“The number you have reached is not in service. If you’d like to make a call, please hang up and try again.” The message was followed by a series of clicks and buzzes and a final pop like the line was actually being cut. Cali imagined a black cable the thickness of her thumb severed with a long handled pair of pruning loppers.
The door slid shut; she habitually stabbed the first floor button three times. “How the hell could the intercom in an elevator be connected to a phone?” She asked.
Her ten year old Corgi, Pootin, didn’t answer. He stood by her feet, panting up at her. She had waited too long to take him out again and his self-control was clearly frayed.
Cali was interrupted from pondering at the third floor when a slobbering bull-dog-sort-of-beast entered the car towing his owner by a stretched leather leash. Pootin whined. Cali smiled toward the man, but his nose was inserted in a yellowed paperback, so she let it fade from her face. The guy was wearing a dirty pair of sweatpants and an unbuttoned paisley bath robe. Cali looked away from his thicket of chest hair. Pootin stopped panting as though the wet noises from the other dog were intimidating him. Cali knew better; her Corgi was silent and staring into the corner because it required his full attention to keep from pissing a lake right there on the rubber elevator floor.
The door opened and she squeezed between paperback face and the metal jamb. “So sorry,” she mumbled, walking fast through the lobby doors and out onto the sidewalk. Poor Pootin almost pissed on the mailman’s leg as Cali dragged him three legged to a pole near the curb. His toenails scratched the cement. She was busy lighting a Marlboro light with one of those cheap plastic lighters and did not notice if Bulldog followed her out. Eyes closed; leaning on the postered pole, she exhaled a lungful of low tar and nicotine. It was amazing that there could be any wood left under the thousands of playbills stapled there over the years. “Must be more paper and staple than wood,” she thought. Pootin, who had already dropped a quart, looked up at her apologetically, but his urinary stream showed no sign of letting up.
Cali wrote a column named, The Smart Chick’s Guide to the City. Smoking there, she’d drifted into thinking about her latest article in progress, a comparison of the corrupt bucket of mayoral hopefuls in the upcoming election titled Neck Deep in the Snake Pit. “Follow the money and it will reveal the dark underbelly of the political process,” Cali thought. “I’m just worried it might be getting too dark.”
Grinding the cigarette with her heel, she asked Pootin, “You done bud?” He sat calmly on the sidewalk looking up at her as if to say, “Who, me?” Cali punched her door code into the entrance intercom and rode the elevator back up to her fourth floor loft. There were no calls during the return trip.
The only upside of being a smoker in the current anti-smoking world was that it forced her to go outdoors every few hours. At least she couldn’t chain smoke, and her habit gave her an excuse to punctuate her normally obsessive writing life. Pootin appreciated the breaks as well, since Cali hardly ever passed up a chance to bring him with her when she went. Sometime in the late afternoon, following a can of plain tuna fish and couple of stale Ritz crackers, Cali snapped the retractable leash onto Pootin’s collar and walked to the elevator at the end of her floor.
After the door closed and she stabbed the first floor button, a ringing sound came over the intercom. It rang once, as though she were listening to a receiver making a call. Halfway through the second ring, a male voice picked up and mumbled, “What? What do you want now?”
Cali opened her mouth to try and explain that she was in an elevator and the stupid intercom system seemed to be making random phone calls when a breathy female voice said, “You know what I want Charles, and you’ll pay it too.”
Cali closed her mouth. The male continued, “What, why are you doing this? I’ve never done anything to you.”
The woman said, “Fuck you Charley, this is about you, not me. Did you get the money?”
The elevator stopped at the first floor and the door opened. Cali rapidly stabbed the fourth floor button six times. Pootin began to exit but she snapped the lock on the spring loaded leash and gagged him to a stop as the door slid closed.
The man said, “Yes, yes I have it, but, can’t we talk about this. I can help you, you don’t need to do this…”
The woman laughed loudly, Cali hoped that the tenants on the first floor couldn’t hear, they would have thought it was her; they were always up in her shit. “Charles, you have nothing I need, but I am going to ruin you, you asshole. Bring the money to The Crow Bar at 4:55 this afternoon; it will be crowded and noisy. Put it in a gym bag – I know you have one you bastard. Remember, if you are late it’s over, if the money isn’t all there, it’s over, if you tell anyone or bring anyone, it’s over. Do you understand?”
Charles said wearily, “How many times are you going to do this?”
“Until I’m satisfied. Remember, you’re my bitch.” She disconnected and the operator’s recording began, “if you’d like to make a call…”
Cali stood in the car with the door open at the fourth floor until the door closed. The car sat stationary, waiting for someone to summon it. After a moment she pushed the open doors button and walked back to her apartment in a daze. She knew where The Crow Bar was. The time was 3:30.
