CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
People in my field had to know the whens and hows of doing a bad thing. Good judgment was hard to exercise; it was hard sometimes to hobble a man with a ball peen hammer and call that good. Judgment wasn’t even the word for it. Maybe consistency.
Dale went East, then up on 95. He had friends in Maine and, potentially, a cabin. That was all I knew. My employer wanted me, if practicable, to first track, then hobble him.
I took Exit 24 to Mousam, pulling over at the Turnpike Motel, just past the off-ramp. The motel was cheap and clean enough. I asked the front-desk clerk, a man of narrow shoulders and girth with a pencil-thin upper lip, why the rates were low.
“Little suicide incident two summers back,” he said. “A group thing. Kids all holding hands while one of them stuck a fork in the power outlet. They wore these blank rubber masks, were still jerking around when the cops came.”
This was the kind of thing kids did. Always something en masse, hands held, killing themselves. It wasn’t the kind of story that moved me, except as a curiosity.
At the Turnpike Motel, I sat on the bed’s corner, holding an extra-firm pillow against my abdomen, rocking back and forth. I thought of calling somebody, but I couldn’t think of anyone, the contacts list on my phone containing no friends. So, still sitting and rocking and half-listening to the TV, I decided to call Dale. I had his cell-phone number, had been trying to track him with it.
He picked up after the third ring.
“Hello,” he said.
“I’m here, waiting,” I said.
“You’re where? Where is here?” Dale asked.
“I’m where you will be. Where you’re going to end up, in a few days most likely.”
“So, you’re where you think I’ll be.”
“No, you’ll be here.”
“What if, because you just said this to me, I decide to go someplace completely different? What if I blindfold myself and throw a dart at a map and go there?”
“Then maybe I would be wrong. I’m not saying that I’m afraid of being wrong, but I don’t think I am.”
A particularly long and involved, vaguely futuristic commercial played on the TV. The characters were so ravenous it was hard to tell what they were advertising. Soda, chips, boner pills, they ladled a little bit of everything into their mouths.
Normally, I followed tight. I mean tight. Lodged up the mark’s ass the entire time, tailing. That was how I got people to make a mistake and run into a corner. So much of it was just the thought. People could withstand a lot but they hated the thought of being followed. They hated the following worse than any kind of confrontation. That was why I dragged it out so long, to psychofuck them from the beginning.
But I changed things up for Dale. Out of boredom, mostly. Because I’d already psychofucked umpteen million people and was tired of getting out of the car and walking up to them with the ball peen in my left hand and the .45 Combat Master tucked in my waistband, and seeing the same blank, sweat-glistened expression. That expression betraying a head clogged with fear, shaking back and forth in slow rhythm, the brain reduced to a skipping record. How many times does anybody, even a guy in my field, need to see that?
So I had flipped things. Decided to wait instead of follow. I poured over the relevant information about Dale, his interests and histories; I stared into a portrait of his face and imagined wearing it like a mask. Then I drove directly to the place where I knew he would come.
The next morning I woke up to rain. Rain falling in sheets. Rain falling in unremitting columns so that it didn’t even feel like rain, but like my room had been plucked off the ground and dunked into the Atlantic. I pressed my face against the window and could barely see the outline of my car.
I turned on the TV and picked up my phone, scrolling through contacts. It was just as empty as before. The motel served no food but did have both an ice and vending machine. The vending machine served an orange drink called StimuFizz, of which I hadn’t heard. I took my time by the machines, scanning for people. I wasn’t looking for a long conversation necessarily, just a quick chat with someone unthreatened.
Across the hall, in the Office Room, a woman in a massive green sweat suit used the computer. She swore at it and thumped the mouse a couple times. Her back was to me, but I could see her face in the reflection of the window. She wore oversized bifocals and had unusually high cheekbones. Her default facial expression looked strained and her skin, puckered and drooping, reluctant to adhere to the bones.
The woman saw me watching her in the window. We stared into each other’s reflections a moment before I waved at her, using the hand clutching my ice baggy. She took a deep breath and ignored me.
