Saturday, April 5, 2014

Bill "AJ" Hayes Remembered


An entry in the recent Watery Grave Invitational

Just a trace bar lost in the north desert near Albuquerque. Summer thunder ozoned the air outside and stormfront wind out of the Sangre De Christos made the rat-ass bikes lined up in front shake on their kickstands and blew the trash around in the beds of pick-ups with tribal stickers peeling off rusted chrome bumpers.

Inside, the lightning of puke and heat and real bad whiskey. The kind that comes sweating out of you the next morning and smells like dead folks. Everclear on the juke and mad dog twenty twenty cooking in the blood.

He was on the third stool from the right, staring into his glass like he was watching a television show. I dropped in next to him. He had that long distance look you get when the booze has chopped all your strings away.

“Hey, Skip. What you doin’ this far away from San Antone?”

“Lookin’ for my starting pitcher,” I said. “Guess I found him.”

I motioned to the barman. He brought two drinks, sat them down, took my money and walked away without looking at either of us. Two hundred semi-drunk people jammed shoulder to sweaty shoulder and nobody’s seeing a thing. That kind of place.

“C’mon, kid,” I said. “Too noisy in here.”

He pushed back from the bar and followed me outside. We stood watching the rain slam down through the feeble neon of the beer signs in the fogged-over windows.

Distant fire flashed in the Sangres and the soft ta-thump reached us a second or so later.

“How’d you find me?”

“I didn’t. Mr. Van Zandt had your cell phone tracked.”

He laughed soft. It washed away in the rain noise.

“Leave it to the owner to find somebody don't want to be found,” he said.

“Somebody’s gotta keep track of the franchise, Tommy,” I said. “Take care of the team.”

“Take care of the money, you mean. That man don’t care a whit for the team. He—”

“That your blue truck over yonder?” I interrupted, showing him the gun.

His shoulders slumped and he sighed. “You too, Skip? He’s got you, too?”

“He don’t have anybody,” I said. “This is about the team, kid. Let’s go on over to your truck. Easier to talk that way.”

I kept the old, single-action Colt close on him while he got behind the wheel and I slid in on the passenger side.

“Why don’t we take a little drive into the Christos while we’re talkin’? Might be nice up there. Maybe we’ll get above the storm. Watch the lightnin’ hit the desert.”

He wheezed the beat-up old Chevy into life and we bumpty-thumped across the parking dirt and up the two lane blacktop toward the mountains.

“You don’t have to do this, Skipper,” he said, kind of sad-like. “It won’t make no difference, money-wise. I got the lifetime no-cut, no-trade contract, remember?”

“Yeah, that’s true, kid. That agent of yours.” I shook my head a little. “Pure pit bull, hell-on-wheels, he was. Said you were the second coming and the end of the world rolled into one. Said you threw hellfire and damnation. Got you that contract. Saddled the team forever with a rag-arm pitcher my three year-old grandbaby could hit outta the park. That money could buy us three brand new rookie arms and a third base and a couple of big bats. It’s gutting us. But with you, ah, gone, we could win. Maybe even get the division. Maybe even the Series—”

“Not what I meant, Skip," he said. “You’re the manager, you know that even if this, Peggy will get the money. It’s right there in the contract. My only living relative. She gets it. All of it.”

Ahead, a yellow sign pointed to a flat, viewpoint pull-off. I pushed the barrel into his side.

“Turn here,” I said.

We rolled to a stop at the edge. Below us, the lightning spread across the clouds in billowing streaks of white light. The stars were out, bright and hard.

“You weren’t listening to me, Coach.” His fingers were white-knuckled on the steering wheel. “The team still won’t get that cash. You won’t. Peggy will get—”

I pushed the gun a little harder into his ribs.

“Tommy,” I said, “don’t you think Mr. Van Zandt knows that?”

He went sudden still and death quiet. His mouth formed shapes but no words came.

“She’s gone, son.” I sighed. “Opened the door smiling. Probably thought I’d found you. I got her a good one on the jaw and she went down and out. Never felt a thing. I used that bolo tie you like to wear. The one with the thousand dollar gold nugget for a slide. I left it on her throat. They’ll find her and think you done it.”

