© 2021 Leo Cohen Site Design: DurangoWebPro
Short Stories
Back to top
White Willow, continued. # End of day one. Redmon had been very particular about storing the tools, wanting them grouped together by kind; hammers in one place, axes together, mauls, pikes, hand saws, cats paws, rope, shovels everything with their own kind. Charlie noticed it extended to them as well, the four black guys sticking together, and the Latinos. He and Willy had worked separately only so long as it had taken to get the tools out of the dump truck, two wheel barrows making for clumsy work. For some reason they had been put in first, then the hundred or so tools on top, so they were the last out, wasting some of the opportunity to use them for hauling tools to the work room. It was right up to that point that Charlie had appreciated the level of organization, foresight and efficiency this project, whatever it was, seemed to have. He said as much to the big Latino. He looked at Charlie for a long moment, blank face turning quizzical, then slowly, very slowly, shaping a measuring smile beneath cold eyes. Charlie wondered if he understood English. "Man, who gives a fuck?" he said finally. "Bobo doesn't give a fuck. But you, you look like the kind a guy gives a fuck. Probably about a lot of little shit. Yeah, that kind a guy." He turned, looked around himself briefly and picked up a four foot maul with one hand and casually tossed it to Charlie, who quickly stepped out of its way. Bobo laughed. "Careful, man. It might break and you'd have to give a fuck about that, too." Job two was well under way by the time they got to it, the Cher-Mack people having done about half of the unloading. They had brought along a large propane gas range that took five of them to wrestle to the back of the bunk house where a separate room was to serve as the kitchen. Their truck produced two long fold up tables and sixteen bridge chairs, all of it set up in the kitchen area where they had their first meal, put together by a cook included in the provisioning along with two helpers. There was a narrow porch running across the front of the bunkhouse and halfway down one side, a railing separating it from the graveled turnaround. He and Willy had brought two of the folding chairs out there after dinner and were sitting quietly together. The three Latinos had walked to the edge of the woods just beyond the gravel boundary, all of them with cigarettes, and the black guys were inside sitting on two beds, talking quietly amongst themselves. There was something very settled about the scene, even Pepp was quiet, and Charlie allowed himself to relax into it. It had been a long time since he had just laid back, blanked out, let sounds and smells wash over him. It was cleansing, easy going, carefree, a float in a warm pond. Quick taps on his thigh brought him out of it; Pepp. Raising only a finger, he pointed toward the Latinos, the three of them crossing the yard, big one in front, the other two on either side, having a muted but ferocious conversation across him. He was walking slowly, steadily, determined, face neutral, eyes aimed right at the two of them, and as they got closer, focused on Charlie. "Okay, food's over, time for business," Bobo said to Charlie. He had come up onto the porch, hands in his pockets, the only thing casual about him. His pals were right at the bottom of the step, thumbs hooked in belts, one of them a little jittery, the other nodding his head up and down slowly, eyes appraising. "Business. What business is that?" Charlie asked. He got out of the chair, standing, brightly alert, fixed on the big Latino's eyes but aware of the thick shoulders and heavy arms, waiting for the slight tremors that would signal movement. "Protection, man. You and your baby brother here. You got problems." "We do?" "Who you think them smokes are talking about in there?" "You mean us?" "You're white. They're black. You got problems. And protection solves that problem." "Wow," Charlie said. "I never thought about it." "Two bucks a day, problem solved." "Cheap at half the price," Charlie said, turning to look at Pepp, now standing beside him. He was stopped cold by the look on Pepp's face; he was staring wide eyed at Bobo, lips slightly apart, an almost adoring look. Jesus, Charlie thought, he wants this punk to take him under his wing. This was not good and he would have to do something about it. "Okay," he said, turning back to him. "But who's going to protect you guys?" "What?" "From the black guys. I mean, they look pretty bad to me." Bobo's right hand came out of his pocket with a knife in it, switch blade opened and gleaming. "We got our own protection," he said. "So. Payment in advance. Fourteen bucks. Covers you and baby for a week." "Well there's your other problem. I don't have fourteen bucks." "Yeah? Let's check out that back pack. Maybe we can make a deal." There wasn't much in the backpack of personal value beyond the lucky buck his father had given him years ago, his only memory of him. He was thinking about how to avoid giving it up without a fight with this guy when Pepp rammed straightened fingers into the Latino's crotch, Bobo's jaw dropping in silent bewilderment, doubling over to meet Pepp's knee full in his face, then a head butt, Pepp's entire body behind it slamming the Latino through the railing onto his back, neck first in the gravel, and Pepp jumping from the porch and kneeling onto his chest, the crack of bones audible. It had all happened in two or three seconds; a pause, something like a freeze frame, the other two Latinos gawking, then Charlie coming off the porch between their fallen Goliath and Willy Pepp. No one moved for several very long moments until noisy footsteps on the porch and the banging