Dead Man Blues

Posted on June 1, 2016


This story came to me while I was watching the blues at Club 99 on Sunday. I banged it out over lunch. I can’t tell if it was worth the time to type it up. Perhaps I’ve been reading a little too much Raymond Chandler. What do you think?  If it doesn’t completely suck, I might submit it. Oh, and the story about the mouse is absolutely true.

I lay there in the dark, wondering where I had gone wrong. Of course it was obvious: once you are in you never get out. That was my mistake, thinking I could walk away five long and fruitless years ago. Now here I was, somewhere in the dark of the Cascade foothills, no gear but a sheath knife from under the seat of my car, hunted by a heavily armed, mean-spirited past.

I had made it up a creek valley to a small dimple lake, I don’t know which – they are all over the West Side, pressed into the foothills like spots on a golf ball. I was working my way around the lake counterclockwise, ascending the ridge as I went, with no plan beyond putting distance on my pursuers. I’ve spent my time in the woods, but the low overcast blocked the sliver of new moon and soon I was stumbling helplessly along. I knew that not only I was leaving a trail a walker-assisted octogenarian could follow, I was also risking injury. That’s how things go bad in the mountains. You pile one small wrong decision on another until the sum of the whole kills you.

Still, when you have armed men on you, it’s a bit hard not to start-second guessing a decision like staying put. I figured it like I figured it from the beginning:  since they got on to me at the club, they probably weren’t set up for this excursion either. Go to ground. Take them out of their element. It was a good plan too, drive fast straight west on Highway 2 until we hit logging country, and then taking the roads up, up, up into the hills. Only thing I didn’t figure is that some random gate would be locked. The four-by quads had been driving around the end of the gate and I thought my Subaru might fit too. I just didn’t realize until too late  that what I took for bushes were really just the tops of trees in a ravine. I got out of the car with it teetering on the edge, but I could see their lights behind me so I lit out, not even grabbing my pack out of the back. Even if I could’ve gotten out of there, they sealed the deal by tipping the car into the cut in the earth before coming on. I heard the sick crunch of glass and metal like a drunk walking through a sliding glass door he was sure he had left open.

Those guys looked gym-fit, the little I’d seen of them, which doesn’t necessarily mean mountain fit. I moved fast up the road until the ravine became a stream and I could cross it. Then I followed that uphill when it left the road. They must’ve had the sense to be watching the wet ground for tracks and so they stayed on me, but I thought maybe I could run them out. I hadn’t heard or seen them since before dark came crashing down, a curtain on a worn out play where nobody stays to watch the end. They could just be waiting to get back up and equipment. Of course that was only if they had a better cell carrier than I had. I turned my phone off long ago, because even if I could think of somebody to call, I had no reception. Maybe a number would come to me by the time I got back within range.

I laid back among the roots of an old-growth cedar, trying to get comfortable and puzzle this out. If they were straight up thugs, lacking air support or dogs, my odds were good. They would try to track me, have no idea what to do if they didn’t get lucky again, give up and leave before spending another night in the dark, cold and hungry. However, if they were ex-military, and lord knows there were plenty of them looking for work in the places I frequented, they were probably fit and had training, tactics, and even some high tech gear to take me down as soon as they had the light. Like a drone. Or an infrared satellite. Stop it, stop it, stop it. You aren’t that important. Nobody knows you from a knot-holed pine bar. Nobody except for some freak who ended up drinking the afternoon away at the same end-of-the-line rat house as you did.

Okay, worst case: military, training, no satellites.  Those guys had the quit drilled out of them wearing body armor in 12o-degree heat, like knights in the Crusades, only difference is nobody told them it was a Crusade. They were probably chewing logs for dinner. How would they do it? Just boogey straight up to  the ridge line and patrol it until they had my tracks? That’s what I would do. Start high, and spiral down, closing the noose. They could be doing it right now if they had headlamps. There was nothing to it. And so there was nothing for it for me, either: run. Run until you can’t. Run until you are dead. Run like you should’ve been running instead of drinking too cold beer in yet another greyed out ghost town, a greyed out ghost, trying to  blend in with the walls. Run like you ran before you forgot how to run. Nothing better came to me. Tomorrow at first light I would head out, continuing my climb up and away from them. But right now, I decided I would try to crash for a bit. I would need my strength.

