The scene looks like a Caravaggio portrait, shaded in chiaroscuro from the streetlamp above. The Preacher stands on a flipped-over milk crate at the corner of Peoria First Methodist Church. He’s been there for hours and hasn’t said a word. He simply stands atop his crate looking out at the club across the street as if its occupants were his metaphorical flock. Even with a killer on the loose, the line into Diesel extends two buildings past the candy-striped awning. And hidden in a singular gash of darkness is The Busker, wearing a mustard-colored telecaster with a map of pedals spread before her bare feet. She’s like a gnome. Short, bent over, her hair unwashed and congealed with old sweat. She doesn’t wear shoes along the glass-littered road, but her feet aren’t cut or bruised.
Diesel had begun as a gay nightclub, but it was so inclusive that it killed itself of this title, so now it’s simply a club with several large bouncers throwing an under-dressed drunk out onto the street. Nike slides flipped away and into a vague nowhere.
The Preacher watches as The Drunk stays flat on his back, staring up into the stars, flopping the loose, gray toes of the socks back and forth. Giggling. Then, incoming headlights.
The Preacher leaps from his perch and rushes into the street, waving at the UBER driver in the navy-blue Toyota Cobalt, causing her to slam on the brakes. The red-faced driver stops, pauses for a second to make sure no injury has occurred, backs up, and rolls around the triad and down the street.
The Preacher flips The Drunk on his belly. Then, squatting, he puts his hands underneath The Drunk’s armpits, pulling him up, face-to-face so he can see The Drunk’s eyes only half-looking back at him and drags the much wider body into The Busker’s tent of darkness where she helps him down onto her tube amp, which is sitting on a red dolly. It’s nearing midnight and a circle has gathered around Diesel’s awning. Wet, salty pizza slices melt in hands of figures leaned up against walls or in laps of those sitting cross-legged.
“You okay?” The Preacher asks. The Drunk’s short, stocky, wearing a swimsuit and a red Hawaiian shirt.
“You okay, bro?” The Busker says. “Hey. Drink a little of the water. We all been there, my man,” The Busker says as she turns back to her brother. “Leo, grab another bottle of water from behind me. We brought enough, right?” she says to The Preacher.
“Tight. You have anywhere to go?” The Busker asks. “Anyone we can call?” But this is met with a violent shake, forcing The Busker to quickly grip The Drunk’s shoulders, righting him back to a sitting position. “Whoa there. How you get here, bud? Who you come here with?”
The Killer begins oozing down as he pulls a pair of car keys from his pocket and holds them up, pushing the lock button over and over again. A staccato beep echoes from the church parking lot.
“What’s your name?” The Preacher asks.
Then The Busker joins in, “We’ve got a place around here you can stay.”
The Killer stands up, shakes his head, and sprints down the street without his slides, only his flopping socks separating his flat feet from the unforgiving pavement down the road under the moon. The Preacher chases after The Drunk, leaving his sister to serenade the intoxicated clamor. The light pollution from West Peoria gradually decreases until the moon shines in a white feral rage at the center of the Illinois bridge separating East from West Peoria.
The Peoria Killer looks out as the Pair-A-Dice Casino travels down the Illinois River, small brown waves rushing away and towards either bank. Neither East nor West Peoria allows gambling, but the drowned chasm separating the two sides isn’t under the jurisdiction of either municipality. And The Killer has stopped at the center of the bridge joining East to West, and West to East, looking over the edge into the water as the casino chugs its way closer towards him, the uninhibited clanking and clapping and laughing of revelry apparent even from up on the bridge.
He chose the bridge because he loved Dostoyevsky and thought bridges to be an elegant and magical means for termination. It was the reason he had gotten so drunk. To do this. To jump. But now that The Killer is standing with his heels off of the ground, looking down, the elegance of what he had read does not match the banal reality of this construction. Even though this mundane bridge is larger and made of more tons of steel than was once thought to be possible, it’s now common. And he thinks of the mother he does not know, but who was given paradise by his naked, screaming body. And he sees the ripples reverberating away from the life of the boat and out into the black banks of eternity. To The Killer, Heaven or Hell is determined by the twilight of your final mental state. And to be killed by your own hand is to be eternally eddying in those final moments. Forever. However, there is hope for The Killer. Hope that he could be wrong. And that hope is what propels him to think maybe, just maybe, he could make the plunge.
“You shouldn’t do it,” The Preacher says. He’s a tall man with a slender build and small, blue eyes and wrinkles forming. He, unlike all the others, did not take The Killer’s actions as the dopy meanderings of someone who just had a little too much to drink.
