Suction Cups

Disraeli Jones was in a bad way. He sat on the white marble floor in the lobby in the Hampton Arms.

His right leg was splayed at an angle out from his body. His left leg was the same way to the knee, but there it bent back toward his right. The sole of his left shoe pressed against the inside of the right leg of his trousers just above the knee.

His back was against the wall, his shoulders round and sagging. His arms, along with the lapels of his jacket, framed his bulging yellow shirt. His hands lay palms-up on his lap. His hat lay on the floor at his side, and his head was slumped to his chest.

The light from the lone chandelier glistened on his slick bald head. Short, wavy red hair formed a horseshoe from above one ear and around his head to the other.

He appeared to be asleep.

At this time of night, there was no one around to make a judgement. Any guests were long since asleep. If the desk clerk was at his station, he was being very discreet about it.

Each time Jones inhaled, it seemed an effort. The air came as if it were a rope, being pulled, inch by inch, past his lips and into his lungs. His chin quavered slightly with every breath, and he made a sound like a cat scratching on a post.

Each time he exhaled it was a quiet moan wrapped in a sigh, and his thick chest and abdomen trembled slightly.

He slowly raised his head, winced with the pain, and looked across the lobby at the double entrance doors.

There was no doorman either. That was better.

The doorman’s station, a dark mahogany pedestal to the left of the door, began to waver. Time was short.

Jones allowed his head to drop again, but this time under his control.

A few inches below his face, on top of his abdomen, fabric strained away in both directions from a shirt button. The button was brown.

He frowned.

Shouldn’t the buttons be yellow, like the shirt?

To the left and closer, another, larger brown spot. Small, frothy bubbles around the edge.

Lung shot. Probably a lung shot.

If he still smoked, he could cover it with the cellophane from the pack. That’s what they taught him in the army.

It was nonsense, of course. How would you patch the hole in the back?

After that lecture, back in the barracks, he joked with his buddies, “It’s silly. It just gives you somethin’ to think about while you’re dyin’.”

They all laughed.

In the lobby, leaning against the wall, he shook his head slightly.

Come on back to now.

He raised his head again, opened one eye.

He could make it to the door.

He drew another breath, then another, filling himself with air.

He grunted slightly, hunched and all at once leaned his shoulders forward, with force. He did it again, then again.

Each time his shoulders bumped the wall, he hunched them again, propelled himself forward.

Each time he leaned over a little farther, gaining momentum.

Finally he rocked across the fulcrum of his knee. The palms of his hands, fingers splayed, splatted against the marble floor.

Behind him on the wall was a large, bright red splotch. Alongside it in three steps, three more bright red marks.

He swung his right leg around, brought his right knee up, began crawling toward the door.

A third of the way across the lobby, he thought of his gun.

His holster was there. But it felt light.

Naked.

Probably they took it.

Probably they tugged it from his holster when they sat him down.

The guy who tugged it out would glance at it, slip it into his jacket pocket to toss it into the river later on.

But they wouldn’t drop that one in the river. That one wasn’t a throw-away.

The guy who did the deed would catch a glimpse. He’d say quietly, “Hey, whaddya got there?”

Jones’ mind swayed for a moment. He reached for the wavering floor with his left hand, kept moving forward.

It was like the captain said the first time he brought the pistol to the range. “Hey, whaddya got there, Dee?”

And Jones grinned. He dropped the magazine into his left palm, racked the slide and locked it back, and passed it to the captain over a grin. “Kimber .45.” He laughed. “‘Cause you know, they don’t make a .46.”

The captain took it, held it reverently in his right palm. He rolled it over, let the slide go home. He turned, aimed it downrange, tested the heft, the balance.

Then he racked the slide, locked it back, and handed it back to Jones. “Hey, ain’t that something? I always heard these were the thing, eh?”

Today, another guy would say, “Whaddya got there?”

