We Don’t Need to Be Sober to Guard a Wax Museum
"Cowboys" by Chris Stuck, recommended by Chanelle Benz
Introduction by Chanelle Benz
In the stories of Chris Stuck’s debut collection, Give My Love to the Savages, the floor is shifting under the feet of the protagonists. They’re trying to stay upright, get a hold of the situation, but the situation is on the move, snowballing until it’s barreling down upon them. But still these characters are trying to read the signs, licking a finger and putting it up to the wind. Because it’s not just trying to determine what the hell is going down, but who the other characters think they’re dealing with—a Black person, a person who is Black but not that kind of Black, their Black friend, their Blackish friend, a ethnically ambiguous mixed-race light skinned what-are-you? person who is hoping people read them as Black pretending to be their friend?
Stuck’s story “Cowboys” sets up an immediate tension between the title of the story and the very first line: “We were supposed to be unarmed security guards, just a couple fellas watching over things, but Ernie carried a gun anyway.” This elicits an uh-oh, an oh shit from the reader who is immediately worried about the protagonist, Shelton. Early on there’s the sense that a bomb has gone off before the story started, but Stuck plays the tragic element of Shelton’s backstory close to the chest, revealing the loss bit by bit. Along with the tension there is humor, the sometimes merciless, sometimes almost slapstick humor which is one of the pleasures of the book.
Like many of the book’s characters, Shelton is not quite sure what role he’s supposed to be playing. Ernie, his fellow security guard at a strange waxworks museum, seems harmless, is certainly unimpressive, but Shelton has to constantly parse the intent behind Ernie’s casual occasional racism, and with that comes the requisite moments of refusal, acquiesce, uncertainty, and inevitably fatigue. His is a nighttime world, shared with a stranger who becomes a circumstantial friend, someone you hardly know but spend so much time with that it creates an intimate familiarity. As things go from not great to bad and head toward crazy, Shelton is doing his rounds in the museum, staring at “the dummies displayed in the glass cases [that] looked like people frozen in big blocks of ice…” and finally has “an eerie sense that the world had stopped, and I was the last person alive.”
One of Stuck’s talents is to conjure those times when our lives are pointedly sad and absurd but masquerading as mundane. Those times that will make for an amazing story years later, if we can survive them.
– Chanelle Benz
Author of The Gone Dead
We Don’t Need to Be Sober to Guard a Wax Museum
“Cowboys” by Chris Stuck
We were supposed to be unarmed security guards, just a couple fellas watching over things, but Ernie carried a gun anyway. He showed it to me my first night working at the museum. We were about to make our rounds when he said, “Hey, Shelton. I wanna show you something.” He hoisted his foot on top of the front desk and drew the gun from a holster strapped to his ankle. He presented it to me on his palm, like it was a mouse he kept in his pocket. The scratched gray revolver was almost as small, the kind corner boys in DC would’ve called a “better than nothin’.”
“My brother, Ralph,” Ernie said, “he’s a bail bondsman, by the way. His wife, my sister-in-law, she’s Black. Myra’s her name. Yep.” He rocked forward and back on his heels and kept looking at me.
I nodded and said, “Good to know.” Then I looked away, hoping he didn’t think all us Black folks knew each other.
Ernie was likable enough for a white guy. I mean, I guess I liked him at the time. We had things in common. He was divorced. Sylvie had left me. Like two stray dogs, we could smell how lost and alone the other was.
Five minutes after meeting me, he said he was a retired cop, which made me a little nervous. But he talked so much about “collaring perps” and “walking a beat” that it sounded more like TV lingo than real life. I suspected he hadn’t “served on the force” for very long, if at all. The only thing I knew for sure was he was forty-three, just a big white dude who was constantly red-faced and sweating. The sour smell of alcohol seeped from his pores. The damp, curled ends of his hair were always glued to his shiny forehead.
“Here, Shel. Hold it.” He gestured at the gun. “See how it feels.”
My being from DC had put ideas in his head. Maybe I harbored a dark past that had gotten by the background check. But I didn’t, nothing that serious anyway. The worst things I’d ever done were shoplift beer or scrawl graffiti as a young’un.
