"Liz is gone. Ain't nothin' I can do about that." It's the only thought that don't slip out of my head before I finished thinking it. That's how it is when you live alone. You start talking to your wife who had to go away two years ago. You hear her moving in the chair where she used to sit all day long and watch her programs.
If Liz was still here she'd say, "Lowell, there's someone at the door."
I smile at the empty chair.
"Answer the door Lowell," is what I think she'd tell me. I think it so damned hard I swear I hear it.
Liz tells me, "Maybe it's a neighbor come to call," but we ain't got neighbors except for Roger and he's out of town. No one to count my heart pills, or see if I fell in the shower.
Liz says, "Go see who's calling. Maybe it'll be a couple of those nice Mormon boys." Liz was always partial to Mormons, but they usually go away before I get all the way out of my chair.
I try to yell, "It's open," but the words come out all phlegmy like an early morning coughing spell.
"Getting up is such a pain in the ass!" That comes out real clear; I hope it's not loud enough to scare Mormons.
"Sorry." I apologize because Liz don't like swear words. Wouldn't like them if she was still here. But she ain't, and there's nothing I can do about that.
I rock back and forth trying to get out of my chair the way I used to get my car loose from a snowdrift. Rocking makes the world tip sideways the way it does sometimes in the shower stall when I close my eyes and let the water run over my face. I wait a minute till things settle down.
Showers are worse than heart attacks. You fall down and the water turns cold and you have to lie there until Roger comes to check on you—if he isn't out of town that is. Heart attacks kill you quick, but showers kill you slow.
By the time I catch my balance the room is barely moving. Time to choose between my walker and my cane. The cane is good enough if there's no hurry; the walker's better when there's an impatient son of a bitch at the front door who'll beat it into splinters if I take too long.
"Hold your goddamned horses!" I apologize to Liz's empty chair again—quiet like, in case it's some damned social worker at the door who might think I'm a crazy old man who can't live by himself any longer.
I'm thumping and bumping along extra loud so the visitor will know the owner of the house is on the way. Four thump-bumps and I'm in the hallway wondering how long the light's been on, and how I'll replace the bulb when it burns out. Four more thump-bumps and I'm at the door trying not to look pathetic.
It's not a stranger looking in through the little rectangles of glass, but it's not somebody with a name that comes to me right away either. He's damned curious, twisting his head so he can catch movement in the dim hallway. I stop and look at my watch, as if time means anything to me now that Liz is gone: eight O'clock. Don't know if that's eight in the morning or eight in the evening, but it'll come to me by the time I open the door. I'll know who's knocking too. Things always come to me eventually but sometimes it's too late to do any good.
I pull the door open and lock eyes with the visitor to show I might still have some "dangerous" left in me. I try to keep a blank look from taking over while his name works its way to the tip of my tongue.
His fingers have tattoo letters on them. Love and Hate, I think, but his movements are so jerky and the hallway is so dim I can't be sure. There's cartoon characters on his neck—Tweety Bird, Woody Woodpecker, Sylvester the Cat—but the colors and proportions are all amateur. He's got black ink teardrops dripping from his left eye, a spider web on one elbow, and a blue rattlesnake coiled around the other one. The snake means something important but I'm not sure what.
It's the voice that finally does it.
"Rattler." I smile when I say his foolish reptile name, as if I knew it all along. It's Roger's no-good son who got his skin all tatted up in Joliette penitentiary. Cave drawings is what they look like, and not from the best caves neither.
"Goddamn it," slips out of my mouth too loud to pretend I don't mean it. So, I smile again, almost big enough to make my dentures slip, and I barely keep myself from asking, "What the hell do you want anyway? Sorry Liz." I can't help apologizing to the empty place where Liz used to be, and I can almost hear her say, "Get rid of that asshole, Lowell."
Liz never knew Rattler but she still don't like him much. He's quick and crafty as a raccoon, and pretty scary with all that prison ink. Maybe even scarier than a shower.
"Dad's away." It takes me a while to figure out Rattler's talking about Roger, because Roger is such a stand-up guy and Rattler's such a no good bastard.
Rattler says, "He asked me to check up on you."
Maybe he did and maybe he didn't but it really don't make no difference, because Rattler oozes by me like water going down a slow drain and before I can say, "Come back here you son of a bitch," he's walking through my house, going through doors that have been closed since Liz went away. He's sliding drawers, flipping latches quicker than I can turn around. Pretty soon he's in the bathroom opening the medicine cabinet over the sink. Plastic medicine bottles hit the vanity counter, but Rattler has them in his pockets before I get there. Liz's medicine, left by the hospice people to make dying easier. It's old but I guess dope is always worth something.
