CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
The money was from a corporation, if that makes any difference to you, and not enough to buy everything we wanted. Figure the ten years squirreling away small bills, then some time to find the right hideout, and then another few years before the detective started snooping around the compound. We bought a place in the hills, a chain link fence and series of outbuildings and ragged gardens, a compound. That’s a hard and ugly word. It suited the place. All we cared about was not having to work for the corporation anymore.
Now we’ll tell you about the detective who glided across the mud field outside the main gate in her little coupe.
“Can we help you?”
“My name is Detective Suenaga and these are my questions and these are my suspicions and the evidence and blah-blah …”
You think it went like that? Wrong. She never said she was a detective. She walked around the other side of the chain link and drank from a water bottle. “A terrible thing has happened to me today,” she said. “I’ve lost my animal.”
“What kind of animal?” we asked.
“It’s a horrible thing to lose. They become like members of the family over time. Do you have any yourself,” she glanced around the compound, “or have any favorite animals?”
This is why she was a great detective: I still wake up with knee pain from an incident with a dog when I was twelve and have never quite been able to forgive those beasts. Most other detectives would have said they were out looking for their dog. And I would not have given a damn. But she got me talking about my preferences, how I was a cat person. On the fly she concocted a plausible story about visiting the vet’s office and the carrier unlatching on the side of the road and two cats escaping near here. That got her inside the compound.
Picture this little thing in a pantsuit talking about cats, a professional black pantsuit but still real clingy, you know the type, wandering around our half-dead gardens and junked engines until she got to the nicest building on the premises. “Who lives here?” she asked.
Rondell, the one who organized and orchestrated all this. He was a natural leader or boss so it irked him even more than the rest of us to take orders from a heartless corporation. “Rondell’s in there, but you need an appointment if you want to see him.”
“What if I knock on the door?”
The question was still under consideration while the pantsuit swished away and began knocking on the door. Rondell opened up.
Before we get to what he said, how he responded to her questions about cats that if you were listening closely seemed to be about more than cats, we need to tell you what time of day it was. For these specific hours every afternoon Rondell napped. Even if you didn’t know his schedule, you could tell by the state of his hair, once he opened the door, that he’d been seriously asleep in there. His big meaty fists screwed into his eyes while he muttered some hard words you don’t usually say around ladies, so we won’t repeat them here. If you’d ever made the mistake of waking Rondell prematurely, then you were prepared to be cussed out like this.
One more thing before we move on: we never got him on a scale but he had to be at least three hundred, is why we let him talk to us like that, like we were beneath him. We don’t believe in giants—there are no such things as giants—but Rondell had the sort of presence where it didn’t matter what you believed in, where everything seemed less obvious.
“Well, well …” Yeah, we know what you’re thinking, but he was the sort of guy who could get away with saying “Well, well …”
Then: “You didn’t tell me you were bringing me one of these.” Rondell looked at Suenaga like there was nobody around to see the way he was looking at her. “Hmmm. Does she have a name?”
He was talking to me, but Detective Suenaga said, “The name is Jenny Sims.”
The other thing about Rondell is that he was as big a bullshit artist as Detective Suenaga and right away concocted this story about some cousin who was also named Jenny and wore pantsuits and how much he missed her, dearly, since God asserted his rights to her pretty soul. Does that really work, telling a woman she reminds you of a dead cousin? Maybe it’s all about Rondell’s delivery, the slow deep voice only giants like him can do. We were inside his place now. He turned and gave me a look, like, Get the fuck out of here and let me give little Jenny what she came for.
While he was glaring at me Jenny slipped the folder off his desk. I didn’t see it happen. He didn’t see it happen. But it had to have happened sometime and I can’t think of another opportunity.
That was the beginning, the folder. We didn’t even know he kept a folder or what was inside, and we’ll tell you more about that when we have time, but right now Detective Suenaga was walking back to her car. I was about ten feet behind her, and Rondell, confused, was about ten feet behind me. He shouted something like where are you rushing off to, sweet thing, and it sounded extra loud to me because I was caught in the middle and his level of volume was meant for the detective farther away.
Suenaga slid through the fence and opened her car door. “Thank you so much,” she said to me, ignoring Rondell, “but my cat isn’t here and I must continue the search elsewhere.”