With Ernie watching me, I took the gun and pointed it. I felt I should comment on it, as if I knew the first thing about them. I moved it up and down and said, “Wow, got a good balance to it,” and Ernie beamed like a new father. He was still watching me, waiting for me to do something, so I spun the gun around my trigger finger and handed it back to him like a gunfighter. I didn’t even fumble. A new respect sparkled in Ernie’s yellow eyes. I’d bought a gun recently and still wasn’t sure why. It seemed like a good thing to have, even though I could never hold it for long. A hot second or two, and my hand turned clammy. I’d have to set the gun back in the lockbox in my closet. As we started our rounds, Ernie walked beside me, watching a wildlife documentary on the cracked screen of his phone. There wasn’t much work to do. There never is, guarding a wax museum. We simply sprayed the mannequins with our flashlights and made sure nothing was moving that wasn’t supposed to be. It was the weirdest and easiest job I’d ever had, during the weirdest and hardest time in my life. After the first day, I wasn’t sure how long I’d last. I wanted to quit after the first hour.
The museum was called the Waxsonian, and it was owned and operated by an older Vietnamese guy who’d reinvented himself when he came to America. He even changed his name to, of all things, Richard Doberman. According to Ernie, he’d been taken in by a white family when he first came to the US and eventually took their last name, even married one of their daughters. “Can you believe that? Dick fucking Doberman. Almost sounds like a porn star, don’t it?” Whenever Ernie found something funny, he wheezed out a few chuckles and then exploded in a convulsive fit of coughing. “But you gotta respect the man’s hustle. Am I right?”
I said he was right.
Apparently, Doberman had made major bucks in some business or other, enough to make converting an old bank building into the Waxsonian seem like a good idea. Ernie and I could never tell exactly how successful the place was. We didn’t think it was important enough to have a security guard, let alone two. All we knew was it somehow stayed open, housing over three hundred mannequins, most of them pretty close to real. There was Obama and all the other famous presidents, celebrities like Babe Ruth, Marilyn Monroe, and Muhammad Ali. When the museum was dimmed to only security lamps, the dummies displayed in the glass cases looked like people frozen in big blocks of ice.
I listened off and on to the British dude narrating the documentary on Ernie’s phone. He talked about the “seamless coiling” of a running cheetah. How there’s a certain point in its stride when none of its paws touch the ground. I walked alongside Ernie, watching the animal hang in the air. The British dude then started talking about the cheetah hunting a wildebeest, how it swats the back legs, trips the prey, and goes in for the kill.
Ernie stopped mid stride and watched. Bored, I wandered over to the cowboy display. Doberman had a thing for westerns and dedicated a whole section of mannequins to those movies. There was Clint Eastwood, squint-eyed, biting down on a cigarillo. Gene Autry, holding a white guitar to his chest. And Roy Rogers, also with a guitar, but standing next to a golden horse. Out of all of them, the John Wayne mannequin looked the most realistic. I caught myself staring at it, half expecting it to wink at me. Then I noticed the mannequin of a Native American behind him like Tonto, set decoration.
That was when Ernie sidled up next to me. “I bet you don’t know what happened to cowboys, do you?”
I said I didn’t really care all that much, but I guess he didn’t hear me.
“It’s an easy one. Barbed wire.” Ernie selected another video on his phone and waited for it to load. “Cowboys used to keep the cattle together in herds, but when barbed wire fences came along, no one needed cowboys anymore. They lost their families. Some of them became outlaws. There are still some around, like in Wyoming and Texas, but they ain’t real cowboys.” Ernie tugged at his belt and hitched up his pants. “Now they’re just guys on horses.”
Around seven in the morning, quitting time, Mr. Doberman walked in the door, happy. He sported a toothy grin, slick black hair parted on the side, and he was threaded in his usual JCPenney’s finest: a western shirt, boot-cut slacks, and cowboy boots.
“Everything go all right last night, fellas?” His English was flawless. He sounded more American than we did. If you closed your eyes, you’d swear he was from down south somewhere, Alabama or Georgia maybe.
“Yep,” Ernie said. “All was quiet on the home front.”
I was the new guy, so I never knew what to say to the dude. I only ever stared at Doberman, unable to reconcile his voice with his ethnicity. Most Asians I’d come across in DC were voiceless people behind corner store glass. They didn’t speak a lick of English, much less sound like a country star. “Great,” Doberman said. “Why don’t y’all get outta here and get some sleep. I’ll see you boys tomorrow.” He always dismissed us like a sheriff did his deputies, and Ernie and I walked out to our cars.
