Benefit

Andrew F. Sullivan

The benefit was held for Walleye’s daughter Alissa back in July. She’s three years old and her blood won’t clot right. Doctor says it’s something genetic, but no one ever explained the details to me. There are no sharp edges in Walleye’s apartment and he makes you put your knife in a lockbox if you’re over for a beer. You got to drink the beer out of plastic cups, because the cans got too many edges on them and bottles can explode into a thousand shards of tiny death. One slice and Alissa loses a load of blood. Happened once at the arena according to Walleye. Ambulances, fire trucks, all that shit pulling up to the building. People screaming, this thin pink blood dripping over everything. You drop a bottle in his place; Walleye will take your head off and then use it to clean up all the glass. He’s a good dad like that.

Walleye’s wife lost custody when he caught her blowing my brother Tucker in the alley behind Durbank’s Tavern. She said it was an accident, but I could never figure out the physics on that one. Walleye had a talk with Tucker out in the woods a few days after that, down where we used to throw bush parties. When I found him by the side of the road that night, Tucker was babbling through a lower jaw two inches off kilter. These days his left pinkie refuses to curl up with the rest of his fist. It sticks out like he’s drinking tea or pretending to call someone on the phone. The nerves in his neck don’t always work and he kind of swings his head around like a cow when you call his name. His eyes follow ghosts or whatever is moving behind you. Walleye likes to call him Teabag now. It’s an improvement on Tucker anyway.

We had three or four bands play the stage at the benefit for Alissa. Everyone who stumbled into The Crown that night had to pony-up five bucks. Some guys tried to run a silent auction, but half the drunks kept bragging about their bids on the bikes we were planning to sell. Eventually, no one was keeping track and Gerry just gave them away to the loudest bidders. Gerry ran The Crown and never called the cops. The money was stuffed into a steel box underneath the bar and Gerry said he’d take it to the bank after. Make a big deposit for the foundation, the one he’d set up so Walleye’s girl could start trying to live a normal life. Free from fear and padded on all sides—a life covered in leather and foam. Her skin is so thin it splits the light into pink rays on the other side when she holds her hand up to the sun. Sometimes it’s like she’s barely there at all. Walleye says she never cries. Not even after the arena or in the ambulance. She just stares at him. Three years old and she still doesn’t talk.

The money was mainly in twenties, soaked in gin and nicotine. It smelled like all of us, smelled like bad deals in ranch houses and split levels with dead animals hanging from the walls. It was all coated with a film of cheese dust and old beer and body fluids. Not necessarily our own body fluids, but body fluids. Gerry estimated we would take in about five thousand at his bar, if we let him host the event. We made that in the first two hours, hit eight by the end of the night. We agreed to pay for the damages in advance. Walleye knows our kind don’t leave any place without a mess. There is always a trail to follow—broken branches, snapped twigs, a severed finger.

“How’s your face feeling, Gerry? You look like a snake, all shedding like that. A fucking snake in the grass. How long did you think we’d let you hide?”

The money never did end up in the bank though. The Crown was owned by Gerry’s sleazebag uncle. Gerry just promoted events and snorted his uncle’s stepped on coke like it was Tylenol. Apparently the little blonde idiot was headed for Hawaii with our eight thousand.

“I won’t tell nobody what you do to me Walleye, I promise… just look, I already spent like half of it on girls and the fucking rent for this condo. If you wanna get the good pussy, you gotta have the condo. I could let you guys use it for a few weeks, you know?”

“Which hand do you like best, Gerry?”

We found Gerry sunbathing on the roof of a condo on the north side of town. He had his junk out and everything. Must have been out there for days, he was already peeling. Walleye had me drag him down into the service elevator with a towel wrapped around his face. The van we use these days belongs to someone’s grandma. It says Mother Goose on the side. Walleye refuses to paint it over. He says it gives us character. I still wish I had my Harley, but I pay for most of Tucker’s bills now. A lot of people have trouble looking at his face. And his pinkie doesn’t do much for intimidation.

“I like them both…oh god. You want the condo? You want the rest of the money? I’ve got that. I’ve got like half of it left at least. We all kind of…we make mistakes Walleye, right? Right, Cal? You never made a mistake? Never seen a dog run out into traffic? I can admit that, guys. I’m just a fucking mutt, alright? I don’t even know what I’m chasing.”

