I was sitting at the table – belly warm and full of booze – when at first I heard the gentle rapping, a slow and even rap-tap-tapping, like the clash of midnight tides against the moor. That sound came followed by a creaking, a forced and steady creak-eak-eaking, which set the kitchen door slow-grinding on its lures.
I pushed the pen aside now, steered my chair back from the table; crept down low into the bedroom, both eyes ready-trained upon that door … still steady and slow-grinding on its lures.
The door came to a rest now; a burly brute by the name of Junior standing steadfast in its wake.
Junior gave the place a quick once-over, stopped cold dead upon my silhouette, cutting hard against the bedroom window. He shuffled clean across the kitchen tiles, came down heavy on the mattress.
“What’s goin’ on?” the burly brute did say, his voice gone ripe and sour with nicotine and beer.
“Look, man, I was actually kind of sleeping when you came in, so …”
“Oh, nah, nah, nah … that’s cool,” Junior insisted, both palms held out wide in mock surrender. “I just wanted to see if I could grab myself a glass of water. I been drinkin’ at The Pop, y’see. And my mouth, it’s dry as fuck, my man.”
I tossed the bedsheets to the left now, made a beeline for the kitchen, where Junior poured himself a glass of water, took a seat about the table.
“I know what it is you must be thinkin’,” the burly brute, he then did say. “You must be thinkin’, This black motherfucker, he probably come all the way back up here tonight to rape me or rob me or kill me or some shit.”
“Actually, I was thinking now that I’m awake again, I might as well have myself another beer,” I said, as I cracked one pounder open, tossed another off to Junior.
I took a seat across the table, pushed my copybook aside. Then I set about the business of determining just how long the two of us might wait before either man offered something – anything, really – that wasn’t utter bullshit.
Junior was a shady fucker … shady and stubborn as a full-grown oak … and built like one as well, cursed with the wide and sloping features of a Texas armadillo.
Junior had rugged pores the size of potholes running deep along his nose, busted capillaries hanging low beneath slack-jaundiced eyes. Junior had ground-in layers of dirt filling the gaps between each fingernail – open sores along both arms boasting evidence of malnutrition.
I had only met the burly brute a few hours prior, when he arrived at our apartment as the uninvited guest of a freckle-faced import named Howie.
Howie hailed from Lancaster. And he’d spent the bulk of his first few weeks in Wildwood trying to convince the island faithful just how rough-and-tumble the Amish Country was – a widely vague and fruitless venture that eventually culminated in Howie being arrested on charges of Public Drunkenness and Class B Vandalism (a misdemeanor).
Howie was a turnip tramp, for lack of any better way of putting it … a stone-cold rube, who revered fast-talking con men for their unbridled willingness to perform black-market miracles … if only so in word, but not so much in deed. Fast-talking con men, on the other hand, revered Lancaster Howie for his unbridled willingness to believe every bullshit word they said. Howie was like the Fox Mulder of wide-eyed marks … green and prickly as a fresh square of turf; rash and irritating as a bad patch of vine … yet unyieldingly compromised by the fact he wanted to believe so badly.
Within minutes of first encountering Junior outside of a boardwalk arcade, Howie decided it’d be a good idea for the two of them to wander off and have a drink together. A half hour later, the awkward duo arrived upon my doorstep – Howie proud and pompous as a peacock, literally touting the street-wise benefits of gallivanting around town with an honest-to-goodness negro.
Junior, meanwhile, had already begun to make the bold transition from one unwitting host onto another. The burly brute was going completely out of his way to reinforce how much he admired the quaint feel of my apartment, the sonic depth of my palette, and the overall cut of my gib. All of which might explain how it was Junior came to be sitting in my kitchen well past 2 am on a Friday … not-so-subtly sizing me up over a pair of Keystone pounders.
“Yo, cuz, you just tell me what you need and I’ll go see if I can’t put my hands on it for you.”
This was the first thing Junior said to me, as the two of us settled into drinking at my kitchen table.
“I’m good, thanks,” I replied, all the while angling to get a read on what exactly Junior’s end game might be here.
“So tell me: What kind of merchandise do you have access to, specifically?” I asked, more out of sheer curiosity than any real-world manner of buying interest.
“Fuck, man, like I said,” Junior responded, pulling his chair in to the table. “TV, radio, stereo equipment. You like video games? Hell, yeah, you like video games. I know that’s right. I noticed you got yourself one of them Nintendo shits way on back there in the corner.”
Junior motioned toward the bedroom with his finger, referencing a Sega Genesis that was balanced high atop a black-and-white TV set on my bureau. I swiveled my chair slightly, acknowledged the console without smiling.
“You mind if I ask you a question?” I said.
