A short story by Frank Diamond
We were downing brews in Iffy’s when Julie mentioned that she would love me to kill her ex-husband. Of course, she didn’t say it just that way.
“Take care of Donald for me, will you Cheryl?” she whispered. In the darkness, the bruises under her eyes could have been mascara streaks. Turning her face away from my stare, Julie hunched over her beer.
“You giving him to me or something?” I said.
Just then somebody from the tables called over. “Kitchen open Cheryl?”
I held my drink up. “My shift’s over, hon,” I said. “It’s Babs behind the bar. She’s just stocking up.”
Normally, I wouldn’t mind helping Babs. Iffy’s – short for If My Wife Calls I’m Not Here – is the center of my life these days. If me and Dizzy ever get married that’s where we’ll hold the reception. But just then I didn’t want to leave Julie.
She had called me earlier that night.
“I got to talk to somebody,” she had said. Her voice was soft, drained of excitement. I thought for a moment that we had a bad connection.
I said, “He’s at it again, isn’t he?”
Julie and Donald had been married for 17 years, divorced two. She’s been happy maybe 10 days. About the time their first son came along was when Donald changed. Or, I should say, that’s when he let the nice-guy mask slip. I was in the wedding party and never for a moment doubted that he’d turn out to be a jerk. Donald’s a small, broad-shouldered guy who walks on the balls of his feet. Kind of reminds you of James Cagney, except Donald’s no “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” He’s done time for armed robbery and dealing. Likes lifting weights and drinking and drugging. My older brothers knew Donald growing up. “Trouble,” is what they say.
If you’re getting the idea that Julie and I go back to Genesis, Chapter 1, you’re right. We were born two months apart on the same block and, as Julie loves to point out, under compatible signs. We discovered everything from roller skates to makeup together. Even when I dropped out of high school and Julie went away to college for a couple of years we stayed best friends. I visited her dorm so much the other kids called me “the roomie.”
We’re different in a lot of ways. She’s Irish. I’m Italian. When we were teenagers, you should have seen how we turned heads when we walked on the boards in Wildwood. Julie was this petite blond with an imp’s smile. I’m dark and full-figured. She sparkled. I smoldered. We caused traffic jams.
When Julie first started dating Donald, I wasn’t the only one who tried to warn her. She just wouldn’t listen. And when they got engaged, after she dropped out of college, she asked me to be quiet altogether or I’d ruin her big day. And I did – keep quiet, I mean. For Julie. I tolerated her creep husband. It was a beautiful wedding, at least.
Now, sitting in Iffy’s, she strained to lift her flat voice above the jukebox.
“Cops can’t protect me,” Julie said. “Donald’s nuts. A sicko. I can’t run, not with two kids. There’s no other way.”
I could only repeat: “So, you want me to take care of Donald.”
“Right. Take care of him.”
I was stunned. Every year in grade school, the nuns gave Julie Applegate the religion award. When I used to eat dinner over her house, her parents said a full decade of the rosary before a fork was lifted. I remember praying and trying to ignore the smell of pot roast. I always ate like a horse over there. Now, Julie wanted me to kill somebody?
I said, “Why me?”
“You can do something like that, Cheryl,” she said. “For a friend.”
“Maybe I could but I ain’t,” I said. “Look, doll baby, you’re upset and not thinking straight. Move in with me for awhile. Bring the boys. We’ll figure something out – short of homicide.”
“You mean me and my two boys move in with you and your two girls and Dizzy into that cozy little two-bedroom apartment,” she said. Her teasing eyes reminded me of the Julie from way-back and I smiled like you would if you suddenly came across an old friend.
She said, “Appreciate you even making the offer, Cheryl. Anyway, he’d find me.”
“Let him,” I said. “I’ll hand him his ass. And if I can’t, Dizzy sure as hell will.”
“Wouldn’t stop him,” she said. “That’s what’s scary. He wouldn’t mind dying. But before he did, you can bet he’d take me along. Maybe even the boys.”
The last time Donald beat Julie he’d spent 43 days in jail. He says he likes it there. He ignores restraining orders. He calls her at all hours, follows her. Feeds off her fear. Donald is the Devil.
I said, “Let me figure something out. There’s got to be an answer.”
I really wanted to help. When I was 14 I dated a guy, Paulie, who was 22. I thought I was it being with him. He drove, hung out with the bad asses on Kensington Avenue. And he treated me nice. At first. Then, little things. He’d slap me as a joke. Then, he’d slap me not as a joke. I tried to fight back but he’d just throw me around and laugh.