And the guy who took it from his holster would stop just short of his pocket

He’d stop and he’d roll the pistol over in his hand. He’d lean his ugly, pinched, pockmarked face close to read the stamp on the slide. Then he’d look up and frown. “Kimber?” he’d say. “Is that even a thing?”

Jones was almost halfway across the floor when his right elbow quavered.

He looked up.

The single column in the room. It rose from the floor to the ceiling of the lobby.

Two stories, right?  Yeah, two stories.

The column was to his right front. Only a few feet away.

So he was only a few feet short of halfway across.

He stopped for a moment, supporting himself on his left hand and his knees. He lifted his right arm, flexed his elbow once.

He thought again of the hood, rolling his Kimber in his hand. Thought of him saying, “Is that even a thing?”

Yeah, genius. It’s a thing.

His left wrist went weak and something slapped him on the left side of his face.

Wakin’ me up. My friend, wakin’ me up.

He drew a heavy breath, focused all his attention on his right arm.

The right arm’s gimpy. The right elbow.

With the slap still pressing against the left side of his face, he focused on that right arm. He dragged his right hand forward, the back of his fingers sweeping across the floor.

But at the end of the reach, they flipped up from beneath his hand.

Just like they’re supposed to.

His palm made contact.

He focused. Focused on everything. Focused on doing what he had to do.

He shook his head, but he wasn’t sure it actually moved side to side. The slap was still stuck to the left side.

Strange. Do slaps do that?

Who slapped me anyway?

But while his head was up, he glanced at the door.

Still a ways to go. Still a ways.

Back to business.

He focused. He focused on a knee, then the other hand. Then the other knee.

My right knee, right?

Then the other knee, and then his left.

He’d make it. He’d make it to the doors.

The car is there. Right there.

Parked outside. Along the curb.

The slap still stuck to his face, he glanced up to look at the door.

Didn’t I? Didn’t I look at the door?

Yeah I did.

He glanced at the door and it slid sideways.

Oops. That ain’t right.

It swung back into place.

He frowned.

Better focus.

He thought of his fingertips. He was pulling himself along on his fingertips, right?

Focus. Knee, fingertips. Other knee, fingertips.

Fingertips. Tips of the fingers.

Good design. The little mounds there. On the fingertips. They’re supposed to be for suction, right? Like holdovers from when we were amphibians? Somethin’ like that?

He’d heard that somewhere.

Then another thought hit him.

It felt like another slap. Almost. Only the first slap was still there. It was cool on his cheek.

Something about that was funny.

But it was a thought.

A thought slapped me. Where’s that thought? It was a thought, right? A thought.

He let his eyes close and looked at the door. He was over halfway. The column was behind him to his right, and he didn’t even remember moving past it. And he didn’t have to look to know it was there.

He’d make it to the doors. And his car was right outside. Right alongside the curb.

There’s the thought. It came again. The other thought like the one about the suction cups. The other thought. The one about cellophane.

He frowned.

They got somethin’ in common.

What is it? What they got in common?

What was the other thought?

There was the cellophane thought, whatever that was, and then—

Somethin’— somethin’ to do with suction cups, or somethin’.

Oh. Cellophane to stop a sucking chest wound.

He tried to grin, turned up the right corner of his mouth.

And then suction cups, so that’s like a suckin’ chest wound. Or somethin’. They both suck. That’s what they got in common. They both suck. One sucks air and one— One sucks stuff you’re grippin’.  That’s what— what they—

No. Nah, that ain’t it.

Just silly thoughts. They got nothin’ to do with anything.

“Just,” he said, barely above a whisper. “Just somethin’.”

The captain looked at his Kimber. “Whaddya got there, Dee? Well now ain’t that somethin’!”

“Just somethin’,” Jones said again.

Blood frothed on his lips.

The thought was slipping away. Both thoughts. Slipping away together.

Hold on.

Suction. Suction cups. Suckin’ chest wound. Suction cups.

