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LOVE LAND

by

Neil Smith



ďGerald pushed his glasses up on his head and walked in a circle, eyeing his son in some distracted contemplation. His son forgot the video game he was playing and looked up at his father, trying to grasp his confused ramble. Gerald turned from his son, was used to turning away from his son when the ruddy concave side of the boyís face was showing.

"Thereís things that are just very hard to explain to kids," he said and went to the bookshelf. His son put down the control and gave his father his full attention. Heíd learned early this was the thing to do. Someone from the radio was asking, "Why wait? Why wait?" with great concern, the manís voice echoing as if calling from a mine shaft. Mickey imagined taking a rail-cart down to see the new cars.

"Here," Gerald said, and pulled a tattered paperback from the rickety bookshelf heíd painted blue last summer. The paint heíd found earlier that day in a field, and together father and son painted it in back of the apartment complex. The smell of it lasted for months, and jagged strips peeled off every time he retrieved a book. He pulled one such strip off, crinkled it and flicked it away.

"Serial Murder, by Alex Kearney," he said. Gerald held the book up and began to determinedly flip through the pages, his greasy salt and pepper hair disheveled and awkwardly pushed up by his prison-issue glasses, the book inches from his face. He clumsily fingered the lenses and pulled them down.

"Lundy, Darrel Lundy. Here it is." He sat down on the couch. Mickey sat down beside him, hesitant, curious. Father began reading:

ĎThe crimes of Darrel Lundy ushered in such a sharply rising trend of like cases in the seventies that the term Ďserial killerí became, by rote, an official part of our everyday lexicon. The fact that this prolific increase led to the natural development of a generic archetype in media, from movies and books to comics and playing cards, suggests a deep and disturbing psychic fissure in the collective consciousness of the decade. This is a subject for another book, indeed, a whole slew of them, but the facts of the matter are these -- the rise at the turn of the decade was sudden and swift, and the fall off at the end, precipitous. That this might be attributed to fluky coincidence must be ruled out as a matter of simple common sense." He closed the book.

"Dad, who was Darrel Lundy," Mickey asked in his peculiar, pinched voice. Gerald got up and put the book back on the shelf. He let out a breath. "Darrel Lundy was a thirtyish guy in Texas who worked as a sort of freelance electrician. He and a friend, an older teen heíd conned and manipulated, used to cruise all over Texas, sometimes Oklahoma, and try to pick up kids around your age, you know, ten or so. From arcades, bowling alleys, malls, wherever. Uh, they would get a kid in their van, tie him up and take him back to their house where they had a basement set up and they would, uh, then proceed to kill the kid. When they were done theyíd put him in the trunk and go bury him in a boat-shed theyíd rented. Thatís how they got busted, the owner got suspicious at all the late night activity. The teen copped a plea and turned states evidence against Lundy, and he was electrocuted a few years ago." His son gave him a quizzical look.

""Why did they do it?" he asked. "Did they hate kids?"

""No, no they didnít, and thatís my point. They were compelled," Gerald answered, trying to emphasise the point with his hands. "When they were caught, Lundy said he never hated those kids. Never hated them, Mickey. Considered some of them his friends." He got up and looked around: The apartment was terribly cluttered, small. He turned to his son. "It ainít just a type of man that does this. Itís outside forces, things you canít control, like the book says. People are all born basically the same. It takes an insightful person to detect something like that happening to him, and a brave one to make it stop. Do you understand?" He smiled uncomfortably and met his sonís gaze, then checked the pockets in his coat; pliers, clay, the phone battery, Swiss Army knife. The little .22 caliber was in the glove box. Heíd fixed the patio door-lock long ago. He bent down to his son:

""Iím going to go get a pack of cigarettes and take care of some things. Iíll be a bit. Just play your games. You donít have to worry about things like that, Iíll make sure of it. Youíre gonna be all right." He bent down, closed his eyes, and quickly kissed his son on the top of his head and walked toward the door. The boy sat there on the couch watching his father. Gerald grabbed the needle-nose pliers from his pocket, went to the door and twisted the screw in the bolt-lock open. He went out into the hallway, looked down the hall and shut the door. He took a small lump of clay out of his pocket, which he wedged into the lock, inserted his key, turned it, and broke it off. He then put clay in the handle lock and broke that key off too. He walked down the hall to the elevators. He was not worried. Gerald and the boyís mother, when she was in the picture, had been leaving him alone for long stretches since he was six.