To say the bar was crowded and noisy was an understatement. Cali did not realize how difficult it could be to spot a man she had never seen at exactly 4:55 PM on a Friday evening. She sat next to a blond with big-hair and a really short sequined skirt at the end of the bar, sipping a Widmer draft, watching the door. The spicy Chex mix was addictive, the crowd prowled.
At 5:30, after three mugs of beer her mouth felt burned and dry from the salty snacks, but she had not seen a man with a gym bag. Her head was pounding in time with fat bass of the dance beat. The place was a meat market; she’d caught the big-haired blond eyeing her. Cali decided to leave. As she was paying her tab the other woman put her hand on Cali’s wrist.
“You call me sometime, huh?” she spoke into Cali’s ear, pressing a scrap of paper into her palm.
Looking at the woman’s face–heavy eye makeup, too much hair–Cali’s face grew hot; she stuffed it into her pocket and pulled away. There was nothing to say. She pushed out into the night.
As she walked to the light rail stop she thought, “Crap, what a waste of time. I can’t really believe I did this.” The trains were relatively empty at this time; she had no problem finding a seat. She scanned her fellow passengers. There was a woman dressed in blue pumps wearing a faux mink stole, a skinny guy in a checkered sport coat whose sleeves were too short revealing greying white shirt cuffs and wrists so boney they looked as though they were from an R. Crumb comic. A young mother and a toddler boy sat near the front of the car talking about the train and the dark city stuttering past the window.
She had drifted back into thinking about the Snake Pit article, and hardly noticed when the train stopped. A large boned, middle-aged man boarded the train wearing a grey silk pin striped suit carrying a blue Nike gym bag. When the train started up Cali glanced around the car casually and spotted the guy with the bag. She wished she had a newspaper to hold up in front of herself so that she could look at him inconspicuously. He sat down directly across from her and rested both hands protectively on the bag in his lap.
He was staring at her. She looked away suddenly flushed and self-conscious. After the train was up to speed and the overhead mumbled some unintelligible announcement about what Cali could only guess was the next stop, she ventured a look at him and quickly pretended that there was something of overwhelming beauty or importance embedded in the orange plastic of the seat next to her.
She built up her courage enough to glance at him again. This time she swept her gaze across the advertisements near the handles above his head before dropping her eyes slightly to see if he was still looking at her. He wasn’t really staring; just peering blankly out the window to her right. The train began to slow and the disembodied voice on the overhead intoned some more garbled nonsense.
As the train came to a stop the suited man slid over in his seat, slumped forward and fell onto the floor. The woman in pumps screamed and bolted, the mother grabbed the boy by the wrist and yanked him to the nearest opening doors, probably dislocating his elbow. The bag rolled in Cali’s direction and stopped on the toes of her Chuck Taylor high tops. Charles continued to stare under the seat. He was not moving, probably not breathing. A burgundy puddle grew from beneath him; his left cheek pressed into the grooved rubber floor mats. A fly crawled across his open eye.
The geek in the checkered jacket had disappeared. The blue gym bag, which she imagined was full of money, rested on her toes. Charley just lay there. She was alone with a dead body, and a spreading pond of blood. She looked at the blue gym bag. Just as the doors began to close, Cali grabbed the bag and sprinted from the train.
Her thoughts were blank. The image of Charley, his pale face pressed into the black rubber mat flickered in her memory blotting out every other sensible impulse. She opened a fresh pack and lit up, walking and smoking, trying to organize her thoughts around what she had witnessed. “What have I witnessed?” she thought. It took a full minute, when she looked up at the building she was standing in front of, to recognize it was her building. When she reached for a cigarette the pack was empty.
Once behind her locked apartment door, Cali dropped the bag on the floor and ran to the bathroom. It only took a split second of deliberation to decide to pee rather than puke. She leaned forward and laid her head on her knees with her eyes closed. The Chex mix was an insufficient dinner, especially on top of all the beer. She tried to center herself and calm her stomach. Even though there wasn’t much in there, it threatened to rise.
When she opened her eyes, the blue Nike bag sat slumped on the saddle of the bathroom door. Sweat tricked down her back like melting ice. The corner of the Nike bag had wicked up some of Charley’s blood. Cali’s gut folded over and she nearly bolted.
Her curiosity got the better of her. She splashed some water on her face, brought the bag to the stainless steel kitchen counter, and poured herself a half glass of Bulliet Bourbon. After drinking a large gulp, she ripped the zipper open like she was pulling a strip of duct tape from her hair.