After my first shift, Ernie invited me to hang out with him in his beat-up minivan for a while, which quickly became our routine, since neither of us liked going home right away. He opened his glove box, and I spotted a bag of weed and a pint of Virginia Gentleman among a wad of old papers and parking tickets. He said, “Ain’t too early, is it?” and dug out the bourbon. As he tipped back the bottle and took a few gulps, the brown liquor glugged softly. A string of fat bubbles rose to the top. I’d acquired a bit of a drinking problem growing up. When Ernie passed me the liquor and I felt the bottle in my hand, I couldn’t resist. I looked out at those leafy suburban streets and thought of Sylvie. I took a quick swig just to get it over with. The sweet burning liquid swept through my chest in a wave. I licked the warm walls of my mouth. I hadn’t taken a drink in three years, a stretch of time when I used to have nightmares about relapsing. During better times, I was so happy to be over all that, but now here I was. I took another swig, and looked out the window again, knowing this was the beginning of a long, ass-ugly binge.
Ernie shook his head and laughed. “Don’t be scared. This is the suburbs, brother. No one’s gonna arrest us. We own this damn place.” I wasn’t sure who he meant by “we.” He let out a hoot and then rolled down his window and fired a glob of spit into the air like a cannon. He wiped his mouth with his wrist and laid the pint down between us. I lit a cigarette and shook one out for him since he’d killed his whole pack during our shift. “Menthols?” Ernie grimaced. “What is it with Black guys and menthols?”
“They’re stronger,” I said. “They taste better, too. They leave your breath minty fresh.”
“Well, damn,” Ernie said, “you ought to do a commercial.”
We passed the bottle a few more times, watching the sun get brighter. The liquor started hitting me. I smiled for no reason at all and watched Ernie squint so hard against the sun that he reminded me of some down-and-out philosopher.
Even though the town house I’d rented was a damn sight more expensive than I’d counted on, I took the security guard job to forget about Sylvie leaving me more than to pay the bills. I was twenty-six and had my head up my ass. Being a security guard at a wax museum almost made sense with the trajectory my life was taking. The only other job I’d ever had was at a DC hardware store, where I worked since the twelfth grade. I went from cashier to head clerk pretty fast, almost made manager. Then I got the bright idea to move out of the city. We’d lived in DC all our lives. I thought Virginia would be different, even if it was just twelve miles away.
After two months in the suburbs, though, Sylvie wasn’t having it. She was a city girl. She wasn’t built for the burbs, she kept saying. The girl barely left the house, and when she did, she usually got lost. She spent more and more of her time lounging around in our La-Z-Boy in one of my old football jerseys, one leg draped over the arm of the chair. She looked like she just woke from a nap, her eyes always tired and wet. I’d already run out of comforting things to say. What do you say to someone who can’t stop crying? Best I could do was to tell her she needed to get out more. “You’re in here hibernating like a bear,” I said. “Let me take you out.” But she still stared at the TV. So You’re Having a Baby and A Baby’s Story on the educational channels were her favorites.
It was our second crack at the whole living-together thing, and the shit wasn’t going well. Whenever I went out to look for a job, I’d come home to find all the furniture rearranged back to the way it was in our old place. Every night while Sylvie slept, I’d un-rearrange it, knowing she’d put it right back when I was gone.
Eventually, she moved back in with her mother, and the mail was all I had to come home to after my shift at the museum. It was always just junk mail, but occasionally I’d get a sympathy card, one or two stragglers still being forwarded from our old address. Some of them actually mentioned the pain of losing a child, and I’d wonder when they’d stop coming. I’d heard of people getting twenty-year-old letters that had been lost in the mail. I thought I’d still be getting the things in my fifties. On top of that, once a week I got a bill from the funeral lending company with past due stamped on the outside. I had the nerve to open only one of them. I saw the balance, twelve thousand dollars and one cent. That one cent always bothered me. I couldn’t open any of the others. I just put them in a box in my closet and crawled into bed with my uniform on, shoes and all.
At the Waxsonian, Doberman didn’t give us much in the way of entertainment, nothing to take our minds off our pitiful lives. There were no security monitors or cameras to mess around with, no high-tech control center with blinking lights. The museum was pretty low budget in that sense. I mean, we weren’t guarding plutonium or a nuclear reactor, but the dude could’ve given us something to tinker with. All we had was our phones and each other’s corny stories to keep us company.
By the second week, I had the sneaking suspicion that I’d been hired to keep an eye on Ernie more than guard the museum. Most nights, we shot the shit for a few hours and then dozed off after lunching on microwave burritos and a few beers. Then we’d wake up and shoot the shit some more. On Friday and Saturday nights, car headlights would sweep into the parking lot and rouse us from our naps. Catholic school kids trying to get some booty in their parents’ BMWs. We spent those nights chasing them away, Ernie always waiting until the girls had at least a titty out before he tapped on the window.
