J a n u a r y   2 0 0 3

Guest Writer


The practical definition of hell
Stage fright
by Edward Morris Jr.

or some, high school never ends. We wake from nightmares of going back for one more credit, finding it that much harder to realize we've moved on.

Our demons from those years cannot hurt us anymore when subtracted from our own personal slant. But the ones we depended upon the most never gave us the tools to dispel those old ghosts. When you are young and think the world cannot hurt you, the inertia of immovable walls can be terrible indeed.

Yet, after all, there comes a point when you have to take personal responsibility. No matter what, the real world comes creeping in. You adapt to it and overcome it ... or the ghosts have won. Some people make the decision to make no decisions at all. And that impasse may be the practical definition of hell.

Some of us never learn in time ...

he atmosphere of Vets Field outside Reagan High on the afternoon of May 25 was all chemical winds off new Astroturf and the slick boot-rally feel of a tent revival on Sunday morning TV. The preacher at the podium was robed in Robert Schuller blue, and there were plenty of lights and cameras and fake ferns.

But this ceremony was secular and the preacher only 17.

Capped-and-gowned punk rockers in the back row were already falling asleep, the rainbow of their Celtic haircuts whipping in the winds that whipped the racing clouds and made Bible-epic beams tear through from the unseasonably hot sun.

The clouds could have cared less about the purple, overreaching speech going on below them. Their motions were so much faster and yet more eternal than the rite of passage they witnessed in their gorgeous spiral nimbus time-lapse.

There would be no rain on this parade of several hundred clueless children on stilts listening to the last boring lecture through which most of them would ever have to suffer. The heshers and shoppies, hippies and heses – all were waiting in shadowy desperation for this numb shit to get done flapping his pecker-holster so they could bomb out to Culver City for the big kegger.

"Henry Wadsworth Longfellow ..." Casey Fulmer's grin was beatific. His blue eyes shone like lighthouses beneath the mortarboard cocked at an angle over his tousled blond crewcut. "... once said that the gods frown on ultimate happiness."

Casey's teeth were a whitened Tom Cruise miracle of orthodontia.

"Longfellow never went to Reagan."

The metered applause had begun like a '50s studio tape-loop at the word "Reagan." It swelled and rolled through the visitors' bleachers, and the well-fed young Billy Sunday basked in the glow of his valedictory speech, blushing like the child he was. Casey held up his hands like David Letterman, signalling the crowd to wait.

"I've often heard people call high school 'the best years of your life ...'" He absolutely had the floor, and boy did he know it. "Lot of people my age would reply to that: 'Gee, is that all we get?'

"But I disagree." Casey surveyed the crowd, looking like he knew exactly what he saw. "Because it is in these years that you see your path, you find your dream ... and then you sink all your teeth into it and hold on."

One would almost be inclined to suppose that Casey believed what he was saying.

"In high school, you only begin to find out what you're made of. And if you don't seize that knowledge, it will plow you under."

His eyes searched them all ... and a few of those same punk rockers in the back row looked at each other, thinking to themselves that Golden Boy looked like he was reading from a teleprompter at gunpoint. But that reaction was only elicited from the two or three truly paying attention.

"High school is nothing but the darkness before real life." And that scares memost of all, Casey thought, swallowing hard but only using the thought to broaden his grin for the cameras. "No matter what, these years stay with you forever."

He looked around.

"You all know what to do. I've said enough. Class of '99, welcome to your dreams! Thank you, and good afternoon."

Casey's father leaned on a metal quad-cane as he got to his feet. Bill Fulmer was the first one in camcorder row to lead the standing ovation.

asey knew the rest of his night's fate after he made his speech, took his diploma from the principal ("Well done, son," a somewhat puzzled Dr. Robinson was heard to say around the handshake) and went home.

Graduation Night was when most kids got into trouble, Casey's folks had reasoned. Casey had been allowed to have his fun at prom.

