You know how it is with lost balls, they just plink and sink and disappear forever. But in the dream it wasn’t just a two-buck ball dropping out, it was the whole breakaway set of clubs barrel-assing down the slope in its pullcart. It crashed through the whip grass and plunged into the swamp and sank in the black murk. It kept sinking, dead as a crippled ship. The last shot of the nightmare was that cap, that cap Hoodie never removed from his sweaty head, with the Stone City big S going down, who knows how far, like the flag of a nation into the bottomless swamp – nothing left but the crown of the cap and that pig-breath of his floating over it, souring the air.
What I do is paint vans – my little one-man operation I call Van Go – and van painting is how I came upon Henrika and Hoodie.
At the time Henrika had this one-woman company, a cleaning service, and she had a good old patriotic name for it, American Maid, even though she had a Jarlsberg accent you could cut with a herring knife. So I gave her the stars and stripes treatment and turned the whole vehicle into this traffic-stopper, eyeball-catcher logo for her budding business.
But all Hoodie could do was hoot and jeer, his usual shit way of relating to people who didn’t fit his playbook. Beating his chest like a bull gorilla and disrespecting my skill set because he had a vehicle too, a truck, and it was like the truck made him a truck of a person, a man of sheet metal or something.
“Hey faggot artiste, paint an Indian on my truck.”
He shouted that right in my ear. Made me mess up a star on Henrika’s driver’s side and dribble blue on my best red stripe. What the fucker didn’t know was Henrika watched the whole scene from back by the compost heap. Not pleased.
Next day he went hunting – hunting and golfing, that was Hoodie – and she came hunting for me.
You know how it goes. If this van’s rockin’ don’t come knockin’ …
And day after that Hoodie was officially gone. Henrika said he sank into the Ursus Woods. Endless, topless, bottomless. Every morning the police helicopter hovering over the fierce yellow pines, but no Hoodie, not a hair.
Henrika, the tomato queen of the whole county. Number one at the fair. Blue ribbons six years running. She told the world her secret was one turd, one tomato. She’d dig a hole, slip in one shit lump and one tomato plant, no more and no less, and let nature take its course. But me she told the secret behind the secret. Her compost heap, layers upon layers of mystery matter, which she guarded like Buckingham Palace. Had it fortified like a bunker. Way back of her property, in a stand of fat, brambly trees, near the stream with the raccoons lurking and hissing. Big creosote blocks on all sides of the heap, stacked tight and high, a moat of poison ivy snaking around. “Catch you back there and you’re out on your little ass,” she warned in that Norse horse-voice. Then the voice turned to slow fire like that aquavit they all drink. Then the couch and the booted calves hugging me, heels up and down the spine. “Get your little ass down here…”
All followed by tomato aspic, tomato soup, meatballs in tomato sauce, tomato pie, fresh-squeezed Bloody Marys. Me drunk on Beefsteaks fat as cannonballs, Big Boys, Big Girls. Tomatoes coming out of my ass.
Henrika a big girl herself, doorway big. Clients call her the Swedish Cleaning Machine, the Viking Vac, etcetera, those piston-calves of hers driving the Swiffers and Buffers. In no time American Maid, its van graphically unavoidable, rose to number one on the McMansion circuit, booked out months in advance. Village wags claiming the boots never came off the calves; they were too busy stomping the dust mites, pumping up and down the corkscrew staircases.
Yet even Henrika got tired – maybe twice a year. “Cook dinner, for me and Gustav.” Gustav her lout of a mutt, lazy-ass shepherd-collie, snoring strategically under the same air-conditioner jet always. On the hottest days never moving even to shit or piss, swelling up like one of Henrika’s power vac bags until someone dragged him outside.
She said I could cook what I wanted, long as I made use of her – she called it a crazy name, Chinese word I think, made use of her … coolie.
“Your what? Your coo…”
“You want me to spell it out for you? C-o-u-l-i-s.”
It made no sense. She pulled it down and shoved it at me. Hand-labeled. Something she had glopped and jarred out of her blue-ribbon tomatoes and apples. What did I give a shit? So out I went to the Super Duper and bought a ham, the house brand, pink as a giant bubblegum square, nice price and shrink-wrapped, no muss or fuss.
Henrika lay on the couch, languid and leg-heavy, clothes off, boots up, as I manned the kitchen, spilling the coolie glop all over the pink square and shoving it in the oven. The tomato and ham reek rose from the stove, bringing back memories, the wrong kind. Pig-breath, the putred wake of Hoodie. Fucked my concentration and sucked me into Hoodie-land, remembering how he’d stand over me, kicking my spray cans, bellowing about his big-time job in the mining and minerals industry.
Then again: Hey, faggot artiste. Paint an Indian on my truck.
