No Deposit Love
The Friday before the big game finds Bernie Kaliher broke and desperate for a beer, and he spends the next hour or more, he’s not sure how long really, he no longer wears a watch, scrounging for loose change in the pockets of an old winter coat, digging beneath the ragged cushions of a sofa, reaching behind the silent refrigerator, it no longer hums, the electricity was shut off weeks ago, looking under a throw rug, behind the toilet, inside the broom closet, his fingers creeping spider-like into every dark recess and mite-infested alcove and, though he pities himself for doing something so obviously futile, beneath the piss-and-sweat-stained mattress where instead of money he unearths an assortment of dirty magazines, hardened tissues, a sports page with a photograph of his players lined up in front of the Jesuit high school like an invincible Roman legion in battle formation. The team has been described as “an unstoppable juggernaut, a ravening beast”, and at the center of this hundred-headed hydra stands the proud coach, grim-faced, steely-eyed, Herculean. The fading letters at the top of the newspaper read more like a benediction than a byline: “May the Good Lord--and this Coaching Genius--Lead These Boys to Victory.”
Kaliher sighs. It’s no use. There isn’t a single dollar to be found anywhere. With mounting frustration, he crumples the newspaper into a ball and flings it across the room. He goes to the bedroom window, both hands buried deep in his empty pockets, and presses his forehead against the cold pane of glass. At this time of year darkness steals across the city like a firm hand closing the lid on a musty bible box, but in the distance, through the soughing trees, he can make out the hulking structure of the Jesuit school. A yellow blaze of artificial light transforms the building into a scumbled painting of Pandemonium, the bricks glinting with quartz, the spires illumined by lightning storms and lava flows. A dark blur of golden-eyed grackles rockets across the sky. They circle the crenellated parapet of the school’s gothic tower and roost on its narrow ledges. By closely observing the birds, Kaliher hopes to detect some kind of favorable augury. In fact, he looks for signs everywhere, just to be sure--in the appearance of a black cat, in the passage of a comet, in the arrangement of cards and tea leaves and coffee grounds, anything that might hint at the outcome of tomorrow’s game. Some say he is superstitious, but technically speaking he doesn’t believe in luck, he believes in a sure thing. In the past he always had an uncanny ability for making correct predictions. Lately, however, his instincts have failed him. He can no longer see the future as he once could. Fate refuses to give up her secrets, shrouds the world in mystery. Even now a sharp tingle like static electricity shoots through his spine, an ominous premonition, but one that comes much too late.
Suddenly there is a loud knock at the door, three solid raps with a pause between each one, a very serious-sounding knock, a knock that says he is in deep shit, the deepest in a long time, and here he is, caught without a pair of boots to wade through it. Using the tough-guy voice he has perfected from a decade of coaching belligerent prep school boys, he shouts, “Go away!” because no one ever knocks at his door except for the obvious reason--money. His ex-wife and her attorneys, his bookie, even old friends and neighbors, they all line up at his door, looking to hit him up and suck him dry. But he knows perfectly well who is out there--it can only be one person--and although his instincts tell him to flee, to scurry down the fire escape, he understands that sooner or later he must face the fire-breathing dragon, not out of choice exactly--what kind of hero yearns for his own gruesome immolation?--but because escape is no longer an option. The entrance to the cave is blocked, the bridge burned to cinders.
Kaliher tests out a smile, the one he uses to captivate audiences when delivering the keynote address at benefit dinners, but his smile falters, it looks defiant, devious, impudent, maybe even a little demented. His teeth are caked with tartar, his tongue dry from another week-long bender. It has become all too clear that the charms of success have abandoned him entirely--a terrible thing for a man who clings to his fading celebrity as an idolater clings to a golden monkey paw. Taking a deep breath he cracks open the door. In the hallway he hears the sound of a dozen antique keys jangling on a rusty ring, and through a narrow shaft of light he sees a thousand silver strands of cat hair shimmer and loop and twirl.
“Why, good afternoon, Mrs. O’Neill!”
“Fuck you, Kaliher. You got somethin’ to smile about these days?”
