After three glasses of wine, Desie could no longer pretend to be following her husband's account of the canned rhinoceros hunt. Across the table she appraised Palmer Stoat as if he were a mime. His fingers danced and his mouth moved, but nothing he said reached her ears. She observed him in two dimensions, as if he were an image on a television screen: an animated middle-aged man with a slight paunch, thin blond hair, reddish eyebrows, pale skin, upcurled lips and vermilion-splotched cheeks (from too much sun or too much alcohol). Palmer had a soft neck but a strong chiseled chin, the surgical scars invisible in the low light. His teeth were straight and polished, but his smile had a twist of permanent skepticism. To Desie, her husband's nose had always appeared too small for his face; a little girl's nose, really, although he insisted it was the one he'd been born with. His blue eyes also seemed tiny, though quick and bright with self-confidence. His face was, in the way of prosperous ex-jocks, roundish and pre-jowly and companionable. Desie wouldn't have called Stoat a hunk but he was attractive in that gregarious southern frat-boy manner, and he had overwhelmed her with favors and flattery and constant attention. Later she realized that the inexhaustible energy with which Palmer had pursued their courtship was less a display of ardor than an ingrained relentlessness; it was how he went after anything he wanted. They dated for four weeks and then got married on the island of Tortola. Desie supposed she had been in a fog, and now the fog was beginning to lift. What in the world had she done? She pushed the awful question out of her mind, and when she did she was able to hear Palmer's voice again.
"Some creepo was tailing me," he was saying, "for like a hundred miles."
Her husband snorted. "To rob my lily-white ass, that's why."
"This was a black guy?" Desie asked.
"Or a Cuban. I couldn't see which," Stoat said, "but I tell you what, sweets, I was ready for the sonofabitch. Señor Glock was in my lap, locked and loaded."
"On the turnpike, Palmer?"
"He would have been one stone-dead mother."
"Just like your rhino," Desie said. "By the way, are you getting her stuffed like the others?"
"Mounted," Stoat corrected. "And just the head."
"Lovely. We can hang it over the bed."
"Speaking of which, guess what they're doing with rhinoceros horns."
"Who's they?" Desie asked.
"Asians and such."
Desie knew, but she let Palmer tell the story. He concluded with Durgess's fanciful rumor of two-day erections.
"Can you imagine!" Stoat hooted.
Desie shook her head. "Who'd even want one of those?"
"Maybe you might, someday." He winked.
Desie glanced around for the waiter. Where was dinner? How could it take so long to boil pasta?
Stoat poured himself another glass of wine. "Rhino horns, Holy Christ on a ten-speed. What next, huh?"
"That's why poachers are killing them off," his wife said.
"That's why they're almost extinct. God, Palmer, where have you been?"
"Working for a living. So you can sit home, paint your toenails and learn all about endangered species on the Discovery Channel."
Desie said, "Try the New York Times
"Well, pardon me." Stoat sniffed sarcastically. "I read the newspaper today, oh boy."
This was one of her husband's most annoying habits, dropping the lyrics of old rock songs into everyday conversation. Palmer thought it clever, and perhaps it wouldn't have bothered Desie so much if occasionally he got the words right, but he never did. Though Desie was much younger, she was familiar with the work of Dylan and the Beatles and the Stones, and so on. In college she had worked two summers at a Sam Goody outlet.
To change the subject, she said: "So what did Dick Artemus want?"
"A new bridge." Stoat took a sideways bite from a sourdough roll. "No big deal."
"A bridge to what?"
"Some nowhere bird island over on the Gulf. How about passing the butter?"
Desie said, "Why would the governor want a bridge to nowhere?"
Her husband chuckled, spraying crumbs. "Why does the governor want anything
? It's not for me to question, darling. I just take the calls and work my magic."
"A day in the life," said Desie.
"You got it."
Once, as a condition of a probation, Twilly Spree had been ordered to attend a course on "anger management." The class was made up of men and women who had been arrested for outbursts of violence, mostly in domestic situations. There were husbands who'd clobbered their wives, wives who'd clobbered their husbands, and even one grandmother who had clobbered her sixty-two-year-old son for blaspheming during Thanksgiving supper. Others of Twilly's classmates had been in bar fights, gambling frays and bleacher brawls at Miami Dolphins games. Three had shot guns at strangers during traffic altercations and, of those, two had been wounded by return fire. Then there was Twilly.
