NOT A SINGLE PENNY FOR YOUR EYES - CHAD EAGLETON
An Entry In Eric Beetner's FIST Contest
This was back in the ’80s, long after the farmland produced only sprouts of ticky-tacky boxes, when the construction of the Garden State Parkway made way for the opening of the Monmouth Mall, leaving this stretch of shoreline empty and broke. Back then, if you didn’t live in Jersey, the only thing you knew about Asbury Park came from the cover of Springsteen’s first album. But no one ever bought that record anyway. They all started with Born To Run.
Even Detective E.B. Brewer.
The night of his first homicide investigation, he parked next to the abandoned casino with its rows of empty windows, blank and glossy, like a morgue room line-up. He headed down the boardwalk to the second pier, the one with the hotdog joint his father took him to that day in mid-July, the day he realized his mother wasn’t ever coming home and the man she’d left with wasn’t an uncle he had never met. He nodded to the two patrolmen, blazed his flashlight down into the darkness below and climbed under the pier.
The old man lay on the edge of the water. His head, clotted blood at the temple, rested against one of the wooden posts while his lower half, from the knees down, bobbed in the greasy ebb and flow.
Detective Brewer shined his flashlight on the bruised narrow face, sunken chin and bloodshot eyes. His lower dentures had come loose and hung over his thin, bottom lip, like a crab stuck crawling from its shell in search of a better home. The man’s work-shirt was faded and wrinkled, cinched beneath a cracked leather belt that bunched the fabric of the high-water pants tight around bony hips. He wore only one shoe.
Brewer swept the flashlight across the sand, the spare change and bottle shards, the cigarette butts and candy bar wrappers, finding only footprints for his trouble. Strange patterns as incomprehensible as the dance-step matt his father had spread across their bowed, wooden floor when he was fifteen and he had asked Wendy Joselow to homecoming and more surprising she had said yes.
He remembered that Footprints in the Sand card his mother had kept framed in the bathroom. He sighed and shook his head. God says he’s carrying you, but you can’t fucking miss the villains walking by your side.
Topside and the other patrolman, the same who responded to that liquor store robbery three months ago before he made detective, waited at the far end of the pier with the two kids who had found the body.
Brewer took their names and addresses. He took their answers, too, for all the good they’d do, and then sent them back to shore. He stood at the edge of the pier and looked out at the dark expanse and spotted the old man’s other shoe way out there on the water, heading to New York, where everyone thought things were better, but never were.
That was as far as Brewer ever made it on that first case and it bothered him.
Not out of pride. By retirement, his solution rate was respectable, but not even close to a hundred percent. And certainly not out of any sense of failure in his duty. He worked each case as best he could and challenged anyone to find errors in his judgment. Unlike television, Brewer never suffered any delusions that he could somehow make the world a better place. He knew there would always be villains, regardless of home life, poverty rate, and number of cops on the street.
It bothered him, because he felt like there was something he missed. Every couple of years he returned to the file with fresh eyes. He knew it wasn’t a clue. No, there was something else. Something...he learned six years after retirement.
Age had finally crept into his son’s hair and he wanted to make up for all those lost years when his father had been nothing but a bank. Both of them were long gone from Asbury Park. Brewer in a new city and his son in a new state. So, his son flew in from back west and they had beers well into the late night hours and listened, finally, to The Boss’ first album.
During the day, they drove to all the old places. Sometimes questions filled the car. Other times silence. Brewer knew his son just wanted new memories to replace those ones stained by childhood fit-throwing and the upturned nose of teenage conceit and that was okay.
Brewer’s day ended on the boardwalk and the second pier. The hotdog joint was long gone, replaced by some chain store that offered only an over-priced carbonated fruit-drink named The Jersey Devil in way of local color.
While his son waited in line, Brewer walked the pier. The stroll seemed longer than he remembered and took his breath. He fiddled with the loose change in his pocket, hoping for focus as he walked and tried to catch his breath, but couldn’t. He drove himself to the pier’s edge, hoping that the last, long rail would give him the time he needed.
It didn’t. His left arm turned numb as he reached out for the railing. He saw only water stretching out before him. Shimmery, blurry water.
His right hand touched the splintery wood and then even that was falling away as the change from his pocket clattered and scattered. Christ, he thought, don’t let me fall in and drift off to fucking New York.
E.B. Brewer didn’t fall in. He fell down as the coins plinked into the water. Slack-jawed on the pier. His left eye looking between the bowed slats, down, down below to the murky sliver of beach. The beach where he found the old man.
He realized then what the man had been trying to tell him, what they all had been trying to tell him during those long nights when sleep would not come and the bodies filled the hallway outside his bedroom like cords of wood. They had been trying to tell him about the fist.
The tiny fist you beat against your chest when you first slid free of the womb and found the world not at all to your liking. The fist your father gave you when you talked back. The fist with the gun that demanded your paycheck or your open mouth. The fist that raised another bottle to your lips even though the last one wetted your shirt more than your tongue. The fist you put through the wall that day your wife pushed you too far and left a hole no amount of spackle could ever fill. And this fist...this fist that closed over your heart and never let go. The fist that left you with your false teeth forever perched on your chin and not a single penny for your eyes.
BIO: Chad Eagleton lives in Indiana. He has been published in DZ Allen's Muzzle Flash, Pulp Pusher, Bad Things, Powder Burn Flash, A Twist of Noir, Darkest Before The Dawn (in collaboration with Keith Rawson) and Beat To A Pulp.