Gasoline – by Jen Knox

by TBLM

My TV, computer and spare cash left with Laura. She’d visited her favorite shoe store with my Visa and used the back of the receipt to write a Dear Jude note. Her handwriting was precise. It explained that she would be moving to Arkansas to live with Gustav, some guy she met online, and would never be back. Looking at the receipt, I wondered if the two of them planned to open a store with all the shoes six-hundred dollars had bought.

Blurry days later, I sat in the old gray office behind the desk, holding a mug full of room-temperature coffee. The receipt was in my wallet, weighing me down and keeping my thoughts loose. When Martin named the target, I didn’t exactly volunteer, but I looked up to make it seem as though I was paying attention. Doug crossed his meaty arms and said he was out, conflict of interest, so Martin closed the manila folder and told me to read the rest myself. “The full case is on the g-drive.”

As much as I needed the money, I didn’t want the case. The target’s name was Rattle, legal name Robert Trebel, and he wasn’t the kind of guy you wanted to piss off. I couldn’t imagine Rattle had ever been robbed, left penniless and heartbroken. He was the heartbreaker.

“Snap out of it, Jude. That woman was too skinny, hardly a woman. Build a bridge and get over her,” Martin said. And with that, he left the day. He never stayed in the office long.

When he was out of earshot I said, “I wasn’t thinking about her, asshole.”

*

A year earlier, maybe two years—it all blends—the owner of Ernie’s, the most popular bar on the south side of Toledo, hired Doug to watch two of his employees. Rattle knew about the case because he was Ernie’s nephew, so he offered to help out. Doug’s challenge had been to hang out at the bar we were always at anyway to keep an eye on the two employees Ernie suspected were watering down his booze which, of course, they were. Doug just had to supply enough evidence so that the two employees couldn’t sue or claim unemployment when Ernie fired their asses.

Doug and Rattle passed the downtime by playing 8-ball from open to close. Rather, Doug lost at 8-ball from open to close. I was there a few nights with them because, well, Ernie’s had always been my bar of choice, and I had an interest in protecting it. Ernie’s wasn’t flashy, but it was a notch above the strip mall alternatives. That, and Rattle had always been the guy to know.

Back when we were all a bunch of big-headed Midwestern kids looking to prove how tough we were, some twenty-plus years before, Rattle owned his space. He had a sort of thug celebrity; he’d always been the guy to step to if you thought you were tough. Never one to start fights, Rattle flattened anyone that challenged him. After a while, no one did.

*

I knew I had to be smart about this case. According to the file, Rattle had come back to town for a woman named Jessica. She wanted to make sure he wasn’t cheating before she married him. Before Jessica, Rattle was always coming and going. He was rumored to have had a few illegitimate kids. I didn’t know how true this was. My job was legit, to find the woman answers, and that’s what I planned to do.

Jessica was a brunette Barbie doll who walked around like she was on a damn runway, even when she was in the dollar store; she worked as a real estate agent, selling all the way over there in Perrysburg. I was disappointed when she wanted our first meeting to be held over the phone just because it would have been an event for a guy like me to see a woman like her up close. She gave me a deposit through PayPal, thirty percent. The other seventy would come when I had some proof one way or the other. We agreed to meet for a status update in a few weeks.

The domestic cases always got messy. The client would think you didn’t do your job if you didn’t catch the target doing wrong, but the same client would hate you by proxy if you did. Domestics were lose-lose, but they paid well.

“I’m going to give you some advice,” Doug told me before he left for the night. “Don’t piss him off.”

“Helpful, man,” I said, not sure Doug understood my sarcasm. He just smiled and grabbed his heavy blue coat. Doug had lost a little weight over the last year on some low-carb diet, so his coat was loose and hung on him like a blanket. He stood in the doorway staring at me, waiting for me to say something else, maybe express some kind of reservation about the thing, but I wouldn’t bite. “We need to get a beer soon,” I told him.

“Yeah okay, man. See you later. Maybe after the case, you can show up at poker again. We miss taking your money.”