“Do you need help?” I asked.
She didn’t answer, but I couldn’t tell if it was because she was ignoring me or because she hadn’t heard. I asked again, louder, but she seemed oblivious.
The vending machine ate two of my dollars without giving up a StimuFizz. I took an extra bag of ice to compensate.
When the rain slowed, I took 1A to West Mousam to track a lead. Dale owned, supposedly, a cabin in the woods. I didn’t know its location except that it was inland, so I drove that way and circled the back roads for hours. By accident, I doubled back onto a long straight stretch of 1A and spotted an almost empty gravel lot populated by a small plywood shack and a hand-painted green sign reading JUICE FOR SALE.
From the shed emerged a man in a full-body carrot suit. I drove the car right up to the stand, guiding the wheel with one hand and holding my .45 in the other. My gun had gone out of production and become a collector’s item.
The man inside the suit did a little jig as I pulled up. He sprung a cartwheel and a backflip, then walked towards me holding a jug of something orange. I pointed the Combat Master at his chest.
The carrot man stopped, but didn’t put his hands up in the universal sign of surrender. He instead held his right palm out in the “stop” gesture. When I saw the hunch of his posture and the little tuft of a gray forelock dripping from his headpiece, I stuffed the Combat Master back into my waistband.
The carrot man lowered his palm and grabbed a plastic jug from a shelf beside him. Inside the jug—a gallon milk container with the milk sticker still on it—a bright, neon-like orange fluid sloshed around, deeper in color than orange juice.
“Is this what you came for?” he asked.
“What is it?” I asked.
The juice vendor looked at the jug, then back at me. “It’s what I sell. My juice.”
“Do you sell a lot of juice?”
“They sell a knock-off in town. Stim-you-fizz. But it’s my juice is what it is.”
I took the gallon jug from him, opened the cap and sniffed.
“Is it made out of carrots?” I asked.
“Among other things.”
It didn’t smell like carrots. I kept staring at his costume, trying to peek past the eyeholes. Something about the way it hung off his shoulders gave me déjà vu—reminding me of a Halloween costume, maybe my own as a child. Except I’d always hated Halloween.
“It’s my work uniform,” the juice vendor said, pulling at the felt.
“I understand. Do you live here in this shack?”
“I sleep here at night, if that’s what you mean.”
“I have no employees.”
“Do you make money?”
“I live, boy, on my own terms.”
For a while the juice vendor and I just hunkered under the stand and looked out at the rain. The vendor gave me a jug of his orange fluid. Without saying anything else I hustled to the car and drove back to the Turnpike Motel.
Dale and I had met before at get-togethers, though not for very long. We’d exchanged greetings and shook hands, one of our respective employers telling the other that either Dale or I was a promising young associate.
Dale had caught his break as an old-fashioned cat burglar, cartwheeling through alarm systems and scaling gutters to get at jewelry. What they used to call a second-story man. After a few years he switched over to the new way of stealing money, which was from people’s online banking accounts. This was how he got himself in trouble in the first place—sidling up to head honchos to learn passwords, then click-and-dragging five hundred grand into his own pocket. Nobody thought Dale would be the type to turn on his own. But Dale left a note, it read:
Dear Coworkers,I felt no personal animosity towards Dale. He had a sense of humor, seemed like an alright guy. In fact, I admired his decisions in some ways. That he’d left a note. That he hadn’t changed or encrypted his phone. That he was fleeing North when South was the only sane route. These little deviations were what made my life fun when everything else started to feel at once obligatory and useless.
When you put them under enough stress, folks were always surprising you in some little way. I didn’t get that kind of opportunity in my life, to surprise others or even myself. The unfortunate truth was that I was probably more predictable than any of the people I chased.
The Quaker’s Plains Campground was out west on 9A, one in a long chain of campgrounds. The entrance sign featured a bust of the man from the oatmeal boxes, his face framed by pine trees. I stopped there to stretch my legs and take a break from searching. I’d spent days swiveling my neck in all directions, hoping to spot proof of Dale’s arrival.
