stevie trouble

  fish stew poems

  if it quacks

  vaginas

  pro-ogeny

 
 

The Trouble With Stevie

A novel of intrigue and murder most foul.

By Kat McElroy


Chapter One: The Trouble Begins

Thinking has always been dangerous for me. For years I was told I had a drinking problem and then I got sober and found out I had a thinking problem. My head's like a bad neighborhood and no one should go in there alone. Between the cobwebs of old grudges and the firestorms of bad ideas, there isn't much room for anything even closely resembling sanity. This is probably why I have always been happiest beading or weaving or doing any other kind of mindless repetitious work. It's the closest I ever get to meditative states, when the rest of me is busily preoccupied with some immediate task at hand and my head just shuts the fuck up. Old Ma used to say Idle Hands Are The Devil's Playground and I believe today that she was closer to the truth than even she realized. When my hands are busy I don't have to listen to the shit factory at work between my ears.


Which is why I am so happy today. All hell is popping and the cash register is playing my favorite tune and I think maybe we'll be able to keep the place open another week. Thank you god. There were people waiting to get in at 6AM when I unlocked the doors this morning and they have been stumbling in steadily ever since. So long as I am pouring coffee, cooking eggs, cleaning toilets and trying to find another ticket book, I get a break from having to pay attention to the machine-gun of my own mind. My gratitude list is short. I am glad that I don't have to hang out in my head.


Old Elsie hit the door first and for a skinny thing that can't be five feet tall she sure can make a racket. "You're late!" she screeched in my face.


"I know," I replied. "Cross town traffic, ya should have seen the mess at Airport and Richardson where it turns into Steese. Something must have been the matter with the light, it was stuck on red in all four directions,"


She just grunted at me and began pouring sugar into the coffee I set in front of her at our smallest table in front of the window that looks out onto the infamous Two Street.


"Well, I could have frozen my ass off out there waiting for you, ya know?" she said, as she stirred the sugar down and then took a long slurping sip of that scalding brew. Hot coffee is our specialty and our customers demand that it be HOT hot.


Elsie always snaps and snarls, she knows no other way to speak. Thirty years of living on the streets has taught her this if nothing else: she who yelps loudest gets heard most. I have listened to her for years and she uses that same roaring tone of voice whether she is describing a fight she witnessed or asking for a light for her cigarette.


Mack was right behind her and he wanted tea and toast. He never eats the toast but he makes quite a mess with it and manages to get crumbs all over in a five foot perimeter around his table, the far corner where he can keep his back to the wall and his eye on the door and the rest of the room. Mack pretty much lives at my restaurant. I joke that he came with the place. He was poking his nose in while we were still sheet-rocking the walls and painting, and he's been bossing me around ever since.



Second Street Way Station our sign out front proclaims, but the place has been called Tundra Mug since the first day we opened the doors. We are nothing if not punny around here. Tundra Mug is a bi-level play on words, a thunder mug being Alaskan bush talk for a pee jar or chamber potty, the tundra part comes in because our clientele are by and large displaced bush folk or villagers here for a quick or extended visit to the big city of Fairbanks, congregating at my restaurant for what's called a Mug-up, that being a cup of coffee or tea and a chat, with whomever.


Our specialties are soup and stew, fried eggs with greasy potatoes, fry bread with jam and butter, coffee or endless pots of tea, plain food for plain people, cheap and fast but all made fresh from real scratch. We get the stray tourist on occasion but we cater to the habitués of Two Street in the core downtown area which, while on the Historical Walking Tour and within spitting distance of the Visitor's Center, is a typical inner-city district, looking sad and run-down, abandoned by the capitalists who have moved away to malls that continue to spring up like growths on the spreading outskirts of Our Fair City.


In essence, our customers are drunks, street people, the elderly and handicapped residents from the two subsidized housing apartment complexes within walking distance and an endless stream of villagers, mostly Native, who have found a home away from home at Tundra Mug and return faithfully every time they come to town. We are a social center as much as a coffee shop and every week I wonder how we will manage to stay open. While our tables are usually at least half full, or half empty if you're a pessimist, mostly they are occupied with what I call Sitters, nursing their oversize mugs of tea or coffee, reading the newspaper, working the crossword puzzle, gossiping or just sitting and waiting to see who will come in next.



Tundra Mug is a 900 square foot hole-in-the-wall cafe tucked into the corner of what was one of Fairbanks first skyscrapers, all five stories tall, built in the late 50's in an architectural style that can only be described as Frontier Fraudulent. With a fake red brick facade that long ago began to crack and chip away, leaving behind an interesting pattern of black streaky stains where rainwater and snowmelt collect and continue the gradual process of disintegration, I often imagine that someday soon the entire structure will collapse in on itself. The ground floor has an opulent lobby, if phony marble floors and battered brass spittoons is your idea of elegance. Threadbare rugs and ratty couches and overstuffed chairs add to the aura of gentle decay. There is a liquor store, a Smoke Shop, a Korean tailor, a Pull Tab parlor, and a what-not market on the ground floor which cater to the residents of the 24 meager apartments in the upper four floors. Named the Wright Building after the original owner, it has changed hands several times in the past 40 years and is now owned by a property management company in Anchorage and managed by a grumpy old coot named, aptly, Hazard.



I opened the place a year ago, on a song and a prayer, with a grand total of two thousand dollars working capital which paid one month's rent and got the walls in place. The tables and serving-ware came from second-hand stores and it pleases me to death that none of them match. Hazard was so tickled to have a tenant after the space had stood empty for fully five years that he even went so far as to give me a lease agreement allowing me to float the monthly rent during January and February, which are the slowest months each winter, letting me play catch up during March when the North American Classic dog sled races and the Native Corporation meetings bring hundreds of villagers to town, most of whom end up at our place for meals and chit chat and the cash register starts ringing up double digit sales again.


I was told by several well-meaning Concerned Others that I would lose my ass trying to run a restaurant downtown. But, so far we have been able to hold our own. I am far from getting rich, I am not even what ya could call comfortable. I am tit-tied to the place, which is open seven days a week, six in the morning till eight at night, a killer schedule. I have two part-time employees which lets me get out for a couple hours each afternoon during the Dead Zone between two and five. Promise ya won't rat me off, my two alleged employees are working for tips only, like I can't afford to pay them and I can't afford to buy workman's comp insurance, either. This is where democracy goes too far and turns good citizens into bad criminals.


One of my food servers is a 32 year old welfare mother with an eight year old son. She is about six months sober and hanging onto her wits by the skin of her teeth; now, THERE'S a mixed metaphor. Her name is Tara and she used to work cocktails at a club downtown and run dope. And now she's living in a dinky little hovel over in public housing and wondering day to day if she's gonna make the bills. She's grateful to work for tips, it gives her an edge on the finances and frankly I think she is glad to have her daytime hours filled while her son is in school. Tara just showed up one morning and drank coffee with me all day, pouring her doubts and fears about being able to stay sober out to me, just because she knew I was sober and have been for a few 24 hours, I guess.


