Chapter Six: Enter Remo, continued
“Look at me, Paul. I’m not joking.” Paul clasped his elbows and looked into Remo’s stern countenance. The jowls and eyebrows bound a face of determination. “This is only short-term. My home has become a target for bricks and angry correspondence. I’ve had to relocate my office to a small suite that’s unlisted. My main worry is for my records. I only need through hurricane season. I’ve provided for after that, but for now I just need a place to sleep and put my safe. Your home is ideally suited.”
“Jeez, I don’t know, Remo.”
“I’ll be like a bird perched on your sill. You’ll barely notice me. I’ve been working the longest hours of my life in the office. I just need a headquarters for showers, shits, and shaves. And I’m aware of the troublesome time you’re going through. It could be in your interest to have someone around.”
“Paul, if there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that the full grief of a man can never be assuaged by a woman. Much less well-bred cooze.”
“Remo, the straight talker.”
“I’ve got a six-shooter for a mouth, and I won’t keep it holstered.”
“That’s what I’m worried about.”
“Don’t be, don’t be. Around here I’ll be an absolute nun.”
Paul rubbed the back of his neck. His mind rushed through a hasty montage of consideration. He had doubts, but that teenage excitement he’d first obtained when Robert had first invited his fraternity brother Remo over for dinner was little diminished by any way-back-when. He’d snuck out with them then, piling into misadventures and sharing in their witticism reveries. Empty pint bottles tossed into bushes and shared sprays of cologne, baseball stats and lost loafers. Whether it was dancing girls or topics of conversation, everything was tossed aside or picked up as Remo the Sensation demanded. His brother saw fit to contain Paul’s exposure to the madness, but even he could be overruled if Remo declared, “the night necessitates the Kid.” And now Paul’s ego began to build the bridge between then and now, dumping pilings into the still water of all the recent boring, aimless years. He re-heard all the voices of his family and the old peers demanding No, No, No, but who were they? Courtiers suddenly without a king, lost in the fog of their own selfishness. By the end of it, Paul knew if he turned a certain way towards Remo with a certain expression that the man would know exactly what to say, and then it wouldn’t really be a decision at all, just the formality of properly pronouncing the word yes.
“Didn’t your pop always say it was easier to stop a man from going down than to help him on his way back up? Look at me, Paul. I’m being honest. Rock bottom is on my radar. There aren’t many others I can go to, and certainly not with your sense of decency.”
Their sweaty palms met in a hard handshake.
“Good, good,” Remo said. “You won’t regret this. At least not immediately.”
Paul slapped his knee. Remo reached out and grabbed his wrists. “Let’s say the Lord’s prayer as a benediction.”
Paul’s smile took a few moments to sag and slide as he watched Remo’s earnest brow draw together and his thin lips start to assemble the words in a low mutter. Paul recognized the rhythm even without the enunciation, nodded his head in time, and managed to chime in on “Forever, Amen.” What it meant, he wasn’t sure, and the ensuing silence didn’t aid in any deduction.
The thermostat clicked, reaching its limit of toleration, and triggered the loud rush of central air. Remo’s eyes snapped open.
“Let’s celebrate before we set the particulars in stone, eh?”
* * * *
Paul scooted his chair forward to a small table inside Ms. Mae’s. The daylight outside seemed to be resisted through the architecture of the building. Remo had set his first rule. “I have to be careful now. We can’t be seen in public at any of the usual places. Too many people feel it’s perfectly acceptable to just come up to me and start their accusations. We’re going to have to stick to the dirty and the dark, my friend. Hideaways and haunts, all with easily accessible back doors.” Even now he seemed a little uneasy being so near Magazine Street, a busy retail thoroughfare that the idle wives of his enemies could be walking down toting dogs and shopping bags. Paul, already feeling queasy after pouring so much booze on top of an inconsequential breakfast, bought two bags of chips from the counter and was already ruthlessly chomping down salty mouthfuls of oily relief.
“This place had a more tolerable clientele when it was down across from Arabella Station,” Remo said. “This town would rather take a soiled dollar than ten shiny dimes. But don’t let me get started. Come on, Paul, inform me. How’d the old man go?”
