Skywriting at Night

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Chapter 14

     "Is that you, dear?" Erta called from the kitchen as Jackson Robert gently closed the front door.

     "Who were you expecting, Cary Grant?" he returned.

     Every night since they'd been married Erta asked the same question as her husband walked through the door after work, and every night he gave her the same answer. There was a time when this would make Erta smile.

     "How was your day at the salt mines?" she asked, continuing the ceremony.

     "Salty, just like your beef stew," he answered, as he did every night.

     Erta absently scratched her forehead. The flour she'd been using to thicken the runny spaghetti sauce left a white streak across her brow. It was easy to tell when—and what-—Erta had been cooking, as it was always painted across her face. There was never any reason to ask what was for dinner as she was a walking, multi-colored menu board. There was a time when Jackson Robert thought this was adorable.

     "Dinner's almost ready," she said absently.

     Jackson Robert sat down and removed his shoes and socks, placing each sock in the appropriate shoe and lining up the shoes under his chair. He slid the chair closer to the refrigerator, then placed his feet on the refrigerator door and slowly walked them towards the top until they were raised about six inches higher than his head. He let out a big sigh of relief. Erta shook her head. She found it hard to believe but there was actually a time when she thought this nightly ritual was uniquely charming.

     Marriage is what's left after all the cute endearing traits start to get on your nerves.

     "Did you hear about the robbery at J&A last night?" Erta asked.

     "It was on the radio on the way home," he replied while rubbing his temples. "Was there anything in the paper about it?"

     "I haven't had time to look," she said, adding about a cup of ketchup to the spaghetti sauce. If Erta lived to be two hundred years old she'd still never get the hang of cooking, "Though there sure were enough police cars there when I went shopping this morning. I can't believe we're having a crime wave like this. Not here."

     Jackson Robert unfolded the newspaper.

POLICE HUNG UP ON CLOTHING STORE ROBBERY
     City police are searching for clues to last night's break-in at J&A Clothiers, the latest in a string of bizarre robberies to sweep the area.
     The intruder entered the premises sometime after closing, stealing all the coat hangers in the store.
     "All the clothes were left on the floor," remarked Jennifer Jennings, co-owner of the store. "Nothing was taken. Well, not exactly nothing. All the coat hangers were gone."
     After a thorough check, Jennings discovered the coat hangers were all that had been stolen.
     "It's very possible the perpetrator was frightened off before he or she found the money," said Milo Jenkins, the officer in charge of the investigation. "We're looking into all possibilities."
     The break-in bears a striking resemblance to the recent theft of display materials at Cordin's Jewelry Store and grocery bags at the Food House supermarket. In each case no money or merchandise was taken and there was no sign of forcible entry.
     "Nothing is being ruled out at this time," Jenkins said. 
     "It's going to be hard to sell anything today," manager Jennings said, "since practically all our merchandise needs to be hung up. It's kind of hard to interest someone in a cocktail dress that's folded up on a shelf."
     Police have requested all area businesses to immediately report attempts to sell large quantities of jewelry display materials, paper bags, or coat hangers.

 * * * * * *

     The sound of thundering feet storming down the stairs preceded Jet's bursting into the room. He dove under the kitchen table as Job rounded the corner hot on his heels. Job skidded on the tile floor and slid under his father's upraised legs.

     "You went under his legs," Jet yelled, "that's bad luck." 

     "It's bad luck to go under a ladder, you peckerhead," Job yelled back.

     "Smelled Dad's feet lately? That's bad luck," Jet said.

     Job scrambled under the table to get at Jet. Jackson Robert grabbed the back of his pants and held him at bay. He strained against his father's grip, snapping at Jet like a half-starved pit bull dying to lunch on a miniature poodle.

     "He started it!" Job yelled. 

     "Well you stop it," Jackson Robert said. "You're older than he is, you should set a good example."

     "He does," Jet said sincerely. "And I'm proud of him."

     Job stopped struggling and looked at his brother. A small smile crossed his face. Maybe Jet wasn't so bad after all.

