by Joe Giordano
The window-air conditioner in my studio apartment crapped out during a run of hundred-degree days in July. I’d been unemployed for months, and cash was non-existent to fix or replace the damned thing. Combing my hair raised a sweat, so I cycled between showers and lying in bed, naked, limiting movement, shades drawn to blunt the scalding sun. The evenings didn’t cool. One night, I tried to sleep on the floor in front of the open icebox. No luck. My sanity dangled by the thread of a small portable fan directed onto my face. Like a malignant disease, the heat wave hung on. Miserable days bled into steamy nights. I didn’t leave my flat. I competed with green mold for leftover scraps and ate canned goods months out-of-date. I dozed fitfully. I understood why sleep-depravation was torture. That’s how people were driven crazy.
My dreams became odd, with a particular scene reoccurring. I floated over a public hanging in the eighteenth-century Texas town of El Paso. The planked, raised scaffold smelled like treated wood and competed with acrid sweat and cigar smoke rising from the men in wide-brimmed hats who crowded around. A rope and noose hung from a post-lintel set of beams poised above a trap door. A sheriff, badge glinting in the torturous sun, and a preacher in black stood beside a knot of men who dragged a wiry man with a handlebar-mustache and close-cropped hair toward the rope. His hands and feet were bound. The condemned outlaw thrust his chin at the crowd in contempt. At first, he ignored my presence.
Shouts rang out from the spectators. “Murderer.”
The noose was dragged over the man’s face and secured around his neck. The preacher asked if he had any final words.
The killer sneered. “I’m here to die, not to make a speech.”
The man-of-the-cloth stepped back. I expected that a sack would be pulled over the victim’s face. Instead, the sheriff nodded, and the trap door was pulled.
The convict’s body dropped, but his neck didn’t snap. For minutes, he strangled. The crowd watched in silence. I heard the rope stretch, and the scaffold creak. The man’s cheeks puffed, his face turned crimson, and his purple tongue protruded. Then, incredibly, his body turned. Bulging brown eyes stared at me. There was a flicker of recognition on his face. I gulped.
I awoke, gasping. My heart pounded. My mouth was dry. My body was sweated, and the sheets were clammy. The image of the executed man’s distorted face with his eyes trained on me, was imprinted on my brain. I tossed and turned. Every time I nodded off, the dream replayed.
Eventually, food was gone and my flat seemed a prison. I had to get out. I walked toward the center of Austin. The sun radiated heat like a steam boiler. The breeze, such as it was, warmed rather than cooled. My jeans and tee shirt were quickly wet and clung to me. Downtown, homeless were at every turn. I wasn’t asked for spare change. Perhaps, they sensed that I’d soon join their ranks. I spotted a dark entrance, The Badlands Saloon on Sixth Street, and craved some respite from the sun. The place was empty, but the interior was cool and smelled like stale beer. A cold brew; I licked my dry lips at the thought. The little cash in my pocket had to buy food, so when the bartender asked what I wanted, I shook my head. He grimaced at me like, buy a drink or get the hell out.
I was about to leave, when a voice behind me said, “How about a beer? My treat.”
I turned. My jaw dropped. The wiry gent with a handle-bar mustache who sat at a dim-lit corner table was the killer, hung in my dream. Wait, I thought, was this some sort of insane déjà vu? Was my mind going in the heat? The light was poor. I stepped closer. The guy didn’t resemble the murderer; he was the murderer. I stiffened.
My hesitation didn’t pass unnoticed.
He said, “Jesus. Will you stand there silent like a totem? I offered to buy you a beer.”
I didn’t budge. My mind processed. The mustache. Those brown eyes. Eerie.
He called to the bartender. “Bring my friend a Dos Equis, and another for me.” He seemed amused, as if by a private joke. He said, “Sit.”
Either I would run, or drink. When I sat, the chair legs scraped a planked, wooden floor. The bartender arrived with a couple of bottles with lime-quarters tucked into their mouths.
My host held out his hand. “I’m Crawford Goldsby. My friends call me Cherokee.”
When we shook, his palm felt rough. “I’m Wes Hardin. Thanks for the beer.” I gulped the brew down in one chug. Had I ever tasted anything better? I clunked the bottle onto the table.
Goldsby tilted his head. “Did you say Wesley Hardin?”
The booze went straight to my head. I stifled a burp. “Yes.”
My eyebrows rose. “Why?”
Goldsby said, “I work for the Austin American-Statesman. One of my jobs is to compose obituaries. I’m writing one now. For Wesley Hardin. Any relation?”
