When your name's Piglowski, you get used to being called "Pig." Classmates at my reunion couldn't recall my Christian name because they'd never known me as anything else.
I looked around the VFW hall the organizers had rented, but I didn't see Joe Soliday, my best friend in those days. I hadn't seen him since we graduated twenty years ago. When he called me out of the blue two weeks ago to see if I was going, he mentioned he was on compassionate leave for his father's funeral. Joe's dad was a proud, uncomplaining man blinded in an explosion at the glass factory and he was never able to support his family after that. Joe and his sister had to bear the stigma of being on welfare. Joe's voice kept fading and I thought the call had been dropped when he said, "Those assholes going to be there?"
I didn't have to think hard which "assholes" of all our classmates he was referring to: Shane Slabine and Steve Cipperly, obviously. Shane used to knock me around on the playground when we were in middle school. He called Joe and me "ridge runners" and "white trash." He bullied everyone smaller until he acquired a kind of smarmy charm in high school that worked better. He was voted Most Popular, Prom King, Class President and everything else his adoring classmates could offer him. I hated him.
By the time we were in high school, Slabine always had big Steve Cipperly, the team's all-state linebacker, around to back him up. Slabine's the city solicitor and his pal Cipperly is the sheriff. They've had the town locked up politically for the last ten years. Nobody's crazy enough to run against either one of them.
Most of us who grow up along the Ohio River in towns like East Palestine are used to going without a lot of things as kids, but Joe's family was dirt poor. Maranda, Joe's sister, was very smart but she suddenly quit school at fifteen, got into heavy metal, tattoos, and piercings. The year Joe left town to join the Army, she was working in the diner downtown, calling herself Raven and hanging out with the goth crowd. She seemed strangely unfriendly at the time but I didn't think anything of it. A year after that, she was dead. The cops found her in a motel room outside town with a needle sticking out of her arm. Rumor had it she was prostituting for dope money.
I was deep in a reverie, feeling alone in a crowd of people I used to know and now couldn't recognize anymore. Then I heard her voice: "Hey, Pig, look at you!"
I always hoped we'd get married. Like a lot of my classmates who had talent or brains, she left East Pal right after graduation. I was skulking by the punch bowl ever since I'd heard her laughter somewhere nearby. I would have been content just to spy on her all night, aching with desire just as I used to whenever I heard that laugh of hers. It was like listening to Lisa Stansfield all over again at the high-school dances when she'd warble those high notes. Samantha's laugh was like thatbright notes light as bubbles floating to the ceiling.
"Seen Joe, Sam?" I asked.
"Nope. He was here when I arrived. We talked some, then he left."
"I was hoping to talk to him," I said.
"Your best bud."
I wondered what three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan as an infantry sergeant had done to the quiet kid I used to know.
"Little Joey Soliday, combat soldier," she laughed; "who'd have thunk it, right?"
"The Army gave him a home," I said. "He didn't have much of one in this shithole town."
I'd said it with too much bitterness. Sam reacted with surprise and then we both spoke at the same time the way awkward teenagers do.
Out of the corner of my eye, I glimpsed Cipperly and Slabine hamming it up near some tables. "Go long, Shane!" Cipperly shouted. He tossed a can of beer that Slabine caught easily over his shoulder. Shane tucked the can under his arm and pretended to fake out tacklers the way he used to in those Friday night football games. It made me even more depressed to watch him. I was thinking how our two most prominent citizens used to torment my friend, and I was ashamed I never had the guts to do something about it.
Samantha must have read my mind. She said, "He told me before he took off to tell you he was going to put some flowers on his sister's grave. He said you'd understand."
"Yeah," she said and popped her gum like the teenage beauty with those same high cheekbones and piercing blue eyes I remembered and worshiped. Twenty years had put pounds on me and hair in places I didn't particularly need it, but she was as beautiful as ever.
She said: "What happened to his sister was terrible."
Before I could reply, she said, "Come over and meet my husband."
"Sure, in a minute," I said. I watched her turn away with a shy smile back at me. I was rooted to the floor as if somebody had driven ten-penny nails through my shoes.
"... meet my husband." What did I expect?
