So I’m sitting there in the slant of light from the afternoon sun when there’s this knock on my door.
“You order pizza?” I mumble in the general direction of the kitchen, just a countertop away, but I’m the only one here.
I laugh and cover it with my hand, like there’s a peephole mounted backwards, me in its sights.
Spend enough time alone with yourself, you might start pretending too.
“Too late for the mail . . . ” I go on, tapping the butt of the remote into the fabric of my recliner, lifting my wrist and angling it over to cut the glare and study my watch.
Six on the nose.
“Somebody sending me flowers?” I say out loud then, just part of the routine. “Got a secret admirer there?”
I can’t help smiling.
Another knock, more timid this time.
I ratchet the footrest down loud enough to be heard then haul myself up from the chair. Walk to the window instead of the door.
Across the way there’s televisions flickering through windows, there’s dinners getting reheated, there’s women curled around a secret they’ll never tell and there’s men staring at a little place on the wall like it maybe just spoke to them.
I draw the drapes on them all.
“Hold on,” I call across the room.
Maybe I’m getting dressed, or hiding the weed, or finishing a phone call. Putting on my man mask.
On the way to the door I’m sure to touch five things, each above waist level, for luck. The reason they have to be above waist level is that makes me bend my arm a bit, expend the effort. Just dragging the pad of your finger over whatever’s in your way’s asking for disaster.
Lampshade, piping on the couch, tabletop, whorl in the paint on the wall, and empty picture frame.
“Who is it?” I singsong into the back side of the door, one hand to the knob, the other pinching the chain.
What I’m waiting for here’s what I’m always waiting for: somebody to complete the joke. Just anything—“Orange, Orange-who?”
Nobody ever tries, though.
“Guess this is no joke, then,” I say, hiding it with the chain scraping back.
But there’s always the chance they’ve heard, too.
You’ve got to have some fun, I mean.
And it’s not pizza, and not a package, and not flowers. I look to the left and the right to be sure, then to the guy standing there, just waiting for me to catch his eye so he can be sure to hold it. Likely he read in some magazine about pack hierarchy and prison society, and how if you look away, that’s your weakness shining through.
I lower my face some, like I don’t want him to remember it.
“You’re him?” I say.
He nods, keeps his hands in the pockets of his sweat jacket. Walking through the dried-up lobby downstairs, his hood was over his head, I know. His hair’s still all messed up. There’s no cameras down there, though, and everybody else has their own rats to be killing, their own fires to stomp out.
But when you’re doing something, something you maybe don’t want on a marquee so much, sure, the whole world’s watching you, right?
I know, I’ve been there.
For thirty-two years to be precise.
Looking over my shoulder even in the broad daylight. Unmentionable stuff crusted around my fingernails.
That was the old me, though.
These are the new days, the good days.
I swallow what wants to be a smile here, step aside for Mr. Hoodie.
He ducks through, past, giving me some berth but being real casual about it. Casing the joint, as he might say it.
What you see is what you get, pretty much: an entryway dining room, a living room that spills over sideways into a kitchenette, one door on the opposite wall opening onto a bathroom and another onto a hall. My bedroom’s down there, and then the other room, all the way back. Beside us, right behind Hoodie, the tall narrow door of the vacuum cleaner closet. My winter jacket’s in there too, I suppose. Probably out of fashion by now.
Hoodie pretends not to, but he holds his breath, listening to me not lock the door.
“This going to take long?” he asks, fidgety now, hooking his chin down to the street.
“Your ride?” I say, still thinking about the vacuum cleaner, then finally nodding to myself about it.
On cue Hoodie threads a cigarette out from his mop of hair, pops his eyes up for permission.
“Not my place,” I shrug, and cross to the kitchen, ferret a soup can up from the trash for him to ash into.
We’re both just scrubs here is what I’m telling him. Cogs in the great machinery of this bad old city.
“Should I tell her thirty?” he says, cocking his cell open with one hand, his eyes narrow from his own smoke.
“Twenty,” I say back, and he nods, considers, then’s on my side enough to slap the cell phone shut, spin it into his pocket. Kid Hoodie, maybe. That’s his name.
“So he just said . . . ?” he leads off.
I nod, reach up to a top cabinet but do it slow too, all my hands in view the whole time, like he’s got a gun. And he may.
It’s just a board game, though.
He laughs about it.
“Trouble?” he says, exhaling to the side.
I toss it down on the table so it’ll be sure to rattle like it’s supposed to.
Yeah, Trouble. That popper in the middle, the little holes for your piece to jump in, the whole bit.