The instructor of the anger-management course presented himself as a trained psychotherapist. Dr. Boston was his name. On the first day he asked everyone in class to compose a short essay titled "What Makes Me Really, Really Mad." While the students wrote, Dr. Boston went through the stack of manila file folders that had been sent to him by the court. After reading the file of Twilly Spree, Dr. Boston set it aside on a corner of the desk. "Mr. Spree," he said in a level tone. "We're going to take turns sharing our stories. Would you mind going first?"
Twilly stood up and said: "I'm not done with my assignment."
"You may finish it later."
"It's a question of focus, sir. I'm in the middle of a sentence."
Dr. Boston paused. Inadvertently he flicked his eyes to Twilly's folder. "All right, let's compromise. You go ahead and finish the sentence, and then you can address the class."
Twilly sat down and ended the passage with the words ankle-deep in the blood of fools!
After a moment's thought, he changed it to ankle-deep in the evanescing blood of fools!
He stuck the pencil behind one ear and rose.
Dr. Boston said: "Done? Good. Now please share your story with the rest of us."
"That'll take some time, the whole story will."
"Mr. Spree, just tell us why you're here."
"I blew up my uncle's bank."
Twilly's classmates straightened and turned in their seats.
"A branch," Twilly added, "not the main office."
Dr. Boston said, "Why do you think you did it?"
"Well, I'd found out some things."
"About your uncle."
"About a loan he'd made. A very large loan to some very rotten people."
"Did you try discussing it with your uncle?" asked Dr. Boston.
"About the loan? Several times. He wasn't particularly interested."
"And that made you angry?"
"No, discouraged." Twilly squinted his eyes and locked his hands around the back of his neck. "Disappointed, frustrated, insulted, ashamed -- "
"But isn't it fair to say you were angry, too? Wouldn't a person need to be pretty angry to blow up a bank building?"
"No. A person would need to be resolved. That I was."
Dr. Boston felt the amused gaze of the other students, who were awaiting his reaction. He said, "I believe what I'm hearing is some denial. What do the rest of you think?"
Twilly cut in: "I'm not denying anything. I purchased the dynamite. I cut the fuses. I take full responsibility."
Another student asked: "Did anybody get kilt?"
"Of course not," Twilly snapped. "I did it on a Sunday, when the bank was closed. That's my point -- if I was really pissed, I would've done it on a Monday morning, and I would've made damn sure my uncle was inside at the time."
Several other probationers nodded in agreement. Dr. Boston said: "Mr. Spree, a person can be very mad without pitching a fit or flying off the handle. Anger is one of those complicated emotions that can be close to the surface or buried deeply, so deeply we often don't recognize it for what it is. What I'm suggesting is that at some subconscious level you must've been extremely angry with your uncle, and probably for reasons that had nothing to do with his banking practices."
Twilly frowned. "You're saying that's not enough?"
"I'm saying -- "
"Loaning fourteen million dollars to a rock-mining company that's digging craters in the Amazon River basin. What more did I need?"
Dr. Boston said, "It sounds like you might've had a difficult relationship with your uncle."
"I barely know the man. He lives in Chicago. That's where the bank is."
"How about when you were a boy?"
"Once he took me to a football game."
"Ah. Did something happen that day?"
"Yeah," said Twilly. "One team scored more points than the other team, and then we went home."
Now the class was snickering and it was Dr. Boston's turn to manage his anger.
"Look, it's simple," Twilly said. "I blew up the building to help him grow a conscience, OK? To make him think about the greedy wrongheaded direction his life was heading. I put it all in a letter."
"Yes, the letter's in the file," said Dr. Boston. "But I noticed you didn't sign your name to it."
Twilly spread his hands. "Do I look like an idiot? It's against the law, blowing up financial institutions."
"And just about anything else."
"So I've been advised," Twilly muttered.
"But, still, at a subconscious level -- "
"I don't have a subconscious, Doctor. That's what I'm trying to explain. Everything that happens in my brain happens right on the surface, like a stove, where I can see it and feel it and taste the heat." Twilly sat down and began massaging his temples with his fingertips.
