Natural Causes


by Penn Javdan


Half the job is keeping your mouth shut.

Bobby and I were at the Harbor, swinging our legs and waiting for the shipment to arrive.

“I’m going to retire on this one,” he said.

Seventy two hours ago, Bobby’d limped out of The East Detention Centre in Scarborough. He left with the same tank top and portable radio he went in with, drooling over the surprise he had for Michelle. Bobby thought he’d show up three years later with a 5 dollar arrangement in his fist. That he and his girlfriend would pick up where they’d left off. That Michelle was alone, legs crossed, fingers crossed, waiting for his call.

“I’m going to get her flowers,” he said.

Bobby wanted to know what I thought.

“Try the Bleeding Heart,” I said.

The flower was faithful to its name. A pink, heart shaped nucleus, cushioned by a cluster of 5-petal, blue hued clovers, bottom drooping into a tail, destined to leak, destined to ooze. Bobby nodded at my suggestion and brought a cigarette to his unblemished, porcelain face. His eyes grew large at the sight of the docking ship.

***

My name is Cole Darling and I never ask what’s in the bags. I’m not supposed to. I prefer it that way. Nothing to know, nothing to tell. I make my drops, pick up my pay, and never turn around. But this time my enemies were shaking their fists at the universe. Pathology and money and vengeance were their reasons, and Skyler was mine.

The arrival of European guns to Southern Ontario five hundred years ago produced a ghost that lingered in the form of nipples and legs. The offspring of Dutch fur trappers and Iroquois chiefs, Skyler Downes walked the earth with a curse between her lips. Years in and months apart, she told me, “stop treating me like I’m going to break,” then, ”don’t leave,” then, “why haven’t you given up on me yet?” then, “it’s always been you.” Now it was Carma Bewford’s turn, because blackmail was nine tenths of the law.

 ***

Entangled in his own ignorance, Bobby drew me into Carma’s world. An arena crammed with fury and bruises, shovels in trunks, moonlit deceits. At his release party, Bobby introduced the man to me. That’s when the tick in my neck returned. Carma had already once beaten the scalp off Skyler’s head. Wielding his desires against the girl who’d never beg, the girl who kept saying no. After knowing she could have me only from afar, she confessed that running was the best way to be alone when being alone was the last thing she wanted.

Carma was a level headed murderer, but thanks to Skyler did things no true murderer would do. Like make exceptions and give second chances. I’d taken Skyler away from him, at least in the ways that mattered. Carma huffed and puffed, then made me be wherever he wanted me to be. By rolling up my sleeves and plumbing the pits of the earth. Skyler was always mine to begin with or never mine at all. It depended on the angle of vision.

 ***

At first, trusting Bobby was like trusting a black hole in the cosmos. Whenever we were in a jam, the kid would convince me that Carma was the way out. I slapped myself for hobbling into a job that never let you walk away. But on the nights when I needed her voice, that tone smeared with tremble and hesitation, I understood. In the damage of longing came the pure, pathetic truth that this was me doing this to myself. Twitching, hunting for a ghost. For a wounded angel on a barstool. It reminded me that I was still alive.

 ***

Skyler’s sticker price was seventy two thousand six hundred and sixty six dollars. By now she’d served most of Carma’s purpose and had earned interest.

“Your employee rate,” he bragged coolly.

There was a catch. Before he was willing to release me, I had to make a final drop. The offer set off alarm bells in my head. The same alarm bells that ding-d and rattled when Bobby assured me about what we were doing as point men, what we were always on the verge of doing, what we’d already done.

“Do we have a deal?” Carma asked.

Bobby must’ve been at the florist by now, buying the Bleeding Heart for Michelle. The same one Skyler sniffed on the houseboat we’d lived on when Skyler and me were Skyler and me.

I told Carma we had a deal.

 ***

The day before my last drop, I heard Bobby making noise. In the aching hours before dawn, he was turning my trailer kitchen upside down. He thought I was going talk him out of it. Maybe worse.

“Don’t,” he said.

“I wasn’t,” I said back.

Bobby had his own drop to make. But he was here to switch our bags. He wanted Carma to brand him a hero so Bobby could be Michelle’s hero.

I let Bobby make the switch. I knew what it was like to have a girl and need money. I wanted to see him work it out. To win. And I was dead anyway. Once Carma found out about the night Skyler and had recently spent in my trailer, it was just a matter of time.

Earlier that night, I’d violated a rule too. I’d peeked in my bag and saw what was inside. I recognized a black bodied, gold-rimmed urn, the one containing Skyler’s mother’s ashes. The one I promised I’d help deposit when the time was right, whenever that would be. Also I saw a family of jewels suffocated by the dust, meant for delivery. Meant for delivery by me.

My bag in hand with his head held high, Bobby left. Watching him trail away, I knew I was doing this for myself too. Bobby’s pipe dream would rub me out of the equation. His itch to defy lottery style odds would rid me of the risk of Skyler’s smile again. It would put an end to things. To the biological reflexes of this job, the futile looking-over-the-shoulder that I’d justly incurred. To Skyler reaching for me with half of her heart, hurling and unhurling herself at my life.  Skyler the boomerang.

***

I didn’t see or hear from anyone for three days. Northbound on the 404 with shattered headlights and only the first fifty feet before me at any given time, I was flirting with the contours of darkness. The road ahead revealed itself as what hung overhead. Above. I took this as the way to contemplate in myself nameless things that lived inside, behind, underneath.

The night was beating against my back, and when I pulled into the lot in front of Skyler’s apartment, I looked through her window. Nothing. I went upstairs, retrieved the spare key from my pocket, and let myself in. Utter vacancy.