I used to play it with my brother, growing up. Not this exact game, but one enough like it. Marathons we had. This and Risk. But Risk takes too long. Not that I haven’t done it before. You get lonely, I mean. Hungry for company.
Kid Hoodie sits down at the table being real gentle with everything, like this is a dream he can rip through on accident.
“I’m just supposed to play you?” he asks, tapping into the soup can now, thank you.
“He didn’t tell you?”
He shrugs, pulls his lower lip into his mouth and rolls it between his teeth a bit.
“Just this,” he says, opening his fingers to the apartment all around us. “Four thirty-nine Chessire Arms.”
“Four thirty-nine?” I say, careful to get the numbers right—they change—“that’s up on the fourth floor, man. Where do you think you are?”
His face drops, his eyes narrow, but before he can start breathing fast or anything I laugh through my nose, push his blue game pieces over to him.
“Real fucking funny,” he says, ashing harder now, tough guy.
I keep laughing, can’t help it.
What he thinks he’s here for, I don’t really know. Maybe I’m supposed to be passing on a professional evaluations of sorts on him: Yes, he exhibits control, patience, and diligence, would make a fine hood, thug, or lackey, at least as far as playing Trouble with him would indicate. Or maybe it’s different: he’s a witness for the prosecution, one with his hand not out, so much, but not all the way in either; he’s somebody’s bad-luck ex and I’m supposed to arbitrate a child support repayment scheme; his brother’s an assistant horse trainer, can fix a race if he, say, had to. Or he’s a narc, a rival, a cable guy who was late one too many times, and on and on.
It doesn’t matter.
What does is that, earlier today he was standing in some pool hall or bar, some bank lobby or motel room, and some nobody, some guy with bloodshot eyes, some girl with an unbreakable heart, handed over a folded little piece of paper, one they knew better than to look at.
Scrawled on it in pencil, my address. Just that.
The popper goes down and comes back up fast, the rounded-corner dice insane with anger, buzzing like a pair of wasps under my cupped palm. But they give up their numbers. You would too.
Kid Hoodie laughs at it, at them, at all of this.
He’s into the game, on the edge of his seat, sucking on his cigarette like it’s a straw to his only air.
He makes the first corner, pushes the popper down and closes his lips in silent prayer.
“You’ve done this before,” I tell him, my last yellow piece still close to home, and his eyes glitter a hell yes back to me.
“What if I win?” he says, his right knee a jackhammer with nothing to do.
In answer, I tilt my head just enough to the high vent in the wall over my shoulder.
His knee goes still, and he stabs his mouth with the cigarette again.
“It’s not so much about that,” I say, my voice so fake, so level.
He gets it, goes robot too, manages to look at the vent in the most obvious way possible every ten seconds: by looking at everything but it.
And so we play, and I get up once for two beers, and somewhere in there I ask him where he grew up.
He comes even more awake, understands that we’re getting to the meat of the thing here. That the game’s just a diversion, an excuse to be sitting at a table. That I’m feeling him out.
“Duluth,” he spits.
I nod, pop the dice.
“You?” he says back.
It’s only polite.
I lift a vague shoulder, study the closed window, and tell him just over the river. That I remember being a kid and my best friend’s mom crying from when the ferry went down, because she thought she’d known somebody on it. Everything turned out all right, though. At least until her son got to be about sixteen.
He nods like this ferry exists, sure, everybody knows that, and pops the dice.
They rattle, roll, stop.
He moves one short of what they add up to and I correct him, even though it’s not to my advantage. At least game-wise. Okay: Trouble-wise. Because of course this is all a game. The best kind.
“So you like it?” he says, since we’re best friends and all now.
“You know . . . this.”
I stare at him until it becomes obvious that that’s precisely what I’m doing. “What do you think we’re doing here?” I say, almost at a whisper now. “Is this a drug deal? There any money on the table? Have you ordered a hit from me using some Morse eyebrow code, or is that what you were tapping out with your heel there?”
He’s backpedaling now, in his head. Falling all over himself.
I hold my hand up, palm out, then lower it slowly to the popper, let it explode again.
“I just consult,” I say. “Time to time. Special interest stuff, know what I mean?”
He does, he does. Is the only one who does.
There’s no girlfriend down in the car, either. There’s no parking like that for four blocks, almost. This apartment is no accident.
“However,” I tell him, moving my yellow piece four spaces, touching down on all the holes on the way, the last twice, “and this is strictly”—the vent, Kid Hoodie, the vent—“Are you a cop? Yes or no.”
He shakes his head no, then says it out loud, even musters the proper amount of insult.
