“A Bottle of Mezcal”

CHAPTER ONE

Incompatible worlds in collision, over coffee.

 

On this world, the dead outnumber the living 10 to 1. We’ll never catch up.

Grim cops in bankers’ haircuts, air fresheners dangling from the rear-view mirrors of cars with fighter-jet attitude, brand-new 1998 Ford Crown Victorias, howl down decaying Guadalupe Street. An airless lane caught between suffocating, elderly two-story homes of dead furniture, peeling lead paint, cracked basement windows and backyards of chained-up dogs burrowing on a jailbreak from boredom. Someone throws open a kitchen window and the neighborhood smells of burnt toast.

Mrs. Augermayr and Mrs. Valdez, their arms crossed over their cardigan sweaters against the cool morning, watch from Mrs. Augermayr’s front porch. Mrs. Valdez has a cigarette butt inserted in each of her ears. Because the world is so damn loud.

The cops are drifting in and out of 664 Guadalupe. “Satan’s next-door neighbor,” one of them jokes. They’re muttering, pointing, coughing, calling on their radios for someone to bring them coffee.

“I was one of the first guys to get into Dahmer’s apartment,” one says. He was a young cop then. Now he is old. He lights a cigarette. “It’s why I do… what I do.”

Drinking. He’s talking about heavy drinking.

A pair of drug-sniffing dogs with red eyes and toothy grins, hind feet skittering in excitement on the wood steps of the porch, are led out of the house. The hair on their heads is matted in spikes against their skulls. The dogs have torn the lid off a can of powerful art glue.

Silent men in orange hazardous-waste suits, headlamps strapped to their helmets, their faces insect-like in breathing gear, carefully carry surrealistic bodies from the house and into the yard, setting them on plastic body bags too small for the job. Three giant bodies, easily seven feet tall, almost eight, two male and one female, fragile as kites. The eyes are closed, as in death. “There’s a cat with an eyeball in its mouth back in the first-floor bedroom,” a police sergeant says.

“Oh, don’t pick up that cat!” Mrs. Valdez screams. “He bites.” She turns to Mrs. Augermayr. “I heard there was a detective poking behind an old mattress in the basement, and he burst into flames.”

Mrs. Augermayr sniffs. “Musta been the smoke I smelt.”

A police sergeant stands over one of the bodies, nudging it with the toe of his boot. The features are angular, muscles and ligaments standing out as they do on a mummified man found in a desert cave. It shimmers in deep browns, reds and golds. Translucent, like something very old trapped in amber. The sergeant can see the ribs on the sides of the torso. He’s not certain what he is looking at. “Is this even real?”

“Papier-mâché, maybe?” a cop says. “Some kind of artwork. Pretty anatomically correct. Not papier-mâché, though. Something with a hard finish, like varnish. Polished.”

“Shouldn’t we cover them up?” The sergeant nods at the neighborhood kids standing, staring, behind the yellow crime-scene tape.

A detective carrying a large bass saxophone steps out of the house. He sets the instrument on the grass next to one of the bodies and thinks for a moment. “This house takes me back to my first childhood memory,” he says. “Of looking through a keyhole into my sister’s bedroom, watching her get undressed. It’s the kind of thing that will twist your life forever. Personal hygiene has never been a hallmark of my family.”

“What’s your second childhood memory?” a cop asks.

“My second childhood memory,” the detective says, “is my dad demonstrating his Navy physical.”

The anonymous men in hazardous-waste suits follow the detective back into the house.

A screen door slams. Mrs. Augermayr’s next-door neighbor, the guy in 660, is on his porch. He wears a powder-blue bathrobe tied shut with a small-appliance electrical cord. He blows most of what little money he has on hookers, just so he can swear at them. It’s easy money, they say.

The front door at 664 groans in protest. The Dahmer cop and the detective, both standing idly on the lawn, look back at the house. A tall man in a dark suit and sunglasses steps out onto the porch and walks purposefully down the steps, strides between the figures on the grass without a glance and continues on down the street. Wordless. Unsmiling. No one stops him, no one says a word. It is the man’s demeanor that warns against doing so.

