The Naming of Parts
The Apostles Mission smelled like wet wool and beets and, over in the corner, piss and bleach, and each smell seemed to move through the low-ceilinged dining room in its own way, the wet-wool like a heavy-shouldered man with a dog, the others like pickpockets through a crowd, turned sideways and insinuating so that you couldn't evade them even if you stayed out of the corner or faced the open doors. Eddie didn't mind the man-and-dog, but the pickpocket stench made him fidgety. And thinking about the man-and-dog and the pickpockets made things confusing, put shadows where there weren't shadows and extra people at the trestle tables. He stood between the rows of benches and counted the hunched shoulders of the men and tried to make beets into beets and wet-wool into wet-wool again. After awhile there were just regular men at the tables and he couldn't smell the place so much anymore.
"You gonna stand there blockin' traffic or you gonna eat?"
With an absent nod, Eddie moved aside mechanically to let the man by, kept his eyes away from the face and the tray, but he knew him by the gravel in his voice and the greasy whiff of creosote as Engine Mac. It must be getting cold out these days for Engine Mac to be in the mission instead of at the rail yard. The rains were coming to settle into the bones. The mission was full of damp men, wrung out, water-warped men, shouldering together at the trestle tables, their lips red with beets. Their voices were a low rumble of nonsense, or, if he listened closer, the same old sentences cast out, maybe in different voices, maybe in different order, but always with the same familiar cadence, rising in worn-edged anger and falling to the flatness of resignation. The cold. The rain. How many beds here or at St. Mike's. Who's gone suddenly. Who's suddenly back, new coat already sold and shoes waiting to get stolen.
At the tap on his elbow, he looked down at Engine Mac's gnarled, three-fingered hand. There was a half a dinner roll in it and Engine Mac used it to tap him again. "Last one. I don't like the butter. You can have it."
And then Engine Mac was moving on, black knit hat above a checked shirt stretched tight across a bull's shoulders.
Eddie put the roll in his sweater pocket and shuffled the other way toward the serving tables. They were already taking away some of the trays, but the soup pots were still there, and the coffee urn, too, except that someone was already tipping it forward with a cup under the spout to get the last of it. Eddie wistfully watched the guy with the coffee wander away toward the thinning crowd at the tables while little Miss filled his bowl.
"Y'r'late tonight, Eddie," she admonished him. He liked that word--admonished--the way the sound was a ribbon stretched between here and someplace far off in time and space, a stern voice in a small schoolroom in the middle of a bigger world. New-green grass outside the window, bending all the same way ahead of a wind that had rain in it. He liked that part enough that it took the sting out of being admonished. "We had cookies earlier." She set his soup down on his tray and gave it a rueful look. He leaned over and looked too. He could see the pattern of flowers on the bottom of the bowl. "Girl Scouts brought 'em. But they only had two dozen."
Miss smiled thinly to dismiss him and he carried his tray to the corner farthest from the piss-and-bleach and the humming of the singers and closest to the door. He didn't mind the singing so much--even when Miss went over and, with her eyes aimed up at the ceiling, sang so soulfully in her bird-keen voice he couldn't swallow down the bite of dinner roll without another mouthful of soup. Even then the singing was okay, except that Lonely always showed up with the singing and made Eddie's mouth fill up with dust.
He was there again today, on the edge of the small circle of men and women, droning through Hymn 652--Have mercy upon me.... blot out all mine iniquity--his big hands gripping the back of a chair and his grey eyes on Eddie's the whole time. For my transgressions I confess; My sin I ever see. The collar of his shirt was askew, showing too much neck under the grizzle of a heavy beard. Eddie was too far away to make out the missing buttons and the red on the undershirt, but still, he knew it, anyway, and that was the same as seeing. Far away or close up didn't matter. He ducked his head lower over his bowl and let the beets stain his mouth. He could still taste dust, and Lonely's voice rose and fell.
Outside the open double doors, cars hissed by on the rain-wet asphalt, a fizzy sort of sound that made the hair on his neck stand up a little. The light out there was greenish in the wake of the storm, and each passerby on the sidewalk cast a wan shadow into the entrance hall, angled in a slow sweeping like the hand of a clock sliding across the long hours of the afternoon. He kept his eyes on the play of shadow while the singing went on and; Lonely's voice was a heavy hand on the back of Eddie's neck and thrummed through the chair to the backs of his knees. Eddie watched, unfocussed, and the wheels-in-rain became the peppering of dust against the clapboard walls of a little soon-to-be-dust-swallowed church, and the people-shadows were dun-coloured dust devils that capered and twisted outside, wound up in the wind and whipped out like laundry on the line, taking California out to sea a grain at a time, and Lonely's prayer was Eddie's dad's prayer, low-rumble-tuneless and making the pew behind Eddie's knees shiver with it--Create a clean heart, Lord, renew, A right spirit me within--and his mother's voice was glass-clear and faltering at the ahhhhmen, a rose window with a crack in it. Eddie was fifteen and barefoot in a sea of dust where the farm used to be and his voice hadn't changed yet and he was still three years away from killing a man.
