It is the way patients on the operating table describe it. “I floated up. Way up there,” they say. “Below I saw the surgeon’s bloody hands lift my severed heart and drop it into the beer cooler.” Way up there, that’s where I was, teetering on my knees, looking down at myself and at Russ Watts as he smeared his tears and considered knocking me back to La-La Land.
“Where is she, Pete?” he said raising his fist. From up in the stars, I saw myself below, kneeling in the wedge of Russ’ headlights. Our identical pickups—green with shiny steel vault like toolboxes against their cabs—were parked in a dark empty field. Farther back, near I-95, hung the lighted billboard for my plumbing company: Pete Hump’s Heat Pumps, it said.
Chloe’s breath teased my ear. Had I not spilled so much blood I’d be getting some rising action down in my whanger. But instead, I was suddenly flushed down to the ground again, there on my knees, ticktocking this way and that, bound hand and foot, staring into the blinding headlights of Russ’ truck. Russ, my ex-best friend, the guy I’d hired to do industrial work, walked circles around me, gesturing up to the heavens, mumbling to the Almighty. He stopped and slowly craned down face to face. His breath smelled like hotdog chili and bourbon.
“Let’s skip the question this time, Pete.”
I came to a swaying stop. Turning to my right, I saw Chloe sitting beside me on a porch swing. She smiled and ran her hand up my thigh. “Pete Hump’s heat pumps,” she purred. I was in love with her, this woman whose idea of housework was opening the mail, this woman with a mouth you’d take a beating for too. Chloe. Chloe, Russ’ wife.
Russ’ fist struck my jaw with the force of jackhammer. I wobbled like a giant top and watched as his ghostly figure entered the headlights then disappeared. From way off I heard the pickup’s engine turn over. Russ hit the high beams, and in that blinding, electrifying instant I thought of Chloe’s thigh against my cheek, smooth as warm milk. The headlights began to fidget. He’s decided to put a bumper through my brain.
I should have known something was up at The Paradise Lounge, where we drink. Russ chased the last bite of his hotdog with half a bourbon then turned his blank eyes down into the paper hotdog tray.
“Why won’t she cook?” he said to himself.
“Beats me,” I said to myself.
I guess it was something in the tone of my voice.
Russ oozed from his barstool and zombied over to the jukebox. I didn’t think about it at the time.
Everybody at the bar turned. The Righteous Brothers’ You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling blasted from the speakers. Russ rocked like a lunatic and sang loud and unrighteously. He lifted his glass, signaling George Miles for his fifth drink. After three minutes, The Brothers faded, but not Russ. He kept shouting that the feelin’ was gone, gone, gone. His eyes went all bubbly. He threw back his drink, then zigzagged across the dance floor and dropped onto the barstool beside me. He reached for the fresh bourbon.
In the mirror behind the bar, I watched as he bowed his head. His eyes studied the bottom of his glass. It went down forever. As he lifted the drink to his lips, Russ froze, as if a message from the spirits suddenly arrived special delivery. Slowly, like a mechanical toy winding down, he set the glass on the bar. His eyes shot up into the mirror, ricocheted into mine.
“Beats me,” he whispered, turning towards me in that machinelike way, his red eyes like underwater flares.
Russ lifted his foot from the accelerator and silence rushed in. Then inside the cab, Brother Bill Medley sang about the loss of that loving feeling. Behind the wheel, Russ’ black silhouette wailed that he could not goon, on, on.
The shifting of the transmission sounded like the dry firing of a revolver. His blinding headlights inched forward before creeping to a predatory halt. The smell of grease was in the air, and the heat from the engine worked the edges of my bleeding face like a metal file.
I heard the sound of the steel lid of the vault toolbox open and swallowed hard as I considered its contents: the claw hammers, one with a wooden handle, the other one rubber coated; the one-pound sledge, as blunt-faced and deadly as a rabid pit bull; and the masonry hammer, sleek and sexy. His choice would determine the number and size of my skull bits.
Beside me, Russ stood at attention facing the spray of headlights. I glanced at his fist. No hammer. Looking down on me, he slowly opened the fingers of his right hand, serving up a roll of soldering wire in his palm. I’d seen enough Martin Scorsese movies to know what a length of wire can do to a man’s throat. I heaved a breath that drew a bead of blood back up into my nose. A cold numbness ran up my thighs. My testicles scurried backwards like hermit crabs.
“If you don’t tell me where to find her, I’m gonna kill you Pete.” He was still crying. I could hear it in his voice. “I love her, Pete,” he said in a sniffling voice.
“Me too,” I said.
He loomed above me panting and growling, amping his anger, then turned and lifted the hood of the truck. Resting the coil of wire on the radiator, Russ hovered over the engine as if he were studying its design. He reached for the wire. After a few seconds, he began slowly backing toward me like a man with a dynamite lead, letting out the wire he’d attached to the throttle arm. He bore down on me, paused, then pulled the wire. The engine revved until the headlights quivered.
Murder/suicide, I thought. Pete Hump’s Plumbing Truck Kills Owner and Partner, the headlines would read. I fought the duct tape binding my ankles and wrists. My hands were mittens. I couldn’t feel my toes.
Then I smelled the rotten scent of panic.
I was going to die. My brains would be hammered out, either before or after I was strangled with soldering wire, and I would be squashed, either with or without my partner, by a truck I was still making payments on. Either way, I wouldn’t make a very handsome corpse for Chloe, the woman who refused to cook for me, the woman who broke eggs into a mixing dish, dropped her vibrator into the bowl, then picked up her towel and suntan lotion and walked out of the kitchen, saying “I hope you like’em scrambled.” Chloe, who pressed her nails into my chest, tossed back her wild, blonde hair, shut her eyes and rode me like a Harley and twenty miles of bad road.
For Chloe, I would die. Yes, I thought, for Chloe I would die.
Then I saw the jumper cables.