Flesh Wounds (Mick Cochrane)

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  The police came just after eight. Hal was sitting in his chair watching the "Today" show when he saw the car pull up, a shiny black Plymouth with a big antenna jutting off the back like a deep-sea fishing rod. There were two guys in dark suits and ties--they weren't Jehovah's Witnesses. He got the hell out. Grabbed his keys and his wallet off the microwave, slipped past the laundry room where Phyllis was folding towels, out the back door, over the deck, down the stairs, across the lawn, and into his Town Car, backed, as always, into its spot. He moved like the teacher in a fire drill, swift and purposeful, but not panicked. Not what he planned so much as what he half-expected from himself. Wearing slippers and a white T-shirt and golf slacks with a hole in the crotch. The fear rising in his chest, noxious and sour, like heartburn. He started the car and eased down the alley, where the kids used to play softball and kick the can, waved to Leonard Kruk in an orange slicker carrying trash bags, stopped at the sign, and gunned it onto Dillard.

He made the light on Fifty-fourth, but was held up at the on-ramp of 35W behind a blonde applying mascara in the rearview mirror. Finally, he got on the freeway. He headed north, against the rush hour traffic, into the Minneapolis suburbs--Coon Rapids, Anoka, Elk River, where he used to stop for pancakes with Geoff on their way up to Mille Lacs to go fishing. He turned on the radio and set the cruise control and tried to think. What was happening?

One fine day there had been a gray-haired policewoman in pants at the door, a uniformed stranger with a spiral notebook. She sat on the couch and smiled demurely, like the Avon lady. She cleared her throat and talked about agencies and reports, authorities and procedures, a preliminary investigation, so roundabout at first he thought his granddaughter was dead. And then she told him it was him. The more they talked--how many ways can you say, I don't know what you're talking about?--the more she treated him like a criminal. She didn't know the first thing about him. And when she finally left, her eyes scanning the room, studying the photos on the mantel, looking for something suspicious, promising she would be back, his heart was beating in his chest like an angry fist.

His daughter Eleanor was making accusations now, too. She had always been an imaginative child. She used to play alone in her room for hours and hours, inventing names and personalities for all her dolls and stuffed animals. She had a flair for the dramatic, was a sidesplitting mimic of her teachers, easily slipped into the speech and mannerisms of the people she was around. And she loved to perform--dances, puppet shows, and especially plays--which she would write and direct and star in, drafting her brothers and sister and him, too, into supporting roles, handing them neatly typed scripts complete with stage directions and pauses for laughter and applause. He could remember roaring and rattling tire chains as Marley's ghost one Christmas. And now her life was not turning out the way that she wanted--whose did?--and she needed a villain, and she'd assigned him the part.

He spotted a strip of service stations and restaurants and retail outlets--golden arches and the orange Union 76 ball, Hardware Hank and winking Mr. Donut. He exited, made a right onto a frontage road, and pulled into the big lot of a Target. It was the sort of store that bought his line: some movie tie-ins but mostly professional sports souvenirs, bobbing head dolls, playing cards, key chains, buttons with computer chips that played "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," so time-sensitive--it was cheap, crummy stuff, all of it, he had to be first on the shelves--that in the case of a big upset, he would be saddled with sweatshirts and pennants commemorating nonexistent champions, Super Bowls and World Series that were never played.

The store was just opening, and inside, a busy team of employees was getting ready for business. They were the kind of grown-ups who work days at kids' jobs, lifers, dressed in red uniforms, like Santa's helping elves, mopping, pulling trays of cookies from the bakery ovens, flipping on overhead lights and inserting cash trays at the checkouts, retracting the metal cage from the florist's.

There was a bank of pay phones just inside the door. He fished a quarter from his pocket and punched in the number. "It's me," he said.

"They're gone now," Phyllis said. "They were going to arrest you. Where are you?"

"What did you tell them?"

"I told them the truth," Phyllis said. "I said you were here a minute ago and then you were gone. I don't know where he went, I said. No idea when you would be back. They weren't happy, let's just say that. I thought maybe they would want to search the place--you know, pull out drawers and throw papers around, just like on TV. The chubby one asked to use the phone and the other one just scowled. Finally, they left. For all I know, I'm staked out. Wiretapped. Watch what you say."