The beet soup was gone, but Eddie lifted the spoon to his mouth, anyway, sucked it until it tasted like metal, but the dust didn't go away. Neither did Lonely, and Lonely should have been gone days ago.
He should never have let Lonely tell him his name.
Three years from that day in the church and the dust, Eddie's dad was gone and the farm was gone and his mother had long since stopped singing amen. Eddie's voice had finally changed, and he'd put on a uniform with good, snug boots, and he'd sailed over the ocean and he'd killed a man--knife-point right through the top buttonhole of his kraut uniform, a seamstress-thrust way too finessed for the panic that made it possible--and when Eddie asked, he'd said his name and a lot of other stuff in German. He'd tried to hold Eddie's hand. Eddie chanted the name all the way back to the convoy, half trophy, half prayer. Gunther Loen. Gunther Loen was the first of many in those two years of the Second War to End All Wars, but Eddie was a fast study and, after Gunther Loen, he'd stopped learning names. The name was the hook in Eddie's brain, the line that Gunther Loen had followed all the way back to Eddie's barracks, all the way back to the States, always standing silent at the periphery of Eddie's vision, and his small, blue eyes never blinked. It was stupid to know a man's name.
Lionel Percival Lonely Greaves.
Lionel Percival Lonely stood in the mission at the edge of the circle of singers and sang along, his big hands wrapped around the back of the chair, his buttons ripped off by the men who had beaten him to death, a boot heel in red in the middle of his undershirt, everything soft and crumbling under it when Eddie'd touched him there and felt no thumping, that day behind the Stardust Bookstore, before the police came.
Eddie thought about that bottle in his room in the Empire Hotel. It was half-full. Enough to wash Lonely from the mission and maybe from Eddie's mouth and at least from Eddie's brain. Until tomorrow, when the singing called him up again.
A broken spirit is to God a pleasing sacrifice, Lonely sang, no voice at all.
The stamping in the hall made him look away from Lonely and at the shadows, not pale, sliding ones, but solid ones on the black and white tiles. The men were the same size almost, but the shadows played tricks, one of them squat under the hanging light fixture, the other long with the light from the doorway. But really the men were almost the same size, even though the blond one always looked taller, even without the shadow. He joined the dark one in the middle of the hall and swiped one hand and then the other across the shoulders of his jacket, sending droplets out in silver arcs, while the darker one snapped his own collar to shake the water off, and they were as featureless and distinct against the rectangle of light in the doorway as their shadows were, except for the scattering of water-light. Raining again, then, with the sun shining. The rain would look like gold thread, Eddie thought, strung taut from clouds to pavement.
Waving at them, Eddie called, "Starpy! Huft!"
When they came into the dining room, Eddie could see them scanning the stragglers for him, so he waved and called again. The blond one smiled when he found him and pointed the way with his chin, coming down the row between the benches with his hands in his pockets. He took one out, though, to shake Eddie's, and it was cold in the fingertips, warm in the palm.
"Heya, Eddie," said the other one as he threw a leg over the bench beside him.
A few teeth in a grin. "I'm Starpy. He's Huft."
Huft smiled without teeth. His hands were back in his pockets. Over his shoulder, Lonely watched, but the singing was over now so he was farther away than before.
Both of the men smelled of wet leather, and under that, smoke skulking.
"Hey, Starpfy, you guys been in a fire?"
Huft sat down backward on the bench across the aisle. "Sort of. You know the warehouse over here on Maple?"
"There was a fire there last night."
Eddie met Lonely's eyes. He put his spoon carefully into his bowl and scrubbed at his stubbled chin with the back of his hand. "Oh," was all he could say.
"The fire was in the warehouse. You worked for the paper supply company next door, in the same building, didn't you? Sweeping up?"
Eddie nodded again. Nine 'til eleven, sweeping and emptying the trash cans by the desks in the office and putting rolls of toilet paper in the bathrooms. One dollar a night. He put his hand in his sweater pocket and fingered the folded bill there. He couldn't talk for the taste of dust.
