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“…five… six… and seven,” I said, coming to a halt and closing the compass app on my phone. Mayweather had been right about one thing: the crouching thorn tree directly ahead did look devil sent, its gnarled branches stacked with angry spikes searching and possessed of intent to injure. The dusting of hoarfrost gleaming dully under a cold moon only lent it and the rest of the wildly overgrown yard an additional layer of sinister ancientness. Dylan flicked his cigarette at it, its spinning orange ember vanishing in the tangles as though swallowed. Gripping his spade behind his neck like a combat weapon, he cleared his throat and announced, “I’m discombobulated.”
“As your mom would say: again, in English.”
“I’m not happy.”
“Why? Because the exact spot isn’t marked with an X?” Wearing a hangdog look, he turned away and blinked at the idle refinery, once a blazing mini city at night, now a dark outline against the sky save one dim sentinel light pulsing wearily atop its tallest smokestack. What was his problem now?
“What I said about you back at Milkwood’s was,” he paused to stamp on his spade until it was blade deep in the hard ground and standing independently, “not so nice.”
As closing time approached, he had leapt to his feet with a yelp and cried, “NO MOTHERFUCKING WAY!” loud enough to invoke Hal Topper’s instant presence at his side.
“Son,” he said through gritted teeth, one hand clapped firmly on Dylan’s shoulder, the other gesturing at the now mostly empty tables as if they were crammed with shocked patrons, “this is a family establishment. That kind of cussing is just the excuse I’m looking for – not that I need one – to eighty-six you from here for good.” Crimson faced, Dylan folded his lips into his mouth in an effort to dam up whatever choice words were amassing behind his teeth, sat back down, and simulated smashing his head against the table. “Why don’t you do it for real, son?” growled Hal Topper, “and save me the trouble.”
“Okay, that’s enough,” said Dani firmly, shooing away her grumbling father like he was a pesky stray too miserable and long in the tooth to kick, her intervention uncharacteristically delayed perhaps being of the mind Dylan’s hostile outburst had warranted some measure of punishment. After all, it was her and Phoebe who’d come up with the plan after driving over to 116 Primrose Way earlier in the day and discovering it was the last of only four houses on the street, set apart from the others, and conveniently abandoned. For some time too judging by the photograph they had taken showing the lower floor boarded up, the windows of the upper floor mostly smashed, their peeling shutters sagging on loose hinges. “What’s your problem, Dylan?” demanded Dani, ever more assertive and comfortable in her own skin with him, less the besotted admirer and more the Bonnie to his Clyde.
“I already got dragged off on one fool’s errand chasing around after The Thing,” he whined, fixating on the twisting black smoke of a guttering candle rather than make eye contact. “And now, even after The Thing is finally dead and buried– ”
“Buried? Paul’s got his ashes in his backpack,” interrupted Phoebe with an unmistakable twinkle of malice in her eye.
Dylan swung around to face me as if he’d forgotten I was there. “Paul! Please tell these obsessive females you’re not down with this cockamamie scheme!” I squirmed under the competition between the help-me-out-here-man pleading in his eyes and the increasingly familiar you-are-on-MY-side resoluteness in Phoebe’s. When fragments of a conversation I had had long ago with Max Fischer in a Zurich bar on the pros and cons of Swiss neutrality began tumbling from my mouth, they both looked away in disgust. I fled for the sanctuary of the restrooms two flights of stairs below, closer to the center of the earth whose gravitational pull had suddenly become irresistible. “Fucking Judas!” hollered Dylan after me as Phoebe and Dani piled on for the “obsessive female” gibe; then the more indistinct sound of Hal Topper’s ire reigniting in the kitchens.
“Listen,” I said, casting a glance over my shoulder, flashlight beams sweeping through the blackness of an upstairs room Dani and Phoebe had made their way to, icily fearless it seemed to me even if Dani’s shotgun was leading the way, “The list of names I’ve been called over the years, especially this last one, is long, vicious, and creative. Just the other day Lucy called me a syphilitic butt weevil. So, calling me Judas is almost a compliment okay? Don’t worry about it.”