I patted him on the back and moved the gun to his temple.

“It’ll look like you were a good man who couldn’t live with what he’d done. At least people will remember that about you.”

I pulled the trigger at the same time he floored the old Chevy and we went flying off the cliff.

So, I’m laying here in the mud and it’s raining hard and cold and I can’t move because my back’s busted and something’s poked a hole through my chest and I’ve coughed out about a gallon of blood and there’s this cold white light circling my vision and it gets brighter and whiter and tighter and I can see the kid, with most of his head gone, hanging half out of the cab of the truck and I know they’ll find us both and figure out what happened and why and it’s darker and colder now and the white light is fading, pinpointing down to black and it feels like I’m falling into dark water and I think about the team I love and the game I love and wish I...

BIO: AJ Hayes is from San Diego and – god help him – good friends with Jimmy (Mad Dog) Callaway and Josh (Gut Ripper) Converse, who provide great advice and the occasional smack in the mouth with the butt of a .45.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Bill "AJ" Hayes Remembered


Father Conner got gunned down on the corner of 19th Street and Grand Avenue yesterday.

I knew it was coming and maybe I should have warned him.

But his small, sweaty hands had taught me years ago to keep my mouth shut, so I did.

BIO: AJ Hayes is from San Diego and – god help him – good friends with Jimmy (Mad Dog) Callaway and Josh (Gut Ripper) Converse, who provide great advice and the occasional smack in the mouth with the butt of a .45.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Bill "AJ" Hayes Remembered


Once – when the world was just a little younger and more dewy-eyed – there was a boy. He was twelve years-old and lived in a white house, with blue railings and roof, in a sun-flooded neighborhood of pastel-painted houses and cinnamon-colored sunsets. His summer blonde hair hung down, in shaggy bangs, over blue eyes that seemed to hold every dream of every boy who ever lived. The scatter-smatter dusting of freckles across the bridge of his snubbed nose added random exclamation points to the blue of his eyes. All in all, he was the perfect boy.

Perfect – except, that he knew something that other people did not know and saw things that other people could not see.

He had not always known these things. He had not known them when he was younger. He had not known when he used to chase butterflies with his sister (herself a bright, poly-hued, soaring butterfly of a girl) across their oh-so-green front yard. Nor had he known when he went to bed at night, to dream of elves and knights and magic circles in the wild wood. Until, one night, he dreamed a very strange thing.

He dreamed he woke with a startle to something that felt like a bite from a crystal bee with a diamond stinger on his shoulder. He suddenly felt another sharp pain, a much larger pain – in a different place. He looked wildly around his room. His father was there, but his father looked different. His father’s eyes were not their usual blue. They were green, an emerald, glittering green with yellow starbursts in their depths. The pain made it difficult for him to see things exactly, but he thought that his father’s ears had grown longer, more pointed. His father’s hair had become glossy black and seemed to cover much more of him than the boy remembered. Then, the pain grew so large that it pulled him down into darkness.

As he had left the house to meet the school bus the next morning, something caught his eye – a gleaming, shiny spot on the porch railing. He crossed the porch to inspect it. It was a white shadow under the surface of the glossy blue paint – a vague, thin shape, slightly curved. It looks like a bone, he thought.

He had never noticed it before.

That night or the next night, he did not dream. But, on the third night, he felt the bite of the crystal bee again. This time he saw more clearly the green eyes and pointed ears and shaggy hair – the white, sharp teeth. A picture he had seen somewhere sprang into his mind. A wolf, green-eyed and glossy black. His father was a wolf. Pain blossomed through him again; too sharp to be a dream.

In the morning, he rushed from the house and straight to Mr. Malley, the crossing guard.

Mr. Malley, glowing in his yellow raincoat with red stripes, listened to the boy’s frantic babble, patiently. “Well now, lad. So your father is a wolf, is he? In your dreams? I think it’s too much candy after dinner we’re talkin’ about here.” He chuckled and offered the boy a mint. “And your daddy a doctor and all; he should be knowin’ better than anyone about that. There’s your bus,” he said, pointing across the street.

