I walk to the hospital window. The shadows are long and piercing now. Golden triangles of light cut into the darkness of this horrible gray room. Gray walls, gray floors, gray cabinets, gray machines are hooked to Juan’s body. The sun’s rays make a million particles of dust dance in its blaze. Like a golden shank, it slices away the gloom of this place, in sharp and pointed wedges. As the sun sets lower, the shank disappears. Evening is winning this fight.
I turn toward the bed where Juan lies, his ragged breathing the only sign of life in his thin body. “The sun is setting earlier,” I say. “I make a note of this in my mind every day from June twenty-first on. It seems the day summer arrives it begins its retreat. I dread the end of summer. I hate the threat of the winter.” I sit down in the stiff, plastic chair. “Each summer is precious to me now, Juan Carlos. At each summer’s end, I count those that might remain. No one knows how many more summers we can still count as our own. The odds seem greater at twenty than sixty. We’ve been given, my oldest friend, far more than we ever deserved. I squandered my summers like a rich man squanders his gold until he finds himself with only a small handful of coins remaining. Where did all our summers go?”
The ballgame ends; the Yankees get creamed. It’s a young team, a lot of potential, but Boston is going to win American League East.
Juan opens his eyes and looks at me with a seriousness I’d not seen in decades. “Fuck the Boston Red Sox!”
We both laugh. This afternoon we were taken back to those days, sitting on the stoop outside Aunt Rosa’s apartment, in the Bronx, listening to the radio, drinking beers, and smoking Kools. If I closed my eyes, I could almost see the pretty Puerto Rican, Dominican, and Colombian girls walk by.
“We’ve been through a war, my brother,” I say, “a war most of the world never even heard of. And with the secrets we brought back from that war; how many empires could we take down? How many of these fat-assed politicians could we own?”
“The boxes!” Juan’s voice rings out strong, his eyes bulging. “Do you still have the boxes? Jesus, you fucking bastard! Do you still have the boxes?”
“They are safe buddy, safe and in Canada,” I say. “Two locations. Some days I think it would be fun to release that information. Give up our insurance policy and let the world know what we know. It was never my intention to use this information to bribe. Not for any financial gain. No, it was knowing how many of those scum don’t sleep at night because they know the truth about them is out there, waiting to be released.”
Juan gasps. “And the White Dog, do we still know the location of the White Dog?”
I nod my head. “I’ve heard from him recently. I still have no idea how to deal with him. We owe him, but I’ve never trusted him. I still can’t trust him. He works in Jersey, at a cemetery. What a creepy dude. He runs the crematory. It’s a good gig for him. If someone needs to get rid of a body without a trace, he’ll stay open late. I met him there one late afternoon. The creepiest fucking thing I’ve ever seen, and you and me, we’ve seen some creepy shit.”
Juan forces a laugh. “He’s always been a scary dude. Of all the shit we’ve done, all the people you and me ever have known, the White Dog, he takes the cake. He is the prize winner. I still question if we should have killed him. I still have my suspicions about him. I’m still on that quest for revenge.” He looks down at his bed sheets folded at his waist. He pinches his fingers, grasping the thin material of his white hospital gown, decorated with pink and blue flowers. “Look at me, still pretty bad ass, right? Too bad this fucking thing doesn’t have bunnies on it!”
“If you want,” I say, “I can bring you some bad ass bunny slippers!”
“Pendejo, do you know the location of the Dog? You’ve really been in communication with him?”
“Yes,” I say, almost ashamed. “You know me; I keep all my options open. That’s how I roll. He wanted to talk, and he had new information for me to add to the boxes. Newly found photos and documents. Some heavy, incriminating shit. Even all these years later, more and more of these fucking rich pricks are implicated.
“He made me help him with the cremation process. Some guys from South Jersey had some bodies to tend to. They showed up the night I was there. It was rough, bro.” I rub a hand over my face and look at my friend. “You and me, we killed too many, but we never took it to that place. That place after death. We never went to funerals. We never went to the burials. We never loaded the bodies iton the ovens. Even the bodies we burned, even my asshole father when I burned him, I lit the fire, and I walked away. Those Koreans – we poured on the gas, lit them up, and walked away. This guy, the White Dog, he burns them down to ash.
“This was different. This impacted me.”
Juan tries to prop himself up on the bed, his weak arms trembling as he adjusts his blanket. I stand up and place one of the deflated, plastic pillows behind his head. He hasn’t heard about this before, and I can hear the beeping of his monitor as his heartbeat increases. I hope the nurse won’t barge in.
