RED RADISHES - JEFF MACFEE
An entry in Jason Duke’s RED HOT Writing Contest
Lorowski eats radishes and asks you to hurt a man.
The radishes come out of a quart-sized plastic bag. The manila folder holds some cash, an index card with an address written in blue ink, and a picture. When you flip the picture over you see a man’s name, and it’s circled.
“He’s an asshole,” Lorowski says. “Trust me.”
Lorowski had placed the ad three weeks ago. He’d phrased the language just so. Message delivery. Resourceful individual required. Applicants must be male and over six foot. You’d answered ads like that before.
The two of you sit at a table in the back of Jimmy’s Bar. Slouching, Lorowski appears at ease, like he’s watching a ballgame. His coke-bottle glasses are pushed high along the bridge of his nose, and he pokes at them when he isn’t eating radishes. He wears a starched blue and white checked shirt that makes your neck itch.
“So what do you think?” Lorowski asks.
You stab at your salad, the arugula flat and tasteless. You were foolish to order salad in a bar. You ask what the guy has ever done to hurt Lorowski.
“Oh, he bugs the piss out of me.” Lorowski leans across the table and taps you on the hand. “You know what I mean?”
You don’t, not really, but what does it matter? You’ve been alone since your wife died. Barbara caught a ride home and then watched helplessly as the car slewed into a ditch at ninety-five miles an hour. The driver’s blood alcohol was 0.179. Barbara hadn’t died right away–she’d lived a month on life support before stroking out. You weren’t there. You’d gone home to shower.
Since then you’ve lost your job and you’ve sold the house Barbara made a home, sold it for a loss. You took an apartment because a man has to live somewhere, a man has to try and forget the past and rebuild. But the past adds up. The hospital stay, the burial, an old mortgage, a new mortgage. Food. Heat. Clothes. Bills. All of it money you don’t have.
You ask Lorowski what happens if you do the thing. If you get in your car and cover the license plate and drive over to his friend’s address.
“He’s not my friend,” Lorowski says.
Great. But what if you break this guy’s face, let him swallow blood? What if he refuses to pay? What happens next?
“I told you when you called.” Lorowski pops another white sliver into his mouth and chews. The radish’s bite has got to be atrocious. “You’ll get what's coming to you.”
You aren’t sure. You don’t know.
“What don’t you know?”
You hold the index card. One corner is folded and spit-worn. It all sounds far-fetched.
“There’s four hundred in the folder,” Lorowski says. “Even if I don’t deliver, even if he doesn’t pay, you keep that. I don’t know about you, but for me four hundred buys a lot of radishes.”
Lorowski leans over the table almost every time he speaks. The little fucker tries so hard.
“Will you do it?” he asks.
You pull the cash out of the envelope and fold it in half. You put it in your front pocket, where no one can take it. Barbara always worried about pickpockets.
“Yeah,” you say.
That night, you steal a car from a neighborhood where you won’t be recognized. The gas tank is three quarters full and the brakes are quiet. You stay on the highway and off the side streets and make your exit without having to pay any tolls. Driving at night doesn’t bother you and you aren’t much for drink, so there’s no missed lights or rolling stops. The neighborhood you’re looking for backs up to a park and you leave the car there, windows rolled up and the keys chucked into the brush. You’re hungry and want to get it over with quick.
The house is a two-story brick and siding affair, like all the houses on the street. His neighborhood reeks of upper middle-class–brick mailboxes, lawns mowed by somebody else. You live in a six hundred square foot apartment, and have ever since Barbara died. For you, suburbia equals death.
You don’t look around suspiciously and you don’t try the doorknob. You ring the bell.
Webb answers the door. He’s a big guy, a former football player with beady eyes, a thick head, and square-framed black glasses. He wears his silk button-down untucked and his khaki shorts cuffed. A yellowed toenail sticks out of his leather flip-flops. You can see the word GAP branded into the strap.
“Drew,” Webb says. “What are you doing here?”
You can’t believe it. You’ll get what’s coming to you. Lorowski actually made it happen.
You throw the point of your elbow into Webb’s nose and it splits like angel food cake. Hard to soft, as your father used to say. Webb bleeds all over his fancy hardwoods and staggers back, retreating into the safety of his house.
“The fuck you doing, Drew?”
You step in and hit him again with the same elbow. The wood is slick, and you can’t put the kind of force you’d like behind the blow. Webb only screams a little before he falls to the floor.
You force your way inside and ask Webb if he’s alone, knowing he’s a bad liar. He tries to tell you his wife is asleep upstairs, his brown eyes flicking to the mantle over the fireplace. You step around Webb’s body and spot the pictures on the mantle. A framed shot of mother, father, and baby–Webb and his perfect family. There’s another picture where the kid is about two, and another with the kid at age four. Then the loving mother disappears. You figure divorce again, his second. You ask if she’s left him.
“Yeah.” Webb wipes blood out of his goatee. “How did you find me?”
You don’t answer. Lorowski is your hole card, not his. You pull down the baby picture and ask about the little tyke’s age.