“Ahh, that’s— that’s what they got— common.”

The corner of his mouth turned up again.

Suction cups an’ fingertips.

He looked up at the door again, his eyes still closed.

Hey, it didn’t waver this time.

And he was close. He was almost there.

Suction cups. Apply the suction cups on your fingertips. Get there, man!

His car was right there at the curb.

Sucked up against the curb.

He looked up at the door again. Almost there.

Suction cups on your fingers. Silly. Suckin’ chest wound. And cellophane. Somethin’ about—

Oh. Cellophane— to seal a suckin’ chest wound. Silly. How you gonna seal the back?

But that’s it. That’s what it is.

Suction cups on your fingertips. Cellophane on a suckin’ chest wound.

His army buddies faded in, grinning. They wavered.

“Yeah,” he said. He laughed, trying to get their attention. “See? Hey, see? Suction cups on your fingertips. Here. Right here.”

He stood and held up both hands, showing them the part he was talking about. “See? An’ then sealin’ a suckin’ chest wound with cellophane. See?”

He slapped his chest hard. “See? Right there. That’s where it’d go on me. Only it don’t work, see. That’s the joke. Just— just somethin’ to keep you entertained— while you’re dyin’.”

What a cool thought. And it slapped him on the left side of his face.

No, a cold thought. What a cold thought.

He wanted to look at the door again.

Open your eyes this time. Look with your eyes this time.

But his left eye didn’t want to open.

He opened his right eye.

It closed.

He opened it again. Opened it wide.

Frowned.

The column.

The column was just ahead of him a few feet.

Oh. Oh yeah.

Got it.

* * * * * * *

 

How Hard the Ground

“No matter how hard the ground, beauty finds a way out.” Dan Baldwin

Even at slightly after one in the morning, the air out here is neither hot nor cold. Tepid, maybe. I like that word. The air is tepid, and fueled with a particular kind of dread.

It’s the fear of the expected. The ripe anticipation of knowing what we’re about to see, and knowing we can’t look away. We can’t just gawk and go on about our business. This is our business.

Red, blue, red lights slash in rotation through the moonlit darkness. They chase each other across the ground and up over the scrub brush.

We’re in the desert on an anonymous tip that came in a little before 10 p.m. There are still a few folks out there who support us. Not everyone’s afraid of us.

All around are scrub mesquite and creosote along with a few reddish prickly pear cactuses. Here and there, a dying yucca. Now and then, a withered fishhook barrel cactus. The kind of stuff that grows where there’s no gentle rain but maybe a deluge two or three times a year. Everything is harsh.

Nothing thrives out here. Old or new, ancient or modern. Growing or recently deceased and interred.

Small rocks glint everywhere in the moonlight.

The ground is mostly flat, mostly imbedded with rock of every bland color. Mostly a chalky off-white, but also tans, browns and every shade of black—all pitted like little moons with impact craters.

To my left front is a growing pile of dirt and rocks. To my right front is another. In front of me, side to side, stretches the hole that originally held all that.

The tip said she was at least three feet down. Said it would be easy digging. He forgot to mention the rock.

The sounds, human and otherwise, that fill the air are quiet. Respectful without meaning to be. Even the quiet rumbling of the river, some forty feet to the west and three hundred feet straight down.

If I killed somebody out here, that’s where they’d end up. Over the edge, a quick brush of the hands and no looking back. But somebody took the time to do all this.

Two vehicles are parked some twenty and thirty feet to the east of the grave.

The far one is a brownish-gold SUV, with Sheriff slashed diagonally across both doors. It brought me and the deputies to the scene.

This side of it is the white meat wagon. It’s the source of the red and blue lights. For some reason Mitch Billings left the emergency overheads on.

This side of the meat wagon are three men.

Mitch is next to the driver’s door, the driver’s side rear-view mirror to his back. The guy’s meaty and has a gut, but he’s not fat. Mid to late thirties and maybe 5’9”, close-cropped hair and a flat top. He’s the boss.