We pass each other in the hallway going in opposite directions and before I can stop him he's in the family room where the memory of Liz is strongest. I can almost hear her telling me, "Get him out of here, Lowell, before he steals the silverware."
Wouldn't be much of a fight between me and Rattler. Nothing I can really do to stop him going through the house. He can rifle through the drawers. Sit in Liz's chair. Steal the bottles of Percodan that still have some life in them after two Lizless years. But Maybe Rattler doesn't know about the 38 caliber Smith and Wesson police special revolver I keep in my bedside table, loaded up with bullets left over from the 1960's.
It's a long way to the bedroom, twenty thump-bumps at least and by the time I get there I hear Rattler shout, "Goodbye Lowell. See you later," and shut the front door.
I slide the pistol drawer open so I'll be ready when later comes around, but there's just a pistol-shaped empty place in the clutter.
I gave my hunting rifles to Roger last year after I pointed one of them at a pair of Jehovah's Witnesses, but I'm pretty sure I kept the pistol. At least they weren't Mormons. Liz was happy about that.
I ask her, "Did I give that gun to Roger?" Liz don't know, but I guess it don't matter whether I gave it away or Rattler stole it. Either way it's gone and that's just one more thing I can't do nothin' about it.
My shower's over and I didn't fall. Had to lean against the wall a couple of times. Had to sit down on the waterproof chair that used to belong to Roger's dad before he went away. The shower floor is slick, so it's hard to step over the sill onto the mat with the rubber bottom that keeps it stable. I dry off sitting on my bed, moving fast so the water won't have time to soak into the mattress.
Getting on my clothes takes longer than I planned and by the time I'm dressed I wish I'd brought my walker instead of my cane. You never know how long a good day's going to last.
General Hospital is playing on the family room TV, loud enough for Liz to hear it all the way in heaven. It switches to local news, and then to the weather channel and then to ESPN. Liz don't care for none of those things, especially sports, and she don't use the remote since she went away.
"Roger?" Since my heart attack, my shouting voice isn't very loud. I look in the pistol drawer again, in case I made a mistake about it being gone. I didn't, and I know it can't be Roger in the family room because he don't watch TV, and he don't care about sports anymore than Liz.
Slow going in the hallway. No point in moving fast, because I don't have a plan. There's a faint smell of rotten meat in the hallway getting stronger as I move toward the family room. Like maybe the freezer in the garage has broke down, and the venison has spoiled. Should have thrown it out long ago, but it's the last deer I shot and dressed myself. Five years is too long to leave a carcass in the freezer, but while it's there I've still got a little bit of hunter left inside me.
By the time I reach the living room I know the smell ain't rotten meat—not venison anyway. Rattler's sitting in Liz's chair with his feet propped up on the footstool where I used to set her breakfast after she got too weak for the kitchen. His hands are both behind his head with his elbows pointed out. He's shirtless, the way criminals are on Cops. His chest is covered with blue ink, like doodles in a fifth grader's spiral notebook. Letters and numbers, skulls with daggers in the eyes, three marijuana leaves on a single stem, swastikas falling over everything like snowflakes. Blue circles around his nipples make them look like the eyes of a dangerous animal.
It's Rattler giving off that rotten meat smell. Roger told me he does that when he's using meth.
"Get outta Liz's chair!" I can't stand to think of his nasty convict ass sitting where Liz used to sit, where her memory still sits and tells me, "Simmer down Lowell. Don't do nothin' you'll regret."
Rattler's smile is the color of hepatitis. Roger showed me pictures of him when he was a little boy. Cute and innocent. It's hard to believe a human being can fall so far.
"If I had me three hundred dollars, I'd probly go away." Rattler leans forward in Liz's chair, like a cat that's getting ready to spring onto a mouse. He scratches his arm pits and his elbows. He scratches at the circles around his nipples and digs at the Nazi signs like they are insects crawling on his skin.
"Need that three hundred dollars real bad." His breath smells like battery acid. His eyes are bloodshot with dark raccoon shadows under them. The corners of his mouth are cracked.
"It's Saturday." I'm pretty sure that's right. "Bank's closed." I stand a little straighter. Take some weight off of the cane, in case I have to use it for a club. An aluminum cane wouldn't hurt him much, but maybe he don't know that.
"ATM's not." When Rattler stands up, I see my Smith and Wesson stuck in his pants. He puts his hand on the grip.
"Do what he says, Lowell." I can hear Liz real clear now that Rattler's out of her chair.
"He won't never leave," I tell her. "Not till he's took everything."
