An excerpt from Grand Finale
“It’s open.” He was cleaning the snake charmer at the kitchen table. A handful of thin red cartridges sat in the middle like so many pick-up-stix. The pungent smell of nitro solvent and gun oil filled the space. “How’s Annie?”
“She’s still sleeping. I think she’ll be okay. Face is a mess though.”
Ray looked around the room. A collection of cereal boxes were arranged on the Formica countertop like library books on a shelf. An insurance company calendar and a photo of Pope John Paul were the only decorations on the visible walls. Bright light streamed in through the lace curtains of the breakfast room window, illuminating the shotgun shells and a garish ceramic rooster centerpiece. The lace curtains and rooster seemed oddly effeminate to Ray. The old man’s head was cocked to the right to keep smoke from the dangling cigarette from streaming into his watering eyes. The morning light reflected silver off the days-old whiskers on Johnny’s wrinkled neck. A packet of smokes, a Zippo lighter, and an overflowing penguin ashtray were arranged next to the cleaning swabs.
Johnny peered at Ray for a moment. “You look like shit.”
“Should have seen me before I showered.”
“Ain’t you got a doctor?”
“I did. They’re probably wondering where the hell I disappeared to.” Ray sighed deeply. He decided to fill Johnny in on his entire backstory – the job, Jen, the ever-increasing headaches, Bahrani’s diagnosis. The old man continued cleaning the shotgun, listening without interrupting. “So I’m afraid to go back to Kansas City,” Ray concluded. “Afraid they’ll take me in to run tests, do biopsies, do whatever the hell they do and I won’t get out again. Maybe if I ignore it, it’ll go away.”
“Don’t you figure they’re trying to find you? Your wife? Somebody?”
Ray shrugged. “Yeah, I suppose. But I really don’t think they give a shit if they find me or not. That’s the feeling I’ve had the past couple of years. Like I could fade away and it might be months before anyone noticed. This, what should I call it…death sentence, has only exacerbated the feeling.”
“It ain’t a death sentence yet,” said Johnny. “I got to tell you, Ray, whining don’t become you.”
Ray didn’t speak for a few moments. It sure felt like a death sentence. And now these feelings for Annie were complicating his plan to head into the Canyon. Today he wasn’t so certain he was ready for death whereas last week he was confident about the plan. Christ! Last week? Had he only been in Las Vegas for a week? Any events older than that seemed to be pages from someone else’s story. He hadn’t thought of any of it since he’d come home with Annie. This new life felt like home.
“So you’re still thinking about the Grand Canyon.” It was a statement, not a question. The old man laughed. “Going off to die like an old dog.”
Johnny lit another cigarette. A thin cloud of blue haze hung in the kitchen air. He peered at Ray through eyes half-closed against the smoke. “You know, we ain’t so different as you would think. Neither one of us has shit to live for. Except Annie and Rachel.” He glanced at Ray’s poker face. “C’mon, I seen the way you look at Annie. I may be a dinosaur, but I ain’t without sensitivity.
“Look, Ray, let’s cut to the chase. Tact ain’t never been one of my strong suits. Or so they tell me. You got a brain tumor and I’m old as salt with heart problems to boot, so I’m thinking we both got one foot in the grave.”
Ray wanted to protest Johnny’s hard take on their situation, but blunt as it was, the old man was right. Ray wasn’t ready to hear it stated that directly. It sounded morbidly final to hear someone else vocalize what he had only thought to himself. He started to speak but Johnny waved him off.
“Hear me out, Ray. We got a little problem here in the form of Mr. Winston C. Culpepper, bad-assed pimp with a nasty habit of beating on women. Other women I don’t really care about, but one I do. I’m thinking that neither one of us has much to lose so maybe we should be men enough to take this bastard out.”
“Take him out…like kill him?”
Ray wanted to pay back in spades anyone who would hurt Annie, but he was the guy who had once rushed a rabbit with a broken leg to the veterinarian. A rabbit he’d found on the roadside. The only person he’d ever seriously considered killing was Paul Provenzano but that had been figurative. He was a spineless coward, no doubt about it.
Johnny formed a pistol out of his thumb and index finger, pointed it at Ray like he was shooting. “Bingo.”
“Can’t we just have him arrested for assault? Get him out of the picture? Johnny, killing a man has never even been on my radar, even if he damn well deserved it. Maybe it’d be easier if I was in the mob like you.”
Johnny chuckled. “You mean the witness protection thing?”
“There ain’t no witness protection thing, kid. It’s a story I made up so people would leave me the hell alone. It ain’t like you have to go into any detail with a story like that. You just let out some hints and ain’t nobody going to ask you shit about it for fear you might go John Gotti on them or something.”
“You weren’t in the mob?”
“I’m a teamster from Chicago. Closest thing I got to the mob was seeing Jimmy Hoffa once. I retired. My wife died. I came west. End of story.”
“Jesus Christ,” said Ray. “You had me believing.”
“I got a lot of people believing. It’s a good racket.”
Ray placed his elbows on the table and supported his head in his hands, thinking. All his life he had avoided confrontation even when confrontation would have been the appropriate response. Inside he despised himself for backing down, for refusing to stand his ground, but he could rarely find the fortitude if it meant creating a scene.
You’re fucking dying, Ray. How much more time you think you have to make a stand, to erase all the bullshit times you wimped away? His stomach churned with nervous energy just to think about going after a pimp. A street-wise, probably armed and dangerous pimp, who had no qualms about beating women. He felt nauseated. When do you stop this shit, Ray? Are you going to go to your grave afraid? He took a long deep breath and slowly let it out. He saw Annie’s battered face in his mind’s eye. He thought about this bastard tormenting her after he left Vegas. Fuck it.
“Okay,” he said. “I’m in. But you’ll have to do it, Johnny. The actual killing part.”
“All right,” beamed Johnny. “Don’t worry. I don’t have any qualms about killing him. I was in the Corps.” He reached a hand across the table, and Ray shook it. “Look, forever ain’t that far away for the two of us. Let’s do something honorable.”
Ray felt surprisingly lighter. Honorable. It had a certain lofty sound to it. Much better than murder. “You have a plan?”
“Well, the start of a plan,” said Johnny, looking more animated. “Tonight we’ll go down to Fremont Street and observe our man. We’ll come up with something. If not, we’ll just shoot the sonofabitch and be done with it!”
“That would simplify it.”
“I believe in directness, but that would be too easy on the bastard. I want him to squirm a little. To feel some fear.” Johnny pushed back from the table. “I got errands to run. Don’t say anything to Annie. She don’t need the worry.”
Ray nodded. He stood and walked to the back door, pausing in the sunlight. “Johnny, this goes against everything I believe in.” The old man started to say something, but Ray held up his hand. “I didn’t say I wouldn’t do it. I just said it goes against everything for me, and I mean it. I’ll help how I can, for Annie, but you’ll have to do the dirty work.”
Johnny winked at him. “Okay, kid. I don’t want you getting your hands dirty. We’ll head out about eleven, after Rachel’s asleep. You take care.”