Monday, April 03, 2006

A Loss for Words Pts. 33, 34, and Last



(CONTINUED) Thirty-Three

We drove around Tucson for awhile because there was nothing else to do. Again we discussed going to the police, but if that had seemed like a bad idea in Santa Fe, it felt like signing Jimmy’s death certificate now. Of course, I would have been unable to go to the police anyway. We stopped and got some fast food and ate a little of it. Then, at some point, we found ourselves on I-19 headed south. Within a couple of miles downtown Tucson gave way to ramshackle, weather beaten homes sitting on plots of barren yellow dirt, with all manner of rusted cars, desperate animals, and stricken children out front. From the highway we could see even more forlorn shacks in the distance, walls and roofs of wood or metal seemingly thrown up without thought to safety or permanence. A few miles farther and even these crude shelters thinned-out, giving the impression that neighborhoods did not exist in this place, but rather each family existed on their own island of dust, consumed by their individual troubles and difficulties, afraid that soon even the little they had would also be gone, consumed by the relentless desert.

A gust of wind blew yellow dust high into the cloudless sky and a sign on the highway marked an exit for Vallejo Dr. There was nothing around that wasn’t abandoned or destroyed, no gas stations or restaurants, just a forgotten road disappearing somewhere out into the Sonoran Desert. We were early, so I pulled the car off to the shoulder and got out. There was no one to be seen in any direction. I opened up the trunk, took the shotguns out of their cases, and laid them in the back seat. Then I got back into the car and took the 9 mm out of the holster on my shoulder. I held it in my hand.

“Are you ready?” I asked.

“For what?” Julie replied. “We don’t have a plan. Are we just going to offer them the money and hope they take it?”

She didn’t sound hysterical or angry; she sounded like someone that had simply considered the situation and found the odds greatly against her. She was right.

I put the gun on my lap. “We’ll do whatever we need to do to get your brother back safely. But we won’t know what that is until we meet these people.”

“I think it’s a trap.”

I looked around at the glittering desert that ran out in every direction. Some distance back traffic whistled up and down I-19, the sun flashing sickeningly off the aluminum semi-trailers. In front of us was nothing that I could see. “Do you have another idea?”

Julie turned to me and her face crinkled, as if she was going to start crying. She shook her head. I leaned over and kissed her. “We’ll be alright; all three of us.” She nodded like she didn’t believe me. I told her to unzip her windbreaker and get the .38 out of the holster. She did and I took the gun from her. It was loaded and the safety was off. I gave it back to her. “Fuck it,” I said, taking in that vast emptiness one last time. “Out here, if you think you need to shoot, just shoot.” It was 2:50 PM.

I fired up the Jag and we began driving slowly down Vallejo. I was watching for anyone that might be waiting for us, but nothing moved. Eventually the pavement ended and the road became dirt. About a mile off we could see a structure in front of us; an old house, sitting behind the remains of a wooden fence. As we got closer I could see that it was two stories high and made of brick that had been painted white. There were two windows above a rotted patio on the front, but they’d been boarded up. On the first floor there were no windows, but two doors. There were some rusted cars in the yard, but no vegetation. A few small outbuildings were scattered nearby and I wondered if there was anyone in them, their rifle sights trained on us. I narrowed my eyes against the glare, but I saw nothing in the yard, just the shimmering of the sun. As I pulled the Jag up I noticed the beige Land Rover parked alongside the house. It was the only vehicle visible.

I turned off the Jag and listened. Nothing. Not any sound at all. I reached into the back seat and grabbed the sack of cash and some ammo clips. Then I leaned over and put the gun in the back of my waistband. “You wait here,” I told Julie. She gripped the .38 more tightly and that pleased me. “If you hear any shots from inside, just drive out of here. Start the car and go. If anyone approaches you, shoot them.” She didn’t say anything. “Do you understand?” She looked toward the house and then back at me; she nodded. “Good. Now I’m going to go get your brother.”