The bus was too crowded with children laughing and shrieking for the boy to ask the driver for help. His teacher listened to him after school, but offered much the same opinion as Mr. Malley had. He knew that his mother would not understand, either. She loved the wolf, whom she thought a man. No help from the grown-up world, he realized. He was on his own.

That afternoon, he noticed shadows under the bright white paint of the house – long, slender shadows, knobby at the ends. He knew what they were. Bones – carefully concealed by the wolf, unseeable – unless you knew they were there.

The boy’s world shrank. He no longer flew kites, played marbles or any of the other things he had done before. He spent every afternoon in the library, reading about wolves. He read about real wolves, mythical wolves and fairytale wolves. He read every book he could find on them.

He learned wolves are clever and good at concealing themselves; and that the ones with green eyes and black fur and white, sharp teeth are the cleverest of all. He read of the many methods adults and children had used to outwit or kill other wolves. But there were no stories of defeated emerald-eyed wolves. Emerald-eyed wolves always won and usually those stories ended, “So, the wolf ate them all up!”

The afternoons passed in wolf study. At night, the dreams – and the pain – continued. The boy, though despairing, remained resolute – somehow, he would find a way to stop the green-eyed beast in the house of bones.

In his desolation, there was only one bright place. After the library, he would return home and his butterfly sister would greet him. Her laughter and squeals of delight, as they chased birds, made faces out of the clouds and played hide and seek, made him almost forget – almost not see the shadows of the bones under the paint of the house.

Then, one night, the dreams stopped. A week passed, then a month and then a year with no dreams (though he still felt the bite of the crystal bee almost every night). The boy wondered why and began to look for the reason. He pretended to sleep deeply. Sometimes when he did that, the crystal bee did not bite him. When the bee did not sink its diamond stinger into his flesh, he saw clearly. He prowled the house, listening, watching – and sensing the bones beneath the surface of the walls. Late one night, he heard it – the reason the dreams had stopped.

From the butterfly’s room came a murmured cry – like twigs breaking from dead trees in a winter chill – and the low growl of the wolf.

It doesn’t want me anymore, he thought, it wants her.

He raced to the door of his mother’s room, pounding on it, hurting his hand. She appeared in her doorway, swaying. Her eyes were funny looking. On her shoulder he saw a mark he recognized, the mark of a fresh bee bite. He shook her frantically, yelling into her ear. He saw understanding creep into her dulled eyes.

His mother ran from him, to the door of the butterfly’s room. Throwing it open, she stood in the entrance. Saved, the boy thought, saved.

“You!” she screamed. “You promised! Never again, you said. No more girls. I’M the only one. You promised me. I’M the one. You need ME! Because you love ME! Is that why you made me have this little whore? So she could be your next? You bastard!

There was a snarl and a sound like a softball makes when it slams into a catcher’s mitt, a loud, hard, smacking of leather into leather. His mother fell to the floor, crying in a voice like the dusty rustle of leaves blowing in a bleak wind on an icy sidewalk. “You...promised.”

The wolf stood in the doorway, growling. Its eyes, shining with deep-sea phosphorescence, found the boy. It turned to a corner of the hall and opened a black satchel standing there. It came towards the boy with something glittering in its hand. It growled a warning and the boy stood still, feeling the bee bite his thigh. The familiar darkness took him. But, before it swept him down, he felt a fierce joy. In its red rage, the beast had made a mistake.

The boy knew where the creature kept the crystal bees.

A single word sprang into his mind. A word that all wolves fear – even the emerald-eyed ones. His grin as the darkness took him down was a feral one.

He had a plan.

The next morning, he opened his bedroom door to find that the wolf had dropped all pretenses. The house glowed white, bare of illusion. The floor was made of overlapping bones as were the hallways and the railings. The stairs glowed with the soft ivory and white of bones. Wrist bones, small and delicate, supported tabletops made of rib bones, curving with a polished grace. The walls were thighbones, hard and strong, reaching for the ceiling, which was made of shoulder blades. The stairs were footbones and knucklebones, inlayed with backbones rising for banisters. Everywhere the hard gleaming white of skeletal purity reflected the morning light. His breath steamed in the chill.

