Smoke remains weeks after the wildfire is contained. It hovers in the singed pine forest like an apparition and when rain finally arrives, the recalcitrant southern ground sizzles.
Over 30,000 mostly-wooded acres in northeastern South Carolina were razed. Trees weren’t the only victims. An Exxon exploded. The Fish Shack fried. Crops combusted. Meaningful golf courses were torched. The bog boiled creatures alive concocting a moribund gumbo. Some birds couldn’t climb high enough. The Golden Gardens retirement community was incinerated. Baffled, elderly residents were bussed to different homes across the state and into North Carolina. Orderlies did their best to keep friends and family together during the up-roosting.
On the bright side, nobody knows of any human loss. This consolation allows people to clap each other on the back. It is a bit of solace in the aftermath of one-hundred feet waves of flame. In that space of calm come the questions. How in hell did it happen? Lots of ways, it could have: A cigarette tossed into the pine straw catches...a fool fails to observe his rusted-over tin garbage can heaped with leaves...an eager Cub Scout leader rubs two sticks together too fervently...teenagers with bad aim in a bottle rocket battle...a spouse eliminates incriminating bed sheets...
There are accidents and then there are conflagrations of the human heart. Reasons are drifting embers in a stiff wind. One of them turned the house to ashes.
Before the fire, up north, the first sign of life creeps out of the thawing ground. A tuft of weeds pushes into the early light. From his hideout in the attic and through the slatted window Grumman bears witness. Winter is winding down. Soon, the snowbirds will return.
The young man chose this two story house at the dead end with the brick façade and the frozen maple he used to shimmy and then shake onto the roof and through the dormer window into the attic—a space nobody wires for security—but he could have chosen any number of other houses. This neighborhood is unremarkable. The area is one of many northeastern regions populated by retirees who can afford to jump into and out of their lives with the changing season by occupying second homes. The thing to do now, Grumman realizes as he narrows his gaze at one splitting bud nestled up against the bare branch, is trudge south.
Grumman doesn’t have much. The goal is to not need anything. The upstairs of the house is without a motion detector and he has been free to roam through the empty rooms. Sometimes he uses the rowing machine in the exercise room. He found a hand-held computerized chess game in the study and is getting better at it. Skims paperbacks. Sleeps in the guest room. Once in a while he takes a bath. When he arrived in early January he brought a duffel bag stuffed with boxes of cereal. He loves those fruity O’s. He knows how to ration. He can slink around without ever passing in front of a window. He has memorized the sounds of the house and can predict when the heat will kick on. The owners set the temperature to fifty-eight, warm enough to keep the pipes from freezing. The phone nearly never rings. When it does (usually a solicitor or an accidental fax) the chipper voice on the answering machine lets the caller know that, “We’re not here right now. Leave us a message and we’ll get back to you when it’s warmer!” Grumman always flinches when he hears the recording of the man’s voice—it is not unlike his grandfather’s—and chastises the owner, May as well send thieves invitations. These people are lucky to have Grumman watching over everything while they’re away.
But spring is not far off. The fruity O’s are nearly gone. Batteries are dead. The fair, even-keeled, cross-legged stupor he has maintained for most of the hours in the day will have to pause. Grumman’s pretty satisfied with how deeply into himself he delved. He is getting better at drifting away.
Grumman cleans the house. All of the trinkets that he put into drawers on day one he rearranges. He’ll leave the place cleaner than he found it. He shoulders the duffel and flits down the tree. This is the first time he has been outside in three months and his bones eagerly take to the fresh air. He crunches over the last remnants of snow and slides on a pair of thin, brown, driving gloves he lifted some time ago.
Up the street a man starts his car, a Cadillac, and leaves it running in the driveway to warm up before work.
Diblasio Weems slowly wraps his mouth around the word entrepreneur. He likes the taste of it. It is a label that has never been attributed to him before now. Names he has heard before: The Great White Whale, Blubbersaurus, Gigantahamster, Chief Stung-by-Bees. Sticks and stones, Diblasio knows. He is his own man now. Actually, he has created several identities online: Diablo, Blaze, WeeMonster, Mr.Diabolic.