I stepped out of the car and sank to my ankles in sand. I was almost to the front porch when a shot slammed into the front door of the house from my left side. For a moment I wondered if it was a warning shot, but a second shot came at me from a different direction and I dropped to the ground. I yelled for Julie to get the hell out, but didn’t hear the car start. I pulled the gun out of my waistband, let go of the sack, and began crawling through the sand for the house. I was at the front step when I saw movement behind the shell of an old car off to my left. I squeezed the gun in my right hand and waited. I could hear my heartbeat slamming in my ears and then everything seemed to slow down as, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a man begin to rise from behind the car. In one movement I pulled myself up to a squat, leveled the gun, and fired. I heard a return shot as I dropped back to the ground but I could not tell where my bullet went. I glanced back toward the car; no movement. My ears were ringing and I could smell the cordite. I quickly climbed onto the patio and looked toward the Jag. I couldn’t see anyone in it. I hoped that Julie had ducked down below the window to avoid the gunfire, but I couldn’t be sure. Just then another shot rang out from the right side of the house. It ricocheted off a brick near my head. I crouched down and tried one door and then the other. They were both locked. I crawled over to the left side of the house and raised myself up slightly, just enough to peer over the short brick wall that enclosed the porch. Nothing. I dropped back down, waited a moment, then raised myself up again. Still nothing. I raised myself one more time, a little higher. Nothing. I leaped over the side of the porch and pressed myself against the side of the house. Then I saw the man behind the car lying in the dust. He wasn’t moving. I looked one more time toward the Jag, but I still didn’t see Julie--or anyone else. I hoped the other shooter--and anyone else--would come after me.

Slowly I crept along the side of the house and at the back I saw a ramshackle set of wooden steps leading to the second story. I stepped around the corner and was almost to the stairs when a shot hit the railing, splintering the desiccated wood. I dropped into the sand again and tried to locate the shooter. There were two outbuildings on that side and I was pretty sure the shot had come from one of them, but I didn’t know which. I was pinned down, so I fired at the building on the left. I waited a moment but my shot was not returned. Then I fired at the building on the right and a split-second later a bullet whizzed a couple feet over my head. I unloaded the rest of my clip into the building and, as I was jamming a new clip into the gun, I saw the man run out from behind the building toward the front of the house. I shot three times in quick succession and he fell just a step before the house would’ve blocked my bead on him. Then I stood and picked my way quickly and carefully up the steps.

At the top of the stairs was a door and I eased it open then waited a moment before entering. Inside was a small entry room strewn with old newspapers, rotted clothes, and garbage. Dirt was two inches thick on the floor. Another door opened out of the little room. I opened it gently with my foot and stepped quickly back from the doorway but a voice from the other side said, “Come in.” I glanced around the jamb and saw a much larger room. On the far end was a small platform, perhaps a foot high, and Jimmy and a man were on top of it. Jimmy was seated, his arms and legs tied to the chair, and he was gagged and blindfolded. The man had a gun pressed to Jimmy’s temple. “You might as well come in,” he said. “Because, if you don’t, in a few seconds you’ll hear a shot and then all of this will have been for nothing.” I began to step into the doorway, leading with the gun, but the man said, “No, no, no, not like that. Put your hands up.” I hesitated, but the man drew the trigger back slightly on his own gun and Jimmy shivered, so I raised my hands over my head, hooking my index finger through the trigger guard of the gun, letting it hang free. I stepped into the dark, dusty room and got a good look at the man, who had long, greasy black hair and was wearing shorts and a tank top. He smiled as I came toward him and I knew then that he was no big-time dealer but a common street thug. He was undoubtedly working for someone else; I just hoped they wouldn’t show up. “You must’ve killed those guys, huh?” The guy laughed as I came closer. “I guess you’re pretty tough. The boss ain’t gonna like that. I’m not lookin’ forward to explainin’ it to him.” I was about ten feet away from Jimmy and could see his chest heaving. His clothes were spattered with blood and his face and arms were bruised. He’d been beaten up, but I couldn’t tell how badly. His right hand was tied tightly to the chair so I couldn’t see where his finger had been cut off.

“Where’s the money?” the man asked.

“It’s in the front yard,” I said.

He looked at me strangely. “The front yard?”

“I needed to have my hands free.”

