by Alex Vuocolo
I thought about Lonnie on the off-chance Lonnie thought about me. It was a pathetic impulse, but I didn’t like the idea of my name spooling around his head without reciprocation. So, I thought about him day and night for almost three decades, and sometimes it was like staring out of a sliding glass door into a backyard at night, nothing to see but darkness and reflection. Other times, but less often, he came right up to the glass and said “hiya, Dougie, where’d you go?”
That’s more how it was lately.
Lonnie was in the air like a new season.
I had moved back to the suburbs and picked up a job at the deli off Potts Road, the very same cold-case bunker with ugly fluorescent lights that I’d worked in as a teenager. My older brother owned it now, bought it about a decade ago. I thought he was crazy for putting money into such a lousy place, but now I was mostly thankful for the work. I went through the same line of thinking when he bought the family home in Middletown. I live there now too.
I was slicing a hunk of pepper ham for a neighborhood lady when this guy walked into the deli who I vaguely recognized. It wasn’t Lonnie, but it was someone in Lonnie’s orbit, a hanger-on of some stripe. The name Mike, simple though it was, dropped into my mind uncomfortably.
“Is that you, Dougie, cutting ham?” He asked.
My insides slipped. The jittery old slicer almost cut off a piece of my thumb.
“I can tell by the hair. Still a grease-ball townie at what, forty-nine, fifty?”
“Old as you,” I said, guessing.
“Then 49 it is. And a townie just like me too.”
I wanted to relay to him the content of the last 30 years, to prove they were more than empty marks on the calendar, but there was no way to summarize it, no conversational shortcut that would have convinced him.
“Don’t take offense, old buddy. I still live in Gradyville,” he said.
Gradyville, now that was a name that started to put things together. I remembered at once. Mike was Lonnie’s neighbor. He’d spend all day at the Ranch, which was what we called Lonnie’s family property. Mike would come off the forest trails bare-foot and rip open the screen door without a knock or a hello. He was heavy back then, if I recalled. Now he looked like a retired Marine, stiff-backed and muscle-bound, his face hard but no less hungry.
“I run an auto-shop out of my garage. Does all right for little Gradyville. I’m surprised I haven’t seen you come through all these years. I give discounts to everybody in the old crew.”
The old crew. A short phrase that unfurled like an ancient scroll.
The lady waiting for the ham made a noise. I shaved off a few more pieces, slapped them on the scale, and wrapped the heap in wax paper.
“What do you need?” I said after the lady was out the door.
“Actually nothing. I came in for beer, which I can see you don’t have.”
He took a step closer, placing a set of heavy fingers on the countertop.
“I’m just curious if I’m looking at the same-old Dougie, who if I remember correctly was a real wild dude back in the day.”
Mike leaned against the cold case. Up close he looked like one of our long-dead fathers, and I wondered what faucet you had to run your face under to look like that, or if it had more to do with the type of blood that pumped through your veins — the harder stuff leaving grittier tracks.
Myself, I looked like a banged-up kid.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” I said, feigning a grin. “You get older.”
The words came out like thin smoke.
“Oh sure, we all did, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have a little fun every once and awhile. In fact, we’re having a big bonfire tonight at Tom’s dad’s old place, the tree farm. No wives or girlfriends. You should come over. I’d bet you’d recognize some of the old boys.”
He said bonfire like he meant to hurt me with it. Gradyville too. The tree farm. Each was a notch in a rusty bone saw.
“I don’t know, Mike. I’ve been here since 6:00 a.m. Tired.”
He laughed and showed his neck, the veins pulling under his rough flesh.
“Just think about it, okay? It’s gonna be real nice — a little reunion.”
He dropped a mess of pennies in the tip can, said, “See you, Rat.”
After that I closed the shop and smoked a cigarette in the parking lot. Then I walked up Potts as night came on. It was a lonely stretch. The houses looked emptier than they had in years. There were no kids, no toys on the lawn. I didn’t know what happened here.
I didn’t want to see Mike or anybody else in that crew. I assumed they had become wannabe suburban roughnecks or reformed druggies with sad-sack jobs. But deep down I did want to see Lonnie. I’d long believed that he was either dead or transformed through some life experience that had made him, effectively, no longer himself. I kept the Lonnie I knew, the Child Warlord of Gradyville, safely ensconced in the back of my mind.
