THAT TIME OF YEAR: A CHARLIE BYRNE STORY - KIERAN SHEA
It’s a little after one a.m. and Jenny Milton has just zipped up her three to midnight shift at the Showboat Hotel and Casino. We’re sitting at the counter in a Greek diner near the Atlantic City Convention Center. I’m having some warmed up pumpkin pie. Jenny’s having a big slab of boyfriend woe.
A tired blonde, Jenny is almost pretty if you plucked her up and set her down in a different tax bracket. We met two years back when I temped a Showboat gig running a wand over the nerd cattle at a tech expo. Good soul, but a salty life. Twice-divorced and eight years in step, Jenny has a six-year-old asthmatic son named Bryce she works like hell to keep healthy and hale.
“You should call your attorney,” I say.
Jenny fidgets, shivers at the suggestion. “Ugh. Lawyers...I don’t know.”
“Call the county sheriff’s office then. They’ve experience with this kind of domestic thing.”
“Look, I don’t want him in jail, Charlie.”
“No one’s going to jail, Jen. Believe me, the cops have worse people to incarcerate.”
“I just want him out of my house.” I swallowed some coffee. You want proof in the existence of God? Good diner pie and strong, black coffee. The world is blessed with such graces.
“OK,” I counter, “has he threatened you?”
Jenny rubbed an earlobe, “No. Not exactly.”
“Define not exactly.”
“I mean, I don’t fear for my safety or anything. He’s not that kind of guy. Dallas knows he’s got himself a sweet little deal going, living rent free. He’s not going to blow it by knocking me around.”
“Your boyfriend’s name is Dallas?”
“Ex-boyfriend, yeah. Dallas.”
“Like the city?”
“Pretty unusual name.”
“He’s was born in Texas. His whole family are these big, insane Dallas Cowboys fans. His mother is, like, a distant cousin to Tom Landry or something.”
Great. I hated the jerk already. “So what does your kid Bryce think of this goldbricker?”
“Bryce is six. He doesn’t think, Charlie. He just sees Dallas like this big, goofy older brother making fart jokes and lying around the house smoking weed. Which, by the way, totally screws with Bryce’s asthma. ”
“Does Dallas even work?” Jenny groans. “He did, but not anymore. Worked for the Jersey Highway Authority, maintenance stuff out on the Parkway. When we were just, you know, dating he told me all about a promotion he was lined up for, about the union benefits, how he loved my kid, how he wanted to treat me right, marry me, build something. Then after he moved in, bang, all that just fell away. I found out he got fired for being stoned on the job. He also lied to me about some stripper ex-girlfriend he was seeing. God. How could I’ve been so stupid?”
“Go easy on yourself.”
“And people...my neighbors, I just know what they’re thinking.”
“What are they thinking?”
“Me and him. That I hooked up with Dallas because he’s younger. Like I’m one of those desperate cougars ladies looking for a thrill.”
“Oh. How much younger is he?”
“Younger. A lot younger. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. What matters is I have a situation.”
I finished my pie. Good crust made with real butter not Crisco. “Like I said, Jenny baby, you really should just call the cops, explain things. It’s the smart play. If he hasn’t paid rent and you’re not married, technically he’s trespassing. They’ll drag him out of there and you get a locksmith to change the locks.”
“Can’t you just talk with him?”
I looked up at the analog clock above the kitchen’s swinging door. Someone had stuck a rubber novelty eyeball dead in the center. It was the first time I’d ever noticed the eyeball and it seemed to be watching me, like that Masonic eye on the back of one dollar bill.
“Lay out these consequences. Deep down he’s just a big baby I know he’ll take you seriously. Please, Charlie.”
“I don’t want to charge you and I’d have to.”
“Instead of money, how ‘bout I score you some sweet tickets for free to The Roots show at the House of Blues next month? You can have them up front and if things go either way. What do you say?”
A few days later, I meet Dallas.
He’s stretched out and swinging in a free standing hammock in what passes as a backyard behind Jenny’s townhouse. The hammock has seen whiter days and the autumn air is redolent of recently burned weed and pine. The sun is just about to go down for good. Jenny and Bryce are at the movies.
I’ve parked my car a quarter mile away and humped through some scraggily woods that back up to the Jenny’s development. Some kids carved a small BMX circuit in the woods and a spur off the loop leads me to the edge Jenny’s backyard. I step from the woods like an actor making a grand entrance.