(Most of those back-row punk rockers had been firing paint balloons from an inner tube slingshot rigged on a high hill overlooking the casino at Paramount's Great America. The Class of '99 haut monde had elected to have the Prom Afterglow at Great America, half of them emerging from their rented limos flying on acid, pimps in their own minds.)

Besides, Casey's mother, Deidre Fulmer, had all the aunts and uncles in town for the big dinner. Deidre and the Mexican maids had been orchestrating things for weeks.

Though Deidre tutted at the untouched Indian bread and curry dip in the big Waterford tray on the coffee table, she was secretly pleased. That would be her movie-watching leftovers later on that weekend. No one but her ever liked it, anyway.

Deidre was always a film freak when Bill was having an MS exacerbation. Lia the maid would see to his Betaseron injections; Deidre had learned early on that Bill was such a baby about needles and all that, so it was better to have someone around who could pretend to lose her English when the abuse started to fly.

Bill worked himself to death, but there had come a point, around Casey's sophomore year, when Deidre and Bill's marriage had become a Nordstrom window-display. The second they had the kid safely ensconced at UC-Berkeley, Deidre had planned, she would void their pre-nup uncontested and move down to Marin Head with Ramon. Ramon liked to take his catamaran out in the bay. Ramon worked for George Lucas. Ramon was young and strong and never cried late at night. Ramon never took his life out on his kids.

But all of that was not just then.

he gathering began as an unqualified success. The aunts sat in the parlor sipping Napa Valley merlot, talking about David Guterson and Don DeLillo, while the uncles gathered on the porch over microbrews and talked about golf and SUVs and How Big Is Your Computer Processor?

After about an hour of hearing last-minute dinner prep and walking through the theatrical blocking of the interminable Family Fun ... Casey found himself shaking in the upstairs bathroom, with one white Banana Republican deck shoe propped against the door like a junkie shooting up in a downtown pay-toilet, desperate for one second alone with himself.

For a long time in the recent past, since the last grind of finals, Casey had been falling hard and fast – in ways he had only begun to realize by their immediate effect. His subconscious had a way of scaring the shit out of him these past two months. And he had no idea where to go, or who to ask for help.

But he had only begun to realize just how far out of whack his head had gotten when he first heard, as the applause from his valedictory speech began to die down, the desperate, pounding, seashell wind ... of utter silence.

Someone had been talking at him his whole life, in one form or another. Casey had never heard this much silence before today. And he had no idea how to take it all in.

The silence was a white haze of static in his ears, forcing his perspective straight down a dark tunnel. The silence made it impossible for him to hear all his relatives' glowing praise that day for his 3.99 grade-point average, and he had lettered in track, after all. Well, maybe Coach Cooper wasn't such a bad sort ... All the relatives' words twisted out and away like some kind of an echo-pedal plugged into his brain, cranked up and up until the multi-tap effect was swallowed in a hiss of white noise. And then the silence overcame it all.

The silence rang in his head as his mouth made numb replies to their flattery and the crackling freight of dead presidents in every card he took with numb hands and thank-yous, his cheeks desensitized to every pinch and his ears ringing louder every time he heard: "That's my boy."

Casey had a card-pile going on a table in the dining room. But he didn't think about that at all. Everything was a reflex, knowing what he should do and yet utterly unable to "be there."

Casey felt that the silence might, over time, drive him entirely insane.

After a long, interminable grayed-out moment splashing cold water on his face by the bucketload and staring into the mirror ... the bathroom door creaked open again.

And then Casey blinked, finding that he was sitting on top of the stairs that led up from the front hall of his parents' old rambling house in Pacific Heights, prime San Francisco real estate his dad had carved from the flesh of his techie rivals.

Casey found that he was looking down at the beige deep-pile carpet of the foyer from over the banister and straight down, his perspective pulled back to his Aunt Judith sitting two steps below. Her legs in black Capri pants were crossed at the ankles, as if she had been talking for a while.

Judith looked worried in her own totally practical way. Her black-beaded Carmen Marc Valvo jacket looked like Marion Zimmer Bradley chain-mail. She held a small water glass of Tullamore Dew on the rocks in one soft, windburned hand. She took slow sips.