“You’ve got to end this,” I remember Julie saying to me once. Three years I put up with Paulie because I thought I was in love. Then he joined the Army and his family moved. I never heard from him again. I just know he’s with some poor woman beating hell out of her. Then he goes to the bar and trades war stories. Maybe him and Donald are pen pals.
After Paulie, I swore I would never let another man hit me, and it never happened again, either. Mostly, this means having an eye for the type guys who could get rough and avoiding them.
Donald had never been nice to Julie. But the real violence started after the divorce. Julie would cry to me for hours.
“Let me have Dizzy and a few of the guys talk to him,” I would say.
“And where’s that lead?” she’d say.
“At least with him having a broken leg you could stay two steps ahead,” I said.
“Broken legs heal, Cheryl,” she said. “Besides, Donald has friends. How messy do you want it to get.”
Looking back, I suppose everything led to this moment.
“Only you, Cheryl,” Julie said. “I don’t want anyone else involved. The more people know, the more chance we have of going to jail. I don’t want to do time because I stopped that bastard.”
I said, “I couldn’t. Not in a million years.”
There’s a look talkers get right before I flag them. Their mouths will be yapping away but their eyes tell me their minds took the last express south. At that point they don’t care if anybody’s listening.
Julie said, “Of course you have to make it look like an accident. Maybe an overdose.”
I said, “You’re not telling me something.”
That slowed the express. For the first time that night, Julie looked me full in the face.
Everybody ages more quickly than me. I’m being vain, true, but I’m also a little amazed. I mean, I practically look the same as I did when I was 25. Exercise? I walk everywhere because I don’t own a car. And I try to watch what I eat. So, to start with, everybody my age looks as thought they’ve had a tough life compared to me.
But Julie’s face, even without the marks, is a map of tough times. And that night in Iffy’s, I could see the cuts on her forehead and cheek. The swelling in her upper lip made it seem like she had overbite.
She said, “I had a dream, Cheryl.”
I knew it. Over the years, Julie had been going to palm readers, seers. She hooked into cults. She bought books on meditation and the afterlife.
She still attended church every Sunday. I knew that. But church alone couldn’t help her cope with Donald.
“Tell me your dream, Julie,” I said.
The jukebox wasn’t on at that point, so Julie could lean over and whisper to me.
“I was back on Hutchinson Street and my parents were still alive,” she said. “I was afraid of something and I went running to my Dad. He picked me up, calmed me. Then he took my hand and started leading me through these rooms, more rooms than the house on Hutchinson Street ever had. He said he was taking me to see someone special who had come for a visit. I knew he was talking about you.
“We went into one huge room where thousands of candles burned. You were there. And even though I was a little girl in the dream, you looked like you do now. But you were skipping around, just like one of your daughters would.
“You jumped over something on the floor. I couldn’t tell what it was. My Dad said, ‘That Cheryl’s not afraid of anything.’ And when I woke, there was a strange presence in my bed, Cheryl. Peace.”
I was spooked, I’ll admit it, sure. It wasn’t so much the dream – you expect them to be weird – but Julie’s face when she told it.
I saw that look before.
Once a car hit a telephone pole right outside my apartment. When I got there, the girl who’d been driving stumbled out of what should have been her coffin and sat on the curb. She was in shock, talking gibberish. She almost realized what had happened to her because she stopped herself and said something like, “And I didn’t even see the pole.” But it became gibberish again.
Julie’s talk, even when she went on about the dream, almost made sense. But she wore that girl’s look.
And when she turned to me, I knew I barely stood out from the thousands of other things floating about that only Julie could see.
While she was going on, she had pulled something from her pocket and put it on the bar next to the little cardboard coaster. It was a round vial and when she unscrewed the lid, it looked like it might have been filled with facial cream.
When she finished talking, I put my hand on her shoulder and said, “Honey, we’re going to get you help. There’s a way out of this.”
“Oh, I know there is, Cheryl,” she said. “You’re going to take care of every- thing.”
As she said this, she dipped her thumb into the vial and rubbed the stuff on my forehead like she would press a tack into a wall. It was cold and smelled like vinegar.
“What are you doing?” I said, swatting her hand and wiping my brow in two quick moves. “What’s this?”
That brought her back. Maybe she sensed my panic. Soul light returned to her eyes.
“Cheryl, I’m sorry,” Julie said. “It’s ointment. Not harmful. I’m just….” And she made a gesture, like shooing gnats.
I thought: This is what’s become of my friend, that golden, corny girl who used to laugh so easily. This.
“Back in a sec,” she said, sliding off the stool. “Nature calls.”
When Julie walked away, I put my face in my hands. What flashed through my mind was me: standing on uneven turf, watching a body being lowered into the ground. I wasn’t crying. It was more like the strain at the end of a day-from-hell, when I’m so keyed up I’m tipsy.
