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Oct/Nov 2002 fiction

Trees (Illinois Noir)

by Stanley Jenkins


Artwork by Tara Gilbert-Brever

 

My people hated trees. Wasn't a tree in sight they didn't see as proof of evil ole Robin Goodfellow, dark hand of Nature, dark continence, dark indifference: meat not souls.

They cleared the land. They cleared it all. They ripped stumps from bleeding loamy loam and made the land geometric. Uh-huh. They grew the crops they wanted. They lived and prospered.

I, myself, fear them. Trees. I do not know that they love us.

 

I suppose it amounts to what you owe. What they can pin on you. Everybody has a price. A moral price. What they'll own to when it all comes down. When it all comes down and it's clear that something is going to have to be paid. When the shit came down, I copped to plenty.

 

The only thing about her that could be true was that nothing about her could be true. Linda Loring Steadman was not your ordinary girl.

When she walked into my office I immediately recognized the situation. I did not resist. I stood up and walked around the desk. She raised her cigarette to her lips. Thumbnail flick. I am holding the match. There is lipstick.

"Yes," she said, touching my hand to steady the flame, "you'll do."

She blew out the match.

I blew the smoke back in her face.

She smiled. "A man with pride?" Her eyebrows arched.

"Keep peddling it, lady. I'm buying."

 

After the Gulf War I ended up in Kankakee. I took a job with the K-Mart Distribution Center. Then with the School District. There was a wife and a house. I wasn't any good at it. I started selling real estate about the time Bourbonnais exploded. They took the prairie and the farms. Cleared it all. Anybody with any money left Kankakee. Yeah. They just left. Moved next door. They built five bedrooms and three-car garages in Bourbonnais and listened to Celine Dion on built-in home entertainment systems. Planted trees as windbreaks. Next door. I couldn't get a job in Bourbonnais. Stayed in Kankakee carrying listings nobody wanted. Once-desirable river front property. Mom and Pop cottages on quiet streets behind the tracks. Shabby farm-and-railroad-money mansions with weeds in the concrete cracks of driveways. Uh-huh. Listening to something else.

 

Her husband, Steve, was a Trust Fund Baby. Eldest and only of the scion of Kankakee. He was a Steadman. Wealthiest family in town. Owned a full third of the commercial real estate. The family. Powerful family. He'd met Linda in Vegas in the midst of a messy divorce. She was where she needed to be. He was your usual cocained-and-wreck-the-expensive-car kind of kid. But he wasn't a kid anymore. And time was running out.

Franklin Steadman--Frank--the father, riddled with prostate cancer, was an inordinately proud man and an indulgent parent. Couldn't say "no". Co-signed loans. Steve had been the first and only. They'd tried so hard to have a son. Finally had to adopt. He'd made promissory notes to his dad to pay back losses from deals gone bad. And there were a lot of deals gone bad.

Betty, the second wife, former mistress, was the problem, according to Linda. She'd replaced the first wife when Steve was fifteen. Now, a bitter, used-up woman, she spent her time drinking vodka gimlets and fantasizing revenge. She, herself, had been replaced in Frank's arms, many times over. She had stopped traffic in her day. She would surely press the notes.

 

Two weeks later. Linda pulled the sheet over her breasts. "So that's the lay," she said. "The promissory notes. The old man can't last in his condition. He's finished. The Fed took it all in the Savings and Loan deal. If he dies, there won't be anything left. And we'll… I'll… you and me… will end up paying. I've got plenty stashed away, but Steve is weak. If they find those notes we'll be on the tip. You've got to get them."

I saw the logic.

 

Betty Steadman was not unattractive. At fifty-three (her husband, Frank, was a cool seventy-six), she was handsome. But she had been beautiful. Former homewrecker. I figured I could make her remember.

I had some contacts through some colleagues. Got word around that I might have a buyer for the Steadman mansion. Decaying tennis courts. Cracked fountains. Weeds in the garden. There was no buyer.

Betty came to the door boozy and breasty.

