Thanks to the kind editors of Needle Magazine, we’re publishing a short story by Sophie Littlefield. This story, and many others like it, can be found in Issue 3 of Needle Magazine. Visit NeedleMag.com to subscribe.
Frank and me, we meet for happy hour every month or so. Last time was in March, when the crocuses were coming up through the rim of dirty snow at the edge of the yard, crocuses RoseMarie planted the year we bought the house. I stomped the shoots into a pulpy green mass with my work boots, and still some of the stubborn fuckers came back, opening their purple throats to the sun.
Now it’s May, and it’s irises rising up out of the ground to send me backward, only there’s been a new development and I don’t mess with RoseMarie’s flowers. Instead, I think of Frank. It’s time to call that old bastard, even if I didn’t have this other thing. But Frank owes me. After I think it through for a while, I see a way that Frank can fix my problem.
Frank shows up and right off I can see he’s doing fine. Looks to have taken off a few pounds, got a nice haircut and a new jacket, maybe pig suede, maybe the expensive stuff. Frank can afford it, ever since the Schapper boys put him in a half-million dollar house for free, contingent on him making it through that medically-induced coma with his head more or less glued back together after Josh Harrick took a bat to it.
Since he’s got no mortgage payment, Frank’s pension from the Toyota plant leaves more than enough to throw around. Still, you got to hand it to him: he never throws it in your face. Lets me buy a round when it’s my turn. A little thing that means something to me, on my cop salary.
“Fuck me, you’re prettier every time I see you,” I say, as Frank hugs me. It’s a full-on hug, with no back slapping. That’s all the therapy for you, the twelve step shit. I know it well enough for what it is – I’ve lost two partners to extended AA sabbaticals, which is another way of saying they’re drinking themselves to death on the installment plan.
But Frank’s no backslider. He’s one who found a way to make it work.
I get my beer, he gets his club soda, we order one of those piles of fried onions, he looks at me long and hard and he gets down to it:
“You got troubles, Gil?”
Shit yeah, I got troubles. If it was someone else sitting across the table, I might try all night and never get it out. But there’s Frank for you. I tell him the whole story. When I mention RoseMarie he winces like it’s him who can’t breathe the air as good ever since she left, even though it’s been two and a half years. When I tell him about that fucking Stroker she’s taken up with, about the “save the date” card – the long sleeves she wore the last time we had coffee, the bluish bruise on the bit of cleavage I managed to see – yeah, I was looking, sue me – anyway Frank listens to the whole thing.
Then we figure out how to fix it.
I was counting on that. There’s been that offer on the table all these years. The quid pro quo. We’re friends. But our friendship kicked off with the balance on my side. I’m forty-six this spring, old enough to know you can pretend all day long that the past doesn’t matter – but owing is owing. And Frank’s owed me since that day twelve years ago when I walked into the Harrick house with my Sig drawn and found him lying in his own blood, gasping like a trout on a June dock in the morning sun.
Neighbors saw Harrick’s truck drive up, saw him go in the house, and a little later they hear screaming from the open windows, then Harrick’s running back out to the truck and he hits the road hell for leather.
We find that out later. All we get on the radio is the 415, a disturbance at an address over on Culpepper. I don’t know it’s Harrick’s place yet, but I’m already wondering if the Schapper brothers might have done something crazy.
The Schappers aren’t any more crooked than any other builders. They had a little scale model of the future Twain Lakes Estates – Fourteen Executive Homesites Build To Suit in a trailer where State Road 9 meets Culpepper Circle. I don’t blame them, nobody does. The five leaning shacks on Culpepper were eyesores, but they huddled around a pretty little pond fringed by willows and cattails. Their owners stood to make double what anyone else would ever pay them for their land, since the Schappers had money breeding money like a prize bitch with a broken fence – it was dot com times, Kansas City eighteen short miles down the road and the promise of quick technology cash.
But Harrick wouldn’t sell. Money wouldn’t budge him. They kept to themselves, Josh Harrick and his wife Greta, their no-count kid with his stuck-out ears and his down-looking eyes and his flat, homely face: nothing to write home about there.
