“Déjà Voodoo” by Toby Heaton, Asheville NC

Connected October 16, 2011 05:18

topic: CONNECTED medium: TEXT
Liesl Schillinger, of the New York Times Book Review, had this to say about “Deja Voodoo”:
Who is Toby Heaton? This is great. This reads like “The Wire,”it reminds me of Richard Price. I love the dialogue here, the characters feel real. There’s a whole lot of action going on in these pages, but many images made me laugh out loud… like bongo-ing on the cash register that won’t open, and fruitlessly shaking it; then the surly fortune-teller who insults her client. And the language is mobile and full of life. I like Heaton’s fluent modern touches—like the character who buys his minutes at Wal-Mart. This guy should be writing screenplays. And if this is part of a finished manuscript, he should get an agent.

One of the Winners of the “Connected” Contest

Needles in my heart, spell on my mind
Your powerful potion gets me every time
I toss and turn, I can’t sleep at night
Your kiss burns, through my dreams

Here it comes again
I don’t stand a chance
Soul possession
Got me in a trance
Pullin me back, back to you –
Deja voodoo
Kenny Wayne Shepherd

“Put the money in a bag,” Georgie said to the guy behind the counter who looked like some kind of gook. The words came out as ‘puhdamoneeinaba.’ An hour before he and Lurleen had done speedballs with a six-pack of Bud. The guy said, “wha?” his face all scrunched up, trying to get it. Georgie came around the counter, hidden for a second by a rack of chips, and hit the guy on the temple with the butt of the gun. Dropped him like a sack of rice. The register was right there. He punched a few keys hard with his forefinger. Nothing happened. “Doan wanna give it up, Gookie? I know . . . I know,” mumbling to himself. Tapped a few more keys, slid the gun under his belt, picked up the register with both hands and shook it.

Nothing.

He wanted to throw the damn thing, but a braided security cable held it in place. He bounced the machine on the counter, then beat the keyboard like a bongo drum with the flats of both hands.

Nothing.

Looked at the guy out cold on the floor and thought about pouring a cold bottle of coke on his head. Took a few steps toward the back of the store and heard the rev of the engine outside. Shaking his head in frustration, he came back to the counter, got a paper bag and filled it with chips and candy. Then, went out to the yellow Camaro idling in front, Lurleen behind the wheel, her red hair tucked under a baseball cap. “You get it?” she said, jamming the gas down hard as soon as his door closed. The car squealed away just as a pick-up pulled in at the gas pumps. Georgie nodded, thinking she would be pissed. She wanted the money for a bus ticket to Texas. To see her sister, she said. The long scar above his eye burned.

The Roanoke police picked him up two days later. Just his bad luck the wife of a state trooper was in the truck at the pump and got the plate. Said she never would have looked except the car hauled out of there like it was leaving the pit stops at Bristol. Out of habit, she wrote down the tag in the dust on her dashboard. Georgie was down off the speedballs and resigned—to something. He wasn’t sure what. Lurleen did that to him. Once at a fair in Charlottesville, she had talked him into a fortune-teller’s booth. He still remembered the words from the old woman in a fake turban. Five bucks, a quick look at his palm, and she said, ‘You’re a dog.’Lurleen came to see him in the holding cell at the Roanoke County Jail. He hadn’t given her up.

“Lurleen,” Georgie whispered, his voice pleading. “It’s only a year.” They spoke through the wire mesh that separated visitors from inmates. “I’ll be good . . . real good. No fights or nothing. I’ll be out in six, eight months . . . .” Lurleen just shook her head. “No, no, no. It’s too long.” She wasn’t exactly pretty, but every guard in the place knew she was there. “Course, you could have shopped me,” she said slyly. “Made sure I’d be here.”

“You know I’d never do that.”

“Well, too late now. Even if you wanted.”

“Look here,” he said, pulling up the sleeve of his orange jumpsuit. “I got the number written down. Soon as I get in, sentencing and all, I’ll get it tattooed.” The phone number was a pre-paid cell phone with two thousand minutes he bought at Wal-Mart so she could call her family in Texas whenever she wanted. She got up to leave, put her palm briefly on the mesh, pulled it away before he could respond in kind. “I’ll be calling, you hear? I’ll be calling every chance I get.” She waved back at him, red hair down below her shoulder blades, her butt sliding from side to side like a speed-skater. “I love you, Lurleen.” But she was gone through the door.

