THE SAL MINEO PRESERVATION SOCIETY
A brutal cold had shouldered away any vestige of sunnier days as Mink hunkered down at what he judged to be the river’s edge. Snow so deep, he couldn’t tell. Holding a three-foot length of rusted pipe, a faucetless spigot at one end, he began spearing the base of a snowy crest. To cook up his blood, Mink imagined himself a Klondike prospector atop the motherlode, then for some rhythm he took on the bearing of a railroad pile driver. But neither proved an icebreaker, so he dug inside the skin of an Ice Age hunter desperate for a scrap of fish. He stabbed wildly at the same rust-streaked hole in the drift, his jagged, guttural howl quickly torn to whispers by the turbulent mountain draft.
When he finally punched through the ice, he flew forward to end up splayed out like a kid making a snow angel. A vigorous, unappetizing suck on the spigot drew water and, while his wet pants grew crisp, he watched the bucket fill. The bare trees stood motionless even though the wind blew steadily. It slipped down the river valley like a blade into an oiled sheath, its edge sharp enough to pare away the last of his imagined Neanderthal. Left alone to crawl back inside the husk of himself, the ordinary Minkovski, he found the fit no less strange than it was last night. That’s when he, Jean, and Victor put on Popeye, Olive Oyl, and Brutus masks and kidnapped parking lot czar Eddie Zarg.
Chimney smoke curled through the evergreens making Victor’s place look Christmas card quaint. It was his uncle’s hunting hideaway but the old guy had stopped coming after he winged a surveyor pacing off lots for new summer homes.
“Goddamn frozen pipes,” Mink cursed, a sloshing bucket in each hand as he pushed the door open with his head.
“Jesus, Mink, you go for a swim?” asked Jean from underneath the quilt she’d been cloaked in since they arrived in the middle of night. She was planted by the Franklin stove parceling coal with a hand shovel. “The beach is less crowded this time of year, I guess.”
“Yeah, and you can’t beat these off-season rates,” Mink said, easing the buckets onto the picnic table by the sink. “It’s zero-capital-Z degrees out there and you’re snuggled so tight to the stove you’ve gotten a tan. Next time, call room service.”
Outstretched arms spreading the quilt with regal flair, Jean came over and wrapped him inside her cocoon. “Welcome to the warm world,” she purred, sliding her leg between his Popsicle limbs. An express train shivered uptown through his spine to smack flat against the back of his skull.
“Cut the High Sierra.” He stiffly squirmed away. “You’re not Ida Lupino and that movie don’t end happy anyways.”
“Oh, Mad Dog, my sociopath.” Jean regained her hold and rocked him closer, her voice in a stage whisper, “Victor’s upstairs with Zarg. It’s you, me and a pail of coal.”
Weeks ago she had floated all this as a joke, rang some changes on it, and then, when the boys got glassy-eyed watching her watch Sal Mineo in Exodus, she rode the plot home as inevitable—they would kidnap the developer who was about to tear down a brownstone where Mineo had maybe lived in the Fifties while playing Yul Brenner’s son in a Broadway production of The King and I. They would convince him—somehow—not to tear the building down. While advancing this cute piece of deranged ideation, she had vamped Mink with work-a-day earnestness while free-styling a caustic affection for Victor. Right off, Mink saw it plain. He knew Jean felt her jittery best riding some disaster’s serrated edge.
Last outing she teamed up with an Israeli guy who made a living card-counting at the blackjack tables in Atlantic City, a micro-computer taped beneath his shirt. She introduced him to the glee of crystal methadrine, then clamored for a big score. Cranked to beat the band, he sweated so much at the table that his computer shorted out and ignited his chest hair. Two bouncers broke one arm outside the casino as Jean pleaded with them to spare the other one because she couldn’t drive herself back to New York. Shaken up, she repaired, on her mother’s tab, to the pricey clinic where she met Victor in group therapy; he was the runaway talker who lied so much and so sloppily everyone studied the ceiling when he spoke.
Except Jean. She reveled in the baldness of his jerrybuilt deceit, saw in it a forlorn, childish craving she could feed. Mink and Jean were neighbors across the hall and they had laughed together, soon after Victor started coming around, as she mimicked his blowhard storytelling in the nut house. They had laughed about a bunch of her guys but Mink just couldn’t find the right time—she was either head over heels, strung out, or in rehab—to pitch his own increasingly hangdog woo. So when Victor started staying overnight at her place Mink could spark only weary rage as he pressed his ear to his door when the two of them came home—Victor’s goofy braying and then her familiar laugh.