Without Harrick, the deal was teetering on the edge of failure. Someone had put up a piece of land two miles closer to Kansas City – no ponds but a flat parcel with a stand of mature poplars along the back – and word was Schapper was ready to bite if Harrick kept being a pain in the ass.
Those were Frank’s drinking days. He lived a couple of doors down from the Harricks, and he took it as a personal affront when they got between him and serious money. One day he got tanked and decided to visit the Harrick house while Josh and his wife were both at work – had a pocket full of Sharpie pens and a vague plan to write “GET THE FUCK OUT OR ELSE” on the living room wall, maybe break a couple of mirrors.
Frank broke in without any problems. We didn’t lock much around here, even twelve years ago.
Then he heard the sounds from the coat closet.
Frank says to me, the day he comes out of that hospital coma and the nurse calls the station and says come on over, Frank’s talking – Frank watches me walk into the room and says:
“They made him eat lard.”
Now, of all the fucked-up things Josh and Greta Harrick did to their eight-year-old boy Truegood, making him eat lard seemed to me the least of his worries. But there I am with my notebook open, not for the first time trying to figure out what the hell to say next. I’m no good in delicate situations – RoseMarie made that clear every time I came across her crying silently, shoulders shaking. I never could figure out how to make any of it right.
“Yeah?” I say.
Frank keeps talking. I don’t know, maybe you come out of a three-week coma, the first asshole you see is your new best friend. But Frank tells me about finding that boy Truegood tied with tractor chain, shit on his ankles, shit under his fingernails, crusty scabs making a meandering path on his back where Greta used cigarettes – Frank tells me about it with his eyes rolling like roulette wheels and then he grabs my arm like he wants me to drag him up from hell and he says I’m different now.
Well God bless, sobriety’s a trick and all, I’m happy for the guy. I come around and see him a few times before they let him out, watch him learn to use a fork again, walk up and down the hallways. He’s the big story, crews coming from Saint Louis and Chicago to talk to him. He doesn’t say much but somehow he makes for good TV anyway.
He’s a hero, even if the boy’s dead. Harrick came in and found Frank trying to get the chain off Truegood, went to get his bat – no happy endings there. Still, the Schapper Brothers figure out how to spin the story. They hatch a plan to give Frank a house and a tricked-out 2000 Tundra. They finish Frank’s house first, it’s ready by the time he’s out of the rehab facility. The press love it, zoom in close on Frank using a cane to climb the steps to his new front door, and folks line up to buy the other thirteen Executive Homes in the new Twain Lakes Estates.
RoseMarie and I were still married then. She made cakes, casseroles, and we went out to see Frank every month or two. She offered to set him up with her sister. Frank was in his mid-forties then, a bachelor from way back, and he had plenty of women nosing around, women who’d seen him on TV. After a while RoseMarie found a new project and I went to see Frank by myself.
About six months after he’d moved into the new place, when we were supposedly celebrating his graduation from occupational therapy, he says: “Truegood’s taken up living in the house.”
Well, I took my time thinking what to say about that, like you might imagine.
Truegood was dead, but that wasn’t the end of the story. Once the paramedics got Frank out of the house, and Truegood on that too-small stretcher with the sheet over his face, we picked up Greta coming home from work. We figured Josh Harrick had hightailed it as far away as he could get, so it took us by surprise when he turned up drowned in two feet of brackish water an hour away in Sikeston where he was hiding out in an old fishing cabin. Then Greta hanged herself at an unlikely angle in a holding cell in Springfield.
“Folks getting what they got coming” – that was the popular analysis.
But I’d been around just long enough not to believe in justice delivering itself. So when Frank told me the boy was back, I paid attention.
Truegood in death was more fetching than he had been in life, apparently. Frank said he cleaned up good, even if he was sort of shimmery and out of focus and made of nothing. In life he’d been hard-road ugly. There’s a sad truth for you – RoseMarie, when we were married, would never let me speak that way of a child. Especially when we were working at making one of our own, a project that eventually failed and took our marriage down with it. To RoseMarie, every child was beautiful.