He smiled again. “Of course. Is it all there?”

I looked around the empty room. There was nowhere to hide, no easy escape. “As much as we could get,” I said.

His smile quickly became a frown. “Where’s the girl?”

“In the car.”

Now he smiled broadly and it told me a lot about him, more than I would’ve liked to have known. “Ah, that’s good. Joey--that’s the guy who was tailing you--I guess you just killed him--Joey said the kid’s sister’s a looker.” He tousled Jimmy’s hair with his free hand. “I guess it runs in the family. Anyway, we had some plans for you guys. We sure as hell did.” He looked casually around the room and I noticed a bag and a pile of rope at his feet. Then he turned back to me and laughed. “But now it’s just me with the plans.” Suddenly he kicked Jimmy’s chair hard and the kid went head over heels off the platform. I tried to aim my gun, but it was too late. A bullet hit me in the left side and the shot I got off was so high it probably went through the roof. I reflexively dropped the 9 mm, put my hand to the wound, and fell to the ground. It hurt more than I could believe. I’d heard that sometimes there was numbness or a dulling of sensation, but I was not so lucky. Blood ran through my fingers, sticky and warm. I thought of Anne, shot in the stomach just like me, and wondered if she’d been in as much pain as I was in. It hadn’t seemed that she’d suffered, but maybe she’d just been unable to communicate what she’d felt. The thought was unendurable.

I heard footsteps approaching me from the platform, dull thuds against the old wooden floorboards. I heard the man kick the 9 mm away and when I looked up I saw him standing over me, the gun pointed at my face. He laughed. “Now you’re all going to die, but I’ll just get you out of the way first.” He looked around the room once again and said, “I don’t know where the girl went, but I bet I can find her. Personally, I wouldn’t have brought her out here for this. But the three of us will make a night of it now.” He drew the hammer back on the gun. “I just wanted you to know that before you died.” I closed my eyes. For a brief moment I thought of Anne and wondered if I’d see her. But then I thought of what might lay ahead for Julie and Jimmy and what my role had been and I felt something that there are simply no words for. If I couldn’t stop what was going to happen, if this was the place I’d brought Julie to, then I wanted this man to kill me. Seconds passed and nothing happened. Suddenly everything seemed strangely still and quiet so I opened my eyes and saw that the man had his hands up and a funny expression on his face. I could see that Julie was standing behind him and, though I couldn’t see much of her, I noticed that she wasn’t wearing shoes. I knew immediately that she had the .38 pressed to the back of the man’s head. The man tried to laugh. “Well, ha ha, let’s just take it easy now. I only wanted to scare…” But before he could finish his sentence there was a crack that echoed loudly through the big empty room. The man dropped to the floor and a fine mist fell across my face. Blood and brain matter; I could taste it on my lips. Julie just stood there, holding the gun in front of her. Her clothes were spattered with gore. She didn’t look at me and she didn’t look at the man she’d just killed. She didn’t even look at her brother. She just stared straight ahead, as if no one else was there. As if nothing had happened. I tried to say something, but a bolt of pain flashed through my side and I just groaned. Julie slowly lowered the gun and looked at me. I pointed to Jimmy, still tied to the chair, now sideways on the floor, struggling uselessly to free himself. Julie ran to him and it seemed to take her a long time to get the ropes off. I heard her cry out and I assumed she’d just seen his hand with the pinky finger hacked-off. A few seconds later she and Jimmy were by my side. Jimmy looked bad, but it seemed like he could get around. I, on the other hand, was in somewhat worse shape.

“My God,” said Julie, kneeling beside me, her hands already bloody. “We need to get a doctor.”

I shook my head. “Just get me out of here,” I gasped. “Let’s go for Mexico.”

Julie touched my side and the pain was excruciating. “You can’t get across the border.”

I managed to sit up. “Let’s worry about that when we get there.” I took a deep breath and saw stars. “We need to leave now before anyone else shows up.”

“He’s right,” Jimmy said. “Those guys were just hired for the job.”

“You mean there’s someone else?” Julie asked.