“Fe fi fo fum, I smell the fun of loaded gun.” Victor came thumping down the stairs stuffing the armory—a .38 pistol—in his back pocket. “I thirsted and the Romans gave me Muscatel,” he announced as he scooped a cup of the river water.
“Careful, could be full of bad microbes,” Mink said.
“Then we’ll feed it to Zarg. Open up his sluices. Retentive bastard probably only shits when the prime rate drops.” Victor wore an Australian safari hat, a withered ostrich feather flagging off one side. A tall boy even in socks, he loomed creature-feature size in his Arctic-proof mountaineer’s boots. He gulped two cups and regarded the third warily.
“You know the septic tank from the gun club leeched last fall. Maybe we should’ve melted some snow instead.”
“Brainstorm, sweetheart,” Jean said. “But a bit on the tardy side for you.”
Mink thawed unhappily by the Franklin and emitted a hollow chuckle. “We’re pioneer stock,” he declared, standing in shorts as he wrung out his pants over the stovetop. Victor and Jean, eyes aglare, smiled loonily. Once again, and how many times has it been since he slipped on a Popeye mask behind a dumpster last night, Mink wished himself gone, wished himself home sprawled on the bed, his head sandwiched between two pillows.
“How’s the czar?” Jean asked as she sat cross-legged at the kitchen table. She had begun mincing magic mushrooms with a wrist-thick Swiss Army knife. Zarg was known as the “Parking Czar” of Manhattan. “Still bug-eyed. I’ve never seen eyes that really did look like saucers?”
“It’s that touch of duct tape on the mouth,” Victor said, stroking his chin. “Accentuates the upper face. Actually, he’s not so scared now. Pissed-off is more like it. Being hog-tied to a bunk bed overnight will do that.” He grinned loudly, his many teeth appearing to jostle for prominence.
“He can breathe, can’t he?” Compassionate Mink.
“Sure, sure.” Victor stood behind Jean cupping her head in a pair of large, putty soft, almost babyish hands. “He’ll be fine. Just needs to relax a bit and Suzy Homemaker’s dose of fungi oughta turn that trick.”
“Victor’s a strict behaviorist, you know,” chirped Jean. “He studied with Pavlov, Smirnoff and Stolichnaya.” She measured out two chopped mushroom caps and dropped them in a simmering pot. “Am I on target here? Don’t want to knock his brainpan loose or anything.”
Mink nodded yes without looking, thinking instead about Zarg’s bug-eyes. The Citybest article about him said he was fifty-six. Maybe he had a heart condition. But then the magazine also said he played squash like a demon. “Hey, I wanna check on the buzzard,” he said.
“I said he’s dandy,” said Victor.
“Just look in on him.” Mink made for the stairs.
“You no believe your compadre?” Habitual lying had spawned in Victor a need for regular testaments of trust.
“I know he’s OK but I wanna visit. I’m a card-carrying kidnapper, too.”
“All right, all right. Remember, no names. And don’t forget your mask. And don’t take mine. He knows I’m Brutus. We’ve got a rapport.”
Mink fumbled among the coats on the couch and retrieved Jean’s Olive Oyl mask. Clomping up the wooden stairs, he saw her stirring at the stove, her other arm loose like an undone belt part way around Victor’s waist. She found Mink’s eyes and closed hers, as if she’d caught his look and then hid the evidence behind her shutters.
Air as dirty as it was cold made the upstairs root cellar dank; an ancient paste of wood smoke, moldering boots, camphor, and creosote slathered across Mink’s face as soon as he reached the top of the stairs. The milky light that illuminated two plastic covered windows penetrated only a few feet into the gloom, enough to brighten the steel frames of four military bunk beds. In the lower bunk of the bed against the far wall lay Zarg. A propane lantern hung overhead. The yellowy tableau reminded Mink of church crypts in Italy where withered saints were laid out like blue-plate specials. He sweated into his mask and gulped his own trapped breath. Small detonations of claustrophobic panic scattered through his chest. He squinted hard through Olive Oyl’s eyes and fidgeted with the elastic band that dug against his ears. Bearing down on Zarg, he wondered Who, singing to himself, who wrote the book of love. Eddie squinted too, the lantern light pouring over his face as his eyes skipped frantically behind the narrowed lids. Mink settled warily onto a chair at the foot of the bed, careful to be quiet, non-threatening, interpretable as perhaps even friendly. Who, who, who, he tapped out silently, who wrote that book of love.
