The Slider, Chapter 5: Happy Independence Day

Restorative sleep. Six days of it, the window AC unit a soothing coolness against the hundred-degree temperatures threatening Missouri River environs. Thank goodness our house sat well above the valley floor. Down there it was hitting one hundred degrees for sure. Mid-nineties may not sound all that cool but five degrees of difference and a slight breeze most of the time helped a lot. Sweaty sheets? Who cares.

Finally, close to noon one fine late June day, I rolled out, ready to get back into the world. It was a slow process. Mouthwash to get the dragon out. A long soak in the tub. Clean jeans and checked shirt, the shirt being a pattern old John Cavanaugh would never have worn. Hand tooled leather belt with conchos along the back and an Augusta Rodeo 1999 Saddle Bronc Champion belt buckle in front. The Original Tom Slider really had won that buckle. My boots were custom made, cost more than four thousand dollars, but looked–deliberately–like they came out of Walmart. I gots techy feets. The bootmaker wasn’t happy about making anything so plain but he did take the money.

Otis was outside somewhere, most likely feeding the hens and collecting eggs. By the time he came back in, dripping sweat and swinging a wire basket with close to a dozen brown omelette ingredients, I was at the table, swigging down coffee and OJ, spooning up oatmeal with raisins.

“Charlie Spotter stopped by.”

“Mmph.”

“Says he’s going to slaughter a four year old today. One of those gray Charolais-Angus crosses. Gave her two chances and she never conceived. Offered us half if we want it.”

I paused with the spoon halfway to my mouth. “In this heat?”

“Yeah, I know. But he said he’ll have the carcass in that big cooler of his. Only question is, could we get it home and cut up fast enough to be safe.”

“Hm.” Cutting up a side of beef in early summer seemed a little risky, but…. “Might could. If he’s got the body heat chilled out before we take it, we could wrap everything in those shake ‘n’ bake blankets.” We’d bought a dozen at a Forest Service surplus auction sale. They had better protection for firefighters these days, or so the story went. John Q. Public wasn’t so sure about that. We’d still lost a dozen good men last year when the wind changed on the Hairy Creek fire and ran the flames right over them.

“What I was thinking.” Otis spoke with his head in the fridge, putting eggs in place. “How long you figure it’d take the two of us to slice and dice and wrap everything after we got back?”

“Good question. Been years since, let’s see. Cut, wrapped, and labeled a whole beef a few years ago in about six hours, but there were three of us, not two. One cutting, one wrapping, one labeling and placing in the freezer. And that freezer was right in the kitchen, not out in the barn like ours.”

“Easy fix.” Otis sat down, tapping his fingers on the table top, thinking. “We could just lug this kitchen table out to the barn and do the cutting there. Rig a work light. We got plenty of butcher paper and tape. A couple of Sharpies. You’ll have to do the cutting, though.”

That I knew. Turning a legally blind man loose with a set of knives and a bone saw would be a prescription for disaster.

An hour later, we were off and running, the big Dodge easing down the rutted trail, empty horse trailer clattering behind. Spotter Ranch headquarters was a mere six miles as the crow flies over the hills, presuming any crow cared to go that route. More like twenty-five miles, following what roads existed. Slightly more than an hour’s journey, one way. Charlie, in his forties, had taken over the ranch’s management after his father’s stroke. The elder Spotter still worked every day, but light duty, tending the fires at branding time but flanking no calves and certainly not pulling any calves in calving season.

They were already done with the bloody work by the time we arrived. Charlene Spotter, twenty-two and horny as an Arizona toad, greeted us at the gate. Charlene made Otis nervous, with good reason. She seemed to figure a blind man was a better target than somebody with 20-20 eyesight. Barrel chested, thick shouldered, heavy through belly and thigh, she’d never been able to snag the attention of a man who wasn’t either drunk or stoned. Her two sisters were married and gone from their parents’ home. Charlene had a two year old son and exactly zero prospects. Otis and I both felt for her but surely did not want her feeling us. She was a decent person who couldn’t help her appearance, but we’re guys and ugly counts.