I looked out the window and saw her car parked. A lamp-pole flickered as it cast its light over the Chevy, rearranging its body against the pavement, reducing it to a trembling silhouette. The door was unlocked as I approached the car. I saw no indications of struggle. I clicked the glove compartment open and began shuffling her things around, ransacking for signs of life. The snubnose revolver I’d installed was missing. Instead, I found a shell of lipstick, a bouquet of crumpled receipts, and a fresh slice of bleeding heart, aching loose between the pages of an unused notepad, still there, still alive.

I tucked the petal into my pocket, fell back in my car, and peeled away.

 ***

The water burned, but the scotch went down smooth. On the way to my trailer I’d ducked into a bar. Before I’d stepped in, I could feel someone watching. It was Marco, Carma’s trigger boy. He’d dug his elbows into the counter and was hugging a bottle of Stoli.

“I’m out of a job,” he said turning away from me, “but I’ll buy you a drink.”

Carma had just fired him for failing to find Bobby. Marco pursuing me would’ve been both senseless and forbidden. He informed me that the only reason I was still breathing was because Carma knew that without me, there was no Skyler.

“Where is she?” I asked.

He pulled a hopeless swig from the bottle. “I were you, I’d forget the whole thing and live again.”

I wanted to say something else, but only one thing came to mind.

“And if I don’t?”

I expected him to reach for the .38 bulging under his blazer. In this line of work, men with grenades under their mattresses didn’t need reasons to inflict their will on you when you weren’t looking. But he didn’t. I could see that reality had its way of taming him by putting his spine up against a wall. I thought about this reality, and tried reassuring myself that I’d done the right thing, leasing the houseboat back in my name.

The vodka had taken Marco over now. He turned to me and said, “men who love aren’t built to last.”

I let his words settle, knowing this was the kind of thing a person said after reserving it under his tongue for a lifetime, deploying it only to someone who might listen.

“Maybe they are,” I said.

After an extended silence, he pulled out a pile of change.

“I got it,” I said, tugging at the check.

He bobbed his head to thank me, then told me to find myself another beautiful woman and forget.

“That’s what they do, Cole. Beautiful women help you forget.”

“What is it they help you forget?”

“Other beautiful women.”

We both smirked. I readied my hand for the blade in my boot. Just in case.

 ***

Before they’d disbanded, Carma’s crew launched my trailer off the banana shaped ridge that jutted out and hung over the lake. Looking down from the summit, I studied the mangled steel, the oil and gas patterns splattered over the snow, two hundred feet below.

I was back to living on my houseboat. I could’ve spelled out for Skyler how Carma Bewford used her mother’s cremated remains as a conduit to smuggle his life savings to a secret refuge. How he enlisted me to do it and demanded that I keep quiet, which I did. I could’ve said all that, but I didn’t.

Winter wobbled on its last legs. The ice liquified and the sleet evaporated and on weekends I heard laughing on neighbors’ boats. The clip clop of dancing heels, the rumble of music and the dizziness of celebration umbrellad by twilight. Through the glass of a Harbor restaurant, I saw women waving their wrists, but their wrists weren’t her wrists. Their voices weren’t hers. Every time I twisted my head to forget, she’d appear in their wagging limbs, their sighs, their stuttering mouths that said goodbye, the places Skyler shouldn’t’ve been, the empty places, the spaces in between.

 ***

Nothing unfolded as planned. They got to Bobby. Drunk, high, and full of himself, Carma promoted him, which translated to splitting us up as partners. The first maneuver in a demented, dooming calculation.

Before they dragged Bobby and Michelle to the Mississauga refineries, gagged and chopped them to slabs, Bobby managed to send me the urn emptied of its jewels, along with a message.

“I’m sorry,” is all it said.

Was Bobby warning me to flee? Was the taste of remorse on his tongue before his captors resorted to knives? Or was this him saying, don’t let your girl turn into another Michelle?

A freight train was coming and I had to jump out of the way. It was going to hurt to drive back into this town. If I left, I’d be gone forever. Things became a part of you when you stopped being a part of them. That’s when I realized I had to leave, because Toronto stopped being my home a long time ago.

But I couldn’t. I closed my eyes and there was Skyler again.

***

I kept thinking of the day Bobby and I waited for those ships, the look, the wanting in my friend’s eyes. Now I had to pinch myself. Because Bobby had showed my fate a throbbing middle finger. Carma’s rivals had learned of Bobby’s switch and, owing to the jewels quietly buried among the ashes, disposed of Carma and his legacy. All because Bobby never squealed. He never let the world see him cry.

The authorities indulged in their forensics, poked around and located Carma’s carcass tethered to cinder blocks by the shores off Kingston Road and Danforth Ave., beneath the pier where I thought Skyler had left me for good.

 ***

 I open the galley door when Skyler comes calling, two days later. Something’s new. In her gaze there used to be a stillness, a permanent looking-in-the-distance. A wisdom only pain and philosophy could provide. But that was then.

“You came back,” I tell her.

“Bobby showed what you did,” she says, presenting the urn. “I never really left.”

We finish spreading her mother’s ashes across the lake. I trust her to shave my beard with the blade steaming at my throat, and ask myself, what if Bobby hadn’t kept his mouth shut? What if I’d been the one who’d gnawed off more than I could chew?

The Bleeding Heart blooms for a short time in the spring, sprouting wordlessly in the shade, behind the world’s noise. Like how Bobby tried to do.

The flower’s in my grip as Skyler stands there, biting her bottom lip.

“I’ll get a vase,” I say.

 ***

 The other half of the job is waiting til you don’t have to wait anymore.