“OK Cheryl?” Babs asked. She leaned over and patted me on the shoulder.
“Julie just asked me….” I began but then thought better of it.
I said, “Donald’s at it again.”
“When’s he not at it?” Babs said. “Such an asshole.”
“Give me a minute,” I said.
“Bad, huh?” Babs said.
“He’s driving her crazy,” I said.
Suddenly, Babs slapped the bar.
“He’s not finished either,” she said. “Look.”
I looked in the mirror by the cash registers and saw Donald at the doorway.
He was blinking like some lost seal.
“Get Julie out the back,” I said. “I’ll mind the shop.”
We scattered. When me and Babs get going we’re like the Green Berets storming the beach.
Before Donald adjusted to the darkness and smoke, I was leaning behind the bar as if I’d been there all night. Babs had disappeared.
As Donald walked over, I poured his beer. I noticed a little less bounce in his step. His hair was messed. The standard get-up: blue jeans, tank top, bandanna. Street pirate.
“How’s it going, Cheryl?” He was pretty drunk.
“It’s going,” I said. “How’s by you?”
He looked at me hard, I guess trying to figure what I knew. I wasn’t telling him squat.
“Been better,” he said finally. “Julie and me, we….” Then he shook his head.
As if he and Julie talked things over and just couldn’t agree. Reasonable dispute.
“She didn’t call you or anything?” he asked.
“Didn’t hear a peep,” I said.
“Cheryl, I know she came in here,” Donald said.
“You didn’t tell me.”
“Why? So you could track her down and beat hell out of her again?”
“Don’t believe everything you hear.”
“Saw, Donald. With my eyes. I saw the marks on her face.” My voice was rising. Some of the regulars were looking.
“I don’t hit her,” he said.
“Stay away from her,” I said.
“Isn’t your business.”
“Now it is.”
He said, “I’ll kick Dizzy’s ass.”
I said, “You’re dealing with me.”
“Now I’m scared,” he said, and his laugh became a smoker’s cough.
I wasn’t taking his shit and it bothered him. He knew I only had to snap my fingers and he’d be toast.
But I could also see that what Julie said was true: He didn’t care. Something in the eyes. Put a scraggly beard on him and you’d have Charlie Manson. The attitude rubbed off, making me careless too.
“She staying with you tonight?” he asked.
I stepped back, like I was studying him.
“You know,” I said, “you really are short. I didn’t realize because usually your weaselly ass is stuck to a bar stool.”
“Watch yourself, now,” he said.
We looked at each other. It’s funny how you can dislike someone for years and never get to the point – deadeye to deadeye – that Donald and me were at that moment.
He didn’t blink as his lip curled. Choice language was coming. I was ready to smack him.
Just then, someone at the other end called for a beer.
“I’ll get it,” Babs said, as she burst from the kitchen and brushed by.
“You can go home anytime you want, Cheryl.”
Translation: Julie’s safe for one night.
“Yeah, go home, Cheryl,” Donald said. “Need an escort?”
The next part, although it plays in my mind in slow motion, actually happened in seconds.
I leaned close to him and spoke low. “Julie says the reason you act like an asshole is because you can’t get it up. Our little secret.”
He pushed away a bit; back up like an alley cat. And although he seemed frozen, I knew what was coming.
He yelled something but I didn’t hear.
I ducked, grabbed the bat under the sink. When I popped up he was half over the bar. Glass flew and I closed my eyes and swung.
“Damn,” I thought. “Hit the bar.”
But I didn’t. I caught him smack on the left temple. He was down. Maybe I screamed. I don’t remember. All of a sudden there was a crowd.
Somebody yanked the bat out of my hands and Babs hugged me.
Donald lay as if he were a model for a class of cops learning how to do chalk drawings at murder scenes.
“He’s faking!” I yelled. “Watch him!”
Somebody kicked him, but he wasn’t moving.
And then one of the girls screamed and everything closed in on me. That’s how it stayed.
The world became a sleepless night. I can’t recall being questioned. I saw the stories in the newspaper. I might have read some. No trial. Self-defense. I remember….
Dizzy whispering to me. Holding me every night.
Julie walking me in the park each afternoon. Making sure I started seeing a shrink. Wanting to pay for the sessions. In nightmares, Donald’s face closes in. He wears a look I never saw in life. Stunned by the moment of death. Donald’s innocence is the first ghost to leave. He is a 5-year-old with a quivering lip.
Dreams. No rest.
In one, I am running from room to room in a large house until, finally, I find them. Julie and her father stand before a window in a dying light. They turn and look at me. They are smiling.