Patterson Wells walks through the front door to find Chase working on a heap of crystal meth the size of his shrunken head.
“Sit down, motherfucker,” Chase says, perched birdlike on the couch, his eyes smoking like he’s been shooting the shit straight into his tear ducts. Patterson eases down into the only other seat in the room, a white leather recliner that leans to the side like a heap of dirty laundry, while Chase chops a line of meth and waves at Patterson to fall to.
It’s only been two weeks since Patterson saw him last, but Chase has lost a good twenty pounds, and Patterson’s pretty sure he’s wearing the same soiled tank top that he’d been wearing when he rolled off the job site. “You got anything else?” he asks.
“Like what?” Chase asks.
Patterson rubs his eyes. It’s been a very long drive. “I wouldn’t say no to a beer.”
“I got pop if you want some.” There’s plastic bottles staggered all over the coffee table. At least one of them gone bulbous, some liquid that doesn’t look at all like pop leaking from under the cap. “You better let me check them first though,” he continues. “Some of them’s full of piss.”
“I’m all right,” Patterson says.
“Bet it smells like piss in here, too.” Chase sniffs the air. “Does it stink?”
Patterson nods, looking at the bottles. His eyes are watering at the smell. Then he shakes his head. “We still going fishing?” he asks.
Chase lights a cigarette and tosses the match into a heavy glass ashtray on the coffee table already overflowing with butts. He clutches up, giggling, smoke erupting out of his mouth and nose. “My fucking skin itches,” he sputters, scratching red welts down his arms.
“Well.” Patterson slaps his knees and stands.
“Hold on.” Chase stops laughing abruptly. “You ain’t got to leave. I got something else.” He pulls a fifth of Evan Williams out of the couch cushions, tosses it to Patterson. “I keep it around for when I’m coming off the shoulder.” He rattles out another laugh. “But mostly I’d rather get high again.”
Patterson takes a drink of the bourbon and sits back down. “When’d you start dealing meth?”
Chase’s eyes bulge in his head. The left eye more than the right. “You a fucking cop?”
“No, I ain’t a fucking cop,” Patterson says. “But I saw you two weeks ago and you didn’t have no meth empire.”
“My bitch set this up,” Chase says. “Goddamn, that itches. I come home and found my kitchen turned into a meth lab, her fucking some biker motherfucker on the floor. He’s out in the backyard.”
Patterson tightens the cap down on the bottle of whiskey.
“Shut the fuck up.” Chase lets out a machine gun burst of laughter, his cheekbones punching through his yellow skin. “You really think I stabbed some motherfucker in the neck and then buried him in the backyard? And then told you about it? Shut the fuck up.”
Patterson stands. “Bathroom?”
Chase jerks his head at a hallway by the entrance to the kitchen. “First door.”
Patterson pisses into the toilet. Leaning against the wall, his vision swimming. He’s so tired the back of his neck aches and his knees feel loose. He finishes pissing, pulls off his battered Avrilla ball cap, and runs water to wash his face. He looks worn-out in the mirror, he looks spent, he looks like he’s not too far off a meth bender himself. And the idea of maybe doing a line or two just to wake up does flash through his mind. Then he hears it. It sounds like breathing. And whatever it is, it’s coming from right behind him, from the tub.
Patterson puts his hand on the .45 he carries in an inside-the-waistband holster just behind his right hip, then shuts the water off.
It’s breathing, all right. And it’s coming harder. Thrashing. Grunting, snorting, like there’s some kind of miniature pig running back and forth, ramming its head into the sides of the tub.
Patterson slides the back of his hand onto the edge of the shower curtain. He tightens his fingers around the grip of his gun and pushes the curtain back just far enough to peek into the tub.
She’s naked, hogtied with thin nylon cord, a strip of black duct tape across her mouth. Her blue eyes pleading at Patterson, black mascara streaking down her face.
Patterson’s legs wobble, threaten to give altogether. He forces himself to kneel and pulls the duct tape free of her mouth. “Are you all right?”
She croaks something.
Patterson flips open his clip knife, cuts her hands free. Then leans across her bare body, white and flat and lined with blue veins, and cuts the rope around her feet. She sobs, stifles it. Patterson pulls a towel off the rack, wraps it around her shoulders. “I’ll be right back,” he says. “You stay here.”
She nods, rubbing her wrists.
