Authors: Jeff Crook
I would like to recognize the following people for their contributions, both deliberate and unintentional:
My agent, Peter Riva, and my editors at Minotaur, for their insight and wisdom.
Irakly Shanidze, for enthusiastically answering my photography questions, and for providing so much inspiration with his art.
My wife, for believing.
Everyone who ever scared me with their ghost stories. Thanks for the sleepless nights.
Everyone who ever haunted me, living and dead. You know who you are.
I will drain him dry as hay:
Sleep shall neither night nor day
Hang upon his penthouse lid;
He shall live a man forbid.
The sleeping and the dead
Are but as pictures: 'tis the eye of childhood
That fears a painted devil.
SAT AT THE DEEPEST
corner of the bar away from the door, trying to get the bartender's attention without my hands shaking. He finally noticed and came overâyoung kid, obnoxiously cute with his manicured chin stubble, pouty moist bottom lip, lips too pretty for a guy. Lips I'd kill to have. He wore tight jeans with the circle of a snuff can lid worn into the back left pocket. “You got a cigarette?” I asked.
“No smoking. City ordinance,” he said. He wiped his hands on a bar towel. He had good hands, no rings, no watch, long fingers, the skin moist and healthy-looking from the lotion he had just applied. But he was way too young. Way too young. But what was too young anymore? He was old enough to serve drinks.
“Waiting for somebody?” he asked.
“A bartender. Seen one?” He laughed at my joke as though he'd heard it before. “How about a beer?”
I took a bar napkin from the stack in front of me and blew my nose into the restaurant's logo. He pushed a pressed cardboard coaster across the bar to me, then drew a glass of Icehouse from the tap and set it in on the coaster. I didn't take it right away. I watched the bubbles rise in the thin yellow beer while I pulled a blister pack from my shirt pocket and shoved the last two red sinus pills through the foil onto the bar, Frisbeed the empty pack into the garbage pail behind the bar, popped the pills into my mouth, washed them down with about half the beer, feeling it burn through the bilge layers coating the back of my throat. I returned the glass carefully to the bar and tried not to suck air while I waited for the shakes to go away.
When the phone rang, I had a couple more beers in me and the sinus pills were starting to kick in. I was back in battery so I answered it. “What's up, Adam?”
“You moved, Jacqueline.”
“I got a new place on Summer Avenue across the street from the Methodist church,” I replied. “I was going to call you.”
“I heard about the fire. I didn't realize it was your apartment until I stopped by and saw the crater.” I could hear the sound of his car engine, the radio squawking something unintelligible in the background as he spoke. “I checked with a guy I know in arson. The fire started with a candle in the bathroom. You were using again, Jackie.”
“I can't light a match without you thinking I'm sticking needles in my arm!” I was angrier than I should have been. “I'm in control, for once, maybe for the first time in my life. I'm taking things one day at a time, recalibrating my life. I turned the page, Adam.” True, I had only turned the page yesterday, but you got to turn it sometime. In the olden days, I would never have dropped two grand on a new camera, like I had just done. That kind of money buys a hell of a lot of bonita.
“So in control you almost killed yourself?” He wouldn't let it go.
“It wasn't that bad.”
“Shit, Jackie, they said you were floating so high they had to carry you out. Another three minutes and I'd be going to your funeral.”
“Don't hate me because I'm lucky.”
“You ain't lucky, Jackie.” He stated fact. “You're the unluckiest shit I ever met. You got lucky once and now you think Judas is your friend. You got to come back to NA.”
“I'm still going.” Adam was my Narcotics Anonymous sponsor, but I hadn't been to a meeting with him in ages. I had made it past the first few of their twelve steps, admitting my life was a hopeless shambles. That was easy, but by that time, I'd been to enough meetings to see even the leaders hadn't done anything more than switch addictions, from drugs to God, whatever got them through the day. Addiction is addiction and I couldn't see the difference, but the court said I had to go, so I went.
“Where's your meetings?”
“Some dump off Tutwiler. Is that why you called?”
“I'm still your sponsor, but that's not why I called.” I heard him stop his car, open the door and get out. “I'm calling because you got a job.”
“I'm meeting somebody.” I winced as the tension over the phone jacked up about eight notches.
I knew what he was thinking. The only people I ever met were ambulance chasers, junkies and dealers. “I'm buying a new camera. I'm meeting the seller to give him the rest of his money.”
