HENSON COMES HOME, PART 4: CAROL ANN - ANDY HENION
Three weeks after the wedding, Jax brings Carol Ann to her knees with an efficiency that says he has done this before. Hit them where you don’t leave a mark. She gasps at his feet until she can crawl into the bedroom and lock the door. There, she curses and screams, hurling possessions against the wall and thinking brutal thoughts.
An hour later, she emerges, showered and dressed in her waitress dress, the pain a razor in her ribs.
“Be gone when I get back,” she says.
He isn’t. Instead, he’s holding council at the kitchen table with a bearded man and two of his goons. They speak in vagaries but the gist is clear, and Carol Ann grabs a beer and retreats to the tiny back porch. When the men are gone, Jax comes to her, green eyes dancing.
“I’m going to take you out, right now, and light this town up.”
It’s clear he has prospered from the meeting, just as it’s clear he is becoming a man to reckon with, albeit in the wrong circles. Still, the way he pulls her close and looks into her eyes—his is a passion she has never encountered, not even with her first husband. And truth be told, it’s difficult to hold the man’s anger against him. He was jealous of the others, after all, and who wouldn’t be?
Carol Ann can only promise her whoring days are over.
The club is packed, but Jax and his bride are ushered through the waiting horde and shown to a table. The manager brings free drinks. Men drift by and fist-bump; women whisper in his ear, even sit on his lap, with barely a look at the little brunette sitting beside him.
Carol Ann sips her beer and watches the band play. Jealousy isn’t part of her makeup. An only child, she was raised by her military father after her mother was killed in a crash before Carol Ann could know her. Master Sergeant Tower retired early and hit the bottle; Carol Ann spent her teenage years playing homemaker to his wino. Then, the summer after graduation—five years ago now—Tower drowned in his vomit and Carol Ann married Private Alex Bowman. They assumed the old man’s modest home in Humble and Carol Ann waited tables during the day and took psychology classes at night. Alex went off to war and came back wrong.
When they’re alone, Jax puts his tongue in her mouth and his hand between her legs. The beer has loosened Carol Ann a bit, and she permits his thrill. Fighting the man, she is learning, only excites him.
Jax had showed up at the restaurant earlier that summer with a buddy and two barely-dressed blondes. Five in the morning, sloppy drunk, ordering omelets and pancakes. Jax zeroed in on the little waitress with the big brown eyes and said, “Honey, you should join the party.” Carol Ann eyed the blondes and said, “I’ll save myself a trip to the clinic.”
He was back the next day, alone this time, smoking cigarettes and sipping coffee. He convinced her to take her break with him and proceeded to work his charm. He had come down from Boston two years ago to work in logistics, he explained, and quickly moved up the ladder. What ladder would that be? Carol Ann inquired. The one with gold at the top, he said, winking, and later that night, after a dizzying hour on her living room floor, she told him about Alex’s suicide and then about the men—the soldiers—she had since fucked for money.
“And for other reasons, I suppose, but I’m done with that,” she said, and waited naked and exposed for his reply.
He smoked a cigarette and stared up at the water-stained ceiling. Finally, he said, “Honey, we all have our crosses.”
They were married a week later by a long-haired justice of the peace. He moved his belongings into her place, promising they’d find something better, that the sky was the limit, all that.
Now, after a night of partying, the sun is sprouting above the treeline as they pull in the crumbling driveway. There’s a hotrod at the curb and a zit-faced soldier waiting behind the wheel. Carol Ann turns to Jax and places her hand on his arm.
“This guy doesn’t have a clue. I’ll take care of it.” She’s out of the car before he can respond, leaning into the kid’s window, waving her hands about.
When she enters the house five minutes later, Jax is standing in his boxers, vodka in hand.
“Stupid kid didn’t—”
“Once a whore, huh?” he says, and straight-arms her in the forehead.
Carol Ann goes down, straight down, smacking her head on the futon arm and again on the hardwood floor with enough force to damage nerves.
Jax looks down at her limp form and drinks deeply from the vodka. He hasn’t spilled a drop.
