Merciless


    One of those hoary proverbs came alive for me recently. “If you sit by the river long enough, you will see the body of your enemy float by.”

    Alibi wasn’t an enemy. Just a mean piece of man.

    A lifetime ago we’d known each other. Or to be apt circled one another. Among the few things we shared was mutual wariness. As well as his sister Kari.

    Since our last brush Alibi’s condition had deteriorated severely. Good. We crossed paths inside the same rehabilitation center where mother underwent physical therapy. One cannot thwart old age. We may only develop methods to temporarily blunt its more debilitating effects.

    Mother will be discharged in time to celebrate Christmas at home. Slowed, she will resume aspects of her life. Alibi can’t claim the same. He’s stuck. And sinking. Apparently what went around came around heavily. It finally shackled him into a wheelchair.

    We’re contemporaries but his 52 looks 25 years older than mine. Alibi’s face just didn’t break, it shattered mirroring his baleful spirit. The sneer which had etched his face throughout youth now excavated Alibi’s features.

    The skunk stripe he sported in dark-haired youth now slashed alabaster through unkempt gray.

    He’s a feeble devil now. Unless one had known Alibi, it will be impossible to have understood how only a miserly spirit exceeded his arrogance. Watching him maneuver his wheelchair was an exercise in weakness. Someone else in his condition could’ve elicited pity. With Alibi it was a fair, though much delayed, outcome.

    Cripple as he’s become, fate also robbed him of dignity. Underneath Alibi’s dingy and disheveled clothing a collection bag. During our meeting one whose tubing had loosened. Medicines had curdled his urine. A rank miasma imprisoned him.

    Peering out through his haze, good fluorescence helping, he recognized me. Ours was not a joyful resumption. We acknowledged our whole history through withering glances then dismissed each other for good after the most grudging of nods.

    The last time we intersected had also been random. Some brisk, sunny autumn day in the earliest 1980s. Certainly a few years before I reached the newsroom’s promised land. Alibi drove a taxi then. No. His father, stepfather, common-law father, however that amalgamation saw its dominant male, had interest in a local taxi service and his son, stepson, boy, split shifts driving and dispatching.

    Always wiry, that Alibi stood tall, straight and menacing. In the five years since I’d last seen him his face had added cruelty. We skipped cordialities. He took peculiar pleasure asking whether I’d heard about Kari. Who hadn’t? Although in my case the news arrived months afterward. Everybody in that particular circle had already absorbed it, if capable mourned, moved on. Being nearest to the event, I was the last made aware.

    Unlike the bulk of my Quarropas High School classmates, I ignored the siren insisting I attend a Northeastern college. Twelve years with childhood neurotics sufficed. And given our American quadrant attracted the rest of the country’s, no need to meet any new neurasthenics. Therefore Arizona.

    For New Yorkers who saw Pittsburgh as East Vladivostok, Arizona represented a beyond exceeding all then-known bounds. Maybe they just had narrow parameters.

    Never a scholar, and exceptionally self-centered, the mileage at least registered with Alibi. Even he knew Arizona bordered California. Or he discovered it and wrongly reckoned proximity dropped Kari’s news on me first.

    She’d succumbed to a hazard common to her type of girl. Susceptible to bad boys, Kari had been zooming around in a fast car with one. As bad boys are wont, he was a reckless driver. Immaterial whether their accident was spectacular or run of the mill, it ended fatally for both.

    When I’d become aware of the news it was too late for shock or sadness or remorse or whatever the proper reaction. Kari sure demanded something other than indifference. But upon first notice decades ago, and Alibi once again jogging my memory, that’s all I could summon. Maybe if we’d been older, had shared more substantial ties, her passing might’ve elicited shallow anguish.

    Kari wasn’t a heartwarming girl who left survivors clutching fondness. Sullen, she slouched and smoked to affect outward toughness. That chick crumbled easily, invariably submitting to our teen-age lusts.

    A reflexive smart mouth increased her troubles rather than provide defense. Kari became our doorknob. Only long afterwards did I revise consideration of her and speculate about how our acts frustrated her.