He summoned up suave Ben Casey for proper bedside manner, “Are you okay?” Jesus, Mink thought, what a question. Of course he’s going to nod yes sir, quite wonderbar, I’d smile for the camera if I could just move my lips underneath this remarkably adhesive tape. In fact, Zarg did nod yes, his eyes still dancing. Checking that the knots were all knotted, each arm and leg to a bedpost, Mink edged closer and dropped a line he’d only heard used by cartoon characters like Snidely Whiplash, “You can scream all you want but we’re miles from anyone so it’s best you keep quiet.” Zarg’s rubbery jowls pulled taut as Mink tugged the tape off his mouth. When the last bit came off with a snap, Mink jerked back anticipating a scream or a viper’s spit. But Zarg lay quiet, flexing his jaw and sucking air. More little bombs now going off in his knees and belly, Mink forced himself to study a tiny mole on Zarg’s chin, one neatly set within the parenthesis of two nasty shaving cuts. The words, Lindbergh baby flashed in newspaper print through his head. He remembered Patty Hearst and the Getty kid with his ear in the mail.
“Thanks,” Eddie Zarg, the parking lot lord of New York, croaked huskily. “I thought I’d suffocate. Howabout the ropes? Be nice to sit up, stretch a bit.” Pressurized calm, an imploring lilt in every word. Fear’s lyric.
Mink stood, shoulders shot back with a military jolt. “The ropes have to stay for now. You can sit when we go down for breakfast.” The air felt chewable as gum. Mink’s voice vibrated against the mask which then tingled his cheeks. I’m Torquemada in Olive Oyl drag, he thought. I’m doing slapstick on a Bob Hope special. His eyes clenched shut with obliterative force; he shuffled backward.
“Breakfast. How nice.” The sweet gone sour in Zarg’s voice. “Do I get to see a menu?”
“Don’t be an asshole, Zarg,” Mink said shakily, “this is serious shit.”
“Serious shit. You shaggy-assed punk,” Zarg growled, his hands bunching into fists. “You’re gonna see serious shit. You have no fucking idea who you’ve messed with here. No idea how bad you fucked up.”
A sauna cooked beneath Mink’s mask. Who wrote that goddamn book of love?
“Listen, you don’t seem like a bad kid,” Zarg started in with his dealmaker’s pitch. “If you help me you’re gonna walk away clean from something you know will turn out bad.”
Charging in from the shadows, a magic show’s outsized rabbit, Victor elbowed between them, pistol in hand.
“We’ll see who’s fucked here, Mr. Eddie. I know about the Mafia shit-birds you hang out with but I don’t give a fart in France.” Probably miles tall to a supine Zarg, Victor started rocking the bunk bed side to side. “As your doctor and a proud gun owner, I’d advise a copasetic demeanor.” He let the bed settle gently, then bent to pull each rope tighter. Zarg’s fists opened like flowers, and he became ever so still. The two of them, Mink could now see, really did have a rapport.
“You think ducks know?” Jean asked, Socratic depths in her airy pitch. She was scrambling eggs as she regarded a row of duck decoys lined up along the counter.
The boys brooded purposefully, chins secure between fists as if their heads would plummet through the floor without that heroic support. “Know what?” they harmonized.
“That they’re being duped. Do they really go for a wooden duck?”
Victor bore down studiously, his overbite devouring his lower lip, sucking it in like he was trying to swallow his own mouth; he wanted very much to answer correctly. “Sure some know something’s up, but they can’t resist their biology.”
“Yeah, born suckers.” Mink piped this direct to Jean but she let it pass, her eyes now fixed on the sparks visible behind the stove’s grate. Belly, she thought. What a sexy word for something filled with ashes and made of iron.
“Get Zarg,” she said. “Breakfast is served.”
A gun at the old man’s back, Victor walked a blindfolded Zarg downstairs for a platter spiked with psilocybin fungi. All of them cozy within the radiant ambit of the Franklin stove—which had taken on the aspect of a host, a silent, stolid old-timer glad to have these city folks up for some real country weather—sat Bonnie, her Clydes, and Zarg. No masks now, since Victor decided Zarg’s blindfold was enough. Outside the wind drove the snow crazily, the windows like television screens between stations. Mink pushed his fork through neatly built piles and watched egg erupt between the tines. Drift, he commanded himself, far enough away, out of this overstuffed chair, out of this cabin, out of this deep scatter and blown snow. There was silent chewing all around as the wind tinkered with every loose joint in the cabin. Zarg used his foot to explore the rope that connected his ankle to the cast iron stove. He regarded it like a new appendage, something whose mechanical possibilities had yet to reveal themselves. Hungry but sightless, he scooped haphazard forkfuls.