*

I watched Rattle for a week and a half without talking to him once. I kept video at Ernie’s by using a pair of HD glasses that Doug had bought me for Christmas last year. The glasses had been a joke, the gag spy gift was always funny with us, but the video turned out to be damn good. And more, for anyone who didn’t know me, they were believable. No one questions a pair of inch-thick glasses on a forty-year-old man. A pretty new bartender at Ernie’s said they made me look like a hipster—whatever that means—but other than that, no one looked twice.

I drank a lot as I watched him. And I pulled out the receipt a lot. Rattle was always playing pool, so he was easy to watch. He probably just thought me another drunk. One of many. The bar folk always watched the pool folk, or the TVs, because there was nothing much else to look at. Women were always going up to Rattle, leaning in toward him and tossing their hair. They were always reaching for his leg or shoving their breasts in his face. He seemed to flirt, but he never bit back completely. Not once. I never saw him get anyone’s phone number, or reach for the small of anyone’s back. I even followed him when he rode around on his bike. I had to keep a good distance because my car was loud, needed work, but Rattle made it easy. He was clean. He only ever seemed to go to Ernie’s, or his extended-stay motel, or the gas station, or the grocery store, or Jessica’s.

I was eager to show her the almost-two weeks’ worth of footage. I was hoping to cut the case short because I had a bad feeling about it, and I was ready to move on. We had a check-in appointment, face-to-face, and I was a few minutes late.

I scraped my ten-year-old Cavalier into her driveway, hoping to get the rest of that seventy percent so I could fix my muffler and make a good payment on the card. The sound made my teeth ache. I parked behind a white pickup with some fishing bumper stickers on the back. I was hesitant as I walked to the door. I didn’t see the Harley, so I figured the truck didn’t belong to Rattle, but what if it did? Did he fish? I kept walking, hoping I was just being paranoid.

When I reached the front door, I thought twice. I had the glasses in my pocket. I heard wailing, over-exaggerated and insincere like Laura used to sound when she cared. I could hear it before I was even close enough to knock. I looked sideways, through the blinds, and saw the brunette Barbie straddling a heavyset man with a gold watch that gleamed as though it was winking.

I angled my glasses to get a quick shot. Not to be a pervert or anything, understand. You just never knew what would come in handy in the business. I figured I’d come back later, which was good because when I got home I realized I’d marked Sunday, not Saturday, to check-in with Jessica, so I called Doug to see if he wanted to get a cold one.

“I’m stuck here with the old woman,” he whispered.

“Alright. I’ll be at Ernie’s if get out later. Tell Helen I say hello.”

“Will do, man. And hey, fill me in on that case Monday. Or call tomorrow. We might have a cookout.”

“I already said that wasn’t going to happen,” Helen yelled in the background. Helen had been the one to insist Doug start that low-carb diet, and she’d been strict. He’d started coming to work with bagged lunches and saying no to beers unless she wasn’t around. I wanted my buddy to be healthy, but he just looked miserable and tired all the time. I told Doug good luck and hung up the phone.

*

The new bartender was the only one at Ernie’s. She said her name was Shelly, and she leaned over in a flirtatious way when she spoke to me.

“I remember you, handsome,” she said.

“Yeah, you called me a hipster. Made fun of my astigmatism.” I put on my glasses to remind her.
Shelly had stringy hair but big boobs. A decent trade-off, I thought. Laura had good hair but almost no boobs. Then again, with her it hadn’t mattered. She had been perfect until she wasn’t.

“Just teasing you, sweetheart,” Shelly said. She was lining up pitchers and overstocking beer. “Tonight is going to be a big party. They’ll be here any minute. I like to have drinks ready when they arrive.”

“Understandable,” I said. “I think I might leave before the party. I just wanted a buzz.” What I wanted was to imagine Jessica’s face when I told her Rattle was straight and narrow and loved her to death. I doubted I’d see guilt, but that’s what I wanted. This woman needed to know that the thug was a good guy. I watched Shelly empty bottle after bottle into the pitchers. “What is that stuff?” I asked her.