"We're hoping," Starpy was saying, "that you might've seen some of the guys going into the warehouse sometime. They were cooking drugs in there, Eddie. We gotta find them." His grin was gone and he was speaking low and even. He had blue eyes, and when he joked they were bright and darting, but when he talked about cooking drugs, they were heavy-lidded and steady. In the house in the dust ocean forty years ago, there had been a stripe-backed cat who had sat all day by the mouse-hole behind the woodbox, coiled up and motionless except for the twitching of his tail. When Starpy said, "We gotta find them," he was like that.
Eddie was very still.
"Maybe you can come down to the station house and look at some pictures for us?" That was the blond one, soft-voiced, hands hanging between his knees. His smile was encouraging.
"Yeah, okay," Eddie said. "But I gotta work." He pointed out the door toward the Stardust Bookstore three blocks east. "After closing, to clean up. But later, after Marsha does the receipts. She doesn't like having me around when she's counting the money."
The hands clenched together for a second and Huft's eyes met his partner's.
Starpy grunted, a low, disgusted sound. "Of course not. You're such a bad seed."
On the other side of the room, the singers were folding up the chairs and stacking them against the wall. The dining room was mostly empty now. The bill in Eddie's pocket was worn to suppleness under his thumb. "The paper company. Do they still need the sweeping up, do you think? It's Tuesday. Wax night." Eddie made a brief mopping motion to illustrate. "I get extra for doing the wax."
Another glance between them.
"Not tonight, Eddie," Huft said as he stood up and squeezed his shoulder. "The place is pretty much destroyed."
"Oh. Okay." Eddie rubbed his hand across his chin again and searched the floor and the walls for something, but there were only muddy footprints and faded posters with unreadable slogans and a crucifix doubled in its shadow. A dollar a night. Extra on wax night.
"We'll pick you up at Stardust at seven-thirty, okay?" The dark one leaned closer. "Okay, Eddie? We'll take you someplace for dinner after."
"But maybe I won't know anybody from the pictures," Eddie admitted. He tried to imagine faces, but it was better not to. Lonely was standing alone in the middle of the hall. "I'm not so good with faces."
"S'okay," Starpy said, the grin back again briefly. "We can still get something to eat. Anything you want."
"Zingburger," Eddie said promptly. They put a lot of stuff under the bun.
Huft's face crumpled in a grimace. "Zingburgers will kill you dead, Eddie." But then he nodded. "But they put a lot of stuff under the bun."
The two of them left debating about mayonnaise and whether or not it was a crime to put any on a hamburger. Eddie sat until he was the only one in the hall, his hand in his pocket, and listened to the sound of the wind carrying California out to sea.
Before he went to the bookstore, he stopped in at the Empire Hotel and waited in front of the counter until Mikey was done on the phone. The desk clerk raked his hands through his black hair and came to stare at Eddie through the grate.
"Rent's due," he said around his toothpick.
Eddie pulled out the five dollar bill and smoothed it carefully on the counter. The paper company was supposed to pay him tonight, but there was no paper company now. The bill was supposed to be beans and bread and maybe another small bottle. He pushed it through the little gap in the grate. Two days' rent.
Mikey turned his glare on it and snorted before folding the bill into his shirt pocket. Eddie turned to go.
He was almost at the door when Mikey called him back. "Just a minute. Damnit." When Eddie got back to the counter, Mikey pulled the bill out of his pocket again and shoved it through the gap. "Here."
Eddie stared at the bill.
"Take it, you idiot." Mikey waggled it a little. "Look, don't go getting all weepy about it. I'm not drunk on the milk of generosity here or whatever the fuck that is, right?" He shifted his toothpick from one side of his thin-lipped mouth to the other. "Those two cops was in here looking for you earlier."
Eddie nodded numbly. "They came to the mission."
"Of course they did, you retard. Who d'ya think sent them there?" Mikey flicked the bill farther across the counter. "They paid you up to the end of the month and they said they'd break my fucking legs if I stiffed you, okay? So take your fiver and buy yourself some cough medicine, and quit standing there catching flies."
With the bill safe in his pocket, Eddie headed for the door. He didn't bother to turn around when Mikey shouted, "You better watch it, Eddie. You know what happens to finks, don'tcha!"
At the station house, Eddie picked three faces out of the books, but was careful not to look at the names. The blond cop even ate a zingburger, after, but put his foot down on the subject of mayonnaise. When Eddie said, "G'night Starpy. G'night Huft," they didn't correct him when he got their names backwards. He let them buy him another zingburger for later, even though, they joked, it made them accessories to murder by grease. And when they said, "G'night, Eddie," he didn't tell them that his name wasn't really Eddie.
Lonely was waiting for him when he got back to his room.