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By Pete Hautman
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1997 Peter Hautman
All rights reserved.
I don't expect you to understand this, but it's a great comfort to a girl to know she could not possibly sink any lower.
—Barrie Chase to Robert Mitchum, Cape Fear
Carmen Roman was pissed off. She sat with the bottoms of her Birks pressed against the steel dashboard, arms wrapped around her knees, watching Hyatt Hilton pilot the delivery van, his feet working the gas and the brakes simultaneously, the tips of his long fingers wrapped around the bottom of the steering wheel the way a possum would grip a branch: thumbs on top. Hyatt was excited, showing pink tongue between large, bright, charmingly crooked teeth, telling her about something he'd seen on TV. She watched Hyatt's lips moving. Now and then a little glob of spittle would make it all the way to the windshield, like when he said "perfect," which he did a lot.
She shifted her gaze to the street, seeing the storefronts, the traffic, the pedestrians, letting the images in, but retaining none of it. She did not know what Hyatt was talking about. She didn't care. When he'd called her that morning Hyatt had told her he had a surprise for her, like he was going to give her a present, or take her someplace special. He hadn't said anything about doing water deliveries. He hadn't said anything about driving all over South Minneapolis in his creaky old Econoline van selling cases of Evian.
Then she heard him say, "A hundred thousand dollars. Minimum."
Carmen turned her head back toward Hyatt. "What?"
"That's what they pay."
From a distance, or at first, people often mistook Hyatt for a kid from outstate, a broad-shouldered farm kid, six-feet-several-inches tall, skin the color of a flesh-tone Crayola, untended white-blond hair, eyes sky blue and empty. A kid who had perhaps sprouted too quickly, vacant of mind but overflowing with good intention. Closer inspection, however, would reveal a patina of twenty-year-old acne scars on his cheeks and neck, fine lines radiating from the corners of his eyes, and a sort of rodent intelligence glinting from his unequal pupils. He claimed to be twenty-nine years old, but Carmen believed him to be closer to forty.
"Who? Pay who?" She pulled her feet off the dashboard, scooted her butt back in the seat and gave him her full attention.
"Whoever's got the goods, Carmenito. And that's not even counting the book deals. Like that guy got his wee-wee cut off? You don't think he's rich now? It'd be perfect!"
She had no idea what he was talking about. It would be "perfect" to get his wee-wee cut off? Hyatt was strange, but not that strange.
Hyatt stopped the van in front of a small convenience store. Hand-painted signs in the window read: WE ACCEPT FOOD STAMPS. WIC WELCOME. CHECKS CASHED. Hyatt consulted a small notebook. "Four cases," he said. "You want to give me a hand?"
Carmen crossed her arms and turned her face away. She was not a goddamn teamster. Hyatt shrugged, got out, opened the back of the van, lifted out two cases of Evian, the half-liter bottles, carried them into the store.
Carmen Roman had met Hyatt Hilton last summer when she'd been working for Axel Speeter, selling tacos at the Minnesota State Fair. Back then, Hyatt had been involved with the Amaranthine Church of the One—a sort of New Age, vitamin-gulping, sprout munching bunch of health nuts who thought they could live forever. He had tried to convert Carmen, but any lifestyle that demanded abstinence from tobacco and alcohol was not for her. She'd told him to buzz off.
A few months later Hyatt had called again and said that he'd left the church and would she like to join him for a drink, a real drink, and she'd said yes. They'd been seeing each other ever since and, for the most part, it had been fun. Hyatt liked to get dressed up, take her places, catch a buzz, dance a little. He had a BMW with leather seats. He gave her presents. He'd given her a watch, which she didn't like, but which got her a two hundred twenty-seven-dollar credit when she returned it to Dayton's. He'd given her a tortoise-shell Dunhill cigarette lighter, worth three hundred bucks, he'd told her, which she'd kept because the dark reddish-black surface of the shell matched her hair color and because Dayton's wouldn't take it back, the customer service woman claiming that they had never stocked such an item.
Carmen lit a cigarette with her Dunhill and watched the smoke flatten against the windshield.
A hundred thousand dollars? What had that been about? Maybe she should have been listening closer. Of course, knowing Hyatt, whatever he'd been saying, he would repeat it until he beat it to death. She watched him come out of the store walking his jerky, loose-jointed gait. He grabbed two more cases from the back of the van and carried them into the store.
When Hyatt had first told Carmen about his Evian business, she thought she'd struck it rich. He claimed to have the exclusive Evian franchise for the Twin Cities area. Later, he amended that to Minneapolis. Then, the first time she visited his rented house on Lyndale Avenue, she discovered that what Hyatt actually had was a garage full of empty Evian bottles and a landlord with a larger-than-average water bill. She'd spent that whole stupid afternoon in his garage, watching him fill and cap bottles.