"All I want is three hundred dollars." Rattler's as reasonable as a burial insurance salesman. He picks a Hawaiian shirt off of the back of Liz's chair where he laid it so he could watch sports in comfort. He buttons it up real careful so it hides his swastikas and daggers and skulls. It hides my Smith and Wesson too, but we both know it's there.
"I gotta pee before we go."
Rattler agrees to that much anyway. Neither one of us has much choice.
He don't get too close while I get the money. We both know why. There's a security camera at the ATM—video's everything so the police will know if somebody like Rattler steals an ATM card and knows the Pin.
We both know he'll take everything I've got but he has to do it three hundred dollars at a time, because that's all the machine will give out in a day.
I fumble with the numbers pretending I don't remember my code. I do, of course. My memory's slower than it used to be but it's as sharp as a brand-new hunting knife. The Pin is 1917, the year I was born. Right after world war one ended and everybody thought we was done with all that foolishness.
"Hurry up Lowell. I ain't got all day." Rattler's addict itch is getting worse, and if I keep him waiting too long, he'll shoot me out of meanness. Might do it anyway, no matter how much I cooperate.
I've wrote a message on the palm of my left hand with one of Liz's old eyebrow pencils. Did that instead of peeing, like I told Rattler, and by now I wish I'd taken time for both. I hold the hand up like I'm taking my temperature with my knuckles so the camera can read: "Help! Rattler's stealing my money!!!!" Wrote backwards so it'll be easy to read on television—I hope that's right—lots of exclamation points so the cops will take it serious.
I wipe the message on my pants—"Sorry Liz"—and get the money quick.
"I got to pee again," I tell Rattler.
"Old men always got to pee," he says.
"Ain't it the truth?"
He drives me home and lets me out at the front door. Just me and my cane, trying to make it into the house before nature's call turns into a shout.
Rattler hollers, "See you tomorrow," as he backs out onto the street. He's got business to attend. Cash business with my cash.
Meth addicts don't have a good sense of tomorrow, so I go for my phone even before the bathroom. I pick up the receiver and listen for the dial tone. Nothing. Rattler probably learned how to disable phones in prison. I dial 911 anyway, because you never know, but I don't wait around to see if it did any good, because I still have to pee.
"We got to make a plan," Liz tells me as I walk down the hall.
"Later baby." I hope she'll think of something while I'm gone. Liz was always good with plans.
It takes me most of the morning to get the plastic drop cloth out of the garage and spread on the family room floor. I get it pretty even too, cover all the space between the easy chairs and the TV. Now all there is to do is smoke cigars and wait.
Liz says, "Smokin's a nasty habit," but it relaxes me while I wait for Rattler to show up looking for another three hundred dollars.
"Maybe he'll just take the ATM card this time." Liz is always thinkin'.
"He don't want his picture on the video," I tell her. "Just in case it comes to murder."
I can feel the air move around her chair as she nods her head. It always comes to murder with somebody like Rattler. That's why we had to come up with a plan. It ain't too complicated because Rattler don't believe an old bee like me can have a stinger. Even an old bee who used to climb into a deer blind and wait for two hundred pounds of venison to stroll by at dawn. A buck don't expect an old man to be sitting on a platform with a rifle and a hunting knife, ready to squeeze the trigger and dress him down before digestive juices leak into the muscle.
My rifles are gone and there's no tree in the family room, but my walker is planted in the middle of the drop cloth.
"Too bad you gave your hunting guns to Roger." Liz is worried things might not go our way. Nobody knows with men like Rattler. Even they aren't sure what happens next.
"Can't dwell on ain't gots and too bads." I'm not really feeling all that brave, but fear grows fast when you put it in the light. I can feel Liz smile, even if I can't see it. Her easy chair rocks back and forth, reminding me that some things never go completely away. The TV's off so there's nothing to think about but Rattler. Meth addicts don't get up early, but they don't really sleep either so you never know when they'll show up at your door.
The second I see Rattler's shadow on the curtains, I lean forward on my cane, stumble out of my chair toward my walker that's stuck out in the middle of a plastic drop cloth like the last aluminum set of monkey bars on a playground. The plastic tangles my feet a little bit; they won't pick all the way up like they used to but I still get where I'm going. I drop my cane on the floor and spend the next five minutes getting myself straightened out with Rattler standing there watching me.
"Plan on doing some painting, Lowell?" The tip of his tongue flits around his front teeth counting chips and rotten spots. His pupils fill up his eyes like splotches of India ink. He ain't scratchin' so I figure my three hundred dollars has bought him enough dope to keep him feeling frisky.
