Wednesday, October 26, 2016

"Cul-de-sac" — a ghost story by Postino

     “I won’t give up,” answered Pete, digging again near the foundation in back of the house. “I know the money is here somewhere. You’ve said it is, and that you keep moving it. One of these days I’ll catch up to it and I’ll be out of here.”
     “I wouldn’t be able to stop you, you know,” said Edward, “being a ghost and all.”
     “I don’t know what kind of trip you’re on, but you’re no more a ghost than I am. I didn’t kill you good enough, is all.”
     Edward let out another of his snorts that passed for a laugh. “Kill you good enough,” he mimicked. “Hey, Pete, you kill me all right.” 


Pete was tapping the wall of the master bedroom when Edward walked in. “Found anything yet?” Edward said as he sat on the edge of the bed.
     Pete just grunted.
     “Have you checked the living room? Kitchen?”
     “I’ll get to them.”
     “You won’t find anything.”
     “So you always say.” He went on tapping with the knuckle of his middle finger. It was raw, the skin red. He felt it every time he rapped the wall. He would have changed fingers had Edward not been there, but he stubbornly held onto his routine when Edward was watching.     
     He went methodically through the room. Edward hummed a tune, the same tune he always did. It was formless, something had come into his head at one point and he hummed it, even though it was no recognizable music. It made Pete angry, because Edward knew Pete didn’t like the sound of him, reminding him of the presence in the room.
     “How about it? Ready to knock off yet? How about some lunch?”
      Pete was hungry. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten. The electricity was off in the house, and he didn’t open the fridge. What was in there had gone bad. Pete wouldn’t even open the refrigerator door. Even though the heat was off in the house he figured the contents would be stinking by now.
     He walked the hallway into the kitchen, with Edward behind him. He opened a cupboard over the stove. Pots and pans, no food. He opened another cupboard door. Nothing there but a package of Jell-O. No good to him.
     Edward was sitting at the dinette table.
     “Nothing, huh,” he said. “Man could starve to death around here.” That made him laugh, a short snorting sound, no humor in it.
     Pete leaned against the counter. He could feel the gnawing in his stomach.
     It was cold. Not cold enough to see breath, but cold enough that they both wore winter coats. Pete was wearing an old parka, frayed at the cuffs. Edward was wearing a peacoat and a black knit cap pulled down to his ears. He looked like the sailor he once was.
     Pete went back to the cupboards and methodically opened each one. He took a short broom from the closet and tapped the backs of the cupboards, listening for any variation in sound. The cupboards were flush against the walls, but he suspected one of them could have been placed in front of a hole in the wall. He finished his tapping. There was no hollow sound.
     “The thing that bugs me, Edward,” he said finally, as much to stop the other man’s humming as to register a complaint, “is that there really isn’t any reason for you to not tell me where it is. You don’t have any use for it.”
     Another short snorting laugh. “Don’t have any use for it. That’s good, Pete.”
     Pete opened the door of the closet, tapped with the broom handle, then put the broom back in its spot in the corner. He walked back into the hallway, then into the bedroom. He slid open the door to what passed in that house for a walk-in closet. There were a few clothes hung up. A suit that moths had been lunching on. At least the moths had something to eat. A couple of polo shirts. On the floor were three pairs of jeans, too small for Edward. Women’s jeans. Edward’s wife probably left them behind when she moved out. She’d gained about thirty pounds and abandoned the pants she could no longer wiggle into, but couldn’t bear to throw away. She was beautiful once, a dancer in a local club, showing guys her tits. After she moved in with Edward and with the boozing and the drugs she lost both her shape and dignity. She’d managed to save some of the latter by leaving him. 
     Pete tapped the walls inside the closet. He saw a couple of shoe boxes and opened them. Nothing but the tissue that came with the shoes. He moved the jeans, nothing under them, went through the pockets of the old suit. Without looking around he said, “This is a total waste of time. Just tell me where it is.”
      “No, it isn’t. It’s fun to watch you look. Knowing you’re never going to find it. A million years, you’ll never find it.”
     “I’ll find it.”     
     “No, you won’t. When you sleep I move it. You always lie down and you fall asleep and I move the money.”
      Pete clenched his fists. “I do not go to sleep.”
     “Yes you do.”
     Pete shut up. This could go on indefinitely, this childish taunting, this game of keep away. He thought, I am so tired. So goddamned tired. He sat on the edge of the bed. The pistol, the army Colt .45 auto, was lying in the middle of the bed. He could move it, lie down, catch a few winks, but not while Edward stood in the doorway with that shitty smirk on his face.
     He closed his eyes, willing Edward to disappear. He opened them, still there.
     “What’s the matter,” Edward said. “Want to catch a nap?”
     “I want you to go the hell away.”
     He looked away from Edward, and his attention focused on a painting, a framed print on the wall of a rocky cliff overlooking the ocean at sunset. A red sun reflected in the water. That’s the kind of place he should have taken Edward, thrown him into the ocean with a half-dozen cinderblocks or an anchor tied to him. Maybe then he could get on with his search in peace.
     “Hey, Pete, maybe you should look out back. You know that old tool shed back there, the one you stuck me in. There’s a lot of ground you could dig up. I might have buried it out there, you know, Captain Kidd, Blackbeard the pirate burying their booty. I might have done that.”
     Edward’s back yard, what a joke. An overgrown weed pile with bushes gone wild. Pete thought about it. He could at least look. Maybe Edward had put it under some bush, or dug a hole under the shed. Anything was possible. Pete got up, brushed past Edward and went into the bathroom. Not only was the power off, but the toilet was clogged, flusher didn’t work. Gross. He didn’t have to pee or take a dump, but when he did he’d probably have to go out back and relieve himself in one of those bushes. The thought didn’t appeal to him, cold as it was. His bare ass exposed to the neighbors, if there were any neighbors. There were houses, run down like Edward’s, but Pete hadn’t seen anybody or detected any movement outside. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d heard a car go by. Edward’s neighborhood was a cul-de-sac with four two-bedroom houses, dank unfinished basements, behind a paper box factory. An industrial section of town. The houses in that area were mostly rentals. Pete didn’t think Edward owned the house, because he didn’t think Edward had ever owned anything of value in his whole life.
      Except for the money, that is. The money Pete was looking for. The money they got from the armored car when they robbed it.