Mrs. O’Neill, the owner and manager of the Zanzibar Towers & Gardens, leans heavily against the doorway, a long pillar of cigarette ash wobbling between her lizard lips. She is a woman with a remarkable gift for cutting through the bullshit, and her demeanor suggests not only anger but sobriety. Not a good sign. She’s wearing her “uniform” (a bathrobe and slippers), and her fingers plough through hair so wild and wiry and bleached of color that her scalp looks like a little plot of curled cornhusks roasting under a ferocious summer sun.
“Something I can do for you?” Kaliher asks.
“Yeah, pay up, asshole. Now. Or hit the road. This ain’t no charity ward. Bunch of goddamn infants living here. Helpless parasites, every last one of yous.”
She thrusts her nose past the chain, her nostrils puckering and flaring, the bulbous tip covered with meandering tributaries of broken blood vessels that disappear into craters vast and deep and dark.
“That ain’t no weed I smell, is it? Cause if it is, I’ll call the cops, by god I will. Make my life so much easier. One call, Kaliher, and out ya go.”
“Weed, Mrs. O’Neill? Heavens no.” He unhooks the chain and swings the door open. “Would you like to come in? Have a look around? Please. Join me in a cocktail. I insist.”
He takes her by the hand, but she yanks it away and wipes it across the front of her robe. Amazing that she is the one to wipe her hand! But he isn’t about to let a rude gesture get to him, no, that might disrupt his timing, and he has these innocuous little transactions timed to the nearest tenth of a second. He always thinks in terms of a stopwatch, another habit from his years as a coach. He steps aside as Mrs. O’Neill shambles into the apartment, heavy and compact as a bison, her great humped shoulders threatening to rip apart the doorframe.
She sneers. “Okay, whadaya got?”
“Um, I have Kentucky bourbon. Irish whiskey. Single malt scotch.”
“You ain’t got jack shit.”
“No, I swear it. How about a nice glass of cabernet?”
She snaps her fingers. “C’mon, c’mon…”
He glowers at her, his tormentor, his jailer, then goes through the ridiculous pretense of opening the kitchen cupboards one at a time. She isn’t particular, she’ll drink just about anything, cooking sherry, mouthwash, even rubbing alcohol isn’t too good for her, but they both know the truth, know that his cupboards are bare, that this is just a little pantomime they go through each month, that the only thing he has to offer her is a glass of cloudy tap water. But even the destitute abide by a modest kind of etiquette. Certain rules must never be broken, even when the guest is an unwelcome one.
“Yer wife was here a few hours ago lookin’ for ya. Musta knocked on your door fer a good ten minutes ‘fore I come down and chased ‘er off. I can’t have some angry cougar makin’ a spectacle of herself. Not in my place. I don’t like troublemakers, Kaliher. Don’t like deadbeats neither.” She scratches the bristly black hairs sprouting on the back of her calves. They look like pine needles, sharp and shiny and covered in miniscule scales. “What’s a pretty woman want with the likes of you anyway?”
Afraid he might break down in front of her, Kailher hides his face behind the pantry door and whispers, “I’ll win her back…”
With a loud snort of contempt Mrs. O’Neill lumbers into the dark bedroom, her imposing silhouette framed against the window, and lets the bathrobe slide from her freckled shoulders. Kaliher shudders. It’s like watching a snake shed its skin. The heavy ring of keys hit the hardwood floor with a terrible clatter. The glowing ember of her cigarette hovers in the blackness like the unblinking eye of a Cyclops and sinks slowly to the mattress before winking out. There is no frame, no box spring, no down comforter, primitive arrangements that never seem to bother her.
Kaliher hesitates, cowed by her silence. He thinks of his children, John and Carol, six-year old twins, and recalls how during their last weekend visit they sobbed in their sleeping bags arranged on either side of that same mattress and begged all night long to be taken home to their mother. “Please, Daddy, please.”
“Time!” Mrs. O’Neill proclaims.
“Yes,” whispers Kaliher, “I’m coming, coming…”
Mrs. O’Neill actively seeks out male renters, losers one and all, the downtrodden, ruined, addicted and insane. She usually captures her prey at the café where the city’s luckless gather to drink one cup of coffee after another (refills are free) and stare out the window as if waiting for someone who once loved them to miraculously appear and say that all is forgiven, mistakes happen, now it’s time to start life over again. Most of these men secretly yearn to tell a woman, any woman, all about their private miseries, their personal failures, and Mrs. O’Neill delights in playing the role of comforter and confessor. With great patience and understanding she listens to these tales of woe, nods her head, squeezes a hand in a very reassuring way. She offers a warm smile when it is most needed. Then moving in for the kill, she brings up the subject of her apartment building, “the property” she calls it, willed to her by her third husband, now deceased.