“Entrepreneur,” Diblasio says slowly to the potted cactus he’s named Dave which sits upon his flimsy computer desk. The Web Business Today article, for which he was interviewed, has just been posted. Flabby arms folded over his robust gut, Diblasio bounces vigorously up and down on his meek swivel chair. He shakes the upstairs studio apartment around. When he throws his weight into it Diblasio can rotate a half-dozen times or more. He lifts his legs so that his toes touch the mini-fridge tucked under his desk and then the boxes of jerseys he’s got stacked around the room. Beneath him china in the cabinet timidly clamors.
“Entreprefuckingneur, motherfuckers,” he hollers, then his heart gives out—a soggy pop—and he completes two strong revolutions in his chair before toppling, with a thud, onto the floor.
In the house below, Diblasio’s grandmother is washing a head of lettuce. She is fastidious about his diabetic’s diet even though he is not. He’s not allowed to keep sweets upstairs but she knows he sneaks down and eats the double-fudge homemade cookies she hides in the pantry. No matter, she says, they are for someone else. “They will kill you, Diblasio,” she insists, and they did.
Above the sink is a window and out there is a long, descending backyard which slopes into a sizeable garden and ends in a marsh. The grandmother is thinking about alligators lying dormant in the mud awaiting, like her vegetables, the warm weather right around the corner. This salad she’s making he’ll never eat. She grips the head with both hands, digs her nails in, and begins ripping the lettuce into manageable chunks. When the house shakes from the impact of her toppling grandson above she mistakes it for her own unexpected trembling fury.
Living like a nobody is harder than it looks. It is hardest among people. It’s not that people can really see Grumman—look right through me, look right through me—it’s that he can see them. They are all around. They drive by and turn their heads to steal a peek at the young man in the black Cadillac. Why not look? they figure. And what do they see? A twenty-year-old weighted down by his furrowed brows and pursed lips gripping the steering wheel like he’s trying to murder it, eyes dead set ahead. If people think at all, they think, That must be his dad’s car.
“And if I don’t look back,” Grumman tells himself, “I won’t see them. So what that that’s what they think. What do I think? I think they don’t exist. This is an empty road.”
Grumman’s not full-blown off the grid like the phantoms in the woods or in the desert you read about; those anarchic gorillas gurgling their own diluted piss for hydration and grinding lice between gnarly teeth for protein. Grumman’s more of a suburban gypsy. He occupies spaces you leave rather than spaces you’ll never go. He has become talented over time; been doing this for two years since he left for college. The trick is to always remain perfectly calm like that Buddhist kid in the jungle who sat there—maybe still sits there—ignoring the world and willing the heart to slow down to near-asystole. Just north of dead. And why not go south? Don’t think he hasn’t see-sawed through suicide. That, though, would give the last laugh to Phineas Olsen. Death was Paddywhack’s bag. So what that Grumman had a little taste? That was then; that was that. Living is daily combating what was. It’s about God, Grumman guesses, or something else big. It is the belief that there are defibrillators out there humming above the world. Grumman’s just waiting for someone kind enough to lower them down upon his chest.
“I mean, aren’t I owed that after having my heart ripped...deserved to suffer for what he...had such hate and it can be contagious if...why that damned wooden elephant on the mantle...all so meaningless...red splatter stained forever...”
Grumman manages the car back on the road, startled by the rumble strips. This all-day-driving a stolen car out in the open has got to stop. Let’s not be sloppy. Outside is twilight in Richmond. Been on fumes for miles. Every bus station in the country is situated in the seediest part of town. Grumman turns the car off and leaves the key in the ignition.
