Our hushpuppies were drying in Dink’s fry cage when the hobo whipped in. The hobo — a dependable hobo and, as you’re aware, serviceable — stooped and addressed the three of us: Lonnie, Bib and I in our regular booth by the register, the police baton and badge on the table edge, clear of the ashtray; the handcuffs locked around the salt shakers because Bib fiddled with them till they stuck. Got trouble on Dueler’s Hill, the hobo said.
On behalf of the gang: Apologies for the tardiness. No blame should fall upon the hobo you sent for me. He’s standup.
What happened was, Lonnie’s belly was snarling like the stretch of unconditioned leather. I supposed he’s be useless, an impediment even, unless his cheeks were plugged with cornmeal. Bib too, Bib supposed. Two supposes meant we turned the ketchup on its head.
Dink, that Dink didn’t do us any favors. (Hushpuppies were on the house, as usual. Favors aren’t the usual.) Dink, bulldozing that fine hobo out to Lombard Street before we caught particulars. Y’know Dink’s policy for non-payers.
We ate unaware yours was the trouble, honest, and smoked eyeing the last gobbet of ketchup twitching to undo itself from the top of the glass. It hung in there. The ketchup’s always dawdling down the bottle when you need it to just get along.
What this does not excuse and what I beg pardon for twice yet, it for failing to reach Dueler’s Hill.
Bib, the lollygagging fool. We’re on Lombard by sundown. The streetlamps are clicking on and striking us from all angles. We’re each lugging a handful of shadows, peeled off around us like flower petals. You see that many shadows normal, you’d guess about 10 of us in the pack, not three.
The town’s talking from saloon lips, pairs of bucktooth doors kicking open, spewing noise into the street. A made-up university gal exits Flab’s Bar for a breath. The momentary belch from inside piques Bib’s ears — “Johnny B. Goode” on the jukebox, and we got a squirt, the “never ever learned to read or write so well” part. Bib can’t read and can’t write so well too, so I’m amused seeing him waddle across to Flab’s like a fat, dumb bug to a book burning. He grabs the little girlie up (she was squatting, adjusting a neon yellow heel) and he’s spinning her now, whipping up her pink ruffle skirt into a blush twister on the curb. Her heel’s not on correct and it’s chucked off into the gutter, but we don’t see this heel business, Lonnie or I.
Johnny Goode goes, goes, goes for two minutes, about that. (Not my burden. Tally them under Bib’s column, with the subsequent shenanigans.) For then Bib’s sucking air. He releases the girl, who appears half as petrified as I’d suppose I’d look after an ogre had forced a bumbling jig on me. She’s stable on one leg, five bare toes hardly poking the sidewalk like a hound’s lame paw. A more suitable comparison for this pretty thing: a flamingo, with that skirt uh huh, and how she pulls her foot back to brush cigarette ash off the bottom.
“You’re those crime fighting guys?” She finished rubbing off the ash to get a second look at us before speculating. “My professor talked about ya’ll.”
“Talked shit on us?” I spoke, like natural.
“No, no, just talked. It was a lecture on the private and public sectors. Macroeconomics. Or is it micro? Can’t recall. He said you were crazy to keep up with the cowboy getup at the ages you are. That’s not considered shit talking, is it? Just an opinion. So, you all really arrest people?”
She halfway aims that question at Bib, hoping to hear his voice since she’s danced with him, or rather was danced by him. He won’t answer, so I don’t reconsider interrupting. “If need be. The real bad guys.”
“Yep,” I said. “Bib mans the handcuffs. Don’t you Bib?” I nod over to Bib already twirling them on a pudgy finger. I pull the baton halfway out my holster and drop it back in to flaunt.
“You all got a badge? I wouldn’t let anyone put handcuffs on me without a badge or something official looking. You all look nice enough, but that don’t make you harmless.”
“We got a badge. Lonnie carries it. He should have it on him. Lonnie, you carrying the badge?” Lonnie, leaned up against Flab’s brick front, huffs. “Lonnie, show the nice lady the badge.” Lonnie flashed it.
“But is it official?”
“Like, a chief awarded it to you.”
“I awarded it to Lonnie. Bought if out a thrift and then awarded it to Lonnie.”
“That makes you the chief.”
Through with this girl, I said, “Let’s get on.” But then she wanted her heel. Bib, thinking himself obligated, gets to crawling around the unlit spots where a heel could be hiding, his T-shirt riding up his potbelly, stomach hair scratching up grime. And to Lonnie it’s a joke. Lifting lids off garbage pails and checking his leather coat packets, Lonnie is. Bib comes up with it and mimes peeling it like a banana. The girl giggles.
“Good luck,” she says. “Adore your outfits, the little scarves. Reminds me of a group of grownup Webelo scouts.”
“Miss, it ain’t much, but we like to keep some semblance of uniform,” I say. That’s my so long. Lonnie, whose irritation has surpassed mine, is already to the corner. Bib leaves the girl without any type of goodbye whatsoever. We’re past a street vendor selling drunks tacos when her voice curdles. Sir! In chorus with this is the golden pendulum swish of Bib’s walking arm in my periphery. What, he scoop that banana out the alley?
“Oh c’mon, Bib! Run the lady back her shoe.”
We picked steps particularly among hobos wrapped in newspaper outside the rescue mission. Sleepyheads piled up at Hollipull Park, where the ground is soft and everyone’s paunch is a pillow for a cheek, an ear listening to a stomach growl. Here, Lonnie started frittering time. Lonnie said, “I need to sit.” He said his head kept twisting these vagabonds into victims of some beast who had passed through, who had gobbled up wives and sons and daughters, swallowed them whole, and let the leftovers, mostly grayed men with chewed up lives, spill from its jaws to spread this sinister crumb trail.
