The new woman coming in, I recognize most of the regulars, reaches her hand out in front of her and the new glass door of the fast-food place sweeps smoothly open. She is in her mid-thirties with brown hair, nice-looking, interesting. Every night since the divorce I tell myself I’ll cook breakfast and every morning I don’t. Behind me, the Preacher talks to someone. I call him that because I once heard him boom, “Well, you know what Jesus said,” although I didn’t hear what that was.
The new woman, carrying a breakfast bun and a coffee, comes past me so I can’t see her anymore. One table over, the elderly couple eat while they sort through store coupons. The new woman wasn’t carrying a newspaper and I wonder what she’s doing or thinking behind me. Two girls in blue grocery-store uniforms, blonde hair fluffed out like the women in daytime serials, sit to my right, talking about what happened last night. Dancing. A bar.
Dick and Bill come in, names in red script on their coveralls. Bill squints at the menu. “So, you know what you want to eat?” Dick says and, after a pause, Bill nods, still squinting.
Decisions must be made quickly these days, and I have lost again. The woman sweeps past me, emptying her tray in the bin, and leaves, the new door opening and closing evenly behind her. Old doors, you know, had rods at the top that caught for a moment before closing, just a second, as if they were hesitating.
When Mark looks up to order another beer, he notices that the hotel bar has begun to fill up—a big crowd for Sunday night. He tries waving his hand to get the bartender’s attention, then gives up and calls out, “Barkeep, what about another one?”
The television, above the bar, is dialed into a football game that nobody’s watching. Mark hates sitting here with all of these people that he doesn’t know—forced to listen to bits and pieces of their meaningless conversations.
Feeling a little shaky, he reaches into his coat pocket, grips the handle of the pistol and lifts it slightly. He is reassured by the weight.
Tomorrow he will make an authentic statement—take matters into his own hands. He glances at the tattered paperback lying on the bar—“Catcher in the Rye.” He thinks about Holden Caulfield. He thinks about all of the time he’s wasted blindly following “phonies.” Plastic “demigods” like John Lennon—hiding behind the elegant walls of the Dakota Hotel.
“Excuse me brother. Aren’t you Mark Chapman?” someone says over his left shoulder.
He glances back and looks into the face of a young, dark-skinned man. He’s wearing a California “Angels” baseball cap twisted to the side. Mark is certain that he’s never seen this man before.
“Yeah, I guess I am,” says Mark.
The man bends over, close to Mark’s ear, and whispers, “I am Diablis, the Angel of Death.”
“What is this? Are you drunk?”
“I am the Angel of Death,” repeats Diablis, “look into the mirror.”
Mark turns and looks toward the bar-length mirror. He can see reflections of everyone sitting at the bar, except the mysterious figure leaning over his shoulder.
He doesn’t really want to hear what else this man has to say, but he has to know.
“What do you want?” asks Mark.
“I’m here for a reason. I want you.”
“Want me? Why?”
“Because the man you’re planning to kill is important to us. Maybe you don’t remember, but Mr. Lennon was once more popular than God. We can’t allow a “nobody,” like you, to cut this man’s life short.”
Mark looks frantically around the room. He is now ready to believe that this stranger is a demon.
“So this is it,” he thinks, “December 7th, 1980—here in a New York City bar.”
Mark Chapman sprints toward the door—then out, and into the street.
“There is no place dark enough to hide,” says Diablis, “I am always with you.”
Mark rounds the corner and hears someone following close behind. He pulls the gun from his coat pocket, turns and fires two shots toward the phantom. Then he runs like a crazy man.
An eerie voice at his back hisses, “My brother, you still do not understand.”
“Any of you people know this man?” asks the policeman, addressing a curious crowd gathered on the sidewalk. No one speaks up.
“I’m telling you,” says the bus driver, “the guy ran off the curb right in front of me. No way I could stop.”
He cannot move or talk, but his other senses seem magnified. Lying on his stomach, head to the side, Mark can see and smell the trash in the gutter. So close, he can read the labels on trampled cigarette butts—see the scrape marks on a lottery scratch ticket—smell the dog piss soaked into the concrete—hear the EMS sirens in the distance and know they’ll never arrive in time.
Glancing up, he notices where someone has spray-painted “FUCK YOU” on the curbside—the epitaph that will shortly become his tombstone.