Inside the terminal, Grumman tries not to notice the people and instead looks for a destination. He’ll need something on the coast, somewhere snowbirds have abandoned for the season. Kitty Hawk will do. He buys a ticket without making eye contact with anyone. He’s got the money. Has enough cash to get by forever the way he’s been living. It is a small condolence for the price of fanfare. Hard to blame the media. Newspapers and magazines aren’t exploiting if your legal guardians—grandparents—take the money. “It’s all for you,” they said, and gave it to him at eighteen. Grumman buried the lion’s share beneath a jungle gym in a park near his childhood home. He returns from time to time.
On the bus Grumman closes his eyes and listens to the rising shift in gears which drowns the low murmur of passengers. Sleep is easy this way. When those gears wind down, Grumman awakens. Heavy-headed, he rises and files into the aisle to wait in line with everyone else. It is still dark outside and, if he hurries, there will be enough time to find a home before sunrise.
With his eyes lowered Grumman waits for the pudgy man in front of him to move. The man is wearing a red football jersey with the number 32 stitched in black on the back. The name Kuller is embroidered across the man’s sloped shoulders.
That name rings a bell and Grumman doesn’t watch football.
And though it is something he wouldn’t ordinarily dream of doing, Grumman taps the man on the shoulder and mutters, “Where did you get the shirt?”
The grandmother enters the house, closes the door, and stands breathless with her back to it. From where she is she can see into the dining room, the living room, and part of the kitchen. She dizzily casts her eyes around the space.
This is the house her husband chose so many years ago. A mostly-sequestered two-bedroom ranch with an in-law apartment above the garage. The nearest neighbor is acres away. This is where they lived and had a son. The son moved out and had a son. All these men ballooned early and grotesquely fed their fate; not suicide exactly, just an irresistible craving to devour. The grandmother is the one who fought their ravenous appetites. She committed herself to vegetables. She tended the garden. If her family would have looked at her—thin as rain—they’d have seen a portrait of self-discipline. But you are no role model when nobody sees you. You are inconsequential. Drop in bucket. So they fell: The grandmother’s husband’s heart burst, her son’s, subsequently, did the same, and her grandson, Diblasio, the biggest of them all, moved into the in-law apartment. And now, only in his early thirties, he’s out. Planted in the April earth with the others.
Without the weight of her grandson the house feels clean. She can court the secret she’s kept under lock and key.
After her husband passed the grandmother started an affair with a man she met at Home Depot ...her lover Leo was taking a break from his wife...seduced by her baking goods and attentiveness in the bedroom...he was her second chance and she hoped vice versa...Leslie, the wife, started to get sick...guilt and shame and all that jazz...passion for him only enflamed over the years...
Shortly after her grandson quit his job as a computer consultant and moved into the apartment with his Big Idea, Leo and Leslie became residents of the Golden Gardens retirement community. Leslie was becoming too difficult with her dementia for Leo to handle alone. The grandmother tentatively visited. Leo refused to make eye contact. He sat on the bench swing in the courtyard clinging to Leslie. If Leslie knew that the grandmother was perched on a picnic table a few feet away, it didn’t show in her far-away gaze. Meanwhile, Leo quietly hummed their wedding song in Leslie’s ear and tried to sway a little, desperate for his wife to remember the years of good times rather than those recent six months when he took a break from her.
Determined, the grandmother increased her visitations. She made brownies and coffeecakes and befriended some of the residents. She played bridge with Gracie and Wanda and listened to Hugh and Tim argue politics. And though Leo never budged, she learned from Victoria that he’d snatch one of her cookies after visiting hours.
As the grandmother smoothes out her blouse her hands tremble. She has never been closer to Leo than right at this moment. Her life has always been measured in the tug of time. Time to lose her husband and battle that abandonment. Time to grieve the passing of her son. Time to reinvent herself with another man. Time for Leslie to pass. Time to slide her shoulder into the comfortable curve of Leo’s arm.
It’s time to move into the Golden Gardens retirement community. Turns out her foul-mouthed grandson had made some money with his Big Idea which he left to her. The nicest thing Diblasio has ever done he did when he died. It is enough to get her foot in the door. Now, as she does a two-step jig in the foyer, she just has to unload the house.