"Okay," he said.

"What are you going to do now?"

"I don't know."

"Call Calvin. He'll know what to do."

"Maybe. "

"And Hal," she said.

"What?" he said. A guy walked in the store carrying a walkie-talkie. "What?"

"Don't come back here. Please."

He set the phone down. The guy with the walkie-talkie was talking to another fellow about towels in the ladies' room. He was cleaning service.

Hal wheeled a big cart through the store, past the car batteries and the sweet-smelling new tires in Automotive, past the bins of footballs and closed-out baseball mitts in Sporting Goods, past Records and Tapes, into Menswear. He picked out a turtleneck, a shiny black warm-up suit, a pair of Reeboks, and a bag of tube socks. In Notions he grabbed some miniature toiletries from a bin of sample-sized products: Crest, Listerine, Speed Stick, Foamy. He dropped a pack of disposable razors in the cart, a toothbrush, a comb. At the counter he threw down some magazines and chocolate bars. He paid with his Visa card.

He carried the bag into the men's room and put on his new clothes, slipped into a pair of socks and the sneakers. Combed his hair and brushed his teeth. Zipped up the jacket and inspected himself in the mirror. He looked fine. He folded his old clothes in the big shopping bag, stepped outside, and headed for the dumpster in the parking lot. He lifted the lid and stuffed the bag inside. And kept walking. Wondering if anyone was watching him. Thinking of the serial murderers who leave their victims' body parts scattered in garbage cans across town.

He got into his car and drove slowly out of the parking lot. Now what? What he would like to do would be to get a flight to Vegas. Take a couple of days with Rita and get some breathing room. He could spend some time at the tables (he played blackjack and, having years ago mastered a streamlined system of counting cards, did all right). They could take in a show. He loved Vegas, the lights and the free drinks and the chips and new cards and the nice hotel rooms and yes, the aroma of sex. It was legal there, the girls like models, all wet lips and bare shoulders in their little black dresses, Lord knows how much they cost. Last time Rita went with him to a topless club, and while they watched a girl working on stage with a fireman's pole, she touched him under the table. The dancer was looking into a bank of bright lights. Hal could see little beads of sweat running down between her breasts, but she couldn't see him. He was hard as a rock.

Hal found a parking spot near the entrance to Dayton's in Rosedale and took the escalator to the second floor. Rita's office was located down a hall lined with travel posters. She was sitting at her desk, her back to the door, looking out a sliver of a window, like a sniper's outpost in an old-time western fort, with only the top of her brilliant red hair visible above the back of her black executive's chair. When he knocked, Rita swiveled around to face him, a slim telephone receiver cradled on her shoulder and a stack of pink invoices resting on her lap. She waved him in. She was wearing a green dress, the color of an avocado, cut almost like a coat, adorned in front with a double row of big black buttons. "Good," she said into the phone, and rolled her eyes. "Very good." She smiled, the most photogenic person he had ever known, every single snapshot like a studio portrait, the same perfect teeth proudly displayed, though he knew for a fact that after her ex-husband Albert, the drunken real estate developer, had slapped her around, she had needed some serious dental work. She looked terrific. She was in her late forties, fifty tops. (Once, when he playfully tried to wrestle her driver's license away from her just to have a peek, she jabbed him so hard in the solar plexus, he realized right then that the mystery of her age was no joke--she was dead serious.) She took good care of herself, aerobics every morning, salads for lunch, every Friday at the beauty shop to have her hair and nails done.

He took a seat. Rita had transformed her office, a cubicle, really--there were no ceilings and you could sometimes overhear the other buyers and even the travel agents down the hall--into something warm and inviting, like a room in a magazine. She'd covered the beige institutional carpeting with an oriental rug and hung the walls with a framed brass rubbing--a somber, bearded young man with a dog curled around his feet--and a black Georgia O'Keeffe flower. The credenza, covered with a floral runner, was filled with photos of Rita's daughter, Jessica, holding a dance trophy, in her cap and gown, dressed for the prom. A brass lamp cast a soft light across her desk, and there was classical music playing.