     "He's a good example of why retroactive abortions should be legal," Jet said as he backed out from under the table and stood up. Job lurched after him, but his father held him in place.

     "Okay, both of you sit down. Dinner's almost ready," Erta said. "Jet, check on the garlic bread. And Job, I want you to watch your mouth."

     "I can't watch my mouth without a mirror," he said. 

     "And looking in a mirror is too painful," Jet added.

     "I'll show you painful."

     "That's enough," Erta said. "Jet, the garlic bread?"

     Jet opened the oven and pulled out the aluminum foil package. He poked at the hot Italian bread which was already burned around the edges, the butter sitting in greasy, unmelted lumps between the slices.

     "Mom, the butter isn't melted."

     "Then put it back in the oven."

     "But the bread's almost burnt to a crisp."

     "Then don't put it back."

     "But the butter's supposed to be melted."

     "Then put it back in."

     "But..."

     "Just put it on the table," Jackson Robert said emphatically.

     "Are we supposed to eat it like this?" Jet asked.

     "No," Job said, "we're supposed to eat it with our hands."

     The telephone rang.

     "I'll get it," Jet and Job yelled as they both jumped towards the door.

     "No, I'll get it," Erta said as she blocked the doorway.

     "But it's for me."

     "No, it's for me."

     "I said, I'll get it," Erta announced with ultimate finality.

     "Boy," Job said, "A guy can't have any fun around here."

     "The truth hurts, doesn't it?" Jet asked with a shrug. Job feinted towards Jet. As Jet pulled back, Job stomped hard on his foot, pinning it in place.  Jet fell over backwards, his head hitting the cabinet door under the sink.

     "Yeah, it does hurt," Job said with a smirk, "but sometimes that's the fun of it."

     "Jet, get up off the floor, the phone's for you," Erta said as she came back into the kitchen.

     "Who is it?" he asked, rubbing the back of his head.

     "It's that Boots boy."

     "What does he want?" Job asked.

     "He wants to talk to your brother," she told him.

     "Yeah," Jet said, "he wants to talk to your brother."

     Job took a small leap towards Jet, who jumped backwards and ran from the room.

     * * * * * *

     "I'm glad you're home," Rubber Boots said. "Did you hear the news?"

     "About what?"

     "It's really making sense now," Rubber Boots said, running on.

     "What is? English?"

     "Nah, that'll never make sense, this is about the robberies. Ever since you got that note it's been on my mind."

     "What mind?" Jet asked. "I mean, what note?"

     "You know, the note Hellstrom gave you instead of the one I wrote."  Jet didn't say anything. "The one she was supposed to give to Johnny?"

     "Oh Yeah, what about it?"

     "Okay, listen. That was the day after the Food House robbery, right?"  Rubber Boots paused but Jet didn't say anything. "And the note said he was late because he was being questioned by the police, right?"

     "Sure, but it could have been about anything."

     "Yeah, right," Rubber Boots said sarcastically. "Don't forget we saw he and the Turk out that night."

     "Him and the Turk."

     "What?"

     "It’s ‘him and the Turk’," Jet instructed.

     "Him and the Turk. Whatever. Anyway, that makes him a prime suspect. Besides, everyone knows Johnny's robbed a lot of places."

     "How do you know?" Jet asked.

     "Everyone knows that. Okay, now listen to this: J&A gets knocked off last night and what happens? Johnny's late for class again. You know why?"

     "No, why?"

     "Because they hauled him in for questioning bright and early this morning. The morning after the latest robbery."

     "So what are you gonna do with your theory?" Jet asked. "Go to the police?"

     "What good would that do? They already know."

     "Exactly. So what's the point?"

     "The point is, I know who did it and I think that's pretty cool."

     "Well done, Mr. Sherlock Boots, but aren't you forgetting something?"

     "What?" Rubber Boots asked.

     "Where's your evidence?"

     "Well, we saw him out the night of the Food House robbery."

     "Right," Jet said, "but we were out too. Does that mean we did it?"

     Rubber Boots paused thoughtfully. "Do you think Johnny told the cops we ran into he and...I mean, him and the Turk that night?" he asked nervously.