Yet there he was insinuating himself. Up ahead, along Potts, the forest came up to the road and hung its branches over the asphalt. That was the same forest, I thought, that led all the way to Gradyville unbroken, the same hidden world where Lonnie and I beat out running trails with our feet and marked the path with little red flags stolen from the golf course.
Lonnie would race ahead on legs that were all too eager to carry him, an animal built explicitly for these purposes, and I would follow after, less physically equipped but driven by an eagerness never to lose him and the easy world that he seemed to inhabit.
It was such a rush hanging with Lonnie that I didn’t ask questions when he’d lead me over a backyard fence into some bushes, where we’d huddle near a window and watch some family eat their dinner. Lonnie somehow knew their names and all these details about their lives. I snickered along with him as he tapped the glass and then ran like hell for the darkness.
All these years later, it was easy to forget that was only the beginning.
Before I had time to change my mind, I borrowed my sister in-law’s car and headed west toward the tree farm. It was a dark, empty route. I passed just two signs of life along the way: a Chinese place and a pizza shop, side by side on the same grimy strip mall as the post office and the UPS branch. Those were the last vestiges of the town, so much as it was one. The rest had fallen back into leafy, lightless backroads.
As I drove, I passed places in the darkness that once-upon-a-time I had traveled along parallel paths. We had run like banshees in those woods, crossing the county on deer trails and pipeline scars. We knew the way with our feet, but Lonnie kept a map too. He drew it up at the Ranch and marked with Xs all the secret hideouts, beer caches, and look-out points.
It was in those same forests that Lonnie planned the night raids. He’d tell us to wear all black and meet at the Ranch at sundown. Then we’d stalk the woods for lonely houses with dark, overgrown lawns that made it easy for us to sneak up to the windows. We’d look for a while, then after a time we’d try to get inside — checking locks, windows.
I remembered Lonnie in the dark whispering, “Careful now, don’t drop it,” as I jimmied a window with a long screwdriver that he called the “whacker.”
The road dimmed as I left Middletown behind and entered old Gradyville. I was getting closer to the tree farm, which Tom’s family had run for three decades and supplied half the county with lawn trees. For us, it was just a big property with plenty of places to hide. I was never quite sure what became of it after Tom’s dad passed away. These mysteries became like long-ago deaths. I came to terms with them. I came to terms with simply not knowing.
As I came into the last bend, I saw that the farm was alive and well and seemingly much expanded. Line after line of trees emanated from the main house where Tom and his father used to live. The whole expanse flickered with tiny lights, as it was so dark out there otherwise that every security lamp and bug-zapper floated like a ghost between the trees.
I pulled in and parked in the grass where the other cars were lined up in untidy regiments. There were more than I had expected, far more than the Gradyville boys could have brought along themselves. Perhaps the old crew had expanded.
The semi-rural atmosphere washed over me as I stepped out into the soft ankle-high grass: that earthy, moldering tang, the stink of stagnant creeks hidden in the weeds, particulates of rust lifting off backyard automobile graveyards.
The gathering was spread out across the lawn. The men wore heavy workmen jackets and baseball caps. I didn’t know what they did for a living, or if they even worked, but they fit the part for this evening of bonfires and beers, mugging and squinting like off-duty cops.
Mike found me immediately. He’d stripped down to a T-shirt despite the cold. His tattoos gleamed liquidly in the bonfire light. One arm, a tangled web. The other, a black monolith.
“Welcome back to the farm, Dougie.”
He gripped my shoulder and steered me through the crowds of men milling around the bonfire. Submerged among them, my head reaching only their weathered necks, their faces and ligaments took on an obscene girth, as if life had inflated them piecemeal, parts of them bulging out like neglected warts, their cigarettes jutting like cherry-tipped tongues.
Mike stuck a finger out. “You see that guy over there? That’s Andy Filson. And those guys there? That’s Zach Kurtz and Danny Nichols. Remember them?”
Of course I did. Andy killed his neighbor’s dog and left the corpse in the middle of their lawn; Zach hospitalized his sister after she ratted on him for stealing pills out of the medicine cabinet; and Danny liked the worst porn on the internet. We knew because he showed us, like Andy showed us the dog, and Zach his sister — these things, at least, I remembered.
Gradyville painstakingly reconstituted itself. Buried landmarks resurfaced. The smoky air started mingling with long-abandoned psychic territory. I was coming back, fully. Next would come the old, doomed urges.
I wheeled around, searching the crowd for Lonnie’s face, dizzying myself.