She popped in the next day and continued picking my brain and bouncing the pieces of her old life and her new life off me while I took orders, cooked, rang out customers. She washed up the dishes after the lunch rush and was happy to take home some left-over bean soup that I knew I could not re-run another day. She picked up the order pad one noon about three days later and has been a daily fixture ever since. She's fast and fairly friendly but I can see how scared she is, doing a straight job, trying to act like a regulation citizen after years of running wild.



My other food server, evenings, is a 12 year old girl who lives in one of the apartments upstairs. Her momma works in the Bingo Hall and if it weren't for the restaurant, that kid would be parked in front of the TV six nights a week, I bet. As it is, she sits at the front table and does her homework and has learned how to be a pretty good waitress, better than a lot I've worked with, anyway. She has a good attitude except for a disconcerting habit of muttering, "Oh shit!" under her breath when we get more than two customers at once, which happens several times a night, I am glad to report.



We have a dinner rush between six and eight and the place fills up pretty fast and if it weren't for my little friend Jamie I would be hard-pressed to cook and serve meals as well as operate the cash register and bounce the drunks when they get unruly, which HAS to happen at least once a night, kinda like high-tide or something. Jamie is sort of like Mack, she showed up opening day and has been here ever since except for one or two evenings a month when she goes over to her Grandma's house to visit. Actually, I think she goes over to Grandma's to clean house, go grocery shopping, do laundry, help out around the place in general, and this is probably good. She's a nice kid, smart as hell and oddly polite. I don't mean to imply that I think all adolescents are monsters but I tell ya it never ceases to amaze me the things that come out of kid's mouths these days, which only goes to show that I am turning into one of those middle-aged dinosaurs, I guess. But, every time I hear some 13 year old kid say Stick It In Your Ear, or worse, to an adult, I flinch inside just to think what would have happened if I tried that action with the adults in my life when I was that age. We thought that stuff but we never said it 'til we were safely out of arm's reach and ear shot.



Jamie spent her tips like a drunken sailor the first couple of weeks here. She had been helping out in the back, doing dishes and helping prep food and I had been paying her in meals which was fine with her and with her Mama, who apparently never cooks. She started taking orders and delivering food kinda casual, once in a while, but after a month or so I could pretty much depend on her wandering in about five o'clock and I knew she was hooked when she began to wrap one of our bright red aprons on as soon as she hit the back door and ask, "What's the special tonight?" not for her own information but so she could memorize it and spit it out when our customers asked, which they always do even though all that information is always written on the Special Board right by the front door where everybody can see it when they first walk in, but no one ever looks.


That baffled Jamie. "How come they never read the board?" she asked me, a step up from Tara, who asked 'em right to their faces, "It's there on the board, jeez, can't ya read?" several times before I could convince her that answering seemingly stupid questions is often the better part of a food server's job description. "Dumb looks, free," we always add.



I told Jamie, "Probably they ask so they can establish some kinda human contact with ya, like knowing your name, it's no big deal." But, I was a bit more brusque with Tara, telling her, "Never underestimate the ignorance of the customers. Never assume that they know what 's going on. And, never forget that they expect you to be patient even when they are not." Food service is different from running drinks. A bar crowd enjoys a snappy comeback to stupid questions. But, in a hash house, like ours, ya gotta just about be everyone's Mama which is pretty funny when the food server is twelve. Jamie has a good knack with people and doesn't get her feathers ruffled nearly as often as Tara.



One night we had a grumpy old fellow that snapped at Jamie, "What are ya, a re-tard, or something?" the third time she asked him if he needed cream for the coffee refills she kept pouring for him. "I said No Cream, that means No Cream. Can't ya get that through your thick skull?" he said, rattling the pages of the sports section and rearranging his considerable backside on the chair.



"Well, what do I know? Ya might change your mind." Jamie replied. "My Mom does all the time. She always wants milk in her coffee after dinner but drinks it black before that."



I gotta admit, I was proud as punch of her that night. That's when I figured she might stick around here and I started talking to her about saving some of her tips so she would have something to show for her work. She had been dumping them into the till at the Smokeshop down the hall every day, buying candy and magazines and renting videos and treating her friends to popsicles and like that, easy come, easy go. I could tell that she had never had any kind of steady supply of cash because all she knew how to do with it was to spend it just as fast as ever she got her hands on it.



"Jamie, look at this," I told her, handing her a large mayonnaise jar I had just washed and rinsed and wiped dry. "I think ya oughta start putting some part of your tips away every night, like a piggy bank, to save 'em up."


"Why 'n' hell would I want to do that?" she asked me with that blank frankness that disappears in most kids by the time they are about eight. She was chewing on a wad of bubble-gum about half again as big as her mouth and she reeked of artificial berry flavor which smells rotten to me.


"Well, for one thing, it probably isn't good for ya to eat that much candy and junk every day. For another thing, your little friends are taking advantage of ya. They spend your money as fast as ya get it and that isn't fair, I don't think. When is the last time one of them bought you a package of gum or a Klondyke Bar?" I began, gratified to see her cock her head to one side and cease chewing on her gum, the better to listen to me. "For another thing, it might be interesting for you to see how much money ya could save up. You'll be surprised, ya know. In a couple of weeks, ya'll have a hundred bucks, I bet. Ya could buy something nice for yourself or your Mama or maybe ya might even want to put it in the bank, save it up for some big ticket item."



"Like what?" she asked me, suspicion just wafting from her clouded gray eyes.



"Well, kiddo, I don't know. Didn't I hear ya say that ya want to get a color TV, that ya hate the black and white set ya watch at home and want to get a big color set like your Grandma has? Ya could probably save up enough to buy one in a couple of months, by the end of summer, anyway," my voice trailed off. She looked at me like maybe I was from outer space or something.



"Can kids really buy TV's?" she asked me and I was a bit taken aback. I always forget about the framework of children. I forget that they aren't just little adults. They act so worldly and competent on one hand and then they just floor me when I realize how naive they actually are, in the greater scheme of things.



"Well, sure they can. If they have the money. And, if their Mama's or Daddy's or whoever doesn't mind."



I watched her chew on this a little bit, the same as her mouth had been working on that gum, now her brain was working on bringing up an image of a kid walking into Fred Meyer's and plunking four hundred bucks down on the counter to buy a TV. I knew that she was seeing stacks of wrinkled one dollar bills, too, as that's how most our tips come to us.



We had gone round and round in circles about the importance of flattening them out and turning them all right-side up in the cash register drawer, George Washington facing east, towards the wall. Jamie had been resistant at first to that notion, and pulled a complete blank when I explained to her that the bank expects the money to be sorted and arranged in order, rubber-banded into bundles of twenty-five, every afternoon when I did the banking. She had finally acquiesced and done it my way, when I told her that if she didn't I wouldn't be able to let her operate the till any more. I know that was dirty pool. Operating the cash register was much more an attraction even than getting to wear the Way Station apron and serving food and hanging orders and ringing the little bell on the food window counter when she was putting an order up.