I closed my eyes, but it looked just the same. I remembered an expression of my dad’s,  “Darker than the inside of a cow.” He had a lot of cow expressions, come to think of it, like that one about rain and the flat rock. I must’ve been exhausted, because my mind was wandering down that path for a while when I heard the harmonica. Just somebody sitting there, playing little blues riffs, no song really. So, that’s how it is, I thought. They want me to know they are out there. Just waiting. Cool as fog. They were going to unnerve me and take me when I got stupid from the panic, a blind elephant crashing around in the woods. Well, it was no King Biscuit Flour Hour, but I like the blues. I’d consider it a serenade and to hell with them. I closed my eyes and settled back again doing my best to have the mossy roots support my reclined weight. It was kind of comfortable, all things considered. Hell, at least I wasn’t going to die in a hospital bed.

Two or three minutes I listened to this guy. No musician. He could bend some notes and make a few runs, but he didn’t know how to take it anywhere. He would start and stop. A guy who was used to waiting with no particular intent. Exactly how I toyed around with the harp when I was a kid. I never put the time in it to figure it all out, either. And now here we both were, too failed musicians who never delivered on our passions. Blues ax dilettantes locked together by our vanquished intent and another man’s hate and vengeance, playing one last set. Maybe if I’d kept with my music, I wouldn’t be here, alone, in the dark, not even stars for solace, just some guy who was bad on the axe. Maybe, I’d’ve live a life of stage lights instead of darkness. Maybe, I’d’ve got the girl, instead of the bullet.

I had a friend once. Real bad ass. Martial artist. Sword guy. He was telling me how he cornered this mouse in his kitchen, in the ell of the counter, no where to go. This mouse had been making his life miserable and now his toll was due. They faced off like that for a moment, about six feet apart, and my friend started to advance, a wooden sword in his hands held out in front like a Samurai. I remember him showing me. And that mouse ran straight at him, leaping off the counter. Took the center line  away from him cool and quick as Bruce Lee. My friend was so surprised he fell over backwards, the mouse ran right up his belly, launched off his sternum and never was seen again.

I stood up. Might as well be that mouse, and not this mouse. I was going to take the center line. I faced the lake, putting my hand first over one ear, then the other. It took a while because of the strange acoustics from the bowl, but I convinced myself I had a fix on the guy. Down low, maybe on a beach. I got on my hands and knees and fumbled around the little clearing I was in, picking up and discarding a couple of sticks until I had one, about three inches around, six feet long, no branches, worn smooth by the weather. I advanced slowly, sideways, stick in my right hand, poking in front of me.

It was against my instincts to give up the high ground, but my instincts hadn’t fixed anything yet. The land was steep, which was why I had been working it obliquely up – a trade off of straight and slow versus drawn out and fast. A lot of time I was butt-scootching, leaving a trail like a wounded locomotive that had run off the tracks.  I was all in now. Not exactly silent either. I banged my shins on every nurse log and windfall in the state. Twice I almost tumbled over drops.  Eventually I got to the shore, but where the big trees filtered out, the scrub filtered in: blackberry, thistle, devil’s club, thorny maple. All of it designed to stick and hurt you. There was no way I was circumnavigating the lake in this. I got down on my hands and knees  below as much of the thorny canopy as possible and crawled over the downed logs through the thicket of pain and humiliation to the water. I never could swim in clothes, so there in the muck I stripped down, taking a bootlace and making a necklace for my knife. I was going to miss those boots, but I wasn’t sure for how long.

I eased into water that hadn’t been warm since the last glacier left the bowl, and started breast-stroking my way almost silently across the lake. I hoped it was as small as I remembered because the cold was leaching into my marrow, turning to ice, weighing me down from inside, sucking the breath out of me. A stupid end to a stupid night. I’d been at a club in Everett, an armpit of a gutted mill town on the edge of the world from Boston. I thought I’d maybe gone over the edge where the monsters frolic until got so far that even they don’t care to visit any more. Nobody had found me for so long I figured nobody was looking. Maybe I was a little sad that I wasn’t even worth looking for, you want to know the truth. I was sipping my beer, checking out a pretty girl, the way you do, wondering if she’s alone, and by the time you figure it out she isn’t. Perpetually beaten out by men who lack the imagination to fail. I think too much, that’s what Harry said when I worked the rackets for him. He said it was going to be the death of me. Then I thought too much about his wife. Then it was time to go. Now it was going to be the death of me.

That’s when I noticed the guy noticing me. It was nothing really, if the hairs on the back of your neck aren’t permanently starched because you’ve been waiting for that look for five years. It still didn’t figure that they were coming after me, I’m just too small and Harry probably traded in his wife long ago. So I figured, nah, just some local freak and had another beer. But he wasn’t just a freak. Maybe some small time guy I knew once, who knew me anyway, who dropped a dime, and a phone got picked up, and some local talent got called because honor demanded it, and within fifteen minutes I’m running for my life. Because when the three muscle guys came through the door, I was leaving on general principles, but when I ran into another one in the alley out back of the Men’s room, the one who let me close on him and drop him with an elbow to the jaw because he wasn’t quite sure I was the right guy, he made up my mind for me.