What Hyatt Hilton had was a franchise on counterfeit Evian. He bought the empty ersatz bottles from a plastics company owned by a bunch of Norwegians off the Iron Range—most of them ex-hockey players from Virginia and Eveleth who called themselves the Range Boys, guys who'd never made it out of the semipros. He paid the Range Boys five bucks a case for the empties, filled and capped them using a miniproduction line he'd set up in his garage, then sold them a case at a time to corner groceries, gas stations, and restaurants. Forty cents a bottle wholesale for an item that would go for a buck and a half or more over the counter. It looked like a nice little business, except that when it all added up he was driving all over town delivering Evian making no more than he would have as a regular truck driver.
That was pretty much the story on Hyatt Hilton. He looked good on the surface, but lately Carmen had been noticing signs of wear. His BMW was eight years old and showing rust, his clothing was a couple years out of date, and her Dunhill lighter had probably come out of a pawn shop.
Maybe she should move on. The excitement just wasn't there anymore. Hy was fun to be with, sure, but his stories were going into reruns. He was obsessed with the Amaranthine Church, which he claimed had been his idea. He'd started the church with a couple of partners a few years back and then, he said, just when the money started to roll in, his partners had kicked him out. She was sick of hearing about it. So he'd gotten fired. So what. She needed more variety in her life, and fewer Evian deliveries. Carmen ashed her cigarette on the floor of the van. Where the hell was her big surprise?
Maybe she could cruise the country-western bars, find some guy with lizard boots and one of those big hats. A guy with a little danger and excitement in him. All she'd have to do is wear something to show off her shape, throw on some lipstick, play with her hair a little—they'd be all over her in a second.
But what was this about a hundred thousand dollars? Probably more of Hy's bullshit. She returned her sandaled feet to the dashboard and examined her toenails' bright red polish, needing some touch-up around the tips. She could fix herself up real nice. Get any guy she wanted. What the hell, she was only twenty-three.
Hyatt hopped back into the van, grinning, tucking a handful of small bills into his shirt pocket. "Just three more stops," he said. He twisted the key, dropped the gearshift into drive, and pulled out onto Lake Street.
Carmen flicked her cigarette out the window. "Stop the truck," she said.
"I said stop."
Hyatt pulled over to the curb. "What's the matter?"
"I'm not having fun."
Hyatt elevated his pale eyebrows, pushed out his lips—one of his many peculiar facial expressions—and made a sucking sound through his front teeth. "You're not?"
"Oh. Well, don't forget, I've got a surprise."
Carmen crossed her arms. "I want my surprise now."
She watched his face go from startled to puzzled to amused. "You can't wait till later? I was thinking we could go to someplace nice, relax, tip a few."
"That's my surprise?"
Hyatt shook his head, smiling now.
"Then what is it?"
Hyatt put his hands on her shoulders and turned her toward him. "You want me to just give it to you? I was sort of hoping for more, you know, ambiance."
Carmen set her jaw and stared back at him.
Hyatt sighed. He released her and turned up his empty palms as if demonstrating a new coin trick. He rotated his hands, showing her the carpet of fine white hairs on their backs. He folded his hands as if in prayer, interlaced his long fingers, then turned them palm up. In the basket formed by his meshed fingers lay a tiny, gray velvet box.
Hyatt said, "For you."
Carmen took the box and opened it. A diamond ring, a single large stone—maybe three carats—surrounded by a spatter of ruby chips. Carmen felt her heart filling her chest, the rock hitting her like a nose full of Peruvian blow.
Carmen slipped the ring onto her finger.
"Is it real?" she asked.
Hyatt said, "Sure, what do you think? You think I'm proposing on a piece of glass?"
Carmen wasn't sure she'd heard him right. She said, "What?"
"I'm asking you to marry me, Carm. Tie the knot. Wear the big white dress."
"Me? The big white dress? Are you nuts?"
"I'm serious." He didn't look serious. He looked like he'd just eaten somebody's canary.
Carmen was intensely suspicious. "You want to marry me? Why?"
"Because I love you."
"Bull shit." She held the ring in the sunlight, letting it dazzle her eyes.
"Because you look like Sophia Loren. I always wanted to marry Sophia Loren."
"More bullshit." The ring fit her perfectly. She said, "No offense, Hy, but you're gonna have to do better'n that."
Hyatt put the van in drive and pulled out onto Lake Street. "Okay," he said. "I'll tell you everything, how it's gonna work and what we're gonna do. You're gonna love it. It's perfect."CHAPTER 2
In close contests ... psychological factors can be decisive.
Joe crow gripped the bar, felt the worn knurling press into his palms. He closed his eyes and envisioned the barbell floating up from its rack, hovering effortlessly under his control. He imagined his arm bones as titanium shafts, his tendons as steel cables, his pectoral muscles as powerful turbines. He slowly counted, visualizing the weight descending, lightly touching his chest, floating up again. He counted three reps in his mind.
Two hundred fifty-five pounds. He'd be lucky to press it once.
To the bodybuilders and powerlifters at Bigg Bodies, benching two fifty-five would be part of their warm-up routine, but to Crow it was a lot of iron, seventy pounds more than he'd been able to handle a couple months back when he'd started working out at Bigg's. Twenty pounds more than he'd pressed last Friday. A big jump, but he was feeling good. Feeling strong.