His arms are folded over his chest, and a camera dangles by a strap from his left hand. He doubles as the county crime photographer. As he talks quietly to the two other men, he alternately leans up on his toes, back on his heels.

The second guy is skinny as a rail and a head taller than Mitch. Mid to late twenties. Hair to his collar. His hands are shoved into his pockets, his butt leaning against the meat wagon. He’s bored, but he bobs his head now and then to prove he’s paying attention.

The third is the youngest by at least a few years. Probably in his early twenties. Close-cropped hair with just enough to comb on top. He’s a little shorter than Mitch but meatier than the other guy. He leans on the meat wagon with his right shoulder and his head bent slightly forward, like he’s paying attention. He probably is.

Or maybe he’s just avoiding looking at what’s going on to his left. His hands were in his pockets too. His fists are clenched.

Behind him, a nylon stretcher, poles together, is leaned against the wagon just ahead of the back bumper. Behind that, the white tailgate extends away from the back. It’s swung open sideways to the driver’s side.

The guys are all dressed in the black trousers and white shirts of the coroner’s office. They all have a little badge, and all they have to do is cart off the bodies.

2

Me, I’m Jack Tilden. I’m the director of this evening’s symphony.

I’m dressed like I’m always dressed. It’s always brown or grey trousers, a brown or grey jacket and tie, an off-white shirt, and a brown or grey fedora. Tonight everything is grey.

Down in the hole in front of me are the two deputies. Their current task is another reason I’m glad I’m a detective. My job is to watch and listen as the deputies work. I can do that.

The guy to the left is Pete Mason. He’s in jeans and a t-shirt and a brown and green Sheriff’s Department ball cap. On his feet are brown combat boots with thick hobnail soles.

A sweat stain stretches down the back of his t-shirt. It forms an elongated V from his neck to his belt.

The other one is Joe Mangum. He’s in jeans, a western straw hat and a long-sleeved khaki shirt. The sleeves are rolled midway up his forearms. Sweat and dirt glint in the hair on his forearms. His shirt’s soaked from beneath his left shoulder halfway down the side.

I can’t see Joe’s feet, but he’s probably wearing round-toed western boots. Probably with the dogger heels.

The guys are earning their sweat. They both have shovels. They’re bent to the task in a hole they’ve been working on for fifteen or twenty minutes.

The shovels clunk, scrape and chink on rocks. The shovel handles leap into the rotation of the lights. They sweep up, then over and down. Up, then over and down. A discordant kind of rhythm.

Moonlight and red and blue flashes glint off hands and knuckles over and over again.

Now and then, the deputies grunt softly. Now and then they curse.

An almost ethereal whump sounds as each shovel load of dirt lands on a pile, one to the left, one to the right. The piles peak a little taller each time. Each time a few rocks clatter quietly down the far side.

And the smell that hangs in that tepid air is as quiet and uncomplicated as everything else here. It’s simple, and it’s stark.

The strong, acid stench of rotted onions.

It evokes a childhood memory.

For a moment I’m standing in an old onion field. One that was picked over two weeks ago and everything healthy shipped to market. Only the dead and dying left behind.

Then picked over again ten days ago by the poor. Only the dead left to rot.

Then plowed under last week to make the ground ready for the next crop.

It’s a stench that lingers on your tongue.

And it isn’t onions at all. It’s beauty unearthed.

The deputies are getting close.

3

I wet my lips with my tongue, then reach inside the left lapel of my jacket. I fish a pack of Camels from my shirt pocket.

Even now I can’t look away. Even knowing what’s coming.

By rote memory I turn the pack up and tap out a cigarette. By feel I catch it between my thumb and forefinger, put it between my lips.

I return the pack to my shirt pocket and pull my lighter from my trouser pocket. I strike the lighter, another raspy, hushed sound.

My palm lights up as I focus beyond the flame and inhale some nerve.

