Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A Twist Of Noir 054 - Michael Pelc


"Dammit, John, turn off the alarm."

Carolyn pokes me in the side with her elbow. She wakes easily at the slightest of sounds, this woman. I suspect it is a motherly thing that I do not share with her.

My hand fumbles its way through the darkness. The alarm silenced, I swing my feet out from under the covers and sit on the edge of the bed. It is 4:30 in the morning. The world is dark.

"Johnny, don't go," she says, her hand gentle upon my back. Her touch implores me to return to the warmth of the bed and the softness of her body. My wife does not understand the bond of the hunter.

"The guys are counting on me, Hon. I can't not go." I speak to her over my shoulder as I shuffle half-eyed across the cold hardwood floor to the bathroom. I don't leave room for discussion. Me and the guys do this once a year. Once a year, that's all. Once a year on the Saturday before Easter. I don't think that's too much to ask.

When I come downstairs to the kitchen, she is there, standing by the stove. "You want breakfast?" she asks. "Bacon and eggs?"

"Just coffee," I tell her. "Hunger heightens the senses, you know."

"Johnny, I'm scared," she says and wraps her arms around me. Her head nuzzles against my chest, and she presses her breasts hard against me.

"Aw, Peanut, it'll be okay. There's nothing to be scared about. Besides, I'll be back by tonight," I tell her as I kiss the top of her head. We are seven years into our marriage. The lies come easily now.

I take down the Remington from its place above the mantle and walk toward the door, the old hardwood floor creaking beneath my boots. Carolyn has gone back upstairs. She will not linger in the doorway as I load the Jeep. She will not wave as I back out of the drive. She will not say good-bye. I have let her down again, and that, too, comes easily now.

Driving through town, I cannot tell if Wiscasset is dead or asleep, nor do I know if it makes any difference. Her streets, like her soul - if she ever had one - are deserted, her store fronts dark. The traffic lights cycle through their green-yellow-red routine as they regulate traffic that is not there. I don't know what it is that the summer tourists find so appealing about the place. Perhaps they would feel differently about it if they lived here. Or died here.

We meet at the parking lot beside Bert's Barber Shop: Bert, Tom and Jesse, the kid, except Jesse isn't there yet. "Where's the kid?" I ask.


"Has he called or anything?"

"Nothin'." Bert's tone is surly, impatient. It is he who has invited the boy.

"Okay, I say we give him five more minutes, then we're outta here. Agreed?"

No one answers. No one protests. It is understood that we'll wait the five minutes. Marriage should be so simple.

We stand around sniffling our noses and rubbing the sides of our arms to keep our bodies warm. Tom wants to know just what it is that Bert said to the kid.

"Nothin' special. Just the usual," Bert says between draws on his Dr. Grabow pipe. By this he means he told the kid about the eggs – the gator eggs – and how there's a zoologist in Bangor, at the University, who is willing to pay upwards of ten thousand a piece for them on account of how rare gator eggs are up here in Maine.

"Maybe he didn't buy it," says Tom. "Maybe he wasn't as dumb as you thought."

"He was plenty dumb, all right. Don't you worry about that," Bert tells him. Over the years, Bert's been the best picker we've had.

The distant squeal of tires on pavement interrupts their conversation. It's Jesse. No one else would be fool enough to be up at this hour. Except us, of course.

"Damn kid," says Tom. He turns and gets into the Jeep.

Jesse's Mustang kicks up gravel as he pulls into the parking lot. He is full of exuberance and energy, the curses of youth. "Hey, Pops," he says with a laugh, "ready to go rustle up some eggs?"

He is no one's son, leastwise no one in this group. The term "Pops" is simply his way of reminding us that we are old. As if it is somehow a bad thing to have lived as long as we have, to have reached the age that we are. We'll have to see what we can do to oblige him.

We take the state highway north of town to where the mill used to be before it burned down. Then we turn left onto the Jeep Trail and follow that to the far side of Gardiner Pond. It is where we tell the kids like Jesse that the gator lives.

Jesse is wired, pumped up, maybe even on something. He keeps up a running conversation with himself all the way there about some woman or other he met last night at Harrington's. The love of his life, the woman of his dreams, the answer to his prayers, something like that. No one cares, probably not even Jesse.

The morning sun is just beginning to filter through the trees when I pull into the clearing. We groan and stumble our way out of the Jeep. Winter's leftover snow, ice-crusted and dirty and not yet melted by the spring thaw that came late this year, crunches beneath our boots.