Occasionally, when he was especially lazy, I’d do rounds by myself. I’d walk the halls of the museum with my flashlight, scanning each mannequin’s face. Obama. Frank Sinatra. Richard Nixon. A young Elvis and an old Elvis in dueling poses. I would stroll along, bored out of my mind, and suddenly catch myself in front of the female mannequins. Diana Ross. Dolly Parton. Even Nancy Reagan’s old ass.
Though I said I’d never treat the mannequins like people, once or twice I did touch them. The hair on their heads was surprisingly soft and realistic, but their clothes hid broomstick limbs locked into hard, narrow bodies. Even their molded heads were as hollow as pumpkins. I suppose if they’d felt more natural, a less sane man would’ve planted a kiss on one of them. I wasn’t that far gone, but occasionally as I walked around the museum, I did get an eerie sense that the world had stopped, and I was the last person alive.
I thought working at night would make me feel invincible. I thought I would own the night, but all I really owned was my loneliness. It was the same for Ernie. The way he latched on to me said I was probably the closest thing to a friend he’d had in way too long. He talked a lot about women and what pains in the ass they could be, especially if we broke out the liquor early and caught ourselves staring at Pam Grier.
Even though Ernie had been divorced for a while, he still referred to his ex as “the wife.” He’d say how, before she asked for the “big D,” which was what he called the divorce, the wife told him that he’d turned into a beast. “She actually used that word, man. Beast! Believe that? Like I got fangs or something and hair all over my body. I mean, goddamn, she didn’t even mean it in a good way, like in bed, you know?” Sometimes, he’d lower himself onto the black-tiled floor, his knees popping and cracking, and he’d start doing push-ups, or try to anyway. “She didn’t mind me being an animal when a burglar broke into our house. Oh, no, she didn’t mind that shit. I had him hog-tied before he knew what hit him.” He attempted a push-up, but his arms didn’t cooperate.
The one time Ernie asked me about Sylvie, I pretended everything was fine. I never let on that she’d bailed on me before I even took this job. I could tell it made him jealous. I had a woman to go home to, and he didn’t. It was one of the only times he ever got shy. He mumbled, “You two engaged?”
I said, “No, we’re just living in sin for right now.”
He wheezed a laugh that didn’t become much more. “No kids then, huh?”
I shook my head, no, but I didn’t actually say the word.
When Sylvie and I first moved, I tried to play up the suburbs as more civilized than the city. I practically bankrupted myself taking her to the best restaurants: all-you-can-eat crab joints, restaurants with cloth napkins, Italian places with real Italian waiters who grated big wedges of cheese over your pasta. Sometimes, I’d let the waiters keep grating and grating just to see how long they’d go. I pointed out forests and fields of grass whenever Sylvie and I passed them. “Like grass is some shit I’ve never seen,” she’d say. I’d reel off facts about the suburbs, like the median income or the price of an acre of land. I ran down crime statistics. I said how there were more potholes in cities, how cities were harder on cars and lowered their resale value, and how city people were usually myopic, “which means they can’t see far.” She said she knew what it meant, even though we both knew she didn’t. I barely knew what it meant, and I was the one with a few college courses under my belt. “More people in cities have to wear glasses than anywhere else,” I told her. “Because everything’s always up close.” Of course, she turned it around on me, talking about how she liked things up close, and obviously I didn’t.
I just couldn’t understand why she wanted to go back to our old block. It was an okay-looking neighborhood and everything. There were stately brick houses with clean yards, some good people. But none of that mattered when you could still buy weed, rock, and heroin any time of day, a gun, too, if you wanted. It was a place where it wasn’t strange to hear sirens or pops off in the distance a few times a week. One or two, and it was probably firecrackers or a car backfiring. More than that, and it meant somebody was getting clapped. At least one person in each of our families had been shot, some of them killed. Men, women, even children.
My third week on the job, Ernie started in about his brother’s bail bond business. “It’s booming, partner. There’s always gonna be criminals to bail out.” He was tuning a police scanner that he’d brought in from his van. “It doesn’t really get interesting until they don’t show on their court dates, though. That’s when the skiptracing starts. Ralph’s skiptraced all over the country. Geez, all over the world.” I’d had to bail out a few hood cousins so I already knew about bail bonding. Whenever Ernie started with the cop lingo, I knew not to take him seriously. “It’s really a racket when you get right down to it. Bail bondsmen cater to the criminal element. They can get away with things cops can’t.” We listened to the police scanner, teasing out from the static a conversation between two cops about a movie one of them had seen over the weekend. They said something about a blond’s nice ass.
