Martin carried his duffel bag of work equipment: wet suit, snorkel, mask, three-liter air tank, weight belt, fins, three-cell Maglite. He was a golf ball diver. He worked four local courses around Carthage, New York, and on a good day he pulled almost 1,000 balls, which he sold to a company in Texas, to be cleaned and repackaged. Nine cents per ball. He had aspired for a better life.
In his Hawaiian print shirt and torn camouflage shorts, he had left Francisco’s Restaurant, heading east on Chippewa Street, thoughts of the next bar in mind, when he heard footsteps behind him, the lonely sounds of another walking without destination. It was a cool night for September, in the low-fifties. The streets were quiet, save a black and white taxicab pacing up and down the strip. An old couple, white haired and crooked backed, waited at the corner bus stop. The man asked, “What about the mail? Did I get any mail today?” The old woman said, “You’re driving me nuts. I said I’d tell you when we get home.” He said, “It’s my mail. I got a right to my mail.”
Martin passed the public fountain, the police station, Admiral’s Wine and Cheese shop, and Uniforms R’ Us, where he stopped, briefly. In the store window hung a green display shirt almost six feet wide and within the shirt were incrementally smaller stencils of t-shirts from XXXL to XXS, the latter one only ten inches across.
The man who followed Martin smoked a hand-rolled cigarette. He smelled brightly of marijuana and mint, and Martin knew who it was before he even turned around. His name was Johnny Cast Tucchi, a name he had said was given on account of his mother’s favorite country singer. His mother had always thought that the famous Johnny’s last name was Cast.
“Like when you break a guy’s foot,” Johnny had explained. “It was either that or Thurman Munson. Mom was a big Yankees fan.”
A wine-colored birthmark rose up Johnny’s neck and spread onto his face and resembled a hand reaching for help. Martin knew a few guys from Fort Drum that didn’t come home right, and Johnny Cast was one of them, so it didn’t surprise Martin when Johnny Cast punched him in the gut hard enough to double Martin over. Martin dropped his work bag and gasped for breath, hunched over on the sidewalk, but did not fight back.
Earlier at Francisco’s Restaurant, Martin showed off his facial scars; war wounds, he called them. Perched on a stool, he lamented about the life he could’ve had.
“This one here,” he said, calling attention to an indention between his eyes, like someone had scooped bone from his glabella with an ice cream spoon. “Think I got workman’s comp for that one?”
Martin didn’t blame all of his misfortunes on the head injury. He also blamed his lazy left eye. From birth, he lacked depth perception and the ability to make out 3D graphics. As a child, he’d sit at the breakfast table, reading the funny pages, and he’d stare at the stereograph on the last page for hours, hoping to see a schooner pop out of the mess of fractured colors, but that day never came. And in Little League he had blackened many of his own eyes, misjudging pop flies. Instead of catching the game winning out, he’d catch a ride to the ER to get stitches along his superciliary crest or zygomatic bone.
The bar at Francisco’s was nearly empty except the bartender, Mr. Jack, who was rinsing twelve ounce glasses, and a few other no-name men who sat in the high-backed wood booths.
“You know, they probably could’ve repaired me, made me look normal,” Martin said, but no one was paying much attention. “I told them I didn’t want it. Said somebody made me like this for a reason. Right?” He slapped the countertop. “Hey. How about another drink?”
When Mr. Jack set the next Gibson in front of Martin, Martin lifted out the miniature umbrella, twisting it between his fingers like helicopter blades.
“Grazie, señor,” Martin said, and drank half down. “Grazie to every-fucking -body!” He swallowed the rest.
It was around this time of night when Francisco had to emerge from the kitchen and ask Martin to leave. Francisco was a reasonable man, but he also knew Martin’s sort, and thought of him as a bit of a cheap Charlie, trying to neglect his tab until the next visit, or indefinitely.
“Bedtime,” Francisco said, with a heavy accent, holding out his wrist and tapping his watch with two thick fingers. Francisco, a hefty man, wore his signature black three-piece suit, barrel-chested and double-barrel-stomached. He waddled out, like a gigantic penguin in his white cooking apron. “Marty, time for beddy-bye. Go night-night.”
“It’s only 8:30,” Martin said, scowling, exaggerating the long white scar that split his left eyebrow. “I don’t have to work tomorrow.”
Francisco clamped a warm, heavy hand on Martin’s shoulder. “You need to go home. You understand? Get a good night’s rest,” he said. “Unless you came to settle up your bill?”
“Next time,” Martin said, sliding off his stool. “I got some people to see some things about.”
“Always,” Francisco said, waving goodbye. “Go make your father proud, Marty. He deserves it.”
“Fuck you,” Martin said.
