine in the woods. Our Lady of Lourdes was like an amusement park for the reverent, featuring the crucifixion instead of a Ferris Wheel; Pasquale had been one of the altar boys at the adjacent church. A paved trail through the woods walked by thirteen statues featuring the thirteen Stations of the Cross. Pasquale liked to meet there; not too many people look for dope deals at Our Lady. I also think it was a religious thing for him. He hated doing what he was doing— he had wanted to be a priest of God, not a prophet of addiction.
I turned my car down the small back road, lined by tall trees so that it resembled a tunnel, and parked near the stream that ran through the center of the shrine. There was an outdoor altar where the priest would perform Mass on Saturdays and Sundays when the weather was nice, but right now it was just empty chairs, and a few women straggling down the pathway. They cast skeletal stares at me, withered women with dried-up creek beds between their legs whose husbands had long ago either left or died. They had come to view Christ on the cross, the only man in their lives worth a damn.
Each of the statues had a Latin prayer inscribed below them. I tried to say one aloud, more out of boredom than anything. The fourteenth station was the crucifixion, a Christ on the cross that stood about twenty feet high and looked out over the entire park. Behind it was endless forest. There was no sign of Pasquale, so I wandered into the trees a bit, getting the jitters and very impatient. I thought I heard my name called behind me and turned around„ but there was nobody there. That happened every now and then. My hearing was shot from the live bands at Cousin’s and I was so attuned to listening for my name called for drinks that I imagined I heard it in the oddest of noises. But there was no background noise, no one there, just silence. Then I saw Pasquale in a heap on the ground. His face was turned toward me and his skull was all busted in. The old brown leaves on the ground were soaked with blood. I walked slowly over to his body. He was dead. There was a rock next to him with hair and bits of skin and blood on it. I spun around, looking. There must be someone else here. I racked my brain but I hadn’t seen anybody but old ladies walking around the park. He was dead. He was dead with me.
I began to panic. Swirling nausea set in my stomach and I vomited onto the leaves beside his head. From the shock or the withdrawal, in that moment they were both the same. I had to run, but I was hurting. I couldn’t leave just yet. I checked his pockets. There was cash, a good amount of twenties and hundreds. And dope, thank God. I pocketed it all and said a quick apology under my breath. I moved quickly for my car, turned away from the righteous women, making their prayers at the altar. I felt like everyone there had seen me. It wouldn’t be long now, I figured.
Three days later, the money was gone and the dope was almost gone. I had paid my rent in full for the last two months, and the next one too, and covered the electric and some money I owed to a neighbor. I was all evened up and now I sat in my living room watching the television, or maybe the television was watching me.
“Come On Down!” Bob Barker called to me. I hadn’t left the house, I could smell myself and I suddenly realized how hungry I was. Something else came to me. It wasn’t even Bob Barker on The Price is Right, but skinny Drew Carey.
I thought I heard it again. My name. Ralphie. A ghost calling from some other place. I looked over my shoulder into the dark kitchen and the basement stairway that led to the crawl space downstairs, dank and musty. The door seemed to sway slightly.
Then there was the sudden, shocking knock at the front door. Hard and heavy, I knew it was real. I knew it was time.
Two detectives. Lorenzo, fat and bald; Tirelli, covered in dark, Italian hair.
“You’re coming with us, Ralphie,” Lorenzo said.
“You know why. It’s been a while, I see that you’re still a fuck-up.”
I rode in the backseat of marked police car to the station. I didn’t care. The high would flow in and out so that I had moments of reality and moment of what I could only call surreal lucidity, and I wasn’t sure which was which. I watched out the window of the car. Cop cars are surprisingly comfy. I imagined a tank could run into the car and I wouldn’t get a scratch. I wouldn’t feel a thing.
They sat me down in a beat up folding chair in a room that was half-painted and half bare cinder block.
“Do you know why we picked you up?” Lorenzo asked.
“No sir, I don’t,” I said.
“We found your buddy, Juan Pasquale with his face smashed in up at Our Lady of Lourdes. Know anything about that?”
“No, I don’t.”
Tirelli put in his two cents. “You know, up by Christ on the cross where that fucked up little Mexican went to sell you dope? Right up there is where we found him, beaten to death with a rock and not an ounce of dope or money on him.”
“I’m guessing that if we go through that crappy apartment of yours we’ll find some dope and money…that’s what I guess.”
“You’d guess wrong,” I told him..
Lorenzo laughed to Tirelli. “You think young Ralphie here would leave dope just lying around in his apartment? Ha! If we want to find that dope, we’d have to drain your blood, wouldn’t we, Ralphie?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said.
“No, no. But I bet the money is still around. How’s the bar business been lately? You still at that hole on Elm?”
“Yeah, I’m there.”
“When was the last time?”
“How was business?”
“Shitty… Nothing but Italians in the place. They drink like Irishmen and tip like Mexicans and never shut up. It’s like the ninth ring of hell.”