"Won't you take a seat?"

I chose a stark leather affair. Scandinavian, circa 1973. Perhaps a relic of the earlier marriage.

"Care for a drink?"

"I never drink before noon."

"I never trust a man who doesn't drink before noon."

"I would hate for you to mistrust me."

"Scotch?"

"Make it neat."

When she came back with the drink I could smell her hair. She leaned over to make sure I got an eyeful.

I got it.

She gave me a key when I left several hours later. "You can show the house anytime you want." She dismissed me with a kiss. I had been a good boy. For several hours.

Outside, the trees, thick down by the river, did not move in the humidity. I knew how they felt. I wanted a shower. I got in my machine. Parked in the driveway. Next time I would park on the street. Around the corner. It was arranged. I could still taste her. She had been a wild woman. She had begged me to hit her. I did. She had wept against my chest. I held her. She had clawed my back. It stung. Her sad, sagging, infirm breasts. I had made her remember. I drove to the office.

 

The phone rang. It would be Linda.

"I'm in," I said.

"The notes are in the office. In the desk. In a manilla folder. Get the manilla folder."

"I'm going back on Wednesday. Frank's in Chicago."

"I love you," she said.

"Can I see you tonight."

"Be patient. I think Steve is getting suspicious."

"I want you."

"Be a good boy."

I was.

 

It was late. I'd been sleeping. The sound was the phone.

"You've got to come! Right now!"

"Linda? Where are you?"

"O God! Something terrible has happened."

"Where are you?"

"Please..."

"Linda, it will be alright. Just tell me where you are."

"I'm at the Steadman's."

I was there in twenty minutes.

 

The house was dark. Linda was sobbing quietly in the living room. The bedroom door was open. Betty lay by the bed, her face beaten to a pulp. Beside her was a bloodied bronze paperweight. It was a replica of the John Hancock Building.

"It was Steve! O God! He was crazy! I've never seen him like that. He was so coked up… I tried to stop him."

I buried her face in my chest. She trembled. She sobbed.

"It's OK, it's OK…" I whispered.

"I tried to stop him. I followed him here. I pleaded with him. You have to believe me, I never meant for this to happen."

"Shush, baby, of course not." But something was not right.

"Somehow he'd found out about you and her..."

I froze.

"About me and her?"

She said nothing.

"How did he find out about Betty and me?"

She paused.

"Oh darling, please forgive me..." She burst into sobs.

"You told him?"

"Yes, don't you see? I had to."

I didn't see.

"It's perfect. No one would ever convict you. He's a known cocaine addict."

"What?"

"Don't be so stupid. He comes for you in a jealous rage and..."

"You mean you meant for me to kill him?"

"In self-defense."

I paused. I was beginning to sense the logic.

"But why Betty? Why would he be so crazy jealous over her...?"

"You don't think she stayed at home all day and played Solitaire do you?"

Betty and Steve. I saw some more logic.

"It's been going on for months."

"And this was common knowledge?"

"As common as her," she spit out. She buried her face in her hands, sobbing suddenly. "I'm sorry, that was such an ugly thing to say... especially now."

Yes. Now. Betty's bashed in face still lay beside the bed.

"We've got to get out of here."

"No! First get the notes!"

I went into the office. Opened the drawer. The manila folder was where she said it would be. The manila folder. It seemed light.

"Quickly!" She pressed something into my hand. It was a gun. It would be registered to Steven Steadman. It would go off in a struggle. He'd be out of the way. Linda and me. We thought alike. She was just a whole lot quicker.

I smiled at her.

She smiled back.

"Just how much do you have stashed away?"

"Later, darling. We've got to find Steve."

"Yes. Steve."

 

We went to the office. Sooner or later he would show up. We sat in the dark. We waited. We waited some more. And then he came.

He seemed quite cool actually. Not like a man who had just beaten his mother-in-law lover to death with a bronze paperweight. And Linda. She didn't seem that frightened. I began to wonder. Sometimes you think you understand the con. Sometimes you're wrong.