The threat of rain hadn’t gone away, but took a rest. Flora dripped in quiet unison while the fauna crept out from their hiding places, not quite trusting the sky.
Campground protocol was to bring a trailer or RV, but I just brought my car. Some fellow campers across the way gave me suspicious looks that I neither understood nor liked. They’d brought a trailer and kids and a little black grill stuffed with franks, whereas I’d only brought my sedan and a jug of carrot juice. I lay on the car’s hood and read the latest issue of the Journal of Orthopedic Medicine. Really I was just killing time until Dale.
A man in my field, which was that of business, did well to educate himself on the art of negotiation and, maybe more importantly, fairness. A man in my specific subset of the field, which was that of debt collection, did well to keep abreast on the science of bones. I much preferred reading about bones to reading about negotiation. This didn’t mean that I enjoyed breaking bones more than negotiating because I really wasn’t that type. The pain caused by bone breaking was of a terrible, cheap variety. What was beautiful, though, was the neatness of it. In my field, we called it economy of movement. It meant you didn’t go whirling around with some Hollywood Judo move when you needed to make a person’s hand stop working because you would trip or you’d miss and either way you’d look like a shitbag. Instead, you took a grip and put some patient, full-body pressure against the old ulna, until it cracked with a sound like shucking corn. Novices didn’t think of this kind of stuff. Novices went for the joints because they thought that was the logical thing to do. People think of joints and they think of weakness. That’s not always true because the strong bones are exposed and the weak bones are tiny and hard to reach.
After reading, I scoured the Internet for Dale. He had a website, but it didn’t mention his career as a second-story man. It mentioned his new career as an actor. The homepage revealed a grid of pictures—headshots of Dale. He called himself a master of voices and boasted that he could mimic no less than 444 dialects and was capable of contorting his facial muscles into new faces.
To be honest, for a long time I didn’t much respect people who changed jobs. I thought it was a sign of weakness, not being able to handle a commitment over the long term. But staring at the many faces of Dale, all of them unique but singularly happy, enthused, I wondered if it was the strong thing to cut your losses.
A young man in a drab T-shirt patrolled the campground on a golf cart. I watched him around the corners of my book. His body so pale and soft and regular as to render him nearly invisible, indistinct, as though even if you looked at him full-on, he’d seem like a shimmer in your peripheral vision.
He wound the cart around a fire pit and came squeaking up to my plot.
“Sir, are you OK?”
“I’m fine. How are you?” I said, looking up from the phone.
“Are you a camper here?”
“I just paid ten dollars. At the gatehouse up there. They told me I could park here for the day, to relax.”
“You’re camping here?”
“I’m relaxing, for the day. Is that alright?”
“We just wanted to come by and touch base. You don’t have a camper or tent, so we weren’t sure what you were doing exactly and the other campers were a little unsure if you were—if you were OK.”
“You are one man,” I said.
“Excuse me?” the near-invisible kid said.
“There is no ‘we.’ You’re just one kid.”
“Oh. I was referring to the facility, the campground.”
“Then why don’t you bring the facility over here to talk to me. Stop putting words in its mouth.”
Obviously, I had suspicions. Dale liked to disguise himself and with all of the rain and cold weather it was easy to find a disguise. I wondered about everybody—the carrot man, the people at the Motel. I kept tabs on them from the corner of my eye. Really though, they didn’t have the presence of Dale, which, ultimately was how you knew. People changed their names and addresses, got plastic surgery, invented histories. People changed themselves so fundamentally that it was hard to say if their previous identity every truly existed. In the end, the bonebreaker relied on the indelibility of presence.
The easiest method would have been to interrogate everybody. Drag them off to a corner and strip them down to skin. But the sign of a good bonebreaker was his or her accuracy. It was important not to grab the wrong person. If you indiscriminately hobbled all those who worried you, you became no more than a common thug.