     "What's the difference?"

     "What if he told them about our smoking the cigarettes?"

     "When did that become a crime?"

     "But what if they tell our parents?"

     "We might be suspects in a robbery and you're worried about your parents finding out you smoked a lousy cigarette?"

     "Do you really think we're suspects?" Rubber Boots asked almost hopefully.

     "Nah." 

     "Should we tell the cops that we saw Johnny and the Turk that night?"

     "That depends."

     "On what?"

     "On whether you want to live long enough to lose your virginity," Jet said.

     Rubber Boots silently thought about this. "Well, if Johnny didn't do it, then who did?"

     "How should I know?" Jet asked. "Look, I gotta go eat. If you come up with any more brainstorms, hold 'em until tomorrow."

     * * * * * *

     "It's just not safe around here anymore," Erta said as Jet walked back into the kitchen. She was ladling pasty pink spaghetti sauce over dreadfully overcooked elbow macaroni. "We'd better start locking the doors at night."

     "They already are," Jackson Robert said.

     "They are?" she asked surprised.

     "Yes," he explained while sprinkling large hard lumps of once-grated Parmesan cheese over his dinner, "I've locked the doors before I go to bed every night since the day we were married."

     Erta looked at him in bewilderment. "I didn't know that."

     "What's the big deal?" Job asked. "They didn't steal anything worthwhile anyway."

     "That's not the point," she said. "Crime is crime, and the Good Book says 'Thou shalt not steal'."

     "Does it also say 'Thou shalt not melt the butter'?" Jet asked.

     "No," Jackson Robert said, "but it does say to honor your mother and father."

     "That's why we have Mother's Day and Father's Day," Jet said to Job.

     "Yeah, but what happened to Kid's Day?" Job asked.

     "I guess the Bible doesn't care about us kids," Jet told him.

     "Don't you think this is terrible?" Erta asked.

     "Yeah," Jet said, "I think they should add 'Honor thy second born son' to the Ten Commandments."

     "Not that," she said. "I'm talking about the crime wave."

     "Do three robberies make a crime wave?" Job asked as he mashed his macaroni and sauce into a pulp with his fork.

     "No," Jet said. "Three is a tide, four is a wave."

     "Would someone pass the garlic bread?" Jackson Robert asked.

     "It makes me nervous to go out at night," Erta said.

     "But you don't go out at night," Job said.

     "I do," Jet announced.

     "Not anymore you don't," his mother announced.

     "I asked for the garlic bread," Jackson Robert said firmly. Job took three pieces and passed the basket to his father.

     "God, they're only stealing coat hangers and paper bags, not kids," Jet objected.

     "Maybe we'll get lucky and they'll start with you," Job said to his brother, breaking the crunchy garlic bread into little pieces and stirring them into his pureed pasta and sauce.

     "Don't take the Lord's name in vain," Erta said.

     "I didn't," Job objected.

     "Not you, Jet."

     "Jesus Mom, I'm sorry."

     "No you're not," Job said.

     "That's disgusting," Jet said, looking at Job's plate full of mashed dinner.

     "Yes it is," Erta added. "A person should be able to walk the streets at night without being afraid for their life."

     "Not that. That ," Jet said pointing at Job's plate. "How do you eat that crap?"

     "With my mouth."

     Jet looked at Erta. "And you let him kiss you with that mouth?"

     "If the police can't do something to stop this, maybe we should," Erta said.

     "Yeah," Jet said, looking at Job.

     "Yeah," Job said, looking at Jackson Robert.

     "This bread's not done," Jackson Robert said to no one in particular.  "The butter's not even melted."

     * * * * * *

     That night the eleven o'clock news ran a story about the break-in at J&A Clothiers, but no one in the Banker household saw it. Erta, who was normally asleep by then anyway, was wide awake and eagerly watching the Quite Reverend John Joseph Matthew Paul III exorcise a low-level demon from a woman who lisped. This demon, he explained, had her tongue tightly held in an evil death grip. Erta had never realized that people with speech impediments were possessed, though it did explain why her cousin Nora—who had stuttered all her life—had stopped going to church, preferring to spend her Sunday mornings painting water colors of automobile junk yards.