"Mickey stood, went over to the radio and turned it off. He took out his pocket mirror. It was shaped like a green sea shell. He went into the bathroom, careful not to look at himself in the larger bathroom mirror, and opened the little mirror. He turned it to the big mirror, looking askance into the pocket mirror until Ö there, there. He held the little green mirror steady. There he was, the profile of a normal boy. This was one of his favorite things to do alone, and it never ceased to amaze him. But he couldnít hold it too long, or his hand got tired and he didnít like to break the spell that lingered, so he closed the pocket mirror, turned quickly away from the larger mirror, and skipped out of the bathroom. He knew his father might be gone for hours, and if he was lucky, heíd would come home stone drunk and pass out cold, sometimes right inside the doorway. And that was when Mickey felt most comfortable going through his fatherís things, when he was snoring on the floor. But for now, he had to be careful. He couldnít watch dadís porn, but he could grab a Penthouse and slide it under the couch if he comes. He could maybe look at those naked pictures of his mom in the bedside table. To Mickey, there was an inexplicable fascination about them; her smile was sincere, carefree. Whatever came over her hadnít happened yet. Perhaps Mickey was what came over her. He looked around, wondering which magazine to grab. The one with the girl wearing the football helmet that says ĎMovies, Movies, Movies!í. On the coffee table there was an open dictionary, with something circled in red. Mickey sat and bent close to read it:

ĎRepression: A process by which unacceptable desires or impulses are excluded from consciousness and left to operate in the unconscious.í Mickey blinked and went to his fatherís bedroom.

Gerald Stanton was a good man, he knew this, past mistakes notwithstanding. He sat by himself in the bar for hours, stealing himself for his duty, watching the shadows gradually creep across the floor and invade the club. He thought back, remembered things -- his motherís funeral. She looked asleep, and it fascinated him as a boy to think he could lift up her arm and take a razor blade and slowly slice the skin from her elbow to her wrist in long straight strips and she would still wear that contented relaxed look. He shut his eyes tight to try and forget the memory. It was a brave man who could recognize and face his demons. He tipped the last of his beer, paid his tab and left.

It had become night and the headlights on his dull gray í84 Celica lit the dark road ahead, gleaming the trees and creating a boundary for the rolling yellow lines that seemed to roll in from nowhere. He took a long pull off the fifth of Seagrams lying in the crook of the passengerís seat. The old highway was always deserted, always a long straight ride. He unbuckled his seat-belt and moved it out of his way. A few cars went by now and then, always going faster than they should be. "Hurry up and wait,í Lee used to say. The radio was playing some happy pop tune. Gerald turned it off. At the top of the hill, in the distance, he could see lights, larger and higher than a carís: A semi. He accelerated slowly, not obviously, and broke out into a sweat. He could deal with this right now. The truck was moving, barreling. He could hear the gears shifting to accommodate the stretch of road ahead. Gerald groaned in fear through his teeth. The note was in his pocket. The truck was there, now, up on him, the yellow lines were rolling right under his left tires -- its horn was blowing, and Gerald veered away and went on by, feeling the power of the rig rock the little car.

Mickey had done it all, and put everything back in its place. It was dark now, and he was bored. When he looked for the pair of needle-nose pliers theyíd used to unlock the door he couldnít find them. He also found he couldnít unlock the door handle. Something wasnít right, and the speech his father gave him, cryptic and puzzling, almost ominous, along with the fact that heíd been gone for hours, made Mickey feel uncomfortable alone in the apartment. So he decided to take matters into his own hands, investigate, like a detective. He thought, and rummaged around in the various drawers of the apartment, and found a few useful tools that may do the job. It took quite a few hits with the bottom of the hammer, but Mickey eventually succeeded in knocking the bolt-lock assembly out of the door and into the apartment hallway. He looked out the hole. The hallway was empty. He grabbed a box of crackers and sat down by the door.

Gerald turned into Turnerís Used Auto Parts, where he used to work. Heíd liked his job and felt his firing was petty and spiteful. The gravel crunched under the Toyotaís wheels as he slowed to a stop before the corrugated metal fence that surrounded the wrecking yard. He might have killed that semi-driver. Stupid. He grabbed the gun and got out of the car, put the bottle under his arm, and used his old key to open the gate. He was anxious, almost giddy to put a bullet in his head, and imagined what it would be like to be found, the note read to those who knew him. The stubborn gate pulled open with ignorant creaks and groans. He went back and put the note on the dash, then thought better and put it on the driverís seat, tucking a corner into the seat to keep it in place, and left the car unlocked. Then he entered the junk yard.