Jimmy picked the 9 mm up off the floor and then told his sister to take my left arm. But he didn’t answer the question.

They got me to my feet and we started for the door. Neither of them was strong enough to support my weight, so I worked to keep myself upright by favoring my right side. We stopped at the top of the steps and Julie got her shoes and put them back on. “Can you drive a stick?” I asked her. She nodded and then we started down the rickety staircase, slowly, fighting for balance. It seemed to take an eternity to descend one story. After that, it was easier to get through the yard to the car; the pain was lessening, but I was beginning to feel weak and woozy. Julie opened the back door for me, but I told her I was going to ride up front. “There’s something I have to tell you,” I said. “And I have to do it now.” Jimmy helped me into the passenger seat and when I sat down it felt like a hot poker had pierced my side. I struggled for breath. Julie asked me if I was okay and I nodded. I told Jimmy to grab the bag of cash off the lawn and then he got in the back seat, the shotguns across his lap. Julie came around the driver’s side. The keys were still in the ignition and she turned the motor on, backed around, and headed toward the interstate.



Thirty-Four

We could just see I-19 up ahead, the cars like cast iron toys, when I told Julie to pull over. There was no one else on Vallejo Dr, which was probably not unusual. Off the road was an old weather-beaten shack. I gave Jimmy the 9 mm and told him to get the .50 caliber out of my bag. The guns were a liability now and we had to get rid of them. If we found ourselves in a situation where we needed to start shooting, there’d be no hope for us anyhow. Julie gave her brother the .38 Special and then I told him to take all the guns and the shotgun bags to the shack and see if there was any place inside where he could hide them. He got out of the car and limped to the shack; at the house I hadn’t noticed that his leg was injured. He seemed to be having trouble holding the guns, probably because of his hand, which I’d forgotten about, but in a few moments he was back.

“There was some corrugated metal in there,” he said. “I put them under that.”

“Good enough,” I replied. Then I told him to put the sack of cash in the trunk; we couldn’t afford to leave that.

We were about 45 miles from the Mexican border, but none of us would get through looking like we did. We stopped at a motel in Green Valley and Julie put on a different coat and wiped her face and then went and got a room. I’d bled a lot and felt dizzy. I wanted to sleep, but knew I had to fight it. Taking off my shoulder holster hurt badly and the pain woke me up a little. Jimmy’s right hand looked terrible and, as Julie peeled back the filthy wrapping, he gagged. She took him to the bathroom and cleaned him up as best she could. I heard him cry out a few times. When he came back into the room he was pale and shivering, a frightened kid standing in his underwear. My clothes were too big for him, but he put on a shirt of mine and his own pants, though they were a little bloody. His right hand was swollen and yellow-green. His eyes were blackened and he had a number of small cuts on his face. Hopefully, he wouldn’t have to get out of the car. He laid down on the bed and closed his eyes while Julie wrapped a sock around his hand. Then Julie helped me to the bathroom. I carefully stripped off my bloody clothes, making sure not to look at the bullet hole yet, while Julie filled the tub with lukewarm water, repeatedly testing the temperature with her hand. If the water was too warm, I might start bleeding badly again; if it was too cold, I might go into shock. I stood there naked for a few moments, but finally I looked at the wound. It didn’t look as bad as I’d thought; just a blood-crusted hole below my stomach, the flesh around it jagged and purple-yellow. A thin stream of red still ran from the center of the wound. I touched the area gently and sucked in my breath. The pain came in waves. The bullet was lodged inside me. Julie turned when she heard me exhale and opened her mouth but didn’t make a sound.

“What’s wrong?” I asked. “Never seen a naked man before?” I tried to smile but the pain made it come out all wrong.

“You need a doctor,” she said.

“I know,” I replied, as she helped me into the tub. “But we have to get to Mexico.”

“Why?” she asked, wiping the flecks of blood off my face.

“Because it’s the only place where we’ll all be safe.”

I don’t think Julie knew what I was talking about, but after another minute the water in the tub began turning red and the hole in my side was flowing again. Julie helped me up and then dried me off with a towel. She put a sock over the wound and held it in place with my belt. Then she helped me get dressed. I was pale, but on first glance no one would know that I’d just been critically wounded in a gunfight with three drug dealers that were now lying dead in the desert.