Ernie continued. “Ralph’s been to West Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas.” He bent his thick fingers back one by one, counting. “He had to fly down to Meh-hee-co one time to get some little chico wanted for a bunch of robberies.” Ernie rubbed the stubble on his cheeks. This was another questionable story, but I let it go. I’d learned to enjoy his altered sense of reality. It made me not feel so bad about being drunk.
Ernie and I swigged our beers and gazed out the large museum windows into the night. “I moonlight with him every now and then when I need the money.”
I smiled, remembering how he’d made a point of Ralph’s marriage to a Black lady.
“You think you’d ever want to help us out?”
I laughed. “I’m not a bounty hunter. I’m not trying to get shot either.”
“Believe me, you won’t get shot. The most I’ve ever had to do is tackle somebody and sit on them till Ralph threw on the cuffs. I get paid up to two grand just for doing that.”
“Really.” My funeral home bills were so overdue that a deep-voiced collector was leaving messages on my phone once a week. I would’ve had to sell a kidney just to partially pay them off.
“I’m telling you,” Ernie said, “it’s easy. You look like you’re in great shape. You play ball in high school? What am I saying? All you guys play ball, don’t ya?”
“I did, but I don’t know about all of us. I bet you’re gonna ask if I like fried chicken next.”
“Man, you know I didn’t mean it like that. Besides, I love fried chicken.”
I draped my arm over his shoulder and pulled him to me. “Of course you do, Grand Wizard. Haven’t burned any crosses lately, have you?”
Ernie pushed me away. “I’m telling you. You got nothing to worry about.”
My block back in DC flashed through my mind. “Nothing will happen to you. I’ll set it up.”
I didn’t have one reason to take him seriously.
During my fourth week, Ernie and I really started getting cock-eyed on the job. A twelve-pack of beers one night, a fifth of Wild Irish Rose the next, Thunderbird and Rebel Yell after that. Ernie was shadow-boxing with the mannequins by then. He stood in front of Clint Eastwood playing draw, and I stood drunk and antsy by the front desk. He ambled over to me, tossing the gun from hand to hand, around his waist, and under his leg.
“That thing’s not loaded, is it?”
He said, “What am I, an amateur?” and set it on the desktop. His hair was curled up more than usual and pasted to his slick forehead.“ If Patty could see me now. She’d say I need to get my poop in a group.”
Stupidly, I asked why she left him.
You’d think I’d just insulted his mama. He whipped his head around. His eyes blazed, but then they died out. “I don’t know, man,” he said.
The alcohol made me serious all of a sudden. I put my hand on his back, but I didn’t leave it long.
“You know what it was? She started taking these fucking classes at the community college, psychology and whatnot. Then she started hanging out with one of her teachers. She’d come home wanting to analyze me and shit.” He said after she kicked him out, she actually let the teacher move in.
I messed up by asking if he thought the wife was hooked up with the teacher.
“Hell no. Patty ain’t gay.” He looked at me for a long time. “How you gonna ask me something like that?”
I told him I was sorry.
He spun away. He got down and did one enraged push-up. Then he lowered himself back to the floor.“ I told you about the burglar, right? I had him hog-tied before he knew what hit him.”
“Yeah, you told me.”
“Who’s gonna protect Patty now? That teacher?” He rose one creaky joint at a time and plopped down next to me at the front desk. He tipped his chair back against the wall and took a nip from the bottle. “Man, all the big Ern wants is a nice woman to be with. A good meal, some cable TV, maybe a glass of wine. And I don’t even drink that much.” He swallowed a long hit of Rebel Yell and took a wincing breath. “I’m a Christian. I wear a plastic watch, and I drive a minivan.”
I laughed to fill the dead air around us. Ernie chimed in halfheartedly. He handed me the bottle, and I partook of its pleasures. “You ever been shot?” I picked his gun up off the desk.
“You ever seen anyone get shot?”
“Shit yeah. What about you?” He focused on me. His bloodshot eyes brightened. He hoped I had a ghetto story to tell.
I lied and said no, I hadn’t.
Sylvie had been gone for a month and a half, and I was spending a lot of time on the couch. My house still had a landline, an old beige touch-tone phone that I kept next to me, the mismatched black cord coiled up like a snake. When she first left, I took satisfaction in watching all the sports I wanted since she always griped when the channel rolled over to ESPN. Eventually, though, I started watching all her shows. Bundles of Joy. Babies Do the Darndest Things. Even Oprah. I’d sit there and dial her mother’s house, and I’d always hang up after the first ring. On rare occasions, after I’d hung up, I’d call her a bitch in my head and feel like a criminal. I was drinking like a fish, smoking like a chimney. Somehow, I even lost my cell phone and was too messed up to get a new one. I was back on my bullshit.