Lurleen sold the phone two days later to a woman named Joyce she met in a bar on Tavis Street. With the money she had from dumping the Camaro—with no title and a police BOLO on the plate, it hadn’t been a lot—she had enough to cover the bus ticket to Austin and a small stash left over. Georgie getting nicked worked out in its way. She wanted Texas—she knew a guy there just might set her up if she played her cards right. Georgie . . . Georgie was sweet, but he was gone.

Joyce had a weed habit she kept under wraps from her mother who she lived with. Her mother got Social Security and a disability payment every month—checks that Joyce cashed. The house was paid off and they had no car. That left food and utilities, and some left over for whatever. She bought the phone for her boyfriend Ray, but still had it in her purse when Georgie called.

“Lurleen?” Georgie said and Joyce thought, Uh oh. Ray gets this phone and some guy starts calling for Lurleen. Wasn’t going to work. “Lurleen ain’t here right now,” she said. “She’s working. Got a job at . . .” Joyce had to stop and think. What came to mind was the bar. “Franklin’s” “Franklin’s?” A long pause. “Franklin’s SpitHouse?” The bar had the ironic name of a previous owner who claimed he spit tobacco juice in his liquor bottles come the early morning hours when he and his customers were juiced. “Yeah, Franklin’s,” Joyce said, wanting the guy off the phone. “What’s the number there?” Georgie said, sounding angry. “And when she coming back?” “Look it up y’own damn self,” Joyce said and clicked off. “I ain’t no answering service.”

Four days before the end of the month, out of money, she traded the phone to her dealer for three joints of Columbian Gold.

* * * * *

Georgie stood in line a good hour for the call-out phone at the jail. Lurleen worried him. Something could happen and he’d never know. The last two times he’d called, the line had been busy and he’d had to give up his spot. Not today. Today he had a feeling. Today he’d get through. He looked at the number tattooed on his forearm—a big loopy L with a long horizontal tail underneath the number. He mumbled it over and over while he waited. When he finally dialed, he mis-punched and had to start over. Busy. Damndamndamndamndamn. He hurriedly punched it in again. This time it rang.

A man’s voice. “Yeah. What you need?”

For a few seconds Georgie froze up. Then, he said roughly, “Put Lurleen on. I know she’s there. Tell her it’s Georgie.”

“Lur-a-leen. Lur-a-leen. Nice name—”

“Come on, man,” Georgie said. ‘I ain’t got time for your bullshit.”

“Lurleen.” A few seconds of quiet. “Well, she’s busy. In the back room, you know. Didn’t want to say. A few of the boys . . . . Her clothes are here, though. Ooooh. Soft panties. Man, that’s a nice smell. Nose candy for those of us who don’t do the white.”

“You’re shittin me. Lurleen ain’t no hooker—”

“Did I say she’s getting paid? No, I did not. Those boys is hung. I—”

Georgie howled and slammed down the receiver. The guy behind him gave him a nudge and said, “Give it up. We’re all waiting here.” Georgie turned and head butted the guy. It had the unexpected effect of splitting his own skin open above the eye. Where the scar was. Later, in front of the warden, no one would say who started the fight. Georgie’s left eye had swollen shut, the result of twelve widely spaced stitches to close the cut. The other guy had a broken nose and three broken ribs.

“No additional time,” the warden said, “but your good behavior’s gone. And no phone privileges for three months. Either of you.”

* * * * *

The dealer kept the phone almost the entire three months of Georgie’s enforced isolation, using it exclusively to receive calls. Then, he tossed it. The number had gotten hot. Cops were calling.

Selena Christopher found the phone in a dumpster behind the Winn-Dixie on Harris Avenue. At first she missed it—hidden under two packages of stale rolls. Dinner. With the rolls secured in her cart, she went looking for extras and found the phone. It was sleek, out of place. She pressed buttons until one of them turned it on. She could hear the dial tone. She turned it off, then stored it in with the aluminum cans. Those cans were money. Nights were getting colder. She searched out cardboard for her shelter. Layers of cardboard could keep her warm in a small space.