The plan was they’d each grab as much as they could before they heard sirens, then they’d drive their stolen pickup truck to the back of the strip mall where they’d parked their cars. They’d each take their share, drive in different directions. Cops would be looking for two guys in a pickup truck, not one guy in a silver Hyundai, another in a black Ford Explorer.
     Something real bad happened. The robbery went as planned until Pete drove his car out of the strip mall. He was hyper, his adrenaline pumping. He’d killed a man. His gun went off, hitting the armored car guard in the face. The guy was wearing a vest under his uniform shirt, but he dropped like a stone when the round drilled him just under his left eye. Pete hadn’t gone into the job intending to kill anyone, but then it happened. Later, as he’d done all his life, in his mind he blamed the victim, if for nothing else just being there to be robbed.
     He drove out of the strip mall and was broadsided when he pulled onto the boulevard. He’d driven right into a pizza delivery car, and it T-boned him going 40 mph, crushing in the passenger side of his Hyundai.
     The teenage pizza delivery driver was stunned, sitting in the driver’s seat with his mouth open. He was trying to get out of his car, but the impact had crumpled the front of his car and the door didn’t work. Pete had been hit by his airbag but was okay, just thinking he had to get out of there. He grabbed his gun. The money was in a bank bag, but he had put it under a blanket behind the front passenger seat, and the impact crushed that side of his car, wedging the bag in so at a glance he knew he wouldn’t be able to get it out. He saw other people stopping their cars. A black man was running toward him and he could hear him, are you hurt, hey mister, are you all right? as he got out of the Hyundai. I’m okay, I’m okay Pete heard himself say, and then the man pulled up short when he saw the .45.
     Pete stuck the gun in his belt, hidden by his coat, and ran. He looked over his shoulder to see several people trying to help the kid. He hoped none of them were on their cell phones, reporting him running away from the scene of the accident. He cursed himself for not paying attention, taking his mind off the business at hand, the simple act of driving his goddamn car. He sprinted around the corner just as a city bus pulled up, so he put on a short burst of speed and made it just before the driver turned into traffic. The fare was a buck twenty-five and had that in his wallet, but not much more. He’d left all that money, according to Edward’s calculation, his share maybe a quarter million, in his car. He'd hop off closer to downtown, lose himself in the crowd. He settled into his seat, trying not to look a guy on the run.  I’m making a getaway on a city bus, he thought. Maybe someday I’ll laugh about it.
     There was no laughing now.
     When they agreed to split up after the job Edward told him, “Stay away from me. I don't want to see your ugly face again.” Thinking he was funny, but really just being a jerk. Edward could be like that, like he was in the house while Pete looked for the money. That is why Pete killed him two weeks after the job.
     Pete had been hiding out. He took what was left of his mother's bank account. It wasn’t much, about fifteen hundred and change. He rented a cheap by-the-week motel room. The wrecked car was still in his mom’s name. Pete had cleaned out the glove box and his mother's car registration a couple of days before the heist. He had swapped the license plates with plates from a similar-looking Hyundai he spotted a couple of miles from his house. But his prints were in the car, and the cops had them on file for prior offenses. They’d put him with the armored car job when they found the money. He couldn’t go home to his mom’s house, where he lived in the guest bedroom. That was okay with him. The house smelled of his mother, of her cancer, of her lingering for months unable to get out of bed, shitting in diapers, before she finally died. He knew it wouldn’t be long before the cops were all over that house.