“I’m pretty sure you just did,” Junior shot back, laughing.
“No, seriously,” I said.
Junior crossed his arms, fell back heavy in his chair.
“What?” he said, with a shrug.
“Where do you obtain all of your merchandise?” I said.
“Oh, c’mon, man,” Junior said, dismissing me with a wave of his hand.
“No, seriously,” I insisted, realizing I had struck a nerve. “I’m interested. I wanna know.”
“You interested in buying?” Junior asked, impatiently.
“I’m interested in knowing,” I replied, flatly.
“Aw, c’mon,” Junior said, wood-stained eyes now climbing the walls. “Where do anybody get their merchandise from, y’know what I’m sayin’?”
I did not.
“Depends,” I replied. “A wholesale distributor, a manufacturer, maybe even a retail outlet, assuming the buyer can still maintain a decent profit margin.”
“Yeah, well, let’s just say I got that whole profit margin thing pretty steadily sewn up,” Junior boasted, a seething spit-shine smile broadcast wide across his face.
I was clocking every movement now, eager to spot some kind of tell.
It was because of this I first noticed the overwhelming stench of kerosene and pine. The scent was hanging downwind and pungent – like the steaming interior of a 1973 Maverick – over the entire length of our table.
I mean, it had to be Junior, right?
And yet, the burly brute showed absolutely no outward sign of either agent.
He was decked out in a plain-white T with razor creases off the sleeve, worn over a fresh pair of gravedigger jeans and a matching set of work boots, knotted twice across the shank.
“My brother drives a truck,” the burly brute then said, as he packed a box of Newports on his thigh.
“Huh?” I said.
“My brother,” Junior repeated. “He works shipments on a warehouse truck way down there by the Delaware.”
“Uh-huh,” I said, all the while establishing the long, pronounced drag as my own covert tell.
“You asked,” Junior said.
“I don’t understand.”
“My brother,” Junior said, a slight hint of frustration now marking his tone. “He works down on a truck.”
Cigarette slow-burning down to ash and cotton.
“Sometimes shit falls off the truck, y’know?” Junior insisted, reaching clear across the table for my lighter. “Anyway, I get the bulk of my full shipments from my brother.”
Silence. Cold-staring. Junior chain-lighting another.
“Thanks a lot for the water and the Keystone,” the burly brute then said. He stood up from the table, eased his chair against the wall. “That shit, it did me right, y’know?”
With that, Junior disappeared out the door and down the steps, presumably en route to the center of town, where the Holly Beach bars were still open and pouring.
It wasn’t until several minutes later I realized that rancid fucker had just made off with my jet-black pocket lighter in-hand.
“I’m going to sleep.”
This is what I said to Junior, only moments after finding him crouched low behind my kitchen door at approximately the same time the following night.
He’d been rap-tap-tapping for the better part of two minutes now.
“Oh, nah, nah, nah … that’s cool,” Junior once again assured me, rising up to look me in the eye. “I was just thinkin’ maybe the two of us could have another beer together or somethin’ … y’know, talk a little … kind of like the two of us both did last night. That shit was tight, man.”
“Look, I’m not doing any drinking tonight,” I said. “I just got home from work about an hour ago and I need to be right back there again at 11 o’clock tomorrow morning. So I really need to ask you to be on your way now, if it’s not too much trouble.”
“How bout I just hit you up for a quick beer or two?” Junior insisted, now physically holding the door wide open with his arm. “I’ll take ’em with me for the road, I swear.”
“Fine,” I said, reluctantly. “I’ll give you one beer. But you really need to take that shit and go. No kidding. I’m unbelievably tired, man. Mostly because I was up until 3 am last night hobnobbing with you.”
“That’s cool,” the burly brute then replied, wrenching both hands as if the two of us were fixing to loot the 6:50 to Euston.
By the time I doubled back to dole out Junior’s beer, that rancid fucker had somehow managed to slither unseen into the kitchen, where he now sat occupying the very same chair he had been less than 24 hours prior.
“I know what it is you’re probably thinkin’,” the burly brute then did say. “You’re probably thinkin’, Now, this coked-up nigger, he’s probably gonna shoot my sorry ass stone-dead or some shit like that, right? Right? Only you ain’t even got shit to worry about, son, cause I ain’t even brought no iron back up in this bitch with me tonight, y’dig?”
As if to reassure me, Junior lifted his plain T-shirt, exposing a skin-tight, gray and empty waistband.
“Look, man,” I replied, cutting Junior off before he got started. “It really doesn’t make any difference to me what it is you might or might not be packing. The only thing that does make a difference to me at this particular moment is that you understand why it is you cannot keep wandering over here in the middle of night like this. It simply isn’t right, y’know?”
