Joe's back, and hits the new year running with this beaut...
“He’s just a skeezy old man that sells junk,” Geiger says, sifting through scraps of foil in the candlelight, “what do you care?”
“Then shut the fuck up.”
It’s just me and Geiger in the condemned church off 22nd and Mission. Geiger used to sell meth to the decrepit priest who held the lease. The priest ain’t around anymore.
It’s dark inside the church. We got some butane candles in spread-out clumps, a mattress we dragged in from the street.
“And who’s that young boy he’s always got with him?” Geiger asks, inspecting each piece of tin foil. “Little fucker with the squinty eyes?”
“Well, a dime bag says the old man’s diddling Donnie. Which makes him a skeezy old man pervert, too.” Geiger finds a scrap with a nugget left, smiles, his fleshy mouth filled with brown nubs. “You told him about the furniture, right?”
“I told him. But I don’t want to hurt anyone.” Last week I asked the old man if he wanted to look at some furniture my mom is supposedly getting rid of.
“Christ,” Geiger says, “you sound like a fucking after-school special.”
Geiger sticks the straw in his mouth, puts flame to foil, sucks in a big hit, his long shadow cast like a racked ghoul against the broken-down altar. “Stop being such a pussy and hit this.”
He passes me the foil. I take to it like a starved rat to rotten alley fruit.
On Saturday, me and Geiger are back at the flea market off Bayshore. It’s early. The sun is up but you can’t see it. A wall of fog has rolled off the ocean, blotting it out. It’s usually foggy and cold this time of year but today is worse than usual.
The flea market is where me and Geiger do most of our business. Most of the vendors are tweakers too, taking meth to stay up all night and dumpster dive across the city. You’d be amazed at what people throw out. Electronics that only need a new plug or fuse. Sometimes you can really score, like vintage train sets or old-time cigarette lighters like the kind my granddad used to have. His was silver and shaped like a genie’s lamp. He brought it home from the war. He said it was a fair trade, since the Koreans took his leg. I took the lighter when I left Kentucky. I don’t feel bad about too much of the stuff I done. I feel bad about that.
A lot of the vendors make what they sell—knitted hats and gloves, pottery. Geiger says it’s all shit, but I think some of it’s pretty cool. Like what the old man does. He collects roadkill, boils their heads, bleaches off the fur and turns the hides into bracelets, the skull fragments into jewelry. The old man sells other shit, too, like furniture and lamps. But I like the jewelry best. Sometimes I help the old man and Donnie load the trailer. The old man don’t like Geiger. Once Geiger tried to sell him shit, and the old man called him a parasite. The old man might be the only seller here who doesn’t do meth.
A couple weeks back the old man gave me a bracelet and necklace. Didn’t want no money for it or nothing. I got my fingers wrapped around the necklace now. I play with things when I get nervous.
“Stop daydreaming and pay attention,” Geiger says. “I want to be sure he’s got the same size roll as last time.”
We’re walking around the flea market now, keeping an eye on the old man and Donnie. I don’t like Donnie much. He looks inbred. You’d think he was twelve, he’s so small, but when you get up close you can see he has whiskers. He’s a weirdo. Last Saturday when I was helping him and the old man, Donnie kept singing these little kid songs, nursery rhymes my mom used to sing me before she got killed. Except when he was done, he’d say this fucked-up shit that ain’t true. Like, “You know what ‘London Bridge’ is really about? It’s about burying dead bodies.” Or “‘Ring around the Rosy’ is about kids dying from the plague.” Creepy ass shit.
I still feel bad about what we’re planning to do. But you can’t argue with Geiger. He’s about ten years older, and about 50 lbs. heavier, and he’s got a temper. I once seen him almost kill a man at this crumbly old house on the hill above the hospital, bashed his head with a toaster.
We go seller to seller. No one seems to be buying today. All we sell is a teenager, that’s half an eight ball, and some lousy quarter bags.
“It’s OK,” Geiger says.
Because we’ve seen the old man whip out his roll. There’s more cash than last week.
Everyone is packing up, loading the racks of clothes and TVs nobody bought into the backs of trailers. It’s a sad sight. Maybe Geiger’s right and this is all nothing but a bunch of junk.
“Do your thing,” Geiger whispers.
I ask the old man if he still wants to look at the furniture. Very much, he says, then glowers over his shoulder at Geiger, off in the distance.
“I don’t know why you hang around with that trash,” the old man says.
I shrug. Sometimes I don’t know either.
I hoist the last box, slide it across the trailer’s wood paneling. The inside of the trailer stinks like somebody died. You can see nasty red-brown stains from all the roadkill they scoop up.
All I have to do is get the old man to go inside an abandoned house on Potrero Hill for the furniture. Geiger says he’ll take care of the rest.
The three of us climb in the cab. The old man tells Donnie to give me a sandwich.
“Looks like you could use something to eat,” the old man says, kindly.
I am pretty hungry.
