It was one of those lurid August days, all haze and steam, the sun hidden and stewing like a shameful lust. I dropped the kickstand, locked the Cruiser to the no parking sign, and wiped the glaze of sweat off my face and neck. Thrash was at my side (I'd doubled him along), and we shared a quiet look before heading in.
As we stepped through the glass front doors, the chill from the air-conditioning slapped me like I'd mouthed off. But that was good. It gave me a jolt, woke me up. There wasn't anyone at the front desk, so we hung a left and tiptoed down the pale gray corridor, sticking close to the wall. The Oakshade Retirement Home bragged about cleanliness in its brochures, and to back it up they made sure every inch of the place always reeked of rubbing alcohol and used rubber gloves. Some of the janitors said that if you stayed there long enough, the smell alone could make you sick, or even kill you. Not me, though. I loved that goddamn smell.
We slipped past a few cocked and shadowed heads lolling on the backs of Naugahyde furniture in the TV room, and then double-timed it through a quick Z-shaped turn on the left. I knew the way. I'd been there plenty of times before, enough to know to keep the sneaker-squeaks to a minimum, to pass open doorways without looking in, and never to stop to talk to anyone for anything, even if someone cried out for help. If I did, I'd be spotted, ambushed, corralled, a mob of them materializing out of nowhere, shuffling through the half-lit halls like zombies, penning me in. And then I'd be stuck getting pawed and petted and pinched for who knew how long.
Sure, it was risky, and even riskier with two of us instead of just one. But I wasn't worried that Thrash would give us away. He was the quiet type, the heavy; the brawn in the background who never seemed to move or make a sound except when damage needed to be done. He wasn't very big or much to look at, but he was expert at laying low, blending in, and holing up somewhere just out of sight until the time was right to strike. Not that I'd ever turn him loose on the bags of bones clattering around this jointthat just wouldn't be fair. No, right now Thrash knew he was just along for the ride, and I'd do all the talking.
We turned at the last room on the left. I rapped once on the door, opened it, and was greeted by two expectant eyes staring back at me. Her wheelchair was on the far side of the bed, in the corner by the window, and she was in it. Her wig was putty-colored and mangled and tilted too far to the right, and she'd forgotten to pencil an eyebrow over her left eye. The whole effect was like her head was sliding off to one side. She looked smaller than usual, crooked. But at least she had her teeth in.
"Genie!" she cried, smiling, opening her arms to me.
"It's Eug," I corrected her, pronouncing it "Huge," because that's what I called myself.
"Huge? What's wrong with Genie? It's a perfectly good"
"Can it, sweetheart, you got no eyebrow," I leveled.
"Oh." She frowned. "See my purse?" She pointed. "When you hand it to me, you can give your Toots some sugar."
The woman had a one-track mind; she always wanted her sugar. I grabbed the red leather bag hanging on the closet doorknob, dropped it in her lap, and laid one on her. Her skin was cool, dry, and loose against my lips. Thrash was slouched over in the wooden chair on the opposite side of the bed, near the door, and out of the corner of my eye I caught that smirk of his. But I didn't mind giving her what she wanted, and I didn't give a damn who saw.
"There, that's better," she cooed, her knobby hands trembling as she held up a compact and drew a thin arch over her left brow. She seemed so pleased with the result that I didn't have the heart to tell her the pink over her left eye didn't match the purple over her right. "So..." She turned her eyes back to me. "How are you getting along?"
"I'm getting along as best I can," I said, and swallowed hard at the truth of it.
"I mean, how's your summer?"
"It's had its moments." I shrugged. "But it'll all be over soon."
"That's life, Genie," she sighed, "what'd you expect?"
"What? Okay, all right, have it your way . . . Huge," she said as she placed her bag on the floor beside her. She went quiet, peering over her shoulder toward the window and then down at her white orthopedic sneakers. Not a good start: she was either drifting or upset. I took a seat on the bed and made myself comfortable, because I knew it could take a while for her to snap to.
"Do you want a sweet?" she asked.
Shit, that was quicker than usual, and I should've yelled no or made a break for the door, but it was too late. She'd already reached into the plastic dish on the nightstand and pulled out this shiny green nugget.
"Here, it's lime." She wrapped my fingers around it and motioned for me to eat.
I froze. My lips tightened and my stomach whined, but she was nodding and smiling and there was nothing I could do. I took a deep breath and popped it into my mouth. It tasted like sweat from the crack of a dockworker's ass. Not that I'd ever sampled any, but I felt like spewing and then gargling with bleach all the same. She was watching me, though, so I had no choice but to choke the damn thing back.
"Good, isn't it?"
I didn't say anything, but that didn't keep Thrash from smiling.
"Now, don't tell your mother that I gave you candy." She winked. "It'll be our secret."
It was sad, really. Because if she thought this was candy, then she was much further gone than everybody said.
She talked about my mother and her new boyfriend, Craig, how it was good for mom to have a man around the house and good for my sister, Neecey, and me, too, but how it meant that mom had less time for her. I didn't have any problem with Craig, because he wasn't around as often as she thought and he never gave me trouble when he was. The dig about mom not stopping by as often wasn't true, but I didn't argue the point.
Then it was the usual stuff about the activities they'd done last week (a day trip to the horse races at Monmouth Park) and what was scheduled for next week (a day trip down to the casinos in Atlantic City). And she said, "With all the gambling they expose us to, you'd think we're swimming in cash. But Margaret in sixteen can barely afford her medication, and she's not the only one. Now, tell me, where's the sense in that?"
I told her there wasn't any, but that they had to do something.
"You may be right, Genie," she sighed, flattening her dress across her lap so the flowers weren't wrinkled, "but sometimes it seems that old age brings nothing but one petty insult after another."
