“What you do is, you shoot them down, one by one.” He lifts his right hand and points a chubby finger at the table, firing slow-motion shots at each of the three empty wine-glasses, his thumb moving back and forth, and his hand imitating the recoil of each of the three silent, deafening shots that echo and tumble through my mind. I wince.
He chuckles. And then silence. Deep, I think. The side of my mouth twitches briefly. The shots echo again and I look around me nervously as if they could hear them too. The back of my neck cramps and I look up at the crystal sparkling above us in transparent colors. I’m dizzy.
I sense Julie, on my right, fidgeting impatiently with her white napkin, scratching with red nails. Her eyes are cast downwards at her two small knees which are hunched together below her flaming skirt. The tiny Mrs. Cole, across the table from me, is at a loss for words and looks uneasily at her half-eaten dessert, then at her husband, then back at the cold apple pie. Mr. Joseph Cole himself is eagerly looking from face to face, awaiting a response. My mind accelerates desperately, seeking one.
I look down at him, open my mouth happily and I guffaw.
There is a hurried raising of heads, all with questioning eyes aimed at my person. Damn. I race through remarks to find one that could possibly fit into this godforsaken situation.
“Ha!” I exclaim.
They are still looking at me.
“You’re a riot, Joe, an absolute riot.” I continue smoothly.
“But I’m not kidding, Pierce,” he says, “Really. We go to Africa and help the nigger bastards, try to bring up their country’s standards, give them jobs, and what the fuck do they do? They rob us and call us names and refuse to do a good day’s work. Have you ever seen them niggers digging a hole? Sure enough you’ll always find one of them digging. And then it takes three of those black morons to watch the fourth one working! The sons-of-bitches are so goddamn lazy it’s pathetic. They’re about as energetic as fucking dead snails on voodo dope. No wonder their country’s a dump.”
He explodes in laughter, saliva spraying from his mouth. He rocks back on his chair, revealing that he has lost a button on his shirt where a flurry of fat and hair is now protruding. I see his wife notice, and then trying to look like she had not noticed. After his attack is over he rocks forward and charges at the table as if he is going to take a giant bite out of it. He looks up at each one of us and ends his display, “Like I said, just line ’em up and gun them down.”
I look at him through the the corner of my eye. He looks back and wipes off a strand of saliva that is hanging from his mouth. “You should know all about this Pierce,” he says, “Weren’t you down in Tanzania when my old man was there?”
I adjust my hunched posture uncomfortably at his mention of Tanzania. As if he knew something.
“Yes, Joe, I was,” I tell him in a bored fashion, “Listen, Joe, there are a few things I’d like to talk to you about when it comes to your book. I don’t think I can stay very long today.”
His wife reacts very appropriately to this remark and stands up.
“Yes, Julie, why don’t we leave these two literature devils alone. I’ll just clear up and then we’ll have our own shot at solving the world’s problems.”
And appropriately Julie puts in, “I’ll help,” and she also stands up and starts grabbing our cutlery.
Not too surprisingly Joe adds in his own helpless idiocy, “Help clear the table or help solve the world’s problems?” His wide mouth smiles at her. She does not smile back. I look at her and sense the pure, straight-up, no-strings-attached, thick, putrid hatred for Joe Cole she seems to have, and at this point, looking at her small hands picking up the plates, I think I can actually hear the sound of despise crackling through her grinding teeth.
“Both,” she says and follows Lisa Cole into the kitchen. Through her determined walk I deduce that she might want to start her worldly quest by eliminating the large man in front of me with a blunt, heavy object.
“Where did you find that incredible blonde beauty, Pierce? I mean, teeets and aaasss, Jeesus.” He does some sort of gesture with his hands to emphasise the last remark.
“Her name’s Julie, Joe. Use it.” I say, “She’s my secretary.”
“Secretary? Pierce oh Pierce. For how long?”
“Secretary for a year. Lover for two months. Listen Joe, I’d really like to talk about your book. Why don’t we go into your study?”
“Sure, Pierce, sure.”
His study isn’t just any study, of course. It’s a dark dungeon of black magic and morbid tastes. Wall coverings from East Africa, Indonesia and South America clothe the walls. They feature women carrying heavy vases on their heads and children in rags on their backs. They show rice-pickers and canoes and jungle, and they show powerful animals, cat animals, feeding on giant elephant corpses. A brownish crocodile swims next to an overgrown river shore where impala are tonguing the water. And there is a lone, rhinoceros on a hot, sandy field.
There are various tribal masks used in West African hunting, some which are gifts from me. There are makonde carvings of sickly, threadlike people with long, thin faces climbing over each other as if struggling to reach some nurturing piece of food at the top. But there isn’t any. There is a brown tortoise shell, there are wooden ducks, there are spears, drums, and a chess game on the desk, made out of that green rock which I always forget what it’s called. And of course there is Joe’s pride, the wooden bar cabinet which stands tall at the back of the room, (beside the bookcase lined with nothing but his own books), and which has a black, devil-mask face painted on it – seemingly the ruler of this black, compact space.
