by John Hague
The sun is a rat bastard. Especially when you’re perched up in a bay window facing east. I nearly suffocated myself with a pillow when the sun tipped in through the glass, and it didn’t matter one lick. The damn sun found every last angle. Even rolling into the seam between the cushions wouldn’t save me.
I gave up fighting after a minute or two and sat up, tasting death in my mouth, and feeling the stab wound in my side. It needed stiches, but I didn’t have time for that, so instead there was a gummy mess aching my hip in dull spirals. I lolled my head down into my hands trying to breath shallow, keep that wound still. I wanted to just sit in that, but taped to the lip of the lounge, between my legs, there was a price tag spinning in the breeze of the corner fan. Whatever I was sitting on was two hundred and thirty-four dollars.
“This couch is really exactingly priced,” I shouted at the darkness behind me. As my lungs expanded the wound ached and I tried to twist my grimace into a smile.
Roxley’s man hit me clean, just beneath the ribs. He made a mistake thinking that would put me down. Most men do. They feel that silver shiver, and the shock sends them slumping to the ground. But this wasn’t my first time. I took a swing while he was pulling back the blade, and caught him right in the temple, and instead it was him kissing pavement. Still, when I sat up on that two-hundred-and-thirty-four-dollar lounge, and yanked up my shirt, no one that saw me would think I got the better end of the deal. Least of all the paperboy watching across the street.
He was trying to work it all out, standing there staring at me, holding a limp copy of the Friday final in his hand. Here I was, a bloody mess pawing at a bloody maw in the display window of an antique store for all of Saturday morning to see. We caught eyes, and I let my button-down shirt, brown with old blood, flop down over the wound. Just to finish the picture I lit a cigarette. I pulled the pack and the lighter from my shirt pocket, and even though it felt like being stabbed all over a-fucking-gain, I pulled a draw, and watched it curl against the glass.
The paperboy gripped his Friday final.
I gave him the Boy Scout salute.
When he didn’t answer, I flipped him off.
“You let me fall asleep here, and you don’t even give me a blanket?” I shouted over my shoulder. I knew she was back there, and it would have been gentlemanly to turn around and talk to her straight up, but I was staring down some shivering paperboy, and that felt like it was more important at the moment.
“What?!” The light flipped on.
“I said, you don’t even get me a blanket?” I’d had enough of this staring contest, so I shook my head towards the end of the street. The kid blinked twice and just left. He was probably off to warn the bulls that some bum had broke into the antique store, and I could not have cared less.
“I don’t get shit for vagrants.” Came the voice behind me.
“If I paid for this couch, would you let me sleep here?” I had asked her.
“You couldn’t afford that chaise, Finn.”
“Probably not, but if I did, I could sleep here, right?”
“I ain’t running an inn here.”
“You got those Ike pins by the counter. I can afford those.”
“Didn’t know you liked Ike.”
“Army man,” I flopped down on the end of the couch, because it seemed like a good thing to do. “Sir, yes, sir.” I saluted the ceiling.
I think I giggled a little. Rally said something around then. Something raspy and pointed. Something that curled and snapped. And I heard it but, it didn’t matter. My head was down on something soft, and it had been a day and half. All the whipped words you could throw at me just crackled in the haze of gunshots, screaming, and tires being shredded. My arm looped over my eyes, trying to find a little shade. I might have fallen back asleep, but Rally grabbed my wrist and threw it off my eyes.
“No.” I said grinning the kind of shit eating grin you only get a right to when you’re bleeding through your shirt. “You let me fall asleep out here.”
“Oh, I didn’t let you fall asleep here.”
“Well, I did.”
“You did,” Rally said, and clomped her way towards the back of the store. She shouted back, “But just because you fell asleep, doesn’t me I let you.”
“Semantics don’t poke you in the side and call you an ass.”
“You called me an ass?”
“I was getting warmed up. I’ll do a lot better in a minute or so.”
I heard a switch flick in the distance, and then something was steaming.
“You got anything good yet?” I asked.
“This deserves something special. I’m working on it. Taking my time.”
The steaming turned into a whine, and I heard Rally smack the coffee pot.
“Can I get some of that?”
Rally has really expressive feet. She’s almost six feet of gorgeous, but she moves like a snake, so when you can hear her stomping, it’s because she wants you to hear it. Her heels were sending a message to the hangover that was starting like a drumroll in the back of my skull, and she damn well knew what she was doing.
“Some of what, Finn?”