Though I’d ruled out a few, now-familiar faces, the kid from the Quaker Plains Campground gave me a feeling. He was a candidate, a potential Dale. Since first laying eyes on him, I’d spied him wandering around the town’s center, running (seemingly) errands. The kid looked like the textbook definition of a regular American young man. Halfway between boyish and mature. Medium height. Brownish-blond hair. Gray eyes. White skin that wasn’t completely pale. The sort of person who put me at ease with his very ordinariness, his face like a readout of statistical averages.
He had the Dale presence, but only a hint. I wasn’t certain. Sometimes, while tracking people, I found a scent and followed until it went weak. At that point I could only be patient and alert.
I didn’t mind. Patience defined me. I enjoyed the careful watching of others and didn’t feel guilty for it. In fact I felt reassured. I sometimes hoped someone was watching me.
A couple days later I stopped at the carrot man’s stand for a refill on his juice. When I arrived, he wasn’t out front dancing for customers. Also missing was the large sign.
I paced the lot, kicking small stones. The grass at the periphery smelled hot. Normally I didn’t smell things or if I did, I didn’t care. But I smelt the lawn and the fibers of the pine shack. Somewhere far off, carrots.
Approaching the shack, which was no bigger than a small woodshed or a large kiosk in the mall, I craned around hoping to glimpse the carrot man. I didn’t see him at the counter, or inside. Circling around to the back, I found him kneeling against the exterior wall, mixing fluids into a graduated cylinder.
“Making a fresh batch?” I said, peering down, over his shoulder.
I must have surprised him. He dropped the cylinder and reached into a fold in his costume, clutching. Then, when he saw me full-on, he relaxed and shook the green tassel atop his head in a sign of recognition and cooling down.
“Sorry,” he said. “Secret ingredients.”
“Proprietary information, sure.”
I nodded and said, “Yes.”
He made the stop motion with his palm, signaling me to wait, then knelt behind his shack once more. A few minutes later he appeared with a jug of juice.
“I actually wanted to pick up maybe three gallons, if I could.”
“Triple?” the carrot man asked.
“Yes, if that’s alright.”
“Are you three men?”
“Just for me.”
Before the Dale assignment, when I’d been on “vacation,” I started talking with Dr. Sheinkmahn. Not an official session or anything because I didn’t have anything wrong with me, but we chatted now and then. He didn’t know the specifics of my job, but did know it was at once a deep source of professional and personal pride, while also the cause of not inconsiderable anxiety, feelings of loneliness, and guilt. He told me this was common in our fast-paced modern world.
Sheinkmahn said he didn’t believe in emotions. That they were like credit cards—there was nothing behind them. They were abstract values that gained more and more meaning the further and further away humans moved from basic survival. If one were being chased by a dinosaur all of the time, according to Sheinkmahn, one would experience a limited set of emotions, namely fear. As people stopped being chased quite so often, they became attuned to a wider variety of more subtle and confusing emotions that were confusing exactly because they didn’t have an easy physical solution. When fear came from the dinosaur, you removed fear by removing the dinosaur. The lack of fear resulting from the lack of dinosaur would be so nice and total and refreshing that it would instantly become happiness, and that happiness would stay there at the forefront of one’s brain right up until the next dinosaur came along.
Without something to chase you, your emotions could not have this fear/no fear simplicity. Instead you wallowed in between, not quite this but not quite that. Never as awful and terrifying as being chased by the dinosaur, but never as purely relieving and gratifying as suddenly being rid of the dinosaur.
My question was why wasn’t Dale fearful? Why didn’t he care? And did this mean that, were I to stop chasing him, would he not even feel relieved?
The rain came back redoubled. Its weight pressed the motel roof, making it groan. On the TV, the futuristic commercial kept getting interrupted by flood warnings. The anchor reminded us that the Geertz dam would be released in about an hour and that this would cause flooding, especially in those areas nearest the Mousam River.
Six, seven—in some places ten inches of water. Flowing but without any observable direction. Maybe not flowing, but gurgling—concentric rings rippling out from some deep, subaquatic core. From a distance the flood looked like a shit-colored Jell-O mold. The water high and still, exhibiting the qualities of a solid.
