HOME SWEET HOME - CINDY ROSMUS
Even in dead sleep, something loomed in Frankie Connelly’s mind. Getting real close, it bore down heavy, would crush him with inhuman speed. His wife sneered. Don’t wake up!
But he did. In a cold sweat, his heart trapped in his throat, he’d jumped, as the train zoomed past. The Light Rail. What he hated most about this place: on one end, train tracks. On the other, a highway, with sixteen wheelers rumbling by, at 5 A.M. But he was as used to the tractor trailers as he was sleeping out on the couch. Here, in the bed, he felt alien, cold. No wonder he had nightmares.
But it’s not a dream, came that shrill thought again. In his wife Maggie’s voice. Where was she? he wondered, kicking off the covers. He got up and stretched.
Actually, he could give a flying fuck. If she were even in the house, he wouldn’t be here, in the bed. Rule Number One. Who knows what you’ve got, Maggie loved to say, after you fucked her.
She wasn’t always such a bitch. Shit, maybe she was. Back then, they’d done so many drugs together, life was a delicious, mindless blur. They’d shared needles like normal teens did malts, back in the good ol’ days. Maggie had been petite, cute. If he wasn’t so fucked up himself, he’d have wanted to protect her.
In the shower, he tried jacking off, pulling on his cock like he hated it. But he couldn’t cum, no matter how hard he squeezed. When the water turned ice-cold, he gave up.
Chop it off! Maggie shrieked, inside his head. Outside the bathroom door. Suddenly she was everywhere. Might as well. Now’s you stuck it in Petunia Pig.
Yeah, well, guess what? Patty, his not-so-secret girl, had been no pig, and nobody to fear. Her warm, rumpled bed was fucking heaven on earth. “Cancer,” Frankie said wearily, so many times. “It’s just cancer.” What a crazy way to look at it. Not as humiliating as AIDS, but it killed her just as fast.
Man, what a fighter! Frankie thought, as he made his coffee. She’d had more courage than all of them, put together. She still shamed him. A wisecracking Venus, short one breast instead of arms, she’d been the pilot light of his miserable life. When chemo had claimed her own thick, black hair, she bought a Cher wig at a garage sale for three bucks. To Frankie, she was just as beautiful. On good days, they’d fucked. She was always on top, riding him with what little strength she had. Wrapped that wig hair around him, tightly. “Now you’re...trapped!” she said weakly, “...in my web.”
Not yours, Frankie thought, bitterly. As he put his coffee together, he spilled soured milk, trailed sugar all over the kitchen table. Yep, he was trapped in more ways than seemed possible, even for him: an ex-junkie, almost fifty, laid off after twenty years in a dead-end job. He’d always been a tough motherfucker. Grown up in the wilds of Jersey City: Curry’s Woods. Orphan White Boy in the projects. Till lately, it took a lot to terrify him.
Today, he just knew something was wrong. On a Saturday morning, in a household of five...it was just too quiet. Why was he alone?
Still, worse if his son was home. Frankie Junior, his ten-year-old, gave him the creeps. The Bad Seed. Hyper, and ‘full of hell.’ Junior had his mommy’s eyes: bulgy like a Boston terrier’s, but psycho ward-green. The geeky glasses fooled no one: Frankie, his teachers, the shrink who was scared to look Junior in the eye.
Even cats ran away from him. In the feline network, it’d spread like wildfire how that crazy Connelly kid had sawed the paws off a stray. “Boys will be boys!” Maggie told the horrified vet. When Frankie saw the bloody, blanketed mess, he blamed himself. And...her. With drooling junkies for parents, how else would their baby boy have turned out? They were both clean for years, but the damage was already done.
Now that he was out of work, maybe Frankie could spend more time with him. Some good ol’ TLC might just do the trick. His smile was bitter. Junior might not be a future president, but Frankie refused to give up on him. He never prayed much. Still, right now, in their grimy kitchen, he found his hands folded tightly. Begging for a second chance...for all of them.