“You come right on over, honey, and see the place for yourself. Maybe we can work out some kind of arrangement. No deposit required to rent a room.”
Since the only thing these men have left to barter with is the worthless currency of a hundred broken promises, this news comes as a great relief. Of course a few of them, the more reasonable ones, find her motives suspect, but in the end desperation always wins out. They don’t even wait for her to scribble an address on a napkin, they simply follow her back to the building, a never-ending parade of derelicts and fools marching up the walkway--scrawny, scruffy, their faces frozen with expressions of self-pity and stunned disbelief. How many men has she lured here over the years? How many has she cajoled and threatened and humiliated in this warren of stinking, threadbare cubicles? Some have second thoughts, and Mrs. O’Neill, sensing their misgivings, tries to sweeten the deal by offering rooms on the seventh floor. “Lucky number seven, eh, honey?”
Bernie Kaliher can hardly believe that he has joined the ranks of these losers. Only three months ago the local sports columnists--those incompetent hacks who never see eye to eye an anything--agreed that his team would crush each of its regular- and post-season opponents with ease and cruise undefeated to the state championship game. No one dared to think otherwise. It was predestined. God had commanded it to be so. How then to explain the slew of injuries to his offensive linemen, the diminishing skills of his star quarterback, the heartbreaking defeats in overtime? God does not abandon the pious. Surely a decisive victory tomorrow night will turn this disastrous season around. But history has shown that even god needs a little convincing, and to appease him the Jesuits have ordered the students to pray on hands and knees, to petition the Lord of Hosts, the Lord of Armies to lead their beloved team to victory.
Kaliher intends to do his part, too. As head coach he has access to the athletic department’s bank account for discretionary funds and plans to make a sizable withdrawal. The bookies insist on having the cash up front this time, but Kaliher has every intention of returning the money before the Jesuits even notice the transaction. He’s done it before. Sometimes he bets small amounts on professional sports--a hundred here and there, nothing of great consequence. Big bets are strictly reserved for his own team, a thousand dollars on the opening game, thousands more in the weeks to follow.
After tomorrow’s triumphant win he will beg god’s pardon for violating the trust of his players--the sheer stupidity of his mistakes, the magnitude of his financial indiscretions. Even when faced with the prospect of eternal damnation, he will not deny his culpability…with this one small caveat. God must give him an unequivocal answer to a question that has haunted him for many months now: why do so many men have an almost instinctual urge to sabotage their own lives? But he can’t think of these things now. Less than twenty-four hours remain until the big game, the infamous Holy War, and there is still much work to be done, grand strategies to map out, small but crucial tactics to perfect. Defeat is no longer an option, victory the only possible means of escape.
No matter how many times he submits to this monthly ritual, he is shocked by the vulgarity of Mrs. O’Neill’s bedroom talk and the rough manner in which she shoves his face into the swampy valley between her sloping breasts, down to the impressive rolls of fat that have congealed around her navel, across the rugged terrain of her thorny snatch, ever lower, lower, all the while rasping her sinister commands with pitiless glee: “That’s right, coach, go on, work it, work it. Now, suck my toes! Suck ‘em like you mean it.”
Taking direction like a trained seal, he sweeps his tongue over the tough meat of the sole, up and down the swollen arch, heel to toe, heel to toe. He suddenly recoils from her foot, trying hard to control his gag reflex, but Mrs. O’Neill digs her claws into the back of his neck. Finally, he opens his mouth to accept the five little piggies and uses his teeth to gently nibble on the thick stumps that look so much like a man’s knuckles--large, hairy, simian.
“That’s a very good boy…”
Though the apartment is drafty and poorly insulated, its walls cracked and bubbled from years of rain and snow, it doesn’t prevent Mrs. O’Neill from sweating through the sheets. Using the advantage of her weight she pins him to the mattress, parts her legs and slowly envelopes him in her dripping flesh.
