BLEEDING GUT BLUES: EXCERPTS
CHAPTER ONE CHAPTER THREE CHAPTER FIVE
Danny was bunking his court date, with plans to leave the state. Angie and I were underage. None of us had any idea if Mrs. Nealon would call the cops, so we had to assume at every turn that we were on the run. Few things I’ve encountered in the past six years have compared to the remorse and abject terror I felt as I held Angie in my arms, approaching the Illinois border at seventy-five miles an hour.
Danny had one of those cassette-to-CD conversion things, with the cassette that you put in the tape player hooked up to some wires that go into your portable CD player. He put on 40 Oz to Freedom, some key lyrics of which struck me as painfully appropriate, and kind of pissed me off. In retrospect, he was probably just trying to lighten the mood.
O-oh, I’m not going back. No-ooo, I’m not going back.
She cried a lot. I can’t say that enough. Like an unfed newborn. Danny eventually turned the music up.
I spent a good hour staring at the bobble head Yoda bouncing on his dashboard. Up and down, up and down. In time, the sobs subsided, and she fell asleep in my arms, eye makeup smeared all over her face, on my shirt, a little on the seats, like a Clairol-splosion. I kept squeezing her long after I knew she was out.
We stopped to get gas. I repositioned her in a horizontal fashion across the backseat and moved up front. Danny filled the tank and got us some coffee. “We’ve got about two hundred bucks,” he said, handing me a styrofoam cup.
I blinked. I couldn’t handle practical discussion of our tenuous situation just yet. I was well aware that we were ultimately fucked. I put the coffee in the cup holder.
“We’ll get work once we get there. It’ll be fine,” he said.
He put on Leonard Cohen. I don’t know why, as if the mood in the car wasn’t miserable enough. I lost my shit at “Famous Blue Raincoat.” My head and my hands hit the dash, and I cried without a sound. Danny pulled over and rolled a joint.
“Get it together, O’Neill.”
I wrapped my arms around myself and held my breath, as if my aching conscience could be snuffed like a candle flame. I started laughing and sank into my portion of the bench seat.
“As your attorney, I suggest you smoke this,” he said.
“I’m so glad I have legal representation.”
I wiped my eye, took a hit, held it, blew it out. Took another.
“Why are you doing this, Danny?”
“Sounded like fun.”
I smiled, head shaking. “No, it didn’t.”
I handed him the joint. He let it burn in his hand for minute, head back, eyes in another dimension. Finally, he spoke. “I’m not just up for possession. They found twelve dime bags and a quarter portioned off in my glove box.” He lifted his fingers to his lips and inhaled.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
He answered through a held lungful of smoke, stifling a cough, his voice small and throaty and wanting oxygen. “I don’t know.”
“Does Angie know?”
He let the hit leave in a slow wisp that cut through his nostrils. “No. Only Mom knows.”
He stared ahead, nursing the joint, whitewashing his anxiety with silence. My glare must have been penetrating. I just couldn’t believe this was getting worse. “I’m going to come clean with you right now,” he said.
He passed off the joint, reached down, and pulled a six-inch blade from underneath his seat.
“For the love of god, Danny.”
I didn’t know how much more I could take.
“I just wanted you to know. You should know, just in case.”
It was about three-thirty. We’d been traveling two hours. Once the joint was done, we drove the other hour and a half in silence.
East St. Louis hovered around us. Danny asked me to look out for a motel. We stopped at the first one.
- - -
“Wake up, honey.”
She shifted slightly and opened her eyes.
I helped her out of the backseat. She leaned on me, her arms wrapped around my chest, as we walked to the front desk. They were changing shifts, and we waited, fog in our eyes, for them to finish.
“Smoking or non?”
“Smoking,” Danny said.
They gave us a room on the second floor. We took the elevator, a creaking rust-box with layers of paint chipping off in sections, phone numbers and words of advice as to the nature of life and love scrawled from floor to ceiling in permanent maker. I looked us over, and what a sight for no one but us to see: a living, breathing, ball of fear and guilt with three heads, one of them cowering under my arm, half asleep. One, standing alone, arms crossed, eyes on his feet. And me, holding Angie upright, shivering, teeth chattering, all blood comfort gone.
