Saturday, August 2, 2014

Madam Butterfly

The mere thought of viewing the photo made my palms greasy. I supposed even a lion tamer beats back the fear of entering the cage through repetition so I vowed to study if often, until I either understood the intricacies contained within or it lost its power over me. My two older brothers stood on either side of me like bookends—much too well-groomed and handsome for lions. Both of them surely settled now with respectable wives, customary jobs, and promising offspring. One would think sufficient enough new memories to have crowed out the old. Cold as it seemed I would have preferred such an arrangement as expectations of others creates a heavy burden for a traveling man.  

My brothers were born better men than most — the type whom after all this time still couldn’t completely enjoy an after dinner drink without the liquor turning bitter against their tongues as an obligatory thought of their younger brother’s whereabouts and latest misadventures danced through their heads. I’m certain the marauding thought prompted a different set of questions as I believe the human mind is comprised of a unique labyrinth of dusty paths, but just as every winding river finds its way to a greater body of water I fear each in their own time arrived at the same destination, the corner of Misunderstanding Lane and Bewilderment Boulevard, completely perplexed and heartbroken as to how their younger brother continued to roam like a tumble-weed.       

Momma said from the onset of pregnancy she knew I was different—said she felt it rumbling in her belly like thunder. With each passing birthday I became more aware of this restless thing that churned inside of me—an insatiable appetite for adventure; a wolf that feasts and moves on quickly, afraid that if he  settles in one spot for more than a night the desire of pursuit might escape in a dream. He has glimpsed the nightmare before; another warrior too deflated and weak to stand. Even the arrival of dawn cannot stir him; instead she weeps bitterly knowing the power to revive and restore such things lies outside the realm of a rising sun. I fear the warmth of ten-thousand suns cannot loosen the icy grip of a crippling frost; descended under the cover of night, settling heavy on his coat, layer upon layer until it seeps into the marrow of his bones—poisoning from the inside out.  

For a man inexplicably drawn to the road the options seemed few; the answer deceptively simple. Unless a man carve out his insides completely or invite the deadly frost (either prospect more appalling than appealing); he must trudge onward, maintain a steady pace, and never look back.

If you consider such an illogical and poorly conceived manner of plotting a man’s course for life a philosophy, it served me well for nearly a decade. I suspect the freedom from being obliged to anyone for anything is what initially draws a man to a nomadic life-style, but it’s the acquired taste of adrenaline that keeps him chained there. Cast into a sea of drowning rats I learned to hold my breath and float to the top. I became skilled in the art of deception, playing the role of whatever would benefit me at the expense of those around me. In my travels I discovered North or South, city or burg; the world is overrun with liars and frauds. A full ninety-nine in one-hundred men would rather spend a week’s time apologizing for, rather than a minute embracing whom it is they truly are and will likely never be. And I have a sneaking suspicion the lone exception nothing more than a figment of an eternal optimist’s imagination. Conservatively I had re-created myself a hundred times over without anyone who could dispute even the smallest detail. Today would be no different.

Perhaps someday gambling would become an acceptable use of one’s spare time and earnings, but for now the God-fearing folks along the Mississippi would sooner invite Beelzebub himself to Sunday dinner. In such matters of deep disagreement and antiquated thinking it is commonplace to assume you are born belonging to one extreme or the other. One party believing that giving an inch to the opposition earns you a one-way ticket to a place of burning damnation, and the other side unable to conceive a haven of eternal rest worth the cost of such closed-minded company. For now the gambling houses peppering the hillsides were boarded up or had been burned to the ground forcing those struck with the ‘illness’ to open water where as of yet no restrictions existed.

The shadowy likeness of chandeliers hung above each table; the sparkle of crystal stifled by a layer of dust produced by a coal-burning engine; gangly fixtures producing enough light to distinguish the ball room from a root-cellar but not enough to discourage the gathering of rodents. Like paper dolls cut from the same flawed stock, each of them saddled with elongated faces; pasty and gaunt—too far removed from a good night’s rest. Their movements were slow and mechanical, feeding on the last fumes of alcohol boiling in their bellies. As I moved throughout the space I discovered a reoccurring theme; it appeared to me everything and everyone had given up the better parts of themselves to come here. Overall, an eclectic collection of zombies, but then I spotted a gentleman of substance with an attractive female dangling from his arm and I smelled opportunity.       