On a late afternoon just before dark, three boys jumped her, surrounding her shopping cart, taunting and shoving. All of a sudden the aluminum cans began to rattle, distracting them. Selena seized the moment. “Oh, angel man,” she sang. “Smite these unbelievers. Shrink their peckers till they be little bitty weenies, unfit for women. Let them piss blood for their transgressions.” She threw back her head and opened her arms. The rattling seemed to get louder. The boys fled. When she opened the bag, she remembered the phone. Rather than ringing, it vibrated. Hesitantly, halfway believing her own incantations, she picked it up and turned it on. “Lurleen?” a male voice said.

“Hello,” Selena said, almost too softly to hear her own voice. “Hello.” Louder, now.

“Lurleen? Is that you? You sound so strange. Are you okay?”

“I’m not eating so good,” Selena said. “This cold . . .”

“Lurleen, you hold on now. You hear. I’ll be out in two months. We’ll go somewhere warm.”

“Like . . . like Florida?”

“Yeah, like that. We’ll take a trip.” Selena heard the sound of other voices and then the man-angel said, “Lurleen, I gotta go. I can’t fight. Not now.”

“No,” she said. “Can’t fight, can’t fight.” She kept the phone to her ear, but the voice was gone. All she heard was static. She pressed the big button again and the light went out. She put the phone in the pocket of her coat—wanting it close if he called again. Angel man. The day after Thanksgiving it snowed—a heavy wet downfall that smothered the city in slush. The worse kind of snow if you were homeless, trying to keep warm and dry. Selena was out of food; she had to go out. Check the Winn-Dixie and restaurant dumpsters. She took the grocery cart. Tough going through the sloppy mess of sidewalks and streets. In the middle of the afternoon the temperature started falling, and with it, came more snow.

Alicia Reyes, on her way home from the liquor store with a bottle of vodka for her boyfriend Robert, saw the hump covered with snow in the middle of the sidewalk. An overturned grocery cart lay in the gutter. Cursing, she kicked at the mound to see if it moved. She set the bag with the vodka down carefully next to the sidewalk—Robert would whack her good if she came back without it—brushed the snow off the coat, averting her eyes, and began going through the pockets. She stopped when she found the phone. She couldn’t get it to come on but her sister had a charger. Hot damn, she said to herself. Maybe things are finally breaking right. She made up her mind to buy a lottery ticket first chance she got. She slipped the phone in her coat pocket and started to go through the other layers of clothing, but two people came down the sidewalk towards her. She left quickly, forgetting the vodka next to the body. Her sister came over with the charger. They pulled up the number from the phone’s menu and switched it from vibrate to ring. Alicia’s euphoria was short-lived. Robert came home and she remembered where she left the vodka.

“Fucking bitch,” he said, slapping her across the face. “I work all day and you got nothing to do but what I tell you. Where’s the money, huh? Where’s the damn money I gave you?” He dumped her purse on the kitchen table and the phone spilled out. “You spent my money on a damn cell phone? You bitch.”

“No, I found it, I swear.”

When he left, she had a black eye, a split lip and could hardly take a breath because of her ribs. She thought something down there might be broken. He had left the phone. Later, when it rang, she thought it must be her sister.

“Lurleen? Baby? You okay? I was so worried. All this snow.”Lurleen. Alicia thought about the hump in the snow. Goodbye, Lurleen. Goodbye.Between her ribs and her lip, she could hardly talk.

“Sorry,” she said. It came out ‘sahee.’

“I’m out, Lurleen. Done. We can split this place. And don’t worry about money. I’ll get some.” His voice sounded big over the phone. Made her think.

“Where are you?” he said. “I’ll come and get you.”

“Lurleen not here.” Alicia barely got the words out.

“You’re not Lurleen? Then, who is this? Where is she? Where’s my Lurleen?” The questions came so fast, they stuttered.

“He took her,” Alicia said. “Mean SOB.”

“Who you talking about? Took her where?”

Alicia had to put her head down, gather some breath. “Robert,” she said, gasping. “He took her. Don’t know where. But he’ll be back.”

“Tell me where you are and I’ll come. Right now. I’ll come.”

