I met Tony Disco on a Saturday night. By Monday, I was confused about a lot of things, but I knew his name was fake—at least the Disco part. After we broke into the house and had eaten two frozen pizzas and some canned ravioli, I used the Wi-Fi to check on Surnames.com. Disco had no known origin. No country. No history. No members claiming Disco as their own.
“You aren’t really named Disco,” I finally said, as we sat in the living room, the lights out, each of us with our fourth beer. The only sound in the living room was the hum of the great TV, the big black eye hanging on the wall, its blue light blinking.
“No shit, Sherlock,” Tony said. He sat head back against the fancy couch, his legs spread, his arms at his sides, one tan hand clutching his beer can. He smelled like the chunky vanilla soap from the shower, his long brown hair in wet perfect curls on his shoulder. One leg pressed against mine, our kneecaps clacking together. I could feel the difference between muscle and bone, the shiver of him still inside me. “Ancestor showed up with a longer name. Greek. Turned it into Disco. Informal like.”
I took a big swallow and changed my mind. If a family claimed Disco for decades, I’d give it to them. He reached out for my thigh, his palm straddling my tense muscle.
“What’re we gonna do?” I asked.
“We’ve been doing it, haven’t we?” His eyes were black and shiny in the darkened room.
I took another swallow, looked out the window, but, of course, the windows were shut, closed, and covered, the shades drawn tight. The one time I looked out, two old ladies were about to come down the steps. They pointed, made tsk tsks I could almost hear. I wanted to bolt out the door and up the stairs, shooing them away. I had no idea what else Tony Disco would do. I wasn’t sure what he’d done to the guy who’d told us both at the bar about the murder and the house no one was in.
“Guy didn’t make bail,” the dude had said. “Read it in the paper. Police investigation over. Wife dead. Family dead, too. No kids. Just a bunch of crime scene tape and me watching his television and sleeping in his big bed. Asked around. House up in the hills. All those trees and no one paying any attention. Live high on the hog. Whatever’s in the fridge, mine-oh-mine.”
But that guy was gone. In between the fourth and fifth beer at the bar, he disappeared in a haze of yellow and heat. Someone’s joke. A crack of broken glass. Tony and the guy out the door. Maybe in the back alley. And then it was all Tony Disco sidling up to me at the bar, his arm warm against mine, his breath like juniper. And now here he and I were, slumped on a dead woman’s couch.
So the good news was that the old ladies had turned around and walked away. But I was going to keep an eye out, just the same. One? She reminded me of my grandmother. Short and squat with a bowl of gray hair. The other like my second-grade teacher. Sort of pretty in an old way. Like one of the pressed flowers I used to find in my grandmother’s coffee-table books.
“So we’ve been doing it, right?” Tony repeated, a knife edge in his voice, one finger running up my thigh.
“Not bad.” Tony threw his can across the room. I almost stood to pick it up.
“No,” I said instead. It wasn’t bad, Tony’s long body on the big bed. The empty house. The beer. The respite from wherever it was I’d been going until I met him at the bar. Living at the squat on East 29th, picking up work at the chocolate factory banging together wooden display shelves, spending my money at bars, drinking beer and throwing darts. The hum of whatever covering up whatever it was that needed covering up. Just like now. Here we were, floating down a river I’d never been on before. I was like the murderer in jail. All new digs. Just like that.
“Let’s go back to bed,” Tony said.
“Okay,” I said, shaking inside from at least two things. “Let’s.”
Sex with a man is different than with a woman. Yeah, dumbass, you’re probably thinking. Right. But I didn’t know that before Tony Disco. I was conversant in pussy and mouth. Anyone’s mouth. Anyone’s drunk bar-party fucked-up mouth. Lips and tongue. Pretty universal. Pussy is wet and warm, unending, the tunnel back to the beginning, the start and the finish, slick and expected.
But dick was a language I only knew from experience with my own. Up and down. Hard and soft. I had no idea what Tony would do to me on the bed. I had no idea how it would go. When Tony yanked me close, he might have killed me as much as kissed me, his mouth hard as if he were trying to take something back I’d borrowed and forgotten to return. Something I’d stolen that he needed more than anything. Something important he wanted to fight over. He was wiry and strong, bone and muscle in equal proportion, not one soft place on him. Sex with Tony was hot and sweaty and dirty. Shaming, painful, and amazingly intense. My heart about pounded out of my chest, desire an alien wanting to escape, grow up, and kill everything in sight.