That was her only mistake. She said cat, when earlier she said there were two cats. Why didn’t I notice the mistake until now? Well, at the time I was starting to feel something for her—you can think of it like a crush, though I’d not choose that word myself or let you believe it was more than a normal physical ache. What I liked was how she ignored Rondell. At the end she was focusing on me. Rondell always got most of the attention. He was twice anyone’s size and sometimes knocked me or the other men down for no reason. We had to pop back up smiling and pretend we didn’t mind being knocked down by the giant, like this was a game both parties had agreed to and the rules were being observed. Then he would pull us into a hug and rub our heads like we were children.
So I’ll admit it, I started thinking about Suenaga. I got this idea in my head. Like maybe she might come back. Intuition, maybe, I don’t know, but I wanted to fix the place up if she ever did return. What a dump we had allowed it to become! I was thinking, though it had never seemed to matter one way or another before Suenaga came by.
So I talked to some other guys and got a few of them to help. They had no idea it was all for Suenaga: we dragged the old wheels into one corner, found enough tarp to cover most of the engine collection, and bought some garden fertilizer and pesticides and as many packets of seeds as we could afford after buying the other things. What did we spend the rest on? Paint, lots of white paint, and if you’re ever living in an ugly dump you should remember how much difference this can make.
Rondell supervised, as usual, because if it wasn’t for his plan, he liked to remind us, none of this would be possible, we’d still be busting our humps for a corporation that called us by a string of numbers when they wanted us to heel, that hardly even spoke to us unless it was over the intercom, but we were our own bosses now, he liked to say, though obviously there was another boss on top of those bosses, named Rondell.
Did Suenaga come back? Think about it: there wouldn’t be a story unless Suenaga came back. But to travel back and forth to the compound while she built her case, she needed an excuse. Me.
That’s why I’m telling the story and not one of the others. She knew I liked her—she was a detective after all. Today she came by wearing a yellow T-shirt and jeans. I’ve seen plenty of women dressed like that or better, so the way my heart was jumping had nothing to do with her outfit. “Did you ever find your cats?” I asked her.
“Yes,” she said.
“Well, I’m glad. I’m awful glad.” What else was I supposed to say? I hadn’t flirted with any women since I started skimming money from the corporation, putting locks everywhere, looking over my shoulder all the time, suspecting everybody, waking up each morning expecting that to be the morning they found out. “Yeah, cats are rascals and damn noisy when they’re in heat but I’ve always liked having them around.”
When she asked if we had any in the compound I said no, there was a no-pets policy but that wasn’t written in stone and maybe we’d have a few someday.
“A no-pets policy?” Her face—mainly her nose—screwed up in a cute way. “Let me guess—Rondell.”
I laughed, a little. “You guessed it.” Nobody was watching us so I turned serious all of a sudden and said, “Be careful around him, Jenny.”
“Be careful? Around Rondell? Is he planning …”
“No, no, nothing premeditated, just watch your ass around him is all, and if he does pull anything funny then you just holler my name and I’ll—”
“I’ll do what I can,” I whispered.
When I was younger, I was the kind of guy who fell in love and chased off some girls who didn’t believe a human being could feel love within twenty-four hours of meeting someone. That’s why from Suenaga’s perspective I probably looked empty, a shell of a man. It was an act. I knew how to act now. I probably looked the same way I look when I’m waiting for toast to pop up from the toaster and I’m not even hungry, I’m making the toast for someone else. “Will I ever see you again?” I asked out of nowhere.
“Do you want to see me again?”
“Yeah.” Damn. I had not meant to show my cards like that. “Yeah, I do.”
She just shrugged and put on her sunglasses and said—well, I don’t remember what she said because she was smiling and it was like a shaft of light came out of her mouth and spun me around. I’ve never explored feelings like this before so I don’t know if that will make sense or not. This smile was nothing like any of the fake detective smiles she gave before.
Something else about Suenaga, and I didn’t find this out until the very end. But she was forty-two! That was not too much younger than me.
Well, after she drove off that day I started thinking about Rondell’s no-pets policy and rounded up some of the other guys to express my concerns and get us like-minded on this one. Why not have some pets around here? We didn’t have any serious allergies among us, it was only Rondell who had allergies. He told us even the thought of repealing his no-pets policy made his nose itchy. He pretended like some random piece of paper fished from his jeans was a prescription for allergy medication.