A chill went down my back. “That’s not funny.”
“I’m serious.” Goldsby opened his jacket and pulled folded papers from an inside pocket.
I noticed that he carried a pistol tucked into a shoulder holster. My eyes widened. Texas law forbid firearms in bars. Goldsby spread the papers in front of me. I peered at them in dim light.
I read, “Hardin, Wesley – Austin. Age 38. Visitation tomorrow at 6 p.m. at Taylor Funeral Home and Cremation Services, Austin, TX.”
My face went bloodless. “How the hell did you know my name?”
Goldsby raised his palms. “I didn’t. I thought that you’d heard of Hardin’s death and were playing a joke on me.”
“You listed his age as thirty-eight. I’m thirty-eight.”
Goldsby mused. “Really? What a strange coincidence.”
“What’s his birthdate?”
Goldsby took back his papers. He produced reading glasses and checked through his notes. “October 18, 1977.”
“Goddamn,” I said. “That’s my birthday. What the hell sort of game are you playing, Mister?”
Goldsby shook his head. “No game. Take it easy. It’s too hot. You’ll have a stroke.”
I looked hard at Goldsby. No doubt, he was the guy in my dream. I kneaded my chin. Now, he handed me my obituary. Was I going nuts?
I said, “I didn’t see the date of death.”
Goldsby said, “No. Right. I don’t know. I presume yesterday or the day before. I need to check with the office.”
I had to calm down. I took some deep breaths.
Goldsby said, “I’m sorry that I upset you. It’s a crazy coincidence. Allow me to buy you another beer.” He caught the bartender’s attention. “Two more.”
By the time that the beers arrived, my pulse had slowed. Goldsby’s resemblance to the hanged man was unnerving. Could there have been another Wes Hardin, my age, living in Austin? With the same birthday? I shook my head. I knocked back the second Dos Equis. The alcohol improved my frame of mind. I said, “I noticed that you’re carrying. Why doesn’t the bartender object?”
“Oh. I’ve been coming here forever.” He pulled the pistol from its holster, a snub-nose Smith & Wesson revolver. “It’s not loaded.”
He waved the piece.
I said, “I was taught to treat every gun as if it were loaded. Especially the ones I believed weren’t.”
Goldsby directed the barrel toward me. It looked black as a bat’s cave.
He said, “Are you afraid of guns?”
“Not at all.”
“Strange for a Texan not to be comfortable around firearms.”
“I’ll be fine if you watch how you point that thing,” I said.
“I told you, no bullets.”
“Want proof?” Goldsby put the barrel of the revolver to his temple.
I straightened. “What are you doing?”
“Proving a point.” His forefinger moved from the guard to the trigger.
“Stop,” I said.
He squeezed. The hammer lifted, then clicked down.
I gasped. “You’re out of your mind.”
“I don’t wet my pants at the sight of a pistol.”
I said, “Thanks for the beers, but I’ll be going.”
As I rose, Goldsby’s free hand gripped my wrist like a bear trap. He said, “Wait a minute. Don’t be like that.”
Goldsby lowered the revolver.
He said, “Is this a polite way to treat a man who bought you two beers?”
“I appreciate the drinks, but you made me nervous with that stunt.”
Outside the bar, I heard the rumble of thunder. A storm was approaching. Good, I thought, that will cool the air. Finally.
Goldsby didn’t release my arm. “Relax. Let’s have another beer.”
Goldsby called out. The bartender nodded.
Goldsby holstered the weapon. I sat my butt down.
Goldsby released me. “That’s better. You need to cure yourself of this unreasonable fear of guns.”
“I’m not afraid. I just don’t like them waved around dangerously.”
Goldsby straightened. “Dangerous? I’ll show you dangerous.”
Fast as a striking rattler, his right hand drew the pistol and cocked it. He aimed the revolver between my eyes, about a foot from my nose.
I recoiled. The chair almost went backwards with me in it.
My voice was a growl. “Take that weapon out of my face.”
Goldsby sneered. “I thought you weren’t afraid of guns.”
“You’re insane,” I said.
Goldsby’s pistol didn’t waver. His forefinger moved from the guard to the trigger.
“Stop,” I said. “Do I know you? Why are you doing this?”
His finger began to squeeze the trigger. He said, “It’s not loaded.”
The world went into slow motion. I heard the crack of thunder. The air in the bar was still, stifling. The heat, I thought. Hot enough to drive a man mad.