All Martin wanted was to find another bar, have a few more drinks, and maybe meet a lonely woman he could share his bed with for the evening. Instead, he was sucking air after getting slugged by Johnny Cast. Martin thought if he was a better fighter he’d go for broke, but as a teenager he had tried to stand up to the high school bully, Robbie Robbins. Martin was smart enough to know that 85% percent of the time the fighter who landed the first punch won the fight, so he immediately had thrown a wild haymaker but misjudged where Robbie’s face was and missed him. It was Robbie who won after landing the only other punch thrown. That was when Martin decided he needed to be taught how to be tough. He would enlist.
Johnny Cast stood there, smirking. “You owe me fifty bucks from the Bill’s game,” he said. “But you let me hit you again, we’ll call it even.”
Martin nodded and Johnny Cast punched him again. Martin had known Johnny for five years, and the only thing that kept them from taking their frustrations out on others was to take them out on each other. They both knew too many men who went crazy returning to their normal lives after the Army. They knew a guy whom just last week shot his girlfriend and then took his own life.
Johnny Cast offered his hand and helped Martin to his feet. “Drinks on me tonight, pal,” Johnny said.
At Nico’s Tavern, the men sat side by side. Johnny Cast rolled a fresh cigarette on the bar top, sprinkling pot and dried mint into the tobacco. He had told Martin that the pot made him hungry and the mint aided digestion.
A bowl of peanuts in shells separated them. Neither man touched the peanuts. Johnny Cast drank a White Russian, a drink, he said, he loved because it reminded him of his third grade teacher, Ms. Olga. His first love.
“You can’t get those days back, no matter how hard you try,” Johnny said.
Martin ordered a Gibson.
“Can’t believe you drink those,” Johnny said. “What are you, 80 years old?”
“My dad drank them,” Martin said.
“My father drank motor oil,” Johnny said. “Killed himself when I was twenty-years old.”
“You ever get sick of lying?” Martin asked.
“He beat up on me and my brother, but that was nothing like what Mom went through. I’m not talking physical abuse either, I mean mental. It’s his fault I’m like this. I wish he killed himself the day after I was born.”
“Can we not talk about killing people?” Martin asked.
“Fucking pussy,” Johnny said.
“I got to piss,” Martin said.
At the rear of the bar, Martin stopped at the payphone. He dropped in thirty-five cents, dialed.
“Hello?” a woman said on the other end. Martin hadn’t actually talked to his ex, Kim, since the custody hearing. He wanted to ask her to put Scarla on so he could hear her baby talk, but he just tapped his teeth with a fingernail. They’d lived together for six months until Scarla was born, and Kim met someone else. That was more than a year ago. Martin couldn’t hold a straight conversation with her anymore without wanting to throw her through a window. He called Kim like this almost every night. He thought about telling her he’d have a support check for her this week, maybe next or the week after, but instead he hung up.
Johnny Cast watched the news on the TV behind the bar. The sound was muted, but pictures flashed of wild fires in California then of a rodeo clown in Texas who’d been gored by a bull.
“You working tonight?” Martin asked, sitting down again. “Hospital sent another bill for my father. I haven’t even paid the last three.”
“Serious? You asking me for work? You never want to help out,” Johnny Cast said, selecting a rotten peanut from the bowl. “It’s a big house. Seven bedrooms. Probably take all night.”
Johnny Cast was a cat burglar; at least that’s what he called himself. Really though, he worked in landscaping, so he knew the people in the area and when they left on vacation. He never stole much, usually a few odds and ends from the garage or basement, junk their owners forgot about years and years ago, and he’d pawn them or sell them online.
Johnny dropped the rotten peanut on the floor. “You know how they say a bad apple ruins the bunch? I swear it happens with most everything. People, peanuts.” He pushed the entire bowl away. “Never tried a Gibson. You mind?”
Martin slid the drink with the back of his hand.
“Your dad drank these?” Johnny asked, easing the glass to his mouth. His lips tightened after he sipped. He made a strange face, one of disgust, then chased with his White Russian, leaving a milk mustache. “How is the old man?”
“He’s not much of anything,” Martin said. He thought of the old man. Just another body to wash in a nursing home. “The doctor says that’s normal though. In six months he won’t even know me.”
“I swear, I’d rather lose both my legs than my mind,” Johnny Cast said. “Here’s to a couple of sad bastards all alone in this bullshit world.” He raised his glass. “Drill it,” Johnny said.
And something came to Martin. When he’d been trained on the gunner’s station at tank school, he had been firing wildly at plywood silhouettes in the practice field. The metal noise rattle, the constant percussion of rounds, the heavy rumble of that great big machine beneath him. And despite the chaos, he saw a German shepherd at the edge of the clearing. There had been three that strayed close, a Labrador retriever and some mutt, family dogs perhaps, that had formed a pack. The tank commander ordered his men to mow them down, screaming at the top his lungs, “Drill ’em, drill ’em, drill ’em,” and in a few seconds, the time it took Martin to realize what was happening, the dogs were shredded to meat and bones.
“Whose house you going after tonight?” Martin asked.