“What’s with you people. Come on, what’s the story here.” Plaintive, much put out was Moneybags. Victor looked up to see him gesturing with his fork and lurched like a drunken waiter to grab it. He scared a girlish yelp from the fat man.
“Sorry, Mister Eddie,” Victor said through a mouthful of egg. He offered a plastic spoon. “Wouldn’t want you to accidentally stab anyone.”
“You’re here for some re-education. A new spool for your loom,” Jean said, starting in like a tough new teacher in a baddass school. “You’ve got an unhealthy way with the world, thinking everybody is your personal withdraw window. Step up, show your porky mug, and the dollars fly. Well, a line’s got to be drawn with you, your kind in general. And we’re here to help you draw that line yourself. We’re going give you a guided tour to Eddie Zarg.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?” Zarg snapped.
“We’re talking about, for instance, the building on 55th Street where Sal Mineo lived,” Jean shot back. “The one you’re going to tear down for another friggin’ parking lot.” Mink watched her incandesce then cool, and marveled at the ease with which she let herself feel things.
“What are you guys, communist types? You know my grandfather was socialist. He used to go to big meetings down in Union Square,” Zarg said.
“Yeah, comrade,” Victor laughed. He checked and tightened the ropes, then gave Zarg a slap on the back. “And we’re Stalin’s lost grandchildren in search of our roots.”
Mink hadn’t thought about this part, the afterpart. They spent so much time working out the abduction—grabbing Zarg as he left his girlfriend’s place in the East ’80s—he never believed that they would actually end up with a living, breathing Zarg of their own. No ransom, no demands, just some silly notion about screwing with a rich man’s head. Jesus, Mink flailed at himself and then he turned to Victor. “Don’t hit him, man,” he said.
“Don’t hit him, maaan,” Victor whined. “Don’t worry about it.”
“I’ll worry about what I want to.” Schoolyard. Mink might as well have said, It’s a free country.
“You worry too much. You never really got behind this. I’ve been working my ass off. Jean too. But you’ve just been playing tag-along.”
True enough, Mink never was behind it. Maybe he hated his city job answering complaint letters from subway riders, but who wouldn’t? It was practically a job requirement. But it paid well enough. And there was great vacation time. So what if he never went anywhere, at least he could if he wanted to. Jail would not be a good thing. He’d lose his seniority, all his accumulated sick leave. His discount subway pass. In Victor’s voice he heard his father’s exasperated What-are-we-going-to-do-with-you tone, the same accusation that he wasn’t really trying. Underachiever. Daydreamer. Waterboy. “Go fuck yourself,” he said.
“Children, children.” Jean was on her feet, palms up like a referee. “What is important here? Let’s not trip on our own feet, OK.”
“Children, you bet you are,” Zarg said. “I wouldn’t let any of you help my Puerto Ricans park cars.”
Jean spun around at Zarg. “Look, shithead, nobody’s interested in what you’ve got to say. But if you’ve got something so important to say, maybe you should try it with your fat tongue cut out.”
“Cut your freakin’ tongue out,” Victor echoed.
Mink stiffened. Tongue? This was not on the menu. He thought of Jean with the Swiss army knife and he wondered where the gun was. His stomach tightened around what felt like a dozen struggling fists inside.
“I’m going to be sick,” Zarg announced, his voice suddenly wan and distant.
Jean nodded yes, yes and silently mouthed the words, “He’s getting off.” Another proud mom pleased her cooking has hit the spot.
“You’ll be fine,” Victor told Zarg. “Relax and let it happen.”
“Let what happen?” Zarg’s head rolled around, a balding antennae frantically trying to tune into the source of Victor’s voice. “What the fuck is gonna happen?”
No one said a thing. The cabin quaked in a blast of wind and coals shifted in the stove. Thick and animal deep, Zarg’s panicky breathing filled the room. Mink felt its stuttered rasp envelop him, clog his own throat. Who wrote, who wrote the book of drugs. Mink was underwater yet still could hear Jean and Victor, their angry whispers barely audible at his spongy depth. He wanted to ask if something was wrong, to ask Jean, but he could not make his mouth move. Eddie Zarg had begun moaning—a soft, exhausted sound that Mink felt had been stolen from his own mouth.
“Coffee?” Jean leaned down and set the cup against Mink’s open hand. Her hair poured across his face, lemony shampoo, the closed smells of winter. I am immune to this, he thought. “You still with us?” Jean spoke close to his ear, her sibilants like brushed cymbals. He took a couple of her fingers and tugged. Make the world right that way. Victor had pulled a chair opposite Zarg and talked quietly to him. Mink heard Zarg say the word dizzy, heard Victor soothe, It’s as harmless as dreaming.