     In his motel room he watched the news. The story of the robbery was a headline, but they didn’t mention the car. Maybe they hadn’t figured it out yet, or maybe they were just playing it cool, making him think he was more secure than he was.
     But that was it. He’d been counting on that money to get him out of this town, away from the memory of his mother, away from his temporary construction, lawn care and handyman jobs.
     A quarter million would have allowed him to go someplace else—he’d been thinking of Southern California, out of this winter climate. He would start a new life, buy some phony ID, a birth certificate. Hell, the illegals did that sort of the thing all the time when they came across the border. He’d get somebody to tell him what he needed to do to buy a new life.
     But he didn’t have the quarter million, and fifteen hundred wasn’t any money for someone on the run. He had to get to Edward and get Edward’s money. He might have to kill Edward in the process but that didn’t bother him. The news told about the guard he had killed, 33-years-old, wife, two small children, working a low pay security guard job. It didn’t bother him about the wife and kids. He just didn’t think about victims; it wasn’t how his mind worked. He was only sorry the getaway had gone bad and he was out the money.
     His mom had called him psycho a time or two and said he had no feelings for anyone but himself. But she was always bitching about something, so he never listened. She was right, though, because he did only care about himself, and everyone else could be made of cardboard, for all it mattered. He didn’t wait for Edward’s call. He went to his house and found him.
     Edward was stupid not to run, but he didn’t have a record like Pete. The cops had never taken his fingerprints. He bragged about not having his prints on file. He’d told Pete when they met for the first time in the bar that night and got drinking and talking that his wife was divorcing him and he needed money. He told Pete he’d been thinking about taking down a bank or an armored car. What it sounded like to Pete was the guy had been reading novels or watching movies, because he didn’t think Edward had the guts to go through with it.
     But here they were in the house, and Edward a dead man walking and talking. Pete knew, he just knew that it was a trick of his brain, some kind of weird conscience thing or some other kink, because he had killed him and watched him die. After tying Edward to a kitchen chair and blowing off a kneecap, that is, while trying to get him to tell Pete where he’d hidden the money. All he’d gotten out of him was that it was on the property somewhere. And that Pete was a cocksucking son of a bitch and why did he trust him to help him on that fucking job. He was crying with pain and writhing on the floor. Pete threatened to take out his other knee but suddenly Edward lunged for his legs, grabbed him and toppled him onto the kitchen floor. Pete shot. The bullet went through Edward’s heart, killing him instantly. Even so, for long minutes Pete waited. He stuck his finger on Edward’s neck, feeling for a pulse. Nothing. He didn’t move. So he was dead and all Pete knew was the money was somewhere in the house.
     His instinct was to run, but instead that night he dragged Edward to the tool shed. There was a padlock hanging open, so Pete dragged the dead man into the shed. He found a roll of plastic sheeting and some duct tape, wrapped the body, then locked the padlock. He went back into the house and quickly went through drawers, looking for the money. He pulled himself up, calmed himself down; gotta think, he told himself. He didn’t know Edward well; all he knew was his wife had left him. No kids. No one would drop in on him, as far as Pete knew. So if he stayed fairly quiet he could do a thorough search of the house, find the money. He went into the bedroom. Just in case he was surprised Pete took his gun, checked his ammo. The kill-shot to Edward had left him with one bullet, and that bullet he needed.
     He told himself, I won’t go back to prison. If the cops come for me and I can’t get away I’ll use that bullet on myself. He laid the gun on the bed, laid down beside it and was asleep.