Like “Brat”. The daughter Maggie swore was his, but way back then, she’d fucked spics at City Line. Sure, Brat looked like Frankie. But he was Black Irish: shiny dark hair, olive skin, eyes like wet tar. Down one cheek he had a long, white scar, from being slashed over smack. A bushy mustache, to hide his gutted upper lip. Brat’s face was pierced in so many places, Frankie’s long hair got caught each time he kissed her. Which wasn’t much, anymore. She was all grown up, now: eighteen, and a mommy. But she had some mean streak, herself. Frankie was scared she’d take it out on Big Guy. His grandson: the two-year-old dumpling Frankie loved most of all. And where were they, anyway?
Not with Miguel, he hoped. Big Guy’s daddy, City Line scum with tweezed eyebrows and that pathetic Sal Mineo look. Big Guy had that same look, sometimes, but on a toddler, it was cute. Miguel would just as soon knife you, as reach for one last hug. “He’d never hurt us,” Maggie had said, way back. “We’re family.” Famous last words.
“But I love him!” Brat wailed, a month ago, when Frankie had finally kicked him out. Big Guy wailed, too, ’cos his mommy was covered with blood. He’d watched the whole thing, poor kid! Of all people, Maggie took Miguel’s side. She turned on Frankie. “How could you?” she said, through clenched teeth. Frankie was shocked. Over and over Brat sobbed, “I’ll miss him, Daddy! I’ll miss him!”
“Know what I’ll miss most?” Patty had said. “The sun.”
“Shut up,” he said softly. Outside the sky was a slimy gray. You smelled drizzle, and what they just did on those tangled sheets.
“No shit,” she said. His cheek on her scarred breastbone, Frankie toyed with her one full breast. A huge macaroon, he thought of, squeezing the cherry-red nipple like he was scared to let go. “S’funny,” she said. “I’m the one dyin’...” She stroked his damp hair back. “But I’m happier than you.”
Instead of looking at her, he shut his eyes tight.
“That really sucks,” she whispered.
That Miguel. A real dangerous fuck. What Brat had seen in him said a lot about her. About all the Connellys. How a guy with four Social Security numbers has the run of your house. Peeling open a can of Goya corned beef, like Frankie did now: the poor man’s meal. Latino style: fried in tomato sauce, dumped over rice.
What a life! Tomato sauce, ketchup, blood. Always there was blood everywhere: the key breaks, the can slices your hand. Or Miguel cracks Brat a good one. His knuckles bleed from the lip and nose rings. Studs all over that sneery, whiney face. A fucking porcupine, that’s what Frankie raised. They were always mixing blood...all six of them. Where would it all end? Well, at least Miguel was gone.
But not dead, like Patty. A closed casket, she’d wanted.
“Death’s a personal thing,” she half-joked.
“Maybe a picture?” he suggested. His favorite: a sleazy Polaroid of them sucking face on some boardwalk, like in an old Bruce tune.
“Maggie’ll love that!” Patty said.
No, Frankie thought sadly, just that you’re dead.
“Wish you were, too!” Maggie screamed, when he got back from the wake, bawling his eyes out.
Something, he realized, was going on. He just couldn’t figure out what. As he shoved away his breakfast, he heard something outside the window. A rustling of hedges. It was May, and hot, but there was no breeze.
Instinct, from the old days of dodging narcs, made Frankie slink to the window. He peered over the sill. Through the hedge, someone peered back. Face framed by a gray print bandanna. As the hedge rustled again, Frankie saw one plucked eyebrow.
Miguel. But why? Sneaking around just wasn’t his style. Try busting down your door. Or screaming from the street, so you knew he was back, for good. And, in the three years he’d known him, Miguel had never worn a bandanna. “Ghetto,” he called it, lip curled in disgust.
So what the fuck?