Then he notices the music. It seems to be coming from below the street. He manages a smile when he recognizes the song—John Lennon’s “Imagine.”
“Imagine there’s no heaven,
It’s easy if you try…”
Mark David Chapman closes his eyes and recalls a Holden Caulfield line from “Catcher in the Rye”—Chapter 25.
“He always felt as if he were disappearing when he crossed the street.”
Tears slide along the bridge of his nose, and drop onto the dirty cement, where they join his life, his blood, and his cause, all, leaking away into a shit-city storm drain.
He said I was looking at his girlfriend and maybe I was but I didn’t mean anything. He was shorter than I by a couple of inches, and I’m not tall, but he looked hard and mean. Maybe he had to make up for the shortage.
I said I wasn’t looking at his girl but he pushed me as soon as we stepped outside the Navy bowling alley. I made the rookie mistake of trying to say something more. He answered with a crazy fast fist smashing into the left side of my jaw.
I went right down. As the little cartoon birds and stars circled my head, one of my buddies helped me up. With that nice adrenaline rush I was ready to reciprocate the violence but two other sailors from the idiot’s company pulled him away.
They smiled as they dragged him off and he struggled against their hands like a disobeying dog on a leash because he wanted to mix it up more and so did I. My face felt hot and hurt more from embarrassment than his knuckles but I felt a mixture of relief and disappointment as they hauled him off.
The next morning in the Seaman Apprentice training camp, as I leaned against the chain link fence and smoked a Lucky Strike, one of the recruits that had helped muscle the guy brought me a message from the other side of the fence.
He looked at me through the metal links and said, “Arturo sends his love.”
And I had to laugh. It reminded me of my days on the streets of Northeast L.A. I knew I had made a new friend after all and soon I would be able to introduce myself properly.
I gripped the brass knuckles inside my peacoat and smiled. My apprenticeship was coming along just fine.
A renegade from double indemnity and crisp infidelities, she told him she was still a virgin at bliss. Sitting next to her on the bed, he played with the gun, the same .38 from so many stick ups. With poker face put-on, he said Oh, another stuck up girl, is it? It was his best De Niro snicker. He pointed the piece at her lips smeared with the grease of chicken wings. What do you want me to do? she asked in her best girly voice.
Only in cars did they have passion. Road trips to Carmel, the local store, cross-country, were filled with the passion and “bliss” of the drive. It was never a peaceful journey. She would demand “stop tailgating, stop speeding,” stomping her feet on the imaginary brake, stiffening in her seat, huffing and puffing and clutching the door handle for security.
Odd, but for Bill, whenever these “events” would occur he felt a passion like none other. His hands would sweat, his knees tighten with a certain schoolboy sensitivity. Such a great feeling he had for the hounding, forceful directives of his wife, his first wife, with whom he had shared so much, yet couldn’t share verbally half the feelings and emotions from within. He was a confused and wanting soul. But wanting what? To pull over and demand restitution? On his terms? On hers? Or, perhaps, in its simplicity, to get even in a most base, vile way?
On this clear day in August, they were on one of the state’s most perfectly constructed, well-paved, civilized pieces of infrastructure—state highway 23, rarely traveled, yet there for the driving pleasure. The time had come. It was 4:05 p.m. The tall pines still reflected the sun brightly, as the air at that altitude allowed an almost eerie clarity to any image. A smile was on his face, and she welcomed it.
“Get a bite to eat?” he asked.
“Let’s run up to that chicken and ribs place you like so much. You know the one that also makes the best fried egg sandwiches this side of the Colorado River,” she replied.
Bill loved that place alongside highway 4, with the rickety bridges lining the roads and the one way streets meandering alongside the low-income housing. The crisp, clear air seemed to breeze them over the hill straight for the diner.
It was near about closing time when they sauntered in, but the Korean owner remembered them from trips past and jollied them up to their favorite table. She ordered the usual egg concoction, but today felt like a chicken dinner would go down well, too. Bill felt it was strange her all-of-a-sudden chicken craving, as she had been so recently committed to this vegetarian kick. But what the hell, it was the best food this side of the Colorado.
No one could have anticipated what was to happen next. And surely Bill was not figuring on spending the rest of his day this way. He had just been peppered with the “drill” coming over in the car and was glad that it was not a prolonged ordeal this time. He welcomed the lunch break and the cheap, good food.