“It was after that,” he said, grabbing the spade and working it furiously, clods of dirt and stone thudding down in the darkness behind him. “When you went downstairs. I said things have all gone to shit since you showed up. That I wished we’d never met you. I said you’re a loser and a lush who crashes planes, got what was coming to you when you lost everything. I…” He stopped digging and, leaning back on his hands, breathed fog into the clear star-chipped sky.
“I get the picture,” I said, wondering if he was going to choke on the Adam’s apple, normally a prominent ineptly shaved shark fin, that had disappeared in his throat. “It’s okay.”
“No, it isn’t,” he snapped. “I said I hope they throw away the key when you go up to the joint. That’s beyond the pale. Mom actually slapped me across the face. She never did that before. Then she stormed out in tears and Dani had to remind me how happy you make her. Don’t shake your head like that. It’s true. She also pointed out if it weren’t for you, me and her would’ve never hooked up. Not to mention hitting the jackpot in Lexington. You’re a good guy, Paul, and I owe you an apology. I’m sorry, man. Forgive me.”
He looked at me expectantly, the Rolex on his wrist no sanitation manager could hope to afford catching in the moonlight, the grip of a 9mm sticking awkwardly out the front of his pants like he had deliberately angled it so at least his bits wouldn’t get blown off were it to discharge of its own accord. Even he was instilled with the same principled earnestness I had observed in Melanie and her friends, and which Dani also had in spades; a more advanced moral circuitry seemingly unique to these Gen Z-ers, the genetic heedlessness of preceding generations somehow having skipped theirs. It was almost infuriating to see moisture in his eyes over not inaccurate slights I hadn’t even heard to get ruffled over.
When I told him so, he pointed a finger in the air and said, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, it does make a sound.” I stared at him and he spat through his teeth at the shallow crater he had dug, one that would become his grave if he kept that shit up. When I told him so, he leaned on his spade and examined his nails so much as to say, ‘I’m on strike until you accept my apology.’
Patting his shoulder, I grunted “We’re good,” and, abandoning my original plan of supervising Dylan’s efforts, started digging in the hopes of sweating out the chill I felt percolating through my bone marrow. What was it Holden had beseeched me to do during the trial? “For God’s sake, Paul, at least act remorseful.” The thorn tree rustled even though there was no breeze and it dawned on me, cold little feet skittering up my spine: I couldn’t recall a time – from the morning after our wedding when she awoke alone only to find me snoring in Dorothy’s flowerbed cradling an oversized garden gnome, to the night her tears shimmered under the glare of Julianne Robbins grimacing face frozen on the TV, to this very moment right now – I had ever uttered the words “I am sorry” to Ally. I had just taken it for granted she would forever put up with my crap. How is that possible, especially when she had always been so quick to apologize to me, repentant even on those rare occasions she was ambushed by modest flatulence despite my shameless volleys being capable of setting off the car alarms outside and sending Melanie fleeing for her room? With the palette of my feelings ordinarily confined to the primary colors of happy, sad, angry, the addition of the blended hue of remorse somehow intensified the shading of the world, put its shapes into starker perspective. I stopped digging while Dylan carried on softly whistling away, his world a brighter more orderly place for having cleared his conscience. I felt fit to drink his blood, my knuckles whitening as I strangled the shaft of my spade.
“Woah!” came a stifled cry from Dylan, his blade shearing through something more brittle than roots.
“Quit pointing that thing at me and shine it down here.” I hovered my phone over the pit and almost stumbled in when its radiation illuminated a broken tusk of bone spearing out of the black soil.
“You don’t suppose it’s his old pooch, do you?” I said weakly, a tinny smell of corruption pushing me back from the edge.
“Son… of… a… bitch!” groaned Dylan, articulating each word with intensifying fury. As I watched him rub his temples with the heels of his hands, it vaguely occurred to me Mayweather may have led me here so I might have the honor of beefing out his Wikipedia page. Best not share that with Dylan since he was now making like a javelin thrower with his spade and I doubted he would suffer much of his prior remorse if I presented as an even easier target than I already was. “I don’t suppose its treasure either,” he boiled over, harpooning the pile of dirt he had created instead.
To be continued…
*Previous chapters of The Angle of Attack are available at: http://bit.ly/2u7rqcL
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