I could see all these thoughts flickering across her face as she imagined herself bringing home a big color TV. "Cool!" she said, an expression I just hate because it says Nothing, but I knew she meant, Wow, as in What A Concept, and she started shoving all of her wrinkled ones into the jar that very night and went right away to the other far extreme, refusing to spend a penny of her hard-earned tips. After a couple of weeks her tip jar was full and I helped her separate and sort the bills and her Mama took her to the bank to start a savings account. She about burst with her own cleverness and she took incredible glee watching her bank balance mount weekly.



She bought a TV, just like that, which about shocked Mama to death, as Mama has a bit of a gambling habit. Between Bingo and the Pull-Tabs, she never has two bucks to rub together and I don't know whether Jamie or her Mama was more surprised when Jamie brought that TV home. Now, she doesn't know what she might be saving for, a trip Outside to visit her other Grandma, or maybe a snow machine, or maybe towards college. She's got the savings bug, bad, and won't hardly turn loose of a quarter anymore, for which I am grateful as I hated the five pack a day bubble gum jones, the drooling and smacking of that stuff and the odor. Every time I watch Jamie work, I think that maybe there is some kinda hope.


I don't know why I am telling you all this. I really want to write about Stevie and about the mess that happened last winter. But along with having a serious thinking problem, I have also been cursed with being a wordy bitch. I can't ever just stick to the facts at hand. But the story about Stevie won't make any sense if you don't have all the background information and I guess that every other extraneous circumstance will have to be waded through, too, if I am to relate the mess that happened to Stevie and how Elsie found God and why my friend Clancey never comes through this joint without I try to feed him and what happened to the mysterious briefcase. It all began with Stevie but like everything else in my life so far, it got complicated before I could figure out the important stuff and find a way to understand it all so that it makes sense to me.

 

The Trouble With Stevie(Page 2)

You see, Stevie is one of those lost souls that the average citizen tries real hard not to notice, walking way around 'em if need be, and pulling their little kids back by the scuff of the neck if their natural curiosity gets the better of them and they try to get a closer look. Some people would say that Stevie is crazy, and maybe he is. He's kinda scary, that's for sure. He's got no teeth, for one thing, and never has ever since I met him ten years ago and he wasn't that old then, barely out of his teens. Stevie is Native, Athabascan, Half A Gas Can he calls himself. But, that isn't what makes him look crazy and dangerous. His blue-black hair sticks up all wild and tangled. He cuts it off himself or burns it off or something, who knows. Sometimes he wears it twisted up in a topknot like a Hindu fakir but more often it tumbles down in matted tendrils.

Stevie could be described as a wino, I guess, but that word always conjures up images of old men in tattered clothes guzzling out of brown paper sack wrapped bottles. Wine is sure enough Stevie's drug of choice, due to it's being legal for one thing and pretty much universally available, at least as long as the liquor store's open and around here that's just about all the time. But, Stevie is a new generation of street drunk and he likes all the other chemicals, too, acid and crack and crank. "Whatever the fuck you got, that's my drug of choice!" he spat out one night much to the disgruntlement of a reporter who was interviewing a group of street kids for a human interest piece in our local newspaper. Quotes like that never make it into print but Stevie did get his picture in the segment, looking like a menace to society in his balloon trousers and tie-dyed tee shirt, a Mexican woven scarf wrapped around his Medusa hair-do. He carried that picture folded up in his back pocket until it disintegrated, his fifteen minutes of fame immortalized.
Stevie's been arrested too many times to count but he isn't a criminal, not like the career criminals with their jail-house tattoos and fuck-you looks. He disappears every so often and we all know he's in the clink again, for pissing in public or taking a little nap in the middle of the street or shop-lifting a pack of smokes. When he gets out he looks cleaner and has put on a little weight but in less time than it takes to say it he's back to skin and bones and has a patina of filth again. Sometimes when he drops out of sight it's because he's in detox. The Spin-Dry, he calls it, another little pit-stop in his race with death, and when he shows up once more he'll have a new suit of clothes courtesy of Salvation Army. The trousers are always ten sizes too large as if he was afraid he might strangle in clothes if they actually fit, and he picks bright flowered shirts or paisley prints that leap up and assault your eyeballs from across the street.

"You're so lucky," he told me once, "You got to be there in the Sixties when people were rioting and life in the streets was still cool." I don't know what pipeline he got that information from. My recollection was that the pepper gas stung like hell and it was chilly in the morning after sleeping in alleys and under bushes. But, he's got some kind of fantasy ideal of the Revolution stuck in his head and refuses to be disabused of those ideas. "Jim Morrison, man, John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix. Light my fire, light my fire, light my fire," he said, spinning away while jamming on an air guitar.

"The cops cracked our heads with billy clubs and stacked us up like cord wood in the paddy wagons," I tried to explain.

"Yeah. Cool. Fucking with the system. Right on!" he replied.

So, you see, Stevie obviously doesn't play with a full deck. As he wasn't even born yet when Jim and Jimi and Janis died and was still just a baby-boy adolescent in the village when Lennon ate the Big One. I will never understand his fascination with those bad old days and nothing I could say will ever change his vision of what that must have been like. I don't know why I have always been so fond of him. Maybe because he is around the age my son would have been. Maybe because he is a poet at heart and spews rhymes as often as bile and vomit. A lot of what he says makes sense in a sort of twisted illogical way and almost never fails to bring a smile to my lips no matter how stern I try to be with him.

I had to bounce him out of my place one night when he was being particularly disruptive, which he usually doesn't do. He was drunker than usual or was messed up behind some lethal cocktail of other chemicals and started spouting nonsense about aliens from outer space coming down and eating his brain.

"Come on, Stevie, time to go for a little walk," I told him, taking him by the arm and pulling him up onto his feet to lead him quietly to the door.

"Rule number one," he shouted, "No having fun. Rule number two, see rule number one. Having broken the one, I have perforce offended the other. And, in that doing, we see, have forfeited rights to the Mother!" This is a kid that never got past seventh grade. He reads a wide variety of books, soaking up weird, however, and I can't help it, I think he's funny. It makes me sad to see him wasting his life the way he does but I always try to remember how many corpses I must have left in my wake, gaping and reeling. I always think someday he's gonna straighten up, you know, and fly right.

He often sits at the very back table and will eat a bowl of soup thick with crushed crackers, sometimes nodding out in the process. Once he fell smack asleep right into his bowl and startled Jamie something fierce when she tried to waken him, snorting and snuffling rather like a pig at the trough.

So, the trouble with Stevie all started on a day like any other day, last November, with a pool of blood on the sidewalk in front when I came in to open the place, already frozen into the grimy gray snow and ice that turns our walkways into major obstacle courses each year from freeze-up in September to break-up in May. "I wonder what that's all about," I muttered to myself, stepping around the gore, knowing that I would hear all the details before an hour was out.