When the phone rang, both jumped. Heart racing, Frankie ducked. But it wasn't the house phone, or even his cell. “You crazy?” he heard Miguel hiss into his own cell. “Callin’ now? Stupid bitch!” Then silence. Frankie shuddered. A blade, he had somewhere. From his wild days. Fuck that, he thought. In the drain were steak knives, though they hadn’t eaten steak in months. On the floor, he shifted anxiously. Even that key from the corned beef can could do it, if enough oomph was in behind it.
Thank God he was home. The only one. If Brat and Big Guy...
But where were they? For all Frankie knew, that fuck outside had them holed up somewhere. Punks with knives at their tender throats. Maybe he wasn’t even here for them.
Then for what? They had nothing worth stealing.
From outside came an unmistakable click.
He swallowed hard. That’s when he knew.
“It’s only death!” had been Patty’s last words. She sprang up, suddenly. Her arms tightened around him, so he could hardly breathe. A boa constrictor, she’d felt like. When she let go, he knew it was only ’cos she was dead.
Die fighting! he bet she’d say now. Kill him first! But, with what?
His bare hands.
Rage shot through him. He crawled across the floor, out of the kitchen. Like a panther, he slunk along the living room wall, ducked under windows, till he reached the back door.
You’re crazy, he told himself, on his way out. But his heart swelled like it would explode.
When they met head-on, Miguel’s face fell. Frankie hoped he shit his pants. Both went down. With a pop, the gun went off. You fuck! Frankie thought. They grappled, rolling in the grass. Frankie kicked the gun away. He’d kill him, Brat or no Brat. He fought dirty. Went right for his eyes. Miguel blinked, whimpered pitifully. One crunch, and his nose was broke. Frankie almost puked, but kept pounding him. He ground Miguel’s balls, enjoying his shriek. He tore off that bandanna. If Miguel fought back, Frankie never felt it.
When his head cleared, Frankie struggled to his feet. His heart still raced. Beneath him was this sniveling, pulpy mess. He looked away, then made himself look back at Miguel. The one nice thing he’d seen him do, was change Big Guy’s diaper, making goofy faces, ’cos of the stink. “Pew!” he kept saying. “Pee-eww!”
“Oh, man!” Miguel was sobbing, now. His eyes were swollen shut, the lids baby blue.
Why? Frankie wanted to say. Why’ja wanna kill me? But the words wouldn’t come. His hand was killing him, now. He paced in the grass. Saw that bandanna, splashed with blood. Then Miguel’s cell. Purple, it was, like something a chick would buy you. Frankie smirked. Maggie’s favorite, and his least favorite color.
Over by the fence, he spotted the gun. A .32, it looked like. An automatic.
Eyes on Miguel, he slowly approached it. He stopped, went back. For a while, he stared down at the bandanna, like it symbolized his whole, rotten existence. Then he picked it up. As he wrapped it around his aching hand, he was freshly repulsed. Still, the prints...
Like a smack in the face, it hit him. The perfect way out. For all of them.
No, he thought wildly. Even for him, it was crazy. But as he picked up the gun with both hands, this crazy peace came over him. First Miguel, then...
Below, Miguel’s eyes were terrified. His bloody jaw seemed to rattle. No! screamed the softest of voices. Maybe from inside Frankie’s heart.
Still, he loomed over Miguel, pointing the gun at his sickening face. You gave up dope for this? Frankie shut his eyes.
That’s when he heard it. From inside the kitchen, Floyd’s Wish You Were Here began to play, softly, real tinny. His cell phone, this time.
He looked at the gun like he’d never seen it before. Then he smiled, horribly, down at Miguel. “You lucky motherfucker,” was all he could say.
As he rushed inside, he almost dropped the gun. His cell had stopped ringing, then started again. He snatched it off the kitchen table.
“Mr. Connelly?” said a strange, female voice. Husky, laid back. “I’m Detective Rose Sgambato...”
Frankie laughed. “You’re too late, lady!”
She ignored him. “To tell you the truth, I don’t know what’s goin’ on...”
Impatiently, Frankie peered out the window. Miguel was still laid out.