“Do you want this job or not? Meet me at the Orpheum. I'm there now.” He hung up. Adam wasn't usually such a hardass, but hearing he was at the Orpheum gave me a pretty good idea what had put him in high order.
I paid my tab and left. It was pouring outside and I didn't own an umbrella. The normally busy street looked like a parking lot, a fire truck blocking most of the lanes, cars backed up for miles, cop cars and ambulance lights flashing through the rain. Every exit from the parking lot was blocked and I wasn't going anywhere soon, so I ran to my car and grabbed my Canon from the backseat. The day before, I had dropped two grand on a new Leica M8 digital camera. I still owed five hundred on it, and I had just paid first and last month's rent on a new apartment, so I needed every bit of folding money I could broom together. I barely had enough to pay for the beers. If I could steer a little business toward one of my lawyer friends, he'd pay me for the photos of the accident.
I hurried across the parking lot and started shooting pictures. A Memphis Police Department cruiser had T-boned a white Skylark. The Skylark sat on the sidewalk under a bus-stop canopy advertising personal-injury-lawyer services. The patrol car was folded up on the median strip. I got some shots of blood on the open passenger-side door before the rain completely washed it away. There was blood pooled in the passenger-side seat. The firemen were in no hurry to get their equipment cleared, as the wreckers hadn't showed yet. The cops on the scene looked like they had eaten a shit sandwich. They didn't even try to stop me.
I gave the driver of the Skylark a business card. They had just taken his wife and mother-in-law away in the ambulance. I don't know if they survived. He was an older white guy, dressed in gray slacks, white shirt and blue windbreaker. The front of his shirt was pink with somebody else's blood. He didn't have a scratch on him.
“You need a ride to the hospital?” I asked.
“My cousin's coming to get me,” he said.
There were spiderwebs in the cruiser's windshield where the cop's face had smacked it. I saw him standing alone by his wrecked car with his face torn up and bloody, his uniform shirt hanging open, EKG wires dangling from his chest. I raised my camera to get a picture of him, but he didn't appear on the viewscreen. Just his wrecked cruiser. He wasn't really there.
“You work for a lawyer?” the driver asked.
“Preston Park, like it says on the card.” I lowered the camera. The cop wandered over to the curb and sat down. “Do you see that policeman?”
“Hell no, I didn't see him coming. He didn't have his flashers on,” the driver explained, misunderstanding my question. “If I had seen him, I never would have pulled out. They said he was responding to a call. He should have had his flashers going.”
“Did you see what happened to him after the accident?”
“I don't know. They took him away in the ambulance about ten minutes ago.”
I could still see the cop sitting on the curb with his bloody face in his hands. People were walking right past him, not even looking at him. I tried to push him out of my mind. I looked back at the driver and said, “Give Mr. Park a call and I'll forward your pictures.”
“I can't pay you.” He put the card in his wallet.
“Not a problem.” Preston would pay me and add the expense to his share of the settlement.
“How much do you think I'll get from this?” the guy asked.
I didn't bother answering. I took a few more pictures of the scene and left him thoughtfully rubbing his neck. Traffic was starting to inch along. My cell phone was ringing when I got in my car. It was Adam again. I let it ring.
HATED DRIVING IN THE
rain at night, but that's all it ever did in Memphis in November. The raindrops sounded like somebody dragging a chain across the roof of my car. The wipers bumped back and forth, streaking the greasy windshield. My phone rang again, but this time it wasn't Adam. I answered it.
“I'm at the bar. The traffic was killer,” James said. He was the guy selling me the new camera. We were supposed to be meeting tonight so I could pay him the rest of his money.
“I got called out on a job.”
“What kind of job?”
“Are you a cop?”
“Not anymore. I just take pictures now. There's a dead body at the Orpheum. It'll be all over the news tonight. You should watch, maybe you'll see me on television.”
“That's incredible. When you said you were a photographer, I had no idea you did that kind ofÂ â¦ thing.” I couldn't tell if he sounded pleasantly surprised or scared surprised. Some guys freak when they find out you take pictures of dead people. Why wouldn't they? James St. Michael wouldn't have been the first, but I didn't think that was his particular problem. At least he wasn't pissed that I had stood him up. It was just a dinner date, after all, and not even a real date. That's what I told myself and I almost believed it, too. At the same time, I got the feeling he was in a hurry to hang up. But so was I.