Lorenzo got quiet and angry.
“So I’m guessing you’ve been pretty hard up for some cash? Not easy with a bunch of cheap Italians and a dope problem and god-knows-what other expenses you have. So I’m thinking you found yourself a good opportunity when your boy Pasquale was up on that hill waiting to meet you. You took a rock and busted his head in and took the money and the dope.”
“That’s a good theory,” I said. “Like communism, good in theory.”
“Its more than a theory, Ralphie boy.” He got loud. “I have witnesses that saw you there that day. I got a fucking priest who took the goddamn time to look up from blowing an altar boy long enough to see you running down the hill to that piece of shit car you drive. How’s that for a theory?”
I laughed about the priest thing. “Pasquale used to be an altar boy there, you know?” I laughed again and just let it hang out there. “Anyway, those guys never look up. If you had a witness, you would have arrested me for real.”
Lorenzo quieted down and leaned in and talked real low. “Look, Ralphie. You maybe think this is funny now because you’re rolling off the dope you been shooting since you killed your friend, but this ain’t no joke. We’re running DNA testing on blood and fibers and every little speck of vomit that we found next to the body and I think we’re going to find out it was you, booze-puke, without a doubt. Now you have a choice. Come clean with us right now and we’ll try to get this thing handled as easily and quickly as possible or we’ll have to set you loose until we clear up the forensics and can make an official arrest. Now that might sound like a good idea to you but you know that Pasquale was well-connected in the city and you know that they’re not going to be happy that one of their pissant Latin King homeys got killed by some lowlife…”
“Lowlife,” I repeated.
“Yeah, a lowlife. And they’re going to come out here and kill you, sure as your mother’s grave, got it?”
“I had nothing to do with it,” I said. “But if I’m fucked I’d rather be fucked at home.” What else was there to say? Either way, The Man was coming round to me, taking names and all that other Johnny Cash shit. Lorenzo sighed frustrated and said, “Kick him loose.” Then he pointed at me and said “Don’t go far, we’ll have eyes on you.”
They didn’t give me a ride back to my apartment. I had to walk and it was dusk and the whole city looked two-dimensional, as if it were all on a giant television screen before me. Like I was watching a movie and trying to figure out the plot, but I couldn’t, I couldn’t see my way through it… but I had a feeling.
I wrote it all down, you see? I wrote all of it that I could because I would never remember the things that came to me then—the ideas, the thoughts and whispers. What were psychics other than good writers of the present? It doesn’t take much sometimes, but when you’re whacked out of your mind on dope, it isn’t so easy. It feels as if you’re swimming through a pool and the world is all around you, dense through the viscous water… but above the surface there’s something more, a shining light, free air, a freedom and clarity unknown before. That is what I was looking for. I embraced it all and took it all in, knowing that there were only two ways to the light and hoping to try the other one for a change.
Then I found myself back at the Our Lady of Lourdes shrine. The yellow police tape that had been surrounding Christ on the Cross now sat crumpled in the leaves like bright yellow snakes. There was no one there this time, just myself alone among the statues. Everything had been cleaned up and carted away, even the gray-haired creek-bed women I guessed. The headlines had driven away the usual crowd. I looked out from the hill, across the park where the chairs were lined for service and the monastery and then across the way further to the church and rectory.
I walked to the church and went inside. It was all stonework, built before this was even a town, and maybe even farther back than that. I touched the walls and they were cool and hard. It was dark inside but candles were burning at the entrance, along the sides and at the altar. There were rows upon rows of empty, solid wood pews. From far away I could see that there was a special memorial shrine to Pasquale complete with a big photo. I could see his beautiful Latin smile, tan skin and dark eyes, from clear across the church.
I walked down the aisle to the altar and stood looking at the flowers and reading some of the letters written to him. There was an extra-large candle burning in the center of the shrine, like an axis. Standing there for a minute, looking at all of it, I figured I was as guilty as anyone else; as guilty as the person that killed him or as guilty as the father that up and died on him or as guilty as the guy hanging on the cross up on that hill that oversaw the whole thing. I couldn’t help it. The dope was gone, worn off, and I was left with Pasquale staring at me like I was his best friend in the world, smiling through all of it.
When I turned back around there were two altar boys staring at me from a doorway, dressed in their robes and looking at me like I was some kind of ghost. They weren’t boys, really. They were both big and heavy, probably fifteen or sixteen with scowls on their faces. They stood together like soldiers in line. I turned away from them and wandered over to the confessional. I wasn’t a Catholic. I wasn’t anything in particular and I had never tried confession before, but I had seen it in the movies. I opened the door and sat down in the dark little wood booth. A door slid open next to me and through a screen, I heard, “Yes, my son?”
I paused a minute, not sure whether or not I should leave. Then I said, “I’ve never done this before. Am I supposed to call you father?”