“You would think dreams are harmless,” Mink said.
Now standing behind Zarg, whose blindfold he was removing, Victor flashed wide, wild eyes before pulling on his Brutus. “This is a conversation here,” he said, punching each syllable with exaggerated precision. “Put your mask on or get out.” Jean already wore her Olive Oyl and she offered Mink his Popeye. He took it but headed for the door.
Snow, snow, snowed away, Mink stepped down from the porch to end up knee-deep in the stuff. Like a blanket pulled over the head of a sleepless world, snow made a place where you crawl down beneath its weight, blind yourself in its forever white. The big, wet flakes startled him, a cold pin prick on his face every time one landed. Mink had taken a personal day for all this and he recalled that he only had two left. He so hoarded his time off that he had argued for the kidnapping to be done over a weekend. Now he was down to one personal day. Personal day. That’s choice, Mink thought. What could be more personal than a Federal crime punishable by life imprisonment. That’s something you just might want to keep close to the vest. But sick time also fits, he figured, since he was doing this to be close to a woman who may be crazy, was sometimes cruel, and was certainly fucking someone else.
As he shivered against the raw, wet air, he imagined he was a lost trapper bereft of fire, then a beggar expelled from his sheltering doorway. But those dramas would not serve; the Popeye mask in his hand was the only place to cloak himself. With his thumb in the hollow of its puffy cheek, Mink’s fingers grazed across the embossed corncob pipe. Popeye the Sailor Man. The cartoon was never a favorite but he’d watched it almost every day for years as a kid. Sally Starr, the cowgirl kiddie-show host, featured Popeye and Clutch Cargo everyday at five. He would eat on a foldout TV dinner stand while eyeing “Our Gal Sal,” keenly aware of her sizable breasts, especially when the line of fringe that crossed her chest danced as she twirled her gun. I’m strong to the finish—Mink turned face up to blank sky and tumbling flakes—cause I eat my spinach—and opened his mouth. He was thirsty and the snow teased his dry tongue.
“Whatcha doing, trying to swallow the blizzard?” Jean asked from the porch. Her head rose out of a quilted bundle; she held herself tight at the waist and shoulder.
“No, just chewing air.” Mink climbed back up the stairs, kicking snow free at each step. “What’s going on?”
“Doctor and patient are doing fine. Victor’s got Zarg talking about growing up. The fat man is definitely launched—he’s all inner-child with a pinkie ring.”
After loosening Jean’s hair from the blankets, Mink tugged a collar into shape around her neck. Like sending her off for her first day of school. Their breath steamed together in knotty, evanescent whorls while Jean dabbed her nose with a tissue.
“It’s going to be fine, babe,” she said. “We’ll walk away from this. It’s just something Victor needed to get out of his system.” Partial truth. “And then maybe you and me . . .” Probable lie, even with the maybe. She sank down into her body wrap—mischievous eyes barely visible, “I really do want to make love to you, Minkovski.”
Mink ran through a list of possible responses—the echo effect, And I want to make love to you, something gutsy, Do you think saying that erases everything else?, or maybe blunt and dirty, One promised fuck—I’ll pencil that in on my calendar. Before he could choose, Victor’s head peeped out, puppet-like, from the door.
“People, perhaps a little help in here.”
Mink said nothing; Jean too was silent and as still. They both knew they looked guilty but neither could come up with the word or gesture to break the spell. The snow-spiked wind burned his ears; his feet ached with cold.
“Are you both deaf?” Victor said as he lifted his mask and smiled clownishly, but hard. Lots of effort. “Pretty please with piss on top. And don’t forget your masks.”
Balled up on the couch, his umbilical rope snaking across the floor to the stove, Zarg chewed absently on the fringe of the pillow he hugged to his chest. When Mink sat down across from him his eyes widened, their pupils as big and dark as old 45s. With that slack, unshaven face, the bruised blue circles, and the comb-over tuffs all shot to hell, Mink could see Zarg was having a rough ride. All the polish had been rubbed away; he was a sagging old man whose dye jobs, manicures, and squash games were, in truth, a slack defense against decay. A spoiled tomato, soft and wrinkled. And now his mind all mushy, too.
“So Eddie.” Victor hovered behind him, massaging his shoulders. His voice low, soothing, therapeutic. “What I really want to know is how you feel about getting rich on bits and pieces of empty asphalt. You don’t make widgets, don’t cure anyone, you don’t build houses. You don’t even sell dope. You just nickel-and-dime people to park their cars.” Victor bent to whisper, soft, endearing through his Brutus mask, “I mean, even among parasites you rank pretty low.”