Yes, Lonnie was responsible for that mouthful. Clearer than a mumble: “sinister crumb trail.” I thought, wow Lonnie, your imagination’s never worked harder, but mostly I was reminded to shoo hushpuppy out my scarf.
We sat, Bib on a hobo who coughed and dozed right back off again. The cough put a hole in Lonnie’s dreadful yarn for one, and, two, revealed us as animated, worth a look, in an otherwise dull spread. We become discovered; a teensy motor, BIZZZZ. Lonnie points up to the treetops fencing the southernmost edge of the park. I fill in the line from his fingertip to two red dots pinned on the night, the eyes of a video recorder that has stirred and discharged its scope like its own alert digit.
“Well, well,” Lonnie says. He snickers, as if the camera is some barroom menace to dishonor, then fight in the lot. Lonnie’s return to pithiness comforts me.
At the corners of the park loom broad steel pylons topped by comically petite, rectangular heads that swivel in 180-degree arcs and record all. The feeds mustn’t travel far. The riot cars cruise up in minutes; the system is lean. I imagine a baby-faced supervisor, probably fresh out of police school, hunched in front of a honeycombed wall of video screens he grazes (the monitors fizzing, reception is bad) for concern within the grain.
“We’re late to the party, betcha,” Lonnie said. Twice in the past year we’ve been summoned to incidents spotted first by the towers. We’d arrived. The crime scene was cordoned off, the thugs hauled off, the witnesses sent home.
Once Lonnie canvassed a burning four-story orphanage for trapped children, well aware every last one of them had hop scotched down the fire escape to safety, skipping steps as if in a game. The kids had counted off in his presence (twice, adrenaline slipping them up in their original attempt), and a plump maid had agreed: Yes, 16 is the number. Lonnie went in despite. I imagine him kicking open doors casually, not expecting much but dwarfish beds in bars of hellfire sticking the length of the wall like lit arrows.
Lonnie’s full of shit, selfish. He’s picking at grass, pitching the bunches at my shoelaces. I’m of the mind that you can surprise yourself, don’t have to be sure. I remember another curious story from Lonnie, went something like:
“You’re outside a door. You think you hear someone in grief behind it, in a little room, so you lean into the jamb to get a better listen. Well, you know you can’t do nothing about it, so to go into that room is silly, to set yourself standing there uncomfortable with her and the pain spread out between like a puddle you keep inching away from toward the door. And she’s just looking at you like, you didn’t bring a goddamn mop? I never owned a mop, not even a Scott towel, so I was a dummy to ever open the door in the first place.”
You go into the room to size up the puddle, I told him. You hafta. Maybe you can swab it out with the sole of your shoe, as you would a rain drip you ferried inside on the back of an umbrella. Maybe the floor’s carpet and you just wait it out to dry.
“But what if you know you need the mop?”
I thought, where’s this sign on the door that reads, “No mop? Then forget it”? I said, “Good question, Bib.”
Remember the photo in the evening edition? (Spread across the table at Dink’s, you in your pajamas, fine enough to go to breakfast in. The smell of hash browns on the griddle. I’m quiet next to you, a bit awkward and clueless after tracking you down.) See a splotch on the pavement, the blackest swell of ink on the whole front page. You mistook it for oil from the tricycle, slain and sideways, even though it doesn’t run on the stuff. The toddler’s leg was stiff behind the frame like a puppet show on pause. Handlebar tassels threaded through toes. You saw all that, but I saw the blood pooling, the tire spinning.
Lonnie too, Lonnie saw the tire spinning. It’s come to work backward on him, like an ineffective gear that fails to catch its neighbor and maintain the action. A pointless wheel, turning the air. I dare to reach in, the spokes will lop my fingers clean off.
I need 10 if I’m going to have a go at Dueler’s Hill alone. Lookie, lookie, Bib’s asleep. Bib’d be coming with, provided I could wrap the drool strung over his bottom lip around my balled-up first, pull him as I would leash a stubborn dog. Before I go I tell Lonnie he should see Celia, meet her. If she’s long left, still go. “Bib, agree?” I ask. Bib grunts, not wholly out. “Sure you do, Bib.” There was two supposes again, but Lonnie probably forgot the deal.
As I march across the field, the towers pursue like they’re starved animals determined for a biscuit in my pocket. I wonder about their night vision capabilities, how green I’m glowing in this type of night. Can I not be, to a weary watch’s sensibility, anything more than a creature freshly bubbled up from a lagoon? I try to walk extra straight, like a human, no mistaking me for not. Suspicious cameras bow their heads as I pass between two of them, splitting the legs until I’ve come up on the other side. I peek back, half expecting to catch the towers bent at the waist to watch me depart, upside down, like a ground ball missed the mitt.
Sony about Dueler’s Hill, once more. It’s easy explaining why Lonnie never arrived, easier explaining why Bib. Me? It’d be as rough and wrong as a dismal illumination on why I chose to eat what I ate that day, hushpuppies at Dink’s. Then there is the matter of you believing it. Halfway up the Hill, a raccoon’s in the path, a spook that succeeds because I run. Let me save you the trouble: I backpedal not solely due to the raccoon, a red herring I guess if I’d had sealed my gabs. I’m booking it. When my hearts hurts I book it less. Skulls snap to scan me as I pass. The images zip back to a man in a booth, who thinks I look cartoon ill. In the park, hearing this is a stickup, nobody move. And me with only a baton, hardly been swung, missing my big ole band. I’m on all fours, in ears. Lonnie. Lonnie? Bib, Bib. I never take my own advice initially because I can’t be certain it will leave me firm. Pause until someone else takes it and is OK.