I nod like I already knew this, but had to ask.
And so we play on, each rounding the corner onto our home stretches, him trying desperately to lose but you can’t control that damn popper. That’s the beauty of it.
The pieces, though, yeah. They’re not in any hard plastic shell.
What I do with my lead one is take it by the yellow knob at top, go to move it the two spaces I’ve rolled but drop it on the second hop, so it clatters off the plastic rim of the board, is skittering for the edge of the table.
Kid Hoodie, being the fast draw specialist he is, nabs it at the last moment, then holds it there above all that open space, pinched like a stubby little joint.
The sleeve of his sweatshirt is bloated, thick, clumsy.
It brushes his soup can just enough to dislodge it.
I do the rest. In trying to catch it—my part of this rescue effort, since he’s already saving the game—my thigh bangs up into the table.
It’s all just split-second, too. Real photo-finish stuff.
I’ve had so much time to practice, though. To go through it all in my head, every which way. Sometimes I can’t even go to sleep from thinking so much. Or from remembering, doing it over and over again, better each time. The hammering of your heart’s a thing that can keep you awake all night if you let it. Especially if it doesn’t matter when you wake up, or what you’re wearing when you answer the door.
So my leg hits the table, and the soup can, on the same side as the Trouble piece, meaning that hand’s occupied, the soup can just gracefully slips off the table.
In his other hand, my speed technician’s managed to save his beer, at least.
“Shi-it,” I say, wiping my own beer from my pants leg then spreading my fingers away from the stickiness.
Kid Hoodie laughs at all the bad luck in the air this afternoon, takes another drag, reaches down for the spilled soup can.
I lean over, grin some involuntary displeasure at the ash coating the top of the carpet.
“It’s no—” he starts, tilting the can over to scoop what he can up, but I stop him.
“It’s nothing,” I say, standing, my hand on his arm, keeping him from the ash. “I’ll just,” and I do: the tall narrow closet, the vacuum cleaner. I even hand him the floppy-headed old-fashioned plug, for the socket behind his chair.
“Sorry,” he says, then laughs about it, this direction we’re going: two grown men, criminal men, worried about a little dingy spot on the carpet.
I nod, my smile fake on the outside but so deep on the inside.
The vacuum cleaner winds up, whines on, coughs out fine, fine dust through the fabric bag.
When the roller won’t turn I uncork the hose, and it sucks the ash up like the nothing it is.
I’m not looking right at him either, but still, I can see the question on Kid Hoodie’s face. Can read it exactly: I thought this wasn’t your place?
I love my job.
“Mother of a—” I say, raising the hand I was leaning on, that was just in the carpet. I rub my fingers together like they’ve got some shit on them now too, and, instead of wiping the shit back—this is my place, after all—I just apply the end of the hose, sticking each finger in one at a time, like how a hand-dryer in a bathroom might work, in some other, better world.
Kid Hoodie narrows his eyes in something like appreciation, something like a shared joke, but then I’m racing my other hand up the hose, trying to crimp it.
“What?” he says, looking at the vacuum cleaner with new eyes, I’m pretty sure.
“Unplug it,” I tell him, my voice dialed all the way back to pissed off.
I waggle my fingers to show him they’re all there, it’s not that, no teeth in this hose, but then do the wedding-ring rub, to show him what’s missing here.
“I lost some weight this year,” I explain, holding the vacuum up on the chance the ring’ll come traipsing down the hose for me. It doesn’t. “She’s going to have my ass on a silver platter,” I say, going to my knees now, to unzip the bag.
Kid Hoodie tries not to smile here.
Not that it matters.
“Guess I’m going to need a—” I say, finishing by pointing with my face at the paper towel roll way over on the other side of the table, and when he turns to reach for it, I push my hand into the vacuum cleaner bag, find the smooth wooden handle right where I left it, then stand behind him, the dusty little twelve-inch hatchet loose in my right hand, wormy little fibers floating all the air now like smoke.
The blade isn’t as sharp as it should be, but you can make up for that.
I come down on him like judgment, hard enough that, later there’ll be a shadow of me, a little. Where the mist of blood didn’t spray the wall.
As for Kid Hoodie, the third chop’s the one that goes all the way through to the face. The notched corner of the silver head pushes out through the always-fragile bone of his right cheek, plants him smack to the table. Naptime, junior. Nighty night.
I laugh again now, smile for the camera that’s not in the vent, and touch five low things on the way to the door, to set the chain. Five low things in thanks, I mean, because that’s what you do, and lo to those who would forget.
My name is William Colton Hughes.
You haven’t heard of me.