So, it was never a question of if I’d do something stupid but when. Conveniently, it happened on a Sunday, my night off. I was home, holding down the couch as usual, my fifth beer balanced on my chest. The phone was on my stomach. In the lockbox next to me, the metal plating of my gun reflected lamplight as clear as a mirror. When the phone rang, I thought it was just the bill collector, but then I thought it could’ve been Sylvie. I was so out of it that I almost expected to hear her voice when I picked up. But it was only Ernie on the other end, saying my name.
“Everything all right?” He’d never called me before. I didn’t even remember giving him my number.
“Yeah, all’s fine.” He inhaled deeply. A long silence passed. “Well, what’s up?”
“Nothing. I’m just calling to see if you want to make some money tonight.”
“Tonight? We’re supposed to be off, aren’t we?”
“It’s my brother, Ralph,” he said. “He needs some help. I told him you were interested. He needs two guys this time.”
I sighed. “I never said I was interested.”
“It’s not anyone violent. Ralph’ll handle everything. He probably won’t even need us, and we’ll get paid just for showing up. He said we can split the bond collateral three ways. It’ll be a little over a grand apiece.”
I could hear that collector’s bottomless voice echoing in my ear.
“One thousand dollars,” Ernie said. “For doing nothing.” After a moment, he said, “You’d be doing me a favor, too. Seriously, I could use the money. The wife’s got the irons to my ass on the alimony.” His voice took on a low, pitiful tone I’d never heard before.
I stood and walked a wide circle in the living room as the long phone cord curled around my feet. I didn’t say anything for a time.
“Shel, you there?”
“Maybe you can just watch this first time. See how it goes down.”
“I don’t know.” I looked at my beer. “I’ve been drinking. Well, actually, I’m drunk.”
Ernie said, “Shit, so am I.”
Surprisingly, that was all it took.
I drove over to the Waxsonian, where Ernie and his brother were already waiting next to a large truck. The fat-tired Ford was as red as a fire engine. All the spotlights and long antennas made it look like a humongous remote-controlled toy. Ralph appeared to be in his late thirties, shorter than Ernie, about my size, and stocky as a silverback. He wore a camouflage baseball hat with military insignias.
“Ralph Zabriski. Nice to meet ya.” He removed a hand from the pouch of his sweatshirt. We shook firmly. He had a large holstered revolver perched on his right hip; a flashlight and stun gun were on his left. “Now that we’re all here,” he said. “Tonight, we’re gonna be violating one Josephine Powell. She goes by Phiney.”
“Violating,” I said.
“It’s a law-and-order term. Don’t take it literally. Just means we’re taking her into custody.” Ralph popped a stick of gum into his mouth and continued. “Phiney’s staying over at a house somebody rented for her. I’m gonna knock on the door and ask her to step outside. If she’s cooperative, I’ll cuff her. You guys will be around back just in case.”
I asked what crimes she committed.
“Bad checks, in the tens of thousands.”
“See, told you, petty larceny. Easy money, buddy.” Ernie grinned at me, his eyes glassier than usual.
Ralph hopped up on one of his truck’s large rear tires and dug around in a toolbox in the truck bed. I thought again about his wife. I wondered if she was light skinned like Sylvie or dark skinned, if she was heavy set or thin, if she resembled Sylvie at all.
“Ernie, you ride with Shelton. You guys will follow me. Now, I gotta know. Are either of you armed?”
“Always.” Ernie removed his gun from his ankle holster and set it on the hood of the truck with a clank. I pulled mine out and set it gently next to his. It was bigger and shinier than his. His face twisted up ever so slightly.
Ralph picked up my gun and looked at it. “Since neither one of you is sober, I should confiscate these till we’re done.”
I prayed he would. I didn’t know why I’d brought it.
“But I’m not gonna,” Ralph said. “You might need them. I’m just telling you right now, if anything happens, you’re on your own.”
Ernie and I looked at each other and nodded.
“Okay. Here.” Ralph dumped six pairs of handcuffs onto the hood of the truck. “Take two each,” he said. “Phiney hasn’t exactly been eating at the salad bar.”