Room 204. Fancy joints around that time started using key-card-swipey-things. This was not a fancy joint. Danny had the key, and he opened the door. Dark red carpet, one queen-sized bed. TV. Bureau. I led Angie to the bed, picked her up, set her down in the middle. She rolled over and moaned in between the pillows. I sat down on the edge of the bed and took my boots off. Danny did the same and emptied his pockets onto the night stand.
“We’ll look for jobs in the morning. Something under the table.”
I didn’t say anything, just wrestled the covers out from under Angie and buried us underneath, spooning as if she were the only thing keeping me alive. And she was.
Danny sat on top of his section of the blanket until after I fell asleep, arms still crossed, chain-smoking, thinking. I could feel his intensity until my brain turned out the light.
- - -
When I woke up, he was still sitting there. His chin was resting on his chest and he was snoring. Angie must have gotten up first; I heard the shower running. Always an opportunist, I took off my shirt and socks and slipped into the bathroom.
She was singing behind a tan shower curtain. She hadn’t heard me come in. This was going to be a delicate maneuver – didn’t want to spook her, just wanted to get into the shower with her, wherever that might lead. “Angie, it’s me.”
She yelped a little anyway, and poked her head out the side of the curtain. “Ellis!”
“Can I come in?” She nodded. I dropped trou’ and stepped over the lip of the tub.
Angie soaped up in the back while I stood under the nozzle. I reached for one of the little sample shampoos, but she stopped my hand and put it around her waist. She grabbed the backs of my ears and pulled my head down into a kiss. Alright, so she was a sexually confident young woman. I was a sixteen year-old in no position to argue.
She toweled off first. I finally got around to washing my hair. She sat on the lid of the toilet, cleaning her ears with a Q-tip, and yelled over the shower. “What do you want to do today?”
“Danny wants to look for jobs.”
“We don’t have to spend the whole day doing that. This is day one, you know. We can do whatever we want.”
“Yeah, but we need money.”
“So, we’ve got your guitar. You can play on the street. I’ll dance. We’ll live like gypsies.”
I liked the way that sounded.
We brushed our teeth, side by side, cramped in front of a mirror a foot and a half wide. We were still naked. This is day one. I started laughing and spit into the sink.
- - -
We exited the bathroom in towels, my pants under my arm. Danny had his boot in his hand. “Finally, I’ve needed to piss for a half an hour.” He dropped the boot, ran to the bathroom and shut the door. I went to the suitcase for a clean pair of pants. I heard a groan from the other room. “Damnit, the rug’s all wet, it’s like a fucking swamp in here. I just put these socks on, assholes!”
Angie pulled a red linen sundress out of her bag, her favorite. It had thin little crocheted straps that led into a square collar that rested just above the top of her small breasts. She never wore a bra. I think that warrants mentioning. She walked into it and turned her back to me. “Zip me up?” I closed the back of the tiny dress together with one hand and glided the zipper to the top.
Danny came out of the bathroom scowling, changed his socks and put his boots on. Angie leaned toward the mirror, one hand on the dresser supporting her weight, one by her eyes with a mascara brush. I opened the curtains wide and surrendered the room to natural light. “Hey, look, we’ve got a balcony.”
I opened the sliding door and stepped outside barefoot. It was overcast and humid, all the colors muted through dullness of light and an intangible malaise. Danny followed and pulled a crumpled pack of smokes out of his pants pocket. He pointed across the parking lot. “Looks like we’ve got a Steak-and-Shake, an IHOP, an Arby’s, and a ninety-nine cent store. Welcome to the neighborhood.”
“You plannin’ on staying here for a bit?”
“It’s cheap. Not gonna find anything we can afford in Missouri. Plus, it’s not too bad. We’ve got this nice view.” The trees and power lines created a perimeter that separated the motel and the strip of commercial businesses from everything around it. One floor farther up, and we’d be able to see the slums over the trees.
“I think Angie wants to do some sight-seeing,” I said.
“She’s never been to St. Louis, she doesn’t know how little there is to see.”
“I think she’ll be easily impressed today.”
He was quiet. I closed the sliding door.
“What’s your plan, Danny? You’ve been brooding since last night.”
“I don’t know. Get some money, keep moving. We’re already pointed west, so maybe that way. Same time, I kind of want to go to New York City, kind of always wanted to, and it’d be easy to blend in there. I don’t know.”
“You’re really doing this. You’re not going back for your court date.”
“Don’t fucking start with me, Ellis.”