    Kari was so unlike her sister Kelly. Naturally they were identical twins. Both of whom developed early. Each became a shapely young woman while their girlish peers were being fitted with training bras and could only anticipate hips. Except Kelly had a spine. As well as a propensity to resist.

    The sisters weren’t beauties. Nor ladies. Grudgingly pretty despite themselves and their conditions. Already hard at 14. Glaringly harder at 18. Crucibles of a kind. Kelly at least.

    Pliant as Kari was, Kelly matched her with resilience. Woe to the horny meatstick who failed differentiating Kelly’s chestnut upsweep from Kari’s same-tinted bangs. Choosing unwisely occasionally inflicted pain from a casually copped feel. Kelly’s foot scrambled crotches when her fists weren’t rattling brainpans.

    Kari could’ve used all of that. Instead she reached depths where her refusals became so meek she might’ve well become mute. I still see and hear how the merest suggestion compelled her angrily flicking away an ever-present cigarette and reluctantly accompanying whoever requested satisfaction. Sometimes her master’s voice belonged to Alibi.

    He wasn’t blood. A recognized semi-cohabitation extended their nebulous relationship. Somehow Alibi’s father maintained two neighboring households of two distinct yet fully integrated families, whose respective amas de las casas filled the privileged and morganatic categories.

    An earlier husband sired Alibi but his mother, or “wife” No. 1A, bridged any sanguinity gap by sealing her tenuous second union through children. Not to be outproduced, Kari’s and Kelly’s own mother issued further siblings for their side of the team.

    Spotty genealogy aside, the whole bunch represented themselves as family. And strangely that’s how we accepted them.

    What propelled Kari up and out of Quarropas to California? She wasn’t the sort to have gone her own way. And having reached the Golden West, why stop inland, the Imperial Valley of all places? What New Yorker finds solace in El Centro or Brawley or Calexico? Shouldn’t she have kept going until the Santa Monica Pier? Or maybe that’s me. Who knows what she sought. Only Kari knew whether she found suitable refuge.

    In a just world Alibi ought have been the one to skedaddle. To eventually have bled out among twisted auto wreckage far from home. His sins greatly outweighed hers. Mine too.

    A few months before we teens graduated into legal women and men, Alibi pulled a punk caper that exploded. He initiated the kind of disaster whose consequences utterly rearranged lives.

    He didn’t need the money. I bet if asked he would’ve fallen on the usual idle teen lament: “I was bored. There was nothing else to do.”

    In a thought process maybe lasting a whole several seconds, Alibi decided burglary the solution to his ennui. He cast about and reeled in Rivas, an accomplice so willing he probably sat by the phone at 1-800-ASTOOGE waiting for Alibi’s call.

    Big, burly and moreno, Rivas’ blow-out Afro did nothing to soften the glower underneath. Had he resided in the Bronx or on the Lower East Side, Rivas would’ve been just another Puerto Rican. Or member of the Savage Skulls. But this Boricua lived in suburban Quarropas. Then, darker than güero Latinos fueled certain Anglos discomfort. Predominately white ethnics who heard “Puerto Rican” in the pejorative.

    Nevertheless Rivas and Alibi had plenty in common. Both marked time by filling classroom space. Each occupied separate incorrigible niches but gave off the same bad vibe. Oh, yeah, they’d also shared Kari’s favors. Rivas, though, never woofed about getting his leg over on her. Unlike her brother Alibi.

    Nor was Kari the sort who announced her own sexual complaisance. Random congress? Yes. Deluding herself regarding attention at any price? No.

    Somewhere in her cracked makeup enough self-esteem tamped down greater mortifying ridicule. Had she lived, Kari might’ve chanced a professional porn career but never would’ve hungered so desperately for celebrity to have filmed and purposely leaked a sex tape.

    Alibi had been his sister’s huckster. Their respective houses held no secrets. Some brother or sister always lurked outside closed doors. Maybe the only place the younger residents enjoyed privacy was between their ears. Even the bathrooms offered no respite from intrusion. Especially while bathing or upon the toilet.

    Wouldn’t a normal brother feel squeamish watching his sister sexually involved? (That’s a rare question!) Aware of the impending sex, and timing his entrance into Kari’s room just right, Alibi caught his sister and Rivas fully engaged. If that bedroom door had a lock, Alibi must’ve owned a key. Kari was indiscriminate, not sloppy.