After taking an hour-long shower, I stepped out, the water still running, and sat on the toilet. Massaging above my knee, I sipped from the jug of juice. I’d added vodka to it. Whether because of the heat or the booze it was difficult to say, but something got me emotional. I started thinking about those kids at the motel, electrocuting themselves. All of them scared, none of them having had much truck with death. The sad part wasn’t the suicide so much as the masks. They’d worn masks as part of some cult gesture of solidarity. The shame of it was that in their last moments, when the fork-wielding hand was poised for the decisive thrust, when they were glancing around at their last earthly sights, they couldn’t see each other’s faces.
A guy in my field had to make eye contact with a lot of scared, bleeding, desperately conciliatory individuals, and it was difficult, but it was the least you could do. The older codgers had this saying about our business, that no job was too bad and no act too violent so long as you didn’t look away. It seemed to hold a little truth. But those poor kids with their masks. They’d murdered themselves and hid—looked away from each other the whole time.
I got too tired to move from the toilet, so I dragged my pants to me with my foot and fished out my phone. I called Dale and he picked up.
“Hello,” he said.
“So,” I said, but then I couldn’t think of what came next.
“Well, I want you to know I’m not angry.”
“When I catch you. I want you to know that no matter what I do, it’s not because I’m angry. I was never angry.”
“Sure. I’m not angry either.”
“It’s just the way of things.”
“If I were to stop though—”
“If I were to let you go.”
“You don’t have me.”
“But if I were to let you go, would that be better?”
“But you haven’t caught me. You haven’t even come close.”
“It’d be relieving though, right? It’d take a burden off your mind?”
“It’s no burden, really.”
“You’d be more thankful for your life? Do things differently?”
“I am doing things differently. Already. I’ve done that.”
“You’re telling me you don’t care one way or the other. Caught or not caught.”
“You haven’t caught me.”
“It doesn’t matter to you either way?”
“That’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying I won’t get caught.”
I quit rubbing my thigh and instead hunched over my lap, my face suspended over the stark space of my crotch.
“I’m the dinosaur,” I said.
“Sorry, there’s something in the background—I didn’t hear you.”
I set the phone, screen up, on the floor. Dale shouted for my presence like a man drowning. I watched him there, trapped in a box, toeing him around. He hung up.
Dale was due to reveal himself any day, by my calculations. Of course there was no knowing, but I felt he must be in town, or approaching it. It was time to sniff him out. The problem being the rain, which didn’t stop and made it such that I could either wait at the motel for it to end, or slog through the flooded streets and hope my car didn’t stall. A man in my field often took these sorts of gambles and really it came down to one’s gut. So I drove to the library because it was in the middle of town and looked out over all directions.
The library’s third floor was a still-incomplete computer lab. It contained twenty-five rolling office chairs and five visibly used desktops. I’d had to change into jeans because all my other clothes were soaked. Then my jeans got soaked, too. No cars save emergency vehicles were on the streets, their orange sirens lolling through the wet static.
I kept overwatch from the third floor. Shivering and hugging myself, I scanned the streets for activity. I pulled a rolling chair to the window and folded my arms over the bottom of the sill. I rested my chin on my folded arms and tried to see everything by looking at nothing in particular.
After an hour, I spotted the kid from the campground. Kneeling on a homemade raft and paddling with a branch, he reminded me of George Washington crossing the Delaware River. The pose, the theatrics, the mad scramble to evacuate—everything about him now had the indelible smack of Dale.
Beer cans and dead branches bobbed in the flood’s shit water. Mufflers and hubcaps, bits of house, trash, or more specifically trash bags—bloated and half sinking, but also buoyed by their cargo—moved in formations like wild geese. Everything eddying in ellipticals or shuddering in little suction pockets. I waded past.
The kid floated into my view. I half crouched behind a mailbox.
I snicked the Combat Master out of my waistband, but didn’t cock it.
As he steered himself around a flotilla of restaurant trash, the kid drifted within ten feet. He quit rowing to scratch himself and at that moment I stood up and chucked the Combat Master like a tomahawk. It landed square on his forehead and trickles of blood ran between his fingers as he clutched himself.
“Got you, motherfucker,” I said.