Fairbanks is a small town and our neighborhood in particular is just a tiny village dropped into the middle of an urban sprawl. I unlocked the front door, flipped the Open sign in the window, turned on the lights, propped the back door open and put a pot of coffee on to brew, my usual morning routine, tasks that center me for the day ahead.

Sure enough, Nettie and Elsie were right behind me and sat down like Queens at the big window table and started clinking spoons against their empty mugs.

"Coffee's making, I'll be right out," I hollered from the service window while putting a big pot of potatoes on to boil and wrestling my largest soup kettle into place on the back burner. My kitchen is not much bigger than a postage stamp, making some tasks difficult, I know, especially if there's another human being trying to squeeze into the walkway between the stoves and the sinks. But it is cozy and everything is within a two-step radius, keeping life simple in the back of the house. When I set the kitchen up, I was pleased. No wasted motion, everything is within an easy arm's reach.

"Henry James got shot last night." Elsie informed me, almost gleefully as I stepped out of the kitchen and into the dining room, coffee pot in one hand, cream pitcher in the other. She is like the Greek Chorus, the bearer of bad tidings and prophet of doom and gloom.

I filled their mugs. "Really?" I asked. "Shot dead, you mean?" seeing in my mind the frozen red at the doorway as I had walked in and thinking, I am loath to admit, of the immediate concern to me. If Henry James is dead, this would result in a considerable loss of income for Tundra Mug. Henry is not only a daily customer, but he loves to play the big shot and frequently brings a guest or two for lunch or supper, bragging about our soups and stews as if he'd cooked them himself and pressing more fry bread and a piece of chocolate pie onto his hapless victims.

I hate that part of me that misses the human connection in our circumstances but cuts always to the chase, the bottom line; how will this affect me? I know it is a major failing on my part and God knows I have worked to rid myself of this self-centered world view, but still it pops inevitably up. If someone informed me that Science had perfected a pill that would supply humans with their total nutritional needs on a daily basis and hence end world hunger, famine and consequently much disease, my first thought, no doubt, would be, "Jeez, I wonder if this will slow down business?" I like to fool myself that I have a global view but the fact of the matter is that I still believe I am the center of the universe and I only see things in relationship to me, me, me, me, me.

"Dead in the head," she replied. "And guess who the cops cuffed and hauled off?"

"Who?" I asked, setting down the cream and looking at Elsie whose eyes glittered with importance to be the first with the latest news.

"That freak, Stevie."

When Elsie said this, Nettie flinched, like she'd been smacked up alongside the head. Stevie and she have split many a bottle, in alleyways and on the river bank. Stevie never fails to find Nettie in the morning and make sure she gets the corner of the jug, an eye-opener to help take the shakes off. Theirs is an alliance born of tissue hunger for the booze they share but which has been hammered out upon an anvil of mutual care and consideration. I have heard Elsie and Nettie argue a hundred times, at least, over Nettie's fondness for that odd young man whose quirky sense of humor and sharp tongue so offend Elsie. "She can dish it out but she sure can't take it." Stevie always said of Elsie, who scolded and screeched at him and chased him away from Nettie at every opportunity.

Elsie and Nettie are cousins, I guess, some shirt-tail relation through their mother's mothers, but Elsie treats Nettie like a kid sister even though Nettie is probably the elder by a decade. Elsie is an absolute hawk when it comes to keeping an eye out on Nettie, who appreciates it not one whit. Nettie stirred her cup and looked forlorn as Elsie crowed about the shooting, the bust, the ambulance crew that had scooped Henry into a body bag and then had a smoke and chat with Elsie, speculating on Henry's dramatic demise.

"The cops rousted Stevie outta that dumpster across the street," Elsie informed me with a knowing nod, "Ya shoulda seen the look on his face, like a rat inna hole when they slapped those cuffs on him."

"Stevie never shot nobody, never," Nettie mumbled, sucking coffee noisily between her loose lips. "He wouldn't hurt a flea, and you know it," she spat at Elsie, and dumped another heaping spoonful of sugar into her mug.

"Tell it to the judge." Elsie shot back. "Someone shot Henry and guess whose footprints led right from the scene of the crime to that dumpster and guess whose got blood all over their shirt and guess whose sitting in FCC right now, probably trying to fake insanity? He ain't gonna weasel outta this one, I bet," she intoned wisely.

I split back into the kitchen chewing on this, one eye on the soup pot, the other lost in all my memories of Stevie. I agreed with Nettie. I couldn't imagine Stevie violent. Crazy, yeah, and obviously self-destructive. But a gun, a head shot, murder, that didn't fit into any picture in my mind of the man I knew, Stevie, the wannabe Dead Head, the early-onset wino, the wild child, the mukluk shod boy with cheek. Where the hell would he get a pistol, for one thing, and if he had one, found it in the street maybe, or the garbage, why the hell would he shoot Henry, a braggart, sure, but basically a harmless egomaniac?

Henry James is, or was, about my age, mid-forties, and was a has-been by the time he was twenty-five, having raced to fame when he roared out of the tiny village of Burnt Paw, way up north of the Arctic Circle, in the Yukon Flats on the Porcupine River, driving an unbeatable team of trap-line dogs and winning every competition he entered for five years running, before booze and arrogance caught up with him. He'd been known, of course, as the Burnt Paw Bomber during his glory days in the late 60's, pre-pipeline, pre-Iditarod. His team had been all but unstoppable on their diet of dried, spent salmon and barley boiled with grease and fish meal. His wide smiling face had been synonymous with the sport of dog racing for years until the races went from sport to big business and the new generation of racers with teams of smaller, faster dogs left him behind, a legend in his own time.

Henry had turned from icon of the racing world to shambling street drunk, almost overnight, and lost several years to jail cells and mental institutions. He got religion in the late 70's, about the same time the world was watching the Iditarod on Wide World of Sports. He found Salvation and Sobriety in church, emerging as the head honcho of a group called the Bas'ee Foundation. Bas'ee is Athabascan and means Thank You. Funded by an affiliation of churches and several of the newly formed Native Corporations, Henry James and his cohorts had become a driving force in the Alaska Native Sobriety Movement. The Burnt Paw Bomber was back, driving a team of religious zealots this time. Nobody could deny that they were effective or that they had a positive effect on the Native community which was still staggering from the impact of the pipeline and resultant Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, an abortion of federal legislation that had been pushed through Congress during the oil embargo.

