How would this look to a cop, hanging halfway inside the unlatched window with C.J. boosting me through? It is dark inside, but I grip what I think is the short side edge of a farmhouse table, pull my knees in and jump down into the smell of old basement, into air like a greasy thigh. My climbing hands dirty now, I open the side door out to a stairless metal porch and let a chair down for C.J. to climb on. He is fat and has more than thirty years on me and is not a good climber. He winds up with a stripe of black grime running down one jeans leg. And it is here, during my first and only breaking-and-entering, while waiting for my pupils to catch up the low light, that I realize I probably won’t see him again. Between our minds a ravine spreads narrow but deep, one that shared history can’t bridge. But in real time, we stand ankle deep in discarded junk in a storehouse neither one of us owns. The roof is a tin can split longways half in two, and the rusted parts let in only cracks of fog-light and songless birds that roost in high shadows.
Before today, I hadn’t seen C.J. in years, not since I’d moved from the north Georgia woods to “Go west, young man,” to Eugene and then Seattle. I was married at the time to a So Cal punk rocker, and we had left for no good reason, except all our friends were small-town tweekers. We had no jobs waiting for us, just a single-wide trailer with a wood stove for heat, tucked in ferns up the Willamette. On the night I left, C.J. gave me a pendant without a necklace: a comically large cross made of silver, marcasite, and garnet, one that would serve better for hunting vampires than for wearing to church. And he said, “If I was twenty years younger…” and I said, “If I was twenty years older…” even though I lied. Our differences were greater than age even then.
The first time I met C.J. he was working as a bounty hunter, though I heard he used to restore antique furniture, used to have a wife (a florist!) and kid, used to be in bed by ten o’clock on a Saturday night. What I’m saying is he got tired of routine, so he quit it. I had trouble imagining him in this other life, because, like I said, he was a bounty hunter, only wore black tee shirts and jeans, a cowboy hat, Bic’d head, and one rattlesnake tail for an earring. He wore a six-gun on his hip and kicked around in The Cypress Lounge, a strip club down in Marietta. He never took drugs himself, but didn’t mind if a dancer needed a little bump to lighten her mood. Right before I met him, he’d hooked up with a gal named Jade, who he’d met outside the jailhouse in Holly Springs, her bleached hair gone brassy from shampooing in water from rusted pipes. She’d been locked up for assaulting a cop. Bit him just below the eye. They made her wear a straightjacket in the cell until she sobered up. What I’m saying is: C.J. got tired of doing things the right way.
And that was fine with me. I had a fear then that I still hold now, a fear of becoming a boring person, of waking up one day in a pressed shirt and a house smelling of Glade plug-ins. This was our shared fear, I soon learned. Neither C.J. nor I understood why so many people chose quiet lives of moderate misery. We valued “interesting” above all. C.J.’s solution entailed a Harley, a risky job, and a wild woman. As for me, I chose to fix it by shaving a mohawk, getting a Germs burn, and hanging in dirty punk clubs in downtown Atlanta. Jade hired me to do body piercing at a boutique she ran. The main storefront was low-ceilinged, dusty, dimly lit, with shelves overflowing with displayed curiosities: fake shrunken heads made of goat skin, antique taxidermy of strange animals (sea turtle, raven, beaver) with dust motes gathering over their glass eyes, and an extracted gypsy from a quarter-slot fortune teller booth. That’s where I met C.J., first over the phone. He called the shop at ten a.m., and I could tell he’d been up all night; his voice sounded like it’d been dragged for a mile behind a tractor. He called and said, “Jade’s drunk again. Hide the money and the guns.” So, I padded my bra with yesterday’s cash, sank the pistol in the toilet tank, wrapped the shotgun in a blanket behind the python’s terrarium, and was being cool, man, cool while Jade rummaged through the cash box and stole her own jewelry from the display case.
I worked for them both off and on for five years. I got to know them better than I wanted to. C.J. believed in ghosts and lived in half-collapsed house with a squirrel-infested top floor. He let a homeless man called Chief stay in his van undisturbed in an empty lot he owned, even gave the guy ten bucks a day for food. He missed his ex-wife and messed around with floozies every time Jade split town or got arrested. These broads stopped by the shop looking for him, and he ducked behind the clothing racks while I made up nonsense to shake them off. “He’s not here,” I said. “He’s in jail. He got in a bar fight and got arrested. I don’t know when he’ll be back” or “He went to Mexico, for sugar skulls and icons and these bones that tell the future.” The women left, he laughed, and I told him he owed me.
Then Jade would come back, and she could always tell. C.J. found out that her brain worked differently than most people’s. One of the several times she left him for good, she wrapped a whole raw chicken in a heating blanket and plugged it in under his bed, not hot enough to cook, just warm enough to rot faster. Another time, she squeezed all his blonde beard dye from the tube and replaced it with bright red. But the more she drank, the less creative she became in acting out her little hates. She had about five inches on him, a real Valkyrie, broad-shouldered, and she fought like a man. He had a black eye when I saw him next, and she had a chunk of hair missing that she tried to disguise by parting it on the other side. I watched Jade devolve, until she was straight drinking Listerine and shooting bullets through the drywall in his house.