“Almost five.” Webb gets to his feet, knees popping. “He’s at his mother’s.”
The kid looks like Webb. Pasty white complexion, blond hair, vaguely Germanic face. Big innocent grin. You marvel that Webb would tell you the kid was out of town.
“Can I get you a drink?” Webb eyes a heavy bottle of Scotch he’s left in the kitchen. “Got a twenty-one year-old with your name on it.”
You pull the padlock out of your pocket, the metal cold against your bare skin. You tell Webb he’s making it too easy. Then you hit him with a fistload.
What’s a fistload?
A fistload is improvisation and guts. It’s attention to detail and desperation. In short, it’s any compact item that can be used to reinforce a punch. Hit a man in the face while holding a commercial grade padlock and he will go down. Some guys use rolled quarters and others use spark plugs. Truly sick fucks will use fist strikes, pronged steel spheres that not only provide structured punches, but also gouge and tear. Household scissors will also do the trick if you’re looking for maximum bloodletting.
You stick with the weapon of your youth, the reliable Master Lock. You punch Webb across the mouth and watch as he hits the wall. His eyes come unglued, one pointing at the ceiling, the other going soft and staring straight ahead.
“Lorowski has a message for you,” you say.
A punch to the soft of Webb’s gut. Almost a reprieve after the way you split his face.
“You shouldn’t go sleeping with sixteen year-old girls.”
Open-palmed strike across the right cheek. When the bone in his face cracks you feel it down your arm and into your chest.
“Like his daughter.”
It goes on that way for a while. You toss the padlock on the floor and return to elbows and knees. Webb wets himself, coughs up a few teeth. Across the street some kid’s band starts up, all fits and starts on the drums, pounding a bass line that drowns out any of the band’s skill. You remember that music column you wrote in college. These are the things you think about, to keep your mind off the work.
When your arms tire you stop. There was a time you could have gone another twenty minutes, popping capillaries in Webb’s face like bubble wrap. Today you can’t stay on your feet more than a minute, instead parking it on Webb’s gut where you can get some leverage. It’s thirsty work and after you're done, you stand and stagger into the kitchen. Four thick pint glasses sit on the kitchen counter and you snag a pair, filling them with water from the fridge. One glass you keep for yourself and the other you set next to Webb's hand. You help Webb sit and bring the glass to his lips. One of Webb’s eyes is sealed shut and his lower lip is practically gone.
“Better?” you ask.
Webb makes a noise. A whimper, a moan, a grunt. Not enough left in his mouth to form anything distinct.
You tell him he’s lucky. If he’d messed with your daughter, he’d be dead. Fortunately for Webb, Lorowski said to deliver the message and take four hundred in cash. And leave him alive.
Webb licks his lips, the tip of his tongue ragged, chewed off during the beating. A new sound emerges from the blood above his chin, a word you almost recognize. You walk over and squat and put your ear next to Webb’s face. The sound repeats itself.
You laugh. “Radishes,” you say. “Yeah, he’s still eating those.”
Finished with the water, you set the glass on the mantle, next to the picture of Webb’s angelic kid. You find the lock skittered under the TV, and you have to get on all fours to retrieve it. You catch the open hook on one finger and snap the lock shut. You flex your fingers before putting the heavy metal back in your palm.
“You know,” you say. “Ordinarily, if someone like Lorowski asked me to do a job, with his bad breath and his bad jokes, I’d send the guy on his way. If I was in a good mood and didn’t just beat the shit out of him.”
Webb nods, trying to look at you with his one good eye.
You continue. “Four hundred’s enough to rough you up, but anything more? Shit. That’s serious business, isn’t it? Intent to kill, murder in the first degree. Cops send you to jail for that.”
The blood pours from Webb's nose. He uses his shirt to try and staunch the flow.
You tell him everything, about the phone call and the money. As even fear would be something, you tell him how Lorowski asked what it would take for you to really hurt a man. But Webb isn’t listening. He’s breathing through his mouth and too obviously digging for the cell phone in his pocket.
You drop it on him.
“I told Lorowski to give me the man that killed my wife,” you say. “Give me the man that drove her home from work blitzed out of his fucking mind. Give me peace. Give me fucking justice. In other words, give me you.”
Webb hears that, but now it’s too late.
You consider things as you beat him. How did Lorowski make this happen? How did he find the man you spent a year trying to locate, only to give up and go back to muscle work? Was Lorowski the devil, finding the man who drove your wife into that ditch? Will you feel guilty after it’s done, chewing on stomach acid blowback and the cold recycled memories of the beating? Is killing Webb evil?
The blood coats your knuckles. You find peace and relief.
Killing Webb isn’t evil.
Killing Webb is a fucking miracle.
BIO: Jeff Macfee knows that with great power comes universe-ruling potential. And responsibility. Definitely responsibility. His stories have appeared in McSweeney's Internet Tendency and Colored Chalk. He's also a graduate of the Viable Paradise Writer's Workshop. You can check out his website at Jeff Macfee - It Will All Work Out In The End.