Henry James was a professional busybody, but harmless in his own way. It just didn't figure that he'd come up dead on Second Avenue, shot in the head, by a crazy street kid, or anyone else for that matter. I wondered about all of this as I stirred garlic and bay leaf and basil into the minestrone soup and chopped onions and bell pepper. Elsie was banging the spoon against the side of her cup again and I went out to pour coffee just in time for old Mack to lurch in, followed by a blue-haired old lady from Golden Towers who inquired imperiously if I could poach her an egg with a side of dry toast. The morning passed in the usual flurry of such activity and I was too busy to think on the murder much further, although Elsie wasn't hesitant to re-tell what little she knew, a litany that lasted 'til Tara showed up around eleven, whereupon Elsie put down a buck for her coffee and a quarter tip and huffed out the front door. Elsie doesn't like Tara, and the feeling is pretty much mutual.

"Good morning, Elsie," Tara chimed as they passed in the narrow doorway. Elsie favored her with a comic book Harumph. "And, good bye, come see us again soon," Tara completed as the door swung closed.

Elsie's hard feelings towards Tara must run pretty deep, it had to be difficult for her to leave without telling one more time the story of the shooting and the arrest. But, I figure she ducked next door into the bar and was even that moment spilling every single thing she thought she knew about the Incident to Tony, the bartender, who would be polishing the bar top and dusting all the bottles lined up like soldiers in the bar-back. Keep him busy for awhile, I figured.

"Hey, Tara, que pasa?" I asked as she put on her bright red apron and wiped the special board clean.

"Nada. Danada," she replied, picking up the florescent pink pen.

"Minestrone, tuna salad, chicken enchilada with beans and rice," I told her and she began scribbling in the daily soup and sandwich and dinner specials as we spoke.

"What's with the blood?" she asked.

"Henry James got shot dead in the head," I said, again mentally calculating what his weekly tab would run to on an average and deducting that from our daily till, feeling shitty about my mercenary nature but feeling worse when the numbers came up, little dollar signs in my brain. I would miss old Henry.

"You're kidding, right?" Tara replied, looking over at me, her face a perfect blank, jaw dropped, eyes wide. "Henry James, Bas'ee Henry, the Jesus Saves guy?"

"Yep. But, that's not the half of it. The cops arrested Stevie and charged him with murder. Can you believe that? Stevie? He can kill a bottle faster than ya can say, but even at his most deranged, I just can't see him triggering anybody, can you?"

"I can imagine him shooting himself, in the foot, probably, if someone gave him a gun and showed him how to load it. Stevie might be the only male in all of Alaska that wouldn't even recognize the business end of a gun. Shit, he probably doesn't even know the difference between a pistol and a rifle. His idea of heavy metal is Styx..." her voice got lost somewhere as our eyes met in mutual disbelief. Stevie? With a gun? No way. It just didn't fit.

The lunch rush started happening and we didn't discuss it further 'til we were washing the dishes, about two that afternoon. I was up to my armpits in the sink, sloshing hot greasy water as I scrubbed out the bottom of the big soup pot. Our conversation continued as if the past three hours had not intervened.

"Stevie is no shooter, anyway," Tara began, "A knife, a noose, I could see that. Maybe if someone was beating him up, I could imagine him throttling, in self-defense, you know. But, a gun? No way. What makes the cops think it was him, I wonder."

So, I told her exactly what I knew, what Elsie had said about the footprints in the snow and Stevie being hauled out of the dumpster, bloody and baffled. We chewed on all that a bit longer and then, I don't know why, I took my apron off and asked Tara, "Ya think ya could hold down the fort for an hour or so? I wanna run over to the cop shop and see what's up with Stevie-boy."

Tara gave me an Are You Nuts look but I knew that was the addict in her, the outlaw that would bleed to death before calling a cop. "Well, sure, I guess, so long as ya get back before three-thirty. Bryan's got a doctor's appointment as soon as school lets out." Bryan is Tara's son, the light of her life, eight going on twenty-eight, a child wise beyond his years but loyal and loving to his mom, the only parent and practically the only family he's ever known.

"Not to worry. They'll probably just tell me it's none of my business. But, curiosity is killing me." I could tell that she would never be curious enough about anything to walk into the police station downtown. But, I shucked into my jacket and took off out the back door, cut through the alleyway, catty-corner across Third and up Cushman, against traffic, to Seventh and thence to the cop shop. It was way faster to walk then to go out the front, fire up my little rig and driver around in circles through our maze of one-way streets to make the five block trek.

I slipped in the back way, ducked past the front desk, straight up the stairs to the second floor where lo and behold I ran smack into my friend Clancey. I gotta tell ya that I am not the kind of person that typically has cop friends. But, I had met Clancey "in the rooms" as we say in AA, where we don't bring our job descriptions, and hopefully we park our personalities at the door. In fact, I had known him for more than a year before I even found out he was one of our boys in blue, and it had shocked me, I must say. Clancey looks like an absent-minded professor, for one thing, and has no aura of cop. But, then, he never knew I was a criminal, either, as far as that goes, for several years after we met. We were just a couple of drunks on the 24-Hour Plan. Over the years I had come to trust him, and even to like him, in a weird kinda way. He must maybe like me, too, at least he always smiles when he sees me and never forgets to ask me how the dogs are doing, my five useless mutts who are the closest thing I have going to a meaningful emotional relationship.

We didn't talk about dogs, however, when I whistled him over into a corner of the busy squad room. "What the hell ya doing here?" he wanted to know.

"I don't know for sure," I admitted. "Gotta friend of mine I heard was arrested this morning. Thought I might find ya here and maybe get the skinny on 'em."

"Hell, ya could call downstairs and find that out," he said, giving me a strange What's Up look and chewing on his lip, a nervous habit he'd never quit.

"Well, it's complicated," I began.

"Ain't it always," he said, and then went quiet, waiting.

"Well, it's Stevie," I told him, all in a rush, "I don't even know his last name. He's one of my regulars, more or less. I heard he was arrested for shooting Henry James....." I trailed off at the troubled look on Clancey's furrowed brow.

"Jeez, you can pick 'em, eh? Friend, you say? I know Stevie. He's got no friends unless ya got a bottle of port on ya. Then ya be his buddy, 'til the jug goes dry. What's he to you, Kaz?"

"Nothing, really. A customer. An acquaintance. A friend in that I'm used to seeing him every day. A pain in the butt, really, as he's always trying to panhandle my customers..." and I trailed off again, ineffectively, thinking about everything that Stevie was and was NOT.

"Well, ya got the straight stuff in that they booked him on murder one this AM, prints on the gun match, victim's blood all over his shirt, pretty open and shut case if ya ask me, and apparently you are. Looks like your 'friend' got his ass in a sling this time."

"Clancey, he didn't do it, couldn't, nothing fits here," I said, looking that old cop right in the face. "Stevie ain't the kinda guy that could shoot anyone in the head. I just know that as sure as I'm standing here."

"Listen, kiddo, they got the weapon, they got the prints, the got the perp at the scene drenched in the dead guy's blood, what the hell else do we need? Don't be a dope."

"What about motive, Clancey? What about Stevie is about the most non-violent person in this world, unless ya count his mouth, which I admit can be a weapon, but hardly what I would call deadly. It just don't fit."