Later, as we lay on the bed stripped bare except for the sheet, lights out, I ruminated. Maybe this was a new lifestyle. I could honestly say I wasn’t born to being fucked up the ass. It wasn’t an innate need. Probably, I could have walked out of the house and never done it again. But I didn’t leave. And we did it again. And again.
“There’s two old bitches out there,” Tony said from the bedroom.
I was in the bathroom counting my wounds. Two bruised kiss bites on my forearm. A bloody nose. A pucker of purple on my left cheek. My asshole a well of hurt. Scratches on my chest. All my muscles ached from strain.
The beer had run out, and we’d started in on the red wine racked in the basement. My mouth was dry, my eyes burned. The back of my throat rough and red as if I’d been swallowing the front path gravel.
After three days, I needed something green to eat. Spinach or broccoli. Leaves and roots and small roasted animals. The murdered lady had been big into canning things. Jars of fruits, glistening peaches, pears, and plums behind the dusty class. All that fiber hadn’t helped much in the asshole department. Tons of faded green beans and little round pea things. Tan, though. And big red rounded lumps of beets. But there was frozen steak and quarts of rocky road ice cream. Wine and bourbon and vodka. My body felt lumpy and soft, something deep inside me beaten to pulp.
“They’re just neighbors. Walk in the mornings.” I’d seen them every day, around this time, about when Tony and I were ready to fall asleep. The bowl-cut lady usually looking down the stairs into the house as if wanting to spot the murder at home. Catch him herself. But then they moved on.
“They coulda seen something,” Tony said, his voice heavy with fatigue and wine.
“There’s nothing to see.” I wiped the blood off my lip, wincing. The garbage can was lumped with bloody tissue, the floor strewn with wet and bloody towels. “We haven’t turned on a light. We haven’t played any music. We haven’t started the dryer or anything.”
“They know. They’ll call the cops,” Tony said, his voice trailing away.
I walked back into the bedroom, hanging the towel on the door knob. Tony had fallen asleep in that second, spread out like a starfish, mouth open, a snore at the back of his throat. He was older than I first thought. In a bar, everyone’s younger. But in the lighter gloom of the dark house, I could see the lines on his face, scars from long ago fights, a strand or two of gray at his temples and in his widow’s peak. He was the kind of guy I would have avoided anywhere else. Sleek and dangerous and full of a furiosity that lived under his skin.
At the window, I pulled the curtain open a slit and looked out. My heart beating to the hope of no old ladies. And yes. Nothing but trees and sky, fog whirling against the pine branches.
I stretched to look up to the pale sky. No bad things should have happened up here, this land above the flats of Oakland. No woman should have been found at the bottom of the stairs with a blunt force trauma, inconsistent—the guy at the bar told us before Tony made him disappear—with a fall down a flight of wooden stairs. No amount of slippery woolen socks and heavy laundry basket could make those wounds make sense. No, this shaded, dreamy land was the land of school children and smart people. There were tall trees and soft breezes. Garbage wasn’t humped at every corner, and the nights weren’t filled with men and women roaming or standing on the corners wanting to sell something.
This place was like where I was brought up in the foothills of the Sierras, living at my grandmother’s house after my mom dumped me there. Grandma teaching me how to eat with a fork and comb my hair. To close the bathroom door when taking a shit. To read, do math, take a bus and say thank you to others. To press sugar cookies into rounds and back them until just golden brown. To sleep on clean sheets and wipe my hands on a napkin. From five till fifteen. Until my grandmother died and my cousins finally pushed me out of the house like a foreign pack of slavering wolves.
All freeways headed down the hill. Only the Pacific Ocean kept me from going further. Five years of bouncing around the Bay Area, one place to crash and then the other. One person with a car and an idea and then another.
I turned back to look at Tony. We had three, maybe four days left here. Tops. And just like those final weeks at my grandmother’s house, I was again running with wolves.
“Goddammit!” Tony hissed. “That fucking old lady. She won’t stop.”
I waited till he moved and looked out the bedroom window. She was alone this time, not with the other one. She stood with her hands on her hips, staring down at the house. It was the wrong time, too. Not early morning. But late afternoon.
“I’m going to have to do something about this,” Tony said, his voice and breath at my ear.