From the instant we locked eyes I believe we both recognized the danger in staring too long at another like us. I understood being the first to break the steely exchange constituted a perceived weakness, but I calculated it a better option than allowing him to prove it completely. He flashed a wry grin, pleased that I would surrender a first round so quickly. Despite his genteel disguise the man standing before me was as dangerous and poisonous a creature I’d encountered.

A na├»ve moment longer and I would have fallen under his spell completely. Disengaged from this silent brand of warfare I observed my adversary in a completely different light. Suit, shoes, and top hat, white as driven snow; a telegraphing of innocence, designed to delay the discovery of a blackened-heart beating beneath. I determined the monocle over his left eye less an ocular necessity than an instrument of war as I could still feel the scorching effects of it like a noon-day sun. Although his movements seemed random, his repositioning about the table was efficient and purposeful designed purely to gain advantage over another; like a boa constrictor ratcheting his grip. A mere three feet separating us suddenly seemed risky.  

“I find it quite stuffy down here. Think I’ll go topside for a smoke.”

Over the years I learned self-preservation comes instinctively. I didn’t recall commanding the words that left my lips, only the actions that kept me a man of my word.    

I discovered a measure of peace nestled in the muted sounds of a river-boat’s paddle slapping against the current. Without demanding any sort of attention the sun drooped into the shadows of the hickories lining the shore. I toyed with aligning the lit end of my cigarette and drawing hard enough to match her hue. Burrowing deeper into the safety of branches she appeared to smile—perhaps at such foolishness that any man would dabble at reproducing nature. Along with an occasional chuckle was the din of several quiet private conversations melting together, proving to me this place and those who loitered here were in complete contrast of those below. The topsiders were like my brothers. Perhaps by month’s end I would return home. It was always with good conscience I made such plans, perhaps a dozen times or more, never to act upon them. I wondered quietly if I’d reached such a level of decay that my own thoughts could not be trusted.    

During a brief exchange with a topsider I ascertained the name of the well-dressed gambler. The stranger hinted that Mr. Cleary came from old money, enough that he felt comfortable wagering a good percentage of it nightly on cards. I had yet to inquire about the female accompanying Mr. Cleary when a disturbance sent the topsiders scattering like mice. I turned to my new acquaintance to find the space on the bench as barren as a winter’s field. I recognized the flashy female slinking across the deck as the very same hanging from the arm of Mr. Cleary only moments earlier. I supposed it under his direction and part of a bigger plan that she approached me now unescorted.

“Is the seat next to you taken?”

Her voice arrived much softer than expected. I wished to respond cleverly and normally weaving a web of words, whether a small smattering of the truth or a complete fabrication, flowed as freely from my lips as water welling from a spring, but it took every ounce of concentration I could summon to ignore the intoxicating aroma of butterflies. I supposed it a costly perfume but the essence rather completely captured what I imagined such an elegant creature of the sky to smell like. Despite the waning light of day the beauty of her classic facial features sparked an aura of radiance, but the manner in which the purple cloth clung to her exquisite frame was perhaps her most disarming feature.        

“Feel free to sit, Madam Butterfly.”

She stared at me as if I had two heads. Upon realizing my response I now wished for two—one that might be assigned to stay on point and responsibly carry on a civil and productive conversation, leaving the other glassy-eyed and drooling to shamelessly record her every detail. And when she had left and the three of us settled down for the night we would gladly allow the foolish head to talk us to sleep.

“My sincerest apologies for the foolish speech that follows the consumption of too many drinks. The seat is open and you are welcome to it.”

Unlike others where laughter erupts in choppy and awkward bursts, it flowed from her like a sonnet begging to be written down. Still standing she bent gracefully at the waist and drew within striking distance. No stranger to being slapped sharply across the cheek, I braced myself.    