Walleye and Tucker brought me in after I saw them double-teaming Sheena out in the bushes when I puked at Tucker’s twentieth birthday party. Never thought Walleye would wind up marrying that girl. She had a tattoo on her throat that said Montgomery and Tucker said that was what she called her Dad—Old Monty. Sheena is in Manitoba now. She doesn’t send any money and Alissa hasn’t really asked about her. Walleye says she’s a waste of flesh.

Out in the bushes with her, the two of them told me I could join up if I played it cool.

I wanted the leather vest, the women, all the extras I saw them pulling night after night at The Crown or Durbank’s. I wanted people to duck when I looked at their faces. I wanted to squeeze some flesh in my hands and have it squeal back instead of slap me. Walleye and Tucker offered all that, threw in a ’93 Shovelhead as well. Not brand new, but it ran.

It took me hours to learn how to ride it with Tucker in the high school parking lot. Road rash and a concussion when I hit a light post in the back corner. I saw dead stars and our mom’s crippled ghost crying oil down her cheeks. Sheena was there too, her back shaking under some bushes, covered in tattoos of my brother’s face. All the trees drained wiper fluid down my throat while Tucker asked if I was okay, if I wanted to walk it off. I didn’t even notice I was bleeding. The doctor said I’d be all right once they got some of the rocks out of my head. Pebbles embedded behind my ears, long strips of flesh where my elbows used to be.

I still have some gravel in my right leg. The doctor didn’t remove everything.

“Oh, we’re going to get the money back,” Walleye says. He draws out the words and spits out the window. I try and steer the van off the highway down that same back road where some part of Tucker is still shaking in the wind. The woods out here are full of empty bottles and old condoms. Gerry rattles around in the back of the van, his bright red skin beginning to peel along the edges. Walleye didn’t let him grab any clothes from the condo. I try to avoid looking in the rear view mirror.

“Of course you’re going to get the money…I mean, it’s your money Walleye, always was your money. You guys just wanna hold on a second here, maybe give me that towel again?”

“Money wasn’t for me, Gerry. Money was for Alissa. And you took it anyway. You think I got retirement planned out? No. You think I got an estate to pass on? Nah, my daddy never owned an auto shop or any shit like that. I got nothing to give her but some cash now and a chance to live past the age of ten, for fuck’s sake. So when you take that money Gerry, you aren’t robbing me. You’re jacking a five year old girl.”

I can only nod because Walleye is playing with something in the glove box and it’s something heavy. We had two natives from the east side taken out here last year and chopped, but I never saw it happen. I just heard the sound and Tucker asking Walleye why he let them go. Walleye said they could still make money with one hand apiece. Hand over wrist is what he said, but nobody laughed and nobody smiled. I remember Tucker saying ‘psycho’ and then everyone getting real quiet at the bar once we came in from the cold. That was the same night Sheena decided to go out behind the bar with my brother for a conversation. She still had her teeth back then and a band of roses covered up the name around her throat.

“Oh, come on guys,” Gerry whines. “I just don’t know any better. You see a pot, you take it, you run with it, you fucking cash it in because life is short right? You guys don’t wanna do anything you’re gonna regret, you know? This shit doesn’t have to get complicated. This shit is the opposite of uncomplicated. We can even invest it if you like…you know, mutual funds?”

I pull the van over into a small clearing that smells like wet, dead wood. The heat makes everything drip out here. Walleye yanks the naked Gerry out of the back. Gobs of burnt skin dangle from his shoulders. Walleye slaps both hands hard against Gerry’s sunburnt chest.

“Oh boy, look at the impact. Now Gerry, you know we don’t kill anybody. It’s just so hard to dispose of a body, even in the woods like this. So you need to relax and just tell us where the money is. I don’t care how much is left. I just want it back. And cover up your dick, it’s almost climbed up inside you there. Don’t let it get lost in your belly. Cal, you wanna grab the hatchet?”

The hatchet usually stays in the glove box. Sometimes it gets waved around in a bar fight or if one of our loans comes back a little short. Tucker said it wasn’t really meant to hurt anyone. He bought it at Canadian Tire when they had a camping sale and just never found a chance to use it. Walleye was the one who found it in the garage and sharpened the blade. He was the one who tested it on branches at the bush parties and asked us if we felt like splitting hairs, splitting heads.