"Hey, Pops," says Jesse, his breath visible in the cold morning air. "If'n we find the nest, how many eggs you figure there'll be?"

The kid actually believes there are gators living in Maine. Tom and I look at one another. I can tell he agrees with me that Bert has picked a good one to cull from the herd.

"Well, I dunno for sure about no Maine gator, but I hear tell that in Florida, a dozen or more is right typical of the species," says Bert.

"A dozen! Damn, Pops. Damn, that's a wicked lot of eggs, ain't it? Let's see, at ten thousand a piece...how much would that be?"

Bert shakes his head in disbelief. He takes his time emptying the ashes from his pipe and putting it away before he answers the kid. "Well, at the moment, the total would be zero, wouldn't it? I mean, seein' as how we don't exactly have any eggs yet, now do we?"

"Well, then damn, Pops, let's quit fartin' around and get some."

At this point, according to plan, I interrupt and tell Bert how he should quit teasing the kid, how the boy's right and that we should get our eggs and get out of here. I explain to the kid how he should make his way around the edge of the pond looking for the eggs while the three of us, with our guns, keep him covered on account of how dangerous a Maine gator can be when it comes to protecting its eggs. The kid looks nervous, scared. We're all crack shots, I tell him, he's got nothing to worry about. In all the years we've been coming here, we haven't lost anyone to a gator yet. If that gator's stupid enough to poke his head up out of the pond, we'll blast him. To emphasize my point, I chamber a round in the Remington. Tom and Bert follow my lead.

Jesse gets down on all fours. His back to us, he begins crawling around the pond.

"There, that little outcropping. Feel around in there," shouts Tom. "That's just the kind of place gators like to lay their eggs."

Jesse rolls up his sleeve and pushes his hand into the icy water. Tom pokes me in the ribs. I find it hard not to laugh out loud.

Bert joins in. "Check that rock," he says, "the big one. Turn it over. One year we found some gator eggs underneath a rock just like that."

Jesse struggles to move the rock. The moss along the shoreline is slippery. The kid loses his footing and comes close to falling into the pond.

"Geez, Jesse, be careful," Bert screams out. "Gators are sensitive to any kind of movement in the water, you know. Believe me, kid, you don't want to fall in."

It goes on this way for several minutes. We entertain ourselves shouting ridiculous instructions and meaningless warnings while Jesse slowly gropes his way around the perimeter of Gardiner Pond, looking for an egg from a nonexistent gator.

Then Bert taps Tom and me on the shoulder and we become quiet. The kid was Bert's find, so it's his call, and he's decided that the time has come.

"Gator!" Bert shouts at the top of his lungs.

"Where?" Jesse's voice cracks with fear.

"Right behind you, Jesse, right behind you!"

The kid stands up and starts to run. "Shoot 'im," he screams, "for God's sake, shoot 'im!"

The sharp report of our rifles echoes through the dense, cool air of the woods. We are indeed the crack shots I said we were. Thump-thump-thump. In quick succession like that, our bullets find their mark. What I said to the kid remains true: we have never lost anyone to a gator. I feel good about that, that I did not lie to the boy.

It is late afternoon by the time we are done tidying up, ridding the place of blood, weighing down the body and tossing it in the pond. The sun's rays no longer have any warmth to them, and I am hungry. I have not eaten all day. I drop Bert and Tom off at the barbershop and swing by the Pizza Barn on Route 1 on my way home. I order a pepperoni pizza to go.

When I get home, I set the pizza box down on the kitchen table. I'm careful to place a dish towel underneath it so the heat doesn't warp the veneer.

Carolyn comes in from the living room. Her gaze shifts back and forth between me and the pizza box. "I swear," she says, shaking her head and fighting back a laugh, "I don't know why you guys keep doing that hunting thing of yours. You never bag anything."

We sit down at the table and begin to eat. We don't go through the ritual of pretending to have a conversation. There's no point in trying to explain anything to her. There are some people who will just never understand the bond of the hunter. Maybe next year, when it's my turn to pick, I'll ask Carolyn to join us for our yearly Easter egg hunt out at Gardiner Pond.

BIO: Michael Pelc lives in Florida, where, with the help of his wife and cat (neither of whom is named Carolyn), he tries to maintain a gator-free zone inside his house. His stories have appeared in various print and online publications such as Micro-Horror, Crimson Highway, Apollo's Lyre, Long Story Short, and Short Stories From Hell.


sandra seamans said...

Whoa! Loved that little twist on the end! This is great, Michael!

Al Tucher said...

I didn't see that one coming. Gulp!

Paul Brazill said...

This is the real thing.