What strikes anyone walking into that room is the schockingly gloomy and dark, and still cozy, atmosphere, with the only lamp being the lonely spotlight over the massive, orange-red, desk where this successful author writes all his gory stories. And also the dry, sweet smell of settled tobacco. Except he doesn’t smoke.
“Fix you a drink?” he asks.
“Would you perchance know how to make a Fallen Angel, Joe?” I sit down in one of the black, leather couches in one corner of the room, next to a creepy, glassed collection, featuring a scorpion in the centre and various six and more legged creatures around it. I glance only briefly at it.
“Of course. Pour some gin, add a little lime, a dab of Creme de Menthe, a drop of Angostura. But it’s hardly fitting after dinner. In fact, the name hardly seems fitting at all. Something bugging you about my book?”
“Oh no. Your book is really great, fantastically unpredictable, as usual. In fact, so unpredictable that our friend Lionel Winger gets caught. It has never happened before, has it?”
“You know, Pierce,” he says and pours me some whiskey, “I was at my sister’s yesterday. Dorothy her name is.” He offers me the glass and I take it, gulping it down quite quickly, grimacing. I loathe whiskey. “And I told her that Lionel Winger is in jail. And she cheered! She clapped her hands!” He offers me some more but I shake my head. He pours one for himself. “She said she always hoped that he would be. She said she couldn’t understand why it had not happened before. You see, that’s what everybody seems to be wanting, down deep in. They want my hero to get caught.”
“Okay, Cole, but what about this character that you have built up. I mean, you’re giving him the electric chair! What’s your next book going to be, a rise from the dead? You know if it is, I won’t take it. Lionel Winger is supposed to be a sane, random killer. I don’t want any supernatural stuff, you know that. Or are you planning to retire him? You know how many books I’m expecting from you.” I half expect, half hope that he will say yes, he’s going to retire Lionel. It would be perfect.
“No, of course not retire him. And I’m surprised you don’t see the possibilities of this situation I put him in. People want Lionel to get caught. Yes. But only because they want to see how he can get out of it. And I told Dorothy very convincingly about how I would go about letting Lionel escape before the chair. In so much detail in fact, that it in itself could be the entire next book.”
“Hannibal the Cannibal stuff?”
“Hannibal the Cannibal stuff.”
“But you killed his wife off as well.”
“Pierce Pierce Pierce. Don’t you see? I made him single. Lionel, the most wanted man in over forty-nine states, is now single. If that won’t get some adrenalin pumping in some sweet, young, innocent girls, I don’t know what will.”
I feel sick. He’s right. I wince at my own stupidity. I came hoping to find that he was going to retire Lionel Winger. It would be perfect alongside my own retirement. Incredibly insane!
“You’re right Joe, you’re absolutely right,” I say, “And I’m surprised at myself for not seeing it as clearly as you obviously do.” I stand up. “Listen, I have to use your bathroom and I think Julie wants an early retirement tonight.”
“Hey, I know what you mean. How can I blame you?” He smiles but I don’t bother commenting.
We walk through the dining room to the edge of the step-down to the living room where we stop to overlook the lonely figure sitting there. Julie is sitting amongst desert red furniture, dim lighting, powerful paintings of burning sunsets and sunrises in distant countries, and a gazelle-skin carpet. In her red, suede jacket and skirt she fits right into the scenery which could perhaps be romantic if it wasn’t already menacing enough to jump out and bite one’s neck in two. Joe Cocker is singing, “Just leave your hat on” over the tall loudspeakers that are placed along the far wall where a panorama
window overlooks the neighbor’s mansion where all lights are out for the closing night. An empty glass sits on the table. Julie is drinking cold orange juice.
“Where is Lisa?” I ask.
She seems to just notice us when she responds and makes a gesture towards the kitchen, “Oh, she got a phone call.” I turn and hear a muffled voice talking past the closed door of the kitchen. I look back and notice the Cobra phone next to Julie on the small resting table. A quite personal phone call, I assume.
“Well, I have to use the bathroom. Are you about ready to leave?”
“Yes.” She glances uneasily at Joe.
“Good, I’ll be right back,” I say and as Julie sinks back into her seat I start walking down the hallway feeling her eyes digging deeply into my back, pulling, but I continue my way toward the bathroom.
I walk down a dark hallway lined with paintings of a more chaotic theme. Placed in random heights along the length of the hallway they are masterpieces of confusion, probably worth a lot of money since they are so exquisitely revolting. I have never paid much attention to them, but I once stopped to look at one that seemed to be only a large, white blotch of paint. When I asked Joe about it he called me a name and said that it was light coming from a window. I resisted an urge to laugh, and nodded apologetically, smiling, as always, inside.