The bag contained a dirty pair of sneakers and some gym shorts. It smelled ripe. The dumped out contents spilled on the counter. Sweaty gym socks, and a stained wife beater. Some coins rattled to the floor. Cali grabbed a chop stick and pushed the pile of stuff around.
There was nothing of any value there. She wasn’t a lawyer, didn’t know the jargon. It was called tampering with or removing evidence, or something. Whatever it was it had to be bad, someone had murdered Charley. She saw it. He was really dead.
One of his sneakers fell on the floor, tipped over and a wallet and keys tumbled out. “Oh fuck,” she said. Pootin was sniffing around the sneaker, she yelled at him, “Pootin! Get the hell away from that.” The shocked Corgi released a huge spreading puddle that instantly enveloped the shoe, wallet and keys. Cali shouted, “Shit!” and grabbed the billfold and the keys with one hand, spraying her shoes with piss. She lost her grip on the keys and they flew across the room landing on a terry cloth towel piled by the couch. “Oh fuck me,” she cried, but by the time she reached them the urine soaked keys had left a yellow blotter stain on the white fabric. The dog was stuck trying to wedge his fat body under the couch.
After spreading the contents of the wallet on paper towels to dry, Cali looked over the damp contents. There were only five twenties – definitely not a fortune, snap shots in the picture section of a woman in her mid-thirties with long black hair and several of children, two boys, at various ages spanning infant to toddler.
The name on the license was Albert Armstrong. His address was listed as 10010, 105th Street SE. Not Charley.
Cali dropped down on the couch and swallowed the last of the bourbon. Pootin put his head on her knee and looked up at her as if to say, “Do you forgive me? I couldn’t wait.”
She patted his head absently. She was suddenly very sleepy and closed her eyes. It was just for a moment. She had to think this through, figure how this happened and what she should do about it.
Cali woke up to Pootin licking her face. The sun filled the high ceilinged loft. She almost forgot about the events of the preceding day, but sitting on the toilet reminded her of the blue Nike gym bag and the memory of Charley/Albert, lying in a lagoon of dark blood overtook her.
The wallet contents spread on her counter greeted her on the way to make coffee. The day suddenly turned overcast and the apartment darkened a shade. Cali sat at her kitchen table sipping from a large mug. “If he wasn’t Charley, then why would anyone want to kill him?” She was thinking. There were coffee grounds in the bottom of her cup. “Maybe he wasn’t killed. There were probably all sorts of reasons that a man would fall dead on a light rail train and bleed all over the floor.” Cali couldn’t think of any just then, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t happen.
“And if he wasn’t murdered…”
“Oh shit,” she said to Pootin, he silently confirmed her conclusion. “I probably grabbed the only identification Albert had,” she said. “The black haired woman in the wallet pictures; she is probably freaking out.”
Cali took Pootin and rode the Max eastward across the river to the 82nd Avenue stop. The sun was shining, but she could not place it in the sky. The time on her phone face read 10:30AM. She hid the blue Nike gym bag inside a grocery sack. The blood had dried to a dark brown stain, it looked like dirt. The wallet was in her pocket next to her smokes.
She walked the remaining blocks to the address on Albert Anderson’s identification trying to hold her head up and keep her back straight, but as she walked, she kept catching herself slouching, and would stiffen up again. A traffic signal stopped her at 98th and she stood rehearsing the story she would tell the dark haired woman when she answered the door. “I can’t say I stole the bag, or even begin to explain why I thought it might be full of money…” At this point she was not even sure why she went out to The Crow Bar. Pootin whined, Cali looked down at him and then up at the light.
“That’s a long light,” she thought fingering the lighter in her pocket, considering a cigarette.
After realizing that she had stood through two cycles she spun around and started back toward the Max station, but after three steps, stopped and turned back. “No.” she thought, I am going to have to face this. Maybe I can just say I found it. Sure, I found it and looked inside for some clue to its owner.” Pootin looked up at her, panted and trembled.
Walking on, the scene played in her mind: she would arrive at the door and ring the bell, explain her story, and hold out the wallet and bag. Cali wanted to believe that the woman would appreciate the return of her husband’s things. She was nodding to herself. After a few more steps she stopped, realizing, “Oh fuck. What if she doesn’t know he’s dead yet? If the police could not find any identification,” her armpits felt damp now, “then I would be the first to tell her. The police might want to question me.”
Cali couldn’t lie to the police. She pulled the Nike bag out of the grocery sack and began looking around for a place to stash it. When she turned to a row of garbage cans lined up by a short chain link fence along the sidewalk, she read the house number: 10010. She had walked directly to 105th Street SE without even thinking about it. At least she could not remember thinking about it.