When Frank, who had never married, who had no nephews or nieces or baby cousins, told me about the spirit who wisped around him as he did the crossword and checked on his investments, I knew he was smitten. I didn’t believe him at first. Would you? But then there came a series of incidents that made a believer of me.
First was a guy at the end of the court. He’d been smacking his teenage daughter around. We had a couple of calls on record to prove it, short stays in the emergency room to set an arm or stitch up an eyebrow, though of course she never pressed charges.
We get called out and the guy – some sort of financial consultant – he’s taken a fall out the second story window, head bounced off a stack of paving stones that just happened to be in exactly the wrong place. You figure the wife or the daughter, right? – only they were at the mall, and the wife swore those pavers were stacked in the third garage stall, left over from when they had the back yard done.
I’m puzzling through that one when Frank, who ambled over with a few of the other neighbors, takes my arm and we go for a stroll to the edge of the pond. Truegood’s sorry, he says. They’re working it out, he says. Won’t happen again.
Unless it’s another asshole. Then he can’t promise, he says.
Right about then I’m getting chills. Think I’m a sucker? Well, first of all, you had to see those paving stones right under the window with a streak of brains and blood on them. And second, Frank’s that kind of guy. The kind that doesn’t lie.
There have been seven incidents total. Not bad, for nearly ten years. Only two deaths. Frank managed to teach Truegood a measure of self-control. Or maybe it was some complicated barter system they had. I’m fuzzy on the details. Only, whenever some guy sliced himself up with an edger or broke a leg tripping over a hole in the turf, I was never surprised to see his kids with that hunted look in their eyes, that readiness to bolt because running’s all you got when you weigh fifty or ninety pounds and your dad likes to take out his frustrations on whatever doesn’t fight back.
You might think we had some sort of child abuse epidemic going on in Twain Lakes Estates. Truth is – and this is cop truth, the kind that gets the old guys thinking about retiring long before their years are in – there’s a lot more of it going on than you think.
When we were all kids, you’d do something, your old man would get his belt, tell you every which way you let him down and take a few whacks and you wouldn’t sit right for a few days. Now? Maybe it’s the economy, maybe it’s the media, hell, maybe it’s too much of something in the water, but a lot of parents don’t wait for a reason, they just let it fly as soon as they can get the windows shut and the drapes drawn. Some hit, some shove, some yell. Truegood wasn’t having any of it. He was the Dirty Harry of Twain Lakes Estates, and whenever Frank let me know the boy had been at it again, I believe I caught a bit of fatherly pride in Frank’s eyes even while he was apologizing for letting the boy out of his sights.
I say “sights,” and I guess that’s accurate enough because Frank says he’s been able to see Truegood ever since he started showing up in the new house. I’ve never seen him, even though I used to ask often enough. Tell him come out, I said to Frank, tell him I’m no threat. I asked Frank what they do all day and Frank said Truegood just hangs around the place, like a cat, coming out on the odd occasion when he feels like a little attention, hovering nearby as Frank washes the dishes or works on his car.
Retirement is a bitter pill for a lot of men, and I was worried it might be for Frank, but before long they started calling him “Uncle Frank” up and down the street. He threw the ball around with the boys, admired little girls’ dolls and helped ladies get their groceries in from the car. He’s a friend to the older folks, taking down screens in the fall and putting them up in the spring, fetching newspapers that land in bushes, pruning branches away from eaves. He barbecues with the young husbands, watches the game in half a dozen different family rooms, helps with the Pinewood Derby and buys magazines to support the schools.
Truegood makes me a better man, he’s said.
What am I going to do – argue?
I’m sure there’s those that wouldn’t let a thing like a ghost-child rest, even one whose only activity – other than the very infrequent rages that drive people and objects together in calamitous ways – is lurking around the house built from the ashes of the hell-hole where he died. Maybe it’s my failure that I accepted Frank’s ghost, the only one I’d encountered in my life, with so little fuss. But I was distracted.
RoseMarie left me in the fall.