“Oh, I see,” said Mike. “You want to see the boss, don’t you?”
I didn’t nod. I didn’t say yes. I made a sound like a hungry dog.
Mike chuckled in my ear, and it seemed to echo across the lawn. Somewhere, a beer bottle smashed. A log crashed into the pit of the bonfire. The music stuttered and resumed.
“Follow me,” he said, and took my wrist into a tight grip. He pulled me away from the mass of laughing, drinking men, away from the bonfire and into the dark rows of the enormous tree farm. The monotony was dizzying. Saplings suspended with ropes were pegged into the dirt. Mike blundered over them and cracked their slender necks with his boots.
Deep among the rows, atop a slight hill, was a wooden barn lit up with a single halogen spotlight that blasted the facade a putrid white. More men were gathered there, uniformed in dark jackets and thick slacks, beer bottles in hand.
A separate strain of music came out of the barn. It sounded like an orchestra of off-key flutes blaring like farm animals. It reminded me of Lonnie’s odd-ball musical tastes, how he would play what he called “tribal” music as we readied ourselves for the next raid on an unsuspecting house. I learned later it was a form of ceremonial music for Thai kickboxing. That sort of thing appealed to Lonnie: the vague, martial glory.
We entered the barn. The other men quieted as we pushed our way to the center, where a small, four-legged table was set up with a single chair.
Hay was scattered over the raw floor. Spilt beer bled into black dirt.
The jostling crowd settled itself. All eyes turned to the center.
Sitting there, leaning back in the chair, was Lonnie in the living flesh. The mere sight of him almost caused me to fall backward into the hay. It was like witnessing a resurrection, a ghost given sudden, startling mass. I could smell him, see him, return his endless stare. It was an indulgence after so many years of grasping for his shadow in fading memories.
Then he spoke with that gigantic mouth:
“Who’s this little, long-haired nightcrawler dug out of the dirt?”
His voice boomed so the whole barn could hear.
There was laughter and whistling, but no answer. Those awful flutes went on in the background and made of the night a cacophony.
“Well let me tell you. This little man here, blessed it seems with the greasiest locks to ever hang off a grown man’s head, is Dougie the Rat. The sneakiest, shadiest, quietest thief in the whole county, or at least he used to be before he ran off on us.”
He grabbed my hand and lifted it into the air. My pale arm dangled loosely.
“Look at those muscles! My god. Somebody give this man something to eat.”
The men whooped and hollered. The barn felt like the pit of a dog fight.
A gray-black hamburger patty flew out of the jumble of spectators and whacked me in the face, leaving a trail of dark grease on my cheek.
Then Lonnie dropped my arm and bull-rushed the other men, parting them, spinning out a little circle in which he stood and lorded, his dark grin wheeling between the faces.
“Who the fuck did that?”
Somebody stepped forward, grinning sheepishly, and Lonnie’s long arm lit out like a whip. He made the hit and drew it back just as quick, evening himself out. The mob cackled and kicked at the fallen man with their heavy-duty work boots.
“Okay, that’s enough. I need you boys to step out while I catch up with my friend here.”
The men obliged him, filing out into the night in near-silence.
“Sorry about my younger associates,” he said. “I’m still training them.”
Lonnie’s hand took the place of Mike’s on my shoulder and guided me over to the little table. He sat me down and rubbed the grease off my cheek with a gentle flick of his hand. Then he sat himself down. Mike stood off to the side, his arms crossed in a muscular X.
“So it’s true. You’re back in Middletown.”
I nodded. The shock of him was still working its way through me. For the moment, I was speaking to a mutant, a child suddenly and violently rendered into a man.
“I was thinking about coming to get you myself, but then I figured there was no need to rush things. You’d find your way back to us eventually, and I’ve been plenty busy running the farm since Tom scurried off to Barnsley with the wife and kids.”
I conjured up a few useless words by way of response. “It’s good to see you too, Lonnie,” that last part lilting into a pathetic high-note.
He broke into a fit of laughter.
“You haven’t changed one bit. Now how in the hell did you manage that?”
“The city must have done it to him, boss. Put him on ice,” Mike chimed in.
“Hey now, take it easy. This is our friend here… So, what do you have to say for yourself, Dougie? Take us on a journey. How do you find yourself back in Gradyville after three long decades out there in the wide world?”