She dwells in darkness. He builds his reputation. Hours on end, she lies on the bed and listens to heated discussions of shipments and payoffs to bosses and bureaucrats. It’s obvious he doesn’t need to be here—he could afford just about any place in town by now—but it’s a good location to avoid attention, this ramshackle ranch house on a street where the neighbors have scant interest in summoning the law.
She doesn’t eat, her nightclothes sag. She showers only when forced. He calls her a waste of oxygen, tells her to get her act together.
“Now I know,” he says, “why G.I. Joe swallowed his gun.”
One day, a man is brought to the house. From the living room comes pleading and screaming as his punishment is carried out. “Hand me the pillow,” Jax says, and then a muffled crack and a thud as the body hits the floor. Carol Ann pulls her own pillow over her head and sobs herself to sleep.
He lets them take her. The first to come is his right-hand man, Rico, a wiry Italian with a permanent wad of tobacco in his cheek. The weight of his body jolts her awake. She doesn’t fight back.
Life and death, it’s all the same. When she was in the hospital with her head wrapped in gauze and a cop at her bedside, Carol Ann knew better than to confess, his words still fresh in her ears: I’ll cut you to pieces.
But no longer does she fear pain, or dying, or the bastard who took an oath to honor her.
She’s going to ruin him.
Her cell phone expired long ago and there’s no landline in the house, so Carol Ann bathes and dresses and sits on the edge of the bed. Running a brush through her hair, she’s waiting for him to leave, figuring she can find her way to the convenience store two blocks away and wing it from there.
A knock on the front door. She hears the familiar voices of her coworkers, Keisha and Barb and Warren the manager.
“We want to make sure she’s okay.”
“Guys?” She makes it into the living room, where they see her for the first time since the accident.
“Oh, Carol Ann.”
The women come and put their arms around her and cry. Warren explains how she can come back to work—not as a waitress, of course, but as a hostess. He’s looked into it, he says, and the county has free training services and even will pay part of her salary, which is just fine with him.
No one laughs. They shift nervously as Jax smokes and eyes them from the table.
“Whatever,” he says, flipping a hand. “Go make me some fucking money.”
“Table for one, sir?”
“Smoking or non?”
She leads him to a booth along the back wall.
Carol Ann smiles. “So much for small talk,” she says, thinking, There’s something about that voice.
“What happened to you?”
Again with the directness. “Do I know you?”
“I doubt it.”
“You doubt it, huh? Well, mystery man, enjoy your dinner.”
Keisha, the head waitress, says she just knows evil is alive in that godforsaken place. She warns Carol Ann to get out.
“Hell, child, come stay with me. I got the room.”
But Carol Ann is stubborn, her spirit renewed. Even if Jax would let her go, this is her family’s home, full of memories, her father’s war medals, and goddamn if she’ll let them take it. She reactivates the cell phone; keeps a steak knife under her pillow. Makes it clear the next motherfucker who enters her room will leave castrated. For his part, Jax seems to have lost interest, offering her hope that he’ll move on soon.
Then the cops come. They raid on a weekday, while Carol Ann is at work, hauling in Jax and three of his cronies. When the bus drops her off, a patrolman posted at the house places a copy of the warrant in her hand.
“I know you can’t read this, ma’am. Just a formality.”
“Did you find what you were after?”
“I’m not supposed to discuss that, ma’am, but no. We got them on possession.”
“They’ll be out tonight.”
“No, ma’am, tomorrow morning at the earliest.”
She laughs in disbelief, grinding her fists into her temples. Now is the time to tell him, she knows. Take her chances on the legal system. But even if they do put Jax away, she’ll always be waiting for one of his minions to come calling.
In the dark.
“Why this?” she says, meaning the courtesy call. “And why not me? It’s my house.”
“Our tipster explained your, ah, situation,” the cop says. “You’re lucky. You have some good friends out there.”
Good friends, Carol Ann thinks, who just fucked me.