Thirty minutes later the terrible ordeal comes to an end. She fires up another cigarette, last one in the pack, and says, “Okay, you can stay. One more month. But you’re an awful lay, do ya know that, Kaliher? Truly despicable. Now I know why yer old lady left ya.” She coughs, hacks up a little gob of green phlegm, swallows it. “A little friendly advice, huh. Either come up with some cash or improve yer skills in the sack.” And with that she pulls the bathrobe around her torso and limps out the door.
“Oh, you horrible, horrible…” Kaliher whispers.
In the darkness, without daring to light the candles, he sits cross-legged at the end of the mattress and runs his hands over his head, which is shaved like a mendicant’s. For a long time he does nothing at all, just stares into space and listens to the lunatic laughter of men and women, the chanting, singing, crying that comes night and day through the dusty vents. In this madhouse there is never a moment’s peace.
Though he is aching and drained of energy he somehow finds the strength to get to his feet and walk to the bathroom. Thankfully there is no mirror in here, no way for him to inspect the dark circles around his eyes, the new lines that have formed on his forehead and at the corners of his mouth. He hunches over the sink and using the crusty remnants on an old tube of toothpaste brushes his teeth, but no matter how hard he scours and gurgles and spits he cannot get rid of the putrid taste of toenails, sour and bitter like an old lemon rind, that clings to the walls of his mouth and the tip of his tongue. When he can no longer tolerate the dirtiness on him and in him and around him he stands in the shower under an icy spray of water. There is no soap, no exfoliating scrub, no shaving gel, none of the fragrant lotions he once enjoyed as a married man. In fact, very little remains of his old life except the mattress on the floor where Mrs. O’Neill occasionally positions herself and groans with unbridled pleasure.
Reluctantly he returns to the bedroom, but when he tears off the soiled sheets he notices a twenty-dollar bill wedged between the mattress and the wall. How he overlooked it he doesn’t know. With a little whimper of gratitude he holds it up to the light, smells it, rubs it between his fingertips, and after several minutes of serious meditation decides that this must be an act of divine providence, irrefutable proof that god is watching over him. Quickly, before some new disaster befalls him, he gets dressed and hurries out into the October cold. A celebration is in order. It’s happy hour at the local brewery, one-dollar pints of lager and stout.
Kaliher shudders and pulls the collar of his coat tight around his throat. Already the weather is beginning to turn. Forecasters are predicting a hard winter, but he is warmed by the conviction that his luck is finally beginning to change. As he hurries along the sidewalk he steps aside to let a young man pass. Judging from his tattered jeans and T-shirt with a large grinning skull, he is another bohemian, a musician maybe or a poet choking on a bolus of foolish fantasies, the old childish dreams of fame and fortune. But there is something different about this kid, something strangely familiar. Though he can be no more than eighteen- or nineteen-years old, he already looks a little world-weary, soul-sick. His left eye is bruised, his upper lip swollen. He has seen hard times, harder than most perhaps, and in his wake he leaves a long, messy trail of despair.
The kid glances at Kaliher, and there is a flash of recognition between them. Could he be a student at the Jesuit school? The boy quickens his pace and opens the door of the apartment building. Kaliher looks back and considers warning him away from this necropolis of dead dreams. But what’s the use? People never change. Besides, like everyone condemned to stay at the Zanzibar Towers & Gardens, he probably has it coming to him.
The city echoes with the sudden wail of sirens. A police car races by, its lights flashing. Ceased by paranoia, Kaliher stands rooted to the street corner, mesmerized by the baffling array of colors that dribble over of the soot-covered windows of the apartment building. It’s almost like someone has knocked over a thousand cans of paint from the rooftop, thick globules that hurtle into space and then vanish like ghosts in the darkness only to reemerge an instant later in striking new patterns. While he watches this mystifying cascade, tastes the essence of it, breathes its strange energy, Kaliher feels an unshakable conviction that his luck is beginning to change, but whether for good or ill he cannot tell.
Bio: Rose McCann's essays and fiction have appeared in a number of literary journals, including Slow Trains, Green Hills Literary Lantern, Subtle Tea, Cerebration, Fiction Warehouse, The Plum Ruby Review, Ascent Aspirations, Double Dare Press, Tattoo Highway and many others. She currently teaches American Literature at Cleveland State University.