Friday, January 15, 2010

Cleaning Up, by Jude Hardin

By 2:00 A.M. everyone except the enormously-fat Claude Barlow had left the party. Everyone except Claude and me, that is.

Or is it Claude and I? I can never remember. Miss Apel, my seventh-grade English teacher, tried and tried to drill all that crap into my head, but it never seemed to stick. Poor Miss Apel. She would get so frustrated sometimes. Her eyes would bulge and her face would turn the shade of a ripe tomato, and she would say, “Gordon Malicat, if I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a million times…” And she had. She had told me a million times. But it still never seemed to stick. It’s not that I’m stupid or anything; I just get preoccupied sometimes. I’m not stupid. She thought I was stupid, but I’m not.

I stabbed Miss Apel to death and threw her body in a dumpster.

I used a wooden ruler, one end wrapped with electrical tape and the other sharpened to a point on the sidewalk. It took some persistence to penetrate the flesh deeply enough, but I was strong for my age. I went at it like a roofer hammering shingles, really putting my shoulder into it. A knife or an ice pick or something would have been easier, but she was one of them, and it had to be wood.

It had to be wood.

Anyway, all that’s ancient history. That was back in seventh grade, when I was still just a kid. I’m eighteen now, and I have my own place and everything.

Claude Barlow owns the Mexican restaurant where I bus tables. Prick. Last night, before the restaurant closed and the private party started, he called me into the bar while I was trying to finish a four-top practically painted with salsa. He motioned for me to have a seat on the stool next to him.

“Can I buy you a drink?” he said.

That was the kiss of death. Whenever Mr. Barlow called you into the bar, motioned for you to have a seat on the stool next to him, and then offered to buy you a drink, it meant he was going to fire your ass. New Year’s Eve or not. I tried to play it cool, even though I knew what was coming.

“I’m only eighteen,” I said.

“Oh. Well, listen. Remember when I talked to you a while back about speeding up your actions? About getting out of here on time?”

“Can I help it if a bunch of filthy slobs eat here?”

“Yeah. Well, Gordon, I’m afraid we’ve decided to let you go.”

“Let me go where?” I was in smartass mode by this point.

“You can get your final paycheck next Friday.”

I untied my apron, wadded it up, threw it on the floor on my way out.

I had my own little party in my apartment, just me and a pint of Jack. I watched the ball drop on TV. I still had that good old ruler from seventh grade, hidden in the bottom of my underwear drawer. I got it out. He was one of them, all right. No doubt about it.

At 1:30 I drove back to the restaurant. The lot was empty except for Claude Barlow’s Cadillac. I parked by the service entrance. The metal door back there hadn’t been secured for the night, and the alarms hadn’t been set. I walked right in.

Claude was on the black leather settee in his office, passed out drunk. It looked like someone had propped him up in a sitting position, maybe to keep him from drowning in his own puke. He wore a silver party hat and there was a helium-filled balloon tied to his left pinky.

I picked up a half-empty flute of champagne and splashed it on his face. His eyes startled open, as if a switch had been flipped.

“Can I buy you a drink?” I said.

He never got the chance to answer.

When I got home I washed the ruler and put it back in my underwear drawer. You never know when you might need something like that. You never know when you might run into another one of them.


Erica Orloff said...

I like the "one of them" mystery, this sort of mythology that he has created for his killings. Like that. The "it had to be wood." There are some gem lines in here.

I think for me, even though it's short, I found myself in spots lapsing out of the story because the voice was inconsistent. At the outset, I thought this had some "Flowers for Algernon" type moments. [Repetition of the "stupid," and the way he recalled the memory very childlike there.] And when he says he has his "own place and everything." That voice is very youthful, almost naive, and I liked it. Sort of child-man.

But then there was this other voice ["four-top practically painted with salsa"] that sounded like a writer. The voice would just lapse into something else. I even stumbled on "ripe tomato" as opposed to "really red" the way a child-man-memory would recall it. The "half-empty flute" . . . again, I don't know who he is. Man-child or angry adult with sophisticated vocabulary.

So I think overall . . . VERY cool concept of a killer. I think I would have rather seen the man-child throughout with the mythology he created . . . for me, it would have worked because that element was very, very strong.

Jude Hardin said...

Good points, Erica. Thanks!

With these stories it's useful to find principles we can apply to our larger works, and consistency of voice is certainly one of them.

LurkerMonkey said...

I liked it ... I thought it had a nice rhythm once it settled into its groove. I see what Erica is saying about the voice shift; I think it might be partly a function of the transition between the backstory and the present story. In the backstory part, the voice is definitely more childish than the present telling.

I liked especially when he threw the champagne in his boss's face. Nice touch.

Merry Monteleone said...

I liked the idea, and the way the character explains it to himself. It's not him, he's not a killer, he has to because they're 'one of them'. That was really a cool concept - interesting all around to take the whole vampire slayer thing but the mc is delusional.

The thing that did bother me was the ruler. I liked that it had to be wood and I get where the ruler came in, as his first victim was his teacher, but I don't think it's possible to kill someone with a school grade ruler and have it still be intact when you're done. I have trouble believing you could sharpen it enough on the concrete to even plunge it in past the sternum. If it splintered and broke but still did the job, I might go along with you, I just couldn't buy that he did the job, cleaned up the ruler and saved it in good enough condition to kill someone else.

Natasha Fondren said...

I had trouble with the ruler, too, but if the story could make it believable, I think that's awesome. I loved the ruler touch.

"Let me go where?" CRACKED me up. Hah!

This read fast and lively for me; I loved it. I loved it all, really. Very entertaining and real and vivid.

Melanie Avila said...

I normally don't read paranormal but I am now, so the need to use a wooden weapon to kill the others sparked all kinds of ideas for me.

Everyone else touched on points I would mention, so I'll just say nice work!

Jude Hardin said...

Thanks for the kind words, everyone.

As for the ruler shank...

Who knows?

Heather Kelly said...

Okay--I wish I hadn't just read this ;-)

I'm going to spend the rest of my day trying to get this out of my head.

So, well done.