She goes to work the next day because there’s nothing else to do. No matter how much she denies it, Jax will blame her. She considers getting on a Greyhound and heading west—L.A. , maybe, or Seattle—and starting a new life. But then there’s this: She’s a blind woman with no access to cash, whose only skill is seating people in a restaurant she knows inside-out.
She considers whoring again, this time seriously. But just as quickly she realizes she’d rather die.
He shows up in the early afternoon, after the lunch rush. The quick squeak of the hinge tells her it’s a single patron; the boot on the floor says it’s a man.
“Table for one, sir?”
“Ah, the mystery man.” She leads him toward the booth in the back.
“You’re anxious about something,” he says. “Scared.”
Carol Ann stops. “Okay, Sigmund, what’s your deal? Who the hell are you?”
“The name is Collins.”
Carol Ann makes a means-nothing-to-me face, shrugs her arms.
“You know me as Henson.”
There it is: the voice. Carol Ann extends an arm, pulls it back quickly.
She leads him to the table in the southwest corner, generally hidden from sight, and takes the seat next to him. Leans forward and runs her fingertips down both of his cheeks.
“The face is wrong.”
“I had a change.”
“A change,” she says, although she knows it’s true. She shakes her head.
“I read about you shooting those people,” she says. “That cop.”
“And here you are, revealing your darkest and deepest. What can that possibly mean for me?”
“I come to see you, that’s all.”
“Now you’ve seen me. So go away.”
“Christ, man, it was just a handjob.”
He makes a face she cannot see. She stands and presses a fluttering hand to her chest, her face a mask of worry. Henson is the least of her problems.
He says, “You’ve lost something besides your sight.”
“And what, you’re going to get it back for me?”
“I can help. No strings.”
“Oh sure, trade one maniac for another. No, thanks.”
She gets a ride home from the manager, has him swing by the hardware store. Warren’s been married nineteen years, has three kids, but still sniffs around like a horny teenager. He’s harmless enough and, as Carol Ann suspected, easy to manipulate.
Thieves have hit twice in the past week, she tells him. Jax is gone half the time and she’s scared shitless of what they’ll will do if they catch her alone. While Warren installs the heavy-duty lock on her bedroom door, he praises her bravery for coming back to work like she did, explaining how her presence brightens the whole restaurant.
Then he’s up against her, sour breath in her face. As his lips slide down her neck, Carol Ann says, “Need a rain check, Warren, it’s that time of month.”
He gets a breast free, cups it with hungry hands. “No worries,” he says, teeth closing on a nipple, and Carol Ann laughs and pushes him away.
“I’m flattered, really. But not now, okay?”
She gets him out of the house and immediately regrets it. She runs to the porch only to listen to his minivan chug away. She locks the door and tries Keisha’s cell—voicemail. Hangs up, calls work, gets the chirpy night hostess. Not sure what to say (my gangster husband’s coming home to kill me?), she asks her counterpart to check the schedule, apologizing for her memory.
Now what? She takes a bag of carrots and a six pack into the bedroom and engages the padlock. Jax has been sleeping in the other room, when he’s here at all, so there’s a chance he won’t even come for her. Carol Ann munches a carrot and guzzles the beers one after the other, trying to make herself believe this, until she’s groggy-brained and sprawled on the mattress with the cell phone in one hand and the steak knife in the other.
As the night wears on, bad dreams, beer-fueled and tragic, mix with the real thing, though Carol Ann will not distinguish between the two. She slashes at the shadowy figures, but her knife is too slow and they are too powerful. There are ropes, a gag, and in the morning a busted door and an empty house, and Carol Ann is so bruised and battered she cannot walk the few feet to the toilet.
Carol Ann stands in the parking lot, frozen. It’s been four days, yet she cannot make herself go inside the restaurant.
“How much will it take before this ends?”
She jumps at his voice. Then, holding herself: “Goddamn you.”
He doesn’t apologize. “How much?”
“How do you know?” she says.
There are no visible marks.
“You’re favoring your lower half. You know he’s keeping you alive to torture you.”
“He’s not coming back.”