Julie ran a washcloth over her face and arms and changed clothes. I could still see specks of blood in her hair, but there was no time for her to wash it. I knew I needed a doctor soon. She put the room key on the table and we went out to the car.

We got back on the interstate and Julie had the Jag over 80 mph in a few minutes. I told her to keep it to 75 and when she asked why I didn’t answer. I thought I saw her hand shaking on the steering wheel, but it was getting hard to stay focused on anything. I knew that if I died she had to understand that what she’d done was okay. She could live with it, as I’d tried to do. We were 35 miles from Nogales when I began to tell her what had happened after I’d left her in the plaza on the day I went back to San Francisco. I told her about my ex-wife and our baby and how maybe we were going to work things out. Then I told her how my entire life had died in my very arms and how I’d brutally murdered the man responsible. I said that I’d fled to Santa Fe out of fear and guilt and shame, but that I was not sorry about that now; I was sorry about other things. I had to stop occasionally when I lost my train of thought; everything was beginning to feel unreal. Behind me I heard Jimmy mutter, “Fuuuck.” I wiped my eyes and Julie began to cry softly, but whether her tears were for me or herself I didn’t know.

“You’ll learn to wake up each day knowing you’ve killed another person,” I said, starting to slur my words. “And you can still find joy and love and beauty in that day even though you’re a different person now, even though you’re different from most people now. You know something that it would be better that you not know, but there is strength in that.”

I truly believed there was no reason for Julie to feel guilty. But I didn’t believe that absolution was so clear for myself. I had now killed three people, but it was what had happened to Anne and our baby--and what could’ve happened to Julie and Jimmy--for which I was not sure I could ever forgive myself. I was suddenly confused about so many things and I tried to go on, to explain, but Julie stopped me. “We’re at the border,” she said quietly. I hadn’t even noticed.

We sat in a long line of cars and I could see a light pink stain on my shirt; the blood had soaked through the sock. Every now and then the noise of the traffic on either side of me would disappear for a moment and then reappear. I thought about why that was happening and then realized I was blacking out for short periods. Julie looked over at me and I knew she was frightened, but not for herself. It occurred to me that she might just tell the border guard we needed a doctor and that would be that. But then I faded out again and when I came to Julie had taken my wallet out and was holding my license.

“Tom, Tom! He’s coming. Take this.”

I saw that the guard was at the car in front of us, looking in the window. He motioned for them to pull over for inspection. I wondered if that meant they inspected every car or if this was random and our chances of being searched were now reduced. It was hard for me to follow the thought any farther. The guard came up to Julie’s window and she smiled and said hello and handed him her license. He asked her if we were staying in the border area and she told him we were. Then he asked her the purpose of our visit and she told him we were going shopping. He laughed at that and then asked for Jimmy’s identification. Jimmy handed his license up with his left hand, trying to keep his mangled right hand out of the guard’s view. The guard seemed to spend a long time looking at the license. Then he looked back at Jimmy.

“What happened to you?”

“I was hit by a car while biking.”

The guard looked at Jimmy’s license awhile longer.

“Are you two married?” the guard asked, pointing from Jimmy to Julie.

Jimmy managed to laugh. “Naw, she’s my sister.” It sounded perfectly natural.

The guard laughed too, but it did not seem genuine. Then he looked at me and any trace of a smile fell from his face. It was hard to keep my eyes open. I handed him my license, but I don’t think he’d asked for it yet. He looked at it for awhile, glancing up at me a few times. I’d actually forgotten that I was a fugitive. He was just about to say something when there was yelling from the next bay over, where the car that had been in front of us was being searched. Some dogs had started barking and it sounded like an argument had begun.

“We got something!” someone shouted.

The guard at our car turned to look at what was going on. Several more guards were running to the scene. The guard handed my license to Julie and said, “You folks have a nice time in Mexico.” But he wasn’t even looking at us anymore; he’d already stepped away from the car and started over to help his colleagues.