“If you like.”
“I’m not sure what to say.”
“What’s on your mind then, my son?”
“I haven’t lived a good life. Not at all,” I said.
“You’re still young. You can repent and change your life.”
“Do you want to change?”
“I think so.” Then I paused for while. “My friend is dead,” I said. “The one whose picture is out there. He’s dead now.”
“Then you have to repent and tell the world what you have done.”
“But I didn’t do it.”
“Are you lying in a house of God?”
“You are guilty. You must confess to God and you must confess to the police if you ever want to be absolved.”
I looked up for a moment. I could see the priest’s face through the screen as it turned to face me. “I know who you are,” he said. “I know what you did. What you did—what you both did—was blasphemous; an insult to God and creation and everything that flows forth from it.”
“I didn’t do it, Father.”
“You lie in God’s house. More blasphemy.”
“You have desecrated sacred ground,” he said. “I’d been watching you two for some time. I know what you were doing. You must go to the police and confess that you killed Juan Pasquale.”
“I can’t,” I said. “I didn’t do it.”
“Yes you did,” he said. “You are responsible whether or not you lifted that stone.”
I hung my head and waited and thought. I heard the priest get up and leave his booth. He flung open the door and suddenly he was standing over me—his dark eyes and black clothes like a shadow engulfing me. “Get out,” he said and then stepped aside for me to leave. “Confess or you get out right now.”
“Or you’ll be sorry,” he said.
I saw the altar “boys” behind him. There were strange looks on their faces, half-hidden in darkness. “Yeah,” I said. I began to walk past them but I paused for a minute, “You know, I heard an ugly rumor about the three of you guys,” I said. “You know… doing things.” They shoved me toward the door with their big ham fists. Just like getting kicked out of any other bar. I straightened up and walked out on my own. I could feel them watching me as I went. I thought I might know what had actually happened, but I wasn’t sure if anyone would believe me or if it would even matter. I dipped my fingers in the Holy Water as I left.
The Bostonian was back again that night and I was in dire straits. Since the church I had begun to shake, to really shake bad. I used the last of the dope I’d taken from Pasquale but that was all I had and now he was gone and there really wasn’t much game in this little shit-horse town. I was eyeing the customers that came in to see if I could spot a dealer or two, but there was nobody. They were all drunks and suckers. Customers, not suppliers. We were all the squirming under the shoe together.
The Bostonian was having a particularly bad night, striking out with girl after girl. He’d have probably had a better chance if he had offered them money outright, but I had seen his type before—the sad eyed, hopeless romantic drunk; too ugly to not pay for it, too proud to make the deal. He was a bit low-key later on in the night though. He sat quietly at the bar with his beer and watched television. I tried to ignore him but it was hard. With everything that was going on, I still couldn’t help but sit here and think about this ugly lout and wonder about him and feel sorry for him. It’s weird how the moment will catch you up.
It was getting late and I started drinking to keep myself somewhat even. At least to dull the pain. It was getting late but it seemed strangely light outside. Toward closing the Bostonian was the only guy I recognized in the place. About five guys streamed in late and I told them that I was close to last call. They nodded and ordered some beer and took up near the pool tables. I knocked back a few more shots so that everything seemed just a bit clouded with numb. I rang the bell and people started leaving, walking out into the night. The five that had walked in last were still wrapping up their pool game and the Bostonian was languishing at the bar. I watched the pool players a while. They all seemed somewhat familiar but I couldn’t place them. Gold chains, baggy pants, hats tilted to one side. One of them went down to take a shot with the cue; his shirtsleeve slid up his arm and there was an elaborate crown tattooed on his lean muscled arm. I looked up and they were all staring me down. They had broken apart. A King stood near the front door, one near the back door and one sitting in a booth.
I poured a shot of whiskey and walked over to where the Bostonian was sitting.
“Closing time,” I said. I handed him the shot and said, “On the house.”
“Thanks,” he said.
“Don’t say I never gave you nothing,” I said.
He kicked back the shot and stumbled toward the door. The others stayed. I poured myself another shot and opened two beers. My nerves were beautifully calm. They locked the deadbolt on both doors. It was 2AM but outside seemed so bright and clear, bathed in moonlight reflected off the asphalt roads and brick buildings. I took the shot and the beer. I sat down at the booth with one of the Kings.
He looked at me. “My name is Alonzo Pasquale,” he said. “You knew my cousin.”
“It’s better that you don’t say anything,” he said. “Because there’s nothing left to be said. It is what it is and I’m sure you know that.”
“That it is, friend,” I said. “It is.”
I nodded and slid him a beer. He took it and drank heavy. For some reason I kept thinking of the church set across the hill at Our Lady of Lourdes and the way the forest all seemed to step aside, the trees and the hills moved back so that it could so clearly see the giant crucifix set atop a mountain.
It was all so clear to see. God. What a view.