“Why not?” The Killer says.
“Because I’ve already tried that, and it doesn’t always work out the way you planned.”
“Nothing you can do to stop me.”
“That’s what I thought when I jumped.”
Then The Killer turns his gaze left to East Peoria’s sea of residential neighborhoods and chain stores stuck in grids with worn roads and short, stocky buildings that bring with it the scars of survival from untold winters. The residents have begun to resemble the weathered, wrinkled siding of their homes spreading wide across East Peoria’s long horizon. Cigarette colored embers of traffic lights, cell phone towers, chain restaurants, and Home Depots keep East Peoria awake, but not alert.
“And if I hadn’t hit the boat, I would have died,” The Preacher said. “Would have comfortably drowned. But as it is, I’m here. Alive. It’s different when you try to end it and have to walk around so many people trying so hard to live.”
“So, is this the moment you’re gonna preach to me about God? How do you know I don’t know more about Him than you?”
“No. And I’m here seeing what you’re doing. I’m seeing you.”
“Fuck it,” The Killer says. “Fuck it.
To the right West Peoria, is a series of compressed towers looking down on its lower other half. And the buildings look darker than the darkness itself, smoothing over the brown imperfections of the average city into a glossy ebony. But unlike the general haze of East Peoria, Peoria is dichotomous. No road or bar or restaurant is simply awake but bursting forth with such illumination that sunlight itself would seem dim in comparison. And those areas and buildings and people not chosen to be illuminated, are relegated to such complete darkness that one wonders if, like in nature, those residing in the depths have begun to lose a certain kind of sight.
“It hurts a lot. It hurts a whole lot. And it just keeps hurting for a long time,” The Preacher says. The Killer doesn’t so much hear the cars behind him as feels the vibration of the engines rattling the nearby grates. He’s sitting now. His socks dangling off the edge, legs alternating in rhythm.
“Fuck it,” he says. “Fuck it.”
But The Preacher’s standing right behind him, watching The Killer as he leans further forward over the edge, palms open, arms wide like an angel’s, and held against the girders as he’s looking down at the fissure separating the crags, wishing to fly through the air and pass right through this world and into the next one. A shortcut to see the other side: painless, blameless, and peaceful.
But then it wouldn’t be so much of a suicide as an adventure through the aquatic black hole and into the blank face of the faceless void, The Killer thinks. It would be like a storybook in which Peter Pan flew to Never Land. Except he does not believe in any sort of Never Land. His aunt told him about the summer his twelve-year-old mother thought that caterpillars she couldn’t see were sneaking into her skin while she was asleep.
“You’ll feel every bare-nerved firing your body can offer,” The Preacher says.
“If I don’t die. But what if I do?”
“Well, that’s the question that’s gotten you here. Hasn’t it?”
“Fuck it,” he says. “Fuck it.”
And The Killer reaches a hand backwards towards The Preacher who takes his hand to help him down onto the grate along the bridge’s sidewalk. The grate is wheezing lukewarm breath from the warm air rising, catching underneath the bridge. The Killer feels the bridge try to catch its breath in the summer heat and The Killer is thankful he doesn’t have his mother’s delusions. He unsheathes the metal meat tenderizer from inside the webbed netting of his swimsuit and swings it around into the Preacher’s skull, striking oil, stunning him for long enough for The Killer to put the meat tenderizer across The Preacher’s bare throat. Pushing. Pushing. Pushing both ends of the mallet until there is no more preacher. Just a body and a small, wet circle of blood slowly spreading from the summer breeze.
The Killer drags the body up and on the very edge of the bridge, lays it flat so the empty right arm’s hanging over the river, swinging like a pendulum. Counting the moments.
Then The Killer brandishes his implement to the chasm and all that lay before him, including the boat moving ominously forward in opposition. He runs his fingers over the series of blunted peaks lined in rows, feeling the defiance of the steel. He calls it Charon’s Right Hand. The blunt object capturing a slow, descending horror that the eddying water of eternity would not let go. Charon’s right hand was not quick. Was not painless. And in The Killer’s opinion, The Preacher had attempted suicide, and thus Charon’s boat had been robbed of one shaded occupant. And he had seen that The Preacher’s last minutes were eye popping agony. And so, he would continue to eddy in that state. Forever.