I lower the volume on the TV and sit back down in my seat. I clear my throat and begin:
“It was a beautiful autumn day. I was in a pretty good mood; I got laid that morning. I drove that soul-crushing, fucking Toyota into Jersey to meet him. It’s a nice cemetery if there can be such a thing: rolling green hills and the leaves were changing, busting out in colors of oranges and reds and browns. The air was cool, and the sky was a deep blue. It looked like freshly washed jeans. I thought when I was on my way home I’d stop and buy the Blonde some apples and stuff from a farm stand about a mile up the road from the entrance. Maybe I’d get some pumpkins for her front porch and some cider to drink. Maybe we’d mix it with some Apple Jack and a joint, get a nice buzz.
“The night in that building, with White Dog, reminded me I’m not entitled to experience things like crisp fall days and cider donuts and blue skies. Those are not things for people like us. Like you and me. You and me, we belong in the darkness: the black and dirty darkness. We cannot ever forget that. Nice days belong to the good, the clean.
“I walked in the big garage door, and I saw the ovens. Three, huge, aluminum and stainless-steel boxes, with heavy metal doors that locked and sealed. For a moment, I imagined the not-quite dead guy who got put in there. Not a good way out. Not good one-fucking-bit. Standing there in front of those doors, my blood ran cold.” I stand up and begin pacing around the small room. Juan is awake and alert now, his eyes following me.
“White Dog says to me, ‘Here, help me strip these bodies.’ He bitches how the jacket of one is ruined with blood and bullet holes. After the clothes are stripped, after he’s taken everything he can, the fucker even looks in their mouths for gold fillings. He finds some gold, and I watched as he twisted and wrenched the teeth from the dead guy’s mouth with a pair of pliers he kept in his back pocket. He had to pry the one guy’s jaw open with a huge screwdriver. Shit you and me would never do.
“After all that could be taken from the dead was taken, he walked to the controls and turned on the gas. A second later I heard the fires start. It takes about two hours to turn a body to ash, Juan. I learned that from this guy. It takes two hours at eighteen-hundred degrees to turn a man to dust.” I began to sweat, and I look at the hospital window, but it’s barred and locked. I wipe droplets from my forehead and continue.
“The Dog sat at his desk. In that sweltering, hot room, the bodies burned, and he ate his sandwich, drank a beer, and watched a little porn on his computer. Dude, the smell of that place. The smell alone could make you puke. It wasn’t a burning smell. It was different. It smelled like death. It smelled like bad meat that had been cooked. I kept thinking I was breathing in these dead guy’s dust. As if I don’t have enough evil of my own, standing there, I was sucking in, breathing in, the dust of these burning bodies.
“Dog didn’t burn good guys, somebody’s hundred-year-old grandpa, no, we burned young thugs. We burned guys who needed to disappear. The entire place was covered in that dust. Dead guy dust. A creamy dust. It wasn’t dirt, man; it was burned flesh. Over in the corner, on a stainless tray, was a collection of bones. Dog said, ‘Some of the tougher bastards don’t burn all the way down. Sometimes I sell the bones. There are these spooky women in Newark; they buy the bones.’”
Juan’s eyes opened wide. “Bruja?”
“I don’t know, man, he didn’t say. Wouldn’t surprise me any. He strips the bodies nude and sells these crazy old women the clothes and shoes too.”
“Fucking Bruja!” says Juan.
“At the end of the road, deep in the rolling hills decorated with beautiful, elaborate memorials was an unassuming gray, block building. It’s about a half-mile past the marble and gold mausoleum. White Dog said it was reserved for the rich, white people of North Jersey. Deep in this place was a building you’d guess was a garage, maybe the shop where they fixed the mowers and trucks and snowplows.
“Near the entrance was a huge pile of rotting flowers. It took me a few minutes to realize they’d been stripped from the caskets and thrown there. This place, I realized, was really the end of the line. This is the place where a ghoul like the White Dog belongs. More than a grave-digger, he’s the one who steals the rings, watches, and other jewels from the dead.
“Their families are somehow comforted as they send their loved ones off to the great hereafter, draped in beloved family heirlooms. The Dog strips the jewels off their fingers and necks and wrists, sometimes ripping dead skin in the process. He fills his pockets for another trip to the pawn shop.”
Juan tries to sit up in his bed. I can see his arms shaking. “We should have killed that motherfucker!”
“Yeah, I agree. But his usefulness to us always outweighed his threat to us. All those stolen documents and files. All the photographs. How the hell did he ever get all that stuff?”
“The Dog is a malignancy,” Juan says. He begins to go into a coughing fit. He coughs so hard his nose bleeds.