Paul shook his head and drew his eyebrows together. His eyes focused over Remo’s head on a sign bearing the legal rules of billiards. “Ah. Pretty easily, I think. He just tumbled. We were talking about Pete Rose. He walked up the incline to the green then—” Paul made a motion with his hands. “I’ve been wondering if maybe it had been one degree cooler or if the humidity was just a couple points down…. Pop always relied on his environment, you know?”
“You know, he never told a blue joke if he was wearing a tie.”
“Sentimental sediment like that finds a way to settle deep in your mind.”
“It resists dredging.”
Paul opened his second bag of chips. “Sure, sure.”
“But you can’t let it direct your flow. There’s no use worrying about the heat. He could have been just as easily felled by a dip in the stock market.”
“I never thought about that.”
“Or one more story in the paper about civil unrest in a country he’d never heard of until the other month. An accumulation of modern data in his head that his 20th century mind just couldn’t fasten itself around. These are the odd little stresses that scour our bodies, Paul. They take away too much of us. They make brittle our elasticity.”
“Of course, you’re right.”
“But don’t ever think you can single one of them out. They all remain guiltless until compiled.”
Paul wiped his hands on cocktail napkins. “So what do you do?”
Remo swallowed the bottom half of his pint of amber at one go, then clinked his empty glass against Paul’s where it stood on the table. “Cheers. Want another?”
The glasses started to crowd their table. Remo’s hair started to slide apart. He went into the bathroom and returned with it all set back in place. The drinks broke their neat twenties down into tens and scattered fives. By late morning their wallets were thick with wrinkled ones and they were pushing quarters back for tips. Paul burped, his bloodstream fully carbonated. Remo continued to talk, his topics swerving madly from groceries to be kept on hand in the house to reprimands aimed at empty chairs. Paul lost track of who was supposed to be occupying them. Remo’s monologues in the persona of a persecuted gentleman tread deep into Paul’s pillowed mind now that he was in a more emotionally sensitive state. He found himself re-evaluating the old acquaintances being dressed down in absentia. But before he could get too far along, Remo started outlining which brands of toilet paper were permissible and those that should be passed over for being incapable of adequately wiping his ass.
By noon Paul was in desperate need of fresh air.
The sunlight outside made him squint. A dozen young men played basketball on a cement court across the street in what looked like a scattered team of seven versus a taller, faster five. Paul tried to figure out which of the spectators lined along the edges were probable drugs dealers. He picked out a couple of faces and memorized them in case he could be of any help to police at a later date. A skinny white boy energetically rooted for one team, possibly waiting to become a substitution. Paul clicked his tongue and hoped the kid didn’t belong to anyone important.
Paul used the payphone around the corner to check his home voice mail for condolences. The only person who’d felt compelled to call with an appropriate message was Mrs. Gilberti, his old piano teacher. There was a wrong number filling tape with, “Vladimir? Vladimir? Hola, Vladimir?” and his supervisor at work left a bland recital of H&R Block’s bereavement policy. The last was his older brother Robert reminding him of his promised errand.
Paul stepped back inside. Remo was tearing a napkin into little white flakes. “If nobody ever wants to say anything nice to me, why should I make myself so accessible?”
Remo snorted. “Now you’re starting to see things my way.”
“Look, could you help me out with a two-man operation? I gotta get Noel’s car out to the airport, and you could save me having to interrupt the housekeeper.”
“If we’re gonna go, now’s the time to do it. Middle of the day, no one’s on Airline.”
“You’re good to drive?”
“I might have a problem if I had to descend a few flights of stairs right now, but I can keep a car steady.”
* * * *
Remo rode shotgun in Paul’s sedan, hanging one arm off the handle above the window and raising the other a foot and a half in front of his face to block the sunlight. His fingers were spread and curled as if prepared to swat away an incoming projectile.
“Why don’t you put down the visor?”
“I don’t enjoy having my reflection floating up there in the little mirror.”
“I think I’ve got an extra pair of sunglasses in the glove box.”
“I’m comfortable, Paul, I really am.”