Mickey heard the elevator open and close. He heard keys. He put his mouth to the hole.

"Hey," he yelled, "hey Iím trapped in here!"

"What?" a womanís voice asked.

"Iím trapped in this apartment. I donít know where my dad is. I canít get out."

"Iím coming," the woman said, and eventually Mickey saw an old lady carrying a plastic bag. She looked down at the lock assembly on the carpet. She saw an eye peering out at her.

"Whereís your family, hon," she asked.

"I donít know. Iíve been here for two days," Mickey lied.

"Just a minute, Iíll get the maintenance man. Donít worry, Iíll be back," she said and smiled at him through the hole and left.

"Hold on, son," she called back assuredly and walked off.

The auto yard looked strange at night; perched on hilly ground, nearby rows of rusted and bent husks curled into themselves, and as the land rose, in the distance a bizarre city of dark twisting shapes were reaching up into the purple-hued night. He walked to the middle of the yard, feeling watched, and opened the door of a hoodless wrecked Ď73 Cadillac, a once beautiful car now picked apart and abandoned. He scooted to the middle of the front seat and stared out the windshield. A í77 Grand Prix, was across from him with its hood up, parts of the engine and hoses piled up on the block as if left from an abandoned surgery. He tipped the bottle and laid the gun on the seat. The moonís luminescence shone off the cars, exposing the grit of rust and dull tint of faded colors. He felt drunk and grabbed the gun. This ought to make everyone very happy. He saw his son with his childís smile on his deformed face. The pathetic combination horrified him, impeled thoughts, things he imagined doing, and it was quite welcome to put the gun to his head above his ear and pull the trigger. The sound was deafening, and it felt like heíd just been whacked in the head with a mallet. It knocked him against the passenger door and he lay there, he supposed, waiting to die. He closed his eyes and felt nauseous, and turned over and threw up. There was no pain, only a burning and a feeling like an iron rod was slowly being turned through his head. He yelled out in fright at the terrible new feeling.

Eventually the old woman came back with the maintenance man. He looked at the lock, asked something of the woman, and said, "Okay, Iíll have you out in a minute, son, stay cool. Weíll take care of ya." "Okay," Mickey said. He heard a tool box set down and opened. Then he heard scraping and other noises being applied to the door lock. Soon, the lock was very loose and the maintenance man removed it. Little fingers slid through the hole and the door opened revealing a boy with something very wrong with him, with his head. It was pushed in, like the punched-in side of a plastic coke bottle. Behind him, the apartment looked like a disgrace.

"Are you okay?" the maintenance man asked, appearing startled.

"Yeah," the boy said in a strange voice. "I donít know what to do. Iím okay, though." He gave a shy apologetic laugh. The maintenance man turned to the woman.

"Can you help him out," he asked, "get him to somebody?" The woman didnít say anything. "I sure could use your help on this."

"Okay," she said finally, "okay, come with me to my place. Thank you so much, Fred. Iíll see if I can help him."

"Thanks Patti. Let me or Sonny know what happens. Sheíll take care of you," he said to the boy without looking at him and bent down, picked up his tool box and headed down the hall.

"Well, come on to my place, you can wait there." The boy followed her to her apartment, walking with his head down and the bad side tilted toward his shoulder, the way he walked in public. They stepped into an apartment the same size as his, but completely different -- clean, neat. An old ladyís apartment. The woman went into her kitchen and brought out a tray of cookies.

"Go ahead and have one," she said. The boy grabbed a cookie, and set the tray on the coffee table by a stack of plastic coasters. A huge TV console was set in the corner, a flower arrangement perched on top. He wondered if she had cable. Probably. The woman looked about, as if she wasnít sure she was in her own apartment.

"So, you donít know where your parents are?"

"No," the boy said.

"Thereís nobody for you to call?"

"No. I live with my dad. Heís got problems. Heís been in prison before, for a long time, I guess. I wasnít born yet. Now, heís waiting to go to trial for throwing a beer bottle in a bar, or something like that. My mom and dad are divorced. I donít know where she is." He shrugged his shoulders sheepishly.

The woman seemed disappointed.