She seemed to inhale her platter, and just as the last bite of greasy-boned chicken went down her gullet, she looked up with this expression of fear and dread—the bone had lodged completely in her throat and her breath was becoming obstructed. No wheeze to signify patency, just blockage. Bill gave her a Heimlich but the best chicken bone this side of the Colorado River wouldn’t budge.
Tony looked out at the dull, cold night… searching the crisp, clear sky. The sparse, snow-covered limbs of the sleeping trees fascinated him. No sign of him yet, thought Tony. He checked to make sure his dad’s hunting rifle was loaded. Tony hadn’t been a good boy that year; in fact, he had been a diabolical little bastard. Busting windows. Torturing animals. He even accused his gym teacher of touching him. It wasn’t true, but it ruined his life just the same. Tony thought it was a kick.
He shared his room, which was on the second floor, with his younger brother, John. Complete opposites, those two. John was a good boy who loved and obeyed his parents. Someday the world would make him very sad, but now he merely slept.
Tony finally spotted him… the fat man and his reindeer. He looked into his sights. If he wasn’t going to get any gifts, no one was.
Bang Donner! Bang Prancer! Bang Blitzon! And Bang four more times.
Tony’s dad rushed into his room as John awoke frightened. His mom was working at the hospital that night. Tony reloaded. A bullet clipped his dad on the shoulder. He set his sights on the sleigh to savor its descent. “Only a Christmas miracle can save your ass now, sucker!” giggled Tony as he watched the wounded, writhing reindeer and sleigh plummet.
“Would you shut the fuck up?”
“You shot dad. I can’t believe you shot dad,” sobbed John.
“He’s just wounded.”
This did little to console John who continued to cry hysterically.
Tony ignored him… too engrossed by the events transpiring above. Down, down, down went the sleigh, and that’s when the Christmas miracle happened.
“What the fuck?”
Seven big black buzzards materialized above each reindeer, holding them up by the horns, thereby saving ol’ Nick from impending disaster and catastrophe. Tony was out of shells. He felt cheated. Then he remembered something that he once learned from television… something about buzzards liking to eat dead things.
“Would you stop that fuckin’ crying already!” he snarled at his brother who shook uncontrollably over their shivering, bleeding papa. Tony looked at his old man. Good, he thought, he’s unconscious. Tony locked John in the closet, and took pop by the pant-legs and pulled him downstairs. Thud went the head on each descending step. Thud, thud, thud. Drag, drag, drag inched Tony towards the front door. He got his winter coat and boots from the living room closet, went to the kitchen to get a knife, and opened the front door.
The night sky was black, and how ever cold the night was, the blood running through Tony’s veins was colder as he sliced his dad’s throat. The white snow now turned red. The buzzards began to circle above. All there was to do is wait.
Eventually they came down and brought with them the wounded reindeer and sleigh. Tony had his empty rifle, pretending.
Peck, tear, peck, tear went the buzzards voraciously.
“All right, fat man—” demanded the boy, “hand’em over.”
“That’s not necessary,” replied Saint Nick, handing him a present.
Tony wasn’t expecting anything like this. It almost made him ashamed of himself. He was almost sorry that he shot those reindeer. He was almost sorry that he killed his father. He was almost sorry that he now wanted to kill Santa Clause.
He set down the empty rifle like last year’s toy, and began to tear and claw at the wrapping paper. Inside the box was a pistol. He looked up to Nick, perplexed. It didn’t make any sense to him. Why would he give him a gift to murder him with?
The old man in red and white anticipated his question and said, “Isn’t that what you wanted?”
“Well, yah… sorta…” muttered Tony, uncertain.
“Then what’s the problem?”
The kid didn’t know what to think. Here he shot all the guy’s deer, and pointed a rifle at him… and he gives him a loaded gun. He studied the gun and then raised it at shoulder level.
“What else you got?”
“Are you sure you want to do that, little boy?”
Tony made no reply and pulled the trigger.
The gun backfired and sent the bullet into Tony’s face.
The reindeer awoke and off went Santa and his sleigh into the sky.
The buzzards bounced from the bled corpse to the now dead, young flesh.
And peck, tear, peck, tear went the buzzards voraciously.