"I want to talk to you," he said, meaning me.
Dan was speaking clearly enough but he was listing slightly to port. Lillian had otten out of the car first and was standing in front of him with her hands out. It was hard to tell whether she was trying to hold him back or catch him if he fell.
"I think I’ve got a right to talk to him," Dan told her.
“This isn’t fair, Dan," Lillian said.
“You’re damn right."
She was trying to corral him back toward the BMW, but he wouldn’t move. He looked at her and for a few seconds his expression wavered between angry and injured. He put out his hands.
"No, Dan!" she said. “I want you to go."
The Rodriguez brothers next door were out on their porch, drinking beer in their tank tops and swim trunks. They watched us, grinning. One circled his temple with his finger and said something in Spanish I couldn’t catch. The other one laughed. I touched Lillian on the shoulder.
“I can talk to Dan if he wants," I said.
She looked back at me, her face incredulous. "Tres, no. I mean, you don’t have to do that. Dan, leave now."
She pushed him back. He wobbled a little but didn’t fall over.
“I’rn not leaving until I get my say," he said.
Dan and I looked at Lillian.
"I don’t believe this," she snapped. She gave us both a withering scowl as she retreated toward the house, then slammed the screen door behind her. One of the Rodriguez brothers opened a new beer.
“I just want to know something." Dan rubbed the side of his face with two fingers that had gold rings the size of walnuts. “I want to know what makes you think that you can come back to town after ten fucking years and act like you’re Christ Descended. You ditch this town, you ditch Lillian, you run away from the whole fucking scene, and then you come back and expect everything to be waiting for you just like it was. You ever heard of burned bridges, Navarre?"
Sheff was getting warmed up now, almost sober. As he talked he got faster and angrier, slapping one hand into the other to make his point. His perfectly combed hair had come unraveled, one little curl hanging down in his face Superman style.
"You want an answer?" I said.
"Some of us stayed in town, man. Some of us don’t run away from people we care about. We’ve been building something, Lillian and me, for six months now. `What the hell gives you the right to come out of nowhere and stomp on that now?"
I thought about what to say to that. Nothing came to mind.
"You’re pathetic," Dan said. "You can’t make a life for yourself out there, go someplace else and leave us alone. You don’t get another chance here."
I exhaled, looking over at the Rodriguezes, who seemed highly entertained, then back at Dan.
“Pathetic might be a little strong," I said.
"Lillian called me, Dan," I said, trying to keep my voice even. “Not the other way around. If you were building something, I think it was collapsing way before I got here."
In itself, that didn’t strike me as that much of an insult, but there were at least two months of pent-up anger in Dan’s first punch. I admit I wasn’t ready for it. It caught me square in the stomach.
You don’t ever want to fight an emotionally distraught person, especially one who’s in good physical shape. What they lose in coordination they gain in power and unpredictability. When he hit me I had to ignore the nausea and the instinct to double over in order to avoid a haymaker swing that would’ve caught me in the head.
I slid down under the punch on my left leg, a little awkwardly, and used my right leg to knock Dan off his feet with a sweep-kick. He didn’t know to roll, so he fell on his back pretty hard.
I got up and backed away. My gut felt like a piece of sheet metal that was hardening as it cooled.
Dan scrambled up and started toward me. I held up my palms, offering a truce.
"This is stupid, Dan, " I said.
He tried one more punch but this time I was ready for it. I stepped out of the way and let him punch air. After that he just stood there for a minute, breathing heavily.
"God damn it," he said. “You got no right."
He turned and started back toward his car. From the way he walked, his lower back must’ve been in a lot of pain.
The windows of his BMW were tinted almost black, so it was only when Dan opened the door that I saw the older woman with bright gold hair sitting in the passenger seat. Her face rested in her left hand as if in total mortification. As the door slammed Dan was growling to her: "Don’t start!"
Then he drove over half the Rodriguezes’ front lawn and over the curb getting back on the street. The BMW swerved slowly down Acacia like a drunk shark. The Rodriguez brothers looked at me and grinned, raising their beer cans in a salute.
Lillian was in her bedroom, pretending to read.
"Just a little man-to-man talk?" she asked coldly. "Did you mark off your territory for him?"
"Lillian—" I started. I stopped, realizing I sounded like Dan had a few minutes before.
She threw down her magazine. "I don’t like being told to go to my room while the big fellas fight it out, Tres."
"You’re right. I shou1d’ve let you handle it."
"You think I couldn’t have?"
No answer would’ve worked, so I didn’t try one.
She got up and looked out the window. Finally, she walked over to me and put her arms around my waist. Her eyes were still angry.
“Look, Tres, this hasn’t been a real great day for me. I think I need a hot bath and a night alone with a book."
