The moments of lucidity were rarer and rarer, but when they came, he regaled me with tales of swallowed teeth, basement brawls, and AIDS tests administered at midnight in ramshackle midtown health ... [+]
Truth, Justice, and the American Way
Once you become visible, it's hard to disappear into the shadows again, but Hank White was doing his level best. His life depended on it. People looked right through you when you were flipping pancakes and frying bacon behind the counter of a greasy spoon. When you worked with a looker like Margie, you faded even more. Who was going to notice the fry cook when the waitress looked like she could be starring opposite Rock Hudson? Who'd expect anything to happen in a run-down 24-hour diner with cracked vinyl seats and linoleum worn flat by the years? Hank ran his dirty rag down the length of the pitted counter and worried.
Three years in Nowhere, Iowa, and he hadn't gotten a second glance, so the guy in the corner booth really bothered him. He was a small fellow, kind of jumpy, tiny little eyes, and hands that were always fidgeting, as if he were crumpling up invisible wads of paper. Most people who weren't local were just stopping in for food or coffee. This guy was parked, the only customer in the place for hours. He fiddled with the little tabletop jukebox, too, that teenybopper music. Hank didn't like the rock and roll himself, was glad that Ike had drafted Elvis. Maybe it would keep him off the radio. Frank Sinatra was more his style.
The squirrely fellow kept glancing his way, quickly at first, then a couple of good hard stares when he thought Hank wasn't looking. Hank was looking. He hadn't made it this long without looking. You had to be aware to survive. All this time and he might not escape hanging. He had to be so careful all the time. One little mistake and his past would catch up with him. Had he meant to do it? He didn't think so, but sometimes he wondered. The cops didn't see it that way. He'd run, and they'd taken that as a confession.
Not only was the little guy looking, but he was writing things down in a big black book. Hank should have expected it. He didn't belong in the boondocks, and it must have showed. He'd been a star once, but he'd grown up invisible, no more than a piece of scenery on his dad's farm, his life as dull as a bale of hay. Strength and grace had been his ticket out, his passage to the head of the parade, walking into towns like this as if he were the king of the world. He had been a king, then.
He liked to believe it was an accident, but the panic in her eyes haunted him. If only she'd grabbed his hands, they'd still be touring, living like royalty. If only he'd grabbed her hands, he'd know he wasn't guilty. Instead he was trapped in layers of rancid grease and cigarette smoke, scrubbing grills, sentenced to heavy canvas aprons thick with food soil. He missed the silks and spangles. He missed the spotlight.
The creep in the corner recognized him, though he wasn't sure how. He and Karen had performed high in the air. No one saw them up close. If they had, all they would have noticed was the makeup. Up close they looked like clowns. From far away, the paint on their faces made them look exotic, like the gypsies they were pretending to be. He'd blacked his hair for the act, but now it was his natural blonde. His mustache was long gone. But still. The guy was staring. It had to be the reward money.
Hank could run again, but he'd finally settled in. He missed the trains, the other performers, the elephants. He missed Karen, the applause, even the clown car, but here he had Margie, three squares a day. Life was good enough. Some nights he could even sleep without the nightmares, without seeing Karen fall, without hearing her screams as she hurtled forty feet to the sawdust below. If only they'd used a net. If only he'd been able to talk her out of the risky triple somersault. If only. She was perpetually slipping through his fingers. They'd fought the night before her death, so the cops were sure he meant to drop her. How could they be sure when he wasn't? He had to run because they were ready to hang him. Sometimes at night he felt the rough rope on his Adam's apple, wondered if he'd feel his neck snap.
He knew what he had to do. The thought made him sick, but life was kill or be killed. If someone had to be impaled on the short end of the stick, he'd nominate the other guy. Thank God it was the middle of the night. The diner was empty, and he was manning the place alone until morning.
When the snoop went to the bathroom, he followed, locking the door. He'd strangled lots of chickens growing up, but this was so much worse. The betrayed eyes would haunt him, the moment when the guy became dead weight. Dead weight. He'd never thought about that phrase before but now it would whisper through his nightmares. He'd chosen to kill. This time there was no doubt. When it was done, he locked the door behind him, putting up the out-of-order sign. The men's room was frequently broken. No one would notice. He'd deal with the body in a minute. Margie would be gone another hour yet.
Hank went to clear up, removing the traces of his victim. He grabbed the man's notebook. It fell open to pages of drawings just like the ones in the comic books, regular folks all drawn as superheroes. His own face stared back at him from the latest sketch. The guy had drawn him as Superman, flying in to save Margie from a tentacled monster. The bubble over his head read, "evil will never win while I'm around." Hank threw the notebook down, reaching up to tighten the invisible rope around his own neck, wondering if he'd always deserved it. He imagined Karen there, kicking open the trap door, watching him fall.