of its screen door brought the four Negroes onto the scene. Bobo's pals produced switch blades, everyone barking obscenities and then Redmon was on the porch, both hands holding a revolver pointed right at the Latinos, shouting, "Drop it, motherfuckers, drop it." ~~~ # "That was scary, Willy, definitely scary." Redmon had commandeered one of the provisioner trucks and at gun point had Bobo's pals put themselves and the inert Bobo into the back. Then they were gone. The blacks retreated to their bunks and Charlie and Pepp had walked out to the edge of the dooryard and up the road that climbed a hundred or so yards of easy rise to the low ridge above the bunkhouse. They were quiet for a long time as the natural calm of the woods closed in over them, the earth spinning the sun into soft dusk, everything back to where it was twenty minutes before, except for the darkening stain on the porch floor and the gaping expanse of broken railing. "Ah, I learned a long time ago it's a mistake to be afraid of size. Big guys, little guys. The scariness comes from the inside, not the outside." "I don't mean him," Charlie said. "I mean you. You almost killed the poor bastard. Maybe you did." The road led up through a thick stand of trees washing against the ridge line. The ridge held back the forest tide from a shallow basin beyond, wrapped around a small, elegant looking barn. Further on there were acres on acres of green crisscrossed with an infinity of white washed fencing. And beyond that, standing above it all was the White Willow mansion, all windows and chimneys and two floors of verandas, the mansion in paternal command. The darkening mesh of trees was behind them, the White Willow vista spreading away in verdant glory, green as money. The tops of tall pines several hundred yards west were reaching shadow fingers toward the barn. The contrast of the disappearing sunlight with the shaded area beyond made it seem to glow, and highlighted the barn like a small jewel in a pristine setting. Pepp was motionless, surveying, silent. Charlie wondered what he might be thinking; dead Bobo? The torrent of out of control anger? Maybe other times when something like this had happened and a price had been paid? Was that why Willy Pepp was here, invisible? Like himself, Charlie Hinds instead of Charlie Kenway? Was Willy Pepp really Willy Pepp? Pepp turned toward him, his head reaching to about Charlie's chin. He would have to look up to speak to Charlie directly. But he didn't; eyes pursed, the oval face stony in concentration, he seemed to be staring at Charlie's chest. "Okay," he said, looking at him now, eyes aimed right at him, voice angry. "Bobo is stupid. Not dumb. Stupid." Charlie was about to ask what the difference was, but Pepp stopped him, hand raised, palm up holding him back. "Dumb is you don't know, no one ever taught you. Around 1944, Irish hospitals started delivering babies for mothers with a narrow pelvis by cutting the pelvis ligature. So they could always have more kids. It was called a symphisiotomy and it left them with lifelong effects. But the women never knew, never were told, so they were dumb. But society has been telling the Bobos of the world they're at the bottom since day one, and the Bobos know. But give him a knife and everyone else is a loser and he can boss them with that knife. Bobo thinks he's on top, but he's on top of a shit pile. Stupid is knowing and choosing not to know. That's why he's stupid." "Jesus, Willy, you can't kill a guy for being stupid." "He's in mutiny." "What? Mutiny? What the hell are you talking about?" "Here it is 1973, the world's completely fucked up and you really don't know anything, do you? Okay, Mr. Innocence," Pepp said, poking a finger at him. "That childbirth business went on for years, sanctioned by the Catholic church, backed by the Irish government. It was a living death for a thousand, fifteen hundred women. But they had babies, lots of babies. Bad for them, good for the church's business, right? For the guys at the top. Keep 'em dumb and producing. Remind you of anything? Maybe us here in the woods? Million dollar horse farm," an arm describing in a wide arc the vast perfection beyond them. "Dirt cheap labor. People at the top make out and we get some meals and a few bucks off the books." "But Bobo. What's that got to do with him? He's here with us. If we're screwed, he's screwed." Pepp looked up at Charlie, scanning his face, looking as if he were deciding if he could take what he had to tell him. "The rich people need the poor." "Rich people need the ..." "If everybody's rich then nobody's rich. You need poor people to know you're rich." "I never thought of that." "Of course you didn't. How many times have you been in a shelter, trying to eat a meal or take a nap and here comes some snoopy person from the 'We're Worried About The Poor People Agency' asking all the dumb questions? Who do you think sends them?" "Government, I guess, I mean they're an agency." "Right, government. And whose government? The rich people's. They send all those snoopers around to make sure the poor people are still there." "I thought we were invisible," Charlie said, trying to lighten Pepp up. "How do they find us?" "That's the clever part, see. The snoops are kept just above absolutely poor, so they know us, know where to look and they see our shadows. Remember what I said? The invisible people are the rising power, the army that challenges ruling power? Bobo's in that army. You, me, all of us, including Bobo. And what he did was turn his weapon on a fellow soldier. That's insurrection, that's mutiny." Pepp poked a finger at him again. "So what do you do with insurrection in the ranks? You kill it, that's what." Charlie stepped away. The word brought