inertia1

From Devil Dancer

          After his wife left, Wendell had trouble sleeping. Night after night he lay awake in bed, with a sharp tingling ache running up and down his arms, and waited for the heart attack. He would take the cautious shallow breaths of a man with broken ribs and try to relax, but his jaw clenched, his chest constricted, and his legs twitched. Sleeping pills didn't help, although some groggy mornings he caught a short nap before noon. He began drinking a bottle of wine every evening in exchange for a dazed immobility that passed for sleep. Sometime before dawn his full bladder would wake him up to the test pattern on the television, and he would stagger from the couch and go stare bleary-eyed at the stranger in the bathroom mirror.
          The apartment came down about him, dishes filled the sink and dust gathered in corners, whispering behind his back. It took a special effort to do the simplest things— less petting for the cat, its food never on time, the litter box neglected. The internal difference between presence and absence seemed to unbalance the air because only one person was breathing it; when he looked across the table at her empty chair, the food went dry in his mouth; even the silence was the wrong kind of silence because only one person was hearing it. He could feel desolation settling into his body, making itself at home in his bones and in his blood, so that whatever the old friends or new faces, there would still be the same familiar pain.
          He lay in bed and thought of Laura. He had grown to love that everyday intimacy, eating the food she cooked and talking about the little things. He could picture the way she turned her head at an attentive angle as she sat at her dresser and rhythmically brushed her glorious hair. His heart tightened as he remembered how once years ago they had wrapped up in a quilt on the throw rug in front of the fireplace and reached for each other. Laura's life was in her lips, and in time he believed that he was tasting less in her kisses. When he began to watch her for signs she asked, "Why are you always looking at me like that?" and he retorted, "Like what?"
          She frowned when he said that and left the room. Later she told him, "Wendell, you can't keep love. You can only give it, receive it, or kill it." "Is that what you're doing," he had demanded, "giving it away?"
          They had a terrible fight that night and afterwards everything began to drift downstream. She stayed out late, he drank heavily, they made love less and less. The last time she kept her T-shirt on and he had trouble getting an erection. The next night all her clothes were gone and there was a note on the bathroom mirror:

          Dear Wendell:

          I wish I could love you more than I can.
          Try to remember the good times.

                                                  Laura


          He searched everywhere for her. Finally a friend told him that she had moved in with the manager of the branch bank where she once worked as a teller. A god-damned paper pusher in a three-piece suit, an Italian, a languid-eyed ladies' man who wore pointy-toed shoes, lived in one of the new pseudo-Tudor condominiums next to the golf course and kept a power boat on the Kentucky river. Wendell had stood in the dark and looked up at the man's windows. He bought a gun and thought of honor. At last he went to see Laura to ask her to come back. She had a new hairdo, a polite smile, and a reluctance to look him in the eye. He had rehearsed making his case so often that he made it badly, mixing down-to-earth offers to cook, clean, and talk more with ambitious plans to change his life and occupation. She said what he knew she would say: it was too late, she didn't care about those things any more, she was happy now. "You still don't understand me, Wendell," she said. "You never will."
          He dreaded the thought of having to begin all over again, of going from bar to bar in an unlikely quest for love, feeling all the while as awkward as an acne-faced kid on his first date and fearing that women would see the urgency in his eyes and instinctively pull away. In truth, he felt more forlorn in crowds than at home, so he began to concentrate on getting through first this day, then that one, telling himself that if he could go on living he would start forgetting, and that if he went on hurting one day the pain would stop. He rejected the idea of suicide because he assumed that there was a valid reason to live. In time, it would occur to him what it was.
          Two months after Laura left he decided on a whim to quit his job as a house painter and become a detective. He had few qualifications for the work other than his Marine training and an inborn sense of curiosity and fair play. Even though he had botched up his own life, he thought he might be able to help straighten out the lives of others. Luckily, he was a local boy and knew the right people, so it wasn't hard to get licensed. He listed his name in the Yellow Pages, ran a few ads in the paper, and started operating out of his own place at Idle Hour Apartments. His fee was the cheapest in town— one-hundred dollars a day and expenses.
          What that usually got him was the lowest job around: jealous husband, "Follow that bitch!"; jealous wife, "Follow that bastard!" Assignments like that didn't give him much of a chance to right the world's wrongs, but at least they provided a good excuse to step outside and cruise the streets, or go door to door talking to the people and looking for the meaning of things. It certainly took his mind off his own troubles by giving him some daily motivation, and it brought in grocery money and paid the rent, so he couldn't complain. It wouldn't always be divorce suits and custody cases, or exposing phony whiplash claims, or taking statements from potential witnesses to petty thefts. One day he would get a chance to move up to the better cases.
          Lately he had been sleeping longer and thinking about Laura less. This morning he was deep into his favorite fantasy, the Naked Hitchhiker: she was waiting for him around some sudden curve in the road with her thumb slung up from her outthrust hips and making the round offer of her breasts. Once in the car she reached for his crotch and her tongue turned in his ear like a melting key until his head was ringing, ringing.
          Impulsively he flung his arm out at the nightstand. Something fell to the floor with a dull metallic clunk and a heart-stopping crack of thunder. He swallowed once to calm himself, stifled the alarm clock, and turned on the radio. He tried to clear his head while he listened to somebody whine about how he couldn't get any satisfaction. After Laura left, lyrics seemed to hold hidden meanings. She was too good to be true. He listened closely to the next song:

                    Don't let it bring you down
                    It's only castles burning
                    Just find someone who's turning
                    And you will come around

          He didn't know what to make of that. The lines were elusive and haunting, suggesting that if he really concentrated they would reveal their secrets, but it was too early to worry about riddles.
          After the song came the morning news and the lead item was a shocker: Devil Dancer, the prize stallion of Bradford Davis's Sycamore Springs Farm, had been found shot to death in a field shortly after sunrise. Wendell sat up in bewilderment, staring at the cracks in the ceiling. Why would anyone want to shoot Devil Dancer? They'd have to be crazy. And in Lexington, Kentucky, to boot, the goddamn heart of the Bluegrass.
          He was stunned. An acrid odor of burnt powder hung in the air and a faint haze of blue smoke hovered near the window. He felt like the sea must feel after a long day of beating its brains out on the rocks. Getting up seemed out of the question. As he swung his feet to the floor his toes touched chilly metal. He bent over slowly, fighting back a rush of dizziness, picked up his gun and put it back on the nightstand. Using the bed for support he achieved an upright position and shuffled on unsteady legs toward the bathroom. He pulled off his T-shirt, damp and rank from the night's sweat, braced himself on the wobbly washstand to step out of his shorts, and dropped them in the wicker basket by the tub.
          He stood in front of the soap-flecked mirror, watching his face come into focus like a print in a developing sink. The person he saw had the slackjawed vacant-eyed expression of a wanted man. He ran his hand through his hair and noticed with disgust that several salt and pepper strands came away with his fingers. He swiped the back of his wrist across his tongue, filled the sink with cold water, dipped his face in quickly, pulled it out sputtering, and turned around, reaching blindly for a towel to dry his eyes. He bent over, lifted the lid, and sat down on the toilet, picturing to himself a big dead horse in a wide field of verdant grass whose blue was in the eye of the beholder.
          He stepped into the tub, pressed the shower curtain against the rim and the linoleum, cupped his nuts in his left hand, and turned on the nozzle with his right. He revolved several times under the cold cascading water, swearing softly to himself. He dried off with a thick white motel towel. For a man in his late forties, he noted proudly, his body wasn't in such bad shape. His legs were still strong, though his midriff was a little flabby. Back at the mirror he made a slip with his Gillette, taking a nick out of the center of his chin. He dabbed at the thin red line sliding toward his throat with a piece of toilet paper and returned to the bedroom to get dressed.
          A bottle of Deep Ruby Fruity Native and a crumpled kleenex lay on the floor beside the bed. That brought back how he had spent last night stretched out in his skivvies watching the late show— Ann Margaret in Made in Paris. With a come-on title like that, he hoped he might be in for something. It was a stupid movie about Ann Margaret as an apprentice clothes buyer in Paris. The high point was one scene in a nightclub when she strutted her stuff for a handsome fashion designer, played by Louis Jourdan, who had given her the cold shoulder. She did a showy sex-laden walk out to the middle of the floor where she danced for him. Very slowly at first, she began to undulate her body and thrust her breasts; then she sped it up, and with hips a wiggle and breasts a bob she won him over, and Wendell too, for that matter. Now he smiled in spite of himself as he flushed the evidence down the toilet, dropped the bottle in the wastebasket, and walked into the kitchen.
          He sat down on a high stool by the counter, poured dark brown beans in a small wooden coffee grinder, and turned the handle furiously until it spun without resistance. He often thought of Kathy, his first wife, when he did this; the coffee grinder had been a wedding present, which for some reason was not on her side of the divorce settlement. By now grinding his own coffee beans had become a morning ritual he looked forward to. He pulled out the miniature drawer that caught the grounds, scooped them into the coffee maker, and put some water on the stove to boil. Next he held a match to a front burner, placed his heavy black frying pan on the top of the flame, added a gob of butter, and began cracking eggs on the edge of the skillet. In a moment three yellow eyes, spitting and crackling at the edges, were gaping up at him. He took a spatula and slashed them open one by one, letting the yolks run and coagulate. Then he picked up a fork and ate straight from the pan.
          When the kettle on the stove began shrieking, he put on a padded glove the size oldtime outfielders once wore, poured in the boiling water, and listened to it drip. He filled a tan earthenware mug with coffee before the dripping stopped, took a swig, and singed his tongue.
          "God damn it to hell," he hissed.
          Not until then did he admit how hurt he was that Brad Davis hadn't called him about the horse shooting. After all, hadn't he worked for him last spring? And didn't Davis thank him, even if he hadn't found what was expected? Something like this Devil Dancer thing would attract the media and involve the police, but what could a homicide squad know about horse slayings? As far as Wendell knew, nothing like this had ever happened before. Why not drive out to Sycamore Springs Farm and offer his services? Maybe this was the break he had been waiting for. That wasn't just any horse.
          Resolved on a plan, Wendell waited for his coffee to cool and tried to clear his head. He went to the front door to get the Lexington Herald, which the paperboy had failed for the umpteenth time to throw accurately onto the landing. Perhaps a backboard and basket on his door would improve the kid's aim. He found the paper, dark with dew, under a hedge. He picked it up carefully, so the news wouldn't fall apart, and brought it in. As he spread the paper out on the rug to dry he glanced at the headlines:

NIXON RULES OUT HALT IN BOMBING
KIDNAPPED MAID IS SLAIN
McGOVERN REVISES WELFARE PROGRAM AGAIN
U. K. DRAMA PROF DIES IN FALL
FLORIDA JAILS INNOVATOR OF "DARE TO BE GREAT"
KENTUCKY SLAUGHTER DUE TODAY-CHOLERA FEARS SPREAD

          Wendell didn't know the murdered maid or the unfortunate professor, but he did know several farmers who would be spending the day killing their hogs. Tomorrow the front page would belong to Devil Dancer.
          When Wendell looked up from the paper he saw his cat on the back balcony with something dark in its mouth. Moving closer, he sat down in a deck chair, sipped his coffee, and watched. It was a mouse. He noted a small bubble of blood at the mouth and that the tail was still quivering. The cat beanbagged the mouse across the floor and around the legs of Wendell's chair until it fell on its side and the tiny pink feet hung limp. Then the cat gnawed at the back of its neck until the skin broke and blood spurted down the fur. The face came off in a single decisive bite. The skull took chewing, but the front feet and chest went down with ease. The guts were licked out delicately and placed to one side. The cat paused then, as if puzzled by the small green intestinal coil, before gobbling the hindquarters— the tail dangling out from the mouth for a moment before sliding, quite suddenly, in. Finally the cat sniffed the entire area, as if wondering where his beanbag had gone. Only some entrails, twisted like a question mark, were left uneaten.
          Back in the bathroom Wendell checked his chin in the mirror, touched up the cut with a pat of water, and brushed his teeth until the gums bled. He rinsed his mouth several times and hoped for the best. He couldn't clean his teeth without feeling morose. In the mirror they looked like a row of Japanese soldiers, wearing their gold and silver insignias, their small black wounds. Now that Laura and the good times were gone, what woman would ever care for him again?
          He returned to the bedroom and picked up his .38 Beretta from the nightstand. Ever since he was a kid and his father had taught him how to hunt, he had always experienced an eerie chill when he fingered cold metal and a well-oiled trigger. Had he left the hammer cocked? He jacked a round into the chamber. How could he have been so careless? A vague whiff of burnt powder lingered in the room, but for the life of him he couldn't see where the bullet went.
          Twenty years ago he had come home from Korea vowing that he was through with guns. He had seen so much of mud and blood and good men dead that he had actually done what many Marines swore they would: he had buried his service revolver in the backyard of his house and told the sonofabitch to rust. He thought he had left all that war horror behind. He simply wanted to settle down and live an ordinary life. But now he found himself liking the heft of a compact weapon in his hand again. He pointed the gun at the gold-framed picture of Laura he still kept beside his bed, seeing his own grim reflection in the glass. Once he had known all-too-well what it felt like to kill; yet a tremendous gap now separated his middle-aged self from that audacious leatherneck who had fought foot by foot for the stinking volcanic ash and rock of Iwo Jima and that stoic two-time loser who had been called back seven years later to slog through impossible snows on the retreat to Hungnam. Since that time he had never raised his hand in anger against anyone and had tried his best to forget the terrible scenes he had witnessed.
          Strapping on his shoulder holster he suddenly flashed what it must have felt like to lie in hiding and draw a steady bead on a stallion grazing in an open field. Once on Saipan he had shot a goat he saw gnawing on a dead Marine's boot. He lifted his hands to his face. He didn't want to remember all that.