A fact we both strove earnestly to conceal. Charlene didn’t deserve any more pain in her life and Charlie was a good friend.

“Dad says come on in and set a spell. The side is pretty well cooled off but another little while won’t hurt.”

“Lead on.” I tipped my hat to her, knowing I was safe because of her fixation on Otis. As long as I didn’t carry it too far.

The Spotter kitchen table made ours look sick. “You’ve already cut the other half up?” I asked, seating myself and accepting a glass of fruit punch from Mrs. Spotter. I always called her Mrs. Spotter because I kept forgetting her name. It was easy to see where Charlene got her bad looks from, but Charlie loved his woman with all his heart. She really was a good woman. It embarrassed me that I couldn’t remember…. She also made the best fruit punch I’d ever tasted and guarded her recipe as jealously as the Colonel guarding his secret blend of eleven herbs and spices.

“Nah.” Charlie grinned, a big, burly man with sloped shoulders and a strength I’d not care to test. “We’re good on meat for a while. The other half’s going to three different families. They should get here sometime tomorrow.”

Operating on Indian time, then. Charlie was a pretty punctual guy but a relative rarity on the Rez.

Back home, it took a lot longer than I’d guessed to get the job done. It was ten p.m. by the time I was washing the last implement, the hamburger grinding machine. “Good thing we splurged for an electric,” I told Otis. “Used to have to crank the old meat grinders by hand.”

He was fixing egg salad sandwiches, about all we could eat, tired as we were. It was a good kind of tired, though. “If we have to go back to grinding by hand,” he said, pausing with butter knife raised, “I’m gonna become a vegetarian.”

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COUNTY HOSPITAL ICU

“What’s the prognosis, doc?” Kermit “Coyote” Cavanaugh’s fists gripped his belt, knuckles white.

“Let’s sit down, Kerm.”

“Let’s not. You’ve known me since high school. You know I can take the news on my feet.”

“It’s not for you. It’s me that needs to sit down. As you know, I wasn’t the lead surgeon but I did still get called out in the middle of the night and work at your sister’s side for six and a half hours. You heard the Code Blue over the intercom out here?”

“Yeah.” Coyote followed the general practitioner to the row of chairs along one waiting room wall. “That was–?”

“Margie. Yes. Her heard stopped during surgery. Twice. We got the clot, she’s still with us, but it was close, Kerm. Very close.”

Cavanaugh studied the exhausted physician’s face. “What aren’t you telling me?”

Deep sigh. “Can’t pull the wool over your eyes. Never could. It’s why you’re such an effective lawyer, being able to read people like that.”

“Quit stalling, doc.”

“I am? Guess I am at that. Digging through all that…that….”

“Lard?”

“Adipose tissue. It…I wouldn’t be this forthright with anyone but you, but–”

“Go on.”

“It was a lot of haystack hiding that needle, is what I’m saying. But what I haven’t told you yet is the condition of her arterial walls. She’s…Kermit, she’s got hardening of the arteries.”

“How bad?”

“Bad. As bad as any I’ve ever seen. How bad is it? It’s so bad, I’d never allow her to go for an exercise stress test to measure heart function because the test itself could kill her on the spot. Her cholesterol is through the roof. Her diabetes is raging out of control; her blood sugar levels swoop and dip and spike with no warning.”

Kermit Cavanaugh turned gray, no color in him at all. His big sister…okay, his really big sister could drop dead at any moment, the way this sounded. He hadn’t even considered the other ramifications until the doctor spoke again.