They'd met in this office, two years before, Hal in the same chair with a big box of World Series paraphernalia on his lap. She was a hard sell. "Are these licensed?" she'd sniffed at his Homer Hankies. But in the end, she bought a bundle, and then they went down to the food court for ice cream. The next week, back at her apartment on Lyndale in the middle of the afternoon, they made love on her overstuffed couch.

"Thank you," Rita was saying into the phone. "You don't know how much I appreciate this. You're a lifesaver." It was vintage Rita. Hal loved her capacity for gratitude, which she worked at like a second job. She wrote thank-yous constantly--she kept a big pack of blank cards in her purse to compose during lulls in her day--for things you would never think of thanking someone for, at least not in writing, a dinner, a movie, a nice walk, and once, really, a kind remark. Hal earned her gratitude with little gifts, at first especially, just trinkets for her, some samples for Jessica, but underneath it all, what she must have appreciated so ferociously was that he wasn't Albert, that he had no taste for booze, that he didn't yell or hit.

Rita hung up the phone and made a note in her datebook. "Hal," she said. "You look slick. Hal opts for a day of leisure or an evening of pleasure in his spiffy Members Only jacket and beautiful new"--she craned around the desk and stared at his foot--"Reebok sneakers. That's what your ad copy would be. Except that I never seem to opt for anything myself in real life. How about you? Maybe only people in catalogs opt. I thought you were on the road this week."

"Change of plans," he said.

"I wish I could change my plans today," she said. "I'm swamped. And I'm still stiff from sleeping on the lumpy bed in Jessica's dorm room. How do they do it? But we got her moved in, all her clothes and her stereo and books. And her roommates are dears, Aileen and Tanya, one from Duluth, the other from St. Cloud, I can't remember which is which. But how about you? How was your weekend?"

"I washed storm windows," he said.

"Well," Rita said.

"And I watched the telethon."

"How was Jerry? Did he sing that little song at the end, 'You'll Never Walk Alone,' is that it? Did he cry?"

"He's gotten mean," he said. "Have you noticed? I used to like him, when he was just a goof, but now the way he sweats and snarls and yells at people, it's like he's taking it all personally. Like muscular dystrophy is our fault. It's spooky."

Rita's phone blipped, and she was on again, chatting about silk blouses. Jammed into his small chair, feeling his new pants cutting his waist and tugging at his thighs, staring across Rita's imposing desk, full of accessories, a Rolodex, paperweights, a cup of pens, the clock facing her, Hal felt both diminished somehow, like a schoolboy in the principal's office or a troubled patient with a shrink, and also inappropriately large, bloated and awkward' like a Macy's balloon. Something scratched the back of his neck and he swatted at it. It was a store tag from his new turtleneck that he hadn't removed. He yanked it and got the paper tag, which he rolled in his palm and jammed in his pocket, but half of the plastic string disappeared down the back of his shirt.

She put the phone down. "Sorry," she said.

"Look, Rita, Hal said. "I've got to tell you something."

"What?" she said. "What is it?"

"The police." Rita knew something was up. He had told her that Becky was telling stories. Generally, not necessarily just him. She needed attention, that's what Rita thought, girls are like that at that age. Jessica used to talk about monsters and slashers and the psycho in lover's lane with a hook as if they were real, too. She got over it.

The police came when he was out, Hal told her. They wanted to arrest him. Rita stared at him, her face suddenly stony and blank, somehow impaired or disabled, as if it had been shot with Novocain. But there was something working behind the eyes, he could tell. Like the policewoman. She was making calculations.

"So now you've come here, to my office? Jesus, Hal. You're wanted. You're some kind of fugitive. The cops are probably talking on the radio about you, looking for your car. I can't protect you, Hal."

"I don't want you to protect me," Hal said.

"What do you want then?"

Hal stood up and walked out. Past a framed Scottish castle and the Alps, down the escalator. Not this.
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Excerpted from Flesh Wounds by Mick Cochrane. Copyright © 1997 by Mick Cochrane. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.