There was a frightening wisdom in her hazel eyes, a distracted cosmopolitan wisdom long since buried under slagheaps of other people's stupidity.

"Your dad should have never had kids."

She had been ... talking. Casey became aware, like when a DJ shifts speeds on a turntable, up to the reach of human range from sub-audible.

Casey forced himself back into the moment. Judith's eyes swam with his reflection, anxious and concerned.

What she had been saying was shaming the place inside himself from whence the silence seemed to swell. That worried him, especially since he couldn't seem to get a fix on where he was since he had left the podium.

But with that shame came a crystal of acknowledgement that he had done nothing to bring about. Frankly, at the moment, it seemed like he hadn't done much of anything.

Galaxies of swimming white specks and expanding purple spots washed over Casey in the mother of all head-rushes. He was going to throw up. He smelled Lysol and the formaldehyde they used to clean the draperies. He looked down at his hand, and the hand looked as far away as the Cone Nebula.

"I ... never thought about it like that before," Casey managed in a strangled croak. He thought of all the lies that his life had always been: his bottomless bank account, his black Beamer convertible, all of it as empty and meaningless as wind in a seashell.

He heard the never-sleeping weathervane of his subconscious creak out a small sob that sounded 12 years old. His eyes reflected the skies out past them in the stairway skylight, racing skies out past the yard and the west wall choked with ivy. Too little and too late.

"Why do you hold everything back?" Judith asked in her soft, rasping voice. She climbed the stairs toward him.

"Is it OK not to?" Casey swallowed hard. "I feel like I'm already dead."

Judith's eyes were full of a darkness he could not begin to understand when she hugged him.

His eyes begged Judith to finish the sentence. "I never thought about holding anything back, I guess I just ... dummied up, and ..."

"Oh, kid." Judith looked at him sorrowfully. "You act like your life is over. But, with the benefit of 54 years of job experience at Life ..." She broke the hug, and chuckled an endearing whisky-and-Marlboros chuckle. "Your envelope hasn't even been opened yet."

It seemed, in that moment, that he could almost hear.

And then Deidre Fulmer poked her head of blond curls around the doorway to the main hall.

"There you are," she said to Casey, grinning like a billboard. "Everyone was asking after you."
She glanced at Judith. "Little bit of post-graduate advice?"

Judith sighed. The moment had been slain.

"More or less," she rasped. "I didn't mean to keep him."

"No!" Deidre beamed, crossing the carpet in her impossible heels that wavered only slightly for this early in the evening. "Not at all!"

Casey swallowed. What he felt in that moment was something like doom. He was still a child in so many ways, and the umbilical cord ran deep.

t the dinner table, Judith looked back at Casey sorrowfully. That was one of the only things he remembered, because his mom seemed to be playing the geisha waitress, refilling his wine glass every time Casey turned around. In Judith's sad gaze, he felt deep waters closing over him. And in his 18-year-old mind, they were eternal.

"My son," Bill Fulmer was trying to stand up in his wheelchair, "will carry on everything that Selvant Technologies represents. I used to be a little worried ..." he snorted around his cigar "... that I'd die without any kind of ... assurance ... in that light, but ..."

Bill glanced down the table as if his son were on a very small glass pedestal, ringing crystal that could shatter with one swing of a blunt instrument but yet still holding, somehow. "I see everything I wanted to be ... in him. And that's ..." he sighed. "... that's all right. I didn't think I could get used to this MS. But now I've made my peace."

The wine glass shattered in Casey's hand. It made two very tiny cuts in his palm, no more, although all that good Cali cabernet went hell to breakfast across the white Irish linen tablecloth in front of his place at the table. Only a few people closest to him noticed.

osalia brought Casey's supper up to him, glancing around the room and pulling the door shut behind her.

"You ..." Rosalia had separated the "j" sound from the "y" a long time ago, but in her excitement she had forgotten high school. "Too much for you?"