Now, I’m one to play it cool, and despite the fact that I’d been decking Roxley’s boys, and doing up Fairchild last night, doing all the work for sixteenth precinct – not like they’d thank me – I’d been working hard, and getting worked hard for it. I wanted to keep on playing cool, but I was nearly busting out a kidney onto a two hundred and thirty four dollar chaise lounge, and I’d been pestered awake with the sunrise on the kind of day when you sleep until dusk, and my head and my side were screaming bloody horrors, so instead, I grabbed the back of the lounge, and lurched my face up over the side, and played every last bit of puppy dog these old eyes have left to play.
“I could use some coffee, Rally.”
There was a moment, and in that moment, Rally just tilted her head, and let her hair do the talking.
Rally has straight blond hair well past her shoulders that falls in a sheet. Just tilting her head the right way meant that sheet of hair shook like a gong, and it did all the screaming for her.
She let it flash at me, and held her head just there, so her hair waved, and bowed, and stilled, all the while staring me down.
“I could throw it to you from here,” Rally finally said.
“Won’t that get coffee on your couch?”
She grinned the grin of I-really-can’t-believe-you that nurses and mothers have cornered the market on and turned back into the kitchen.
“You bled on it. It’s your couch, now.”
“I don’t have two hundred and thirty-four dollars.”
“You can pay in installments.”
I heard the sound of coffee hitting ceramic, and I swear my soul leapt a few dozen feet. Even the idea of coffee made me feel like there was hope in the world. It hadn’t felt that way in days, so the contrast was stark in my stomach. The bulls had offered me a ride home when all was said and done, but that came with questions I didn’t want to answer. The cuffs found home on Roxley, but that didn’t mean I was in the clean. I didn’t even think the cops would let me get away. Every step just felt like a play.
“How many installments, Rally?”
“Just start giving me money every day and I’ll tell you when to stop.”
“I think they call that marriage.”
“I think that’s divorce, Finn.”
“We’ll keep the pastor busy then.”
I forgot I’d lit that cigarette. It’d been burning the whole time, and it nipped at my knuckles. My fingers danced, and the butt landed on the floor with a splash of orange and red. Groaning, I sat up and smooshed it out with the toe of my boot.
“I’ve got a crisp dollar here for you,” I kept still and tested how hard I could breathe in without wincing. “You just need to come and get it.”
“Judging by that voice, you’d pay a lot more than that for a cup of coffee.”
She was right about that. The drumroll had turned into full on tympany in my ears. I had the police chief eating crow, and Roxley finally potting soil in a cell, but the damn universe refused me a victory lap. Instead, I nearly bled out on my own stoop. Sitting there, holding in my guts, that was when I saw the couch in the window across the street.
“What’s the asking price for a cup of coffee?”
I dragged myself up, and I turned towards the back of the shop. It was the first time I’d seen all of her that day. And maybe the first time I’d seen her in a while. In the back of the store was a doorway, and through that doorway was a kitchen, and in the back of that kitchen was a window, and under that window was a radiator, and on that radiator was a Rally. That hair spoke volumes, swaying with he tap of her foot. Rally’d tossed on a red floor length dress with yellow cranes patterned over it. The dress was utterly unremarkable, expect for the fact that Rally was wearing it.
“You’ve already bought yourself a couch, so maybe I’ll throw a coffee in if you pick up the matching chairs.”
“What are the chairs going for?”
Rally cradled a mug under her nose.
“There are five of them.”
“They’re a set.” Her fingers tapped along the edge of the thin white mug. “Couldn’t let them go one by one.”
Five short hours ago, I’d been holding a smoking gun at the end of an alleyway. I hadn’t shot anything but an unlucky brick, but Roxley hadn’t known that. He was shock still from the blast, exactly as I wanted him, ready for a running tackle. Maybe that’s when I lost them.
Now, five hours later, I was here. Five hours after gun shots, and tense words in an alley, I was here negotiating the cost of a set of antique chairs.
“I could maybe use a chair.”
“It’s a studio apartment, Ra-“
To punctuate the moment, like a real school marm, Rally snatched the pot that had just sat up, and thrusted it at me, letting the black sludge back and forth.
“You didn’t say how much –“
“Two hundred –“
“And fifty. Yeah.”
I shook my head. I was going to smoke another cigarette, and I did.
“So you think that coffee is worth four hundred and eight four dollars.”
Rally just tilted the coffee pot at me. That was it.
“Come get your coffee, Finn.”
I lurched my way forward.
“You aren’t bringing it to me?” I said, holding my side as I shuffled past the lamps..
“You know I put Jim Roxley in cuffs last night?”
“I do,” Rally trilled, leaning into the corner of the door frame. “He was my best customer.”
“That man loved an Elizabethan desk set.”
I stumbled a little and had to catch myself on a set of file cabinets that hadn’t sold in three years.