Kitty Hawk is pleasant. It is close enough to the water without being in it. There are rolling sand dunes. Tourists can learn a little something about airplanes. The Wright brothers started out by testing...ignored the naysayers who claimed...finally were able to reach an altitude...pioneers of aviation...
The heat soars outside. Inside, Grumman sits shirtless on the cool tile in front of a laptop computer in the dark. The owners of this house have hung hurricane shutters, just in case, and driven back to Ohio. Splinters of light creep in. Grumman has memorized just how far one beam will stretch before it retreats as the day dies. And many days have passed since Grumman climbed off the bus with someone else’s computer satchel, a deep sickness in his gut, and wandered past the many foreclosing houses (places he avoids) to this home.
The first thing Grumman did once he had tapped into a wireless connection is search for himself. Right off the bat he found the unofficial Grumman Botts webpage. Someone named Kitsch Lover manages the site. On it are many links. The first web address directs you to the People article. The cover photo depicts Grumman, a sixteen-year old kid, staring hollow-eyed at the camera and loosely holding a .22. That magazine article outlines the gory details of the murders. It explains what happened: Grumman, a minor insomniac, was in the kitchen pantry around midnight. He would often eat a bagful of chips to help pass through the night. His mother didn’t like this habit so he hid. He didn’t hear the intruder pick the front door lock, quietly step inside, first check Grumman’s bedroom, the bathroom, remove the hefty knick-knack from the mantle above the fireplace, and then enter the master bedroom. He did hear the screaming. Courage, the journalist wrote, is not a strong enough word for what Grumman did next. He stepped out of the pantry, across the living room, careful not to think about what was happening to his parents or what could happen to him if he didn’t hurry, and into the den where his father kept the hunting rifles. The bullets were locked in the drawer and the key was on a bookshelf. Those moments were like days as he fumbled to load the gun. He only had time for one bullet before Paddywhack, coated in slick blood, charged. He put that bullet between the killer’s eyes. His dad used to take Grumman duck hunting. The article labeled him a hero. There were all kinds of letters from all kinds of people. Gun enthusiasts sent modest checks.
There are other sites. Any time Phineas Olsen is mentioned, Grumman is noted. They are inextricably linked. Phineas Olsen, also known as the Knick-Knack Killer, later dubbed “Paddywhack” by a journalist who wrote for the Miami Herald, started his murdering spree in Ft. Lauderdale and it ended in Indianapolis, in Grumman’s family room. There are many other facts and double as many speculations surrounding the killer. Grumman has sealed all that up air-tight.
The last time Kitsch Lover updated the website was well-over a year ago with a link to an article from Bloomington’s Herald Times reporting that the college’s most famous freshman had dropped out. It was nothing more than two paragraphs buried beneath local news. There haven’t been any recent postings.
Satisfied, Grumman visited the site that the pudgy man on the bus told him about: www.killerjerseys.com. Killer Jerseys sells football-style shirts with the names of serial killers printed on the back and a number corresponding to confirmed victims. They come in red with black lettering or black with red lettering. Grumman thought this was a joke—what kind of person would actually buy them—until he read an online article about the product and a brief interview with the Killer Jerseys creator. Sales were staggering. Grumman had no idea. Teems of wannabe murderers are probably out there walking the streets right now. In the online article the entrepreneur gave his opinion about the popularity of the shirts: “People want to live dangerously. The jerseys put them in proximity. It’s also a great conversation-starter.”
Grumman perused the online catalog. There were many choices. When you clicked on the name of a killer you could see a brief summary of the murders: #10, Jumping Jack Pinkerton—he did several jumping jacks in the pool of his victims’ blood while their life drained...# 12, Twinkle Toes—after he knifed his victims he would take off their shoes, cut their toenails, and put the shoes back on. What he did with the clippings is...#15, Casper—an albino, he blanched his victims with buckets of bleach in an effort to cleanse...#20, Lightning Ira Watts—she’d visit public pools late at night when lovers were fooling around in hot tubs and, with an extension cord, toss a heavy-duty electric appliance...#24, Paddywhack...