Casey was facing the wall. He turned to her ... and the young chica was forcibly reminded of her brother Opaldo, who had been beaten senseless by the cops and turned loose, arriving back home a vegetable fit barely for working on cars. That had been down in Mazatlan, a world and a lifetime away. Yet, seeing it now, 'Lia wondered about a lot of things.

She set the plate down on his old rolltop desk, looking behind her, but only halfway.

"There it is, Ca-sey. I come back later on."

When 'Lia came back later, her charge was asleep. The meat had been gnawed on, but not much else. She cleared away the plate and the untouched glass of white grape juice. She wondered how Opaldo was doing. Maybe tomorrow she would call her mom.

eidre walked in one week later. The maids had brought the dishes up and down. Casey had his own bathroom in there, a regular apartment fahcryinoutloud, so why had he not ...

She took a deep breath, standing with her hand on the soft brass knob. She would not lose it. There had to be some kind of rationale for this, or she didn't know what was what.

When she opened the door to Casey's bedroom, the smell was old sweat and soft desperation. On the other side of the room, her baby boy was lying in bed and staring at the ceiling.

"It's been two weeks," Deidre began, crossing the room, wanting to pick him up and take him in her arms. He looked pale, like he hadn't slept at all in the time that he had remained in this warm little womb. Her Southern grandmother would have said that this room smelled like mare sweat, and Deidre wouldn't argue. Night mare, she thought, and wrinkled her nose.

But she hid the reaction bravely, hiding under the professional cover of whom she was in daylight, managing to croon: "Son. I don't know what's bugging you. But no matter what it is, we'll get through it. We alw ..."

Her son rolled over in bed with the meat-marionette motions of a Tom Savini zombie. Deidre jerked and moved back a step.

His yellow-ringed blue eyes were bright with fear and pain.

"Don't talk to me about getting through it," he hissed. "Back when dad could still move around enough to belt me in the face ... you taught me to be utterly powerless." His voice assumed a mocking female contralto: "Don't hit him in the head, Bill! For the luvva God, oh ..."

Casey broke off, taking a deep breath.

"I have no idea what to do when I get out on my own. I have the feeling ..." His throat clicked when he swallowed that hard. "I have the feeling I may just burn out like a falling star. You want to know what you can do for me?"

The gesture Deidre made might have been a nod. Her blond ringlets vibrated no more than a quarter inch.

"Kill me."

What Deidre did, in that moment, was walk four steps in her impossible heels and smack her son in the face as hard as she could. Casey laughed, though in the moment just afterward she could see the red palm-print coming into focus across his right zygomatic arch, a bruise framed in bone with the terrible permanency of a brand.

"Don't you dare blame me for this," Deidre hissed, and stomped downstairs for another drink.

ill rolled in about half an hour later.

"That's where it is, huh?" The chemo was making Casey's dad slur his words. Or maybe it was just the Chivas. Either way, it came to the same.

Casey did not turn his head toward the wheeled thing in the doorway.

Casey had skinned and eaten this man in his nightmares countless times, nightmares from which he woke with only a blessed sense of relief. In one of the more recent ones, he had been doing the dinner dishes with Hannibal Lecter, and shyly told the good doctor (with a dishtowel in his hand, thumb-shining the last water spots from a Stryker autopsy-saw) that the doctor had done for him what Casey could not do for himself.

Lecter had glanced back at Casey with sad commiseration in his strange maroon eyes.

"Don't sell yourself short, lad."

Now, though, Casey faced the wall and cringed in his bed. Though his dad was in a wheelchair, Casey's body could not help but remember the automatic response of wanting to run, hide, build a Rube Goldberg mousetrap to supplant the weak lock on the door as his dad's fist battered it down and a much younger Casey quavered: "No... No... No ..." on the other side.

In the air of the room now, the smell of Chivas was the animal musk of Hamm's beer in much leaner times, ten bucks a case down at the 7-11. He remembered calling the cops on his dad after the first time Bill had sprung his jaw, and hearing the old man's voice (which had, from the other side of his forked tongue, paid off Chief Kettner and the attending physician) saying, "You're not a part of this family anymore, because you brought in outside influences."