Zarg mumbled into his pillow as if it were a microphone, “Just putting bread on the table. I work twelve hours a day to put something . . . to save for my family, but even they don’t know what I’m trying to . . . I don’t talk . . . they don’t talk . . .”
“Talk to who?” Victor asked.
“To people. To people like . . . I don’t even talk to my own daughter anymore.” He shut his eyes for a long time and then opened them with a child’s Christmas morning surprise. “Christ, that’s one helluva movie. Do you folks do this stuff a lot?”
“What about your daughter?” Jean asked.
“She married an asshole. A deadbeat. I told her he’d run her around the block and leave. Now he’s suing for alimony.”
“And that’s why you can’t talk to her? Cause you’re so pissed off?”
“Yeah. Because I’m pissed off. She’s pissed off. Every time I try to say something . . . one time she said I sounded like poison. ” The batteries died on Zarg’s voice. He found the damp corner of his pillow and started to nibble, a newborn at the breast.
“You mean like a snake?” Victor said. Olive Oyl glared at him, then she turned to Mink for commiseration. Don’t look at me, he wanted to say. You brung him, you dance with him.
“This stuff is getting to me,” Zarg moaned. “It just won’t stop. When is it going to stop?” He raised his arms over his head and spread them as far as the rope would allow. “I give up. Whatever you want.” Mink saw the unclutched pillow slowly spring back into shape, revealing dark, distended palm prints. Afterimage of panic. We always leave our mark, he thought. Sweat, some piss, a carving in some rock. They were leaving their mark in Zarg’s brain. A slash of neon, the mildew musk of a prehistoric couch, and a dose of jagged fright. Fear is what they had burned into Eddie Zarg’s head. Maybe he knew it before, but now he would know its every color, high voltage.
Jean went to a window, breathed on the glass and drew an angel in the fog. She flicked the moisture from her finger against her sketch and watched the drops course down through the portrait, devouring its lines, gathering force as they severed the wings in two. Mink and Victor collected behind her. The storm had stopped and it felt like the house had landed after wild flight. Not in Oz, but somewhere empty, somewhere tired.
“Let’s wrap this up,” Jean said. “We drop him, we go home, we watch Kojak on TV.”
“But we’re not done yet,” Victor pleaded.
“What about Sal Mineo’s place? What about that?” A spoiled child keening for ice cream, Mink thought, as he squirmed with embarrassment. But anger quickly overtook him—how could he have taken up with these people. Same beat question. Still drawing a blank.
“Victor, we are done with this,” Jean said, words popping through barely parted lips. “Get Zarg ready to go. Mink, you should start digging the van out. We’re going to drop him just like we planned.”
But as soon as Mink stepped out on the porch he heard angry voices. He held the door open a bit. Victor blindfolded Zarg, who launched a bovine cry that seemed to swallow itself as his darkness returned.
“We should do what we came to do,” Victor shouted. He manhandled Zarg, tugging the ropes tight, and then tighter to make his point. The old man sucked hard at the newly applied tape, a small gray cleft deepening in his mouth.
“Let it go,” said Jean. “It’s just something we did. It ain’t the crusades.” Darting around, Jean gathered up the few things they brought in a backpack. As she passed between the stove and couch she laid her hand against the small of Victor’s back as he bent over a wriggling Zarg. “Just don’t hurt him.” Her touch had a mechanical effect on Victor, making him stand up and lift both arms above his head. For a second, he seemed to pose like a victorious boxer, but then with a sledgehammer swing he brought his clasped fists down on Zarg’s stomach. The blow bounced Zarg’s body on the couch as it vibrated with an unformed, buried cry. Reflexively, he curled tight like a centipede.
“What the fuck are you doing!” Jean screamed. Grabbing Victor around from behind she staggered back with him, bumping the hot stove. She screamed again but held on. Mink bolted across the room and drew up short, stopping to figure just how to separate the two. Just as Victor pried Jean’s locked arms from his chest, Mink saw his chance and reached out to snatch the .38 in Victor’s belt.
“Stop it. Stop it right fucking now,” Mink shouted, his voice wire-thin and breakable. He pointed the pistol in a vague way at Victor’s feet, unable to fix on a lethal target like his head or gut. Jean slipped loose and moved off to the side, her eyes tracing and retracing the line between the muzzle and Victor.
“Hey, guys,” she said, a wooden laugh threading through her words. “Come on now, we should be cool. This shouldn’t be going this way.”