"What's this all about Linda? I got your message," he said.

"Hello darling." He lit the cigarette she had put to her lips. "How's Betty?"

I played it cool. Waiting.

"Betty?"

"Yes, mama dearest."

"Linda... I don't understand..."

"Don't you? Surely the old man told you."

"Told me what? You're talking crazy. And who is this?"

"Just a friend, pal," I said.

He looked confused. Weary.

"So he never told you? I see. Well, he wouldn't, would he? Never mind, there will be time enough for everything."

"Linda, enough of this. I'm not playing your games anymore." He said it as if he'd said it a thousand times. As if it were just something he said anymore.

"Well, let's just see. Shall we take a ride?"

He didn't have anything. He had sold what mattered a long time ago. Whipped.

We walked to my machine parked out front.

"Linda, what's this all about?" I whispered as Steve got in the back seat.

"It's nothing darling, everything's under control."

"But..."

"Shhh..." She touched my lips. "I need a witness."

A witness. I had already bought the ticket.

In the car she turned around and handed Steve a slip of white paper.

"I brought you a present."

He didn't say anything. He rolled a bill and the powder was gone.

"Feel better?"

He didn't say anything.

"Where to?" I whispered.

"The Steadman's."

I pulled out into the Kankakee night.

 

It was a quiet ride. Through beat streets. Kids shot BB guns at streetlights. I did not think. Did not resist. You buy the ticket. You take the ride. Old Mexicans with ancient eyes sat in chairs on the sidewalk and watched the flashing yellow traffic lights. It was late. They didn't care where we were going. I took the ride.

 

When we got to the house, Steve was high. Alert.

"Come here, honey," she said without turning on the lights, "I want you to see something."

He followed.

I stayed in the living room. I saw the light go on in the bedroom. I heard the cry. I heard his howl. I heard her voice telling him something. Telling him something. He stopped howling. He'd heard something. He came from the room, his clothes all bloody. His eyes were wild and then suddenly dead.

It was as if the drug had gone to his hair. It seemed to crackle. It was ridiculously spiked and smeared with blood. The moonlight played like blonde highlights on its tips. He was clutching the bloody John Hancock. Kneading it nervously. He opened and closed his eyes. But he was already dead. Something had already killed him.

She came from the bedroom. She was smiling as if at a cocktail party. She led him to a chair and then I watched as she leaned close to him and whispered something in his ear. He tried to get up and then sat back down. He opened and closed his eyes. His dead eyes. She handed him the rubber tube. He tied it on his arm. She handed him the needle. He placed it on the vein. She nodded. He pushed the plunger and shuddered. He began to turn blue surprisingly quick. He was already gone.

"That's a good boy," she said.

 

We waited. And then we waited some more. By the time it was time to stop waiting, I wasn't surprised at all to see the old man. He didn't seem all that surprised to see us either. She'd called him. Of course. Arranged it.

 

"Hello Frank."

"Linda? It's dark in here. Who's that with you?"

"Oh don't mind him, Frank. He's a friend."

"Who's that?" He pointed to the still figure in the chair.

"Shall we turn on the light and see?"

She turned on the light.

He clutched at his chest.

"Stevie!"

"It's your son, Papa." Her words were like slaps across his frail face. It's my husband, Papa." He seemed to be reeling. "It's my brother, Papa."

The old man stared at his son. His hands. Paper-thin. They fluttered helplessly.

"I guess he couldn't stand it anymore. He seems to have given himself an overdose. I wonder what it was that he couldn't stand? Did you know that he was fucking Betty?"

The old man looked up. His face twitched. Sunken. He reached for a chair. He sat down.

"He needed an older woman to replace his mother. You remember her, don't you? Your first wife. Stella. You were married twenty years. Surely you remember her, Papa? The one who couldn't give you a son, let alone a daughter. The one who stayed at home while you fucked your ever-fertile whore in Vegas. What was the whore's name now? Let me see. B. Starts with a B..."

