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Big Black Monster

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Vassie Watts saw his life as a giant animal, plowing methodically ahead. All he could see of it were the ridges of a spine under dull black fur. Some days the haunches towered over him and blocked his view of the horizon, but mostly the beast was hidden in fog, pulling Vassie by a tether. He couldn't let go because the thing would turn around and trample him.

The plant-watering job wasn't Vassie's idea. Two years ago his probation officer and his mother decided that a job would keep him out of trouble. There wasn't enough business at the antique store for her to need his help, so he had to drive out to O'Hare three times a week and water the plants in the lobbies and atriums of the corporate complexes around the airport. He pulled away dead leaves, picked gum and wrappers out of the soil, and hid the plants that had died between his visits. His pal Tony got him the job. Tony had been watering plants for nearly three years; he was able to do a week's worth in a day and a half and screw off for the other 28 hours of the week. Two months passed before Vassie could find his way around the looping drives and corporate malls and cut some time off his workweek.

He didn't dislike the job, but he wasn't working toward anything other than making his boss rich. During the day, a plan would pop into his head, streams of them would come and go and compound or morph into new plans until the original plan was forgotten. Some days his head was always somewhere else and the ideas came too fast. Other times his perspective shrank and left him wondering how others were able to do things he had no capacity to handle. When they asked kindly what Vassie wanted to do with his life, he'd say he wanted to own a tavern someday, even though all he really wanted was to smash the nose of the person who asked.

If Vassie sat down with a blank piece of paper with the intention of outlining a five-year plan, he'd end up with nothing more than a page of poorly drawn penises and airplanes. How could anyone see a year down the road? The one time he tried to put a plan into action he got arrested and then hired at the plant-watering job. Neither had been his goal.

Santana, Vassie's upstairs neighbor, had been a regular at the bookstore. Santana never bought any books, he just liked to hang around with the old guy who worked the counter. The old guy had once told Santana in confidence that if the store was ever robbed he wouldn't put up any kind of fight.

Santana passed the information to Vassie during one of their typical afternoons, when they had nothing to worry about other than sharing a smoke. Santana bought just enough for a handful of acquaintances so he could take a commission out of each purchase. Mostly his girlfriend supported him, though he admitted that he was often mistaken for a homeless person. "You can dress as shitty as you want," he once told Vassie. "Because you're white, people assume you just work a shitty job. But if I dressed as bad as you, people be giving me soup and old gym shoes when I walked out of the house. Those Misericordia crossing guards be giving me peanuts and Life Savers every time I cross the street."

Vassie thought that Santana would look homeless if he wore a three-piece suit, and sometimes he didn't smell so great. Santana said, speaking of the bookstore, "Someone could walk in there anytime with that old boy and just get the money. He keeps it in his pockets because the register is, like, just for show. Pull out a knife. Whack. Open it and stick it in his face." Santana stood up and began acting out the scene for Vassie's benefit. "Gimme the money, old boy. Now." Santana waved a weightless knife in the air and made tentative stabs at an imaginary cashier. "Yeah, hurry it up, motherfucker."

Santana sat down and stared at the pot spilled on the coffee table like it would remind him what he was doing.

"You were getting my half," Vassie offered, trying to help.

Santana's eyes lit up. "Oh ho. Fuck that, it was a quarter. Save your lunch money, boy, and next time get you an eight ball."

Vassie knew that Santana never really had any good coke. One fat line would only make Vassie feel like he'd had a pot of coffee, inhaled chlorine, and caught a head cold, but it was better than nothing.

The bookstore was a dusty little place divided into dark aisles by shelves that reached to the back wall and the ceiling. Vassie told himself that real thieves always cased the joint, so he browsed each aisle, then bought an old Playboy and left the store.

The next night Vassie stood hesitantly at the same front door. Even after smoking a fat joint and sharing two lines with Santana his legs were jelly, and with each breath a vibration shuddered right behind his heart like the first time a girl slipped her tongue in his mouth. The first time he touched a tit, he thought he was going to shake apart.