“I’m not starting shit. I’m already out here, no cord, just like you are. And just like you, I need to figure out what the fuck we’re doing here. What are we doing? Do we really need to do this?” I realized I was gesturing wildly with my hands. I shoved them in my pockets and glanced in the window. Angie was putting on lipstick.
“She doesn’t have anywhere else to go. This shit with mom’s not gonna blow over, and Angie doesn’t want it to anyway. She’s AWOL, man, she can’t be on her own, and, frankly, you can’t handle her by yourself.”
I looked up with an exasperated smile, then back at him, square in the eyes. “Danny, worst case scenario for us, me and her, we get caught, they drag us back home. Yeah, it’ll suck, a lot, especially for her, but in two years, we’ll be eighteen, and we get to try all over, without all this bullshit hanging over our heads.” I lowered my voice. “But you, you have a hell of a lot more at stake, too much to be fucking around like this. I want you to come with us. I just don’t want you to go to jail.” I breathed deep and watched his face.
He looked down at his boots. “Well, I could go to jail either way, you know. At least this way I get to have some fun first.”
Angie opened the sliding door and poked her head through, her body on an angle, hands gripping the frame of the door for support. Red lipstick, one bare foot crossed over the other. “What’re you guys talking about?” She raised an eyebrow expectantly.
Danny lifted his head and darted his eye toward me. I wasn’t going to rat him out. I didn’t want to ruin her day. “Well?” she asked.
Danny put on a smile. “Just talking about where to get breakfast.”
“There’s an IHOP right over there,” she said, pointing.
“Right. Well, let’s go,” he said.
She looked at me and then at Danny. She knew we were bullshitting her, she just didn’t feel like pressing us. “Okay, let me get my shoes.”
- - -
After breakfast, we crossed the river into the city. She wanted to ride in the arch. We waited an hour in line for a seven-minute ride, and she spent it nose to the window, mesmerized by the brick and glass and steel. I’d never been impressed by St. Louis. A depressing city, grey, boxy, bleak, it was a tweak in time and architecture on my first memories in Boston. Everything about it that reminded me of my first home – the aging buildings, more square, less ornate; the commercial districts, dense, but less bright; the people, more miserable – everything was a darker, plainer, sadder version. I thought for a minute that back east might not be a bad idea.
We couldn’t think of anything to do after that. The world all infinite possibilities, and we were lying on a stretch of lawn throwing clumps of grass at each other. We split the last of the Stoli three ways and drove around in circles, down cement valleys, looking for something, anything. We passed the Anheuser-Busch brewery three times. It was starting to get dark already.
Angie was sitting sideways in the backseat, seatbelt off, facing the window, the back of her head on my shoulder. She kicked off her sandal and put her foot on the door. She hummed an unknown tune. “Danny, let’s stop and get some booze.”
We stopped at the first liquor store we passed, yellow and black awning, pawn shop on one side, pizza place on the other. Danny parallel parked out front. We waited in the car while he loitered in front of the store.
Angie twisted around in her seat until she was facing forward and upright. She scooted next to me and wrapped her arm around mine. “So, what do you think about California?”
“Northern or Southern?”
“How about one, then the other?”
I smiled. “Perhaps. Danny was saying earlier that maybe we should go to the city. New York. After that, I’d kinda like to go to Boston, just to see it again.”
“Is that what you guys were talking about this morning?”
“Yeah. Kind of.” I looked out the window. Danny was talking to a man in his twenties with ripped shirtsleeves and a chain wallet. The guy shook his head.
She squeezed my hand. “Thanks for coming with me. I don’t think I’ve said that yet.”
I turned my head. She smiled sweetly, sincerely. I couldn’t decide what to say, so I didn’t say anything. I looked back at the window. The first droplets of rain were skating across the glass. Danny was talking to a homeless guy. He gave him something and the bum went inside. “Looks like Danny caught one.”
“I mean it, thank you.”
“You don’t need to thank me. I love you.” The rain started to come down fast. Danny backed under the awning, his hands deep in the pockets of his leather jacket.
“I love you, too.” She kissed me and rested her head against my shoulder.
I put my hand on her knee. “We really need to find jobs tomorrow.”
“Yeah, I suppose.” She pulled away and went digging through her bag. Boy, did I know how to kill the mood. She found a tube of lipstick and craned forward to retouch her lips in the rearview mirror. I lifted the back of her skirt and peeked at her underwear. White, not very risqué. She reached behind and swatted my hand. The bum came out of the store with a brown paper grocery bag, pulled out a small bottle, slipped it in his jacket pocket, and handed Danny the rest. Angie sat down as he opened the driver’s side door and put the bag in the passenger’s seat. He pulled out a bottle of vodka. “For you, my dear.”