His open palms at shoulder-height, Victor could have been someone refusing an extra portion of dessert. “That’s right, Mink,” he crooned. “We should be cool here. A little family squabble but there’s no need to get overly bent.” He rocked easily from foot to foot, inching slightly forward. Zarg groaned but lay still. “I’m behaving, buddy. Sweetness and light.”
A dozen gun-wielding movie guys fluttered through Mink’s head, condensing into one generic shot—a dark-haired man wearing a jacket with big lapels holds his weapon a bit forward from his waist as he points with his free hand. So Mink pointed at the couch, “Just sit.”
Shuffling closer, Victor’s piano-mouthed grin overtook his lower face.
“Get back, man.” Mink mustered some tenor, but Victor kept coming, rocking like a robot toy. One step back, Mink knew, was as good as giving up. Still, he couldn’t point the gun at Victor’s head. “You’d better sit down now.” This time his voice crackled in the upper register.
“Come on, listen to him,” Jean begged, her jaw working after the words stopped, as if she were badly dubbed.
Victor shot her an ugly look and took one giant step forward, lunging for the gun. Mink slammed back against the wall, the gun suddenly heavy, his every nerve packed into the palm of his hand. The trigger felt like someone’s finger that he was unbending, maybe so he could take hold of their hand. The pop was surprise enough to press him back against the wall again. Zarg bellowed and Jean crouched down, her eyes shut, her teeth dug into the soft pad of her thumb. Alone in his lack of reaction to the shot, Victor calmly inspected the front of his body and saw the hole in the toe of his boot. Blood had begun to leak from underneath the sole.
“Jeez, you shot me. You ruined my brand new boot,” he said blankly. The gunfire had shorn him of any menace.
“You’re lucky he didn’t ruin your shirt,” Jean said. She lead him to a chair, knelt and untied the perforated shoe. “Mink, there’s a first-aid kit under the sink.” The bullet had passed between his big toe and its neighbor taking a healthy bite of skin from each. “Nothing serious,” she said as she peeled back his wool sock. “You’ll flamenco before the weekend.”
Gun in one hand, the open first-aid box in the other, Mink stood slack-armed beside Jean. She took out a roll of gauze and scissors. “Why don’t you check Zarg, then sit down and cool out. And take the bullets out of that gun.”
Mink was gripping the pistol so tight, his hand had cramped. The pebbled butt was slick with sweat. Firing it, he thought, had made it a part of him. It was the biggest thing in the room, as hot as the stove, and it was taking root in his hand.
“I’m sorry, Victor. But you shouldn’t have . . . I mean . . . ”
“Watch with the names,” Victor said distractedly, intent instead on Jean’s handiwork. “I’m sorry,” he said to her.
She daubed peroxide on some cotton. “It’s OK.” She didn’t look up, wouldn’t meet Victor’s thirsty eyes.
The sharp pinch of antiseptic rose up to make Mink wince. He remembered skateboard brush-burns and bicycle cuts, the bathroom cabinet mirror folding his reflection as he opened the door. Ancient bust-ups, home cures. Small scars with small stories. Now he’d get top billing in someone else’s war wound tale. The fucker almost blew my foot off. What could he say himself, So I told ‘em, one more step and I’ll dust your Tom McAnns. History, Mink decided, would not absolve him.
Once the van tumbled into the deeply tracked road that ran along the river, the going got better; plowing down from the cabin had been a gear grinding chore. Swaddled in blankets and bouncing on the cold steel floor, Zarg sat across from Victor in the back. Navigator Jean rode up front and pitched warnings at Mink as he attacked the drifts with engine at full gun and wheels spinning. He was a Panzer tank pilot driving toward Stalingrad, or the spearhead of an Arctic rescue mission. Mostly, though, he was nervous, stalled too long in the first reel of an unfinished movie, no gear to shift him free.
On the highway, a brooding quiet settled in as the winter sky bled down from a chamois-soft blue. They were headed back toward New York, specifically Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. Plan was to stop in a secluded spot, give a tied and blindfolded Zarg a shove, then speed off free and clear. The Parking King would have been gone less than 24 hours. Between his wife and girlfriend, each figuring he was with the other, there would be hardly enough time for the cops to get involved. And what could he tell them: That two guys and a woman wearing cartoon masks took him to a cabin somewhere. Mink could see the tabloid headlines—Psychedelic Quicknap, or Parking Czar Pinched by Popeye. A one-day joke around town and then consigned to forgottenville.