My depression took a steeper dive although I knew how foolish I was to think she would show up here single. In my secret fantasies, we'd rekindle that spark and live happily ever after. My brain kicked in belatedly as I thought of her parting words about Joe's sister. At first, I thought she meant Maranda's suicide. I'd heard about it many years ago when I called home from a layover in Chicago. I was a brakeman for Penn Central at the time and hoping to get a down payment for a houseall part of my idiotic fantasy life with Samantha.
I saw a guy I barely recognized. He was a wannabe jock, never popular, and had bouts of severe acne. Cipperly used to mock him and called him "Pizza Face," but when this guy was picked to be sports editor for the yearbook, Cipperly suddenly took him under his wing. The attention earned Cipperly the largest share of photo coverage in the sports section. His acne was gone, but had thick glasses and a beer belly you could give a name to. A fake smile was pasted on his face when he saw me approach.
"Hey, Pig, how you been?"
"Fine, man," I said, hoping to cover my failure to come up with his name. We started to talk and I guided him to the Soliday family.
What he told me turned my stomach. Before she turned goth, Joe's sister had been lured to a party by some older girlsa private birthday party for Shane Slabine. Those girls coaxed Maranda into doing some Oxycontin, and then doing a strip tease for our school's two star athletes. By the time she staggered out of the bedroom hours later, clutching a bra and panties to her chest, she was bruised and her hair was matted with semen. Every male at the party had a turn with her.
"Jesus," I said. "I never knew that."
He looked at me as if to say, of course, you wouldn't.
I was about to ask him how they managed to keep that out of the papers, when I looked over to see Slabine backslapping and yukking it up with some out-of-town classmates. I had an urge to grind a broken bottle into his smug face.
Another ex-jock came up to him and whispered in his ear. Slabine's face darkened. I watched Slabine grab Cipperly by the elbow and then the two of them did a fast walk toward the back exit. It was at that very moment I caught what I think was a glimpse of a soldier's uniform heading out the same doorJoe Soliday, I was sure of it. I waded through classmates shaking off drunken embraces, pausing too long to greet a few people, so that by the time I had crossed the floor, Slabine, Cipperly, and Joe Soliday, if that's who it was, were all gone. The parking lot was empty.
When I returned inside, Samantha was surrounded by her old clique and their spouses. I watched them dance to Hall & Oates' tunes. I never got to talk to her again that night. I decided to call my reunion a washout and go home and drown my sorrows in Wild Turkey.
Bad as my night was, two people had it much worse. Slabine and Cipperly never made it home that night. The town was wild with rumors for weekseverything from money stolen from departmental accounts through a cartel assassination to revenge killings by some psychopath Cipperly had arrested and Slabine had prosecuted. You couldn't buy a loaf of bread in a Dairy Mart without hearing some old fart offering up his own goofy theory to the bored cashier. A dozen FBI agents swooped into East Palestine and went door-to-door interviewing everyone in town. The class reunion was given special attention.
I did talk to Joe very briefly at his father's funeral. He said he told the FBI what everyone else was telling them, that Cipperly and Slabine were at the reunion and then they left and no one saw them return or knew where they went. He asked me if I'd seen Sam and I said yes. Contrary to all the Hollywood buddy movies, we had nothing else to say to each other. I could see in his eyes he was a different mana strange kind of darkness had settled in them. Looking at me from his eyes, I knew he was seeing the same harmless dreamer, a lot older, but still stuck in his tracks and going nowhere. Combat has changed him, I thought. After an embarrassed silence, Joe said he had to catch the redeye out of Cleveland to make it back to his base in California. I offered to drive him up to Columbus so he could catch whatever puddle-jumper he was taking to Cleveland, but he said no thanks.
A month later, they both turned up. That is, what was left of them did. The paper described the bodies as being in "advanced decomposition" by the time a couple deer poachers discovered them in shallow graves near Jerroe's Creek. There's an abandoned cabin ten miles outside town just down from the creek bed and everybody knew the place; we used get drunk there on the weekends. A week's rain in the mud and loam had turned their skin soapy so that it slipped off the bone when the federal agents dug them up.