In the water, the harmonica was a beacon. I focused on my stroke: kick, glide, breath, kick, glide, breathe. Normally I can go three strokes to a breath, but the water was robbing it from me, I was desperate for each one. I was an olive in a severely bruised martini when I came up to the beach without knowing it. Gritty sand that I hit on my glide stroke. It wouldn’t do at all to come out of the water directly in front of the guy. As slowly and silently as a stick floating in the wind, I backed out, then around. I was lucky. I found a drift of logs against the shore to climb out on. Smooth and barkless, they were easy for a naked man to crawl on. In thirty minutes I was on shore. In sixty, I had come up behind him.

He was playing, maybe a step-and-a-half away, back to me, sitting on a rock or a stump or a log. That sound, it probably saved my life, letting me get close. I stood there, quiet but for the blood rushing in my ears banging on the inside to get out, the thoughts climbing over each other in my brain like rats climbing a fence post in a flood, the breath I was afraid to expel growing like the whirlpool under a waterfall in my lungs. I’d never killed a man before. It’s a lot to contemplate.

Suddenly, he stopped blowing on the axe. “It’s  you. I’ll be damned.” He paused. “You are there, aren’t you?”

You want to answer. You are wired to answer. It’s the polite thing to do, to introduce yourself to the man you are about to kill. Your mother taught you with a rap upside the head to be nice to strangers and return their greetings. To talk nice to Aunt Lila or the man in the ice cream parlor you’d never met.  Except that one thing, that “Hello-how-do-you-do-pleased-to-meet-your-acquaintance,” that is enough to turn the killer into the killee. Remember that Naked Man. Remember it while you fumble the knife off from around  between your shoulder blades like a kid on a prom date fumbling with his first bra strap. Remember that when you only now start to figure how to let the hot blood out of your new friend with whom you will never exchange pleasantries. Remember, that’s your only edge.

“I guess I lost that bet. I said you’d be long gone and that we would never find you. Tinker said you would hunker down once you knew we were here. Nobody expected you to…”

I couldn’t listen to the rest of it.  Like I said, polite will get you dead. I was too geared up to be polite. Because while I’d never killed anybody before, I’d never been dead before, either. Therefore, once I saw the act in my head, it demanded fruition. I stepped forward and drove the blade into the base of his skull, same way you’d kill a pig on a farm. Everybody’s a critic, I thought.

Instant dead, and almost no blood, which was good because I wanted those clothes. He never made a sound but the breath leaving his lungs with the hiss of the AC leaving a Lexus on a hot day. I tilted him back and laid him down so the blood could drain out of his head into the sand. “How do you do?” I said while I searched him, because even in a you-or-me stand off, it’s not easy to do what you have to do and the black humor bubbles up riding on the guilt of the ignored salutations. You need the completeness to stay sane, and maybe that is what your mother was teaching you with her veiled pillbox hats and white go-to-church gloves. Maybe a little prayer would do wonders out here in the woods a million miles from that woman’s granite headboard. You are gibbering now. You’ve most likely been gibbering for a while, but now you’ve gone too far. Apologize to your mother. I could smell the blood, it smelled like licking a battery.

There was a gun, an automatic. Cold steel is always good for gibbering, either curing it or causing it. Probably a 9mm if I had to guess. I’m not much on about guns, and I’m definitely not on about guns in the dark. This is the great and terrible thing about guns, they don’t care how you feel about them. I figured it might come in handy. A wallet with only cash, and me with no where to spend it. A fancy military watch, and me with no time left to measure. No matches, lighter, knife or any other gear. His boots were paramilitary black with Vibram soles. Because they were cool, not functional. But they were functional now. They were two sizes too big, but everything on him was two sizes too big. I put it all on, including the light coat which had some blood on it. I’m not a large man to start with, but I felt really small sitting there waiting for the dawn.

The sliver moon came out, light through a keyhole. I figured eventually somebody would come looking for my friend here. And I’d take care of it, or I wouldn’t. And then somebody else would come. And I would do what I could with him, too. I would never really know if I’d gotten all of them, because they’d send more. Maybe one of them would have keys on him and I could drive out of this place.  Then I realized my real mistake. My big mistake. My first mistake. Thinking that being alive was the same as getting out. I hadn’t lived a day in years. One way or another, today wasn’t going to be so different from all the rest. I wiped the blade of the knife on some moss and slid the sheath into my new boot.

I picked up the harp, knocked the sand out against my thigh, and gave it a few toots. Then I bent a low note and sent it across the lake before running it up and back with a little wha-wha-waaaa. I still got a little blues in me, too.

Posted in: Fiction, Writing