It’s all right, I know. Just keep your distance. I’ve seen a lot of these and they’re all the same.

But no. Each one belongs to itself. Each one is different.

Just as I slip the lighter back into my trouser pocket, Joe says, “Oh.” It’s more a sigh than a word.

Pete stops. He looks over at Joe and nods. Quietly he says, “Yeah. I’ve got her too.”

There’s an inadvertent moment of silence.

Then a shovel scuffs on the other side of Joe as his shoulders hunch and twitch. The reds and blues flash off his khaki back.

The underside of his shovel scrapes lightly on a rock. It screams in the night before he tips the handle lower. Then he twists around, looks over his left shoulder.

I don’t see his face, but I catch the motion as he turns. I’m still looking past him.

“Here she is,” he says quietly. “We’ve got her.”

He says it like an official announcement. Like I didn’t know. Or maybe like it was a rescue mission.

In a way I guess it was.

I have to look at my feet for a moment, and I nod and take a drag. Then I look over at Mitch and gesture with the cigarette.

He says something to the guys, then starts toward us. He stops at my side, looks down and to the left, then moves around the hole. Now it’s a grave. He starts taking pictures.

The flash alternately enhances the moonlight and scares off the reds and blues.

When he’s through, he glances at me and nods.

I look at the deputies, then gesture again with the cigarette.

Both their faces are aimed up at me now. Is this what it’s like to be God? Am I waiting for a prayer?

As if they need to hear me say it, I say it. “Okay. Bring her up.” I pause, then, “Just go careful.”

That’s someone’s little girl. It’s someone’s wife, daughter, sister, mother.

I don’t have to say that part.

Joe knows. He nods and sighs as he turns his head back to the front. He lowers himself to one knee.

I can’t tell you whether he’s near her right shoulder or her left. The slope of the side of the hole lets me see a shadowy orb just past his side. But I can’t tell whether it’s her face or the side or back of her head.

At the other end, Pete knows too.

He half-stands and tosses his shovel up on the far side of the hole. A little harder than he meant to.

It screeches a little on rocks when it lands. It slides.

Then he crouches again, heels together in the small space, and bends forward with both hands extended. He has to grasp the ankles.

He lifts them a little, gently. Shakes them a little. Only a little.

Dirt rolls off bare calves, bare thighs.

In my periphery, a shooting star, falling. A grain of something, plunging to the earth. A flash, extinguished.

Mitch crouches to my left, raises his camera. It flashes a couple of times, blinds the night.

Pete lifts again, shakes again.

Some cloth shifts and more dirt falls away.

The way the body refuses to bend—so she’s buried face down. Still in her clothes. A skirt or a dress. Blue, maybe.

Mitch takes another picture. Another. Says, “Okay.”

Pete lowers her ankles, lets the toes of her white canvas boat shoes rest.

The dirt has turned them tan.

He leans back out of the way.

Mitch shoots a few more pictures, then stands and moves behind me to my right.

I take another drag on the cigarette, then expel a stream of smoke. Inside it, I say to Pete, “Easy, now. Easy.”

The back of Pete’s head nods as he shifts, twisting his body to the right. He adjusts his position with a step, too, moves his left foot across her feet to the other sloping side of the hole.

It was a silly thing to say. None of this is easy. None of it can be. But she’ll still come out of the ground more gently than she went in.

4

A friend of mine wrote one time, “No matter how hard the ground, beauty finds a way out.”

The line accompanied a picture he’d taken of a pretty little wild flower. A pretty little weed.

Guy’s weird for taking pictures of nice things, pretty things. Things that persevere against all odds.

Like little flowers pushing their way up, striving through rocky, hard soil to reach the air.

Life wants to live. Beauty strives to be restored to the light.

He didn’t know how right he was.

To the right, Joe’s still down on his right knee. His left is bent up almost under his chin. He arches his back, swings his shovel up and to the right.