The old man passes me a soda. “Something to drink too.”
My mouth is so dry, I chug the whole thing in one long gulp.
The streetlights look like fuzzy halos in the fog, zipping taillights on the overpass ahead like tracers racing between invisible stars...
It’s the last thing I remember.
I come to with a terrific headache, my bones and muscles stretched, like after football games in the winter back home in Kentucky. My eyes don’t work so good, too crusted and swollen. Through a haze of orange light, I can make out the outline of a cow hanging next to me about to be butchered.
I’m having a hard time breathing. My hands are over my head, ropes around my wrists. It feels like my shoulders are being ripped from the socket.
I start to shiver so hard I almost spasm. It feels like I will break my own back. Now I understand why I am so cold. I don’t have any clothes on.
Something groans beside me. It’s not a cow. I look over and see Geiger strung up and naked too, his head slumped. I whisper his name but he don’t answer. I can see where his skin’s been pulled off his back and ribs in long strips, like straps of jerky to be dried.
“Geiger,” I say again, but not too loud ’cause I don’t want the old man or Donnie to hear me. But Geiger don’t wake up. Whatever the old man put in that soda bottle, he must’ve put twice as much into Geiger.
I gotta think. But I never been too good at that.
Someone fiddles outside with the padlock. I shut my eyes and pretend to be asleep.
“Open your eyes, boy,” I hear the old man say with a groan as he climbs into the trailer. “I know you’re awake. I can hear you outside.”
I open my eyes, and there’s the old man dressed like a butcher, heavy canvas apron, rawhide gloves. He’s holding a big tin bucket in one hand, a plastic jug in the other. Donnie stands beside him, rat-faced and giddy.
Now Geiger screams, feeling the pain of having been skinned alive.
“And you can stop that screaming,” the old man says. “Ain’t nobody can hear you.”
Geiger rocks back and forth, snorting snot, which bubbles out his nose and mouth. He gives up and starts whimpering. He reminds me of one of those coyotes we’d trap on the farm. You hear coyotes in the wild baying all the time, but they don’t sound like they do when they get trapped. In the wild, coyotes sound strong, dangerous. When they’re trapped, they act docile, cowardly. They really will chew off their own paw if you let them. When you go to finish them off, they don’t bare their teeth or growl at you. They’re meek as a house collie. I once seen a coyote lick my granddad’s boot just like a pet dog. Before he put the shotgun between his eyes.
“Ain’t so tough now, are you?” the old man says to Geiger. “I know what you were planning to do, take my money.”
I look down at Donnie, who returns a devil’s grin. He must’ve followed us back to the church one night, eavesdropped as we made plans, the sneaky little weasel.
The old man reaches into the bucket, pulls out a hacksaw, which he passes to Donnie, and a box cutter. The old man slides the razor blade out, stepping in my direction.
“Please,” I say. “It wasn’t my idea.”
He shakes the box cutter at me. “But you was gonna do it just the same, weren’t you? You wasn’t gonna stop him. Makes you just as bad. Maybe even worse. ’Cause you know better.”
The trailer doors are open into the black night. There is nothing to see out there, just the cold fog drifting like aimless ghosts cursed to wander the ends of the earth.
The old man stands in front of Geiger, who keeps blubbering.
“You think I’m just an old man who sells junk,” the old man says, to no one in particular.
“No, I don’t,” I say.
“It’s OK,” the old man says. “I do dabble in junk. And you and your friend here are the garbage.”
The old man thrusts the box cutter into Geiger’s stomach, sticks and sticks, yanks it up like he’s gutting a sow, bloody entrails slopping on the floor. Geiger convulses but doesn’t die right away.
I try to break free, fight against the restraints. It’s useless.
The old man walks behind Geiger and slits his throat. Hot blood spurts, gushes, until it’s nothing but a trickle.
Donnie brings over a stool, cuts Geiger down. He empties the jug into the bucket, turning his head to avoid the fumes, and even from where I hang, I can feel the toxic acid singeing my nose hairs. Donnie picks up the hacksaw, and starts sawing away. First the fingers, then the hands, then the arms, and so on, dropping each part in the bucket, bleaching off the flesh.
And I understand. The blood stains on the floor. The leather bracelet on my wrist and bone necklace around my neck. None of it came from any roadkill.
The old man drags the stool in front of me, straddles it. “I come across garbage like you two all the time,” the old man says, wiping the blood from the razor on his canvas apron. “In fact, I seek it out. I collect it. I take scum and vermin, the refuse and waste that serve no good purpose, and I make it useful again. I strip away the ugly parts, make something beautiful.” He waggles the razor in front of me. “Because you know what they say. One man’s trash…”
Joe's work has appeared in Big Bridge, Bryant Literary Review, the Connecticut Review, Dark Sky, Fringe, Hobart, Opium, Thuglit, and Word Riot, among others. He produces Lip Service West, a gritty true story reading series in Oakland, CA.