We used to go to the Calumet High home football games, back when we still hoped for a kid. We joked about watching a son on the field, a daughter cheering on the sidelines. RoseMarie used to slip her mittened hand through my arm and rest her head on my shoulder, and I bought her coffee and kettle corn at halftime. But the last couple of years we were together she refused to go. I’d put the little magnetized schedule on the fridge, and ask like it was no big deal, like it was just a notion that ran through my head when I went to get a can of iced tea. One day I said did she think the Panthers had a chance against Quincy, and next thing I know there’s a slam of a door and when she came back a couple of days later it was to get her stuff.
Did I miss her? Tell me, would you miss breathing? Would you miss sun on your face? Would you miss cold water on a hot day? I went to work, I went to church, I played on the department softball team, everything I did before, and I was never more than halfway there because most of me was still clamoring for her.
So a ghost roaming around my sometimes-friend’s house wasn’t at the top of my list.
But that fall turned into winter and then spring. A year passed, then two, and Frank and I got into our rhythm. My beard grew in silver if I let it go a few days, and RoseMarie dated a Nissan dealer from over in Jasper. They broke up and we had an awkward dinner or two and both times RoseMarie reminded me that she’d always care about me but that I needed to move on.
Hell, she hit forty-five and yes I wondered, it doesn’t say anything good about me but I wondered if now, the dream of a baby finally over at last, if she’d come back to me.
But that’s when she took up with Gray Stroker. No, really, that’s his name. Don’t think I didn’t have some fun with that one.
Hey, you know any cops? Maybe got one in the family, the guy your cousin’s kid married, something like that? And maybe you’ve wondered if he could do a favor for you. Fix a ticket, say.
Let me set you straight: ninety-nine percent of the time we’ll turn you down. But that doesn’t mean we’re not doing it. Just not for you.
When you get access to that kind of juice it’s hard not to use it. Your kid’s coach doesn’t play him, the new pastor’s got an oily handshake, a neighbor moves in from a part of the world that ain’t friendly to your politics, hell yes you’re going to find out what you can.
And it stops there. Most of the time it stops right there.
Only here’s what I found out about Stroker:
He had the kind of temper that leaves a trail. Went all the way back to school, he had to leave Mizzou late freshman year and start over at SMSU. He got smarter and more successful and learned to buy his way out of the scrapes he got into – or pick victims who weren’t likely to fight back.
RoseMarie wasn’t the first woman he beat. She was just the first one he liked well enough to keep doing it. In fact he liked her so well he figured he’d make it legal so he could move her in and do it eight days a week.
RoseMarie agreed to meet me for lunch and maybe she figured the rock on her finger would take my attention away from the purpling bruise she couldn’t completely cover with the sweep of hair she fixed so it would curl around her jaw.
“Don’t do it,” I said after I pushed away my plate. Like I could eat?
The look RoseMarie gave me had about a thousand parts, and it would have taken a smarter man than me to lay them out straight.
“You know, Gil, there’s places that’ll let you adopt at my age.” With money, she didn’t say. With influence.
I could have ripped down the place and it took everything I had to keep my hands flat on the table. Would I have adopted for RoseMarie? Hell yeah, only that’s a conversation she never had with me. She was so focused on the body that had betrayed her, that was all she could think about. All she could see.
“RoseMarie,” I said, opening up my own wound as far as it would go without killing me. “Pick somebody else, anybody else. Just not Stroker. Please…I know what he’s doing to you.”
And RoseMarie folded her napkin in half and in half again until it was a little square. Put it carefully next to her glass and stood up, smoothed down her skirt.
“You don’t know anything, Gil,” she said, her eyes focused somewhere in the middle distance. “You don’t know anything at all.”
Frank always circles around to things in his own time. He sucks down those club sodas like they’re eighty proof and I work on matching my real-time buzz to his hypothetical one, and long about midnight it’s settling time, the moment for calling in markers.
Frank goes quiet. Pushes the little cardboard bar mat around in the puddle all those club sodas left on the table, finally looks me hard in the eye.
“Just that one rule,” he says.