“You don’t believe that.”
Carol Ann puts her face in her hands and screams into the flesh. She does it again, and again, and when she’s finished she looks up and says, “No strings, right?”
Henson is sitting on the couch when he enters. Jax pulls a gun—slow as hell, Henson observes—and glances around the room, making sure the intruder is alone.
“Who the fuck are you?”
Henson has a coat in his lap, the black silencer poking out. Jax finally realizes this—some gangster—and makes a face as if the man is certifiable.
“You come into my home and point a gun at me? Do you know who I am?”
“It’s not my game,” Henson says.
Carol Ann slips from behind the door and puts a pistol to her husband’s back, a move she’s practiced countless times over the past two days. Henson rises from the chair and moves to sandwich him.
“The gun,” he says.
“How about I frag you and take my chances with her.”
“Either way. Make up your mind.”
Jax snorts and tosses the weapon to the floor. Henson pats him down and finds a blade and a fancy cell phone, puts them in his pocket. He steps back and motions toward the bedroom. “Go,” he says, and Jax complies, looking back at Carol Ann and shaking his head.
“Y’all have no idea what you’re into.”
In the bedroom, Henson orders Jax to take off his clothes. Jax laughs and tells him to go fuck himself. Henson grabs the man’s wrist and shoots a hole in his hand. Jax hoots and hollers for awhile, then strips down to nothing, a relatively slow process without the use of both hands.
“Lie down,” Henson says. The ropes still hang from the four corner posts; her blood has hardened on the sheets. Jax makes to protest and Henson goes for his wrist. He pulls away and gets up on the bed. Henson ties him up, good hand first, and exits the bedroom without another word.
Carol Ann is drinking a beer with an unsteady hand. The other holds a knife. Watching her little arms quake, Henson doubts her resolve. But then she drains the can, sets it on the table and walks into the bedroom, gently closing the door behind her.
As the talking turns to yelling and then something far worse, Henson walks around the living room and looks through the windows. Two of the neighboring houses are red-tagged for demolition. Across the street he sees a silver-haired woman watching television from a wheelchair. She doesn’t look up, even when the massacre reaches a crescendo, and Henson figures it would take a bomb blast to get her attention.
It’s over in a matter of minutes. Carol Ann comes out with blood splattered on her face and arms. When she speaks, her voice is high and tinny, trance-like.
“I left the knife in him. Couldn’t tell you where, of course. It was like playing darts in the dark with a moving target.”
She heads into the kitchen. Two packed suitcases sit by the table. From the get-go she’s been particular about the plan: afterward, she’s going to stay with a friend, and she’s never coming back. Henson will take care of the cleanup. Then she’ll pay someone to pack the place up, put her crap in storage and put it on the market.
Henson comes up behind her and says, “There are three more.”
She turns on the faucet and begins washing away the gore. “There will always be more, Mr. Henson, but I’m done.”
“They’ll come for you.”
Carol Ann turns to face him, her tormentor’s blood dripping from her chin.
“Then they’ll come,” she says.
The idiots have been exchanging texts for months. Pack for Dallas three or four days...Dill says it’s a go...$80 large gets us in...Henson doesn’t know how the cops missed it. If he were FBI, he’d have a hard-on.
Sitting at the kitchen table, Jax’s good Russian vodka on his tongue, he works his thumbs over the tiny keyboard. He starts with Rico, the right-hand man.
Bitch ready for more, he types. Midnight.
The reply comes quickly, as he knew it would.
Let’s do this.
Henson slips the phone in his pocket. He considers the little waitress and her tough luck. With his new face, his new identity, he had come down here expecting...well, something. Instead, he got caught up in this train wreck.
Maniac, he thinks, for that’s what she had said, comparing Henson to her lowlife husband.
“Maniac,” he says softly, as if testing its validity.
Then he finishes the vodka and gets up to prepare for the gangster’s arrival.
BIO: Andy's short fiction appears in Plots With Guns, Thieves Jargon, Pindeldyboz, Hobart and other publications. He lives in Michigan.