"Are you on drugs?"

Oh, the stuff coming out of his dad's mouth just got funnier and funnier.

Bill rolled into the room, his rock-chiselled Charlton Heston face a mask of cheated fury. "I knew it. I gave you too much freedom. I should have had us all in church from the beginning. I just thought I could get you there on my own, but you kids were all so willful ..."

Casey thought of his beloved older brother Vance, with his two kids and his law practice out in Walnut Creek. Vance still called every so often, but he was disowned ... and, frankly, Vance didn't seem like he wanted to get involved. Casey didn't blame him. Vance had escaped the tentacles of this particular octopus.

But now that it was his turn, Casey had no idea whatsoever what to do.

Bill rolled forward three feet ... to the big old maple chest of drawers on the left side of Casey's room. Right by the closet, it was, the one Casey had put a deadbolt lock on after he'd read that horrible Stephen King story, "The Boogeyman," to his father's endless derision (not that endless derision from Bill Fulmer was germane or even unique to that particular situation).

"Let's just see what you've got to hide."

Bill grinned the alarming, ape-like grin of a Monty Python jailer, and began to root through Casey's sock drawer with a hungry expression on his face. It was as if he expected to find something.

Casey turned his face to the wall again. It was so much easier to shut this all out, to wrap his skinny body around itself and take lots of deep breaths.

His father's fingers seized on something, and the fusillade of rolled-up socks paused like the eye of a hurricane. Casey could smell 'Lia's laundry soap and his father's hectic alcohol stink. He waited, laughing on the inside.

"What is this, GHB?" His father was adamantly victorious, ramping his wheelchair backward, almost to the rollbar in a near-wheelie. "I heard about this. You think you can ..."

As he had been speaking, Bill turned the cologne bottle around so that the Adidas logo flashed out in raked-back white letters.

"Shit!"

Bill hucked the bottle at the wall, and the room filled with the stench of a hundred-thousand high-school dances.

Casey had to give his dad credit. Rather than actually taking that point to exit with some face, Bill proceeded to empty and upend all Casey's drawers, leaving every pullover and pair of boxers to fall where they would, every wifebeater T-shirt and hoody sweatshirt. His father had the most disappointed look on his face that Casey had ever seen.

Oh, and he did not stop there. For a man in a wheelchair, Bill Fulmer's inventiveness knew neither bounds nor limitations.

One file cabinet, one writing desk and two wardrobes later, his father sat in the doorway, breathing hard, his face vermillion. Ought to quit smoking, Casey thought, but did not turn his face from the wall.

He was remembering the first time he ever tried to slit his wrists. He didn't know to do it vertical instead of horizontal ... and his father's horrified secretary Louise had not bothered to set him straight.

Casey was remembering the hospital psychiatrist, a Dr. Stein, who had diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder, and the opening salvos with the Famous Mr. Bill: "Well, if you have a bright kid and you keep him on a short leash ..." Casey's dad had pulled him out of therapy and, since then, since sophomore year, it had been Business As Usual.

Bill turned back in the doorway, backing up the wheels of his chair a quarter-turn and cocking his head.

"What did I do wrong?" Casey's dad seemed to be asking the question to himself, and nothing more. "I gave you the world on a plate. You've got a future like nothing anyone in your class could even conceive of. So what ..."

Casey bared his teeth at his father in the dim, moonlit darkness of the room.

"Kill me," he invited. The silence seemed to stretch out for some time.

"Aaaah ..." His father flapped a hand at him, and rolled out of the room.

ECEMBER 22

The stink of Adidas cologne in that room did not fade for years.

Neither did Casey.

He kept looking worse, upon each return. The holes in his clothes spread and frayed, pinned with safety pins and then forgotten. His hair crossed the shades of the seasons. The spikes cropped up in his hardier jackets. The methedrine sores kept cropping up at the corners of his lips, the selfsame marks of sleeping under bridges and getting a haircut from hanging too long round the barbershop. His teeth got to looking more and more transparent. And his eyes always looked lost. His eyes were the worst part.