“I can put her on ACE inhibitors that may help, but without drastic lifestyle changes–more gentle exercise, less yummy Pizza Hut–the prognosis is not good. But even with that, she’s got to get her stress down. You know what the last thing she said was, before going under? She said she had to track down her expletive expletive expletive father. That’s what she said. She was a frog hair from meeting her maker and all she could think about is cussing out John Cavanaugh. We were barely able to get her blood pressure down after she was unconscious. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

Kavanaugh the Younger felt a triple rush of fury blowing through his own bloodstream. Even knowing the family for so long didn’t give this pill pusher the right to preach at them like that. Coyote fought through the red haze, trying to find words, entirely unaware that Dr. Adam Kirschner saw something in his eyes that chilled him to the bone. Triple fury. Kill the sawbones. Kill old John. Kill–

Dimly, he became aware Kirschner had returned to his patient. Dimly, the -whoosh- of the revolving door registered as he slammed through, out into the street, Death on the hoof. Sunshine. Heat. A young couple headed in, husband instinctively putting his body between his extremely pregnant wife and the psycho striding down the sidewalk.

In the recovery room, Margaret Cavanaugh Jones was still deep under, struggling with every breath. Dr. Kirschner stopped by every chance he got. He hadn’t told Kermit they’d had to intubate or that even then it was all the machine could do to keep her oxygen levels up in the normal range. I’ve never assisted with major surgery on anyone this heavy, he thought. I’m still scared half to death. One of the rhyme-making tricks he used to stay awake during boring college lectures reared its head, spitting out the latest.

Cavanaugh could eat no fat
His sis could eat no lean
Margie defined obesity
Coyote turned plumb mean

T. S. Eliot he would never be.

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FROM A DOCTORAL THESIS IN APPLIED PSYCHOLOGY
(Published in The Wacky and the Weird, Vol. 6. Reprinted with permission.)

“…The Barbell pattern terminology is used to describe serial killers who have multiple confirmed kills in two or more “spurts” of homicidal behavior with two or more decades between bursts. Killers whose nonlethal time was spent in prison were excluded from the study. It is theorized that the Barbell murder pattern is triggered by extreme external stress factors as opposed to the internal drives, compulsions, and needs of the more common Bead pattern psychopaths known to fiction writers and movie makers. It is further theorized that for Barbell killers, an external soothing factor is present during the “bar” period of inactivity. When that ESF (external soothing factor) is not present or suddenly removed, depriving the killer of “safe space,” the “bells” aka multiple murders rapidly manifest….”

Editor’s note: The above thesis was rejected by the doctoral committee. The applicant was told to rewrite the entire thesis, using professional wording, not “loosey-goosey layman’s prose.” (Direct quote.) The applicant flipped the committee a pair of birds, left the campus, and went to Hollywood, eventually becoming a Director of lackluster films with clunky plots and actors who made the likes of Jack Lord and William Shatner look good.

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TOM SLIDER

It took me another few days to fully recover from the meat cutting work. At least I hadn’t nicked myself with a knife, but maybe, just maybe, it really did take a little longer to bounce back at ninety-eight than it had when I was nineteen. Ya think?

Even so, there was work to be done and I did it. It occurred to me that a goodly percentage of my out-of-shapeness was just that. Sure, muscle recovery took longer than it used to, but if I did some real work more days than not, I might find out that age really is just a number. In which case, now being “officially” fifty-five, age was no excuse.

We had no phone out here, neither landline nor cell, mostly by choice. But the end of the month was coming up and we needed to get Otis’s pottery out to our various contracted outlets before the Fourth of July celebrations hit South Dakota. That meant loading up the horse trailer, each pot or vase individually wrapped to protect it from its neighbors as well as rough-road hazards. I was the road man; Otis would be staying at the ranch. Using the word “ranch” loosely, of course. Two horses, a small flock of laying hens, and one dog didn’t amount to much, but if the real estate world could call four acres with your neighbor’s elbow hitting your ribs a ranchette, we might as well pretend, too.