When I reach the end of the hall, instead of making a left which would bring me to the Coles’ giant, pink, nauseating bathroom, or continuing straight forward into their gold-coated bedroom, I make a right and open the door that is decorated with something that appeals more to my tastes, Donald Duck.
The room is a colorful display of what I believe to be is Disney’s entire cast ever. Posters and curtains and bedcovers with images of characters ranging from Mickey to Dumbo give you an instant kick of pleasure. There are two book cases filled with all those wonderful children’s classics like Treasure Island and Peter Pan. The picture frames above the bed do not contain pictures but postage stamps of all shapes, sizes and motifs. I pour into the room with silent motions, half-closing the door behind me.
In the bed I find a child with brown, ruffled hair, a handsome face with a small, red mouth and a tiny, pointy nose. His bedcovers reach up to his navel, a book, The Never-Ending Story, lies just out of reach from his left hand that rests over the side of the bed, and the bed-light is still on. The boy is trying, with questionable results, to look like he is sleeping. As I come closer to the bed he lets out a huge snore. I quickly lift my hand to my mouth so as not to reveal how amused I am by this.
“Hey, kid, it’s me.” I whisper.
I can see his eyelids move just slightly so that he can look at me without opening his eyes completely. Soon, though, they are glowing.
“Mr. Angel! Hi!” he says and sits up in bed. My mood always rises a few notches when I hear the kid say my name with the type of excitement you always know is genuine, because it is the excitement of a child.
“So how you doin’ Philip!” I pull up a chair close to the bed and sit down on it. “Have you read any good books lately?”
“Some, I just started on this one.” He reaches for the book and I pick it up for him.
“This is pretty heavy reading for a seven-year old,” I tell him. I can see it is doggie-eared on page 74. He said he just started on it! I love this kid. He scratches his nose.
“Are you here to talk about my father’s new book?”
“He can really write books, can’t he?”
I suddenly feel a stinge of jealousy, the only jealousy that has always been aimed at Joe Cole. He can write books. But then I’m worried.
“Have you read any of his books?” I ask.
“Nope, mom said I’m not allowed until I’m old enough.” I am relieved to hear that his mother still has some sense left, having doubted that since she married Joe.
“Hey,” I say, realising something, “Where are your glasses?”
“They broke? How?”
“A kid in school broke them.”
“Who did?! When?” I find a flurry of wild rage spreading within me.
“Today. George called me two-eyes and said I was just a rich kid and that his mother said my father was a sick b..” He swallows, can’t bring himself to swear, and I love him for it. “And then we started to fight and he took my glasses and threw them in the ground.” Suddenly he smiles. “But I kicked him in the nuts, just like you said I should.”
I calm myself down a bit, but not enough to laugh. “You just make sure you get a new pair of glasses. In fact, you shouldn’t be reading without them.”
“I know, Mr. Angel.” He looks into his hands and then up at me again. “Have you ever wanted to kill someone, Mr. Angel?”
He catches me off-guard. My heart hiccups and then proceeds to a normal rhythm again. “I better go now, they’re waiting for me.” I stand up and I push the chair under his desk.
I hear my own heartbeat again rise in speed and decibel. I hold my breath. God, I’m too tense, I think.
“Don’t you have something for me this time?”
I let out a gush of air and turn around to face him. “Sure kid, sure I do. I almost forgot.” I reach into my coat pocket and pull out a cigarbox. “Here. Don’t smoke them all in one go.” He takes the cigarbox and opens it gently. Inside are stamps, stamps that I have had Julie remove from all correspondence at the office.
“Wow, there are really a lot of them!”
I am thrilled to see his eyes widen at the sight of all those stamps. I start for the door but then turn around again.
“Hey, if anyone called Georgie breaks your glasses again you call me up.” But he won’t be able to, I tell myself. “But you know, if you just keep reading those books of yours, someday you’ll be too smart for anyone to dare break anything of yours.” I don’t know if he has heard me at all. “And you should leave those stamps for tommorrow.”
“Sure, Mr. Angel.”
“And kid?” I stop by the door. I look him over. He’s beautiful. The lines in his face shadowed by his crouched head run in perfect model symmetry, his boyish hair hung over to one side above his distinct forehead and the glazed teddybear eyes. Just the way I want to remember him.
“Mmm?” He doesn’t look up and so he can’t see the shiny sparkles in my own salt-stung eyes.
I draw in air deeply. “Keep my wings under your pillow, kid.” I sob soundlessly. “Keep my wings under your pillow.”
As I walk out I notice Lisa standing just outside, eavesdropping. I close the door behind me. She has tears in her eyes. I try to quickly blink away my own. Her arms are crossed over the pinkish polo that reveals the lovely, curved figure of her fragile-looking body. She reminds me of an insecure teenager though she is my scarred age, thirty. I look down at her sugar-spun doll’s face and the black hair that barely reaches her tiny, round shoulders. I’m warm and awkward.