     Jackson Robert, who would have been watching the news even though all the reporters—including the weather person—were male, knew better than to interrupt his wife when she was watching the Quite Reverend. Besides, he was busy rearranging the pictures in the photo albums alphabetically according to who was in them, rather than the chronological order they were in.

     Jet was lying in bed awaiting sleep, knowing that his obtuse dream world was slowly gliding towards him. His lit flashlight stood on the night table, the beam illuminating a circle on the ceiling.  His small radio played hushed rock 'n roll. Each night Jet tried a new variation on this theme, hoping the right mixture of light and sound would keep his dreams away.

     Job, who was also supposed to be in bed asleep, was instead in his parents' room on the telephone playing a practical joke. Where others would call a cab to the house next door just to see what happened when the unordered cab showed up, Job decided it would be more fun to have the taxi come to his house. Sometimes Job just didn’t get it.

     Had any of them seen the eleven o'clock news they would have been impressed that the break-in at the J&A Clothiers was covered. There it was at the very end of the broadcast, in the same sixty-second time slot usually reserved for the dog who thinks he's a turkey and hides out for the two weeks before Thanksgiving, the man who smoked three packs of Marlboros a day for  thirty-one years and built a model of the Golden Gate Bridge with the 33,945 crush-proof cigarette boxes, and the three year-old boy who can't remember his home address yet can consistently kick a field goal from twenty yards.

     Film at 11:29

     * * * * * *

     The next morning's newspaper ran an article about the break-in that began on the front page of the Area section and continued on page six. The morning news that Jackson Robert was so fond of watching devoted thirty-two seconds to the story, which was actually quite a bit considering it was a nationally broadcast show that, though it aired for ninety minutes and touted itself as a newscast, spent so much time on celebrity interviews, weather, and cute banter that they only ran a total of eight minutes of actual news.

     That afternoon’s newspaper ran a story on the front page about how Gearson "Budrow" Buddings, the president of the Retail Merchants Association, had posted a $500 reward for "information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible for this string of robberies." Next to the article was a photograph of Budrow standing in front of J&A Clothiers with his finger pointed straight at the camera. Uncle Budrow wants you.

     On the six o'clock newscast the Chief of Police pleaded with the citizens to report any suspicious activity that might relate to the crimes. A phone number was flashed on the TV screen, causing a massive jam-up of the local telephone exchange while virtually everyone in town called to say they thought their neighbors were acting suspiciously. Within ten minutes no none within a thirty-mile radius could get a dial tone. Those few who did manage to get through were happily greeted by a seventy-two year old widow who was so lonely she was grateful to talk to anyone and took this opportunity to do so at great length. The TV station, it turns out, had displayed the wrong phone number.

     The following morning an article appeared on the top half of the front page of the newspaper. A group of outraged citizens were forming an ad hoc committee to look into what they called "the mishandling of the investigation by the police." The photograph accompanying the story showed a group of placid, ordinary looking citizens unangrily waving their clenched fists in the air while smiling for the camera.

     That evening it was reported that the Mayor had formed a blue ribbon task force whose sole responsibility would be the apprehension of the robber. "I can only ask that the citizens of this town allow the law enforcement personnel to proceed with their investigation unimpeded," he was quoted as saying. "We will in no way tolerate any form of vigilantism."

     The next morning's newspaper ran a small three paragraph story on page seven which effectively said nothing new had developed. That afternoon’s newspaper pretended the robberies had never occurred.

     The news media, it seems, have an even shorter attention span than their readers.

     All remained quiet until the following week's issue of the Weekly World Scene hit the newsstands. Splashed across the top of the front page was a banner headline set in ultra-bold 120 point type, a style reserved by conventional newspapers for the assassination of a President, which read:

Town cowers behind locked doors as
SATANIC CULT GOES ON ROBBING RAMPAGE!

 

Chapter 15 ]



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  Skywriting at Night - a novel by Mad Dog

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