Alicia thought he moaned the name. Lurleen. She told him the street, the number. Told him she had to hang up because she hurt. When she put the phone back on the table, tiny specks of blood dotted the worn casing. Robert got home first. Alicia had curled up on the couch, a bag of ice, now melted, held against her mouth. He shoved her roughly aside, sat down and said, “Get me a beer.” She scooted to the end of the couch, as far away from him as she could get, but made no effort to get up. “You hurt me. Bad.”

“You don’t get me that beer, you’ll find out what bad is,” he said.

“I bought you the damn vodka,” she said. “I forgot it is all.”

“You get me that beer or so help me . . .”

She uncoiled herself slowly, got up, faltered and had to sit back down. Took a series of shallow breaths, got up and shuffled into the kitchen like an old lady. She was almost at the refrigerator when she heard the front door bang open. She went back and stood in the doorway. The man who had come in was wide, big arms and shoulders, with a crooked scar that ran above his left eye and continued over the bridge of his nose. Even with the cold, he wore a short-sleeve shirt. He said to Robert, “Where is she? Where’s my Lurleen?”

“What kind of stupid shit you running? Get out of my house.” Robert had risen from the couch, his hands clenched at his sides, but he made no move towards the open door.

“Lurleen,” the big man said again. “I know she was here.” He looked at Alicia.

“He took her,” Alicia said, nodding at Robert. “He took her.”

Robert half-turned to look at Alicia. “What the fuck you talking—”

The big man was on him in a snap, had Robert in a headlock, dragged him over to the couch, bent him over the back and began ramming his right fist into Robert’s ribs. Over and over. They made the sound that Alicia remembered from the first Rocky movie—Stallone hitting slabs of beef in the meat locker. The big man paused, giving Robert a chance. “Lurleen—”

Robert used the pause to drag a knife from the top of his boot. He got it into flesh, somewhere low. But then the blows started over—into the ribs at the same spot. Alicia, supporting herself against the door-frame, heard Robert scream, saw his eyes glaze, saw a thin line of blood dribble from the corner of his mouth. After a time the big man’s punches seemed to get more space between them, seemed to get softer. “Lurleen. Lurleen, baby,” he said one more time, and fell over.

Alicia used the cell to call 911, then slipped it inside her purse. The cops took their time getting there. All the snow. Two men dead. Seemed to have killed each other; one by driving his fist over and over into ribs that eventually broke and punctured a lung. That one—Robert Newsome his name was—bled out internally. The other—Georgie Carallet, recently released—had a knife wound on the inside of his groin. Unlucky for him, it had punctured the femoral artery. A pool of blood coagulated underneath him on the carpet.

“You know Mr. Carallet?” Sergeant Yorglon—a name subject to more than its share of squadron humor—said to Alicia who sat in a chair at the kitchen table. She shook her head.

“And Mr. Newsome?”

“He lives here.”

“He the one who beat you?”

When she didn’t say anything, Yorglon said, “Well, maybe it was this Georgie. Just got out. Maybe he’s your old lover. Comes over. Finds you living with Mr. Newsome. . . .” The bodies were still in the living room. Alicia could see them from where she sat.

“I told you. I don’t know him.”

“Then, why is he here?”

“He came in saying ‘Lurleen,’ like maybe she lived here or something.”

“Lurleen,” Yorglon said. “Sort of a strange name. Not your middle name is it? Maybe a pet name?” He smiled.

“Do I look like a Lurleen?” Alicia mumbled through swollen lips. “Come on.”

“Sarge,” his patrolman partner said from the living room, “this guy’s got a number tattooed on his arm. Big ‘L’ under the number.”

“What kind of number,” Yorglon said. “How many digits?”

“Seven. Phone number, probably. Even got the dash. Might not be local, though. No area code.”

“Call it,” Yorglon said. “We got time before the M.E. gets here.

The patrolman pulled a city-issue cell phone from a pouch on his belt and punched in the number, double-checking against the number on Georgie’s arm. From the purse on the counter came a cell phone’s muted ring. It sounded loud as a gong. Alicia jerked as if she’d been stung.

“Gee,” Yorglon turned to look at her, “I think we got us a connection.”

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