Patterson rises, drawing his .45. Exhausted. He walks back out into the living room and stands by the hallway, holding the gun behind his right leg.
“Did you see my bitch in there?” Chase has the remote control, flipping channels on a little television set on a stand against the wall. “Her name’s Mel. Mel, Patterson. Patterson, Mel. That’s why I been pissing in these bottles. Every time I go in there she goes ape shit. And I can’t piss with somebody watching, especially if they’re making a bunch of noise.”
“She been in there since you found her with the biker?” Patterson asks.
Chase’s hand shoots into the pillows of the couch and stays there. Patterson’s elbow twitches, but he doesn’t raise the .45. “What the fuck do you know about the biker?” Chase says. His eyes are bulging again, threatening to bust like the pop bottles on the table.
“Easy,” Patterson says. “I only know what you told me.”
Chase draws his hand out from the couch, empty. “You want to fuck her?”
Patterson shakes his head. “Not even a little,” he says.
“Fifty dollars. You don’t even have to untie her.”
“I don’t want to fuck her.”
Patterson doesn’t bother answering.
The volume on the television is muted, the shows flickering past. Sports, news, cartoons. It’s been a long time since Patterson has seen a television. “If you’d have said yes, I’d have shot you,” Chase says.
“I know it,” Patterson says. He steps back, putting some space between him and Chase. Then he brings his .45 up. “Don’t reach in the couch.”
Chase looks at him. “What the fuck are you doing?”
“I can’t leave her like that.”
“You can’t leave her like that. You don’t know that cunt. Fuck you, you can’t leave her.”
“Come on,” Patterson says.
“Come on where?”
“Wherever you keep the rope,” Patterson says. “It’s your turn.”
Chase stands. “You ain’t going to make it out of here, you brave motherfucker.” He licks his lips. “I’m going to cut that bitch’s throat and you’re going to watch. That’s what I’m going to do.” He struts into the hallway. “You’re a cunt, too.”
She rams him straight in the face with the barrel of a baseball bat. Chase stumbles back, blood flushing from his flattened nose. She’d been standing around the corner, just far enough back in the hallway that they couldn’t see her. Chase swats at her, his eyelids fluttering. She swings from her shoulders, the barrel of the bat thudding into the side of his skull. He falls prone, his eyeballs flickering back and forth behind his lids.
She stands over him, the baseball bat cocked. Still naked. Hairless and small-breasted, her skin loose on her frame like badly fit clothes. Chase’s left knee twitches. Then twitches again. Then starts to shake. She spits in his face and stalks back down the hall.
Patterson holsters his .45 and manages to get a cigarette out of his pack. And using both hands to steady the flame, to get it lit. Chase’s leg is still going, blood running out of his nose and ears, pooling under his head. Patterson smokes the cigarette, wishing more than a little that the leg would stop shaking.
She returns dressed in a pair of jeans and a Steve Earle T-shirt, her face scrubbed clean, her skin unhealthily translucent without makeup. She’s carrying a duffel bag.
“You need a ride anywhere?” Patterson asks.
“Where’d you get the cigarette?”
Patterson passes her one. She lights it and her eyes blank with pleasure. “Jesus, I needed that.”
“How long were you in there?” Patterson asks.
“A day. Maybe.” She steps forward and kicks Chase in the side, hard. Breath whistles out of him. “He’ll be fine.”
“Is there a dead biker in the backyard?” Patterson asks.
She snorts. “He got that off some dipshit TV show. He’s been up six fucking days.”
“Right,” Patterson says. “No ride?”
She shakes her head. “I’ll take his car. The motherfucker.”
Patterson closes the door behind him, quietly. Leaving her to it.
For Patterson Wells, disaster is the norm. Working alongside dangerous, desperate, itinerant men as a tree clearer in disaster zones, he’s still dealing with the loss of his young son. Writing letters to the boy offers some solace. The bottle gives more.
Upon a return trip to Colorado, Patterson stops to go fishing with an old acquaintance, only to find him in a meth-induced delirium and keeping a woman tied up in the bathtub. In the ensuing chain of events, which will test not only his future but his past, Patterson tries to do the right thing. Still, in the lives of those he knows, violence and justice have made of each other strange, intoxicating bedfellows.
Hailed as “the next great American writer” (Frank Bill, author of Crimes in Southern Indiana), Benjamin Whitmer has crafted a literary triumph that is by turns harrowing, darkly comic, and wise.