He puts the mallet back into the hammock inside his swimsuit, bypassing the empty, shallow pockets. Instead, the implement stands and rolls around his genitals, immediately acquiescing any space the obstinate metal claims. The added weight and bulky shape bows The Killer’s stance. He allows the casino to pass under the bridge where The Drunken noises rise with the hot air, bouncing against the metal and reflecting in and around it. Voices and echoes talk to one another as if distinct and different. And The Killer pushes the body over the edge. Happy, he removes his blood-soaked socks and tosses them over as well. Then he hops down only to land on the blood of the preacher. Slipping. Hitting his head on the wet concrete. Putting The Killer to sleep.
The Killer wakes up on a plastic-covered couch, which had adhered to him during the night. He peels himself off and rubs his temples as he places his bare feet flat on the brown-carpeted floor. He has a new pastel blue t-shirt on that says, “Jesus Saves,” on the front.
He looks around and both of his slides sit on the laminate square at the entranceway. The room is small, bare, and obsessively clean. There’s only a circular clock on the wall, a circular dining table meant for no more than four, a bookcase with only three hardback books held straight up by metal bookends at the exact middle of the top shelf, and two more empty shelves. The Killer feels he is being watched.
He slips his slides on his feet, and opens the door, allowing the afternoon light to momentarily blind him. He walks out onto the left side of a ranch-style duplex. There’s a wilting potted plant, wooden chair with a rigid spine, and a bicycle leaned against the rotting square post, and centered between the two residences is a black iron grill with the top pulled-down, smoke just beginning to drift up. The other door is fully open, and the lights are off, but the air conditioner is gasping against the summer warmth streaming in.
“You sleep well, My Man?” The Busker says between drags of her Black-And-Mild cigarillo, smiling with teeth that aren’t yellow or white, but both colors. She’s sitting on a dirty vinyl couch, which has several empty Wendy’s, McDonald’s, and Taco Bell bags spilling out and onto the floor. She’s sitting meditatively, wearing a large, music festival shirt expanding over her crossed knees and legs so it’s unclear if she’s wearing shorts, or even underwear for that matter. Her ears are full of staples, and there’s an acoustic guitar sitting on a card table turned coffee table.
“Right on. Right on.”
“I was walking home and found you lying on the ground. You fell and hit your head. Blood everywhere, My Man. The cut didn’t look that deep, but it sure did bleed. That happens when you get cut when you drink you know. An old friend was telling me the blood’s not the same and so it just keeps going. It’s thinner. About took you to the hospital. But you were alright, I thought.”
“What time is it?”
“About noon,” she says without looking at anything. “Want a Pop Tart?”
“No. Where am I?”
“You’re in my brother’s place. We take in strays from time and time. And we agree his place is better for strays. Cleaner. Less shit to steal. No offense. Say, you look like you feeling a bit peaked. That the word? Peaked?”
“No. I’m fine.”
“No, you don’t feel peaked or no that’s not the right word?”
The Killer turns and vomits on the outstretched bicycle seat.
“I guess I didn’t use the word right.”
“You used the word right.”
“Well you’re welcome to come on in if you like. It’s not as clean as my brother’s, but you don’t have to go all around afraid of breaking some fragile thing. I’m not fragile and neither’s my place.”
“Can I get a ride to my car?”
“Leo took the car. Must have left before I got up. He works days and I work some nights on The Pair-A-Dice, which I can just walk to so there’s no real need in having two cars. But one of us can give you a ride when he gets back. Don’t remember seeing him by chance, do you?”
“No. Can I get some water?”
“Sure thing,” and she pours a glass of tap water into a clean, clear glass, and hands it to The Killer. The lukewarm temperature somehow feels easier and better to drink, and he finishes it quickly.
“How did I get here?”
“I dragged your sorry ass. Plopped you on top of my milk crates and strapped you into my dolly so you looked the king of some insane asylum. Didn’t want you booked for disorderly.”
“I need to go.”
“Stay. I always make a little lunch for Leo and I. Leo will only be back in an hour or so. No use walking all that way in the hot humidity while hungover as fuck. Not much worse than that. Especially when the hangover’s gotten to your stomach.”
He finishes a second glass of water as The Busker disappears into the furthest back area of her apartment, soon reappearing with several grocery bags hanging off her arms like a scarecrow. She pushes past The Murderer and into The Preacher’s apartment where she places the bags of groceries onto the small island and immediately begins ripping out bowls and measuring cups from the cupboards above the stove, and several pots and pans from below the faux-granite countertops.
She sets a pot of water to boil and pours a batch of strawberries from the plastic cage into a colander and sticks it under the faucet freely running cold water.
