TKnC welcomes debutant, Willie...
Silence blankets the stuffy church, as the last few people search for open seats. Pews are packed. Adorned in a long purple robe with gold embroidery vined throughout, the young Pastor Thomas stands at his alter, eyes scanning a full congregation, all of them dressed in black and the old men, the barbershop crooners—who tell stories of dancing to nickelled jukeboxes until the moon became a memory—have feathers in their hats, strapped in with red ribbons, and the mothers rock their babies, left, right, right, left. A glossy grand piano falls deeper into a minor key that seems to shiver with each vibration and echo.
Pastor Thomas looks down at the open casket that stretches across the church’s patterned tiles and he doesn’t even give a blink. Before he begins, the pastor lets off a soft unnoticed sigh. He says, “Ladies and gentlemen, we are gathered here at the saddest of times, a funeral, that of Mr. Richard Smith.”
The words come out like a performance. Not the kind rehearsed at home in front of a mirror. But lines memorized through practice. Cadences and expressions and inflections, perfected. Only the name changed.
Marcel opened the basement door. Shades of black given from a single lightbulb hanging overhead draped the room. Their faces, only outlines. Skin and features surrounded by empty nothing. Pac boomed from a buried speaker. Marcel could feel the rattling bass pounding an incessant rhythm that ran in and out of sync with his heart’s frenetic thumps and smells of weed and stale sex and lingering cigarillo smoke came in currents from somewhere close to the center. Dusty T.V. flickered white light, fuzzing static.
“Who’s that at the door?” yelled a Lou Reeded monotone through the music’s dark.
“My name’s Marcel. I’m here looking for Milo.”
A tall figure wearing jeans and an oversized blue hoodie with a silver Nike sign plastered across the chest, stepped forward, out from the lightlessness, like a nightmare’s slow beginning formed in the middle some psychopath’s starved midnight struggle, and he stood underneath the lone bulb and for a short inhaled space seemed to be the room’s only occupant.
“I’m Milo. You the Marcel my boys been telling me about, then?”
From his throat Marcel took a quiet gulp and said, “Yeah. I’m him.”
All went hush.
Milo’s eyes held an intense blankness, as though they’d seen too much too early in life and were now immune. He stood distinctly in the foreground, a general, battle-tested, the gold cross dangling from around his neck inscribed with dates and names important for reasons known by no one else, and the logo-less baseball cap on top his head, washed to a lighter shade and again an even lighter after that and the wounds and the tattoos on his skin, all of these, in their own ways, medals and badges, behind him seeped in shadow, his army, numbers invisible, unknown, standing all times ready.
“And you sure you wanna be a part of this?” he said.
Marcel nodded his head.
“Yeah. Yeah I do.”
In that room, single bulb, reducing to stuttered flashes of light, Marcel could no longer move.
Milo began, “Well okay then, if you want in, I’ll tell you how it’s gonna be.”
Out of the a rectangle window in the basement’s wall, Marcel could see the pawn shop that he bought his first bike from, a rusty red frame that squeaked whenever pedaled, next to that a small dimly lit bar, windows cracked, doors opened, where whiskey and gin tales moved in half mumbled yells, next to that, a liquor store, never closed, neon sign burnt out, and next to that, the dingy burger joint he’d worked at since freshman year paying him still the same minimum wage. All of it, so close, a slivered world.
Marcel went back to Milo’s monotoned voice, “You gonna have to do something big, my man, real big.“
Marcel leaned into the remaining light, where Milo’s face floated seemingly bodiless in the room’s stalking darkness.
“You gonna have to get rid of some of them. So we know you can. That you not afraid.”
Days later Marcel walked home with his friend Alex, like they’d done every day since middle school. Cars passed by with two-toned sweeps and the wind was light. Above, the sun hung suspended, a magnified ball of glow sneaking in through the clouds.
Marcel was wearing a black and red Jordan jersey. One of the ‘L’s starting to
unstitch. A pair of faded blue jeans with small holes above the knees. Alex was dressed in a spotless white tee-shirt and jeans torn around the ankles.
“You wind up talking with Milo and his people?”
Marcel looked over to Alex. He remembered that he’d told Alex about Milo the week before and nodded his head once up and down. Wavering quiet followed, a minute without talk.
Then Alex said, “What about school and college and stuff?”
Marcel just looked at him with this slight half smile. “You know I’m not goin’ to any college.”
Alex wiped his nose against his sleeve. It felt now to be them two alone, walking isolated on a narrowed cement island. Everything else gone. Just the sidewalk in front.
“So what you gonna go to some college, Harvard or something like that?” Marcel said.
“Yeah, my Uncle Rich said he’d pay for me to go somewhere. He’s really been helpin’ me and Mom out since Dad passed.”
“He must got a lot of money?”
“Not really, he’s just one of those types of guys who really cares and stuff. Like truly.”
“I ever met him?”
“Might’ve. He owns a little antique shop a few blocks down.”
“Antique shop,” Marcel gives of something between a cough and laughter. “No I don’t think I’d know him.”
Picking up a little bit, the breeze started to rush from side to side, swaying across their faces.
“What you plan to do if you not goin’ to college?”
With a grave exhale, Marcel repeated the question. “What am I planning to do?”
They both stopped walking. “I’m gonna do whatever, man. I’m gonna do whatever.”