"Kaz," he said, giving me back my stare, "I don't know for shit on this. I agree, Stevie ain't what ya'd call your typical shooter. But, I hear he's sitting over in FCC, mouth closed tighter than a clam at low tide. You think you know anything about this, don't come to me. I don't need the grief. Half the people I cuff got no reason in the world to do what they did, knife the old lady, drop kick the kid down the stairs, shoot some guy in the head. None of it makes sense. Violent crime seldom does. You think you got a slant on this, go to the PD, spill your guts to him, or her. They get paid to give a fuck. Me? I just cuff 'em and book 'em and then fill out a mountain of paperwork. Let the chips fall where they may, my job's to get the scum off the street, not to worry about what motivates the creeps."

Walking back, I thought about this. I could hear where Clancey was coming from. He made no bones about it. Just a cop, after all, he's seen it all, I knew that. But, still, I couldn't get Stevie's stupid face out of my head. It kept popping in all through the rest of the evening and that night when I rolled into bed. I imagined him over in what's laughingly referred to as the Fairbanks Country Club, actually Fairbanks Correctional Center, FCC, sacked out in a steel cot, staring up at the ceiling, looking at a murder rap.

 

Next day, Tara was sick and I stumbled through the noon rush and the long hours of the Dead Zone without her. I did call over to the Public Defender's office, though and find out who'd been assigned to Stevie's case.

"Karzinsky," the disembodied voice on the other end of the line informed me with complete indifference. I also found out Stevie's last name. James. Wouldn't ya know it? I wondered if there was a blood relation or if this was just coincidence or what. Seems like everyone that's been in this state longer than a generation back is related to everyone else one way or another, through marriage or birth, cousins all. This crap was floating around my mind while I sat on hold waiting to talk to Karzinsky, a fellow I knew only as a blow-hard wind-bag I'd seen in action a time or two with other friends that for one reason or another had gotten caught up in the alleged criminal justice system. Isn't that an oxymoron, I wondered vaguely as the sounds of Happy Music poured through the earpiece.

"Yeah, Karzinsky here," the Musak came to an abrupt end.

I identified myself and explained my interest in Stevie's case. Karzinsky sounded both bored and put out, Huh'ing and Uh Huh'ing as I rambled on senselessly and ground finally to a stop. "You see, Mr. Karzinsky, I just know that he couldn't have done something like that. He's a fucked up drunk and he'd steal a bottle or break in to a building to find a warm place to crash, but murder's not his style, not his kinda crime."

"Well, Miss, uh, Miss, uh..."

"Ms," I repeated, "Ms. Simpler, Kassandra Simpler. But, call me Kaz."

"Well, Ms. Simpler," he said, stretching the Ms. out like a snake that might bite him, "Uh, Kaz, then, I have been assigned to the case but I haven't looked at the particulars, have yet to speak to the accused and certainly have no idea of what to tell you at this point other that to thank you for calling. If I need to speak to you further in this matter, I shall contact you."

"Yeah, like where?" I asked, fast, as his voice had that Get Me Off The Line edge to it I've heard a million times, at least.

"I beg your pardon?'

"Where? Where are ya gonna contact me, if ya think ya need to 'speak to me further' in this or any other matter?" I didn't say it but I know my voice was screaming, Ya Big Dummy.

"Oh, yes, I see what you mean. Well, wait a moment, please, I need to find my pen," he said. Oh, great, this is Stevie's champion, was all I could think as I listened to rummaging around sounds. Then Karzinsky's voice returned, a little impatiently I thought and I gave him my phone number and made him repeat it back to me so I figure maybe he even actually bothered to write it down.

Jamie dropped a plate that night, while serving stew to a party of three, a first for her, and burst into tears to boot. I couldn't help laughing. It was the funniest sight I'd seen in weeks, their startled faces, and hers, which was pure pain and shame. I dished another plate out in rapid order and helped her clean up the mess and assured her that it happens all the time, comes with the territory, no great loss. Soon she was giggling too, her small white hands dipping like doves in full flight to describe the way the bowl had just kept on a sliding when she stopped at the table. It felt good to laugh, that explosion of tension and warm relaxed feeling afterwards.

We cleaned up fast and shut down the kitchen in record time, even closing a few minutes early. It had been a slow night and I realized that I could sure as hell use a meeting. It is never good for me when I have forgotten how nice it feels to laugh. I sent her home with a sack of fry bread, making a mental note to come in early and start a new batch and then I headed over to the Alano Club, sliding into a chair just in time to hear, "...ever reminding us to place principals before personalities."

The topic was, "Growth, or change, or whatever ya need to talk about." which is usually the kind of stuff that drives me nuts. I don't go to AA to hear about self-esteem or to practice self-help. My sponsor always thundered, "Self esteem? Ya want self-esteem? Then by God ya better start doing esteemable things. Get the fuck outta the gutter, quit acting worse than an animal, stop fuckin' everyone else over. Self-help, Ha! Ya need no more self, self's the one thing ya got too much of, ya ask me. Ya need help, all right, HP help, a Higher Power."

Growth is what I don't want to find while I'm soaping myself in the shower and all change should be only temporary, I figure, so when I got tagged I chose what's behind curtain three and spoke to the "whatever ya need to talk about" option of our convoluted topic, to wit: Step Three. God either is, or God isn't. I gotta hang on to the IS with everything I got. Most the time, to me, it looks like some lunatic is in charge of the universe. I needed to talk about trusting and letting go. I could tell I was in trouble because I was renting space in my head to the idea of springing Stevie from the slammer, putting Karzinsky into a dark hole in the ground, changing my name and leaving the state. Stuff like that is a big red flag to me. Whenever I start thinking I've got a better idea than reality as it is unfolding, I know I am getting dangerously close to Trouble, with a capital T and that rhymes with ME and that stands for Fool.

I talked about the bad old days when I first got sober and the only handle I could get on the god stuff, or the spiritual angle as they old farts called it, was the rainbows that danced across the walls of my cabin, the colors of the spectrum cast by sunlight shooting through the cut crystals I hung in my windows. Sometimes I would sit there all day, alternately staring at those circles of color and my own dumb feet, knowing I couldn't drink but not having a clue what I might do for the rest of my life if I couldn't get loaded first, like to jump start my day. Prayer came painfully to me, but those bright dancing spots of pure color, somehow, gave me hope. I could see the phenomenon and marvel at it. I didn't understand how light became color but watching it gave me my first inkling of a power greater than myself. I looked for rainbows in the sky and they, too, assured me that something was going on that I didn't need to understand to be able to believe.

None of this might make sense to anyone else but it was what I needed to remind myself so I could go home that night, say my prayers, and fall asleep. The alternative is that tossing and turning while endless loop-tapes of What If's and If Only's run through my head. I gave Stevie and the whole stupid mess over to the Big G and didn't even think to take it back 'til about two the next afternoon when I glanced at the front page of the local section of the Fairbanks News Miner. That's also when I found out a lot more than I ever wanted to know about this critter we'd always called Stevie.