Grumman turned the computer off. He folded his legs and prepared to enter into his trance. The way into the trance is to visualize a problem and then excise it until you’re left with nothing but your self in your mind. What Grumman did was go hunting. His head is full of serial killers; from pictures he has seen online he has memorized what each devil looks like. He conjured up the .22 from his past, felt the heft of it, the smooth curve of the trigger, and then he put a bullet between Marc Rallin’s eyes. He took out Randy Ship, Tod Ridgeway, Frankie Sellers, Eileen Archer—he had plenty of bullets—Jeremy Chase, Edward Landry, Sam Mosely, Dennis Delmer...bang, bang, bang, bang, bang...
In his feverish spree Grumman accidentally visualized the pudgy man from the bus and ventilated his skull. This wasn’t inner-calm, wasting ordinary citizens. Inner calm was blissful peace as described by Grumman’s childhood psychologist. Back then blissful peace meant nothing to Grumman. Just some shit someone says. Then, one day when he was bored and surfing the net, he discovered the Buddha Boy at www.buddhaboy.com. Here was a robed Nepalese kid around the same age as Grumman sitting prone beneath a huge peepal tree in the jungle. His hands clasped in his lap. He sat there as the day brightened and the day darkened. A tourist-turned-believer with a computer degree trained a live-feed webcast on the boy so you could look at him twenty-four-seven. Grumman visited the site religiously and waited for something to happen. Nothing ever did. Not when it rained or when bugs crawled over the boy or leopards prowled closely or the temperatures soared and then dwindled. Kid just sat in his white robe like a mannequin.
That was blissful peace.
Now, when Grumman checks on www.buddhaboy.com, the site is gone. He’s not unhappy about this. Back when he stared at the boy on the screen all day Grumman felt a little guilty about it; intrusive. He was behaving a little like all the voyeurs gawking at his image in People magazine and prying, prying, prying. Probably, some monk reprimanded the tourist and made him disconnect the camera. Or the boy stood up, ate a sandwich, and did childish things. Maybe, now that he’s older, www.buddhayoungman.com is gathering followers. Or it was all a hoax. This is not something he’s going to investigate. He would like to believe that the boy just vanished, or levitated into the sky, or vaporized into a million particles of light.
What Grumman does do is hunt down Diblasio Weems, the brainchild behind Killer Jerseys. It’s easy to find the address of a man with that name in the online white pages. There could be a good reason why Diblasio would do what he has done. Lots of them make sense: An ironic commentary on society’s desensitization...appropriation of these monsters as a means of overcoming an irrational sense of fear...a shrewd parallel between celebrated violence on the football field with...pure capitalistic greed...
Or maybe Diblasio is the family member of a victim himself and this is a coping strategy.
Grumman tells himself to not be bothered. Who cares? Off the grid means you don’t get an opinion. You have no voice. Why not just ask him? You spend every day protecting your ears and your eyes in order to control what you feel. What’s in your head. Make him stop.
The ray of light touches his foot and fades. When it disappears, Grumman steps out into the night with it. Overhead a jet screeches by.
It isn’t as simple as the grandmother thought it would be, getting herself checked into the Golden Gardens retirement home. There’s a mountain of paperwork, an interview (they are sending someone to the house today or tomorrow to conduct it), a financial background check which the grandmother cannot verify until the banks have transferred all of Diblasio’s money into her account which they cannot do until the lawyers and accountants settle...and the house; that’s another story entirely, with the market in the toilet and places foreclosing everywhere you turn...
The grandmother carries a cool, pink, washcloth out to the deck chair in the afternoon shade of the house and tries to stay calm. Glancing down the slope of her backyard she runs her fingers through her thinning, matted, gray hair. This heat wave has made her testy. The brittle centipede grass has stayed dormant in the arid weather. Her petunias look like shriveled spiders. She has no desire to haul out the rainbow sprinklers.