Then, without anything else, Marcel lifted up the jersey and there was the gun, clutching against his waist. Alex’s eyes widened as though in a muted scream. Marcel didn’t say a word. Gazing at his friend, he just held up the jersey’s thick fabric and their eyes met only once, maybe twice and each of them knew something should have and needed to be said. Still, both spoke nothing.
It happened on a street corner. Three of them there talking about last night’s game or, maybe, a girl or some song. Marcel in the car’s passenger seat staring through the fogged windowpane. Nothing, nobody else around.
“There they are,” said Milo sitting driver’s side.
Marcel looked and he waited for that combination of guts and insanity and timing to meet in some sort of subtle balance. The three stood in a crescent shape. They started to move, only a couple steps.
“Now,” said Milo. “Now.”
Marcel got out of the car, gun gripping his side. Taking long blind strides, he headed towards them, like a nameless ghost with nowhere left to haunt. One of the three glanced over. For a second, eyes aligned—wanders caught before the storm. Marcel’s hand reached for the gun.
The first two bullets rung hollow and travelled through the same skull. Marcel watched as, with a stumbling dance, one of the boys faded to the ground. Lost in that deranging whirl, the dull thud of bone on concrete was unheard, though.
Back-stepping towards the car, Marcel continued letting the bullets hurl. This is when the gun seemed to take over and he became just an outlet almost. Everything fell to a slower feel, as though a button had been pressed and all the shots sounded like one single noise phasing in and out of tune and not one of the boys bothered to shoot back but just let their last inhales and exhales decay.
Then it ended. Screeched to a stop. Jarringly, like a hypnotist’s finger snap. The gun had run empty. No more bullets. Marcel put it back at his waist. Against his skin, it was hot and caused goosebumps to go up and down his body. He got in the car. Milo’s right foot pushed the ignition. They sped away.
Behind, the entire street was left silent. Red splotches turned deeper red, purple even, on the gray sidewalk. Blood matted to hair. Clothing stuck to expanding stains. Four of them laid, strewn out. The three boys and an old man with patches of graying hair on each side of his head, nothing on the top.
Hearing the noise, this man had taken a few steps outside of his little antique shop to see what was happening. Immediately, he felt a strike hit his chest and another after that and without wanting to, he dropped to his knees. Then over onto his side. He looked for where they came from. Saw this tall skinny boy firing shot after shot, left arm bobbing with each fire-cracking explosion. It was there, at some point, on that cracked cement, realizing that the ninth inning’s third out had been thrown and that every swing he’d taken before had been aimed at over the balconies and that more than a good share had gone, the man thought, eyelids shutting and a closed mouth half grin finding its way onto his face, “Maybe. Maybe, I should’ve stayed inside”.
When the police came with the white chalk and the yellow tape, he was gone, just like the other three and Marcel was already far somewhere else sitting speechless as Milo’s passenger and the sun was starting to slide towards the horizon’s calm infinity, escaping to the world’s other side and giving way to a different colored sky.
Pastor Thomas continues, “Mr. Richard Smith was an important man to all he came in contact with. He was a family man having raised two fine sons, David and Kyle, and a beautiful daughter, Isabella. Not only was he a good father, he was good to everyone of those around him, always willing to help any individual in finding a better life.
Next to his mom, Marcel sits in the pew. She is motionless, looking straight ahead. It’s because of her, he is there. She insisted they go. A few rows up he sees Alex, head in hands.
“He was a self-made man, a college graduate, a founder and an owner of his own business, an antique store. It was there that Mr. Richard Smith focussed on those who needed to be hired and as many can attest, he cared both about the people who worked for him and the people who shopped and traded in his store,” Pastor Thomas says. “And it was there, at his life’s passion, that he was struck by two stray bullets, but folks, I’m here to say that his life, it was never astray and now our beloved Mr. Richard Smith, he rests in a place better than this one,” the pastor finishes letting his final phrases crescendo.
A woman with graying black hair and a pair of round glasses with thick lenses and a red frame yells hallelujah and from the back, someone else screams amen and arms move every direction in the air.
Eventually, the ceremony settles into its own pace. Steady and somber. People speak and sit down. Family, friends.
At the end, all of them line up to get one more look. As he moves closer, Marcel feels a cold emptiness circulate under his skin. His steps, small. Two people are between him and that gleaming maple coffin. Now one. He looks down. All in a single moment, the fact and its weight springs on him and squeezes tight and doesn’t let go. This man, he killed. Marcel takes a deep breath. Releases exhale. Through the church, his eyes roam from face to face. Dressed in a clean white suit, the body, extended below.
A minute goes by. Marcel’s eyes still roam. Suddenly, they stop. He sees Alex. Alex is looking at him and only at him and there are no tears in Alex’s eyes. There’s nothing. Just an unblinking look of knowing and this stare seems to span a slice of forever, a fragment of the unending. Then finally, desperate to escape the clawing gaze of those two deep pupils and without another thought, Marcel shifts his head the other way, turns his body and follows those in front of him out through the church’s high wooden doors.
Willie Nunnery was born in Madison, Wisconsin and has lived there his entire life. His work has appeared in The North Central Review, The Flash Fiction Offensive and Postcard Shorts. His poetry has been in Mad Swirl, Yes Poetry, and Verse Wisconsin. Currently, he is a creative writing student at Concordia University St. Paul.