“What would say if I told you that I had my eye on you from the moment you entered the ballroom and not once did I see you order a drink?”

“What if I told you, good lady, that I carry a flask of fine Irish Whisky and it is nearly empty?”

She folded like cotton on the bench next to me, much softer and nearer than expected, then in a sultry manner she drew her lower lip between her teeth and smiled.  

“If not for shattering your expectation of an innocent doe I might simply reach inside your jacket and check for myself. But to save us both the discomfort of gossiping mouths I will instead inform you that I’m well within proximity to smell alcohol on your breath, and the absence of such makes you a professional liar!”

I don’t imagine the look of surprise on my face significantly removed from that of Goliath’s expression when struck in the forehead with David’s stone. This woman was either an exceedingly good judge of character or a hound sent to flush a nervous quail from the brambles. I suspected and hoped the latter.

“At the risk of sounding pointed, did your husband send you out here?”

She laughed again, nearly as gracefully as before.

“Yes and no, I suppose. First, Mr. Cleary is definitely not my husband and yes, daddy sent me up to extend an invitation to you.”

Without warning and disclosing a single word more she twirled around on the bench, stretched out on her back, and laid her head in my lap.  

I nervously swiveled in both directions. “So much for the gossiping mouths”, I laughed.

“My name is Miranda Cleary. Question of the night—if the world caught fire and you could keep only one would you save the fabulously starry skies along the river or rescue Michael Angelo’s greatest works?”
The warmth of such an attractive woman’s head seeping through the fabric caused my mind to run in circles. The thought of using my fingers to smooth the fabric of her dress flashed through. Only after flushing it completely could I give sufficient answer.  

“I’m Henry Carter, pleased to meet you Miranda. Well, ma’am, I suppose that since I know the beauty of one first hand and have only heard tell of the other it would be improper that my vote should count at all. Perhaps you ought to sit upright again; I’d hate for your father to come up and jump to wrong conclusions seeing your head buried in my britches. You said something about extending an invitation did you?”

“What would say if I asked you to kiss me right now?” Miranda probed.

I did my best to brush the question aside.

“I’d inform you that I haven’t been that limber since I was a boy of twelve.”

Undeterred, she popped upright and asked again. Certainly the daughter of a gambler she upped the ante.

“No bending involved. I’m not telling you what daddy sent me for until you kiss me.”

The light of a harvest moon played with the river and then my mind. Striking the surface she then leapt into the abundance of Miranda’s chestnut hair until every strand appeared to emit a tiny stream of light. Miranda’s eye sparkled with anticipation and truth be known I could fill a notepad ten times over with shadier things I’d done or been an accomplice to than simply kissing a woman who asked. As I brushed back her hair to expose the apple of her cheek my breathing picked up pace. Leaning towards my target Miranda pivoted quickly and caught me full on the mouth. Before I could protest, her electric lips devoured mine, transmitting a jolt of energy that caused every hair on my body to stand at attention. I can only assume the tingle extended into the cortex of my brain when my field of vision filled with spindles of colored light splintering from a central point in all directions toward outer space.

Suddenly Miranda pulled away and blurted so quickly I felt the sweetness of her breath in my face.

“You definitely piqued my father’s interest and that occurs on very rare occasions. Daddy noticed your hesitation at the table earlier but would still like the opportunity to get acquainted. He’d be delighted if you’d come to his suite; dinner at 7:30pm sharp—and a private game of cards I’m certain to follow. Oh Henry, won’t you please, please say you’ll come. Don’t think it to forward of me, but already I’ve grown rather fond of your company.”