Don’t I know it well. One rule: the same one he gave Truegood when they were getting the arrangements all worked out back when Frank decided that what was left of the boy’s spirit could stay.
The worst guys only.
Which is really just Make sure the ends justify the means, said how an eight year old can understand it.
How do you nail a guy like Stroker?
First of all, don’t go assuming he’s all that smart. Sure, he’s built up his own business from scratch, done well for himself, but I know his weakness. Rage makes a man blind. Rage makes a man dumb.
Frank calls him up and orders a pool. A few laps in the morning will do him good, he says, and he’s got the cash lying around. He goes for the interlocking paver deck, the bubbler, fancy tile insets – the whole nine yards. Stroker’s boys get busy and all’s well for a while. But when they’re putting the finishing touches on the pool walls, Frank calls Stroker up and asks him to come out after the crew’s gone home for the day. Says they’ve got a problem.
Stroker goes, already loaded for bear. But he’s no match for Frank. Frank’s had time to get his story right, comes out swinging. What the hell’s this? I could have sprayed that gunite better myself, No way those walls are six inches, I can see the rebar through it. Like that. From there it’s a short trip to commenting on Gray’s character, his little pecker, and Frank just keeps it going in that calm way of his, hammering and hammering at Stroker until Stroker does what the Strokers of this world do –
He loses his shit.
Loses it right there in the backyard and takes a swing at Frank. Which Frank catches the short end of, no doubt about that. He ended up with a shiner to prove it. But he didn’t let up, kept ducking and stepping out of the way, never hitting back, just reminding Stroker all the different ways he’d never be much of a man until Stroker was flailing like a kid in his first school fight, arms churning and eyes streaming, and that’s about when Truegood must have decided enough was enough.
Of course Truegood had been watching it all. He sees everything from his little corners and empty spaces in the house. It’s not like he didn’t hear the things Frank said. Not like he couldn’t tell that Stroker was pushed and then pushed some more.
But you got to remember that Truegood’s only eight. And eight isn’t an age where you have much room for subtleties. Truegood saw Frank, not defending himself. Helpless, almost, against Stroker’s attack. And Truegood knew only too well what helpless feels like.
I responded to the scene, of course. “Twain Lakes Estates again,” my partner said, as we hit Road 9 lights and sirens. “That place is cursed.”
It was a steel radius shaper that Stroker fell on. Cleaved his skull, nice and neat. We got Frank out front, set him on his teak bench in the patch of impatiens he tended with such care, and then the paramedics took over, treating him for shock, and that was the end of the police questioning.
I’m a sorry enough son of a bitch that I wondered if maybe RoseMarie and I would have a shot, once it was all over. I went to the funeral, stood well off to the side in my suit and fresh haircut, didn’t make my move until a few weeks later.
Not right now, Gil, was what she had to say. Said she had a lot to deal with. Said she didn’t need any more complications. Said she needed to figure a few things out.
I figured that was good enough for now.
Frank was fine, not even stitches. He had a barbecue when the pool was finished. The whole neighborhood was there, kids splashing and dunking each other, their mothers looking mighty fine in their sundresses and shorts.
“We’re square,” he said, giving me a grin and a pat on the shoulder as he passed me by.
I was alone in the kitchen then, listening to the sounds of the party outside, kids shrieking, the outdoor speakers playing Jimmy Buffet. I closed my eyes and tried to see if I could sense Truegood there with me. If he bore me any ill will.
I felt nothing. Nothing but the breeze through the window, gentle on my face. So I got my beer and went out to enjoy the new patio.
Originally published in Needle magazine. Posted with permission. Visit NeedleMag.wordpress.com to subscribe.
Sophie Littlefield grew up in rural Missouri. Her first novel, A Bad Day for Sorry, won an Anthony Award for Best First Novel and an RT Book Award for Best First Mystery. It was also shortlisted for Edgar, Barry, Crimespree, and Macavity Awards, and it was named to lists of the year’s best mystery debuts by the Chicago Sun-Times and South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Sophie lives with her husband and two teenage children near San Francisco, California.