Otis had worked with clay since he was a toddler, even producing crude pieces during his homeless years. Which is quite a trick, but he’d done it. The man had a master artist’s feel for the flow of slickened clay spinning under his hands. He produced gems that looked like various animals or birds even before they were fired and painted, using his sense of touch to guide him, sometimes working with his damaged eyes completely closed. Then I’d come along with my white man’s idea. We both admired the Najavo trick of blending horsehair into the finished work, producing unique and valuable swirl-patterns that were unique in this world. So I’d set to thinking. It wouldn’t be kosher to copy the Navajo way. Might not even be legal. Certainly would stir up hard feelings. Plus, who wants to be a copycat? Happily, Otis didn’t mind including my white man idea into his masterpieces. Instead of horsehair, he began experimenting with metal flake, the kind of sparkly stuff you see in metallic auto paints. When he started feeling comfortable with plain old shiny aluminum, he thought, why not use some of the anodized stuff mixed with the plain?

The results were stunning. Green stars with curved streams of depth and sparkle winding to the earth. Eagles with bright spots in their eyes that changed with the light, convincing viewers that a paint-on-clay bird was alive, a fierce raptor scanning for prey. Girls’ faces with big sparkly eyes. Winding rivers that shone blue one moment, green another, sparkle-light always. No two were alike. All were salable.

But we couldn’t sell at the Reservation’s casino. There was a Native American shop there, potential sales could have been outstanding, but competing with the lifelong local residents seemed like a politically unwise move. We didn’t need to stir up enmity. Besides, the purists didn’t consider S=W (Slider-Wise) pottery to be culturally correct, and they were right about that. Most of all, our products made the local stuff look really anemic.

Yes, “our.” Otis was teaching me to throw pots. Slowly. I never claimed to be the quickest student in any class. But I did have a feel for the wheel. I didn’t dare start turning out steel goods with my lathe, not with my former identity being known for his work as a machinist.

It took us all day to get the load right. I headed out early the next morning. Three days later, the trailer was empty, all of our existing accounts had been restocked, and two new accounts had agreed to take half a dozen pots each on a trial basis. It was early evening when I wrapped myself around a steak at the Outback Restaurant in Sioux Falls. Perusing the Argus Leader newspaper, I stumbled across a little ad in the entertainment section. Comedy Club, live acts.

What the hey. It had been a good week. I’d collected more than three thousand dollars from the various locations. Being sneaky like Otis and I were, we could rig the books to launder about twice that, getting some of old John Cavanaugh’s assets back into action. Tom Slider, I decided, loved standup comedy.

Tom Slider also knew enough to stay away from the down-front seats. Not every comedian ropes an audience member into his act or heckles people before they can heckle him–or her–but enough do to make those close-to-the-stage seats about as attractive as volunteering in the Navy. So I found a seat well back from the stage but close enough to hear.

The first act was okay but the headliner had us from the get-go. A woman, and not a young one, either. Well groomed, but nothing could completely hide the age lines in her face and neck. Snow white hair. Deceptively innocent brown eyes behind medium thick glasses with crimson frames. Plenty of pep in her step, at least when she was on stage. She strode to the podium, grabbed the microphone, and dove right into it with her signature phrase: “The things you learn!”

“The things you learn! I went to the senior center the other day for lunch. Once. But I’ll never go again. I found out it was full of old people!”

I laughed right along with the rest of the room. I knew exactly what she meant.

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AT THE HOSPITAL

Kermit Cavanaugh finally had his savage Coyote nature subdued. He strode down the hall, heading for the ICU. Margie was out of recovery, trying to find a balance between pain and whatever analgesics they were pumping into her, but she was conscious. She wouldn’t be able to talk, they said, because of the tube. But she’d know he was there, and that was all that mattered.

Dr. Kirschner saw him coming and stopped, figuring to have a word. He could see the rage had left Cavanaugh, at least for now. He raised a hand in a Halt, Whoa! motion. Margaret’s brother blew right on by, cranked a hard right through the door leading to the ICU waiting room, and punched his Relative Waiting For Somebody To Unlock code in at the far door, the one leading into the unit proper. He was still standing there, starting to fume afresh, when the physician spoke from behind him. “I’m sorry, Kermit.”

Cavanaugh wheeled, his Coyote nature easing up out of its den, hackles raised, snarling silently. He knew. There would only be one thing that could get Adam Kirschner to say, “I’m sorry, Kermit.”