“I’d better get a nurse,” I say, turning and heading for the door.
“Fuck that, hand me a towel. We bleed, Richie. That’s what we do. How much blood have we seen? How much have we bled? We’ll leave the bloody towel on the bed. Scare the shit out of the nurses.”
We both laugh, and I toss him a clean linen from one of the closets.
“That fucker got in everyone’s head,” says Juan. His voice is muffled under the towel covering his nose. “I’ve never seen anything like him before or since. Even after the company threw him out, he still had his contacts, his ins with everyone. He knew everyone, and he knew everything. I never trusted that bastard. Not for a second. I knew he was pure evil and broken from birth. The Bruja believe that kind of evil transcends lives and generations. It regenerates. You die, and you come back with the same evil, only stronger. White Dog’s evil is a very old and dark evil. The worst kind of evil. The purest evil. Ancient evil.
“When we were driving south, all those years ago, I’ll never forget the sense of evil I felt in Biloxi. It was years later that I was told the Dog was from that place. Richie, I felt his evil that day. He comes from very old and powerful evil. He was the one man I felt was more than us, you and me together, Richie. He was worse than us, darker than us, deadlier than us.
“Our evil grew out of circumstance and then necessity. Our evil manifested itself, took on its own life until we were just along for the ride. Each day’s events led to the next day’s actions. I’m not excusing a goddamned thing we did, not one, but I’m simply saying we hopped on a train and were taken on a ride.” He lowers the towel from his face; the bleeding has stopped. A show crosses over his eyes, and I feel a shiver in my bones.
“Richie,” says Juan, “I know, deep in our souls we are not evil men. I’ve not grown religious – fuck religion – but I do believe at the end there will be a reckoning. On that day we will have to feel the weight of all the harm we have caused, all the evil we have done. But, I believe deep, deep down, buried way under our crimes and our sins against humanity that our basic decency will be acknowledged. Our evil will die with us; it will not transcend generations and reincarnations. That Dog, Mr. O’Malley, he is evil from way, way back. Listen to the Bruja.”
Juan’s face freezes in pain, and then he coughs again. Blood pours from his nose, more than before, and he presses the towel back up to his face.
“Richie,” he says. His voice is weaker now. “These thoughts of the past occupy my every waking moment. They occupy my dreams, the fleeting moments when I can sleep. I think about Melanie a lot. There is so much she does not know. She has her suspicions, but I do not confirm or deny. She is such a good person. It pains me to know she wasted her goodness on such a tainted soul. It pains me as much as it fills me with pride. I know there is no heaven, and I know there is no hell, but I know there is a reckoning. I know after that reckoning my soul and hers will be forever parted. That pains me, Richie.” Tears form in his eyes, and I walk to his side, sitting down in the chair.
“We had a child, a girl,” he says. His voice cracks. “I’m sure you didn’t know that either, and our baby had a baby girl. I’m a grandpa, Richie. I buy bicycles and Barbie dollhouses, and I tell made up stories of my life so they will never know me. They will only know the lie. Only you know me. Only the guys I watched bleed out know me. The ugliness of who I am will one day be revealed to my family, to my little girl and her little girl. That – that…” His voice trails off. I look around and find a water pitcher. The ice has melted, and the water is lukewarm, but I pour him a cup. He lowers the blood-soaked towel and takes a sip.
“I feel,” he continues, “at times as though I’ve thrown a single rose into a river of blood, and by doing so, I somehow expected all my violence to be forgiven. The little good I’ve done all came from my family. They are my single rose. I used to muse that after my death, all of this, this past we are recounting here, would be forgotten. I know this will never be true. I know the only thing that keeps our truths from being revealed is some tenuous alliance. That pact made years ago can come apart at any moment.
“The whole truth of the monsters we became, Richie, will be revealed the day those boxes are opened. When there is no longer any value to anyone to keep our lie alive. I dread the faces of Melanie and my girls. I dread them knowing what I really was, who I am!
“How do I confess that the daddy and grandpa that fixed the broken toys in his workshop, like fucking Santa Claus, and kissed the scraped knees, had another life? That I’m a criminal on an international scale. That I’ve killed and not once, but many times. That I was cartel!” Juan’s voice raises, and I put an arm on his shoulder, but he shrugs it off.
“Where your soul goes, and mine, is a very different place than the others,” says Juan. “Please, we need to get back to the confessional. I know I am running out of time. I feel I’m running a futile race. Our fates, my oldest friend, my brother in the blood, the rivers of blood, cannot at this point be changed. I know that, but as you retell our lives here, at least I can begin to feel the pain we have caused. That’s got to count for something, right, Richie? Talk to me so I can feel the pain. Let me touch that pain once. That’s got to count for something.”