As he asked this, my eyes broke from his stare and drifted down to the table between us. Nailed into the wood was a thick, crimped map, the edges a chalky yellow and the middle a dark green mass riddled with lines that spread from edge to edge, like an old road atlas.
Lonnie followed my stare and popped a grin. “Ah, the map. You remember the map, don’t you?” I nodded. “It’s gotten a lot bigger since you last saw it. Now it covers Sommerville, Titus, Barnsley, and Middletown, though that’s been on there for a long time, as you well know.”
He traced his fingers over the thin lines. The details were finer than any we had produced as children. The trails weaved and followed each other, forming a complex, interlinked system. There were new symbols as well, new waystations and infrastructure of a bizarre sort.
“What are all these signs?” I asked.
“This, my friend, is a life’s work, a life you walked away from. But you don’t know the half of it yet. The rest I’m gonna have to show you.”
He stood up and stretched, his long arms extending like bat wings stripped of their cartilage. He threw one bony extrusion behind his head and the other behind his back, for a moment becoming a sinewy corkscrew. I noticed his haircut then: brutally short with a razor sharp widow’s peak, so unlike the wild greasy mane he’d sported throughout his childhood.
“We’ll have to save story time for later. Mike, grab some of the boys. It’s time we showed Dougie here what we’ve been up to.”
Mike clapped his hands and made for the door. I heard murmuring outside the barn, the shuffling of feet. Lonnie was so casual, but the atmosphere was unbearably charged. It returned me, for a moment, to those clear nights when we gathered at the Ranch, bound up in ourselves, each limb aching to be exhausted, while we peppered each other endlessly with the question: What now? We asked as a matter of course, but we knew Lonnie had the answer, and that it was only a matter of time before he came off the back porch shirtless, a pair of blue jeans hooked over his hip bones, and lit off with a secret scheme locked in his beautiful head.
In the barn, he looked at me then with an expression that was almost tender.
“I want you to know I don’t blame you for leaving us. That’s just life, but I’m glad you’re back, because I’ve been thinking about you, Dougie. I’ve been thinking about you all the time.”
Out in the forest, there were men everywhere, men in places where men shouldn’t be, men in the hollows between systems of thorn bushes, men planted in banks of mud like loose sticks. I saw torches jutting from ridges, more fires, utility lights looped over tree branches that cast a sickly white glow over the dead leaves. Small radios played all around us and slurred into a single electric banter.
The woods were alive with men.
I walked in a group of five or six with Lonnie and Mike in the lead. We followed a dirt trail that was familiar but wider than I remembered. It looked almost graded, as though a machine leveled it. Solar-powered lamps were staked into the ground at six-foot intervals.
There were small encampments along the trail lined with green canvas tents. One man from each camp stood just off the path to greet us. Lonnie gave them a firm, almost military nod, as though ordering them at ease, and said “good evening, brother” before moving past them.
A figure posted atop a hill raised his cigarette and flashed a light twice. Then I heard a noise go up, like a goose call, and it repeated through the woods, spurring double-flashes as far as I could see. We halted for a moment, while one of our group flashed a light himself. Then we continued on down the trail past more camps and waiting sentries.
Lonnie fell back and put a hand around my shoulder.
“You see, we’ve been busy since you left. Got a whole operation now. No kiddy stuff. These boys keep a strict routine. Workouts, survey work, patrols. The tree business only takes so much time. We got guys all the way out in Barnsley laying trails and setting up camps.”
Kiddy stuff? Was it ever kiddy stuff? Maybe for them, but not for the Rat. Lonnie broke the windows. I went inside and crawled around. I filled pillowcases with jewelry and electronics and dirty undergarments for Danny. I saw the other side of all those blinking windows.
“The rest of these guys finally caught up with us. They see the bigger picture now. Back in the day, they were just stupid kids. You and me, we had a vision, remember?”
I nodded, unsure of what he meant but eager to please.
A shroud of light crowded into the trees ahead of us. More noises diffused through the forest, a clamoring of bodies and equipment. Lonnie looked excitable, expectant. Half-built houses appeared along the tree line, no more than wood frames and frosty pink insulation. There were men inside of them, generators running, more white spotlights glinting. We had traveled about a quarter mile from the tree farm, westward back toward Middletown.
We passed between two houses and came onto a cul de sac filled with men gathered around barrel-fires and fold-out tables. They were drinking heavily and playing cards. More unfinished houses lined the street and continued up to the road, which was blocked off with ruined pick-ups and piles of decaying lumber. Some of the houses were sealed with windows and doors, but most were patched over with canvas sheets.