Paul didn’t quite slow down enough on the approach, and his car popped up when his wheels hit the uneven level between his sister’s cement driveway and the eroded asphalt of the street. Paul left his door open, pulled a tiny card out of his wallet, and pressed the code written on it into the keypad bolted onto the security gate. He watched the wrought iron roll aside on its track then pulled into the drive. Noel’s house was enormous, its list of previous owners as impressive as a show dog’s certificate of pedigree. In the time of airborne plagues the straight-backed manors in the Garden District had been quarantines, homes shielded from the menace by overprotective palms, ivy, and other flowering sentinels. Now the pretty arrangements distracted those touring the streets from the silence and dark windows of empty homes that were remotely owned. Paul knocked on the door of his sister’s house, paid for and maintained by foreign income, occupied only by the odd couple of his niece and the housekeeper, the two of them separated by fifty years and differing lists of expectations called in from the other side of the world.
Rosehannah opened the door. “Mr. Paul.”
“You need to come inside, or are you just wanting the car keys?”
“I need to use the bathroom. Look, could you make us up a few sandwiches?”
“Hasn’t been since ‘bout this time yesterday.”
Paul frowned. “Well, try to make sure she’s home for when Noel gets here.”
“I’ll put out some milk in a saucer. S’only way I know to gather stray cats.”
After a lengthy piss and an awkward wipe-down of the toilet bowl rim, Paul went back outside with some sandwiches wrapped in paper towels.
Remo pulled his apart. “Peanut butter and molasses?”
“You gotta take what Rosehannah is willing to give. But I grabbed a few devilled eggs, too.”
“I’m taking the Beamer.”
“Oh-ho-ho…I don’t know, Remo.”
“Look, Paul, it’s been an unfortunate period of time since I’ve been able to drive a fine machine, okay? Let me do this.”
“What happened to your Benz?”
“A casualty of war. Come on, give me the keys.”
“Say the alphabet backwards.”
Remo faltered. Paul chided him through a mouthful of egg yolk.
“F and U, how’s that? Quit clowning around and give me the keys, Paul. Trust me, it’ll do wonders for my disposition.”
“Okay. But I’m going to be right behind you.”
Paul and Remo worked the cover off of Noel’s BMW roadster. Remo slid into the leather driver’s seat.
“Black and shiny as Fred Astaire’s shoes,” Paul said. “Try to keep the bugs off the windshield.”
Remo smiled and pulled the door shut.
Paul started to become concerned when Remo didn’t turn onto Octavia to take the route he would have preferred. He followed him through the indecisive crawl of St. Charles Avenue traffic all the way to its end at Carrollton Avenue. Remo turned right, and Paul pulled alongside so that he could gesture his disapproval, but the BMW slid away from him almost immediately and sprinted into a drive-thru daiquiri stand. Paul didn’t have time to do anything but yell. He spurred his car forward up the road to the next interchange over the neutral ground, had to wait for a pair of streetcars to glide past, then made a U-turn back down the street. Just as he pulled into the lot, the BMW emerged from around the other side of the building, and Paul could see Remo removing the taped-down straw from its wrapper and plunging it into a 20 ounce styrofoam cup.
His friend shot back out in front of the oncoming cars and headed north again on Carrollton. Paul gave a frustrated karate chop to his indicator, waited cautiously for the traffic to clear, then listened to his car wind up to fourth gear as he tried to catch up. At the intersection of the Earhart Boulevard, Remo slowly inched his way through a left turn, sticking the nose of the Beamer out and cutting those with the right of way short. He caught a barrage of horns across his stern that goaded him into full acceleration. Paul caught the red light as he pulled up to the same intersection. He craned his neck to watch his sister’s car weave erratically around potholes and pedestrians. Remo was already gunning for top speed on the approach to the expressway, and once he reached the smooth pavement and widened lanes, he began to pull away at eighty.
Paul’s sedan whined. He played a tense game with himself trying to keep the BMW in sight and remain at an inconspicuous speed. Once Remo got at least a mile ahead, Paul gave up and pressed the pedal to the floor. He checked his rear-view mirror every other second, felt the steering wheel go slippery from his sweaty palms. He felt very uncomfortable with a few of his recent decisions now. As he reached the horizon at the top of every overpass his gut clenched against the expectation of seeing his sister’s car scattered in smoking wreckage across the road with Remo’s bloody body at the epicenter.