And always – always – when Casey came back, it was in that catatonic state, begging them for the only real gift they could have truly imparted. In those long nights, he seemed to be both his true self ... and yet not himself at all. Casey's folks saw both sides. But the situation bespoke something neither of them could admit.

It was killing them softly. Deidre always made excuses. He's our son, dammit. We can't just turn him away.

But after a while Bill began doing just that. When he was able to dial a phone ... he began taking out restraining orders. You had to renew them once a year, and justify cause ... although, with one apparently immoral town judge in his back pocket, cause was not Bill's primary concern. He told them that he feared for his life and what the hell were they gonna do about it ... and then Bill sat back, smoked a fat medical joint, and tried to forget the abortion that was Casey.

Until the next time.

Or until Bill was found slumped over his wheelchair, in the yellow incandescent light of his study, with all the Wyoming antelope heads looking down at him as if to say: "Your turn." Deidre hesitated a while before calling 911. By that time, Bill had become a bit hard to bear.

After the three-hour wait in the ER at Cedars-Sinai, Deidre was informed that her Bill had expired due to a massive myocardial infarction, very little – if at all – to do with the MS.

"He was just worn out," the resident, a Dr. Wyszorec, said wearily, taking off his mask with the air of a high-school athlete who has just gotten three times his share of yardage at the big game. "There wasn't a whole lot we could do, once we got him in here." The doctor sighed. "Look, Dee, I ..."

"I'm better off." Deidre touched the pack of cigarettes in her pocket. "He was hell on earth to deal with, after a while." She looked up into the doctor's eyes. "No worries. You did all you could."

No matter what that idiot doctor had said, though, Deidre knew that her Bill had died of a broken heart. And she was well on her way. Ramon had sailed back to Cuernavaca two years after Casey's graduation.

And she was still right there.

ECEMBER 23

"Central Precinct, this is ... oh, fuck you. No. Take me offa your list. Right now. Are you stupid?"
Sergeant Hittleman covered the receiver and glanced over at their newest vice narc, rolling his eyes. The vice narc shrugged, his own eyes illegible behind the hair extensions.

"Yes, ma'am, you have indeed reached a business. You have reached the central precinct of the San Francisco Police Department at 850 Bryant. Are you aware that it's illegal for a telemarketer to call a ..."

Patrolman Joe Abramowitz shoved a clipboard at Sgt. Hittleman, the 17-year-old junkie chick in front of him looking at the floor with her greasy brown hair coming out of its ponytail in front, hanging in her face. This one was a repeat bust.

Hittleman looked Joe in the eyes, made a scrawl on the bottom line of the clipboard, and glanced back at the vice narc (what was his name? Gutierrez? Gandolfo? Some Latino name with a "G" and more than two syllables. Hittleman barely got to meet any of the new undercovers before they were blooded, usually two weeks worth of shit detail and acting classes later). Hittleman's big, clammy cop-hand held the phone like some interesting new species of household pet he was about to kick across the room.

"Well, excyoooooze me," he said through his nose, exactly like the old Steve Martin bit. "I don't care if you're taking a census for Caesar, you don't fucking call businesses. And you especially do not tie up this line. We got reality goin' on out there, lady. Deal with it."

Patrolman Abramowitz marched the little gutter chick through the big swinging doors on the other side of the room, talking to her in low tones. Hittleman slammed the phone down. "I ask you," he sighed. "Reminds me of that shithead up in Pacific Heights. Our little pet."

Gutierrez-Gandolfini-Goldwin-Mayer brushed the extensions out of his eyes. He was sipping the horrible desk coffee from a Styrofoam cup, hunting around on the little table against the back wall for a container of creamer that was not already cashed.

"Which one, sir?"

The new guy had patches of rainbow-colored mushrooms and shit all over the back of his denim jacket, "Grateful Dead" and "The String Cheese Incident" and "Ani DiFranco." He was their wonder boy up in the Haight-Ashbury. Hittleman heard it all. And the bust always got pinned on some real street kid who wasn't even around when it went down. All the Mexican cops at central called the new vice guy Il Spectro, and Hittleman assumed that stood to reason if he couldn't even remember the guy's name.

