stuck in the small west Texas town where I’d been raised,
waiting for a radiator to replace the one I’d blown in
the heat and sleeping off the tail-end of a two-day drunk.
When the door of my motel room opened and in walked a pudgy
blonde wearing a blood red tube top, white hot pants, and
a well-worn pair of blue flip-flops, I stared at her with
one half-opened eye that wouldn’t focus properly.
“I thought I locked
that door,” I mumbled.
“You did.” She
held up a master key.
I opened my other
eye. Outside was nothing but flat as far as the eye could
see. Inside were more curves than a sidewinder trail in the
“I knew your grandfather,” the
“It’s a small
town,” I replied. “Everybody knew my grandfather.”
I’d started drinking
after his funeral on Friday and hadn’t stopped until—well,
I hadn’t stopped, I’d just passed out between drinks. The
inside of my mouth felt as dry as the motel parking lot,
so I looked around my room. Both bottles of Southern Comfort
were empty, but a good half-inch of Coke remained at the
bottom of a plastic 2-liter bottle.
I sat up and reached
for the Coke. The sweaty sheet bunched at my waist, exposing
my chest. Then I leaned against the headboard and drank.
The soda was warm and flat and felt thick as mud when I swallowed.
“You should get
dressed.” At least a half dozen years younger than me, the
blonde seemed familiar. I didn’t know why. “I have something
to show you.”
I thought about
that for a moment, and then flipped back the sheet. She examined
me without comment.
I stood and padded
into the bathroom, voided my bladder, and then showered.
When I finished, the blonde was still standing near the door.
She hadn’t been there the entire time, though. She’d rifled
my pants pockets and looked through my wallet. I wondered
what she’d been looking for and if she’d found it.
My last pair of
clean underwear, the thin cotton ones covered with yellow
smiley faces that an ex-girlfriend had given me one Christmas,
had migrated to the bottom of my duffel bag. I pulled them
on, then followed with tube socks, faded boot-cut Wranglers,
well-worn black Ropers, and a loose-fitting Longhorns T-shirt.
The blonde’s eyes
widened in surprise when I reached under my pillow and retrieved
a .38 in a brown leather holster. I tucked it into my waistband
at the small of my back and flipped the tail of my T-shirt
I glanced at myself
in the mirror. I needed to do something with my hair, but
it could wait. I turned to the blonde. “What do you have
to show me?”
She led me outside
to a Chevy step-side, a two-tone job equal parts dirt and
rust. If it had ever been another color, it wasn’t obvious.
She climbed behind the wheel, and I climbed in beside her.
Only her purse separated us.
We drove to my
grandfather’s house, a dilapidated two-bedroom ranch with
a water cooler on the roof, a place just outside of town
that I had sworn never to enter again. She parked in the
driveway, a slash of hard-packed clay that divided the sun-scorched
crab grass into two unequal sections.
“Why here?” I
asked. I’d inherited the house, the surrounding property,
and a burnt orange Plymouth Volaré that had seen better days.
I hadn’t inherited my grandfather’s desire for isolation.
“This is where
it happened.” The blonde slipped out of the truck and walked
around to my side. She pulled my door open. “Well?”
When my boots
hit the driveway, a cloud of dust billowed up around my ankles.
I looked the place over. Nothing had changed in the years
since I had moved away. The tallest thing in the yard was
still the mailbox nailed to a post out by the road.
She led me to
the house and opened the front door. A wall of heat and a
god-awful smell blasted me full in the face.
“It’s been locked
up since they found him,” she said.
“I guess he died
alone,” I said. “Death certificate says he died a natural
“He died natural
enough. He bled to death after taking a .22 long in the base
of his skull.”
I stepped into
my grandfather’s living room for the first time in nearly
eighteen years. The shotgun remained over the mantle, family
photos covered one wall, and memories filled the remaining
space. “The coroner didn’t notice the hole?”
a doctor, she’s a mortician. County can’t afford an M.E.” She
led me inside. Sunlight burned through the front window,
cooking the room like the heat lamp at a fast food joint.
I choked on the
smell, and my eyes began to water.
“He was in here
a week before anyone noticed,” she said. “When his mailbox
filled up, the postman looked in the window and saw your
grandfather laying over there.”
She pointed toward
the far side of the room, near the fireplace.
“He’d been sitting
in that chair, reading the newspaper. After he was shot,
he fell forward and landed on it,” she said. “That’s how
they figured time of death.”
I’d seen a copy
of my grandfather’s death certificate at the funeral home,
and another copy at the lawyer’s office when I attended the
reading of the will. “Death certificate only mentioned date
“Close enough,” she
said. Sweat beaded on her forehead and she wiped it away
with the back of her hand. “The paper’s delivered here around
seven every morning. The next day’s paper was still in the
front yard when they hauled his body away.”
I stepped toward
the stained carpet, disturbing the flies feeding on the dried
blood. I backed away quickly.
“I saw your license,” she
said. “Are you really a private investigator?”
mostly,” I explained. I had my back to her, examining dusty,
wall-hung family photos that stretched back to my mother’s
childhood years. “Workman’s comp claims. Guys who say they’ve
injured their backs until I catch them carrying out the trash
or playing football with their kids.”
“You like your
“It pays the bills.” I
lifted a photo of my mother off the wall and blew the dust
from it. She had died before I had a chance to know her,
and her death had left me alone with my grandfather.
“You good at what
“Good enough.” I
turned to face the blonde. “Why?”
She shrugged and
her breasts bounced in the tube top. A different time and
a different place and I might have ventured a second look.
I carried the
photo of my mother outside, and I sat with it on the concrete
steps. The blonde joined me.
“You see that
house down there?” she asked, pointing west. She indicated
an abandoned two-bedroom ranch with a stove-in roof. “I lived
down there. Moved in about a year before you left.”
I remembered her,
then. Little Miss Independence, always had her own ideas
about things and wouldn’t let the bigger kids tell her what
to do. She’d been too young to play with, but I’d let her
follow me around that last summer I’d lived with my grandfather.
“It wasn’t just
I turned to face
her. “What are you saying?”
“That’s why you
left, isn’t it?” She slipped off one of her flip-flops and
slapped at a couple of flies that had followed us outside. “To
get away from him.”
Complete story available in
the print edition of Big Pulp Winter 2010