At first I stared blankly into the darkness seeking answer where there were none to be found. Then I paced about the deck aimlessly for nearly half an hour, attempting to reason with my unreasonable self, exhaling more cigarette smoke than the old vessel belched out the stacks running full-bore upstream. I couldn’t shake the feeling that an innocent nod of acceptance had sealed my fate. ‘Where was you head?’ I scolded audibly before taking notice of the crossways glances and outright glares I was garnering. I shifted to a whisper but kept moving, ‘How could you have put yourself in harm’s way simply to avoid disappointing a woman you barely knew? You used to have a beautifully crafty mind, is it suddenly rendered completely useless as quickly as some woman beyond your reach inadvertently brushes again your heart-strings? Have you forget how intuitive Mr. Cleary had been during your first encounter. Beyond a shadow of a doubt he will know you’ve kissed his daughter. Hell, he probably knows you briefly considered caressing her under the guise of smoothing her dress. You may as well avoid the issue entirely by throwing yourself overboard now. The odds of being fit enough to swim to shore are better than surviving the viper you’ll face below deck.’

I immediately regretted working myself into such a frenzy as a brief glance at my timepiece revealed only five full minutes remained. The only thing more frightening than facing Mr. Cleary in his own surroundings would be the insult of arriving late. I drew an extraordinarily deep breath of fresh air and before descending down the stairs prayed it would not be my last.   

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Instinct Part 1

I saw plenty of cops come and go, but none more interesting and engaging than Dexter Hanley. The grizzly veteran was the oldest guy on the force by a good decade and most of the surface dwellers in the precinct didn’t bother digging any further than a first impression. Based on first encounters Dexter was an odd bird, but I’ve always believed there is a certain percentage of genius even in those labeled bat-shit crazy. More than anything I suppose a bad left eye and a few ticks spooked most people off, but if you weren’t afraid to ask a few questions and took time to listen to the answers you’d discover a loving and dedicated husband, grandfather, and exemplary officer. I’m not saying Dexter couldn’t have done more to bolster his image among his peers, but he didn’t seem to care much about what others thought and said of him. Like water off a duck’s back most days with the exception of one occasion that’s as fresh in my mind as yesterday.

Dexter arrived back at headquarters and as he strolled past the break-room caught a glimpse of the new rookie doing a bad impression of him. The kid was pretty buff, but definitely full of himself; the kind that poses in front of a mirror and honestly believes he’s doing the mirror a favor. The boy’s whole demeanor changed the moment Dexter hoisted him up like an empty milk jug, pinning him against the wall, leaving his feet to dangle like a paper-doll on a windy day.

While I can only assume Dexter’s insides were on the brink of boiling in their own juices he never lost his composure; his voice as smooth and rich as any high-paid news anchor that ever lived.

“There’s a difference between gym-tough and street-tough.” Dexter began. “I’ve yet to have a criminal challenge me to a curlin’ or bench-press contest, so probably best if you save that shit for your puffy-chested cronies at the gym—you know, the one’s starin’ at your ass in the mirror when you ain’t lookin’!”

The room erupted into a chorus of laughter and jeers as Dexter dropped the boy like a hot-rock. The punk folded into a pile at the baseboard like a dirty pair of socks and boxers at a bachelor pad, and was still quiverin’ like a bowl of half-set Jello as Dexter leaned down to offer some parting advice.

“Two rounds from a .45 in a dark alley will change your life—one in the back and one in the skull, so all things considered I’m mighty blessed to walk away with just a lazy eye. Son, I was walkin’ a beat in the nastiest part of Philly when you was still nuzzlin’ your momma’s teet and fillin’ yer diapers with green puddin’. That don’t make me better than you…just smarter, more experience of knowin’ when to keep my yap shut!”   

Dexter’s outburst put an end to the jokes around the station and as I look back marked the beginning of our friendship. Neither of us were the type to make friends easily but I suppose we each saw something in the other we identified with. On the surface we were night and day. Dexter was African-American, thirty years my senior, and grew up in the projects of a large city. I couldn’t imagine quitting school in the fourth grade and going to work to help your mother support your seven brothers and sisters. Despite experiencing the harsh reality of a cold and cruel world at such a young age Dexter navigated the choppy waters and not only emerged on the other side, but arrived there a much tougher and smarter breed than most. Quite admirably he appeared to harbor no animosity towards anyone. On the flip-side I came from an upper-middle-class exclusively white neighborhood and breezed through private school on my parent’s dime. They wanted me to pursue a psychology degree, but all the money in the world can’t make a square peg fit a round hole and that’s how it had been for me socially since grade school.  Out of respect I began working towards a psychology degree but silently resigned myself to a life of misery. Midway through my sophomore year I was walking home drunk from a party and had the fortunate experience of getting mugged and severely beaten; fortunate because I used the recovery time to formulate a plan for escape. Eventually I convinced my parent’s the world would not suddenly quit spinning if one kid changed his degree to criminal justice.          