"William Fulmer the third." Hittleman stuck out his gut in his dress-blue shirt and pooched his lip like he was Mayor Brown about to make a speech. "King Nobody of Fuck All. Whatzit, that academy guy with the lip ..."

The vice cop sniggered. "Randyll." He had found his creamer, and was rattling somewhere between three and 10 sugar-packets in his hand to get them where he could tear them off all at once. It made a sidewinder noise in the steam-heated air of the lobby.

"Yeah, him. Or it. They had Randyll down here pullin' night dispatch when that Fulmer asshat would do his thing. Randyll didn't tell you?"

"Naw," replied .... Galindo. Hittleman snapped his fingers. Lupe Galindo. Sounded like a boxer name, almost. The sergeant crossed Alzheimer's off his mental checklist of Shit to Worry About This Week. He looked around.

"Three prowler calls a week. From Pacific Heights." Sgt. Hittleman leaned forward, savoring the pause. From a holding cell downstairs, something that sounded like an off-line washing machine banged the walls below. "Silicon Valley prick. He was in computer chips or something. Guy's got an alarm system costs more than I take home in a year. Lexus or three in the garage. Splendid. And he's makin' three prowler calls a week."

Galindo moved back across the room on little cat feet in black Converse sneakers, to stand in front of the desk with his coffee in his hand. "What's the punch line?"

Hittleman sighed, wishing you could still light up a butt inside. Tonight had been pretty dead, other than the usual round of shit up in the TLs that central hardly ever saw.

"It was his son, man." Hittleman's eyes were lost in the gray clouds swirling over downtown through the blinds of the side windows. His small mouth was locked in a sneer. "My God. We used to have a pool on when this guy would call."

Galindo stepped over to the table, looking back at the sergeant as he grabbed one of the two metal folding chairs in front of the table, parked it backward in front of the desk and sat down, without spilling a drop of his bottom-of-the-pot battery acid.

"His son?" One thick eyebrow raised like an autonomous animal.

"Yeah." Hittleman relished his own chuckle. "He had a restraining order on the kid." The sergeant's face became twitchy and old, his voice raised in a mimic that sounded like Jimmy Stewart in an old movie. "I want him ouuutta here!" He nodded approvingly when Galindo laughed.

"The kid looked like that girl," he jerked his thumb at the swinging doors. "Sores all over his mouth, dressed like a punk rocker. But his I.D. ... it was his son, all right. "

"He ever get loud?" Galindo was very confused.

"Naw." Hittleman leaned back in his chair. "Nice as pie, from what I'd see in the reports. We'd hold him for 24 hours, sent him up to Graystone one time. He'd always end up back on the street, and round and round she goes. But the damnedest thing ..."

The sergeant shrugged, unsure of how to proceed. "We'd ask the kid what he wanted us to do, man, like, why he was doin' what he did, and ..." He sighed, looking down. Galindo waited. The pause seemed to the young vice cop to be an actual physical eternity.

"And ..."

"Kill me." The sergeant had always been an excellent mimic. Vice Detective Galindo reared back in his seat at the sight of the young boy's face pushing itself through from the jowly basset-hound mask of the night-desk man. "Serious, man. That was all he said. 'Kill me.' That's all he ever said to us. Bruh ..." The sergeant's eyes were cold and flat. "I'm askin' you, man. Weird shit."

"You ever still get any of those calls ... from the dad?"

Hittleman reached under that night's log ... and held up the day's obituaries section from the Examiner.

"Not any more."

ECEMBER 24

The house was cold. Deidre had said something to 'Lia about it, but there were so many rooms even for central air. Anyway, 'Lia was always gone after about 4:30.

She sighed, flipping through the channels on the TV. A&E was depressing, some old movie she didn't care to know anything about. But the Cartoon Network was doing a retrospective of a lot of those old "Steamboat Willie"-era early forays into the animated short genre.