Great. Two gripes and then right into the old-age shtick. That could only mean one thing: she was upset about something, and I'd have to hear it.
"To watch the sun go down with a little bit of dignity," she went on, "is that too much to ask?"
I knew better than to answer that.
"Speaking of which," she said, her cloudy brown eyes flaring with annoyance, "did you see what they did to our sign?"
"No," I said, because I hadn't. I'd taken the back way instead of the front. "What'd they do?"
"They vandalized it," she hissed, glaring and shaking her head.
Maybe that's why she was so cranky. "Vandalized it? Who? How?"
"There, over there." She pointed with her left hand as she turned her wheelchair to face the window with her right. "See for yourself."
I followed the direction of her finger, over the air vents along the windowsill, through the parted green curtains, across the parking lot pavement shivering from the heat, to an island of withered grass near the four-lane highway that ran along the front of the home. In the center of the island were a dirt mound, a few mangy weeds, a high, thick hedge that bordered the roadway, and a tall wooden sign, which ordinarily read oakshade retirement home. But the "irement" was covered over in black paint, and the sign now read oakshade retarted home.
Retarted?! Jesus Christ, what kind of bullshit was that?
I didn't know what made me angrier: the fact that it was a cheap shot at harmless seniors and their families; that it was the kind of put-down only a moron would use; or that it'd been slapped up there by the kind of moron who didn't even have enough sense to check his goddamn spelling. That must've been what was bothering her, and now I was bothered, too. Suddenly I was livid. The tips of my fingers quivered and curled, and I started counting backward from ten in my headten . . . nine . . . eightbut I wasn't quite sure what would happen when I reached one: would I cool down or blast off? I looked over at Thrash. He had that expression on his face again.
"It's disgraceful. There's no respect for anything anymore," she sighed, wearily this time. "And because it's kids, nobody will lift a finger to do a thing about it. That's why I've always told you to mind your manners, keep your nose clean, and be careful, because kids today Are you listening to me, Genie?"
Six . . . five . . . four. Yeah, I was listening. I'd heard the "be careful" speech a million times, and was as receptive now as all the others. Three . . . two . . . one. "Fucking monkey fuckers!"
"Genie!" she snapped. "You'd better wise up, young man. They won't tolerate that filth of yours in junior high."
I didn't give a shit if they would or wouldn't. Whether I skipped another grade or was left back again, there was one thing I could count on as far as other people were concerned, although I couldn't remember what it was at the moment because I was too busy trying to compose myselfyou know, act like a gentleman, watch my mouth in front of a lady and shit. "Sorry," I grumbled, but didn't mean it.
She looked at me sternly, the bluish blobs on her brown eyes filling with light. I thought she was gonna let me have it and got ready to swallow the next load of crap she dished my way. But she only flashed me this scheming, sideways smile, leaned forward, and reached for her purse.
Suddenly I didn't feel angry anymore; I felt excited. This was how it usually happened for MarlowePhilip Marlowe, the most badass private detective the world had ever seen. He'd go to the mansion of some wheezy old geezer propped up in a wheelchair, or the wood-walled study of some crabby battle-ax, everything always smelling of eucalyptus and sandalwood, and after a couple of stiff drinks and a few minutes of chitchat, he'd walk out with a new client, a case to solve, and a substantial advance in his pocket.
But I wasn't getting my hopes up just yet. Thing was, I'd only been on one case before, and I'd taken that up on my own initiative. I'd never had a real client, never been paid for my efforts, so as far as my status as a detective went, I guess you could say I was still an amateur.
Maybe that was about to change. After all, she's the one who'd dumped a wheelbarrow of yellowed and musty detective books on me in fifth gradeall the Marlowes and Sherlock Holmeses and a Sam Spade one, tooand I'd been through each of them dozens of times since then. They'd been my grandfather's books, but I hadn't started reading them because I'd gotten all sissy and sentimental about the relics of a man I'd never met, or because I'd been duped into thinking that reading was fundamental like the commercial said. Nah, I'd read them for a simpler reason: because she'd stood over me and forced me to. She'd had to watch me at the time and said that being out of school (which I was then) was no excuse for letting my brain go to rot. She'd sit me down at the kitchen table, pour me a glass of milk, stack a few cookies on a napkin, stand behind me or pull up a chair, and read along, line by line, page after page, annoying the crap out of me, cracking the whip and mushing me onward like a Husky into an avalanche, until she trusted that I'd read them on my own. That didn't take long, because it turned out the books were good, really good, and they taught you everything you needed to know about crime, detection, the world, and morethe exact opposite of what I would've been learning in school. Besides, back then I didn't have a damn thing else to do, so why not save myself more headaches and make the old lady happy? The Encyclopedia Brown, Hardy Boys, and Nancy Drew she gave me all bit the big one, but I didn't see the point of throwing that in her face when we talked about what I'd read, which we always did, because more than anything else, that's what she said books were for.
Now she laid her bag on her lap, stooped over it, thrust both hands inside, and began clawing and sifting its contents like a miner panning for gold. I scooted my butt to the edge of the bed, eager for her to cut to the chase. That smile of hers had tipped me off. I'd seen it more times than you could count on an abacus, and it always meant the same thing: she had an idea, something sneaky or secret; she was up to something, and any second I'd be up to something right along with her. That's how she'd always been with me. She knew I got into trouble more often than most people got out of bed, and she usually took a minute or two to remind me all about it when we were alone. But that never stopped her from egging me on, coming up with pranks or stunts I could pull just for the hell of it, convincing me to do them. She told me boys had to have some mischief in them or they might as well wear dresses and party socks and play with dolls, and just because I'd taken a running leap way over the line in fifth grade, it didn't mean I'd lost the right to mix it up and have some fun.