up the image of Jencovitch's leg in its vibrations, and then what was probably its final shudder. Five years. It was an image that hadn't faded even a little. There was a long silence, just woods sounds, dusk sounds, beauty sounds, the world quietly retiring. "Speak!" Pepp's tone was harsh, commanding. Charlie looked at him, baleful, sad, feeling the vibration inside him that was as close to crying as he could get. "I've been ... too close ... to the killing business, Willy, way too close." "What does that mean, 'too close'." Pepp was demanding, the voice conveying that Charlie had no choice but to answer. And suddenly he wanted to answer. Jencovitch had been a smoldering coal deep down, whiffs spiking memory seemingly out of nowhere, forcing denial, discomfort. He had never spoken about Jencovitch to anyone, but he had stopped pretending it was only an accident, not his fault, the guilt not his. He had stopped all that long ago, denial replaced by ignoring, or trying to. It sort of worked, except for those unexpected threads of acrid memory. So he told Pepp the story, all of it; Charlie Kenway in Albuquerque, burning Soltar out for what he had tried to do to his mother, running from Amarillo and looking for a ride at an Interstate rest stop, ushered into Jencovitch's travel cab, pushed onto the narrow bed. It was the snick of Jencovitch's knife cutting the back pack strap, his belt unbuckled, jolting him out of surprise and into action. Elbows left and right getting him off the bunk, Jencovitch going for the knife, the punch that missed his jaw, hit his throat ... and killed him. The years on the road, different names, and finally Charlie Hinds in Atlanta. Charlie ended staring at the gravel between them. It felt good to get it out, to tell someone, but he didn't want sympathy from Pepp, excuses, offers of comfort. "So, Charlie Kenway. And you're sure this Jencovitch guy's dead, right?" "He couldn't breathe. I watched him try for thirty, forty seconds, maybe a minute. I thought maybe he had asthma or something. And then one of his legs, it kind of shivered and went still. I knew. I didn't want to know, but I knew." Pepp was quiet for a time, and then he said, "Another Bobo." Charlie looked up, forehead wrinkled in a questioning look. "Your guy, Jencovitch, he's in the army too ... was. Like the snoops, maybe one more rung up, kind of a gofer for the other side, hauling their shit back and forth across the country to keep up their prosperity. Kind of an upper level serf, but in the army and pretending he isn't. Attacking the troops? You gave him what he deserved, Charlie. Don't feel bad about it." Just like that; a little dinner, a little murder, easy come, easy go. Ever since Jencovitch Charlie had been pulling a shroud of anonymity around him, holding it close. And now he had just flapped it open, showing all of himself to this guy Pepp, three P's and an E. A guy who maybe wasn't really Pepp. He was suddenly very uncomfortable, with a sense of having given up one of the few filaments tethering him to at least the perception of control of his life. The shadow line stealing up on the barn was like a bleakness creeping in on him. Familiar, all too familiar; it was the boundary line of depression. He recognized it immediately and needed to do something about it. He turned to Pepp hoping something would come out of his mouth, anything, a distraction, maybe something that would anger Pepp and he would yell at him, attack him. But Pepp had turned away, back to the glowing slow motion scene of nighttime descending on White Willow. And he radiated an intensity of focus, a depth of concentration; it immediately obliterated Charlie's rising panic. Pepp was motionless. "This certainty of wealth," he said quietly. "That's what gets me. The certainty of wealth. The self-assured idea that what you have is what you deserve and you were given it for good reason, no matter how you got it. It's the certainty that gets me." Charlie was stunned. He had just told Pepp about what must have been the most fearful moment of his life, and here this guy was talking about what? Wealth. The certainty of wealth, whatever the hell that meant. "Jesus Christ, Willie. Wealth? I'm talking about I killed a person and you're talking about wealth? Thanks for listening," he said, and started to turn away, back down the hill. But Pepp put a hand out to his arm and held him. "That's a beautiful scene, isn't it? A beautiful scene you and I would like to step into. But these people live in it every day." He looked away from Charlie, quiet for a while. Then, with a long sigh, sad resignation in it, he said, "And I envy them." He nodded in agreement with the admission. "Their beautiful farms, their serfs and minions, their useless little barns that are no more than a summer house. I really envy them." Pepp was silent for long moments, Charlie watching him, waiting, he wasn't sure for what. "I envy them. And that's what they want, what they want us to do. They want us to envy them. The king needs envy, envy keeps them afloat. And it works, whether I like it or not. See, I wish it were me, and that makes me angry because us, all of us, you, me, all of the Bobos and this guy, what's his name? Jencovitch, all we're here to do is envy them. A waste, a total waste." Another silence. "What I want is a world without envy." Pepp's voice was low as if he were talking to himself, and angry. "But I don't have it. Instead I have to look at this beautiful field, this gorgeous place, this magnificent little barn and ..." Pepp turned abruptly and started back down the road to the bunkhouse. Charlie heard him say "Fuck it," to the evening air, one hand in a single wave pushing off Charlie and uncomfortable thoughts.
Back to top
top