Local man arraigned in murder of prominent Native, the lead bar stated. That would please Henry, the Prominent part, I thought. It stated that a man named James Harold James was being held without bail in the shooting death of Henry Joseph James (no known relation, it added). James Harold? I thought his name was Steve, Stephen? What's this all about? Karzinsky's photo was there, looking very important with his head bowed close to Stevie, who was shackled wrists to feet, a safety precaution the police in Fairbanks have utilized for several years, ever since another murder suspect waltzed blithely out of a courtroom several years ago, while everyone was distracted by an altercation out in the hallway. The fact that they found him within the hour, sitting on the river bank gargling Jack Daniel's with a couple of new-found friends, had in no way lessened the shock and outrage of citizens and cops alike. Prisoners were not only transported in full shackles ever since, but for the most part were kept that way through-out court proceedings, looking for all the world like some sort of bizarre charm bracelets.

Stevie had a pale sick look on his face, what little of it you could see in the grainy photo, beneath his still unkempt hair. I have to admit that he resembled nothing less than a deranged killer, whatever his name was, and the story would lead all readers to believe that justice would be quickly accomplished in this senseless murder case. He wasn't quoted as saying anything but a picture is worth a thousand words-eh?? Clichés become clichés because they are SO true.

Karzinsky was reported as saying that a full investigation was underway, by which I figured he had sent over for a complete copy of Stevie's previous criminal record. The Chief of Police was quoted, at length, praising the quick apprehension of the suspect and detailing the "evidence", the gun, the prints, the blood. Still no motive was mentioned and even more curious, no witnesses. Even at 5AM on a weekday, how could a shooting occur in the middle of downtown without catching the attention of SOMEONE, I wondered. I must have lost my mind because the next thing I knew I was dialing the number of FCC and finding out what I had to do to be able to visit Stevie.

Aside from not having been incarcerated in FCC for the previous 90 days and having no outstanding warrants, it seemed to be a simple matter of filling out the usual piles of paperwork, name, date of birth, all that crap, until we came to the inevitable Catch 22. To visit Stevie, I would have to be put on his visitor's list. To be put on his list, he would have to request that my name be added. I could bet that the only name on there was his PD and the chaplain, who get to see anyone they want, it turns out, without regard to the prisoner's wishes. The catch was Stevie couldn't put me on his list unless he knew I wanted to see him and I wasn't allowed to call him. Prisoner's are allowed to call out but not to receive phone calls and No, they would not be able to take a written message to him.

Fuck, shit, piss, Christ on a flipping cross, I hate this stuff. So, exactly how do I get him to add me to his list, I wanted to know and was told, "Write him a letter." This pleased me not at all, a letter could take three days to make the three mile trip from the PO to FCC, about the same length of time it takes to get a letter from Fairbanks to New York City. I slammed down the phone and dialed the PD's office and demanded to talk to Karzinsky, only to hear that he was in court and would not be available to talk on the phone until tomorrow.

See, this is what I mean about taking stuff back from the Big Guy Upstairs. I joked all through the evening and Jamie and I had a lot of fun putting the kitchen to bed after our last Sitter straggled out, at almost 9PM. And, all that time, the rolodex in my head kept flipping lazily from name to name to name. How would I get ahold of Karzinsky, who would know who knew where he would be on a Thursday evening? Finally Jamie wandered off upstairs, where she would no doubt zone-out in front of the boob tube 'til Pull Tab City closed at midnight and Mom meandered home.

I punched the number to The Riverside Bar into my portable phone and took the call into my ridiculously small office, a former storage closet that had been knocked together when this space I call Second Street Way Station had been a gift shop for tourists, peddling Eskimo dolls, carved soapstone and ivory knickknacks like cribbage boards, a hot-selling item during the pipeline days. The phone rang eight times so I figured there must be a bit of a pre-weekend crowd at the Riverside, before it was snatched up and a voice hollered over the noise of the jukebox and customers. "Speak!"

"Barb, gotta minute? Wanna play Information Please with me?" I barked, lighting what must have been my thirtieth cigarette of the day and vowing I would only smoke ten tomorrow. Moderation, you know.

"For you? Sure, Kaz," Barb replied, "Hang on a sec, I gotta ring off this round." I winced as her receiver hit the back bar and smiled as I heard that old cash register kachunk-kachunking, some things never change.

Barb had been my favorite bartender all the years I was a fall-down drunk and one of the few friendships with a member of the bar crowd that had made the transition into my sobriety. Barb's one of those rare birds, an honest-to-Goddess Social Drinker. Twenty years behind the plank and she still knows how to have one drink, once in awhile, and somehow manages to deal with the drunken excess of her patrons with dignity and grace. Barb was genuinely pleased when I put the plug in the jug and was practically the only person I could talk to outside of the rooms of AA those first few years when everything was so scary for me in the World of Weird. Her job bartending at the Riverside put her on the receiving end of most the gossip in town and she has a memory like a main frame computer. It's a twist on the old punchline, Telephone, Telegraph, Tell A Bartender. Or, what's a trumor? A rumor that's been confirmed by a bartender.

"OK, kid, what's up?" she asked me when she came back on the line, the receiver clattering painfully in my ear.

"You know Karzinsky, what's his face, John, I think, that PD looks like something smells all the time?"

Good old Barb. "Sir Farts-a-lot, they call him? Sure, what about him?"

"Farts-a-lot?" I asked. I'd never heard that one.

"Yeah. Since forever, down at the courthouse. They pegged him with that one when he had some kinda gas attack in the middle of closing arguments, must have been ten years ago, in front of Hanger Bangor, the original Mr. Throw-the-book-at-'em, Judge Bangor, no one ever wants to draw him, you know. Bangor has a bad rep ever since he put another PD in jail for contempt because he kept objecting to his client being referred to as a firebug by the prosecutor. No one wants to fuck with him, and that poor Karzinsky was farting like a firefight. They say it was the fastest closing argument delivered by him or any other mouth-piece in the history of the territory."

Barb is never boring, that's for sure. But, I interrupted her at this point in her discourse. "Well, how the hell would a person get ahold of him?"

"Like right now, tonight?"

"Soonest."

"Well, he's not much of a socializer, hardly ever drinks, but my money would be on the Gold Room, at the West Mark."

"Huh?"

"Third Thursday of the month, you big dummy, Greater Fairbanks Development Association, the Good Old Boys Club. They're all over there swapping war stories and trading big ideas about how to line each other's pockets. I don't know much about Karzinsky, but I've heard he's pretty tied in with the shakers and planners. Dollars to do-nuts he pays his fifty bucks a plate for baked chicken with glop sauce and sits there fat and happy listening to whatever speaker they trot out to talk about what a good job they're all doing, keeping the pump primed and sucking on the big tit."