“But I gotta kid here says he’s your son. Frank Connelly, Junior.”
His heart raced. Again, he saw red, the whole world through a gory haze. It was just too much! Through clenched teeth, he whispered, “The fuck he do now?”
“I’d rather not say on the phone. Mr. Conn-”
“Tell me!” he screamed.
The lady cop sighed. “Says his Mom paid some guy to kill you.”
He’d never seen Junior so quiet. So helpless. Without those glasses, his eyes looked as swollen as Miguel’s. But with this kid, it was from crying. Arms folded, he sat, shivering. Det. Sgambato, the lady cop, asked, “Want me to shut off the air?” Junior shook his head.
To Frankie, this was the end of his dream. A human train wreck. Too bizarre, too agonizing to be real. Soon he’d wake up, again, in that lonely bed. All over again, he’d make coffee, knock over sugar. The milk would be twice as sour.
He was still in shock. When it really hit him, he bet he’d puke right here, on this lady cop’s desk.
Miguel was in custody. Brat and Big Guy were both outside, bawling. Innocent, he heard. Well, at least Big Guy. Maggie was missing. By choice, Frankie thought, feeling like a crowbar was stuck in his guts. Without emotion, he realized where Miguel had got the pretty phone. Mauve was its actual color. Maggie’s special favorite.
“Go on,” said the lady cop. About fifty, she was hot stuff, but no bullshit, and knew how to smile at a terrified kid. A kid who’d once mutilated an innocent cat. Now he looked pleadingly over at Frankie.
His throat felt dry. “Tell us the rest, Francis.”
Junior shifted anxiously. “Mom...I mean, I heard her and Miguel...you know...”
Frankie leaned forward. “Plotting?”
Junior didn’t answer right away. “That, too,” he murmured.
For a while, nobody said anything. All you heard was the A/C humming. Frankie’s eyes burned, but he fought back tears. Since Patty’s wake, he hadn’t cried. A howling, convulsing mess he’d been that night, and Maggie never let him forget it. “Go join her!” she said, laughing. “In hell!” How could somebody who once loved you, hate you so much? Enjoy your pain? Your tears? Shit, want you dead!
He breathed deeply, but it didn’t help. Any second he would lose it. He stared hard up at the ceiling, but it blurred. Chop it off! he heard again, in that cunt’s voice. Cunt who was fucking her daughter’s old man. Bought him a gun, Junior had told the lady cop. Frankie wiped his eyes, furiously, but more tears came.
“Dad?” Junior’s voice cracked. He was crying again, too. Frankie still couldn’t look at him. “I guess...” the kid sniffled. “I shoulda told you, shouldn’t I?”
Det. Sgambato’s eyes were brown, and warm, and too much to bear. Frankie shuddered.
He looked at Junior. It was the saddest face he’d ever seen, on any kid. Like a bad child actor, hamming it up. But these tears, this fear, it was all real. So was his love. His howl-like sob scared them all.
A horrifying love seized Frankie. In spite of all this, he swelled with joy. “S’okay, son,” he said, trembling. He opened his arms. As Junior dove into them, Frankie sobbed, too, without shame. He squeezed him so tight, his son groaned.
“Five hundred she paid that scumbag,” the lady cop muttered. “Ask me, you’re worth more.”
Frankie hiccupped. Through his tears, he smiled. “I am.”
BIO: Cindy is a New York textbook editor by day, a hardboiled Jersey female by night. Her fiction has appeared in Black Petals, The Beat, The Cynic, Red Fez, Zygote in My Coffee, Hardboiled, NVF, MediaVirus, The Monsters Next Door, Out of the Gutter, Devil Blossoms, 13th Warrior Review, Mysterical-E, and Beat to a Pulp. She has four collections of stories out: Angel of Manslaughter, Gutter Balls, Calpurnia’s Window, and No Place Like Home. She is the editor of the e-zine, Yellow Mama. She is also a thrill seeker, a Gemini, and a Christian.
Artistic Value, for Better or Worse
5 hours ago