The day before, I’d entered Tony Disco’s name into one of those background check sites, the kind where you can get some information for free. I used his real name, getting it out of him the night before after he drank a bottle of Cabernet: Despotopoulo.
There he was. Tony Despotopoulo, 36. Tony only had one address, about ten years ago, a place down in the Valley. Tulare. Before I clicked on one page, the site warned me “This Page May Contain Graphic Information.” Mostly, I thought they did that so people would click on the page, wanting that graphic view, violence, death, dismemberment.
I clicked. The rap sheet a column long. Started slow, Tony. Worked up to aggravated assault. A teaser of more bad things to come. And that’s when the site wanted their $12.99. So I clicked off.
“She gonna get it, man,” he said to me, his hands on my shoulders, his body humming. His hands started moving over me.
I said nothing but leaned back against him, my eye still on the space where the old woman stood. Tony was going to get it, too.
The murder’s wife liked to can things and knit, a thick long loopy blanket in every room. She’d grown up in a big family, from the looks of the photos the police hadn’t taken for their investigation, so it was odd that they were all dead now. She’d been tall, a lady basketball player, but she liked soft things. Silky underwear. Wool coats fluffy as rabbits. Websites said she’d only been 58 when her husband bashed her head in. I found myself looking around the house for the obvious but still hidden murder weapon: iron, skillet, door stop, hammer.
The murderer was a twist little runt, his combed-over head barely reaching his wife’s chin. He wore thick glasses and ugly brown shoes in pretty much every photo. His hands were big, which was ironic because he was a locksmith. He liked all sorts of nerd shit. Bookcases bending with science fiction. Star Wars posters in the basement. Ugly ass steins from where-the-hell-ever in the den.
Somehow, though, she’d loved him. Even as he started to make his evil plans. Even as she carried the laundry basket down the slick stairs.
By the end, the steaks and the ice cream were gone. We’d even made Bisquick pancakes without eggs or milk (not a good idea) and eaten all the Cream of Wheat. We’d used all the towels and sheets and toilet paper. The windows closed, the house smelled like a dirty fish tank. It was time to move on, but Tony sat in a chair by the kitchen window, looking out.
“The least we could do is some wash,” I said. “Not the dryer. Just the washer. Spin it twice. Let it dry overnight. Get out of here by 5 am.”
“Don’t you like how I smell?” Tony asked, his smile lopsided, his teeth gleaming. He’d used up all the woman’s special brightening toothpaste.
Did I? Maybe not so much anymore, both of us rank with overuse.
“At least our t-shirts,” I said.
“Fine.” Tony stood, stretched, a waft of him in my nose. “We can’t let the old biddies see us. I’m still not sure they aren’t trouble.”
“They won’t bother you,” I said. “They’ll just keep walking.”
Tony shook his head, the way he had at the bar that night when the dude had said, “No way you coming with me. I found the damn house first.”
I started picking up my shirts and underwear. Cotton. They’d be dry by tomorrow morning. By 8, I could be back in the Valley. By 12, in Los Angeles.
Tony rolled to the edge of the bed, picking up his things. His back a ladder of muscles. For a second, I thought to grab the towels to wash them, too, but the murderer was getting stuff washed at Santa Rita Prison. And the wife? Only God knew about that. Anyway, eventually, someone would come through and worry about this mess. They’d know something was up. Probably the one old lady would call the police. She and her pressed-flower friend would stand at the top of the stairs and say, “Can you believe it? Twice? We were standing right here! We should have known.”
Then they’d go back to their routine, walking every morning until new people moved in and all of this would just be a good story. Something to think about when they were back in their safe, cozy houses drinking coffee, waiting for the next morning and the next walk.
We walked down the dark hallway. Outside, I heard the first of the crickets.
Tony was ahead of me as we moved down the stairs. I held my dirty clothes to my chest, the pile smelling like this dark, greasy week. I felt the weight of the hammer against my forearms. I stared at Tony’s curls, the way they bounced as he walked down one step and then two.
Jessica Barksdale is the author of thirteen traditionally published novels, including Her Daughter’s Eyes and When You Believe. Her latest, How to Bake a Man, was published October 2014 by Ghostwoods Books. Her short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in or are forthcoming in Compose, Salt Hill Journal, The Coachella Review, Carve Magazine, Storyacious, Mason’s Road, and So to Speak. She is a Professor of English at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, California and teaches online novel writing for UCLA Extension. You can read more at: www.jessicabarksdaleinclan.com.