“Juan, we can do this later. You’re not going to die,” I say. My voice is soft and calm. “I can come back tomorrow.”
“Fuck tomorrow!” yells Juan. “There’s blood running from my nose and my ass. They have a catheter in my dick. The chest pains are worse than knives. The hour is too late for tomorrow!”
“No. I sleep each night with nightmares of the dead, the men we killed. Far beyond night terrors, these are from the beyond. It’s like opening the door to another room. One step deeper, and I can feel it in that room. I can feel it all. A terror lives in that room that equals the terror we caused. Now, this late in the game I feel everything I could never feel. Old, sick, and weak, with a tube in my dick, bleeding, I feel it all. I’m into the final terror now, Richie. The terror of the end. It is a precursor to the reckoning.
“I saw the river of blood separating me from my home. Like that dream forty years ago, when our families were murdered, when I dreamed I was el vaquero in the darkness watching my family, your family, in the light. It’s the same now, only worse. When I close my eyes, I see the river of blood we spilled. You have to continue, Richie. You must!”
Joey, Juan’s nurse, peeks into the room. If he heard us, he makes no comment, and instead checks on Juan’s bloody nose, cleans him up, and gives Juan a dose of meds through his IV. He looks at me with the kindest eyes I can ever recall. He says, “Can I make you up a bed? We can roll one right in here, and you can spend the night.”
I shake my head. “It’s getting pretty late. I’d better go.”
“I understand,” says Joey. “Can I speak to you in the hall before you go?”
I wave a goodnight to Juan. He nods at me, his breathing slow, his eyes half closed. Whatever the pills were, they must have been good.
I meet Joey in the hallway. “Jesse,” he says, “do you mind if I call you Jesse?
I’m thrown. Since coming to the hospital a couple of days ago, I’ve been Richie again. Now, suddenly, outside Juan’s room, away from Juan and Melanie, I’m Jesse.
I look at this kid: he looks about twenty-five, and maybe a hundred pounds. He’s an RN. He looks like he could not possibly pose any threat to me. “Richie, my friends call me Richie.”
Joey looks down at the floor and then back at me. “Richie, your friend and I have grown close the past few days. He says you are the only family he has, other than his wife. What a sweet woman.” He takes a deep breath. “He’s written you down as a contact, so I need you to know his prognosis isn’t good. I’m not eavesdropping, but I know you two are doing some very important work in there. Me. Felipe tells me it is soul cleansing. I need you to know, Richie, that he’s being put on hospice. Juan is dying.”
I clench my fists. I want to hit this kid, but it’s not his fault. “It was a fucking heart attack, right? He’s getting better, isn’t he? Isn’t that what you guys do here?”
“Richie, I’m sorry, but your friend’s nose bleed? That’s cancer. It’s in his brain. We found it after the heart attack. It’s inoperable. The doctor will be in tomorrow if you want to discuss it more with him, but I need to tell you that whatever you are doing is helping put Mr. Felipe at ease. I want to make sure you know it’s very important to him. That is why I offered you the bed.” Joey touches my shoulder, the gesture reminding me of my Uncle Unk. “The offer stands, Richie. Goodnight.”
Fucking inoperable. What the fuck. I yell back at Joey as he walks away, “How much shit would I catch if I brought in a bottle of scotch?”
“Bring three glasses, but you didn’t hear that from me.”
I walk back to the champagne, soul-fucking Toyota in silence. Tomorrow, Johnny Walker is coming with me.
A cold and raw autumn rain is falling. I am still wearing shorts and a T-shirt and sandals. I acknowledge to myself that this summer has ended. Winter is fast approaching.
Picking up my cell-phone, I call the Blonde. She wants to know where I’ve been. Why the mystery? Why has my phone been off all day? Who am I with? She accuses me of fucking around.
“I’m not in the mood for you,” I shout into the phone, “or any of this tonight. Meet me here tomorrow. You’ll get your questions answered.” I hang up the call. “Like, I need this shit!” I yell to the silence and the night. For the first time, in a long time, I completely lose my shit. My hands start to bleed as I punch out the dashboard in the Toyota. Shards of plastic from the heater vents and the radio jam in my fingers between the knuckles.
I look at the blood on the back of my hands and fingers. It’s dripping all over the soul-fucking, champagne colored carpet.
I sit there, sobbing, recalling Juan’s words:
“We bleed, Richie. That’s what we do.”
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