Angie grabbed it, stashed it in her purse. “Thanks, bro.”
He pulled a bottle of Evan Williams out of the bag with one hand and displayed the label Vanna White style with the other. “For us. I also got a six-pack.” He put the whiskey back in the bag.
I nodded approval. “What’d the homeless guy want?”
“Pint of peach schnapps.”
“You wanna go back to the motel?” he asked.
“Sounds like a plan.”
- - -
Angie started drinking in the car. That was typical. Once we got up to the room, Danny and I felt the need to catch up, so we poured two fingers each into the complimentary Dixie cups on the bureau. It went down harsh like it’s supposed to. “Evil Evan,” Danny said, slamming the cup against the dresser, exhaling with a hiss.
Angie kicked her shoes off into the corner and plopped herself on the bed, her friend Popov in hand. She turned on the TV with the remote. It’d barely flashed on when Danny turned it off at the source. “No, no, no. No TV. We need music. Ellis, where’s your guitar?”
I grabbed the whiskey and tilted it back. I coughed, nearly lost it on the way up. I retrieved the acoustic from under the bed.
“You hid it?”
“Dude, it’s my father’s guitar.” I plucked the low E string. Bing, bing, bing, bing. Then the A, then the rest, turning knobs until it was in tune. I picked out a few notes, then loosened up into chords. I started singing. “By the rivers of Babylon…”
Danny rolled a joint. He passed it to me as I finished the song. I took a hit and passed it to his sister. “Alright, enough Sublime, pot heads,” she said. “Play some David Bowie.”
“I don’t know any David Bowie.”
“Come on, we sang Ziggy that one time, remember?”
I sighed and tried to remember the chords. My hair was getting kind of long in the front and it kept getting in my eyes. Angie must have noticed me pausing to brush it aside because she stumbled over to her suitcase and came back with one of her headbands. It was black with white polka dots. She put it on my head, forced the hair back. “Better?”
“Yes, thank you.”
She sat back down at the foot of the bed. I found them, maybe, close enough. G, G, then D, D, D, D, D, D, D, C, B, A…
She stood up again and started singing. She was always flat. I didn’t mind. “Ziggy played guitar, singing good with Weird and Billy, and the Spiders from Mars…” Sounded like she fucked up that lyric. I don’t know.
“He played it left hand, uh, hm-hm-hm hmmmm… bar…”
I had to stop the song and correct myself a couple times. She shifted her weight, one foot crossed over the other as she sang, drinking from the bottle between verses.
I played “Freebird” next. She groaned and flopped back on the bed. Danny whooped. I couldn’t remember much after the first verse. “You wanna pass me the Evan?”
We carried on like that for a couple hours. I mostly took requests. Half a song here, a whole one there, Tom Petty, Nirvana, that slow Guns n’ Roses song with the pretty solo right before the change at the end. Angie sang along to the choruses and danced during the verse. She’d rotate like a top on one foot, letting her dress float and expand in a circle. Then she’d land, dizzy on the bed, her knees pulled to her face in laughter. We talked in between. I can’t remember what all about. Danny and Angie talked about when they were little, wondered what it was going to be like for Christine, all alone with their mother. As things got late and maudlin, they expressed their remorse.
“I didn’t want to leave her, Danny. I still love her.” Angie was lying on her stomach, her body sprawled across the bed at a diagonal. She let one arm hang free, dangling a can of beer off the foot of the bed. She was crying. She didn’t sit up or stop crying to take a sip of beer. This kind of amazed me.
“I know, I know. She’s got Chris, she’s not alone.”
“I had to push her, I had to get so… mean.” She wiped her nose on the back of her other hand.
“She tried to brainwash you, hell, all of us, but especially you two. She fucking lost it when Dad left.”
She brightened a little. She twisted herself upright, sloshing beer on the bed, on the floor, a little on her dress. “Should we go find him? I wonder what he’s,” she belched, “doing now.”
“Fuck him,” Danny said. “I don’t know why he left, I never got the opportunity to ask, but he can go fuck himself.”
“I remember when we came here last. He took us all to a baseball game.”
“You remember that?”
“Yeah. How old were we, four?”