Downstairs, at the table, the wolf sat – its eyes following the boy as he descended the bleached gleam of the stairway. When, stepping slowly and cautiously, he had reached the table, the Wolf growled softly. Its luminous eyes swept over the leaf - tumble figure of his mother in the corner of the room. Turning its muzzle, the wolf moved its emerald stare lingeringly over the gray moth that the butterfly had become. The beast growled again, low. The boy knew the meaning of that growl: “Tell and I will kill.”

The boy missed his school bus on purpose. He watched from where he hid in the thick branches of the hedge as it disappeared around the corner. His hand made a small waving motion that might have meant goodbye.

His father, leaving for work, in a light gray suit and tie, never saw him. His mother, when she rustled by on her way to the store with his sister – held hard by the hand – did not see him either. As their station wagon passed his hiding place he looked through the car window at the gray moth. Soon, he thought, you’ll be a butterfly again.

When the automobile vanished, he hurried into the house. Straight up the stairs – the knucklebones making a cracking sound under his rushing feet – to the satchel in the corner. He fumbled open the clasp and reached inside. There! He felt the brittle crystal hardness of the bees. Carefully, he removed four of them from their nest in the worn leather satchel.

He raced back down the stairs, the chill of the house seeping into his body, and opened the refrigerator. There! Slabs of meat glistened in their wrapper. The wolf’s was, naturally, the biggest. (Blood rare, the wolf always said, blood rare.) Quickly and carefully, he opened the wrapper and inserted the shining stingers of the bees into the redness of the meat. His thumb thrust the plungers down one by one and the fluid within the body of the bees flowed into the supper of the wolf. Another trip upstairs and the empty bees were replaced in the satchel. Nodding with satisfaction, he left the house and used the side door to enter the garage.

In the cool darkness, he found what he sought – a rounded dome, bright red and pungent. When he picked it up, it made a soft sloshing sound. He carried it to the yard and hid its oily metal symmetry behind one of the rosebushes near the front door. The large red and pink flowers, heavily sweet, masked the sharp odor of the can nicely. Now, he thought, waiting is all I have to do.

At dinner that evening, the wolf tore at the dripping meat, snarling softly, mopping the juices with a thick slice of bread. The boy watched closely. Only when the last of the glistening red moisture had crossed the wolf’s lips did he relax.

Later, he lay in his bed, ears reaching out in the silence for sound. Wolfsteps approached his door and the knob turned. He held his breath, terror stricken – the plan had not worked. The door opened and phosphorus eyes met his. Fear frozen, he watched as the wolf approached him, its teeth gleaming whitely. It growled, bloodlust in its eyes, then fell with a great thump to the floor, its mouth open and teeth shining, green eyes closed.

The boy ran down the footbone stairway and into the yard, returning with the sharp-smelling can. He splashed the liquid within it over the floor and the walls and the thighbones and the wristbones and the ribcages and the knucklebones. Down the hallways of glowing ivory, he splashed, and over the backbone doorways, until the can dropped empty from his hands.

He ran to the butterfly’s room, sweeping her from her bed. He raced to his mother’s room and roused her from her bee-bite sleep. Down the knobbiness of the stairway and out the cold curving doorway to the lawn, they ran. He turned and tossed a kitchen match inside the house.

Even green-eyed wolves fear fire, he thought.

Red and orange waves of salvation crashed up the wall and over the ceilings and doorways as the bones flamed, painting a different kind of color on the neighborhood.

He heard the wolf howl. His mother, startled out of her diamond stung haze, screamed, “John!”

She screamed again, raced toward the house and disappeared into the brightness within the doorway. He heard, or he thought he heard, her scream again as the flames took her. He thought she cried, “Only ME!” The house erupted into an ocean of orange as the bones took fire and exploded.

In his arms, the gray moth wakened. Her blank, bee-bitten eyes turned to the house and reflected the flames in a whirl of color – like the wings of a butterfly.

BIO: AJ Hayes is from San Diego and – god help him – good friends with Jimmy (Mad Dog) Callaway and Josh (Gut Ripper) Converse, who provide great advice and the occasional smack in the mouth with the butt of a .45.