"Gonna drive me to the ATM again?" I'm breathing like I just raced a leopard across the room. Too little oxygen, then too much, and the spinning starts with me at the center and Rattler at the edge giving off the aroma of hamburger that's been sitting at room temperature too long.
Liz says, "Lowell, I don't think this is going to work."
"Probably not, sweetheart, but we've got to try it anyway, as soon as I get my heart to settle down."
The spinning hasn't stopped, but it's slow enough for me to see a worried look come onto Rattler's face.
"You can't have no heart attack," he tells me. "Not till after we get back from the bank." That's as far ahead as he can think.
I lean my elbows on the walker and put both hands on my chest like I'm going to melt onto the floor, but the truth is I haven't felt this strong since Liz went away.
I ain't looking at Rattler. I don't have to because I hear the plastic drop cloth bunching up under his feet. It's nearly enough to trip him, which is a good thing for an old man leaning on a walker, because it don't take much when he puts his arms around me so he can hold me up. All I have to do is work my hunting knife between a couple of ribs, the way I used to do with a lung-shot deer. The handle jumps when the knife-point pierces the heart. One little twist and Rattler's falling over me.
"Push him off, Lowell." Liz is worried and she ought to be, because Rattler's weight crushes my walker and settles on me like a stroke.
"Can't move, sweetheart. Can't barely breath." I'm wondering if God will let me into heaven after I've just killed a man. I'm wondering if Roger will figure out what happened when he finds his no-good convict son lying on top of the pathetic old man who murdered him. I'm wondering how long it will take to die—not too long I hope because Rattler's smell ain't getting any better.
An old man takes sleep when he can get it. I wake up feeling pretty good, even though I'm covered with sticky blood that smells like a dozen eggs gone bad. Rattler's beside me. Don't know if I pushed him off in my sleep or if Liz figured out a way to help. The walker's exactly like I remember, crushed and useless, the way I thought I was at the last moment before everything turned into a dream.
It don't take much effort to sit up. "Goddamn it, Liz. I'm feeling pretty strong."
Rattler's as stiff as a dead cat when I touch him. His eyes are open and so is his mouth. A dozen flies crawl around his face like they do on those African Children on TV who you could save for forty cents a day.
"Always meant to do that," Liz tells me. She could always read my mind real good; does it even better since she had to go away.
"Better get started Lowell." We had it all worked out, but now that I don't have my walker I'm not so sure.
Internal organs down the garbage disposal. That ain't hard to manage. My hunting knife's sharp as a butcher's cleaver and the kitchen's close, but I think maybe I should go over to Roger's house and see if I can get inside to call the police.
"Roger might not understand," Liz tells me. "And you need Roger real bad."
So after I get rid of the softest parts I cut Rattler into trash bag size pieces that fit under the venison I meant to throw away but haven't yet. My walker would help, but a cane is good enough when you've got no choice.
Legs are heavy, but you can lean on one with rigor mortis.
"Use it like a crutch," Liz tells me, and pretty soon every bit of Rattler is gone except the smell.
"That'll go away soon enough," Liz tells me. She says, "It's time to take a shower." That's the scariest thing again, now that Rattler's gone.
Roger pulls a stool in from the kitchen, too polite to sit in Liz's chair. He asks me how I've been making it while he was gone. Asks how my groceries are holding up. Asks why Rattler's car is in my driveway. Guess I should have thought about that.
"It's out of gas," he says. "Looks like he left it runnin'. You know anything about that, Lowell?" Roger looks at his hands as if he might find his boy in one of them.
Liz clears her throat the way she used to do when she wanted to say something important but didn't want to come right out and interrupt. She tells me, "Don't say nothin'. Roger don't really want to know." She starts her chair to rocking so Roger turns all his attention her way, so he won't see my face when I tell the lie.
"He come over here?" Roger looks like he might be talking to Liz's ghost. She don't have trouble telling lies, except now she can't tell them so anyone but me can hear.
"Rattler came by." No point in denying that much. "Said you told him to come over. Said he needed three hundred dollars."
Liz's chair rocks hard enough to make the house shake.
"Trembler," Roger says. "You know what my boy does with money."
"Sort of hard to refuse a man like Rattler." I'm looking at my hands now. There's a little speck of blood caught under the nail of my pointing finger. I bite it off like a goddamned vampire and hope Ratter didn't have aids.
"I gave him three hundred dollars from the ATM." I look Roger in the eyes to prove I'm not telling him a lie. "Next day he come around for more. Guess he forgot about the car. Guess we all forgot about the car when Rattler went away. He went away fast. Peaceful in his own way." I put it just like that because dead is a word nobody likes to hear. Roger and me keep looking at each other until he figures out there's nothing left to say.