“My condition is degenerative and unremitting,” Rondell said. He spoke like that sometimes, turning to leave, like if we didn’t exactly know what the words meant it would automatically dismiss the matter. We pushed him down, a whole bunch of us from one side.
No, wait a minute, it was two nights later when I brought in the cat, Checkers, and he took the cat by the throat—that was when we pushed him down. He tried to fight us one by one but we just piled on him and focused on the balls until he gave up. “Things are going to be different around here,” we said.
“It was my plan,” the giant said from the ground, folded to protect his sensitive areas in case we started up again. “It was my plan that made all of this possible, all of this, my plan and my intelligence! You cannot—”
But we just left him there and went off to play with Checkers. We had made our point. Things were changing around here—and it was Suenaga who had set everything in motion. Did Rondell realize it was Suenaga who, at the most basic level, dethroned him? Well, we were going to find out. Next morning rolled around and that black dot was her coupe tooling silently up the hills.
“The compound looks better each time I visit,” Suenaga said. We were walking past the freshly painted main hall, or what used to be Rondell’s place. We showed her the new gardens and she called them lovely and something else, I think bountiful, and hearing her say that became our motivation to work extra hard on the gardens and earn more compliments on her next visit.
Where was Rondell during all this? Lurking, but you should remember that a pack of us was trailing Suenaga as she walked through the compound—we had no idea she was trying to send us all to prison—and when Rondell brought up this very possibility later that night, we really let him have it. Suenaga was the one source of brightness at this compound. She noticed our smallest efforts, like the quality of paint strokes. We hadn’t even understood how good a job we had done until Suenaga revealed these minor details. We weren’t going to let Rondell bad-mouth her. So, yes, let him have it means physical aggression, because that’s the only way to get through to someone like Rondell.
Every time Suenaga came by, Checkers would jump off the stone wall erected around one of the gardens and headbutt her ankles. Suenaga spent several minutes regarding the new wall and praising us accurately. It didn’t feel like flattery, it felt like this really was a wall of more than ordinary significance. That day she had something for us in a little paper bag.
“You won’t tell us what’s in there?” we said.
A surprise. All right. Let’s think about what it could be. Weed?
No, we couldn’t guess something like that even if it was the right size and the kind of paper bag weed dealers used. We wanted to be better men around Suenaga, classier.
But then she opened the paper bag and we exchanged glances with each other because it looked like weed. Still, none of us said that. We respected her too much. Checkers pounced on the discarded paper bag and tried to shove his head inside. “I make this tea myself,” she explained. “A hobby of mine. Don’t expect it to be superior to the fine tea shops, like Haverford’s, but I do hope you men like it.”
We didn’t know what Haverford’s was and had been used to a particularly biting coffee, a thick slurry one of the men perfected during the war. Compared to that, the tea was like sour water that disappeared before the sourness could bother you much. We wouldn’t say that we liked it, necessarily, but it came from Suenaga. Anyone who stood up and claimed it tasted like piss was a dead man.
Where was Rondell during our tea party? Well, we had five or six more cats now and it turns out he wasn’t kidding about his allergies, but the upside was that Rondell was so groggy from his prescription meds that it was easy to push him around. He had gone from the very top to a bottom where he was continually sneezing and rubbing his eyes against his sleeve. He kept to the outskirts of the compound now. He probably wanted to leave but knew what would happen when we eventually tracked him down. Nobody who shared our secret could ever leave the compound.
If you’re half the detective Suenaga was, then you’ve figured out that she was only going to visit us and stroll around our compound until she figured out where the money was buried. Honestly, we’d rather not talk about that and what happened after. It was the end of the compound, and Rondell, at least, probably didn’t mind being hauled off to prison. You can hold a cancerous grudge against someone like Suenaga, a fist in your chest that won’t ever unclench or get smaller.
There’s another way to think about it. Those days when she came to visit were the best days we can remember. When we die, and if there’s a tunnel of memories we shuttle through or whatever, it’ll be built with those days.
But there’s something else you should know about Suenaga. She has been coming to visit me in here. She comes every week. I don’t care if you believe me or not, but go check the visitors’ sign-in. I made a list of reasons why she could possibly keep visiting and a few of them are pretty embarrassing, so I’ll never show the list to anyone.
Rob Walsh is the author of Troublers, a collection of stories.