"Jeez, thanks Barb. I'll give it a try. Catch ya later."

"Whoa, hang on a minute, wouldja. Whatcha need to see Farts-a-lot for, anyway, in a big rush, middle of the night, practically. You're not in some sorta trouble, are ya?"

Good old Barb, kinda sweet she gives a fuck, huh? "No way, Jose. Least, I don't think so. Gotta friend sitting over in FCC I wanna see but can't get a message through to him. Karzinsky's his PD and I wanna use him as a conduit, get my name on the visitor's list. No big deal." It got real quiet on her end of the line for a moment and I could hear the juke box wailing away, She got the gold mine, I got the shaft.

"Jesus, Kaz, ya got a boy friend or something ya never told your old mother about here, or what?"

Then I really threw back my head and let loose a laugh powerful and mighty. "Not on your life, Sweet Cheeks. Life's complicated enough without that. This is more like just a casual acquaintance, that kid Stevie they charged with shooting Henry James. Thanks for the info, gotta go," I told her, my words all in a rush, and then hung up and took off out the back door, locking up behind myself quick-like, before Barb could dial my number. I knew she was gonna want to know all about this and frankly, I wasn't ready to try to explain it, not even to her.

I walked the eight blocks to the West Mark, strolling past the usual knots of drinkers, skateboarders, some GI jogging the wrong way down Noble, his breath puffing up like train smoke, freezing into a blue vapor over his head. I jammed into the main entrance and snaked through the bar, to the long hall way that leads to the Gold Room. The West Mark is one of those arctic eyesores, the decor can only be described as Pipeline Tacky, red and gold everything with flocked walls and plastic chandeliers, everything I ever hated in American architecture, with flounces.

You couldn't have gotten another body into the Gold Room without some dynamite but my years of food service held me in good stead as I snaked between tables to the far side of the room, my eyes searching the sea of fat white and pink faces. Ah ha, there was my victim, sitting squished between the owner of Fairbanks' largest auto dealership and the Reverend Joe Bob Mays, founder and first father of what I always think of as The Last Baptist Church.

Joe Bob would be a harmless tempest in a tea pot if it weren't for his disconcerting propensity to speak for God, like he's got the direct line, ya know what I mean. What's worse, I suppose, or at least what offends me, is the numbers of people who listen to him, every Wednesday night and Sunday morning, crack of noon, packing his temple and Praising the Lord as he spells out exactly what God expects of them this week. Mostly, according to Brother Joe Bob, what God wants most is a straight across the board ten percent tithing plus a healthy donation to the building fund. His temple started out a pitiful little storefront off South Cushman but has steadily grown and is now a three-story structure that pops out at odd angles in five directions with chapels and meditation rooms and who knows what all squeezed in helter skelter. Starting with a congregation of fewer than two dozen true believers, Brother Joe Bob has founded what amounts to a throng that swarm to him by the hundreds, anxious to be forgiven and dedicated to their Lord and Savior, as personified by the good Brother himself, I guess.

Karzinsky spotted me threading my way towards their table. Maybe it was the spirals twirling out of my eyeballs, leaving tracers of electric sparks. Maybe it was his innate ability to spot storms racing in from the northwest horizon. Maybe the hinky/dinky/stinky feelings I'd been getting weren't exactly lonely and he'd been feeling them, too. Maybe it was just some kinda cosmic kismet, that somehow he knew we had some business between us. Whatever, he'd never seen me before to know who the hell I was, but I swear to you he blanched to see me bearing in on him. I knew right then that he had been in the office when I called earlier and I knew sure as shit that he was never gonna be back from court so far as my calls were concerned.

Silently blessing Barb and wondering if this was another instance of God using my character defects for the best, I plowed across that room 'til I was right in his face. The table was one of those typical banquet affairs, huge round plywood tiddley-wink cloaked in fake linen with twelve chairs and placesettings squeezed in around it.

I must have looked out of place because conversation came to an utter halt. "Good evening, gentleman," I said, a line I've loved since I was eight and first heard Jean Harlow squawk through it in some forgettable MGM Depression-era comedy, probably Dinner At Eight. although I'm sure I looked more like Marie Dressler, in Tugboat Annie. Karzinsky was the only one who had a clue who I might be and I could tell he was flipping through his short-term/long-term memory, trying to access drive B to remember what the hell my name was. Karzinsky is one of those utterly bland individuals of the type I always call Alaskan Carpetbagger. He had gray hair, gray eyes, gray skin, all of which went well with his gray suit and grayer tie. I knew without looking that he would be wearing gray socks and Florsheim wing tips, black. The monotony of his countenance was relieved only by the stippling of acne scars that marred his otherwise insipid face.

"Uh, Miss, uh, Miss, uh..." was the best he could do which certainly made me feel important in the greater scheme of things.

"Ms," I reminded him, "Simpler. Kassandra, with a K. Call me Kaz."

"Well, yes, Ms. Kaz, uh, Simpler, yes, what can I do for you?"

"I want you to have Stevie put me on his visitor's list, tomorrow, by noon. I want to be able to go see him in the afternoon and that ain't gonna happen 'less you get this message to him first thing in the AM. I don't wanna have to fiddle-fuck around 'til Monday." Reverend Joe Bob sat up real straight when I said fiddle-fuck and I am loath to confess I had intended to offend him. The car-dealership owner, a big florid-faced guy named Jake, as in Always an Honest Shake With Honest Jake, Packard, who sold everything but, sat up real straight, too, but he was chuckling. Old Karzinsky looked like he was about to have apoplexy and that suited me just fine.

"Well, Mizz Simpler, I don't know if I'll be able to do that," he began, again making that Ms. sound almost like the buzzing of angry bees, "I have quite a full schedule in the morning and I won't be going over to the jail until late afternoon."

"Listen, you greasy little liar, I'm not some stupid jail-bird's worse-stupid old lady that you can string along and ignore. You can get me on that list with one phone call and you and I both know it. If I'm not okayed to visit when I show up there at two, I'm gonna track you down and make such a scene, you'll wish you'd died a birthing. The name is Kaz. Last name's spelled S-I-M-P-L-E-R, DOB is 4/12/48. Four times twelve is forty-eight, got that?" I smiled full force at that point and stood my ground. It never pays to try to push men around if you're gonna try to be polite and act the lady about it. That might work for some rich bitch but where I come from women have to be scrappers if they're gonna be heard at all by anyone of the male persuasion. I left him to imagine what kind of scene I meant but I raised my voice another notch, demanding, "Well, what's it gonna be?" I nailed him with one eyeball, keeping the other on the rest of the room to see if anyone had called security on me yet.

"I'll see what I can do." he mumbled.

"I'll thank you to be my witness to that, Jake my boy," I said and slapped the car salesman on the back, adding, "See ya Sunday," to Brother Joe Bob, just for pure D spite, I imagine, and turned tail and sailed out of there. Damages rendered, I reckoned.

 

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