“My father’s,” Johnny Cast said.
Martin knew Johnny’s father, Mr. Tucchi. He was a member of Jackson’s Eighteen-Hole Golf Course. He owned a stone quarry and concrete plant and construction rental company. The previous summer Tucchi hit a ball into the infamous water hazard on hole thirteen, and he demanded his caddie dive in after it. The caddie refused and Martin was called to the scene. Tucchi lectured Martin, as it was his plan to see that specific ball into the hole.
“Quitters quit when it gets too tough,” Mr. Tucchi had said. “But a winner follows through no matter what, and my balls are winners! Do you understand what I’m saying?”
They drove twenty-five minutes west towards Sackets Harbor, out country roads until the fields turned to hills and Christmas tree farms. It was almost 11 p.m., the houses dark, families gone to bed for the night. Johnny Cast pulled over and rolled down his window. They heard crickets and the wind. Martin’s head swam with booze. Johnny turned on the dome light. He held up an orange prescription bottle. He twisted the cap and dug through until he found four green and black pills.
“This is a new one. Make you see Jesus,” he said, and handed one to Martin, then dry-swallowed the rest.
Martin eased back into his seat. He looked through the windshield, dark clouds floating like gray brains on a sea of black sky, the half-moon just a broken pearl. When he was young his father told him that rain was just tears of all the people in heaven. Martin thought it might rain tonight. Even though he loved the man more than anything he sometimes wished to God his father would finally die.
They walked up the driveway of the Tucchi residence. A motion sensor on the garage activated and a blinding spotlight lit both men up, their gangly black silhouettes dragging into the darkness. Johnny split off to the backside of the three-story Victorian.
Martin stood at the front door and waited. It was quiet, but then he heard the night, the way the air moved and changed directions. Somewhere he heard the splitting wood fibers of tree branches bending. He thought he heard whispering, and a bead of sweat trailed down from his armpit. He looked around at the darkened yard wondering if any one was watching.
The lock inside clicked, and Johnny Cast pulled the door open. “Why in the hell would there be a back window unlocked?” he asked. “People could break in like nothing. Nobody take precautions anymore.”
“Took long enough. I’ve been standing here forever,” Martin said.
“Some people forget to lock up on accident and some forget on purpose. Fuck him.”
“Just tell me what you want me to do,” Martin said, his hands in his pockets.
“Shit,” Johnny said. “It ain’t your first time. Grab what you want and go.”
Martin found the master bedroom. It was nothing like the one of his parents growing up. There weren’t two beds here, no dresser with mismatched knobs. Martin had never robbed a house of someone he knew. As a kid, he stole baseball cards from the grocery store and sometimes pepperoni sticks, tucking them in the waistband of his underwear, walking out with them under his shirt. And in high school, he crawled through the back window of an abandoned house with a friend and stole metal fixtures and piping to sell at a salvage yard. But nothing worse.
Martin flipped the light switch so see his way around the wide king-sized bed, the teak frame and matching dresser, armoire, vanity. He found the master bath. He ran his index finger along the black marble countertop. He twisted the faucet in the sink, listening to the water trickle, and tried to piss. As he waited, he tore a short length of toilet paper and smelled it, but it smelled the same as the paper in his apartment. He couldn’t piss.
In the bedroom, Martin lifted the lid of a jewelry box. It was painted on top with tangled roses. Martin fingered through loose earrings with different colored stones: red, purple, azure. A pearl necklace. A silver necklace. A gold necklace. He opened a drawer of rings. He held them up, one by one, the crisp shine of the metal, and then set them back. He could pawn them and put a down payment on a small house. He could call Kim again, tell her the news, ask her to bring their daughter along.
From a black velvet pouch, the fabric worn at the corners, Martin shook out a thin engagement ring with a diamond no bigger than a course grain of salt. The ring was bent, with a flattened side such that it resembled a half-moon. If Martin heated the metal he could straighten the ring.
Johnny Cast was giddy, running into the room. He jumped onto the giant silk-lined bed like a child might.
“Place is a gold mine, right?” Johnny said. “Don’t take too much. Can’t let anybody know we were here.” He laughed wildly. Martin figured Johnny had taken a handful of his mother’s pills and chased them with something in Tucchi’s liquor cabinet.
Johnny flopped down and laid back, his chin to the ceiling, and opened and closed his legs like he was making a snow angel. “It’s like fucking heaven, right? Christ, I could live here forever.”
Martin could picture it. A perfect image surfaced out of the chaos. He wanted to see Johnny happy, to see the people he loved happy. His ex. The daughter he didn’t know. Mr. Tucchi and Johnny’s mom. His own dying father. Everyone. He knew there was a God right then because they were all together. Like some miracle.
Craig Buchner resides in Portland, OR. His work has appeared in Puerto del Sol, the Pisgah Review, and Fugue, and in 2006 he won the AWP Intro Journals Award for fiction.