When the George Washington Bridge came into view, Jean turned to the passengers in the back, “Are we hunky-dory?” Victor squeezed a dozing Zarg, eliciting a cranky grunt. “We’re good,” he said. “I’ll get him ready.”
A river of rush-hour headlights poured northward from the city. A torchlight procession of penitents, Mink thought. His eyes relaxed and the white beams blurred. The traffic around him seemed to buoy up and carry the van forward; he was gliding down the grooves of a concrete funnel, moving inexorably toward the distant, luminous spires. The heat blowing from the dashboard was like stale booze. Suddenly, a driver in the next lane blasted their horn. Mink, who had drifted across lanes, swerved back sharply, sending Victor crashing onto Zarg. Sprawled in the rich man’s lap, Victor snatched at the air for some non-existent handle while Zarg, sightless and just miles from freedom, slipped his arms over Victor’s head and snapped the rope that joined his hands tight against Victor’s neck.
“Hello fucker,” Zarg hissed through a hole he had chewed open in the tape.
The rope dug down across Victor’s windpipe. He sputtered and coughed. He kicked against the walls, but Zarg held on and pulled tighter.
“I’ve got a gun pointed right at your head, fat man,” Jean shouted. She didn’t, but she was rifling through Mink’s coat hoping to find one. She almost had a gun and that should count for something.
“So what. So you’ve got a gun. I’m gonna break your boyfriend’s neck if you don’t stop this truck right now.”
Mink looked to Jean as she shook her head violently No way.
“How ’bout you do that while I shoot you dead.” Jean had found the .38 and rapped the muzzle against the roof as audible proof. Oncoming headlights cast enough light through the van so she could see Victor’s swollen face, his lips wet, his nose running.
“Check the chamber, little girl,” Zarg said. “The last I heard was bullets getting emptied on some table. Just like you asked for.”
Mink sank deeply in his seat, several vertebrae lopped from his spine. He bent toward the steering wheel and locked his mind on the car in front of him. He was Richard Petty tail drafting in the Daytona 500. No way was he going to turn to catch Jean’s simmering eyes.
“You’re way too smart for me Eddie Zarg.” She fired the pistol through the roof and an electric jolt caromed around the van. “That’s what a little girl’s got a purse for, asshole. To keep the bullets.” She laughed. “Now, let him go.”
Zarg uncoupled from Victor and cringed in expectation of a shot. Up on his knees and panting like an animal after a chase, Victor spat and wiped his mouth.
“Pull over,” Jean told Mink.
“Pull over!” Her voice was metal, foreign. Mink pulled to the shoulder, rumbling over gravel and hubcaps, and stopped beneath an underpass. “Throw him out.”
Victor staggered out the back door dragging Zarg with him. A truck barreled past, its wake rocking the van. Mink gripped the wheel like a ring-buoy.
“Just dump him.” Jean strained to be heard above the traffic. At the sound of Zarg hitting the ground, Mink felt as if the ballast had been cast; he was free for ascent. Jean put her hand over his as Victor climbed back in. “Let’s go home,” she said. But Mink had already found the door handle, had already given it a tug. A glance back into the traffic to see if he could swing it open, and he slid from his seat to the ground.
“What are you doing?” Jean said.
“Fucking flake,” Victor cursed, as he pushed up-front between the seats. “We’ve got to go.” Mink measured the breaking wave of traffic, then sprinted across three lanes to the asphalt medial strip. Turning around, he saw Zarg struggling to his feet as the van lumbered out into the middle lane, cutting off cars, brakes squealing, tires skidding. A pickup just missed them. Zarg was tearing at his mouth and eyes and Mink could see motorists were slowing down at the sight.
Who wrote the book, he shouted into the storm of passing cars. He started to run, aimed at the sweet spot somewhere in the traffic that would allow him to dash between the speeding cars like an Olympic hurdler, or a doughboy dodging shells at the Somme. Or Minkovski, maybe, running hard, terrified by a burst of reasonless joy. Running nowhere farther than just away, an unmoored world roaring in his open face.
Albert Mobilio is the recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award. His work has appeared in Harper’s, the Village Voice, Grand Street, BOMB, Tin House, and Black Clock. His books of poetry include Bendable Siege, The Geographics, and Me with Animal Towering. He is currently a writer-in-residence at the New School’s Eugene Lang College and is also the fiction editor at Bookforum.
Albert Mobilio is the author of several books of poetry including Bendable Siege, The Geographics, Me with Animal Towering, and Touch Wood. He teaches at the New Schoolâs Eugene Lang College and is an editor at Hyperallergic Weekend and Bookforum.