About the only thing the grandmother is going to miss, if she ever gets out of this place, is the vegetable garden. It has been her private retreat over the years. A place to keep her hands occupied. It is also where she first took an interest in poison. In the beginning she waged war against the weeds. She got to know the gentlemen in Lawn and Garden. They suggested this and that and she tried and tried until she got it right. Then came the nibbling rodents. There weren’t very many options for exterminating varmints with poison at Home Depot. Devon, an impatient man with a receding hairline and a boat with a blown engine at home in the detached garage where wasps nested in the eaves, showed her what they had. She scattered laced tomatoes, onions, corn, and peppers on the ground like a buffet and waited. Nothing happened. The bait disappeared with no dead body in its wake. She explained this to Devon.
“What you need,” Devon whispered, “is something with higher arsenic trioxide.”
“Oh, we don’t carry that at the Depot.”
“Do I have to describe in detail what they’re doing to my cukes?”
Conspiratorially, Devon scribbled down directions to Miller’s Bait n’Amo and told the grandmother to mention his name. “They’ll hook you up.”
The stronger stuff didn’t seem to be working, either. She kept watch from the deck with a glass of pink lemonade. Sometimes, when it was late and cool, Diblasio would groan down the outside staircase to his apartment and join her.
“What are you staring at?” he asked one evening. “Got a look about you.”
The grandmother told Diblasio about the mystery which didn’t interest him. Instead, he said, “It must be in the blood.”
“The rodents are immune?”
“No, Grandma, in your blood. Your fascination with poison. You know...”
“I wouldn’t say fascination, I’m just protecting...”
“...you and I have a serial killer in our family. Annette Lindon, the Cough-Syrup Killer. She was cousins of your great-great grandmother. Worked as a nurse at the Fairfield hospital and really fucking hated her patients. Who knows why. Afraid of getting old herself, maybe; sometimes killers try to control their own lives by taking...”
“Are you getting bitten? I’m getting bitten. Those mosquitoes love...”
“...she’d mix Robitussin with cyanide and serve it in a little paper cup decorated with flowers. Took out a baker’s dozen before they caught her. I’ve got a shirt upstairs. I’ll get you one...”
“I’m going inside,” the grandmother wailed. “I can’t stand it any longer.”
The next morning she found the dead alligator in her sweet potatoes with a rabbit carcass dangling from its jaws. Apparently, the rodents had been taking the bait and waltzing into the swamp for dinner. She dialed down the dosage to keep the gators from croaking.
“Now,” she announces, “you’re on your own. I’m swapping this garden for a better one.” She smiles at the thought. Tonight, like she has done every evening for the past two weeks, she will visit the Golden Gardens retirement community. She’s making headway. Her friends are happy to hear she’ll be checking in soon. Last night she caught Leo’s eye and saw his face flush.
The coolness of the washcloth evaporates. The heat is really becoming too much. Not to mention the burden of the house. The grandmother has not set foot in Diblasio’s upstairs apartment since she discovered him around supper time the day he died. She wasn’t surprised, of course, and had time to tidy up his disheveled apartment before the ambulance arrived and difficultly carted him off. The grandmother felt such shame when she saw the strain it caused several paramedics to get him down the rickety outside staircase. She whispered many apologies.
Rising, feeling the burden of her age, the grandmother gets lightheaded. She puts a speckled arm against the vinyl siding to keep from falling and, exposed like that, an idea blossoms.
“Let’s just think this through,” she says to herself as she struggles into the house. “Got to make sure the insurance is updated and that I’ll get enough to supplement what Diblasio has left. It has got to look like an accident; you can’t just douse the place with gasoline...”
Then she is startled to see the outline of a stranger in the foyer. She blinks rapidly and covers her mouth with the washcloth waiting to see what is what here.
“Your door wasn’t all-the-way closed when I knocked,” the young man says.
“Oh,” the grandmother tries to gain her composure. “I was on the deck and couldn’t hear. You must be from Golden Gardens.”