He had a rule. Always play your strong hands.
What he should really do, he should ask someone to spot him, lend a hand if he got stuck with the bar pressing down on his ribcage. That would be the smart thing. Unfortunately, his choice of spotters was limited to two: Beaut Miller, who was taking time out from his duties as assistant manager of Bigg Bodies to build up his already overdeveloped chest, and the aromatic Flowrean Peeche.
Of all the human oddities that frequented Bigg Bodies, Crow found Flowrean Peeche to be the most bizarre by several orders of magnitude. She was working the pec deck at the other side of the chest room, twenty feet away but well within smelling distance. A frightening symphony of grunts, growls, and snarls erupted from her throat as she squeezed out a last few reps. For a five-foot-three-inch female, she was astonishingly powerful.
Flowrean had been wearing the same unwashed heather gray sweats ever since Crow had started working out at Bigg Bodies two months ago. She did her workouts barefooted and barehanded. Twisted shanks of thick hair explored the space surrounding her head, framing her imperturbable features in an explosion of black tendrils. Around her neck, six dead goldfish in various stages of decomposition were strung onto a braided steel wire.
Despite her over-the-top body odor and her dead-fish necklace, Flowrean radiated a kind of regal beauty. When not contorted with momentary physical effort, her olive-gold skin, deep brown eyes, and full, dark lips gave her the look of a placid, self-satisfied icon. Her bearing was that of a queen in exile, her aroma that of a hydrophobic bag lady.
Crow caught her eyes in the mirrored wall. For a fraction of a second he found himself held by them, then her lids closed. She rotated her head and opened her eyes onto another scene.
Flowrean seemed to live inside an invisible but palpable bubble. She spoke to others in the gym only when she could not avoid it, and when she did speak, she was both abrupt and succinct. Crow suspected that Flowrean Peeche saw other human beings as phantasms—less real and important than the dead goldfish around her neck.
The only other potential spotter in the chest room, Beaut Miller, was pumping up his chest on the cables. In a pinch, Crow decided, he'd take the nose-wrenching Flowrean over the dangerous wit of Beaut, whose favorite gag was to come up behind a guy doing pull-ups and yank his shorts down to his ankles. None of the regulars did pull-ups when Beaut was in the vicinity.
Ah well, thought Crow, having no spotter might inspire him to perform better. Once the bar touched his chest, he'd have no choice but to shove it back up. He planted his feet firmly, centered his back on the bench, and lifted. The barbell came up off the rack, and his muscles went into overload, desperately trying to prevent the weight from dropping onto his face. The bar wavered, loose plates clanking. Crow kept his elbows locked, trying to reassure his panicked muscles.
"That looks heavy, guy." Beaut Miller's hoarse voice came from behind.
Crow felt his concentration split. He thought, I should just rerack it.
"You want a spot there, guy? You don't want to drop it on your face."
Through gritted teeth, Crow muttered, "No thanks." He lowered the bar toward his chest, blocking Beaut's presence from his mind, stopping the bar just before it touched his T-shirt.
Now up, he commanded, squeezing his chest, forcing his arms to straighten. Miraculously, the bar began to ascend. He allowed himself to think of Beaut watching him control the weight, pushing it slowly skyward.
Something icy cold slapped him on his bare thigh. Crow flinched, the barbell tilted to the left. He felt himself losing control, seeing it happen in slow motion. The five and ten-pound weights slid off the left end of the bar and hit the rubber floormat with a clang. That end of the barbell, suddenly fifteen pounds lighter, whipped up. All four weights on the right end slid off and slammed onto the rubber. The right end of the bar kicked up then, and the last pair of forty-fives crashed down to his left. Crow was left holding the empty bar, his arms shaking violently. He racked the bar and sat up. His leg was wet.
Beaut stood shaking his golden mane, holding a half-empty squeeze bottle. "Jeez, guy, I'm sorry as hell. Didn't mean to splash ya." He upended the bottle and jetted a few ounces of water into his mouth. "A guy oughta ask for a spot if he's not sure he can handle it." His pale blue eyes widened, as if a new thought had entered his mind. "A guy could get hurt."
Neither bodybuilder nor powerlifter, Beaut was your basic gym rat—whatever part of his body he could see in the bathroom mirror bulged meatily, including his prognathous jaw. He made no effort to achieve a symmetrical physique, choosing to conceal his less-than-impressive legs beneath billowing leopard-skin-patterned Zubaz and relying on his jutting chest to divert attention from his spongy abdomen. Beaut wanted mass and, at six-three and upward of two hundred sixty pounds, he had it. With his double-wide shoulders, his twenty-inch biceps, his deep tan, and his curly bleached locks, Beaut cut an impressive figure at the local T.G.I. Friday's.
Crow wondered how Beaut would respond to a ten-pound plate thrown at his head. Probably just let it bounce off his skull, then try to dismember the thrower. Maybe it would be worth it.
Excerpted from Ring Game by Pete Hautman. Copyright © 1997 Peter Hautman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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