“Hatchet? No, now you see, the money…well…”

Gerry’s a lot faster than he looks and he’s past Walleye before either of us realizes what’s happening. His naked red body tears past me and I reach out to yank him down. My fingers graze his back and tear little scraps of dead skin. Gerry squeals and dives into the trees and bushes. Walleye stares at me for a second. The hatchet is still in the truck. I consider leaving Walleye here, fleeing from his wrath. I remember Tucker’s hand. I remember his name is Teabag now and how his jaw clicks. Walleye only laughs and shakes his head.

“Ha. Fuck it. Let him roam around the woods for a few days with his berries hanging out. We’ll track him down. Just like any other bitch. Drive me home and we’ll crack a beer. Can you at least handle that, Cal? Or should I start bringing Alissa along with me to do this shit? She ain’t scared of nothing like your ass is. She at least has some balls on her.”

I stand there waiting for Gerry to come fleeing back in our direction, covered in horse flies and screaming about severed hands. I imagine his body covered in poison ivy and pine needles, the sweaty forest slowly working itself into his red flesh. His flaps of skin are still stuck to my hand. I try to shake them off. They smell like coconut and baby lotion.

***

“So what about the money? We gonna just wait him out?”

We are back at Walleye’s and he’s on his eleventh beer. He’s run out of plastic cups and we are drinking from coffee mugs. Alissa plays with stuffed dogs on the floor. They are all named Teabag, according to Walleye. He says it’s a good name, a strong name, and then winks at me.

My arms keep sticking to each other whenever I cross them. I need to go home and check on Tucker. He can’t always get out of bed on his own and sometimes his jaw locks up in the middle of the night. He’s going to grind his teeth down to nothing soon. I try to pour another beer into my mug and ignore the smell of tanning lotion on my hands. Walleye has never apologized to Tucker. He just says it’s what comes around.

“Money ain’t going to help Alissa much, man. It ain’t like there is a cure for this. She’s got enough wrong with her that the doctors are still scratching their heads, ignorant fucks. But she’s still my kid, you know? Family, all that shit, but it’s real. The feeling is real. Money might make her more comfortable, might make her better than me, but it don’t fix shit.”

Walleye grins and a bit of drool slips out of his mouth. He can’t drink like back in the day when we were ripping off keg parties and stashing them back in the woods. He’s got gray hair around his temples and his teeth are yellower than I remember. Longer than I ever thought a man’s teeth could get.

“What about like…the foundation? You said we were gonna…well, I mean, think about the kid, man. You said we had to get it together. I called in a lot of favors, man.”

“Teabag said it would sound better that way, actually. So thank him for that one. People ain’t just throwing money at you ’cause you got a sick kid. They ain’t gonna help you just ’cause you need it, you know?  They need a cause or some shit. They don’t wanna hear you add up the bills or talk about buying cheese. And they definitely ain’t helping a man like me.”

I start adding up Teabag’s medical bills, doctor visits, the pain medication I keep jacking from a pharmacist who can’t pay down his debt to Walleye. The apartment is getting dark and Walleye won’t even move from the orange couch. His lips tremble and he starts to snore a bit. I say his name, but he doesn’t move. I bark like a dog and Alissa smiles, but her father doesn’t budge. The mug in my hands is empty. It has been for the last half hour.

Alissa is still playing with her stuffed animals on the floor, rolling back and forth on the carpet. I let the mug slip through my fingers and hold my pinkie out. Slivers of pointed ceramic scatter across the living room around Alissa, each one aiming for the same target. Alissa doesn’t say anything. Walleye’s eyes remain shut against the world. He is dreaming of hatchets and disembodied hands. He is dreaming of a world where his rage has been rewarded, where he is the final collector on everything past due.

I grab Walleye’s van keys and stumble out into the hallway, leaving the brittle yellow fragments behind me. Gerry is still out there in the woods, hiding in a hole, begging for some forgiveness. He will leave a trail of white skin behind on every twig and blade of grass, on every single thing he touches, each one another white flag of coconut and surrender.

Tucker’s got physio in the morning and it won’t pay for itself.

#

Andrew F. Sullivan was born in Peterborough, Ontario. His debut short story collection All We Want is Everything will be released in June 2013 by ARP Books. Sullivan no longer works in a warehouse.