As her eyes adjust, the grandmother scrutinizes her company. He is tall and thin like a mantis. He is clasping his hands in front of himself as if he is holding a formal hat. But he isn’t carrying anything. His hair leaps down to his shoulders in curls and now that she has had a chance to look closely she can tell by the old clothes he’s wearing that he is not from the retirement community.
“Is Diblasio home?”
“Won’t you have a seat now that you’re inside?”
The young man doesn’t budge. He remains unblinkingly still, staring off at something on the horizon outside.
“All right, then. I am going to sit if it’s all the same to you.” The grandmother shimmies onto a stool at the counter in the kitchen where the cordless is within reach. “And, no,” she answers, lifting her chin. “He’s not here.”
“When will he return?”
“Oh, he’s definitely not the Second Coming,” she snorts. “So, never.”
The grandmother studies the expression on the man’s face as he tries to make sense of her comment. When he does, his shoulders slump, his head falls, and his arms droop loosely. The grandmother waits. The front door is partially open and the sticky heat is advancing around the young man into the air conditioning. She can see he’s trying hard to decide what to do. If she had a boy with a man like her it’d look like this stranger. He is simple to read: A loner who indirectly knew her grandson, probably from the internet...too beautiful in his sadness to know her grandson well...estranged from his mother, clearly, the way he...in need of a shoulder and a shower...no where else to be; no where else to go...came here out of desperation...
“All right,” the young man says, turning his back to her and stepping out the front door.
The grandmother pinches her lips together in consternation. She’s not sure what that was all about. Diblasio didn’t have many visitors. No matter, she thinks, there are more pressing issues. She puts her arm on the kitchen counter and her head in her hand. This gives her a clear view into her dark bedroom where the automatic night light is illuminated. She stares and stares. Eventually, she sees a cockroach scuttle up from the baseboard in her bedroom and fret upon the wall. Ordinarily, the grandmother would fetch a can of Raid from the cabinet and sprits the thing. Not this evening, though. Instead, she studies it. Surely, there are more lingering beneath the surface. Her walls are crawling.
Grumman doesn’t know what the hell he is doing in Diblasio Weems’ apartment, his back to the door, breathing evening, with the old woman below. If you squat in a place while it’s occupied, you’re an intruder. You’re just one delicate step away from something sinister.
Earlier this afternoon, after Grumman left the house, he began his trek back to the bus station, walking along the shoulder of the county road, past the Fish Shack, crunching through the dry, brittle, Carolina whistle-grass. That the son-of-a-bitch who made the shirts was dead threw Grumman for a loop. He tried to explain to himself that this is why he came in the first place—in a round-about way—to convince Diblasio to stop making Paddywhack jerseys. Now that’s done. Of course, someone else will make them. They are too profitable to ignore, Grumman knows this and it doesn’t matter—Oh well, whatever, never mind— he’s not going to chase after the next capitalistic parasite; fuck it.
Grumman can’t quite pin-point the reason he stopped mid-stride—a Buick passing with passengers he did not see leering at the unlucky fool outside in all this heat—but lots of them make sense: To sit down and maybe comfort a grieving old woman who has lost...help her move boxes and sort through his things...find out what kind of man Diblasio had been other than a Hawker of Jerseys, an Exploiter of Victims, a Serial Killer groupie...if only he could have gotten his hands on him before he died...didn’t know how he passed in the first place...
Hard to say, Grumman thinks, using the bolts Diblasio had installed inside his apartment to shut himself in. He’s here now having waited in the woods until nightfall, silently creeping up the outside staircase, and picking the simple lock. He stands for a while and soaks the place in. The air is musty and sour. A stab of moonlight pokes through a bend in the blinds. There are a mountain of boxes against the back wall—Killer Jerseys waiting to be delivered. There’s a pathway cutting between the boxes which leads to a bathroom. Just in front of him is a swivel chair which Grumman uses to rest a moment. It occurs to him that he is exhausted. At the computer desk is a monitor and a potted cactus. Underneath the desk are a mini-fridge and the CPU. He opens the fridge and finds a canister of sodium-free peanuts which he munches as he waits for the computer to come alive.