“That’s funny,” I said, as Julie slowly pulled away from the border station and out of the United States. “Who would smuggle drugs INTO Mexico?”

And that’s the last thing I remember.



Last

When I woke up Julie was holding my hand. I was in a small hospital room. There was a funny taste in my mouth.

“Where am I?” I asked.

“Mexico,” Julie said. “I had to use some of Mary’s money to bribe some doctors, but they said you’ll be okay. They got the bullet out, but you lost a lot of blood.”

I tried to sit up, but it hurt too much. “Good work,” I said, easing back onto the pillow. I asked for a glass of water and while Julie poured from a pitcher by the bed I thought of something I’d written the day before Anne had been killed: “…lives stained by blood are forever intertwined.” I smiled at Julie and she smiled back, a little sadly, it seemed. She looked tired and much older than that day I’d seen her at the Mission. I thought she was beautiful. We talked for a bit and she told me that Jimmy would be okay; it was just the tip of his little finger. I said that I figured she’d saved my life at least a couple times over. She replied that she thought we were about even, but I knew that wasn’t right. I noticed that she’d brought my bag in and I asked if she could hand me my cell phone. She dug around and found it. I only listened to the last message, from Ruben:

“Tom, the cops know you didn’t do it. I’d say you only did what had to be done. I don’t know where you are, but they’re still after you for killing that guy and taking off, so you better stay gone. By the way, I went to the Albuquerque airport to get my truck back, and as I was backing out of the parking spot the front wheel fell off.” He laughed and when he spoke again his voice sounded far-off and sad: “Hey, man, I hope to hear from you some day. I don’t know when or how, but try to get in touch. Take care.” The message ended and I replayed it for Julie.

“He sounds like a good friend,” she said.

“Yeah, I hope you get to meet him sometime.”

I was in the hospital for three days and on the fourth I was discharged. It was hard to walk and I still couldn’t take a deep breath without considerable pain. Julie and I went outside and Jimmy came across the street to meet us, still limping a little. He had a clean, white bandage wrapped around his right hand and the cuts and bruises on his face were lightening. He and Julie must’ve gone shopping because he was dressed in bright new clothes that were distinctly Mexican. He thanked me and began to apologize but I told him to forget it, that nobody owed anybody anything. Of course, it was I that owed them everything. I asked what we were going to do next and Jimmy said that they’d bought three tickets to Los Mochis that morning. No one had asked me if I’d wanted to go; they didn’t have to. The bus station wasn’t far and we waited on a bench outside, our bags at our feet. Jimmy held the cash, now in a small suitcase and totaling just less than $22,000, on his lap. Julie told me that after I’d come out of surgery she’d driven around looking for somewhere to park the Jag. She’d left the keys inside and the windows open. I hated to see that car go, but I knew she’d done the right thing; it would be stripped or smashed or lit on fire by now, gone without a trace. I dropped my cell phone in the garbage can next to the bench.

When it was time to board the bus Jimmy went ahead of us. I could see sorrow and happiness and more in Julie’s face as she took my hand and helped me up the stairs. We hadn’t really talked about what had happened back there in the desert and we would have to, for her sake, but not yet. She was sitting next to me, still holding my hand, when the bus pulled away. She told me that she was going to write Mary soon to let her know we were okay. She felt bad about the money. I looked over at Jimmy in the seat across the aisle; he was resting his head against the window, his eyes closed, the suitcase of bills wedged tightly between him and the side of the bus. I figured we’d have to keep moving from here on out. But it didn’t feel like running. I squeezed Julie’s hand. My story was getting better. THE END



The top shot was taken somewhere near Mammoth, AZ, just before 77 meets the harrowing Highway 60. The remaining three photos are from Mission San Xavier del Bac, just outside of Tucson, AZ.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the Story, J. Option the screenplay!

Jmhouse said...

Hey, thanks for sticking with it over the last few...months. And I am willing to consider offers from the motion picture industry. Please contact my agent.

Anonymous said...

Very good story - I looked forward to reading it each week, I'll miss it, actually...

Story Blook said...

Very good JM House! I don't want to tell you what to do, but you really should continue fiction because you do it so well.