It was such a curious thing. He could have sworn he had punched holes in every wall of the living room looking for the hidden money. He’d lost track of time. When he woke the next morning in Edward’s house the walls were back to the way they had been before he put the holes in them. He thought, well, did I dream that or what? Despite his vow to keep it quiet and low key, he had taken a 16-ounce claw hammer from Edward’s toolbox and gone to work on the walls. He looked at them dumbly. Just then Edward showed up.
     “I don’t have much respect for your carpentry skills,” said Edward, looking at the walls.
     Startled, Pete said nothing.
     “You’re not even going to say hello to me? I thought maybe you would have missed me.”
     Edward walked like he wasn’t missing a kneecap. Pete’s mind raced. So was killing him a dream, too?
     “Hey, Pete, I’m talking. Yoo hoo.”
     “I…I…” he stammered. “I thought I killed you. I put you in the tool shed.”
     “And so you did,” said Edward. “And so you did. But I’ve come back to aid you in the search for the money.”
     Pete sat in Edward’s worn armchair. “Come back?”
    “Yes, I thought maybe we could get through this together. That I could shed a little light on what you’re looking for. For instance, when you got the hammer out of my toolbox, did you look in the basement for the money? Lots of places to hide it in the basement.”
     Pete closed his eyes and shook his head. Maybe when I open them he’ll be gone, he thought. He opened his eyes and Edward was still there, a cat-that-swallowed-a-canary look on his face. “Downstairs,” he said, “you’ll see.”
     So Pete, despite an initial inclination to run out the door and not stop running until he was far away from the house, went downstairs with Edward right behind him. “I’d start over there by the furnace, if I were you,” he said. “There’s a lot of junk over there. You can look.” Pete looked. He looked for hours while Edward kept up a stream of conversation. “Maybe I put it under the insulation,” and Pete peeled off insulation, only to find nothing.
     Tired and dirty, Pete said, “You’ve had your little joke. Now where is it?”
    “It’s no joke,” Edward said. “I’m here to help you look. I’m not telling you where it is. I’m just here to help you look.”