“Oh, right,” Junior said, somewhat taken aback. “I understand. Cause now you’re thinkin’ if your neighbors were to see some big ole’ black motherfucker sneakin’ his way up the back stairs every night, they’d probably set to wonderin’ what the fuck it was the two of you was up to back here.”
“Actually, no,” I said. “That’s not it at a … “
“You probably feelin’ just like that Bill Mer-ry motherfucker did in that groundhog movie, right?” Junior wondered aloud, laughing. “Me poppin’ all the way back up here every goddamned night like it was déjà vu all over again or some sorry shit like that, right?”
“More like Ebineezer Scrooge,” I said.
“More like who?” Junior said.
“No one,” I said. “Nothing.”
“You a pot guy?” Junior asked, as he watched me flick my ash stone-dead into a seashell. “Yeah, you a pot guy … I can see that shit in your eyes, bro.”
“Pot makes me fall asleep,” I said, left cheek now resting on my fist.
“Oh, right,” Junior said, after considering this for a moment. “How bout coke? You a coke guy? Yeah, you a coke guy … I can see that shit in the way you always bouncin’ off the walls and shit, bro.”
“Coke makes me stay awake,” I said, all the while considering what Junior’s reaction might be if I informed him there was an antique-olive suitcase full of drugs burrowed deep inside a pantry closet less than two feet from his chair.
“I’m just sayin’,” Junior was just sayin’, “cause I can definitely put my hands on some of that shit for you if you want me to, is all.”
“Got it,” I said, before wandering across the table to weight-gauge Junior’s pounder.
“Time to go,” I insisted, wandering fast to hold the kitchen door wide open.
“Aw, c’mon, man,” Junior said, still clinging to his chair.
“C’mon, nothing,” I said, pointing off toward the porch. “Go. Seriously. I’m not kidding.
You’re really out of line here, man.”
“Fine,” Junior said, his head hung low in defeat. “Is it cool if I grab myself another pounder for the road?”
“Grab it and go,” I replied, staring hard down at the tiles. “And no more late-night visits,” I quickly added, as Junior raced toward the fridge.
No more late-night visits, you pocketful-of-rainbows motherfucker.
The third night damp heavens rained down hard along the promenade, forcing die-hard tourists to either toe the awning line or take dry shelter inside the arcades.
As a result of this, Meghan and I were both let out of work early … a fortunate turn of events which allowed us to join several co-workers at a house party down along East 18th, where we drank beer, played cards, and settled in to watch John Paxson shoot the lights out on the Phoenix Suns.
I wandered home alone along the promenade that night – a new moon shining high above black-diamond tides. These were gorgeous, open-air evenings all along the promenade … ocean gales wreaking havoc on steel flagpoles and stiff joints. It was a pristine state of affairs, really … highly reminiscent of Vonnegut’s assertion that he could always achieve a blank and shining serenity if only he could reach the very edge of a natural body of water.
And so it goes.
I do not remember much about what happened once I got back to the apartment that night … only that I made myself a gigantic peanut butter and jelly sandwich, which I saw fit to carry along with me up the dark and winding wooden staircase that led to Bobbi Jean’s bedroom.
The two of us were getting along much better now, having put behind us the slow and even strain that occurred during our first month of cohabitation. I’m fairly certain we engaged in some level of discourse that evening, although I could not tell you for the life of me what that level of discourse might have been.
What I can tell you is that the following morning I awoke to the shrill and urgent sound of Bobbi Jean calling out to me from the kitchen.
“What the fuck, Bob?” Bobbi Jean inquired, as I emerged from my bedroom with a palette full of jelly smeared across my torso. “Did you murder a giant grape last night or something?”
“Umm, no,” I replied, still wiping spare grains of sleep out of my eyes.
Bobbi Jean went on to question me about a non-stop trail of jam, which led backward from my bedroom, through the kitchen, then all the way up the dark and winding wooden staircase, where it came to an abrupt and unfortunate end inside the canvas sole of Bobbi Jean’s plain-white work shoe.
“And how many fucking times do I need to ask you not to leave the apartment door wide open when you’re the last one to go sleep at night?” Bobbi Jean very justifiably asked.
That was when my general malaise gave way to panic, and I took a quick inventory of the apartment, only to discover a dual-cassette player had suddenly gone missing from my bedroom, along with the Sega Genesis console that had previously been stationed high atop the black-and-white TV set on my bureau.
There were no blatant signs of an intruder, nor plain evidence of forced entry – only a non-stop trail of jelly, leading clear across the kitchen tiles, and one jet-black pocket lighter, positioned upright on the table.
(Moving On is a regular feature on IFB)