    Instead of outrage, not even bothering faking it, and after assuring Rivas his sister’s honor wasn’t in question, Alibi settled back and bade them to climax. A loose survey of our cohort indicated her brother saw plenty of us screw Kari. It unnerved some. Those guys couldn’t continue. They left shaking, frustrated and confused. For others like Rivas, well, once he’d surmounted surprise and received signal to proceed, her brother became another piece of furniture.

    When Kari drew my number, I’d already heard plenty. Christ! Who in Quarropas hadn’t!?

    Exhibitionism and voyeurism were unknown practices to my 1977 self. No way we’d push ourselves under Alibi’s gaze. I might’ve gone inside Kari’s house twice. Once for a glass of water. I made sure to rinse the glass thoroughly before using it.

    Alibi’s generosity made him Rivas’ “main man!” Right on. Seems to me since Kari had given Rivas so much of herself she ought have been beneficiary of his gratitude. Like James Brown wailed, then it was a man’s world. Unquestionably.

    So when Alibi approached with his plan Rivas was receptive. Yeah. He contemplated it less than the mastermind himself, if possible.

    They targeted one of the neighborhood delis. In a mixed use building, it shared ground floor commercial addresses with a stationary store and a Chinese restaurant. Above them three floors of walkup apartments.

    Simply put, after the delicatessen closed that night, Alibi and Rivas busted inside through a wet paper bag back door, rifled the register — who knew, made a couple of wedges, scooped and packed a pound or two of potato salad, grabbed a six of Schaefer or Schlitz — then banged out. Something like that. Whatever the plan going in it underwent major revision during the exit.

    Alibi had a brainstorm. Or what the rest of us might call a sun shower.

    He decided they needed to cover their tracks. This was 1977. The Flintstones would’ve recognized the forensics involved. So unless either left a note confessing “Alibi and Rivas wuz here!” the owner would’ve written off the incident (and finally installed a secure rear door) while detectives might’ve performed a perfunctory investigation and gotten a free deli platter for their trouble.

    No. Alibi amped it up. Arson. By the time firemen had the blaze under control the only city firefighting apparatus unused hovered on a repair shop hydraulic lift. I learned a new phrase that night. Fully engulfed.

    Butch and Sundance scored chump change.

    Trite as it sounds, material goods can be replaced. Luckily no one was hurt or killed. At least instantly.

    Building residents lost everything. One can only imagine how disjointed their lives became and the duration of their anxiety. Insurance compensated the businesses. Of the three establishments, the restaurant sprang back strongly. For chop suey perhaps emerging from cinders was a blessing.

    Neighboring business owners tumbled into disorientation. The deli had been there so long earlier customers regarded its pressed tin ceiling as gaudy. Maybe beneath the tarnish and grime those tiles had captivated eyes. I believe the proprietor chose them because they once reflected gaslight quite well.

    The stationers, or what we called “the candy store,” had rented his spot almost as long. More than a den to browse newspapers, dirty magazines and comic books, he provided a fine forum for shooting the breeze. There, no topic was too outlandish to dissect until inane ends. Talmud disquisitions had nothing on those bull sessions.

    Best of all? His fountain still served egg creams. Since that night I haven’t plunged a straw into another.

    For the deli owner, reassurances failed. Insurance aside, guarantees of revival immaterial, links were snapped, his past irretrievable. When you’re callow, shiny and new is desirable. It took me nearly half a lifetime to understand his bewailing the loss of continuity. He had lived too long to start afresh.

    Old as the deli man was, it’s pat to state he died from age-related maladies. Of course medicine has yet to develop tests gauging broken hearts. At least the sandwich master passed away peacefully. His neighbor the stationer left as bad as one could go.

    He collected insurance money. He revived his business. But everything was stranger than he expected. Again, the new unbalanced him. Modern and brighter befogged him.

    A heavy tippler before ruin, the stationer became a fall-down drunk afterwards. One night soon after his reopening, he crossed a street he’d weaved across safely over 50 years. Unfortunately, this last time his innate sense failed and a car smashed him into the beyond.