Grumman can’t discern much about Diblasio’s personal life from the desktop. There are no pictures or meaningful quotations. There are no songs that upload or streaming banners waving. What he does find are serial killer files in beige folders set against a wavy-gray background. Inside are details about the murders and speculations about the motivations. There are crime scene photographs. Grumman scrolls through. He has done his own investigating through the years in order to help visualize the monsters. Most of this is old hat—Tell me something I don’t know.
In a folder labeled Death Row Grumman browses the names of the many murderers who have been executed. Curious, he double clicks the Last Meals folder and skims some of the orders killers placed before dying...Bobbie Lions—pizza, meatballs, and a Pepsi...Ian McMurray—four pieces of fried chicken (white meat), five pieces of deep fried fish, four deep fried breaded pork chops, extra-large order of french fries, ketchup, tarter sauce, one pint Blue Bell Peanut Butter Crunch ice cream, two quarts of chocolate milk...Perry Duncan—rib eye steak, a baked potato with sour cream and butter, hush puppies, a Coke and pecan pie...Gary White—requested no last meal, eating only an ice cream sandwich from a vending machine...Tony Hawes—two chili cheese dogs, two cheeseburgers, two orders of onion rings with Ranch dressing, a turkey salad, egg rolls, chocolate cake, apple pie, one peach, three Dr. Pepper sodas, jalapenos...
The night Paddywhack murdered his parents, Grumman’s mother baked meatloaf with a ketchup glaze, scalloped potatoes, French-style green beans, buttermilk biscuits, and they each drank one glass of boxed red wine. Grumman’s sure this information doesn’t mean a thing. He screws the cap back on the peanuts and places them in the fridge. He turns the computer off and curls beneath the desk. The buzz of the machine powering down sends him under.
The sound of a car door slamming wakes Grumman up. He wearily rises and walks to the window in the bathroom to peer out. It’s bright with plumes of heat bounding off the hood of the old lady’s green Crown Victoria. Slash pine trees tickle the horizon in a sway. Clouds in the sky look like something a dog chewed up and then spit out angry. She single-mindedly backs out of the drive and doesn’t bother to glance up and see Grumman gawking plain-as-day. He uses the bathroom, sets his clothes aside and takes a shower. Diblasio has dandruff shampoo and a bar of Zest soap. Afterwards, Grumman rummages through the boxes of jerseys until he finds number 24. It is sizes too big and oddly comfortable this way.
Returning to the center of the room, Grumman lowers himself to the floor to stretch. In the daylight he can see the deep depressions in the carpet from the wheels on the swivel chair. Once he is loose, Grumman sits upright, places one foot on top of his thigh and the other foot in front of his lower leg. Then he presses down on his knees, works his legs to the floor, and pulls his lower leg on top of his inner thigh. Arms drape down to the knees. Breathing slows. Eyes close. Grumman weaves in. It has never been easier to find that self place, guided by the dead.
Later in the evening when the grandmother returns from Home Depot with a dozen insect fumigators, Grumman doesn’t hear. She dons her best jewelry and easily packs a bag full of photo albums, toiletries, and clothes. There is so very little she will miss. Then she carefully shatters the glass bulb on the night light with a teaspoon so that the filament is exposed. With the shades parted she will have three hours before it is dark enough for the damaged light to pop on. Then, if you are to believe the warnings on the back of the foggers and defy them, boom. For good measure, she triggers all of the bug bombs in her bedroom, seals the door, and leaves. When tired authorities and insurance investigators half-heartedly sift through the ashes and find nothing more than the coagulated remains of the mini-fridge and ask, “Why so many?” she’ll reply, voice wavering, responsible for 30,000 acres of loss, “I wanted to make sure I got them all.”
Before that, though, upstairs, Grumman takes the insecticide into his lungs. He is too busy cycling through and imagining the different ways that food can choke a man to taste the poison. Cockroaches clamor over him in a panic he doesn’t feel. He succeeds in feeling nothing at all until his chest finally glows with warmth.