“Gasoline. Half Southern Comfort and half tequila. It’ll get you a buzz in no time.” I saw her put the tequila back on the top shelf and figured she was right about the drink’s potency. “Try it!” She poured me a glass, no ice.

“Fueling up,” I said, lifting the tumbler to my lips.

“You’ll love it. I’m a kick ass bartender,” she said. “I used to be a nail tech. I had a ton of jobs, but this one’s working out best so far. I’m just a natural at it, you know? What do you do?”

I told her I was in sales, and she went on and on, telling me about her life as I drank gasoline. I grabbed my wallet to pay, but when I opened it the receipt fell out and onto a wet spot on the bar.

“…and toes are where the money is, so I had to quit. Everyone wants the pedicures. But wow did some of those feet traumatize me! Oh boy! I still have nightmares.” Shelly kept on. And on. Until finally, the mix of her voice with the healthy buzz I was getting became a sort of song.

I picked up the receipt by its edge, saw the print had bled and was no longer legible. I was about to ask for another drink. But Shelly was right, she was a good bartender. She had that glass refilled before I had chance to ask.

“Here they come,” she said, smiling as she caught my appreciative stare. I heard the grumbling of bikes, the pop-pop-growls as they came to stops. One after another. This was Ernie’s afterhours, a party for staff and friends that would go till after breakfast the next day. I wasn’t sure Rattle was going to show, but I’d be surprised if he didn’t. If I stayed, I’d be welcome but uninvited, and I’d feel like I was on the clock.

*

The door opened, heavy and slow, and he was the first one inside. I knew it was him by his towering height, the plain white shirt and jeans. He was walking toward us as people filtered in behind him. His hair was long, dark brown with hints of gray, and for a second there I looked at him with the same awe I used to when I was a kid. I wished I had that presence.

Ernie came in behind him, his ordinarily shiny bald head matte in the dark. He had a few girls around him, on either side. They looked like dancers from Brights. He pointed them the way of the stage.

“Gasoline!” Shelly yelled, and as quickly as she’d predicted all the glasses were plucked from her tray. One guy went to slap her on the butt, and I almost took him down a notch, but she dodged the palm and said something that made him back away. She ducked back behind the bar.

“You sure called that,” I said. Her tray had only a few drops of spilled liquor left on it.

“Yeah. You usually a beer man? Ha! Two drinks in and you’re slurring.”

I nodded. “Beer’s cheap and does the trick.”

She smiled and poured me another, saying, “Last one, best one.”

I felt a hand pushing between my shoulder blades just as I was reaching for the drink. My eye caught the receipt, now just a clump of wet paper with smeared blue-black ink.

“Hey man, mind if I take that? Long day.”

It was Rattle. I nodded, kid-like, as I might have if he’d ever spoke to me in high school. I wondered if he remembered me from Doug’s case. “Yeah, man. Cheers,” I said. I sounded like an idiot, I realized, because by the time I said it Rattle had already downed the drink like a shot.

“Here you go,” Shelly said, not willing to leave my napkin empty. Rattle chuckled and signaled for another.

“Maybe I should toast you, buddy. She’s a cute one. Hey, I know you?”

“We went to high school together, and I’m always here. I’ve seen you a few times.”

“Dougie! That’s where I know you from. You work with him. You were there when uncle was trying to fire Tim and Jenny. You’re a PI.” Shelly’s eyebrows went up when he said it, and I shrugged.

“Jude,” I said, extending my hand.

“Yeah, yeah, I remember. You introduced yourself just like that last time. Didn’t have those glasses though. Those are thick. Must’ve been staring directly at the sun.” He shook my hand at last, and his grip was tough.

“They were cleaning my uncle out. You did a good thing there.” He turned to Shelly. “Put his drinks on my tab.”

I was drunk. I knew I was drunk because I suddenly wanted to confess everything to my new buddy, Rattle. Here was a good guy, after all, and he was getting played twice-over. I knew I was drunk because I was thinking about flicking that balled up receipt at the wall. I knew I was drunk because I had that slight pang in my shoulder that I got when I was drunk—which hadn’t happened often in the last few years.