    Weeks later Quarropas police arrested Rivas for arson. The dumbest thing, he’d been drunk-talking. Someone listened. Took him seriously. Rolled on him. Under police custody, Rivas, guilt-ridden, skipped a lawyer, spilled everything. Well. Okay. Not the sex part with Kari. But if detectives had summoned a priest …

    Naturally Rivas implicated Alibi. I doubt the accusation bothered Alibi. I bet he behaved so coolly his chill could’ve frozen polar bears and penguins. Had he been a pathological personality? If so, that night confirmed it.

    He offered a cockamamie story. An alibi. An intricate one. All it lacked were footnotes and a glossary. Whether he prepared it for instance such as this, or spur of the moment creation, the tale hamstrung his inquisitors. All they had was Rivas. His part of the caper checked out. Without corroboration or sufficient evidence Alibi collected $200 and didn’t go to jail.

    Thus Quarropas’ finest constabulary picked apart his timeline and shook those verifying his whereabouts the hours in question. Alibi’s timeline was so solid it could’ve been chiseled in granite.

    Too bad cops didn’t ask Alibi to compile his actions for bracketing nights. Should his explanations and clarifications have passed those acid tests, who wouldn’t have believed him capable of walking on water?

    In the end Justice took what it could get and left the rest to Fate. Rivas wasted the most vital years of his life Upstate in a big house with thick, high walls and a large, crowded yard. Alibi skated. Went on to drive a cab. Somehow lost his ambulatory skills and control of his bladder 30-plus years afterwards. Life is not linear.

    Two Novembers ago I was blasting through the Imperial Valley. While today’s conditions augured, now was still distant. In 2009, I still worked. Even had expectations of pocketing a year-end bonus. Meaning I could bank on discretionary funds to skip the rock-jumper flight from Arizona to Los Angeles. Instead I drove my rental west.

    Yes. Flying would’ve gotten me on the Coast in about an hour. But flying meant undergoing the indignity of boarding an aircraft. If I was going to get scrutinized, generally inconvenienced, shouldn’t the tin tube ride last hours?

    When did paying air passengers agree to become suspects first? No. Security arguments are superfluous. This is simply an imposition of fear. And Americans we have succumbed. Entirely. There’s an achievement. Comparable to canceling our future.

    Anyway, the Salton Sea lined my right. A mountain range nowhere as inspiring as any in Southern Arizona loomed away from my left. Fresh diminishing blacktop undulated ahead. I guessed conforming to seismic activity lent this stretch of California 86 its rollercoaster contour.

    Humble crosses occasionally staked alongside the highway. Seeing those simple white markers I assumed migrants suffered misfortune there. Any Anglos’ would’ve been Tebow-sized, gilded, and had gushy devotions piled all around. In God-utmost English.

    The accident claiming Kari had occurred somewhere along 86. A lonesome, scrubby highway in 2009, it must’ve been howling desolation during our QianaÔ /double-knit/platform shoes/disco nights and days. Likely I was and would ever be the only soul from Quarropas who’d possibly stir any of Kari’s dust.

    No way her people visited the death site. Even while among them Kari was out of mind. Hell. I was only there because I decided instead to overnight in Palm Springs rather than San Diego before winding up in Los Angeles. Otherwise why detour off I-8? If not for that inadvertence thoughts regarding Kari would’ve remained dormant.

    But there I sped.

    Here the part where recall becomes maudlin and rueful starts, right? Where “If only’s … !” begin amassing. Forget that. She was unformed. Projecting Kari’s trajectory required her to have displayed potential. Kari had any, she kept it hidden. Hey. Not every young life cut short deals tragedy to us the living.

    Though too bad that accident hadn’t claimed Alibi. He needed mangling. Restating an estimation from Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find, mangling would’ve made him a better person.

    Had Alibi crashed instead of Kari, I might’ve picked an appropriately forlorn spot of road, parked on the shoulder, and stretched my legs. Although I’m not notably spiritual, on that afternoon I certainly would’ve offered words to the wind. Unpleasant, unkind words. A litany perfectly suited for scorching Alibi.

    After consigning his memory lower, I then would’ve broken out my victory jig. Merry steps often deployed when the Sun Devils or Red Sox lose.

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