“That why you’re making me walk to you?” I said, pressing my weight into my elbow. “That it? I’m messing up your bottom line?”
“When aren’t you messing up my bottom line, Finn?”
My left palm smacked against the metal. I made sure it echoed as I tilted myself up. It made me look sympathetic, I think.
“I’m charming though.”
“Maybe.” Rally said, still holding out the mug of steaming cup of coffee out like a tease. “When you’re not bleeding out on the merchandise.”
“I’m still bleeding.”
“Come get your coffee, Finn.”
She hadn’t dressed up that morning. It was a house dress that clipped her curves. One long swath of fabric trying to work out how to contain her and failing marvelously; red cotton shuddering trying to keep a grip on those hips.
“Why didn’t you come to bed last night, Finn?”
“Just give me my coffee, Rally.”
“Why should I?”
I’d made my way past the Tiffany, and the Chippandales, and these last fifteen feet were display cases full of silver cigarette cases, and engagement rings that mostly weren’t engaging any more.
“Because I earned it?”
“Oh, did you?”
Her blond hair gonged down from her shoulder, falling like a veil, as she twisted her lips to the edge of that simple white mug, holding steaming, gorgeous, phenomenal coffee.
“Why didn’t you come to bed, Finn?”
I took a deep breath. It hurt. I leaned down on my right palm, a cool palm; a cool palm taking in the chill of the glass. There was a ring in there. One ring, that’d been there for a year. It was perfect. Emeralds playing the maypole with a diamond. The kind of ring she deserved. The ring I’d been threatening to buy her for a year.
And there she was. Standing just ten feet way.
“Why didn’t you come to bed?”
And then there was this. Gunshots, and alleyways. Knives in the dark, and three weeks of scouting warehouses. Calls to money brokers, and sad little men running numbers. Bets made, and bets taken, just to see who’d collect. Rally was in that same alleyway two weeks ago, taking down the sixty we’d earned off the Giants game, and making sure Reily told us exactly who’d taken our action. All of that. All of it for last night, and then, this.
“I lost my damn keys, woman!”
The little store echoed.
Her hair bellowed, and she flicked it for good measure. It caught the sun and slapped my eyes.
What could I do? I held up my hands, palms to the sky. Prayer seemed best in the moment, even if I was praying to a piece of cotton with cranes dancing over its edges, and every inch of woman it contained.
And my prayers were answered.
Lots of it.
Peels of it.
The coffee danced out of the mug and she shuddered with laughter.
“You fucking idiot.”
“Come get your coffee.”
The room turned quiet with the kind of quiet that allows. Most kinds of quiet make you cold. They chill you into silence. This didn’t. This was a couple of arms outstretched and waiting.
I stuttered, stepped, and shuffled, while the woman filling out every corner of that red frock fought down the giggles that were building up a full suburb in her throat, and just as I got close enough to almost reach the steaming mug she’d been taunting me with, I felt fingers take mine.
“Do you know what this means, you jackass?”
I’d reached for the mug, but she’d caught my hand first. Rally parted my fingers, and two of hers circled one of mine.
“It means, I’m an idiot?”
“No, your face tells me that.” Rally smiled, and her hair bloomed. “What does this mean?”
“You tell me.”
“This stupid ring…it means you tell me when you go out.”
She circled the band around my finger, letting the skin tug underneath.
“It means you tell me.”
“You damn well better be.”
Rally lurched the mug into my hands, and some of the burning black smashed over my palm, and I couldn’t have cared less. Then she poked me right by the knife wound. I cared a bit about that.
“And do you know what this red badge of courage means?”
She leaned in to me to say it. She let that blond mop crash against my chest, and pressed her cheek to mine, and ran her lips to my ear. So close that she could have thought the words and I’d have heard them.
“This means,” Rally said. “That you don’t go out at night, without your sniper.”
She leaned back and looked at me ready to press me into a paste on the floor, and the part of me that had wrestled a man to the ground while Roxley danced in a corner, that turned to mulch, turned to ash, turned to goddamn nothing. God. Damn. Nothing.
She’d always been a better shot than me.
“I called,” I had.
My wife kissed me on the forehead.
“Now, lets get your dumb ass to a hospital.”
I thought of all the things I could say, and instead I said this.
© John Hague, 2018
John Hague is a performer in Brooklyn, with aspirations towards being a writer. He's hosted the Prose Bowl, Fight the Feed, and done his time saying terribly crass things on stage for drunks at 1:00 in the morning. His cats like biting his ankles after a shower.
Call. Again. was read by E. James Ford on 5th December 2018 for Cops & Robbers