They always made her smile. Deidre looked at the clock and took a blue Valium from the days-of-the-week pill caddy that always reminded her so much of the birth control containers she used to get from the free clinic up in the Haight. It would be a few minutes, but that nice Monopolowa vodka would help it along some.

She got so edgy in this house, nowadays, but it was still hers. She'd held her looks, and there were no shortage of options. The security of the place was worth holding onto ... Holding, indeed – all of Bill's holdings that remained contingent on maintaining the property and running his company with an iron fist. He'd had a weird will, but better not to argue. Bill had gotten quite particular in his last days. She hadn't contested his final arrangements.

Anyway, she liked the house. She liked the way the sunbeams slanted golden through the dining room at the death of the day, and the rose bushes along the west wall that seemed to hold their blooms until late October no matter how much the new migrant gardeners butchered them. There was something to be said for pride of place.

On the screen, a bug-eyed little Disney cartoon woman was sweeping her back porch, singing an old traditional song in a screechy Betty Boop voice that was somehow endearing:

"Oh .... the cat came back ...
He wouldn't stay away ...
He was sitting on the porch
On the very next day ..."

Deidre fumbled for the remote control beside her. She'd heard a beep. Usually the knocks and pings of the house, all her appliances, meant nothing. But this beep was different.

Had she not known better, it almost sounded like the alarm in the front room. She waited for the space of 10 breaths. Nothing.

By that time, she was feeling the Valium way down deep in the pit of her stomach, warming her in tune with the vodka. She thought dreamily of Ramon, back then, and wondered what he was up to these days.

Her finger took the cartoons off mute. By then the cat (a scruffy Felix prototype if ever she'd seen one) was yowling at the back gate, and the old woman had returned in force with her broom, mugging at the camera.

"The cat came baaa-aaack,
He didn't want to roam.
The very next day,
He was home, sweet home ..."

Footsteps thudded up the high foyer stairwell. Someone was home, dragging himself off to bed. Even through the vodka and Valium, it took Deidre roughly 20 seconds to make the stairwell.

The reek of cologne had stagnated in that room. But it did not drown out the swampy miasma of what lay there on the bed.

His beard had grown in patchy, she saw, very long at parts, flushed baby skin at other parts where no hair would grow. She had a bit of Native American blood. She hadn't thought about that much, before looking at Casey's face just now (even obscured as it was by the greasy locks of a mohawk that hid his eyes).

"Casey," Deidre said from the doorway, her slippered feet sinking in beige carpet.

Her son mumbled something and turned to face her on the bed. Deidre's face was a frozen Viking mask.

"Aren't you happy that you killed your father?" She pushed the door open, and it creaked like a Boris Karloff radio show. "We would have given you everything. I was so proud of you."

She stood where she was, in her black housecoat and slippers, looking as if she wanted to find something blunt and beat him with it.

"This ... I ..." She swallowed. "All I have, I ..." After seven or eight deep breaths, she looked back at his filmy unfocused eyes. "What?" Deidre hissed. "What? Name it. I've got money to go round the world several times. What do you want, just so I'll never have to see you again? You ..."

Casey's cracked lips exhaled as his rheumy eyes turned to follow her. She did not want to know where he'd been.

"Kill me."

She screamed at him, a feral, female sound of ultimate disgust, and slammed the door.

he moon was shining down through the blinds of Casey's old room that had been kept just as it was.

Deidre pushed the door open, her eyes lost in the view from the window. She watched a falling star wink down, then out over the bay and the endless grind of downtown, far away in another world where even survival was not anywhere near a sure thing.

Casey barely struggled. He'd always had two pillows on his bed, and only snuggled further near the wall when she yanked the drooly top one from underneath him and pushed it over his face, holding it on both sides with one knee over his head.

After the initial kicking ceased, she turned him to face the wall. She looked at him for a while, shook her head, and then walked back downstairs. A&E had borne fruit after all: "White Christmas," with Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye. She put a blank tape in the VCR.


For Justin Neely and Adi Morris. E-mail Edward at locutuspdx@yahoo.com, and don't miss his previous work.



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