A week later, I was brooding over my beer in the Red Horse and thinking about my dismal class reunion when this old geezer sat down on the stool next to me. He did light work in the hospital's pathology lab. He was known to everybody, a charity case the town maintained as a kind of duty. He started to tell me what the papers left out.
"The M.E. counted dozens of cuts, all criss-crossed, like, in the skull," he said. "Front to back, like they'd stepped backwards into a buzzsaw. I seen the knife scars when they was on the table."
"That so?" Truth is, I was glad they'd died horribly at the very moment they must have thought they had everything they ever wanted in life. In some darkness in my own twisted soul, I felt revenged by some dark force or demon passing through town.
"Warn't no crazy butcher, neither, according to the doc. No damn serial killer, like these halfwits in town is all sayin'."
"What are you saying then?"
"Them graves was too shallow, man! First rain was gonna bring them up out of the ground."
Shallow because ... he wanted them found. I thought of one of those death houses in Juárez, Mexico with the corpses of murdered victims regurgitated out of the ground.
The prevalent theory going around was they were executed for prosecuting that big drug bust last year. The Aryan Brotherhood was said to be moving a lot of meth in towns along the river, as if we didn't have enough problems already with poverty and unemployment.
"No, man," the old guy said. "No way. If this was about that drug bust, why did the killer do 'em both that way when he coulda just shot 'em both in the head and stuck 'em so deep in the ground they'd stay down for good? Ain't nothing around up there for a hundred miles in every direction but a barbed-wire fence and some coyotes."
"From what the papers said," I prodded him, "there was too much decomposition to be sure about causes of death."
"Naw, old Doc, he thinks he bled 'em out like a pair of stuck pigs. Shallow cuts so they'd bleed a long time."
Something was ticking in my brain now. I ordered shots with Jack back to get more details. In his mumbling, fractured way, he said both men were hogtied, as the M.E. assumed from the nicks he found in all four ankle bones. They never found the cords the killer used to tie them up, nor did they have any idea what the motive was.
The old man was saying, "... Then, by God, his throat was slit neat right through the trachea."
I could tell the old guy liked using that word. "How could the pathologist tell if the skin of his face was missing?" I asked him.
"Strap muscles of his neck hangin' loose, like," he said to me with a knowing wink, borrowing more grandeur from his betters. "You know, how you do them fancy ribbons into bows on a birthday present, like, with a knife?"
He told me something else that never made it into the papers. They found a bloodied tree branch which tested positive for blood and feces.
"Whew, made me sick to see 'em on the tables that way. You ever seen a bratwurst burst from the inside out on the grill? Man, I'm tellin' you"
I didn't say anything for a long time. I was thinking of something elsesomething Sam had said to me back at the reunion. Joe's sister, I remembered clearly, was cremated. There was no gravesite. There was no place to put flowers unless ...
He said you'd understand.
You can't turn back the clock. But the past is right hereit's always just inches from our foreheads. My father's mother moved in with us after her mind started to go. She used to quote the bible a lot. The Book of Revelations was her favorite. Those four riders of doom and all the evil they're supposed to bring us were always on her mind, but I tuned her out as any teenager would have.
Hell, I thought, listening to the old man next to me on his bar stool natter on about what a "terrible tragedy" it was to East Palestine that our two civic leaders were no longer around. But I was thinking it's mostly what we bring down on ourselves. As my loony grandmother used to quote whenever her mind got stuck at that crazy angle and she'd go on about famine, pestilence, and doom of one kind or another in the end of times. I could almost hear her voice: "It says right there, 'the beginnings of sorrows ...'"
I never did hear from Joe Soliday again.
Copyright © 2014 Robb White.
2011. His noir, crime, and hardboiled stories have appeared in several webzines including Sex and Murder Magazine, A Twist of Noir, Yellow Mama, and Flash Fiction Offensive. Red Giant Press of Cleveland has just brought out his first collection of literary stories: Out of Breath and Other Stories. His full-length feature script, East Palestine, won a bronze award in the action category at last year's TrindieFest in Colorado.
Robb White published his second detective fiction novel, Saraband for a Runaway, in 2013. It was preceded by Haftmann's Rules in