“Yeah. I was six, so, yeah, you and Chris were four.”
“Do you ever think about him?”
“I guess. Yeah. I don’t know. I don’t want to think about what he’s doing, it pisses me off.”
“We should go find him. Where do you think he is?”
“No! We’re not gonna go fucking find him.” Danny stood up and steadied himself against the bureau. “If I see him, I’m gonna fucking kill him.” He took another swig of Evan. It was about half empty. We were young.
Danny was asleep in the arm chair, and I was trying to figure out a Dylan song when Angie grabbed the guitar from my arms, wrestled the strap from around my neck, and gently placed it under the bed. She grabbed the bottle and walked back to my chair slowly, carefully, posture perfect, and sat on my lap, legs around my waist, straddling my torso. She took the headband off my head and ruffled my hair in front, grabbed the tops of my ears, and pulled them upward. She giggled. “You look like an elf.” She rested her head on my shoulder, laughing, laughing. I squeezed her waist, grinning like I’d won a prize.
She raised her bottle, offered it to me with enthusiasm it didn’t deserve. Yikes, might have been rubbing alcohol. “Honey, this shit is terrible.”
She threw one leg then another off my lap. She lifted the back of her dress and flashed me her ass as she walked away. The white undies had gone missing while I was playing guitar. She opened the sliding door; bare feet wandered outside. I stood up, paused to let my vision clear, and walked myself, fingertips along the furniture, to the balcony.
Her back was resting against the wood railing, bottle dangling from one hand, and she was giggling. I caught my foot on one of the boards and half-tripped to meet her, and then we were both laughing. I leaned in for a kiss. Tongues dancing, I put my weight on the railing. She arched her back, I leaned further, pressing my torso against hers. I heard a snap. Resistance that was there a moment before disappeared. My reflexes kicked in; I stepped backward. I opened my eyes, and she was falling. I reached out my hand, but she was too close to the ground. The bottle smashed. The railing was gone, bent exposed nails on one side, splinters on the other, and Angie was face up on the pavement, surrounded by slivers of wet broken glass that flickered in the dim light.
I stood there for about five seconds. Something shut off, and I saw myself outside of myself, jumping from the balcony, checking her pulse, grabbing her hand, and I, ten feet above her, shouted, “Angie! Angie!” She said nothing back.
Danny appeared on the balcony.
“Danny! Angie fell! Call an ambulance!”
“Go, Danny, call 911!”
He disappeared into the room. I didn’t know what to do, where I could touch her. She wouldn’t wake up. He came back too quickly.
“We can’t,” he said.
“What do you fucking mean we can’t?”
“We can’t, Ellis.”
“Oh, no, you’re going to have to suck this one up, Danny, she’s fucking unconscious. We’re calling an ambulance.”
He leapt down from the hole in the railing. “Angie. Wake up, Angie.” He gently slapped her cheeks.
“What the fuck are you doing? She could have fucked up her neck!”
“She fell flat down it looks like. Not even too far. Probably wake up with a bump on the head and a hangover.” He gathered her in his arms and carried her upstairs. I followed silently, shaking, gradually rejoining my body in time and space.
He set her down on the bed. I settled in next to her, looked for blood, there was a little, but they looked like scratches, and I held her hand and began to chant into her ear: “Angie. Wake up, Angie. Wake up. Angie. Angie?”
I don’t know how long I laid there. Danny stayed up with me. I didn’t say much besides her name. An hour or two passed, so did the bottle, back and forth until it was finished. I drifted off for a while, woke up, tried again to wake her. She twitched. I sucked in a breath, bolted upright, and grabbed her shoulder. She opened her eyes.
She moaned. “What happened?”
My forehead throbbed. I think I mustered, “You… railing. Head.”
“My head…” she whimpered. She closed her eyes.
“No, wake up, Angie.” I shook her gently. She blinked her eyes open. I propped my weight on my elbow. “What year is it?”
“Nineteen ninety-seven.” Her lids were falling. I shook her again.
“Wake up. What’s your name?”
“Angela Catherine Nealon.” Her words were more breathed than spoken.
“Do you remember falling?”
She was out again. I leaned back against the pillow. As I laid there, my mind played badminton between relief and apprehension, until the whiskey blotted out the net and neither side could find the birdie, and within minutes there were only pounding blood vessels and sleep.
-- Bleeding Gut Blues copyright S Fitts, 2010.