It lands in a creosote bush on the other side of his pile of dirt and rocks. A few dry twigs snap, return to the earth.

He turns back and his shoulders twitch in little repeated movements as he dislodges her right shoulder.

Then he twitches again and tosses something underhand, behind him.

It turns out to be a fist-sized chunk of rock. It flies up out of the hole.

Something about the chunk of rock catches my attention as it flows through a low arc.

I track its progress, and for an instant in the moonlight there’s a bright yellow face. It’s a few inches above the ground. Petals surround a mottled center. A thin stem extrudes up from black olive drab leaves. Those spread in a flat circle on dirt and small rocks on the ground.

And the face, stem and leaves disappear as the rock hits with a satisfying thump.

No matter how hard the ground, beauty finds a way out.

But there’s no guarantee the ground won’t come back to spoil it.

5

A few minutes pass, and Joe has the shoulders and torso free of the rocks. Free of the soil.

Did you catch that? The shoulders and torso. That’s distance.

Did I say I’ve seen a lot of these? Did I say they’re all the same?

Distance does that.

But each one also belongs to itself. Each one also is different.

Every shooting star is a different grain of dust.

A few minutes pass, and Joe has her shoulders and torso free of the rocks. Her shoulders and torso are finally free of the soil.

He and Pete begin to shift someone’s little girl into the right position so they can bring her up.

They lift someone’s daughter gingerly.

They turn someone’s sister gently on her side.

They lift someone’s wife carefully, at the same time.

They ease someone’s mother down to rest on her back.

Mitch moves about in a different dimension, takes a series of pictures.

When he’s through, to nobody at all he breathes, “Okay.” Then he looks at the meat wagon, shatters the night with a few rapid fire snaps of his fingers.

The two men there straighten and look at him.

He points toward the stretcher and wags his hand at them.

The young one picks up the stretcher and the two start toward us.

The taller guy looks at the other one and utters a short laugh at something.

I jerk my head around and frown. Quietly, I said, “Hey.”

The taller guy looks at me and his smile evaporates. He averts his gaze.

Silence pervades the night again.

Rocks crunch beneath the men’s feet as they approach.

I step back and gesture toward the ground at my feet. It’s level there, and not so rocky. The ground on the other side of the grave is occupied. A mesquite and a creosote bush. Both scraggly, in need of rain.

The younger guy steps past me, offers one end of the stretcher to the other one.

Together they pop it open and kneel alongside the grave to receive the body.

Joe and Pete lift the body clear of the ground and the other two take over. Pre-chastised, they move her gently into position above the stretcher.

They lower her onto it just as gently.

It’s my turn to crouch. There’s no distance now.

A blue skirt and a white blouse. No belt. The white canvas boat shoes I thought I saw earlier.

A necklace of some kind just above her collar bone. The pendant, if there was one, is behind her neck. Dirt and rough pebbles mar her dark brunette hair.

She’s probably around twenty-five.

There’s a large, horizontal dent in the flesh of her forehead above her left eye. There’s another, diagonal dent in the flesh from her left cheekbone to her jaw. Other, smaller indentations dot her forehead and the other soft tissue on her face. No bruising though. Not there.

So at least she was dead before the killer put her in the ground. At least that was something.

Once we figure out her name, I’ll be sure to tell the family.

The only bruising is around the ligature marks. The thumb prints. The crushed larynx.

I straighten and gesture.

As the men lift the stretcher and move away, I glance around behind me. I need to find that rock.

There it is. I lift it gingerly, lay it to the side.

The yellow flower is crushed, bruised. Maybe it’s dead. Maybe it’ll be back.

Behind me, I hear Joe and Pete gathering their shovels. I turn around, say, “You guys ready to head back?”

They both nod and start for the SUV.

I glance one more time at the grave, then back at the flower, and send a thought its way.

No matter how hard the ground, beauty finds a way out.

* * * * * * *