“This is Big Ranch,” Lonnie said, sweeping his hand across the meager view. “Developer pulled out in 09. Sat here for six years before we came along and made it home. Why let it go to waste?”
A stocky older guy with a baseball cap pushed down below his eyebrows approached us. He shook Lonnie’s hand and nodded to the rest of us.
“Good evening, boss. I’ve got some bad news. Mark and his brothers did a run against Old Man Thomas last night. Nicky got winged.”
“Whoa there, let’s talk over here,” said Lonnie.
He took the man aside while the others spread out among the revelers. I stood in place and looked around at the half-built development. I wasn’t sure how Lonnie pulled it off. Gradyville never had a police force or much of a local government, but staties came through now and again to check on things, but I supposed they’d given up too, like so many others who cleared out when Stern Aeronautics closed shop.
A few minutes later, Lonnie returned with a sour look. He grabbed my wrist and pulled me out of the cul de sac toward one of the houses with a door. “Come on, man, let’s get on with it. I’m tired of bad news.” He slipped a key out of his pocket and used it. We entered and he slid the deadbolt. It was pitch black in the front room. I could barely make out Lonnie.
“I gotta show you something important,” he said invisibly.
He picked up a lantern on the floor and flicked it on, illuminating the wooden floors and exposed paneling in front of us. He pointed the light deeper into the house, said “follow me,” and guided us through the unfinished ground floor, past a kitchen, a living room, more naked piping and wiring, until we finally descended a stairwell into a basement.
It was a dank, unfinished room with a single red light bulb hanging near the center of the ceiling, and there was a man sitting in an armchair in the far corner listening to the radio and polishing off a 30-pack of canned beer. He belched resoundingly as we entered.
“Hey chief, what’s the word?” he said.
“Throw the spots on, George. I wanna show my friend here the battle maps.”
George pressed a button on a power strip, and a band of floor lights turned on and lit up the walls, revealing a panoramic map that wrapped around the basement. It was similar to the map in the barn but included more schematic details: housing densities, electrical and sewage lines, the exact dimensions of roads and driveways.
Lonnie stepped up to the nearest wall and placed his finger against a single plot at the far end of a winding street on the western edge of Gradyville, verging on Middletown to the north and Titus to the south — the fraying edge of Lonnie’s world.
“This here is Old Man Thomas, or at least that’s what we call him now. You may remember him as Mr. Dolan, Frank Dolan’s dad — the cop.”
The name was familiar all right. Poor dead Frank. The victim of the worst car accident in the history of Gradyville, a wet, fiery, melting death.
“He’s the last property owner in Elmwood Estates, which is the last of the big neighborhood developments in Gradyville. Once he’s gone that leaves old-timers like myself, and the boys who live in the camps.”
He eyed me as he relayed this, probing me, I thought, for a sign that I was disturbed or disgusted, anything less than totally convinced.
“The thing is, he’s fortified himself on the hill there. He’s got a barbed wire fence, spotlights, and a real gnarly stash of weapons: semi-automatics, shotguns, a whole arsenal of pistols. We’ve lost six guys trying to get at him and had a dozen more wounded.”
He allowed for a short pause. The red light was still and steady on his face.
“Why do you want him gone?” I asked.
It was a question that conceded to Lonnie his methods, but dared to approach the big, bad why of it all — of this, of the camps, of the ever-expanding trails.
He offered me only a smile, as though I should know better.
“There ain’t much to do out here in Gradyville but get into trouble,” he said, winking. “Besides, who does he think he is? Stern’s gone. The town’s gone. Hell, half the county is cleared out. This is barbarian country, okay? What’s he doing pretending like it isn’t? We got a new thing going here. We don’t need some sad, old cop hanging around.”
I had more questions, but even now I couldn’t deny Lonnie his wide-eyed convictions, and it did make a kind of sense. The county was drying up. Towns were dropping off the map. Roads were cracking apart and staying that way. What was left but Lonnie?
The map offered its own explanation. All those housing developments were marked with black Xs, showing, I assumed, that they’d been captured by Lonnie’s men. The project must have taken years, a combination of natural decline, squatting, and harassment. I could only imagine that the front lawns and side yards had now grown wild and stitched back into the woods.
It was all of a piece now, a new Gradyville built, or unbuilt, over the old one.