C.J. drove all his friends away. Even the strippers didn’t want any part, scared of what Jade would do if she found out. C.J., who lost everything but his religion, started begging God in his nighttime prayers, begging God to die quickly in his sleep. And I said, I love you both, but I can’t do this anymore. That’s when I split for Oregon. A month or two after I moved, the shop closed. And that’s where we left off.
Now C.J. hears I’m in town and tracks my number down. It’s December, and though it had snowed several inches three days earlier, it’s almost seventy degrees when we meet up. Soggy earth sucks at my boot heels, and the sky looks like rain. Naked oak branches bend low, and all the houses have twinkle lights in the windows. Out past the nuthouse where Jade is locked up with wet brain, we catch up over barbecue. I decide this is the worst way to meet up with anyone, gnawing bones like dogs do, sauce on cheeks and chin.
It’s weird seeing old friends. We disappoint each other. My hair has grown out to a respectable length; C.J. wears a shirt with buttons and a collar. He’s learned how to roll a silver dollar across his knuckles after reading in a book that P.T. Barnum used to do it. He is no longer a bounty hunter; he’s an auctioneer now, splitting time between Waleska and Gibsonton, Florida, selling off Depression-era circus junk, like carousel horses and Ferris wheel seats. He tells me Jade shimmied out a window three weeks ago, but the police found her under a bridge and hauled her back, raising hell. He knows, because he’s still listed as her emergency contact. C.J. says the old shop is haunted and that if I stand outside late at night, I’ll see a light moving back and forth on the top floor, passing clear through a brick wall. The new owners, he says, told him they lock up every night, but when they come in the morning, the door’s always open.
I say I always wanted to live in a haunted house, but I’ve never seen a ghost.
He says he tried to buy a storehouse just because it looked haunted, but the deal fell through, and do I want to go look at it?
We take his truck down Hickory Flat Highway and wind around east where the tracks cross. No other buildings crowd the street, and few cars pass by. We pull off the main road and park in a clearing where the gravel has washed out. Three rusted tanks stand three men high each, and I wonder what they used to hold. I say the building looks beat but not spooked. He says he’s never actually been inside. But the chain link is bent at one corner, and somebody has used bolt cutters on part of it, and after a quiet afternoon remembering louder days, we egg each other on. We crawl through the fence and scale the industrial tanks. We walk around the building testing the doors, but they are all locked. He says the guy that owns it wants to sell it, just not to him. He says it isn’t the money at all. He says that if that sliding window is unlocked, I can climb in first, and then let him in from the inside. An adventure, like old times. I remember then that I am thirty years old. C.J. is almost sixty. So we break into this building.
Once we get in, we don’t speak for a while, and I am glad for the dark, because it hides the spiders. No dividing walls break the wide space that spills open like a cathedral, and the light sockets have no bulbs in them. All across the plank floor lie big stacks of castoffs: women’s shoes, candlesticks burned down to the nubs, scrap metal, thin blankets, and children’s records. We split up. I don’t touch every pile, just a few, and when I do, it feels like rubbing my thumb over a gravestone with a missing name. I can see C.J. doing the same thing on the other side of the storehouse. I think we both expect something else. No big treasure, but maybe a gramophone or a twine-bound stack of letters from a Confederate soldier.
Or maybe we expect more from each other. I know I didn’t plan to see him so frighteningly alone. The expense of living according to whim, of being the kind of guy who runs away with the circus (he did, in fact, spend a summer with the circus), was the loss of most of his personal relationships. Now he lives alone in his dead mother’s house with a toy poodle mix that's not housebroken, a little yapper to punch back the silence. He’s got a woman in another county he doesn’t care one whit about. She’s a few years his senior, not a looker, but she works a bank job and bails him out when he’s behind on his bills.
And what did he expect from me? Not the hesitation I showed before slipping through the chain link fence. Not me testing the sturdiness of the chair before I pass it to him. And now that I’m divorced, he doesn’t expect me to pull my hand away from his so fast. But I do, all the same, because we’re not the same. I look at all these things piled up on storeroom floor, things that used to be useful but were never coveted. And I think we are both castoffs and empty as these old shoes. Or maybe I’m the shoe, and he’s the scrap metal.
And when we leave, he says I should visit next summer. The sky is clearing up, and by the railroad tracks it feels like the ground is starting to dry. And I say yes, because for a second, it seems like I should. I even tell him I’d bring a tape recorder. I’ll get the whole story next time. And he says I can’t publish it until he dies. But this town isn’t my home anymore, and neither one of us is who we used to be.
Lindsey Walker was born in Chattanooga, and grew up in North Georgia. She is an esthetician and salon/spa owner, and she studies creative writing at Seattle University. Her work has been published a little in print and a lot online, most recently in The Far Field and The Raintown Review. When she's not writing, working, or studying, she is probably drinking bourbon neat and watching bad movies with her gamer fiancé and her badass pitbull. Visit her at lindseywalker.wordpress.com.