Dr. Boston said, "That would make you biologically unique in the species, Mr. Spree, not having a subconscious. Don't you dream in your sleep?"
"Seriously," Twilly said.
"Not ever in my whole life."
Another probationer waved a hand. "C'mon, man, you never had no nightmares?"
"Nope," Twilly said. "I can't dream. Maybe if I could I wouldn't be here now."
He licked the tip of his pencil and resumed work on the essay, which he submitted to Dr. Boston after class. Dr. Boston did not acknowledge reading Twilly's composition, but the next morning and every morning for the following four weeks, an armed campus security guard was posted in the rear of the classroom. Dr. Boston never again called on Twilly Spree to speak. At the end of the term, Twilly received a notarized certificate saying he'd successfully completed anger-management counseling, and was sent back to his probation officer, who commended him on his progress.
If only they could see me now, Twilly thought. Preparing for a hijack.
First he'd followed the litterbug home, to one of those exclusive islands off Las Olas Boulevard, near the beach. Nice spread the guy had: old two-story Spanish stucco with barrel-tile shingles and vines crawling the walls. The house was on a cul-de-sac, leaving Twilly no safe cover for lurking in his dirty black pickup. So he found a nearby construction site -- a mansion going up. The architecture was pre-Scarface
Medellín, all sharp angles and marble facings and smoked glass. Twilly's truck blended in nicely among the backhoes and cement mixers. Through the twilight he strolled back toward the litterbug's home, where he melted into a hedge of thick ficus to wait. Parked in the driveway next to the Range Rover was a Beemer convertible, top down, which Twilly surmised would belong to the wife, girlfriend or boyfriend. Twilly had a notion that made him smile.
An hour later the litterbug came out the front door. He stood in the amber light under the stucco arch and fired up a cigar. Moments later a woman emerged from the house, slowly backing out and pulling the door shut behind her; bending forward at the waist, as if saying good-bye to a small child or perhaps a dog. As the litterbug and his female companion crossed the driveway, Twilly saw her fanning the air in an exaggerated way, indicating she didn't much care for cigar smoke. This brought another smile to Twilly's face as he slipped from the hedge and hustled back to his truck. They'll be taking the ragtop, he thought. So she can breathe.
Twilly followed the couple to an Italian restaurant on an unscenic stretch of Federal Highway, not far from the seaport. It was a magnificent choice for what Twilly had in mind. Litterbug parked the convertible in true dickhead style, diagonally across two spaces. The strategy was to protect one's expensive luxury import from scratches and dings by preventing common folks from parking next to it. Twilly was elated to witness this selfish stunt. He waited ten minutes after the cigar-smoking man and cigar-hating woman had entered the restaurant, to make sure they'd been seated. Then he sped off on his quest.
Her stage name was Tia and she was already up on their table, already twirling her mail-order ponytail and peeling off her lacy top when the stink hit her like a blast furnace. Damn, she thought, did a sewer pipe break?
And the three guys all grins and high fives, wearing matching dark blue coveralls with filthy sleeves; laughing and smoking and sipping their six-dollar beers and going Tee-uh, izzat how you say it? Kinda name is Tee-uh? And all three of them waving fifties, for God's sake; stinking like buzzard puke and singsonging her name, her stage name, and slipping brand-new fifty-dollar bills into her G-string. So now Tia had a major decision to make, a choice between the unbelievable gutter-rot stench and the unbelievably easy money. And what she did was concentrate mightily on breathing through her mouth, so that after a while the reek didn't seem so unbearable and the truth was, hey, they were nice-enough guys. Regular working stiffs. They even apologized for stinking up the joint. After a few table dances they asked Tia to sit and join them because they had the wildest story for her to hear. Tia said OK, just a minute, and hurried to the dressing room. In her locker she found a handkerchief, upon which she sprinkled expensive Paris perfume, another unwanted gift from another smitten customer. She returned to the table to find an open bottle of the club's priciest champagne, which was almost potable. The crew in the dirty blue coveralls was making a sloppy toast to somebody; clinking their glasses and imploring Tia to sit down, c'mon, sit. Have some bubbly. They couldn't wait to tell her what had happened, all three chattering simultaneously, raising their voices, trying to take charge of the storytelling. Tia, holding the scented hankie under her nose, found herself authentically entertained and of course not believing a word they said, except for the part about their occupations, which they could hardly embellish, given the odor.