“What’s wrong?” I ask.
“Nothing. It’s just that you’re so good with that kid. I think he likes you more than he likes his own father.”
“Oh, hey, if you want me to back off I will.” I will.
“No. It’s not that. It’s just the opposite. I think he needs someone. He doesn’t have any friends his age. I’m so worried about him. Maybe you could come over and talk to him sometimes when Joe is away.”
“Hey. That’s a really smart kid you’ve got there,” I indicate the door with my thumb. “And I think you don’t have anything to worry about. You know how much time I spend with him when the two of you are away. I love that kid. But if you’re really worried then all you have to do is give me a ring, okay?”
She nods quietly. Needles seem to shoot through the air and bounce off my skin. I place my head against the door. “Listen.” Facing me she puts her head also to the door. We smile at each other.
“He’s under the bed pulling out his albums and soon he’ll be busy sorting stamps until his mother will come and tell him off. Why don’t you wait a bit with that?” I smile at her.
She smiles at me again and together we walk to the living room where tension like gagged fire seems to be flaming in the eyes of the two people standing by the glass table..
“How could you leave me with him?” Julie blurts out after a long silence at the wheel.
“Oh, come on Julie, how could I know Lisa was going to be talking on the phone?” I snicker.
“He made a pass at me! He even started by saying `So I hear you’re Pierce’s very personal secretary’! What the fuck did you tell him?”
“Calm down and watch the road,” I say nervously, and then disbelieving, “He made a pass at you?” I find the idea immensely funny and make that clear by my bodily noises. It’s dark outside. I like the dark.
“It’s not funny.”
“Sure it is.”
“Oh, Pierce, please.”
“So what did he do, pull his shirt up?” I start laughing hysterically.
“You’re drunk,” she comments and looks over at me in a pestered manner. I laugh even harder.
“I’m drunk and you’re beautiful,” I continue after a while and know this will soften her up. “I’m sorry for being such an insensitive prick. Seriously, what did he do?”
“Well he wasn’t exactly subtle,” she says slowly. I know what she is doing. She is mad at me and she is going to prolong the whole story. She knows I hate that.
“Well, you know how he is.”
“I’m sure he has never made a pass at me.”
“No? I’m sincerely surprised. I don’t understand why you have to associate with him anyway.”
“You don’t know how much I owe the guy. I told you he and his father helped me and Peter get started with Angel & Gadd. Money and contacts and all that crap. And he’s probably my main source of income. The bastard writes good books.”
“He writes a really sick genre of pornography.”
“I know that and you know that and his ample mob of readers definitely seem to know it.”
She laughs sweetly.
“Have I ever told you how beautiful you are when you laugh?” I ask.
“About a thousand times.”
“Really? That seldom, huh? Well, I am just perplexed by the way the light from the street lamps hits you at regular intervals and makes first the red of your lipstick glow, your little perky nose shine, your turqoise eyes glisten, and then your long blond hair is lit up like a wavy bonfire and in the next second I see only the dark contours of the most beautiful face in the world.” I let that sink in for a second or two. “So what did he do?”
“Oh, no you don’t. You can’t charm me into telling you.”
“I hardly have any competition to fear from the man, anyway, do I?” I grab her thigh. The car speeds up as her leg tenses.
“Let go, Pierce.” I squeeze harder and the car goes faster.
“Man overpowers woman!” I scream.
“Okay, okay. Jesus.”
“I’ll say Joe has a pretty good chance at me with you carrying on like this. What’s with you anyway? You’re acting really strange.”
Looking out of the window I see a beggar sleeping in an alley with a small, white dog beside him. I think the picture is extremely poetic and I make a mental note to write something about it later. In Africa.
“The dog sleeps with his master, always by his side. The two sleep in the gutter, tired and despised.” I mumble. I’m sobering up.
“What’s that all about?”
“Oh, nothing. I really like his son though.”
“Christ sometimes I just don’t know where your mind is off to.”
“Nor do I,” I whisper, “Nor do I.”
It begins to rain. She switches on the wipers. For the rest of the ride I stare at the drops that land on the glass, that start to journey across the surface and are mercilessly swept away by the black wiper that hits them from out of nowhere, coming from the top, from the bottom, from the top… Some drops make it further than others. I think, there’s something in that, it’s trying to tell me something.
“You’re home.” She pulls up at the curb.
“Yup.” I lean over, kiss her mouth, then her ear, open the door, whisper “I love you”, step out, hear her say “Are you sure you want to be alone tonight?”, answer “Yes”, close the door, watch her speed off, walk up the stairs to safety, throw up in the kitchen sink, trip over something on the floor, fall in bed, sleep.