I had forgotten something about Lonnie.
His family had lived around here for generations, long before Stern came and filled the sky with black smoke, before the big houses went up on virgin land, reducing Lonnie’s precious backwoods one winding cul de sac at a time.
I didn’t know how much he really thought about it back then, but I knew he felt it, and I recalled those times when we stood at the edge of the work sites, atop fresh piles of moved earth, and watched the contractors like they were aliens coming down to waste the surface of the planet.
Now he’d taken back Gradyville, all except for one man — Mr. Thomas, father of dead Frank — a lonely stick in his enormous craw.
There, in the red basement, he welcomed me into his beautiful design. “So, what I’m asking you, old buddy, is will you help me get inside?”
There were fewer lights and camps going west. It was a dead zone, always had been. Even the natural world had its ghettos and blights, its areas of meager or repetitive growth; surpluses of mud that piled over plant life and destroyed it; rampant weeds that choked out space with thorn bush slums and bamboo tower blocks.
Lonnie and I walked with our backs bent through a tunnel in the thorns, which were precisely trimmed and shaped so that one man, or a train of men, could walk in a low crouch almost perfectly insulated from the outer woods. This was another product of Lonnie’s backwoods brilliance. His men had come through here with clippers and shears and built a kind trench system that would carry them all the way to the backyard of Mr. Dolan’s house.
Moonlight dribbled through the thorns. It had to be pushing midnight. I was exhausted. Lonnie had run through the plan a dozen times in the basement. I repeated it back to him and was proud when he slapped my back and said, “there you go, Dougie, there you go.”
Lonnie put a finger to his lips and threw a hand back signaling me to pause. His forearm touched the black barrel of the 22-caliber rifle that was slung over his shoulder. Both of us crouched lower into the shadows.
Ahead of us, shearing away the forest, was a metal fence. Beyond it was a close-cut lawn flooded with blue security lights. The house loomed over all of it, a three-story structure with broad windows set into stucco walls that seemed to go on forever. There were no details or elaborations on form, just a plain containment of space.
“Now we wait,” said Lonnie. “Old Man Thomas usually goes to bed at 11:00 p.m. Let’s give him a little more time to settle into a deep sleep.”
We were side by side at the edge of the forest, just shy of the light spilling through the fence. Lonnie’s elbow touched my own, slicked in sweat. It struck me then how right it felt to be doing this, here with Lonnie. The world had simplified considerably in the last few hours. I wasn’t thinking about my job or my brother or all the ruined things I’d left behind in the city.
That was all faraway now — on the other side of so much dark acreage.
And yet, my reawakening to Gradyville brought its own brand of unease. Lying on the forest floor, an old memory came over me, the time it all went bad: Lonnie with the knife; the old lady who stayed up all night watching TV in her living room; how she stood there, horrified at the appearance of two “men” in black clothes; how Lonnie cut across the dark-dusty living room with his overlong weapon and stuck her right under the ribs.
That was close to the end, of course, not long before I left it all behind.
In the present, Lonnie jabbed me in the arm. “Don’t go spacing out on me.”
He crawled up to the fence and started clipping off a foot-high section of heavy gauge wire with a pair of bolt cutters. It looked like hard, tedious work. I waited for a good 15 minutes before he spoke again. He tore away the strip of fence and tossed it off into the weeds.
He drew back into the shadows and stuck his mouth near my ear.
“Once you’re up to the porch, I’ll start taking pot shots at the windows. I’ll send a couple high and a couple low, but I’ll make sure one of them hits the far-left window facing the backyard. Once it shatters, wait a few seconds. Then start knocking out the fragments with the whacker. I’ll cover the noise with a bunch of shots into the second-floor windows.”
“After that, sneak up the stairs and disarm Mr. Dolan. Just give him a good whack in the head, make sure he’s knocked out, and I’ll come up to finish the job.”
Finish the job. Somehow, he made it sound so simple.
As always, Lonnie had a plan. The night-gods of Gradyville had written it inside his skull. I was only so lucky to get a chance to follow their divine instruction.
“Come on now. Get into position,” he said.
Obediently, I shimmied up beside him near the freshly cut opening.
“You ready?” He asked.
I nodded, swept back my sweat-laced hair, and started weaseling through the hole.