How come you don't believe we got our load hijacked! one of them exclaimed.
Because it's ridiculous, said Tia.
Really it was more of a trade, said one of his pals. The young man give us three grand cash and the use of his pickup and told us to meet back here in a hour.
Tia flared her eyebrows. This total stranger, he hands you three thousand bucks and drives off in a --
All fifties, one of the men said, waving a handful of bills. A grand each!
Tia, giggling through the handkerchief: You guys are seriously fulla shit.
No, ma'am, we ain't. We might smell like we are, but we ain't.
The one waving the fattest wad was talking loudest. What we told you, he said, that's the honest-to-God truth of how we come to be here tonight, watchin' you dance. And if you don't believe it, Miz Tee-uh, just come out back to the parkin' lot in about fifteen minutes when the boy gets back.
Maybe I will, said Tia.
But by then she was busy entertaining a table of cable-TV executives, so she missed seeing Twilly Spree drive up to the neon-lit strip club in a full-sized county garbage truck. When Twilly got out, one of the men in blue coveralls tossed him the keys to the black pickup.
"You guys go through all that dough I gave you?" Twilly asked amiably.
"No, but just about."
"And it was worth every dollar, I bet."
Twilly shook hands with each of the men and said good-bye.
"Wait, son, come on inside and have just one beer. We got a lady wants to meet you."
"Rain check," said Twilly.
"No, but see, she don't believe us. She thinks we robbed the bingo hall or somethin'. That's how come you gotta come inside just for a minute, to tell her it's no bullshit, you paid us three grand to rent out the shitwagon."
Twilly smiled. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"Hey, man, where's the load? The truck, it looks empty."
"That's right," Twilly said. "There's nothing to haul to the dump. You guys can go straight on home tonight."
"But what happened to it?"
"Best you don't know."
"Oh Lord," one of the garbagemen muttered to his pals. "This is a crazy-ass boy. He's gone done some crazy-ass thing."
"No," Twilly said, "I believe you'd approve. I really do." Then he drove off, thinking how wrong Dr. Boston had been. Anger wasn't such a complicated emotion.
Palmer Stoat ordered an antipasto salad, garlic rolls, fettuccine Alfredo, a side of meatballs, and before long Desie had to look away, for fear of being sick. He was perspiring, that's how hard he went at the food; droplets of sweat streaking both sides of his jawline. Desie was ashamed of herself for feeling so revulsed; this was her husband, after all. It wasn't as if his personality had transformed after they got married. He was the same man in all respects, two years later. Desie felt guilty about marrying him, guilty about having second thoughts, guilty about the rhinoceros he'd shot dead that morning.
"From here to the salad bar," Stoat was telling her. "That's how close she was."
"And for that you needed a scope?"
"Better safe than sorry. That's Durgess's motto."
Stoat ordered tortoni for dessert. He used a fork to probe the ice cream for fragments of almonds, which he raked into a tidy pattern along the perimeter of the plate. Watching the fastidious ritual plunged Desie deeper into melancholy. Later, while Palmer reviewed the bill, she excused herself and went to the rest room, where she dampened a paper towel to wipe off her lipstick and makeup. She had no idea why, but it made her feel much better. By the time she finished, her husband was gone from the restaurant.
Desie walked outside and was nearly poleaxed by the smell. She cupped her hands to her mouth and looked around for Palmer. He was in the parking lot, beneath a streetlight. As Desie approached him, the odor got worse, and soon she saw why: a sour mound of garbage ten feet high. Desie estimated it to weigh several tons. Palmer Stoat stood at the base of the fetid hill, his eyes fixed lugubriously on the peak.
"Where's the car?" Desie asked with a cough.
Palmer's arms flopped at his sides. He began squeaking like a lost kitten.
"Don't tell me." She struggled not to gag on the stink. "Dammit, Palmer. My Beemer!"
Haltingly he began to circle the rancid dune. He raised an arm, pointing in outraged stupefaction. A cloud of flies buzzed about his face, but he made no effort to shoo them away.
"Goddammit," Desie cried. "Didn't I tell you to put the top up? Didn't I?"
Excerpted from Sick Puppy by Carl Hiaasen. . Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.