She was staying at a house in East Falls Church. We arrived there around ten thirty, the moon hanging low in the sky. We parked a few houses down from hers and walked up the street, ducking under tree limbs. She lived in a small shotgun bungalow. As we hid in the shadows, Ralph told us to go around back. He’d take the front. “I’m not losing my license because of you two,” he whispered. “So, don’t do anything stupid.” He tapped the revolver on his hip. “Don’t pull these out unless she’s got a weapon. Hear me?” He pointed to the stun gun hooked to his belt. “If she puts up a fight, I’ll just tase her.”
Ernie and I split up, and I crept around the right side of the house. It was one of those moments when you don’t feel like yourself. I didn’t know how I’d ended up there. I was sitting on the couch drinking beer and watching TV a half hour earlier. I sneaked into the backyard through an open gate, and I thought, This is what a burglar feels like. I heard Ernie climbing noisily over the fence. Finally, he poked his head around the other corner of the house, shaking his head to steady himself. That was when Ralph knocked on the door.
Someone began stomping around inside the house, a series of thumps that rattled the windows in their frames. I tiptoed up the porch steps and peeked through the back door. I could see straight down a hallway to the front. Without realizing it, I caught a glimpse of her. All the lights were off. Phiney’s big body moved slowly across the dark hallway. It was like looking through the observation window at the National Aquarium as a large fish glided into view. She moved in front of the door and turned on the hall light. She was a sister, light skinned like Sylvie. And she wasn’t just plump. She was built, muscular. The woman had been working out. She was a head or two taller than Ernie and broad as a barn. She wore a pink tank top and shorts. Her hair was, for some reason, tied up in crooked pigtails.
She opened the door, but as soon as she saw Ralph, she flung it closed. It snapped his head back, dropping him to his knees. Phiney spun around and charged down the hallway. I moved to the side of the door and ducked down by the porch steps. I had no idea what I was gonna do when she exploded through the door. I fumbled with the handcuffs in my back pockets and dropped them. I reached for my gun and dropped that shit, too. What the fuck was I doing there? Ernie shuffled around behind me as the door flew open and slapped the outside of the house. She stopped and stared down at us. My shoulders were level with her knees. The porch light eclipsed her head, a black sphere hovering where her face should’ve been.
I reached out and clutched one of her legs and prickly hairs brushed the palm of my hand an instant before she kicked me right upside the head. I fell to the ground and tasted dirt and beer, with a chaser of vomit. Her legs blurred by me as she ran to the back fence faster than I expected. She called for help. She screamed that we were killing her. It was so dark I couldn’t see her or Ernie anymore. I could only hear their feet swishing through the grass.
I followed the sound and made out Ernie in the darkness. He was pulling at her clothes, trying to get a hold of her. He kept saying, “C’mon. Come with me.” At one point, I swore he called her “sweetie.” The next thing I knew, Ernie tripped and hit the ground. All his air left him in a painful wheeze. He gasped my name, reaching an arm out. I helped him stand. I looked ahead and could barely make out Phiney swinging a leg over a chain-link fence and disappearing into a neighbor’s yard. Ernie threw his good arm over my shoulder, and we made our way back to the front. I almost wanted to go back and find my gun. But then I thought, fuck it, leave it. I didn’t want it. Ralph yelled, “I’m going after her,” and sped away in his truck, skidding around the corner, but we didn’t care. A few moments later, tires screeched. There was some kind of collision. Ralph’s horn blared. Then it stopped.
Ernie and I didn’t say anything to each other. He slumped on the hood of my car and let his bum arm dangle. After fifteen long minutes, Ralph’s truck crawled around the corner like a tank and stopped in the middle of the street, all of its spotlights blazing. Ralph jumped out and hobbled over to us, wiping blood from his upper lip. He blew his nose and spat a wad to the ground. “This is the third broken nose in three years. You guys okay?”
I said I was fine.
“Ernie?” Ralph studied his face.
“Leave me alone, you asshole.”
“Where is she?” I peered into the cab, expecting to find her restrained in the passenger seat, but it was empty.
“In the back,” Ralph said.
I turned to the truck bed and saw the outline of her big body. Ralph and I walked around to the tailgate. “What the fuck did you do to her?”
He scratched his neck. “I was chasing her, and she ran into my fender. I was only going five miles an hour.”
Phiney lay on her stomach, groaning like she was dreaming. Her arms were bent at her sides. Three linked cuffs held her wrists over the small of her back. I followed the length of her body and saw that she had only one slipper on. Her other large foot was bare and callused. I couldn’t believe I was standing there with two white dudes I barely knew, over the body of a woman I just helped hunt down, a Black woman.
“We need an ambulance.”
“No, we don’t,” Ralph said. “Calling an ambulance will open a can of worms we can’t close. No, she got her clock cleaned, that’s all. Seen it a hundred times.”