"I love you, " I said.
She kissed me as lightly as you’d kiss a Bible.
“I think we should talk more tomorrow," she said quietly. "I don’t want any more surprises from my past."
I closed the front door quietly on my way out.
Back at home, I checked my newly installed answering machine. Mother had called twice, upset that I hadn’t given her a report yet on my first date with Lillian. Bob Langston had left a cryptic message threatening me with bodily harm and legal action.
I unwrapped the ceramic skeleton-driven car Lillian had given me and put it down on the carpet in front of Robert Johnson. He hissed at it, puffing up his tail as thick as a raccoon’s, then walked backward into the closet, still staring at the new monstrosity.
Two days back home and I’d managed to mess up my fragile relationship with Lillian, aggravate my mother, traumatize my cat, and make at least three new enemies.
"Just about par," I told myself.
There was only one other thing I could possibly stir up to make myself feel worse. I called directory assistance and asked for Carl Kelley, retired deputy sheriff, my dead father’s best friend.
“I’ll be damned," he said. “I never thought I’d hear from you again, son."
Years of smoking hadn’t been kind to Carl Kelley’s voice. Every word sounded like it was being scraped across a metal file as it left his throat.
Before I could tell him why I had called, he began a long gravelly sentence without periods, telling me about all the people he and my father had known who were now either dead, in the hospital, or afflicted in their old age with ungrateful children. I got the feeling Carl was living alone now and probably hadn’t gotten a phone call in a long time. I let him talk.
One of God’s little jokes: as soon as I had reached Carl on the phone the TV program somehow switched from baseball coverage to a rerun of Buckner Fanning’s morning sermon from Trinity Baptist. I had dragged the phone across the living room as far as the cord would reach and was now trying to reach the television controls with my foot, hoping I could either turn the set off or find another channel. So far Buckner was thwarting my efforts. Tan and immaculately dressed, he was smiling and admonishing me to accept God.
"Yeah," I said to Carl at the appropriate moments. “That sounds pretty bad." After a while Carl presented me with an opening. He asked me what I was doing back in town.
“If I were to want some case files on Dad’s death, who would I talk to?"
A long pull on a cigarette. A rumbly cough. “Christ, son. You’ve come back to look into that?"
"No," I said. “But maybe now I could read about it fresh, more objectively, maybe put it behind me."
I could hear him blow smoke into the receiver.
"Not a week goes by I don’t see him in my sleep," Carl said, "lying there like that."
We both got quiet. I thought about that eternal five minutes between the time my father had fallen to the ground and the first paramedic unit had arrived, when we’d stood there, Carl and I, watching the groceries roll down the sidewalk with the lines of blood. I’d been completely frozen. Carl had been the opposite. He’d started pacing, rambling about what jack and he had been planning on doing that weekend, how the hunting was going to be, what Aggie jokes jack had told him the night before. All the while he was wiping away tears, lighting and crushing cigarettes one after the other. A jar of jelly had rolled into the crook of my father’s arm and nestled there like a teddy bear.
"I don’t know about putting it behind you," Carl said.
Buckner Fanning started telling me about his latest trip to the Holy City of Jerusalem.
“Who would I talk to to see the files, Carl?"
“It’s in-house, son. And it’s been too long. It just ain’t done that way."
"But if it was?"
Carl exhaled into my ear. "You remember Drapiewski? Larry Drapiewski? Made deputy lieutenant about a year ago."
"What about for SAPD?"
He had a coughing fit for a minute, then cleared his throat.
“I’d try Kingston in Criminal Investigations, if he’s still there. He was always in debt to jack for one favor or another. There was an FBI review of the case a few years back too. I can’t help you there."
I remembered neither Drapiewski nor Kingston, but it was a place to start.
“Thanks, Carl. "
“Yeah well, sorry I can’t help much. I thought you were my son calling from Austin. He ain’t called in over a month, you know. For a minute there, you sounded like him."
"Take care of yourself, Carl."
“Nice way to spend an afternoon," he said. "You kept me talking all the way up to 60 Minutes."
I hung up. I couldn’t help picturing Carl Kelley, sitting in some house alone, a cigarette in his withered hand, living for television shows and a phone call from Austin that never came. I sat for a minute, Robert Johnson instantly on my lap, and we watched Buckner talk about spiritual healing. Then I turned off the set.
"Little Tres?" Larry Drapiewski laughed. "Jesus, E not the same seven-year-old kid who used to sit on my desk and eat the custard out of the middle of my donuts."
As soon as he said that I had a vague memory of Drapiewski—a large man, flat-topped red hair, friendly smile, a sweating face that looked like the Martian landscape. His big hands always full of food.