Was me who rousted the dog from under his precious cold-hole, no one but me, me who caused the stench rising from the stove and the consequent plumes of smoke. Henrika charging in from the couch like a booted firefighter. Gustav’s shepherd ears up like a rabbit’s, shocked by the screeching smoke alarm. Out like a bullet through his flappy pet door into the yard – just as Henrika threw open the oven and yanked out the black, blistered ham.
“It’s that stuff that did it, the coolie,” I protested, nearly shitting my pants. “It blows up like napalm.”
Henrika grabbed me by the neck, like a chicken she was about to slaughter. With the other hand she plunged a carving fork into the black pork bubbles. “It’s the shrink wrap, you ass bag. You forgot to peel it off. You just poured the coulis on top of the shrink wrap and turned up the heat.”
And what of the dog? Nowhere in sight, and this was deep August, a spell of jungle days. His water-dish licked bone dry. “The stream,” said Henrika. “Let’s look there. Raccoon can drown a dog, just claw him until he’s crazy then hold his head under water. If that’s what happened I’ll drown you.”
We found the dog torn and soaked and dead. To his credit, he had taken the enemy with him. The raccoon corpse looked just as bad. Water-logged, lips twisted, a trickle of gut-foam at the corner.
Henrika wouldn’t let me help one iota. Lifted the fat mutt herself, kneeling in a perfect squat as though executing a power lift at the gym.
Was a late one for me: van jobs in two different towns. When I skulked back at dusk no Gustav to be found. “Where?”” I asked.
“The crematorium.” She pushed a bowl of chilled Better Girl soup in front of me, even the spoon and saucer icicle-cold.
August, a whole year later, and heat breaking records. Tomatoes too, glowing and obese, bulging like melons. She fed them to me morning, noon and night and I still wanted more. Me all gullet for a month, like a baby bird – the faster she served, the faster I gobbled.
From the county and state fairs came waves of acclaim, a ribbon hoard unlike any other year. “Your secret?” She was asked this again and again by judges and green-thumbers.
“My compost,” she said. “My blacker than black. My golder than gold.”
Now famous, she tap-tapped a calculator and issued my orders. Repaint the van, repaint the house, reprieve denied. Me slaving on Henrika’s clapboards, solar-broiling like a kebob. August the oven, me the shrink-wrapped ham.
From a westerly corner just under the eaves I slopped on the paint but stared into the back-property trees – just to look at some shade as I sizzled in sun. I saw the leafage, dark and cool. In the spaces between branches I could just make out the thick brown beams that framed the altar of miracle growth, the better-than-turds compost heap.
Finally, twilight. Too dark to paint. My ass on the easy chair, feet up by the black mouth of the fireplace, a sense of cool just to look into it. Henrika looming in the doorway with two Yellow Russians, her concoction of Stoli and fresh-squeezed Golden Boys.
I waved my tall yellow glass at the mantelpiece. “So where’s the urn?”
“Urn?” She gave her glass a hard shake, ice cubes clattering loudly.
She gave a hard laugh, like the rattling ice. “I suppose still in the crematorium. How would I know? Gustav was my dog, not my husband.”
Morning off for good behavior, and a promise to bring Henrika the trout of her life. Threw on waders, fly-fished the black brook at the edge of the Ursus. Waters swirling sunless from the towering trees, so deep and dark I could have been night-fishing, but the fish upped and bit like piranha, and I was back before noon with a brace of fat browns. Henrika nowhere in sight, the sun burning up every last cloud. I went to work on a dormer but wobbled on my ladder, spewed a little vomit but stayed up there, half my mind chasing the nightmare, the uncatchable golf cart. Three hours later I wobbled down to sip and piss and found the big open plastic I had left forgotten on my drop cloth, straight in the sun, the tub with all the fish. They stank like death.
Needed to get rid of them before that American Maid van came nosing down the driveway. Trash cans no good, stench too heavy. Only one place seemed right, and today I conveniently had those waders – as good for marching through poison ivy as trooping into the waters of the Ursus. I pulled them on and headed for the no man’s land, for the wild thickets and the creosote trough from which I was unconditionally banned.
Could have just heaved the rotten contents of the tub over the creosote walls and high-tailed it out of there. But no, I wanted a look, and there was this rusting step ladder.
They say curiosity killed the cat, but I know the raccoon killed the dog and the dog killed the raccoon – and there they both were, what was left of them, together with the grass clippings, melon rinds and other assorted swill items and compost fodder, their fangs and fur and innards mulching down into the great Henrika fertility pit. And just to the side of them, surrounded by the blackest wet I have ever seen, was the cap with the big S and a shard of Hoodie’s scalp, white as a cow-skull in the desert.
Even now, after so many years, I taste the ooze that filled my mouth, the upsurge of tomato that was beyond tomato. And then, bug-eyed on the step ladder, staring down at the muck and the dog and the raccoon and the slow-sinking cap, I heard the American Maid creep down the driveway, its engine alive with a purr and growl – as though it weren’t an engine at all but something ready to pounce.