I likened Dexter and his beautiful brain to a tightly wound ball of yarn. Locating the loose end proved difficult, but once identified, tugging on the fray unraveled an avalanche of knowledge that often flooded my brain to the point of overload. I can honestly say I continued to absorb information right up until the night he was killed in the line of duty.

Dexter failed to respond to a radio call and the search began. We found his squad car in an empty parking lot, driver’s side door riddled with bullet holes, and the front seat drenched in blood. The only thing missing was Dexter, no body and not a trace of it being removed from the vehicle. I knew he had been working an angle on something, but despite my inquiries he remained tight-lipped about the details. Like an older brother to me, I took the loss personal and worked on the mystery for more than a month. With little evidence and no leads, the higher-ups ‘encouraged’ me to quit chasing ghosts and let the past pass. Threatened with the loss of my job the case went cold, but I could never quite shake the feeling I’d let my friend down. More than anything I hated it for his family. Navigating the grief process is nearly impossible when you can’t even lay your hands on a body to bury.    

Nothing about Dexter could be remotely classified as conventional. Some of his techniques fell a good distance outside the lines, but the damndest thing was they always worked. I remember laughing out loud when he suggested I could essentially train myself to have a photographic memory, turn it on and off like a light switch. At the time I wasn’t even sure such things existed, but certainly if they did I figured you were wired that way or you weren’t. Turns out the old man couldn’t have been more spot on.   

Despite the distraction of a world moving at full speed, I took a deep breath and forced my mind into a state where everything crept like cold molasses over a frozen rock. I focused hard on the cigarette, able to make out the Phillip Morris label during each revolution until it covered the length of the interrogation room table. I followed it up with a lighter skidding along the same path until it dropped into the suspect’s hands.

“You got the smoke you asked for, let’s get down to business.”

“Knock yourself out—it’s your story, you tell it.”

Right out of the gate I didn’t like the guy’s attitude, but I supposed he had his agenda and I had mine, so I forged forward with my rendition of what I believed took place that night.

“I’m guessing it was around midnight when a pretty, little, brunette rounded the corner and started up the alley. You were probably pretty stoked to see a working girl that either wasn’t afraid to take the shortcut, or maybe she was too high to care. Don’t suppose it mattered to you either way as long as she moved away from the streetlights and into the shadows. That’s kinda where guys like you do their best work, isn’t it Rodney, under the cover of dark?”

I didn’t expect an answer, but paused on the off chance he might tip his hand. Instead, Rodney leaned back in the chair, sparked the lighter, and took a long drag. Veiled by a cloud of smoke I could still see that smug expression. If this punk wanted to play games I was definitely willing to turn up the heat.  

“Some women run around in primer, best suited for tooling around town and running errands. Not this shiny vixen; she was built for speed and lived for the thrill of the open road. It was those stiletto heels that set everything in perfect motion; banana curls dancing against the apples of her cheeks, tender breasts licking against the delicate lace of a thin teddy. Each step sent them heaving against their restraint, flirting with the brink of spilling over. All that visual temptation put to the sweet music produced by the rhythmic swishing of a leather skirt rustling against her thighs. Suddenly it didn’t matter that she wouldn’t give you the time of day because with each delicious step she unknowingly moved closer to the lion’s den. Then she’d have no say in anything. You’d bring her down, satisfy your own desires, and take what you wanted. Isn’t that what you were thinkin’, Rodney!”

The boy didn’t have to say a word; his pasty white complexion and the line of sweat-beads across his brow told me my rendition hit dangerously close to home. Just when I was set to take another bite out of this punk the Lieutenant nearly busted the door off the hinges.