It went off as planned, so far as the break-in. I could hear the exchange of gunfire continue as I crept across the kitchen floor toward the stairwell, Old Man Thomas none the wiser for it. The house stank of cheap cleaning materials, bargain-bin soaps and detergents, the most obligatory kind of cleanliness exacted harshly on a crude old house for the benefit of no one.
The darkness was near-total, and yet my talent for navigating it returned almost immediately. Long-dormant instincts guided me between the hard edges, my hands gliding in and out gently like antennae, my eyes rendering a grey-toned map. I found the stairs in no time.
This was the tricky part. One creaky step and it was over, or at least that’s what I told myself.
I put one hand down onto the steps, then another, then a foot, then a second foot. I held the balance between them, applying equal force on each. I squeezed hard as I made one move and then another. I climbed this way, pressing and releasing, suppressing every creak.
The Rat was in his element. The last bit of distance between now and the old days had collapsed. Inside, in the dark, it was all the same.
Shot after shot struck the stucco walls. I heard Mr. Dolan reload his rifle. Lonnie was keeping him busy, as he shot and shuffled out there in the dark. There was no way he could hear me over the gunshots, and yet I was careful, out of respect, I supposed, for my lost art.
Above the top step appeared a black gulf. The technical part was over. Now speed and a little luck would bring me home. I needed to get behind Mr. Dolan as fast as possible and bring the whacker down on his skull like my life depended on it.
It wouldn’t be easy. Blunt force was never my specialty. That was Lonnie’s deal.
So many of the robberies played out just like this, Lonnie outside in the shadows watching, and me in the house creeping and crawling, feeling so fearsome in my secret way. It was nice to do good for Lonnie, to carry it off, but inside was my territory. I extracted my own private pleasure in beating a house, in getting in and getting out. I tried to tell Lonnie this the night we broke into the old lady’s house and found to our surprise that she almost never slept.
Alone, I would have fallen back into the darkness, disappeared. Lonnie went another way.
I launched from the top step, moved down the hallway and turned left into the bedroom. Mr. Dolan was crouching at the window, his rifle planted on the sill. He fired and a barrage of bullets were returned in kind, pelting the side of the house. It looked like back-up was here. Lonnie had called in the boys.
I went for it. I charged across the room and brought the whacker down as hard as I could. It glanced at the old man’s head and slipped, ripping at his ear and landing squarely on his shoulder. He tumbled to the side but swept his gun around as he did. He landed a blow that sent me sprawling toward the bed. The whacker dropped out of my hands and was lost.
The old man recovered far quicker than I did. Then he kicked me down and jammed the butt of his gun into my neck. I was pinned into the rough carpet.
“So, they sent a little spy,” he said.
He flipped the rifle around and clicked on a tiny beam-light fastened to the barrel. Harsh white light poured into my eyes.
“Jesus, what are you 40? Why are you playing around with these damn kids?”
Kids. He thought Lonnie was a kid.
“This is private property, you know. I can shoot you dead.”
He grabbed me by the wrist and pulled me off the floor with a quick jerk. I caught a look at him. He was old but sturdy, a robust 75-year-old cop. I didn’t have a chance.
He pushed me toward the window and thrust my head out into the night.
“I got your little spy! If you want him back, I want all of you to drop your guns and show yourself. If you don’t, I’ll blow his head off. I know he isn’t first I’ve knocked off, and he won’t be the last if you keep at it. This is my home, you rotten thieves!”
The forest was still, no muzzle-flashes or bodies sifting in the thicket. The forest was a bland expression, a sad and settled fact.
“Last chance,” he yelled.
Then, as my eyes readjusted to the textures of the night, I saw men between the trees. They were everywhere. Their faces were pitch-black. Their bodies were sinking into green darkness, and although I couldn’t make him out, I knew Lonnie was among them watching.
It was still so hard to think about his awareness of me, how little it knew. Thirty years of a life had come and gone — the sun-lit apartment on South Street, the restaurant job, poor, lovely Martin, who died and left me alone — unknown to him, unknown to anyone here.
There was something between these Gradyvilles, the new and the old. I could have testified as much, but I doubted the force of my words, and if anyone, anyone at all, would be convinced of them — no less Lonnie, who was great and beautiful still.
It would stay that way, I realized, as I heard the old man cock the rifle. I supposed the trail circled back, like one big loop. Dougie the Rat had climbed back into his hole. And the hole swallowed him up.
Alex Vuocolo is a New York-based reporter and writer. He grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia and often finds himself returning there in his fiction.