"Betty! No!" He sprang up as if the chair were electric. His paper-thin hands. He looked to the bedroom.

"That's right, old man. Her name was Betty. Mother of two. Although I don't remember the girl. Didn't Betty give her up for adoption? That's right. Now what were their names? The "adoptive parents"? Lorning. Yes, that's it. Your nanny and her husband. And you, old man, you didn't see her either, did you? Not until she was sixteen anyway. Sixteen. Isn't that a lovely age, old man? Aren't those little sixteen year-old girls just irresistible, old man? Set her up in Vegas, if I remember. Made her your new mistress. Just like her mama."

Very slowly, the old man began walking to the bedroom. He walked because it was there to be done. Because it was unavoidable.

He entered the bedroom.

"Oh did I forget to tell you old man?" she called after him, "Seems little Stevie killed his lover before he offed himself. Seems as if he just went crazy."

The old man came to the door.

She pulled out the manila folder. The manila folder.

She threw it at his feet. The folder opened up. Two official looking documents slid out before him. Two birth certificates. Linda Marie Steadman. Steven Alan Steadman.

"You bastard. They were there all the time. Didn't even bother to lock them up. Didn't even bother to hide them. Did you like to look at them? Did it make you feel powerful?"

"I..."

"Never thought anyone would find them? Imagine my surprise. Yes, I was looking for little Stevie's promissory notes. And all the while these birth certificates were sitting in your desk. Unlocked."

The old man stood in the doorway.

"Oh dear, who is that listed as the mother. On both certificates? Who is that old man? I can't quite make it out from here."

The old man stood limply. Riddled with cancer. Exposed. Hands paper-thin.

He mumbled something.

"What's that you say?"

He said nothing.

She turned to me. "Give me the gun."

"What are you going to do?"

"Give it to me!"

I reached into my pocket and took it out.

"Here's what you're going to do Papa. You are going to destroy those birth certificates. And then you are going to postdate and sign this statement for the police." She pulled out two pages of neatly typed script. "It says that you came home unexpectedly to find that your son had murdered your wife and daughter-in-law in a drug induced frenzy. And then you are going to shoot me with that gun."

He opened his mouth.

"Shut up, old man. You're going to shoot me until I'm dead and then you are going to live--for as long as you do live--knowing that you killed your own daughter. You are going to do it because you are proud."

He lifted his hand. And then let it fall.

"You are going to do it because I can hurt you more dead than alive now. Because you need to be hurt and I need to hurt you more than I need to live. Look at me old man! You will live knowing that your son killed your wife and his mother because of you. But you will tell no one. And you will know that your son killed himself because he found out who you really are. Your only son, old man. Heir to nothing. And you will tell no one. And it will kill you. Not the cancer, old man. But the truth. And you will live with that secret until you die. And you will tell no one. And you will die alone."

"I...."

"You will do it--or this man will tell the world what really happened."

They both looked at me. The witness.

"Don't worry," she said to me, "you'll be paid. Everything I've stashed away--it's only two and a half-million..." The old man flashed a look at her. "Yes, two and a half million--little Stevie has been bilking you for years. There is two and a half million in an off-shore account--and I've signed it over to you."

"But..." I started.

"Don't bother," she said, "you'll take it."

I opened my mouth again. The witness.

"You'll take it. You recognize the situation. You and I, we think alike."

I said nothing.

"Now give me the gun."

I looked at her.

And then I shot the old man.

 

My people would have been proud. My people who ripped stumps from bleeding loamy loam and felt virtuous. As for me--no longer virtuous--no longer with the possibility of virtue--I copped to plenty. It was my turn. Yeah. And sometimes. Sometimes we all get what we deserve.

I took the rap for the old man. Linda took the rest. There's a moratorium on the death penalty in the state of Illinois. I expect she will live a very long time. And so will I. Remembering. Witnessing.

And there will be trees. Forever.

 

We choose our evils. We choose our deaths.

 

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