Dallas looks up. Wife-beater tank under a flannel shirt, cargo shorts, skate sneakers, little purple bong cradled to his chest. He is young. Even with his sunglasses I can tell he’s in his mid-twenties, sporting that Eminem Caesar cut. Jenny is forty-one, so that puts Dallas at least fifteen years younger, a little beyond the comfortable Ashton-Demi tide line. A hooked forefinger slips the shades down his nose and reveals bloodshot, frosted blue eyes.
“S’up? You lost?”
An assessing look, toe to head. The rusty springs on the hammock’s stand creak.
“Yeah. Who’re you?”
I’m feeling pretty confident I could take him, especially with the sinker filled doubled-up tube sock I have tucked in my back pocket. Quick swing to knee if things get feisty.
“I’m Charlie Byrne.”
“Never mind. Jenny says you two are no longer an item.”
“D’fuck’re you, bitch? You a cop?”
“No. I’m here representing Jenny’s interests. I’m supposed to present the gravity of the situation to you.”
“You need to pack up and move out.”
“Oh, yeah? That a fact?”
“Yeah, it is. If you know what’s best for you, you’d get up from that hammock right now, go upstairs and pack your shit. Leave within the hour. I can wait while you get it together.”
“I knew something was up her taking Bryce to the movies. Damn.”
“Yeah, she wanted us to be alone. Come on. Up, up.”
“What am I? A trained seal? Want me to hop to, just like that?”
“Uh-huh. Just like that. You really don’t want the law coming in here, Dallas.” I gesture to the bong with my chin. “Especially you getting all baked like that. Man, even holding a bong is up to a half a year, revoked drivers license, and a fine of a grand or more. Now if you’re holding anything over an ounce, well, shit. Things get pretty worse from there.”
“Yeah, but you’re no cop, so you know what I think?”
“I think you should get lost, faggot.”
“See, that’s not cooperative.”
“I said fuck off, bitch. Now.”
“Even more so. Look, I’m offering you a clean and easy exit before legal action takes this to an uncomfortable level for you.”
“Fuck your uncomfortable. D’fuck’re you gonna do ‘bout it, huh? You just said you’re no cop. I dare you to call the police. I dare her. I dare both of you. That fucking cunt. Get the fuck out of here, faggot, this is private property and you’re all the way messing with the wrong dude.”
“Come on, Dallas. This isn’t your place. Be a man. Go shack up with a bud.”
Upstairs, just off a small stained cedar deck, a sliding door racks open with the subtlety of a gunshot. A gym rat the size of Ben Grimm shoulders his way out onto the small deck and the deck shimmies a bit with his weight. He’s got a green bottle of beer in one fist and the flank of a sub sandwich in the other. His arm muscles are wider than my thighs.
“Beat this faggot’s head in, will you?”
Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit.
I’m no hero. I know Ronnie and Dallas would have corkscrewed a brand new one in my ass if I stuck around, even with my homemade sap. I fly through the woods, arms pumping with gusto. One more instance where it might have served me better if to have brought my gun with me, which sits snug and unloaded in the glove compartment of my Camry.
A low pine branch rakes a scratch in my cheek like a whip. I look back over my shoulder. It seems my pursuers have turned around halfway.
Pausing to catch my breath, there’s a momentary feeling of lifting relief when I think that maybe they just gave up, but that ease gets squashed when I hear Dallas tell Ronnie to get the goddamned Jeep.
I start running again. I bust through the edge woods, sprawling into the muck of a shallow drainage ditch alongside the road with a splash. My jeans get soaked in the stagnant water. I scramble to my feet and my hand stings like crazy. A jagged piece of broken, brown glass sticks out of my palm like a mini shark fin. Great.
When I get to my Camry, I can hear the roar of an engine off to my right in Jenny’s development. Doors slamming, the heightened grind of gears being shifted. Then comes the tires transferring hot rubber to asphalt as they swing out onto the main road.
I unlock the Camry and climb inside. Stabbing the keys into the ignition and giving them a twist, I use my teeth to unfuck my hand with the glass and drop the engine into drive. I spit the glass on the passenger seat and swing out in front of the Ronnie and Dallas just as they move right up my ass like an RPG.
Can’t you just talk to him?
Sure, Jenny, for a couple of free concert tickets? Sure, no problem. Just let me stretch first, let me see who I’m up against, remind me to come fucking armed.