I leaned over the truck bed and watched her. Her face twitched. The rhythmic rising and falling of her body showed she was breathing. Her eyes fluttered, and she mumbled gibberish, something about going to jail. We were just standing there when Ernie lifted her large foot and gazed at it.
Ralph was too busy massaging his nose to notice. “It was hell getting her in here,” he said. “She’s five hundred pounds if she’s an ounce.”
Ernie held Phiney’s foot loose in his hand, as if it had just fallen into his palm. His head tilted to one side. Her other slipper rested against her leg. It was the biggest terry cloth slipper I’d ever seen. I picked it up and eased it onto her foot. Ernie set her leg down. We didn’t dare look at each other.
Ernie and I didn’t talk much on Monday night. We barely drank. His left arm was in a sling, and I had a knot on my forehead. It was around one in the morning, and we were watching a documentary on his phone. It was about African pelicans, how they migrated north, stopping at lakes and rivers for rest and water. About halfway through their trip, though, they ran into a drought. What used to be a lake the size of a football field had dried to dust. The British dude narrated so heartlessly. The ground was cracked, waves of heat wiggling up. The pelicans stopped flying and started walking so their chicks could keep up. After a few days, they had to leave the chicks behind. For their own survival, the British dude said. They showed the pelicans flying away as the chicks on the ground watched them go. Some of the chicks flapped their wings. Some still walked. One simply stopped. It didn’t squawk or try to fly. It just sat there and waited.
“That’s messed up,” I said. “The cameraman’s right there, I’m sure he’s got some water.” I sat forward and wrung my hands.
“They can’t,” Ernie said, flatly. “It’d mess up the flow of nature.” It was about the only thing he said all night.
When seven rolled around, quitting time, Mr. Doberman strolled in the door, smiling as usual. One look at us, though, and he was confused. “What the hell happened to you two?”
I glanced at Ernie. He didn’t want to talk. “Rough weekend,” I said. It was probably the most I’d ever said to the dude.
He blinked a few times. I could see his wheels turning. What stupid shit had we been up to while he wasn’t there? An empty fifth of Rebel Yell that we’d forgotten about stuck up out of the trash can next to the front desk. He picked it out and held it up by two fingers. He eyed both of us again before dropping the bottle back into the trash. “Fellas?” he said. “Don’t come back here. And don’t think about asking me for a reference.”
He watched us go. I looked over my shoulder and saw Doberman glancing around, inspecting things. It made me want to go back and apologize. This isn’t the real me. I’m not usually like this. But I turned and jogged up to Ernie. We went out to our cars like any other morning. I began to think on that morning, genius that I was, that maybe I’d attached myself to the wrong person. Ernie was so pitiful with his back hunched, his arm pressed tight to his body by the sling. We’d probably never see each other again, but all I said was, “Later, man.” I got in my car and let him leave out of the parking lot first. He didn’t give me his usual wave.
I’m still not sure what Ernie and I were to each other. We weren’t alike, really. We hadn’t picked each other. Life had put us together. I knew almost nothing about him. I didn’t know where he grew up, couldn’t say if he was left-handed or right-handed. I didn’t even know where he lived. I thought I should’ve known at least one true thing about him. That’s probably why I followed him that last day.
I stayed a few car lengths behind, expecting to tail him home to some run-down apartment building or maybe a dingy trailer. To my surprise, he stopped in a cookie-cutter residential neighborhood a few miles from the museum. He parked in front of a ranch house across from a golf course. The house was a dull blue with white shutters and boxy bushes. A sprinkler shot a long jet of water over the lawn. As I parked a half block or so behind him, a middle-aged woman in a yellow robe came out on the front steps to water her plants. When she saw Ernie posted across the street, she paused there, and her face stiffened.
A second later, another woman came outside. She wrapped her arm around the wife’s waist. They both glared at Ernie before turning to go back inside, first the wife and then the teacher. He didn’t get out or try to talk to them. He just sat there in front of the house, probably tipping his head back to take a drink.
I stayed there for five minutes, realizing this was a funeral. He eventually pulled away, and I turned my car around and went back to my rented house. I sat by the phone, trying to pump myself up to call Sylvie. I rearranged all our furniture, worked up a good sweat, and then stopped. This call wasn’t going to be easy. It was my last chance. After some hesitation, I dialed the number. I circled the living room as the line rang. By the tenth ring, I thought no one was there, but I let it keep going. I turned and something made me look back. I could see the long black phone cord trailing behind me just like a tail. And that was when someone finally answered.