Ernie’s friend, a man named Wayne who owned a strip club on 8th and Summit, arrived with a dozen more dancers. Some of them looked young, uncomfortable. When I told Shelly I was going home and needed water, she insisted on coming with me. “End of my shift. I have to bum a ride from someone. I’d prefer it’s you. The reinforcements are here.” She pointed to the girls who had just walked in; half of them were headed toward the bar. Others joined the few who were sitting on the stage.

“I’ll take you home,” I said. “But I should get some water.”

“You are a real responsible guy,” Rattle said. He stood to move on then stopped. “Hey, have you been following me around?” My heart started swinging like a pendulum, heavy and hard. I nodded, no. He said, “You know my fiancé? She’s cheating on me, you know, and she wants me to do it back. She wants it so she can forgive herself, have an excuse.” I stared at him, waiting for what was coming next. Shelly had disappeared somewhere to get her purse. I drank the water down, knowing I’d need more.

“Rattle, man,” I started, but I stopped myself.

“I wanted to marry her, Jude. I want to marry her, but she’s looking for an out. A friend’s got his license to do the deed for us, so technically we are married but as it is, it’s breakable. I almost made a big mistake with her. The woman’s broken.”

I wanted to tell him that my girl left for a guy she met online, but I couldn’t.

“I caught her cheating, Jude. I came back for her, and I caught her just before I came to this party. I saw her with a suit. Some shined shoes lined up by her bed. Thing is, I wasn’t mad. You’d think I’d kill the guy, but I didn’t. I just revved a few times, let them know I was there. I came back for that girl. We were going to have an official ceremony. I had construction work for at least six months.” A woman came up behind Rattle and began combing his hair with her fingers.

“Hey, baby, want a dance?”

He waved her off and asked the new bartender for a beer. I asked for more water. The only way I could still get paid was to deliver, I realized. Rattle wasn’t cheating, he was trying to live right, but he was going to leave town either way. I had to finish this job and collect my money

After the dancer walked off, switching her hips, I flicked the spitball of a Dear Jude note at the wall and confessed. “I was following you. She hired me. I wasn’t too keen on the job, but I got bills. My girl left me with all my stuff and bills to pay.”

I expected his meaty fist to come hurling toward me. I imagined the linoleum cracking my front teeth as I hit the floor. But Rattle didn’t look like he wanted to hit me; he sat tall, still. Finally, he said what I’d been thinking.

“Jude, she’ll be more likely to pay you if you give her what she wants. A clear conscience . It doesn’t matter. Hey,” he called out to a girl dancing by the stage, a different one than had just been there. “Take a pic with me?”

A blonde with curly hair jumped down like an acrobat, a sort of half-twist off the stage, and ran over to hop into his lap. She kissed him passionately as he leaned in. I fished around in my pocket for my normal camera, a palm-sized deal. I took a few shots, shots that would pay off my card, and when I said I had it, Rattle pushed the girl off gently, thanking her.

“You know all the women in this town are in love with you,” I said.

Rattle shrugged. “I just wanted the Jess. I just wanted to get a house in one of those neighborhoods she works and settle down, but life… It won’t let me, man. Guess I might as well fill the role I’m meant to fill.” He banged the bar for another drink.

“Not every woman is like her,” I said, thinking about Laura and hoping I was telling the truth.

“That’s the problem. I guess I’ll turn her into another snake.”

“Huh?”

He lifted the sleeve of his shirt. Jessica was tattooed there. I remembered the way I felt when I found Laura’s note in my empty apartment. It hadn’t been a surprise. Laura and I had lost our way. The couch had an indent the exact shape of my gut. Still, she broke me.

“That’s a good girl right there, look at her,” Rattle said. Shelly was chatting with Ernie as she put on her coat. “I’ll be back on the road after tonight, man. I appreciate your honesty. But you should find new work. A PI shouldn’t get drunk and blow his cover.” He stuck out his hand, and I took it firmly. We shook on our lives, our promises to accept whatever came next.

***