Vassie used his baseball cap to wipe the sweat from his face, then stepped through the door. The room swelled around him as his balance drained away. Stacks of books leaned precariously toward the center of the counter, where the old guy sat reading a book. The junk and gewgaws reminded him of his mother's shop.

Vassie realized the ski mask that was supposed to be covering his face was in his pocket. A buzz in his head muffled the sounds of the room. Fumbling, he pulled the gravity knife out of his back pocket and snapped it open. "Gimme your money," he shouted over the white noise.

The old guy stood slowly like he was asking permission to speak and pulled a folded bunch of singles from his shirt pocket. Through the picture window behind him Vassie could see the flophouse and a group of men gathered on the sidewalk.

"Other pockets, too. C'mon. Hurry up."

The wide glass counter stood between Vassie and the old guy. Inside were Playboy key chains, Spider-Man comic books, and JFK coasters along with two decks of nudie playing cards that winked at him. He suddenly felt like he couldn't possibly pull it off: if he made for the old guy, the old guy could just run around the counter the opposite way. Then they could reverse directions. He got embarrassed just thinking about it. Or maybe he'd bust through the counter, crushing the glass shelves and cutting a major artery in his leg. The police would find him bleeding to death, stuck with one leg in the cabinet, with nudie cards and JFK coasters all over the place. He prayed the old guy wouldn't run around the counter.

Maybe, Vassie thought, he'd be given leniency when he got caught because he wasn't wearing a mask. "Don't be scared," Vassie demanded as he grabbed the last few bills that dropped to the glass countertop.

"Just go," the man said.

"This is it."

Out the door and past the wide windows, Vassie could feel his features being memorized.

"You been the big spender lately," Santana said.

"Yeah," Vassie said. "You got the place to yourself?" Usually, they hid in Santana's spare bedroom because Santana's girlfriend, Barb, didn't like Vassie and Vassie's mother didn't like Santana.

"Hey," Santana snapped. "Did I tell you that my bookstore got robbed? The old dude said some big motherfucker came in with a hunting knife and took the money off him."

"Dude," Vassie grinned. "That was me."

"You bullshitting me. They said it was a big guy."

"People bullshit. How much did they lose?" Vassie asked.

"Said, like, three hundred."

"No, it was a hundred and twenty."

Santana laughed. "Oh ho. I was testing you, boy. Yeah, you right. Now we should celebrate. And don't worry, I ain't gonna say shit," he promised.

"Yeah, don't say nothing," Vassie said, losing confidence as he felt the need to reinforce the obvious. He leaned over to tap some coke on top of the weed in the bong. Santana wouldn't say anything. Santana wasn't like that.

"Don't worry." Santana said. "You can pay me later for tipping you in. What we really need to make this a party is some women."

Vassie sucked hard on the pipe, sending sparks to the back of his throat. He knew no women would materialize. Some people were full of shit--born like that and nothing they could do about it.

Three days later an unmarked police car was waiting at the curb, right beneath the Mother Watts Antiques sign, advertising the junk Vassie's mother salvaged and sold from the storefront apartment. Vassie tried to walk past as if he was the type of person who wouldn't notice a squad car sitting by his front door and wouldn't notice two cops stepping out and walking up behind him. He felt his legs start to collapse just as he was grabbed at the elbows and penguin-walked over to the front bumper of the squad. The bigger cop dug through Vassie's jeans, jammed his hands all the way down to the crotch to find a little pipe and the last baggie Santana had sold him.

Vassie nearly convinced himself that he hadn't really committed any crime: he only walked into the store with his knife out because he wanted to sell it. He didn't have any money left, so he he figured that, technically, there was no evidence of the robbery.

Maybe he wasn't being arrested for the bookstore, maybe it was only for the pot. But they had no right to grab him and search him. You couldn't grab people off the street and force them to empty their pockets. They couldn't convict him just because they got lucky.

As the police car jerked its way through the leafy side streets west of Broadway, Vassie watched the sidewalks for someone he knew--an honest citizen to call the newspapers or come to the station, screaming that not a hair on his head be mussed.

The cops brought him through the back door at Clark and Devon and into a cramped box of an office with three desks and three electric typewriters. Phones kept ringing and ringing in another room.