Margie had died during the time it took her brother to walk from the nurses’ station through the hallways and around a couple of corners to the ICU.

All color was gone from the world. Her husbands, his wives, none of them understanding the strength of the bond between siblings, so those exes were all exes now. Stronger than steel, each other’s prime anchor point in this world of sorrow, pain, betrayal, greed, lust, rage, and general misery. Stronger than anything except…except Death itself. Once again, he had failed her. Three of her worst abusers he had terminated, each sexual predator at least five times the size of his puny stalker. Trouble was, three hadn’t been enough. He’d have needed to shoot ten times that many with his mother’s little .22 to make a dent in the endless flow of slobbering men their Slut Mommy had brought home to prey on her daughter. True, he’d only been a seven year old kid, but a pistol doesn’t much care how many years a trigger finger has lived. Or in his case back then, two trigger fingers.

To anyone else, three would have been an impressive number, but not to Kermit Theodore Cavanaugh.

To K.T.C., the world no longer wore bright colors, no pastels, not even fifty shades of gray. To K.T.C., the world, especially now and forevermore, the world was stark black and white.

But there were different gradations of stark black, visible only to the trained eye of the man who would someday become known as the Barbell Killer. No one had ever suspected him in the deaths of those first three men, his first Bell, because of his extreme youth and also because of his extreme cunning. Now, with his Bar gone, lacking the one stabilizing force that had held his murderous tendencies in check for nearly fifty-seven years, he would kill. He would search, too. He had investments, nothing like the Old Geezer had, but enough that he could keep the $50,000 reward for John Cavanaugh’s reappearance in place and still take a year’s sabbatical from his real estate law-sharking. At sixty-four, he was ripe for retirement anyway.

First, he had to make sure Margie got a proper sendoff. Proper recognition from the world that had battered her from the beginning. He would see to that, start making calls, set the wheels in motion.

Then he would begin his true mission, the Unholy Grail being the discovery, torture, and eventual dismemberment of the clueless yahoo who’d sired them both. The Coyote snapped at the gaping hole in his own heart.

Old John Cavanaugh, though he had no way of knowing it, had pulled his disappearing act in the nick of time. For now. One thought ran ceaselessly through his son’s damaged brain. I will find him.

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KAT’S THOUGHTS

Excerpt form Kat’s Thoughts (katthoughtsonline.blogspot.com), Friday, May 18, 2012, titled BEWARE OF BLAMERS!!!

This blamer (narcissist/negative person) can appear to be very caring, charming, interested in you and others when you first meet them. It is not until later that you realize this relationship with this person is a nightmare from hell. BEWARE: this blamer is the most destructive narcissist/negative person you can ever deal with, which will bring negative thinking and behavior into you and your life. This person will bring you anguish and distress as long as you associate with them. This blamer can make you feel as though something is wrong with you, and if you were a better person or smarter or nicer or just did the right things, then the relationship between you and the blamer would be better. WRONG, WRONG, WRONG!!! In dealing with the blamer you will come out feeling like it is all your fault, causing you depression, self loathing and self destructive tendencies. RUN, RUN, RUN!!!

John Cavanaugh (aka Tom Slider) had never read Kat’s Thoughts. If he had, though, he would have given the author a nod of recognition and respect.

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TOM SLIDER

Exhaustion caught up with me a few miles west of Sioux Falls on I-90. I kept going, slapping my own face, hunting for a decent AM talk radio show, staying sort-of awake until the next rest stop, then pulled in, parked, and conked out without even going to the restroom or tipping the seat back. My kidneys hammered me back to at least zombie level of wakefulness three hours later. Barely made it to the urinal, my boots planted in a puddle of other men’s stale pee. Either the drain wasn’t working right or there’d been a whole herd of drunks come through here.

Detour through the grass on the way back to the truck, let the vegetation wipe my boots clean. Or cleaner, anyway. Oh, what a relief it is.

On second thought, back to the vending machines, grab a plastic bottle of barely cool Dr. Pepper, and hit the road. I was awake now.