“You damn renegade! Just what the hell do you think you’re doin’?”

After leveling the accusation of wrong-doing in my direction, the Lieutenant addressed my suspect.

“Rodney, gather your things and get back out on your beat, your partner’s waiting on ya!”

With the arrival of unexpected company the pressure in the room skyrocketed. I felt like I was trapped in a sauna with a broken thermostat running wide open. Calculated risk was a part of the gig but I had determined getting to know Rodney outweighed the potential repercussions of getting caught doing it. Now that my plan had fallen apart I hoped a cool down period would benefit my cause. I attempted to sneak out of the room on Rodney’s heels when the Lieutenant caught me by the collar.

“You crazy, unethical, son-of-a-bitch, that’s a fellow officer you’re interrogating like he’s Charlie Manson’s brother. You do understand if he has an ounce of sense he’ll make a phone call and in a flash the D.A. will be so far up my ass I’ll have trouble breathin’. Thank you for brining a fresh pile of shit to my doorstep, Officer Tanner. It’s like a bad infomercial…but wait there’s more. As if this steamy pile wasn’t enough, you placed a bright, shiny turd on top. Not only is Rodney a fellow officer, but more importantly my wife’s nephew! Hand me your weapon and badge. You earned yourself a month off without pay, starting now!”

After a few moments of silence the idea of being suspended unjustly boiled in my gut until it spilled over into angry words.

“You’re making a big mistake, Lieutenant. I understand you’re worried about the bad press associated with exposing a rotten apple from within. But for my own curiosity—is there a particular number of mutilated, young girls before you start losing sleep? Obviously three isn’t enough. And just how brutal do you think the press is going to be when they suspect more blood was spilled by your attempt to protect your reputation and family instead of doing your job?”

I thought my bosses head was going to spin off before he sputtered his next words.

“That’s an extra week of suspension for gross disrespect!”

I moved into his personal space until I was certain I could feel the pulsing of the bulging vein in his forehead.   
“That’s a physical impossibility, Lieutenant. By its very nature disrespect would indicate a prior level of respect, and the only thing gross in this whole situation is your level of negligence!”

Perhaps the most important single lesson Dexter taught me was that the loneliness associated with operating and thinking outside the lines is not a bad thing. We were working together one night, sitting at a stop light when it turned green. As I pulled through the intersection Dexter said he was going to ask me a couple questions. He stated there may or may not be correct answers, but the most important thing was to refrain from analyzing my replies and just respond instinctively. I suspected it was another of his tests so I laughed and agreed. 

“What was the model and make of the car following us that turned North on Culvert Ave?”

“Rust colored 69 Impala, black hardtop, looked to have a good sized dent in the driver’s front quarter.”

“Damn, I missed the dent completely.” He exclaimed. “You’re warmed up now, boy. Let’s go for broke.”

 “How many steps across the cross-walk, one curb to the other?”

“Size ten and a half, six foot male, normal stride, sixteen steps”

Dexter giggled like a school girl at her first dance, completely unable to suppress the excitement in his voice.

“Ok…OK, how many LED’s were in that green stop lamp?


The old man slapped the dash, “Nice try, but I gotcha—there’s 285.” He exclaimed proudly.

I turned at the next block and we circled back the original intersection.

“Check it out, Dexter, third ring from the center on the left side two are burned out, so makes 283.”

“Damn, boy, you’re unbelievable! But that’s what I’m talking about—most people don’t see things in that kind of detail, and even if they did their minds don’t process quickly enough to make it useful. You and I, we got a special gift and an obligation.”

The tone of his voice changed decidedly, “Son, you gotta promise me you’ll never move to the dark side.”

It was those words that haunted me ever so slightly, but I hoped Dexter could see in this case there was a thick, murky band of gray rather than a distinct fine line separating the two. Dexter was right about the keen insight we shared. While the majority of the officers appreciated Rodney’s sense of humor, I’d always had the ability to read people and was certain a rotten core lurked beneath the goofy exterior of Rodney Allen Kelly, and I aimed to prove it, with or without the backing of a badge and a legal weapon.