“I thought you said…,” the Dahmer veteran says quietly.

“…I’d cleared the house of civilians,” the other says, finishing the thought.

Another cop continues to block off the crime scene with yellow tape. DO NOT CROSS. A yellow chicken wanders in from the back yard and begins to cross the line, and the cop gently shoos it away with his foot. Along with the three uncertain corpse-art figures on the lawn, there have now been 10 additional bodies discovered inside the house. Perhaps more human in stature, but hard to tell, they are little more than blackened bone and cinders. On their way to the warehouse of souls. It is not a good morning in this neighborhood.

The guy in the bathrobe, threads dangling from constantly picking at the sleeves, squints into the morning light, fragments of scrambled eggs visible in his goatee. A murmur of television voices argues in the room behind him. He sleeps on the floor of the living room while his casually bred dog dozes on the bed and lets itself out through a hole in the screen door. One night he was telling Mrs. Augermayr that the dog is 24 years old. “Are you sure it’s the same one?” she’d asked. “How do you know your old dog didn’t go out and die, and another one just come strollin’ in?”

He frowns and reaches into a pocket of his robe, finds a small plastic bottle, unscrews the cap, shakes a pill into his trembling hand and swallows it. Low-dose spirin helps to prevent heart attacks. Not that he has any reason to live. Except the fear of what he might miss. Maybe someday, humans will walk on Mars.

A bird in a tree branch high over their heads coughs. “You know, time and memory’s a funny thing,” the sergeant says to one of the first cops to get to Dahmer’s apartment. “Me, I’ve got no family. Parents dead, only child, never been married. No kids. No one ever calls me to see if I want to go bowling. When I’m dead, there’ll be no one to remember me. Someone will clean out my apartment and it’ll be like I never existed. I’ll be a black hole in time.” He turns to the Dahmer cop. “Will you do me a favor? Will you remember me?”

The cop smiles warmly. “Yeah. I’ll make it a point to remember you.”

“Thanks.”

“Want to go bowling this weekend?”

“Nah. Never was interested in it.”

The detective is back on the porch. “Did you see those old record albums in there?” he says. “Crates of stuff. I just put one on the turntable. Everyone loves music, right?”

A tenor saxophone, cautiously exploring empty spaces. A piano, notes like icicles. A cello, the sigh of sadness. The warm crack and pop of a vinyl record.  One of the first cops to get to Dahmer’s apartment nods appreciatively. The detective wraps his arm around the man’s shoulders. “You know what Miles Davis said about jazz?” he whispers in his ear.

The Dahmer cop knows. “Don’t play what’s there. Play what’s not there.”

A shadow creeps across the neighborhood. Mrs. Valdez looks up and points. Behind the bare tree branches, so high that it could be a cloud, is a pair of vast silver, gossamer wings, a vehicle so incomprehensibly large that the tip of each wing disappears behind the rooflines of the houses on either side of the street. “Don’t be afraid,” she says, adjusting the butt in her left ear. “It’s a spaceship. I’ve seen one before. Years ago, on my honeymoon on Easter Island. Great for biologists, bad for lovers. Absolutely no nightlife.”

The drunk smiles. The expression on his face is different now, it’s a transcendental smile. The shine of a poet. A bad one, perhaps Rod McKuen. “Memory, words and actions are not engaging properly here,” the drunk says slowly, the sentence like an incantation. “As though two incompatible worlds have collided on this lawn, this morning.” He looks into the sky. “I’m not afraid of that thing.”

The cops don’t see it, their investigation is confined to what they expect to see. And when Mrs. Valdez looks up again, she sees nothing but blue sky and clouds. The ship was the kind of fleeting moment that, once it is gone, no one is even sure it has even happened.

The sergeant covers one of the giant bodies with a sheet he’s found in the house. Out of kindness. “I wonder what these things are?” he murmurs.

“Was there a real tall guy in a black suit walking around here?” the detective asks.

“Tall guy?”

“Black suit.”

“No.” The detective looks down the street. The man has disappeared. Where could he have gone? Into one of the other houses?

He is soon forgotten. Someone is shouting. “Here comes the coffee!”