My eyes flash to the rearview mirror. A Jeep Grand Cherokee. Ronnie hulks behind the wheel, grinning. The Cherokee is tricked out with a rack of roof lights and enough chrome to make even the snootiest of motorheads swoon. Fog lights, too. All of the lights blaze on at once and I have to blink away the blur.
The road isn’t heavily traveled. No speed limit signs but I’m assuming it’s forty. It’s one of those backwoods, edge of the Pine Barrens two-lane, dead out straight arteries that some developer used as a solid argument to build low-rent townhouse developments on ancient swamp sand and mosquitoes. Nearest real town is fifteen minutes and that’s only a convenience store that doubles as Pizza Hut. No lights along the road and even less options. Ronnie starts laying on Cherokee’s horn.
I yank my seatbelt across my chest and click the tongue into the buckle. The Camry is not really known for guts but it does have a decent crash test rating. I bought it a few years ago because of the car has a low profile and is completely forgettable on a stakeout or tail. Goddamn—a fucking can of Hormel chili has more thunder and zip than a four cylinder with a hundred thousand plus miles on the clock. The blood from my sliced open hand makes the steering wheel tacky and slick.
Come on. Come on.
I need a break. I need a side road to put some distance between us. A shopping mall, a church parking lot void of cars, an abandoned driving range, something with room to slide. That’s when I hear a sound that sounds like a popped balloon fading back behind me. I whip my head.
No way. It can’t be. These two weasels can’t be that stupid. Dallas is half out the passenger window and wagging a pistol.
I start weaving and the gun goes POP! POP! again.
I think they’re just trying to scare me, at least I hope so. Up ahead, I can see that that road has finally widened large enough to accommodate a ratty set of sandy shoulders right and left. I take things up a notch and start to feel the car getting squishy on its frame.
Dark, gnarled woods thick with scrubby brush whiz by. A gold diamond reminds me there are plenty of deer out here in the south Jersey pines.
For the first time since I jumped into the car, I notice the radio is on. In honor of the occasion and my scored tickets, on the way out to Jenny’s place I slipped in a copy of Rising Down by The Roots. I don’t want to let go of the wheel to punch off the music and the bass in “Get Busy” is buzzy and thick.
Then I see it. Up ahead, orange-ish stained sky. Thank Christ. Civilization. With any luck, we’ll both catch a speed trap, we’ll—
A herd of seven whitetail deer bound out the woods on the right and across the road.
There’s no time to react. I lace through the animals unscathed and lift my foot off the accelerator pedal. There’s a loud, crashing noise directly behind me and tires start to scream.
I cut to the shoulder. Out of the corner of my eye, the Cherokee flies by and starts to roll. BANG-BANG-BANG! It keeps rolling and rolling straight down the center of the road until the front end bites somehow and the back end lifts off. The Cherokee is airborne and disappears from my high beams as I brake on the shoulder. Sparks fade ahead like swarming fireflies. Darkness.
I punch my hazards and throw the Camry into park. I kick out my door and start running.
I’ve seen some wrecks in my time and quite a few bodies, but it takes a few moments for the image of Ronnie to come together when I get to the Cherokee because everything is so twisted. Deployed airbag is now a bloody waning pillow for the fused together bodies of a small two-year old buck and Ronnie’s torso.
Keeping my stomach down I circle around to the other side of the Cherokee to look for Dallas. He’s been thrown clear almost fifty feet up the shoulder. My eyes adjust to the darkness. As I get closer, I see that his arms and legs are zig-zagged out in very troubling angles and the skin of his face has been shaved off. I throw up.
I’ve left my cellular phone in my car so I wipe my mouth of bile and start to run back to the Camry. I’m halfway there when a lone doe places four delicate, scarab hooves onto the pavement. The doe is silhouetted in the high beams and the golden pulse of my hazards like a god. I skid to a stop and the doe takes off.
By the time my 911 call connects, Dallas is dead, too.
County police and first aid squads work the scene. In my statement, I don’t mention Dallas taking crazy pot shots at me with a gun, but I do mention the chase. Sort of. I explain that they were following me because we had words and we were both going fast and then the herd of white tail came out of fucking nowhere, which is true. Cop taking my statement seems satisfied with my explanation and mumbles something about it being that time of year.
BIO: Kieran Shea keeps trying to write about someone else but Charlie keeps kicking him in the spine. Kieran blogs at Black Irish Blarney.