Nothing seemed to change. There was no power, no water, no neighbors, no sounds except for the sound of the hammer knocking holes in the walls. Every day Pete would look and Edward would show up to egg him on. Pete could knock down walls, and when he would leave and come back it was like he hadn’t done anything.
     “You know how long you’ve been at this?” Edward asked.
     “I don't know.”
     “Several months.”
     “No, no way. A few days, maybe.”
     Another time Edward asked and Pete said, “A few days,” to which Edward replied, “No, a few years.”
     Time was a concept that didn’t seem to apply, but reality, which had slipped away from Pete’s grasp after a time, was becoming more than a shadow on the carpet stained by Edward’s blood, now fading.

“You ever going to give up?” Edward asked one day. “It seems hopeless, doesn’t it?”
     “I won’t give up,” answered Pete, digging again near the foundation in back of the house. “I know the money is here somewhere. You’ve said it is, and that you keep moving it. One of these days I’ll catch up to it and I’ll be out of here.”
     “I wouldn’t be able to stop you, you know,” said Edward, “being a ghost and all.”
     “I don’t know what kind of trip you’re on, but you’re no more a ghost than I am. I didn’t kill you good enough, is all.”
      Edward let out another of his snorts that passed for a laugh. “Kill you good enough,” he mimicked. “Hey, Pete, you kill me all right.”

There were rituals. Every time Pete woke up and started tapping the walls, Edward would come in the room. “Found anything yet? Tried the kitchen or living room?” No matter how many holes Pete put in the walls, no matter what he did, every day started the same. Edward was there in his peacoat and watch cap, every day the Jell-O in the cupboard, every day the holes miraculously repaired.
     “Tired of this yet?” Edward would ask. “Tired, maybe, want to leave? Move on?”
     “No, the money is here. I will find it.”

One day the ritual varied a bit. It sometimes did, but never anything substantial. Pete stood at the kitchen counter feeling his hunger. And he suddenly wondered why he didn’t eat, why things repeated themselves. It wasn’t as if he hadn’t asked those questions before, but for some reason his brain seemed to have stopped functioning in a very significant way. As soon as he would wonder, the thought would vaporize, only to be replaced with a thought that he hadn’t checked the walls or the flooring in the bathroom yet. If I pull up the linoleum maybe there’s something under there. If I pull the lid off the toilet maybe the money is in the tank, he’d think.
      So that day in the kitchen with Edward sitting at the table and Pete at the counter, Edward said, “I’ll bet you’re wondering why you keep doing what you’re doing, don’t you?”
      “No,” Pete said.
      “I’ll tell you anyway. You do it because you, me, we’re being punished. Us greedy bastards have to keep looking for something that is beyond our grasp. The difference is that I never killed anybody and you killed three people.”
     “Three? No, I killed two people, the security guard and you.”
     “Three. You killed yourself.”
     Pete stood motionless. Maybe if I go down in the basement again; maybe I can take a big hammer and chip away the concrete. He could have dug a big hole and re-cemented…
     “The cops came to get you. My ex told them she thought I might have been involved in the armored car robbery and killing. She said I had talked about it and you one night when I was drunk, that we were planning it. She thought I was just full of shit, which, frankly, I usually was. So the cops snuck up on my house and there you were putting holes in my walls. They said you spotted them through the window, put the gun to your head and blew out your brains.”
      Maybe if I go out in the yard, maybe he put underneath the pyracantha bush, thinking I wouldn’t want to get any scratches on me when I dig.
      “Anyway, blowing your brains out is probably why you keep going through this whole sequence, over and over again. It’s boring as hell in hell, eh?” Another snort.
     Pete said, “I don’t believe you. I‘m not dead. You are dead, you are just a nightmare I’m having. If I keep looking I’ll find the money and get out of here.”
     Edward said, “All right. You’re right. I’m just your imagination. a bad dream. So, have you tried the walls in the bedroom yet?”

Pete was tapping the wall of the master bedroom when Edward walked in. “Found anything yet?” he said as he sat on the edge of the bed.
     Pete just grunted.
     “Have you checked the living room? Kitchen?”
     “I’ll get to them.”
     “You won’t find anything.”
    “So you always say.” He took his knuckle, raw and red from tapping thousands of walls thousands of times, and tapped the wall to check for hollow spots. Edward sat on the edge of the bed and as he had done thousands of times, hummed his tuneless tune.

Copyright © 2016 Postino. All rights reserved.

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