          The last time he had thought about Saipan was the 4th of July. He had drunk a bottle of wine and images of bulldozers pushing bodies into a ditch had started filling his mind. Sitting on his bed and listening to the firecrackers, he had realized with merciless clarity that those ghosts would never go away. Then he had picked up his gun and touched the barrel to his ear. But that was the Jap way out. Instead he had stepped onto the balcony, the gun dangling in his hand, and impulsively fired a quick potshot at his neighbor's birdfeeder, spewing broken glass and birdseed across the courtyard. The next morning the manager knocked on his door to ask if he had heard or seen anything suspicious the previous night. Wendell replied that he'd been out on a case and promised to keep his eyes and ears open. The manager said he felt more secure knowing that a detective was living there.
          Now, nearly two months later, he smiled half-embarrassed and half-amused as he thought of the earnest look on the manager's face. Wendell picked up his car keys from the ash tray and stepped outside, taking a dazzling direct hit in the eyes from the fierce sun. He turned his back on the glare until the spots cleared and descended the steps with caution. It was going to be one of those hot humid days when pasty hair sticks to the scalp, sweat stings the corners of the eyes, and everybody feels limp and lackadaisical. Wendell walked across the drive, unlocked his black Cougar, and lowered himself into the sweltering bucket seat; but when he turned the key he got "clunk," not "roar". Funny, the battery was dead.
          He released the hood, checking the water level in the radiator and the battery and testing the fan belt for tautness. Then he noticed that his "peek-a-boo" headlights were up. He must have left them on last night when he came home. He pulled the keys out of the ignition and went around and opened the trunk, searching for his jumper cables beneath a pair of binoculars, an old raincoat, a small aluminum ladder, and a theatrical assortment of hats. Suddenly he remembered that he had lent his cables to Joel Bradley and the bastard hadn't returned them.
          He scanned the parking lot to see if anyone was up and about. He glanced nervously at his watch and cursed under his breath. Here he had taken his sweet time getting himself together and now he was going to arrive at Sycamore Springs so late that Devil Dancer would already be buried. He was about to start ringing doorbells when a woman came out of an apartment not far from his and walked across the drive toward a green VW stationwagon. Wendell recognized her immediately. Her appearance at the Idle Hour pool in the briefest of bikinis had made his day on several occasions, but he had never spoken to her. He hurried over to her car and tapped on the window as she was about to pull out. She rolled it down without hesitation.
          "Sorry to bother you," he said calmly, "but my battery is dead. Do you by any chance have some jumper cables?"
          "Sure," she answered, giving him a quick lookover, "you're welcome to them. They're in the back."
          Wendell pointed to where his car was and she drove over beside it. Then she retrieved the cables. Holding a loop in each hand like a pair of slim snakes, she walked toward him smiling as if she knew a secret. There was something exotic about the way she wore her hair—a cluster of short curls over her forehead and dark ringlets down to her shoulders, with one particularly long strand dangling in front of each ear. She had large dark eyes, a thin aristocratic nose, a wide sensuous mouth, and an arresting angularity to her high cheek bones and precise chin. Wendell noted her breasts pressed against her tie-dyed T-shirt and how her jeans pulled up in a tight crease at her crotch. The denim made a faint whistling sound as her thighs brushed lightly together when she walked.
          Wendell took the cables and clamped them on the two batteries, while she stood beside him and watched. Then they both got back in their cars and turned the keys; the Cougar whined for a moment and growled to life. Wendell unclamped the cables and put them back in her car.
          "Thank you. That was a big help. I'm in a rush today."
          "What's your hurry?"
          "Did you hear that Devil Dancer was shot and killed this morning?"