Cali fumbled the cigarettes out of her jacket pocket and dropped her lighter. She stood smoking, staring at the house with the Marlboro sticking out of her mouth. Pootin inspected the base of a trash cans. At that moment the front door opened and a woman with dark hair strode down the sidewalk and opened the gate. When she saw the Nike bag she said. “That’s my husband’s.”
Cali exhaled and opened her mouth. Her mind went blank again. She held out the wallet. The woman, looking puzzled, took the wallet and said, “Look Hun, this lady found your gym bag.” Cali turned and faced Albert Anderson, looking every bit alive as his driver’s license photo.
He said. “Oh wow, how cool, where did you find it?”
Cali’s mind ran through a hundred possibilities in a second. She did not want to tell the story of the elevator or the pool of blood. She couldn’t explain that she took it from a dead man who she thought was Charley who turned out to be Albert who turned out not to really be dead at all. She needed to sit, but there was nowhere. Her mind filled with a stream of mental chatter about the conclusions she had jumped and an old saying: to assume makes an ass out of you and me. She swallowed and dropped the cigarette on the side walk, covering it with her shoe.
Anderson’s wife noticed Pootin and bent down to pet him. She said, “Oh, he’s precious, what’s his name?”
Cali mumbled, “Pootin, like the Russian leader, only with two O’s.”
Both Anderson and his wife laughed. Cali continued, “I guess I just found it.” But both of them were petting the dog now and the Andersons did not hear her. They were muttering to Pootin, who had rolled over exposing his belly, and was making little mooking sounds.
The dark haired woman stood up and reached out to shake Cali’s hand, she said, “Well it was nice to meet you…” she paused.
“Cali,” Cali said, taking the woman’s hand.
“Cali,” she continued, smiling. “I’m Meg. Thanks you for bringing Andy’s stuff back.”
“And sorry about the clothes, I know they’re rank.” Andy added, “I was bringing them home last night and I left the bag at the Max stop. I forgot I left my wallet in there.” He was shaking his head. Cali really wanted to light a cigarette.
“I have to go pick up the kids from play practice,” Meg said. “Thanks again.”
While she walked off toward the car in the driveway, Albert opened his wallet and pulled out a twenty, stuffing it into Cali’s hand. It was damp. She opened her mouth to refuse, but closed it again. She wanted to tell him about the blood stain, but could not think of how to begin. He said, “Well then, thanks again. Have a great day,” and walked up the steps and into his house.
Cali stood on the other side of the closed gate until Pootin whined and tugged. He wanted to check out more trash cans, but Cali walked back in the direction of the Max, pulling the crumpled pack of Marlboro’s out of her pocket and lighting one. Pootin trotted a few steps behind her, tongue out and panting.
Arriving at her elevator she jabbed the up button three times. The door opened immediately as though it had been waiting for her since she had left that morning. It was about 12:30 now, Cali’s stomach grumbled. The door closed. Riding up, just past the second floor the ringer sounded on the intercom. The same man answered it before the second ring. Charley said, “Hello?”
The breathy female voice said, “Fuck you Charley, you stood me up.”
He replied, “You didn’t answer your phone, and my car battery was dead. I just didn’t have the energy to ride the Max all the way over there to that shitty bar.”
“Charley!” she sighed, her voice exaggerated like a melodramatic actor. “That was our date, baby. I didn’t wear any panties and I waited for you for an hour.”
“Oh I’m sorry snuggle bottom.” Charley was making kissing sounds into the phone. Pootin, hearing the lip smacking, began barking frantically.
The man on the phone said, “Who is that? Who’s on the line? Sheila, did you get a dog?”
Pootin just kept barking. The neighbors would surely be annoyed. Cali almost yanked on his leash and scolded him. She was tired. She wanted a cigarette. She sighed, Pootin showed no sign of letting up. “Fuck it, let him bark, who gives a shit,” she thought.
As the car reached her floor Cali thought about saying something to the people on the phone, but she realized again that there would be no way to explain her involvement in these people’s lives, her misunderstanding or the drama of the past two days. The door opened and Pootin forgot why he was barking, eager to continue in his accustomed ritual. While she walked down the hallway she looked down at the little dog prancing next to her heal, content to be with her, it made her smile. For a couple of steps she did not think about anything in particular, she was happy just walking with her dog. Before she reached her apartment door, however, the image of all that blood invaded her thoughts. She wondered, “Who was that dead guy and why was he carrying the bag?” Maybe there was something she missed. Pushing her hand into her pocket she felt the scrap of paper from Big-Hair. “Sheila?” The wheels in her mind started to turn.
NOTE: This piece appeared in the Winter 2013 issue of The Elohi Gadugi Journal Under the name of Otis’s Lament
Crossing Cali’s Wires by Ron Heacock is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
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