While he flailed in the murk, I vaulted the mailbox. The distance between us collapsed. I dunked his skull under the surface until he bubbled. He fought to lift his face over the current so I broke his ulna. His jacket had come off. It floated for a few seconds, looking like seaweed or the crown of some ancient creature’s head. Then the water bled in and sank it.
When he surfaced again I looked at his face and stopped myself midswing. Up close he looked much different, like a real person. His expression not ordinary so much as fearful, and though Dale could contort his face into all kinds of emotions, fear seemed like maybe the least familiar to him. I hoisted the kid by the front of his shirt to get a closer look.
“Is this a disguise?” I asked.
The potential Dale was out cold. I pulled at his face, hoping to find a mask. I grabbed at his arms and torso, feeling for some silicon sheath disguising the real Dale below, but I only molested him. His non-Dale face went red and purple under my clutch; his hair tore out in flaky tufts. His left ear came off and hung between my fingers like a dripping comma. There was nothing beneath, no disguise.
I felt bad but angry, and I couldn’t tell which was the more important emotion. Dr. Sheinkmahn would have dismissed them both. I knew nothing about the guy beneath me, dribbling pink snot and uni-eared. Nevertheless, I was so frustrated with myself that I almost stomped him right there and then, just to erase the mistake. Instead I towed him into the library and set him to dry on a reading table.
I stopped at the carrot shack before returning to the Turnpike Motel. It took an hour, my car crawling between the contours of obstacles. Parking on the side of the road, I waded into the gravel lot, sediment licking at my crotch. The shack was boarded over with plywood and tarp. I poked at it with the Combat Master, hoping I’d find a gap or jimmy loose an errant jug, but no.
I lapped the structure searching for the carrot man, but couldn’t find him. Part of me wanted to pry off a board and loot the place, but I didn’t. Really, I didn’t need the juice that bad. What I wanted was something to hold on to.
All the other guests had fled the Turnpike Motel the day before. The parking lot was so washed out that my car belched water and stalled before I reached my spot. When I opened the driver’s-side door a stream flowed in beneath the seat.
The carpet was all sodden and the floor in my room warped. A lamp had crashed against the nightstand, sprinkling a confetti of broken glass over the bed; the smell of mold and wood rot stronger than the air freshener.
I took another hour-long shower with nothing to drink but water. When I stepped out, I heard my phone buzzing. I sat on the toilet and answered.
“Hello,” I said.
Dale was giggling, had been giggling before I answered.
“Can you guess?”
“Try to guess why I’m laughing.”
“I don’t want to guess.”
“Alright, well. You were right.”
The bathroom floor was covered under an inch of water both warm and brown. I couldn’t tell if it was from the flood or the shower. Did the flood and shower use the same kind of water?
Dale said, “I’ve been here, in town. All along. I’ve even seen you.” Then in an overly sly, shit-eating tone, “Maybe you have even seen me?”
“That’s pretty good,” I said.
“I’ve really put some effort into my incognito work.”
“That’s nice,” I said.
“Did you know? That I was close by?”
“Hard to say.”
“Come on, you didn’t know. Admit it.”
“It’s not that simple.”
“Don’t be all sour grapes. I worked hard!”
“I’m not sour grapes. I’m not angry about anything.”
“The brain is funny isn’t it? Sometimes it doesn’t recognize a thing even when it’s right there in the open.”
“It’s funny,” I said and I hung up the phone.
Dale called again. I saw his name on the screen and set the phone on the lip of the tub. I turned the tub on and let it fill with the hot, dirt water. Dale called four more times, leaving four voice messages that I never checked. Each time he called, the phone skipped in little sine waves across the lip. I let my hand hover in some kind of readiness; I didn’t know what I’d been doing with it, what I’d accomplished.
I got up and walked, naked, into the living room. I wanted my ball peen hammer. I wanted to use it on something that didn’t have a face.
Michael Schoch is a freelance writer and editor as well as a recent graduate of the MFA program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. His fiction has appeared in Jersey Devil Press and Route 9 Magazine.