          "Brad Davis's horse? You're kidding!"
          "I wish I was. It's true."
          "That's awful! I hate it when things die. I feel all droopy when my plants die. I talk to them, I sing them songs, I water them, still sometimes they die."
          Her face assumed such a look of concern as she spoke that Wendell was sure she was referring to the demise of specific pampered plants.
          "This could ruin Davis," Wendell mused.
          "Devil Dancer, wow, that was some horse."
          "He was terrific; no telling what he could've done if he hadn't pulled up lame in the Derby. His stud fees alone must pay most of the bills at Sycamore Springs Farm. Do you know much about horse farms?"
          "I'm learning."
          "I guess you're not from around here."
          "No."
          "But you know Brad Davis?"
          "What are you, a cop?"
          "No. I'm private. I'm a private detective."
          "Are you putting me on?" A hint of an ironic smile flitted at the corners of her mouth.
          "It's true. I'm in the habit of asking questions."
          "I guess so."
          Wendell rubbed the palms of his hands together and looked at her with undisguised earnestness.
          "How do you know him?"
          "I've worked at Sycamore Springs."
          "Are you a hot walker?" Wendell blurted out, the words sounding unintentionally suggestive.
          She gave him a wicked twitter with her dark eyes, suppressed a giggle, and said, "Sometimes. I ride them around the track in the mornings."
          "So you're an exercise girl?"
          "Yes. I love it."
          "Isn't it dangerous?"
          "Not if you know what you're doing. Horses know who you really are inside. If you don't like yourself, or if you're afraid of them, they can turn on you. They can even kill you. But I'm not afraid, and I know who I am, so there's no problem."
          "Sounds simple. Is that all you do?"
          "I go to school, too. I'm pre-vet. You are curious, aren't you?"
          "Sorry. I don't know when to stop. I've seen you at the pool, and I wanted to talk to you."
          "What about?"
          "Nothing in particular. You know, just talk."
          "Well, now we're talking."
          "How about that. Now we're talking. Only, damn it, I've got to go. I'm on my way out to Sycamore Springs to see if I can help out with this Devil Dancer killing."
          "You didn't say that with much conviction," she said, surprising Wendell with her insight.
          "I may get there too late to do anything."
          "I think you can do anything you want to," she stated in a voice that implied more than vocational goals. "People have more power than they realize."
          "I hope you're right."
          "Of course I'm right." She was smiling at him brazenly now.
          "Maybe I could come by and see you after I get back."
          "What for?"
          "Tell you what happened."
          "Maybe."
          "Is that a 'Yes maybe'?"
          "You're pretty persistent."
          "I'd like to see you again. Show my thanks."
          "For what?"
          "The jump."
          "Oh, that," she said, laughing. "I really don't know what I'm doing tonight. I'm waiting to hear from somebody."
          "Could I drop by to see if you're in?"
          "Sure. I guess so. Why not?"
          "Great!"
          "Don't count on anything, OK?"
          Wendell detected a note of pleading in her voice and there was an elsewhere look on her face as if she were trying to remember something.
          "OK."
          She was still sitting in her car with the same preoccupied expression when he pulled out onto Richmond Road. Wendell was already in downtown Lexington before he realized that he hadn't even asked for her name. Whatever it was, she was some hot walker.

 

William Heath is the author of The Children Bob Moses Led(Milkweed Editions) and The Walking Man (Icarus). His writings have appeared in various publications including, The Massachusetts Review, The South Carolina Review, and The Southern Review.