Vassie answered all the questions about his name and where he lived and denied that he ever went into any bookstore. "I don't read much," he admitted.

"No shit? Really?" one cop said. "If I weren't sitting down, I'd fucking fall over with shock."

That night the lights snapped off somewhere down the hall but remained lit above his head. The stainless steel bed bolted to the wall was oddly comfortable--clean and cool on the backs of his arms. A tiny vibration hummed through the frame and he didn't know if it was him or the building. Against the muted rumble and hiss of the world, his heart thumped like a tiny sandbag in his chest, the pulse lifting and dropping against a spot near his spine. He counted his heartbeats. Then he counted the concrete blocks in the wall. He counted one row horizontally, another vertically, and multiplied them. He counted the concrete blocks on each wall again when the totals didn't match. He pressed his hand to the wall and felt the smooth coolness beneath his palm and he couldn't hear the noise any longer.

Two gangbangers were pushed into the cell across the hall in the middle of the night, laughing like they wanted to get thrown in jail.

In the morning a female cop brought each of them a Dixie cup of coffee and a thick chunk of bologna between two pieces of still-frozen Wonder bread.

"Your mother's here," an officer told Vassie. The bangers broke out laughing as if he were less of a man because of this, as if Vassie was missing the great life experience of sitting at 26th and California for a month or two. She posted bail, and he was on his way. "I only didn't want you to go down to the big jail," she told Vassie. "I should have let you, though." Once they got out the front doors she said, "Why don't you quit hanging around with that nigger?"

"Fuck you, Ma."

"How do you think they found you? Huh, stupid?"

A month later Vassie met his public defender right before he went into the courtroom; she could have been the twin of the woman on the TV show about the anorexic CIA agent who usually disguised herself as a stripper to flush out terrorists. The PD sighed as she told Vassie to plead guilty to the pot--the other charges were dropped because the guy Vassie had merely shown his knife to was shot dead in another robbery a couple weeks later.

They hustled Vassie through the plea bargain line and he walked out with his mother. "Only you, you dummy," she said. "Only you get lucky when someone else dies." Vassie heard her crying in her bedroom later that night. He knew that she didn't like him much, but her duty in life was to love him.

Six months after Vassie started working at the plant-watering job, his mother passed away in the night. Two days after she died, Santana appeared at the back door with a bouquet of two dozen red, yellow, and white roses. Santana was embarrassed and Vassie wanted to comfort him somehow. "Barb, she saw the ambulance out front and they wheeled her out all covered up. I know flowers are stupid," Santana said.

"Yeah," Vassie agreed. "Thanks, though. Barb make you?"

"Yeah."

After a couple weeks Vassie decided to get rid of his mother's stuff and turn the place into his own proper bachelor apartment.

In rare moments, the animal dragging Vassie let some slack into the line and Vassie was able to race ahead, scrambling out from under the cloud that obscured the monster's features and spread out to the horizon. Vassie could practically feel the shape of the thing, lumbering along with its bristly shoulders and neck. He could even imagine the face, broad as a man's back, with dark eyes that took in no light or movement. The thing didn't even know Vassie existed.

Vassie attacked the job with the stamina of 20 Polish maids, emptying the place into the front yard. Patches of linoleum floor that hadn't seen sunlight in years were exposed. Herds of dust bunnies roamed the vast plains of the floor. Walls yellowed by cigarette smoke revealed the silhouettes of furniture mountain ranges. Vassie took a garden hose from the back, ran it through the kitchen, and flooded the place. He scrubbed and mopped the walls and floors; he dusted every piece of furniture in the yard.

After three days of cleaning, he bought garage sale signs and posted them on lampposts and street signs, pointing the way to the lawn full of junk.

He sat in a folding chair with a cooler of beer at his side and waited. Being absent from work during this mourning period wouldn't cost Vassie his job. Tony had covered for him, saying he was taking care of the funeral and financial matters. The office never called, they probably expected him to stop showing up eventually anyway. Seven-fifty an hour was hardly worth the bother of calling the office.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Archer Prewitt.

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