“You should talk to my brother. He tried to kill himself too.”
“I didn’t try to kill myself.”
Then she takes out a small, green cutting board and knife and lays them out beside the stove in front of an idle toaster. Next, she pours macaroni noodles into the boiling water and dumps the headless berries into a glass bowl and cuts up a head of broccoli and puts the heads in a different bowl. Then The Busker pours the water through the colander, steam billowing up, leaving the naked noodles to be shaken and re-poured into the pot, along with butter, squeeze cheese from the box, and a bit of additional sharp cheddar.
“You were laying IN the road, My Man. That doesn’t seem like someone who’s alright. I told that to Leo after you went blazing up the road. Told him you were more like me. We’ve got holes, My Man. Well I don’t really know you, but I’m like a bowl with holes: so many things running in and out of me that it wasn’t like I was even a person to myself. So that’s how I treated myself: a thing to get tossed, moved to the back, donated, thankful when used, and expecting to be a disappointment. Wanting for someone to fix the holes. But the holes’ edges just calloused over. Holes don’t heal, do they, My Man? But then I learned to be a colander and to let water flow through ‘em: the holes. My brother’s a pot. I don’t know what you are yet.”
“I’m a meat tenderizer.”
“Because I tenderize meat.”
“Right on, my man. Right on. You beat that meat.”
She uses the colander to rinse diced tomatoes, sliced cucumbers, and julienned red, green, and yellow bell peppers before these too are piled into a large, glass bowl, and swirled together.
“I say my brother’s a pot because everything’s brewing inside of him, but sometimes it boils over. And when that happens to him, it’s like the whole meal is ruined and you gotta spend the rest of the night scraping out the burnt char off the bottom. But all that scraping’s also scraped the Teflon away. And that just means more sticking. You don’t seem like a meat mallet. You seem more like a burnt pot to me.”
“I need to go.”
“The door ain’t locked. If you don’t want to eat with us, you don’t have to. Just gonna wait for Leo to get back.”
But Leo did not come back, and The Busker eventually ate alone, cleaned up, got ready for work, and walked to work without him. This wasn’t totally out of character for Leo. But since his jump from the bridge, she worried about him every time he disappeared.
The Busker is not a busker at the Pair-A-Dice. At the Pair-A-Dice, she is Alice. At least that’s what her name plate says as she deals out the proper set of cards to each of the customers.
She’s wearing the traditional blackjack dealer garb and a bowler cap, hiding her long, gummy hair because it’s beyond an afternoon of repair. The House loses, and Alice moves the series of chips along the crescent-shaped patrons who have bellied up to this numerical bar. Alice feels a tap on her shoulder and turns around to her replacement politely letting Alice know it’s his turn at this table now. The blackjack dealers move in a complicated labyrinth, giving each set of patrons a chance with different dealers.
Alice stands up, smiles lazily at the crowd who is truly sad to see her go, because Alice’s hands had been consistently beatable. It’s her turn to take a break before she’s due to return to table B4. She walks through the casino and up the stairs out and onto the deck, which is hosting the final table of an all-day Texas Hold ‘Em Tournament. She walks around the table to a bar, gets a beer, and finds a place of darkness to have her drink and long-waited-for smoke. She leans against the railing separating the boat from the river and looks out at several circles of standing people scattered all about the bow of the ship. And after being inside the cramped, buzzer-ridden inside, here in the open air feels quiet, nearing silence.
“What’s that?” Says one of the ambient voices.
“Oh, God, he’s going to jump.”
Right on the bow is a thump, crack, and splatter all in the same instant followed by howls of agony.
“Someone call somebody.”
“Can you call 911 on the river? Someone get the captain for god’s sake.”
“Would you just listen to him? It’s going to be okay, son.”
“No one should suffer like this.”
“I’m going to be sick.”
A circle has gathered loosely around the broken man. and no one is quite sure of how to help. Everything about him is either broken, or nearly so, and he seems so near to death that even sight threatens to put too much weight for the body to handle. And as The Busker approaches, she hears the screaming of The Killer until the body becomes silent pieces, both put together and empty.
Just as the pain crescendos to that point the body cannot feel, The Killer sees The Preacher in the white lights strung along the bridge above him, witnessing The Killer’s broken body. Broken for The Preacher as if bread broken for the remission of his sins. An offering. A sacrifice. But it doesn’t work that way. And The Killer closes his eyes to the light, entering into the darkness behind.