"You donít have anybody to call at all?"

"No, no one. I donít know anybody except kids."

"Couldnít one of their parents come and get you? One of your friends?"

"I donít know any of their numbers, and they arenít really my friends. You know how they are. Just kids." The woman frowned.

"Okay, well wait here for a bit. Iíll be right back." She went into her bedroom, sat on her bed and picked up the phone.

Nothing was happening. There was a strong smell of gunpowder as Gerald tried to pick up the gun, but was too weak, or drunk, or both. It dropped on the floorboard and there was no way he was going to find the strength to retrieve it. He got up and staggered out of the car, knowing he couldnít be found here by Charlie or Lee or any of the others, unless he was dead. There was a strange hazy glow to things, and a noise in the air that wasnít there before, a buzz that mightíve been coming from his head. His hands tingled tremendously. He felt his head for a hole, but only found a large lump. Still, it could be a hole. He found he couldnít walk straight and knew it wasnít just the whiskey. Whiskey never made him feel like this, like walking on a tilted board, and he tried to right himself, to somehow straighten his ankles so he could walk at this absurd angle. His feet twisted under him and he put his hand out, slashing it open on something sharp and metallic. The pain was distant, detached from him, part of the air around him. He attempted to steady himself, went with the angle, and made his way to the gate exit, which was bathed in flashing lights, blue and red.

Outside, the police had a spotlight aimed at the area, when a man stumbled out of the junk yard. One yelled "hold it, sir," but didnít draw his gun. The man, with blood shining on the side of his head and vomit down his shirt, sank to his knees and began sobbing, putting his hands to his face. "I canít walk," he sobbed. There was an enormous gash between his thumb and forefinger. The two policemen lifted him gently and carried him to the patrol car. His lack of balance made him slip out of the policemenís grasp, and his weight propelled him like a missile, ramming him into the door of the police car, slamming it shut, and bouncing him off twisting to the ground, where he vomited and whimpered in defeated frustration.

"Sir," one of them exclaimed with a slight chuckle at the manís almost comical drunken pirouette, "youíre gonna need to rest this one off. Youíre a mess."

"Hey, youíre going to be okay, fella," the other said, stifling a laugh and bending down to pick him up, patting him on the back. The man slurred something in between sobs as they laid him in the back seat.

"Please relax sir, youíre intoxicated. Youíre also under arrest for tresspassing. And donít worry, weíll get that hand taken care of before we lock you up for the night," He shook his head at the other policeman in grudging acceptance of the folly. The man lay in the back of the car, exhausted. The world was reeling, and he was sickly, but he knew he was going to live, he knew that, and he wanted to get that note, that stupid and embarrassing note, but hadnít the strength.

"Hello, yes, I have a boy here at Madison Apartments who was apparently locked in his apartment for two days. Yes, two days. The maintenance man had to remove the door to get him out. The lock was fixed with clay. No, he doesnít seem to know anyone, no relatives or anybody. No, no, I have places to go, you know, you need to come get him. Yes. Okay. Okay, weíll be here. Could you hurry please, he, he canít stay here. Number two-fifty-four. Yes. Thank you." She hung up the phone and got up. The boy was still standing, looking at a painting of an unshaven clown, head tilted and sad, holding a sagging bouquet of flowers.

"Go ahead, you can sit down," she said, and motioned toward the lounge chair. The boy tentatively sat down. "Um, thatís nice," the boy said, pointing at the painting. "Kinda funny, you know," he said awkwardly, trying to make conversation. The woman sat at the edge of her couch. Above her on the wall was a cross with a bronze crucified Christ, feet crossed, head turned away, and beside it, a large plate that said ĎParisí with a silhouette of the Eiffel Tower in the background.

"You can have another cookie," she said, and sort of waved her hand at the tray. The boy took another cookie and looked at her as he took a bite.

"You never asked me my name," the boy said.

"Oh, didnít I? Well, whatís your name?"

"Mickey."

"Mickey. Well." She looked down at her hands and then glanced out the window. She couldnít think of anything to say.





ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Neil Smith is a very charming man from Seattle. The things he likes to do are various and generally tinged with tinctures of slip-shod phantasmagoria and ritalin-esque ribaldry. If you met him on the street though, you'd think he was just some sort of mindless dork. That's okay. He got his English degree from Indiana U, and has a job with a small but significant brokerage. He also has an '85 Honda Accord. So there.







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