The AM channel had become as meaningless as the buzz of a stray bumblebee by the time I’d lost consciousness. No idea what show had been on. But now it was a recognizable host, one I could tolerate.

Until he mentioned my daughter’s name. “Y’all recall the elusive John Cavanaugh story, the missing multimillionaire with his family offering a $50,000 reward for any sightings leading to his safe return? Concern for the ninety-eight year old man’s safety, the story goes, but it looks like his offspring–two siblings, sister Margaret Jones and brother Kermit Cavanaugh–perhaps should have been worried more about their own health and security. Kermit has just put out a press release announcing the death of his sister due to complications following emergency heart surgery. Now folks, dear listeners, far be it from me to wonder about such things, but could that leave poor grieving Kermit as the sole heir to his missing father’s millions? That would depend on the provisions in the will, right? And there’s no proof the inventor of the Bracket Torque line of machine tools is dead yet.

“In other news, the crisis at our nation’s southern border continues to worsen while Democrats continue to swear at the top of their lungs that there is no crisis….”

I switched it off.

Margie dead. Poor overweight, troubled Margie. Dead. It couldn’t be a surprise, could it? Not with 300 pounds of pure lard loading down a once-energetic 150 pound body. How did anyone even carry 450 pounds around, day in, day out? She’d been a walking advertisement for oversized caskets for decades. So…why this lump of lead in my chest? I remembered four of the Five Stages of Margie with painful clarity.

Stage One: Age birth till five. Bright, inquisitive, cheerful, a beam of purest sunshine, Daddy’s Girl all the way.

Stage Two: Data missing, as I was missing during the War. Naval deployments in the South Pacific, long and sometimes bloody. I knew my Stage during those years. Machinist’s mate, laboring over lathes, turning out parts and tools, bonding with most of my crewmates, fighting nearly to the death with others, all of us manning whatever guns we could reach in that last battle before the ship went down. The Japs had strafed us in the water. Blood everywhere. Sharks having a feast. Official records list our losses at three hundred-plus men. They do not record the number of nightmares. My worst enemy on the ship saved my life that day, or I saved his. Afterward, neither of us could remember which way it went. We decided it didn’t matter. Swore to stay in touch after mustering out. Which we did until he was knifed to death in a drunken barroom brawl three years later. Yes, I knew my Stage during those years.

But I did not know Margie’s, my only link with home the rare letters from her mother and the two childish scrawls from young Margaret Cavanaugh herself, asking when I was coming home. What was her life like during those years? I never figured it out for sure. I only knew Stage Three Margie was not the Stage One charmer I’d left behind after we got hit at Pearl Harbor.

Stage Three: Nine years old when I came home for good. And it was good; too many good men didn’t come home at all, except to be buried. But Margie…she’d become a terrible flirt, exuding sexuality, rubbing herself against the corner of any available chair or table until she was caught at it and corrected.

Stage Four: As a young woman. Boyfriends galore, ninety percent of them noticeably older than my little girl. Most of them obvious horndogs any streetwise adult could identify at a glance. She was trim. She was hot. When she was sixteen, her mom and I caught her once, returning home with her panties in her pocket after leaving with a boy in a panel van to “go have a Coke.” No, not that kind of coke. I didn’t think. But she’d become the poster girl for promiscuity, heels as round as the orbit of the Earth. Stage Four carried her through her twenties and a series of husbands, all of whom left the relationship poorer than when they’d started.

Stage Five: From age thirty on, too much weight to catch the big fish any more but still out there swinging. More and more poundage. Less and less sunshine flowing from her eyes. By the time of her passing, she’d been on a downhill slide for thirty-six years.

Had I failed her? Probably. Somehow. Had she failed herself? Sure seemed like it. I could only hope her next life would be a better one. I rubbed my eyes. Just to get the matter out of them, you know. Certainly not to wipe away tears. Having outlived my own child, I drove on through the night, pensive. Grieving. A ghost in the wilderness, a whisper on the wind. And wide, wide awake. It was well after midnight. July 4th, then. Happy Independence Day.