Authors: Stephen Dobyns
Also by Stephen Dobyns
Mystery, So Long
The Porcupine's Kisses
Pallbearers Envying the One Who Rides
Velocities: New and Selected Poems, 1966â1992
Black Dog, Red Dog
The Balthus Poems
Next Word, Better Word: The Craft of Writing Poetry
Best Words, Best Order: Essays on Poetry
The Burn Palace
Boy in the Water
The Church of Dead Girls
The Wrestler's Cruel Study
After Shocks/Near Escapes
The House on Alexandrine
The Two Deaths of SeÃ±ora Puccini
A Boat off the Coast
Cold Dog Soup
Dancer with One Leg
A Man of Little Evils
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Copyright Â© 2015 by Stephen Dobyns
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Grateful acknowledgment is made for permission to reprint lyrics from “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky (A Cowboy Legend),” from
Riders in the Sky
by Stan Jones. Copyright Â© 1949 (Renewed) Edwin H. Morris & Company, a Division of MPL Music Publishing, Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of Hal Leonard Corporation.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Dobyns, Stephen, date.
Is fat Bob dead yet? : a novel / Stephen Dobyns.
PS3554.O2I8 2015 2015017213
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
t's an early spring morning in late winter, a welcome oxymoron with balmy breezes that send Connecticut College students back to their dorm rooms for shorts and flip-flops. Bare legs proliferate. Businessmen loosen their ties. One mad rogue, the owner of a coffee shop, moves two small tables with chairs out to the sidewalk. Motorcycles emerge from winter hibernations. It would be wrong to say it's a good day on which to die, but surely one can imagine worse days.
This is Bank Street in New London, Connecticut, the name referring not to commercial activity but to the curving riverbank of the river Thames, which the street follows. We can see the river if we look across the cellar hole next to the Salvation Army thrift store, where a dozen rusty pilings rise from the ground. The lot contains a depressing collection of broken glass, plastic bags, plastic bottles, and decrepitating cardboard boxes, but we can ignore that. Down the slope and dividing the back entries of Bank Street enterprises from the train tracks is Water Street: more of a wide alley with pretensions than a street. Then comes the river with a few pleasure piers and the coast guard's three-masted, 290-foot cutter, the
, which is a wonder to see under full sail. Across the river in Groton, those great gray square buildings flanked by yellow cranes are part of the General Dynamics shipyard where submarines are made, though few get made nowadays.
Bank Street is a hodgepodge of eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and twentieth-century buildings, ranging from the beautiful to the ugly, granite Gothic Revival to redbrick Victorian to the brick-and-tin Salvation Army thrift store, a small-box version of a big-box store next to the granite Custom House. In an early version of urban renewal, Benedict Arnold and his Hessians put prior Bank Street buildings to the torch in 1781.
Back by Firehouse Square is where the historic district begins as modern streetlights change to retro streetlamps and Bank Street changes to one-way, heading downtown. The Greek Revivalâstyle F. L. Allen Firehouse is now an art gallery, while a sign on the three-story granite house of Captain Benjamin Brown across the street advertises a Chinese-medicine practitioner. A bucket truck squats by the traffic island, and high in the air a service technician fixes the streetlight. Two traffic lights hang below an arm extending from the same pole; they sway slightly as the fellow in the bucket does his work.
If we could take his place for a minute, we'd have the chance to inspect the nature of this Monday morning in early March: cloudless sky, men and women carrying their coats over their arms, kids already in shorts, one fellow parked in front of the Firehouse Art Gallery has put down the convertible top of his blue Mazda Miata, people pause to address friendly remarks to one another as they go about their business, sunlight reflects off the river where we see seagulls, and from an open window we hear one of those older rock tunes heard mostly in supermarkets: the Eagles or Fleetwood Mac. It's a day that feels like unexpected forgiveness.
Beneath us a blue Mini-Cooper waits at the light. The driver's elbow, hidden in a brown leather sleeve, pokes from the open window. He makes his left turn from Tilley and drives slowly down Bank Street, looking for a parking space. There, he's found one. Gingerly, he pulls up behind a four-door Chevrolet Caprice sedan, which has to be twenty years old. The original dark cherry paint has faded, giving the big car a mottled aspect. The trunk is held shut with a length of rope, and a busted-up teardrop spotlight hangs down the side of the driver's door. The man climbs from his Mini and glances at the Caprice with mild interest, but before he can cross the street, he's startled by a blast from a train's air horn. About forty passenger trains come through New London each day, and two-thirds stopâAmtrak's Northeast Regional and the Acela Express, as well as a commuter line between New London and New Haven. And each blasts its horn. As if in response, the Mini goes
as the locks click shut, and the man continues across the street to a shoe-repair shop. The Greek shop owner has been there for more than thirty years and prefers to be called a cobbler.
The man is on his way to pick up a pair of shoes, new soles, heels, and a good polishing for his black Bruno Magli slip-ons, a rush job because he only took them in on Saturday. The shoes were a gift from his older brother, Vasco; actually they're hand-me-downs that Vasco found too tight. Vasco has rich tastes, and over the years his brother has benefited. Another item taken from Vasco is a purposeful stride, leaning forward and walking quickly, which, when a teenager, our friend liked enough to copy and which makes any destination seem the only one possible.
The man's name is Connor Raposo, though his Portuguese parents baptized him Juan Carlos and into his late teens everyone called him Zeco. But just before college, he decided he needed a new identity and changed his name to Connor. He's in his mid-twentiesâthin, six feet tall, straight nose, chestnut eyes, moderately handsome, black hair that grazes the collar of his jacket, though if we were really looking down from a cherry picker, we might see an incipient bald spot, which in twenty years, if he lives that long, will overspread his dome. Besides his purposeful walk, he has a purposeful face. Connor will appear somber even when telling a joke. But his expression derives from the shyness he felt as a kid; it discouraged people from talking to him. You know that bromide “He's laughing on the outside but crying on the inside”? Connor's just the opposite.
Unlike the pasty winter faces of others on Bank Street, Connor's face is tanned, which is no surprise, since he left San Diego a week ago, and yesterday, dropping off his shoes, was his first visit to New London. What else? He wears jeans, running shoes, and a brown leather jacket he's had since college.
But to move along: Connor has given the elderly cobbler his claim ticket, and the cobbler has held up the black Bruno Maglis for Connor's inspection. He sets them on the counter, where they glisten like anthracite. The leather soles are a change for Connor. Usually he wears soft, rubber-soled shoes and he walks as softly as a wink, whether to sneak toward something or sneak away, he can't be sure. The cobbler counts out a fistful of one-dollar billsâConnor's changeâwhile apologizing for having nothing bigger.
“You want a bag?” The cobbler has gray tufts of hair sprouting from his ears, woolly entanglements to snatch the oncoming words one by one.
“Never mind, my car's right across the street.” He stuffs the bills into his jacket pocket.
A sound grows audible, a distant purr, which leads the cobbler to shake his head. “The first of the season, just like robins.” Then, seeing Connor's blank expression, he adds, “Harleysâspring, summer, and fall they come roaring past.”
The distant purr changes to a low rumble that increases in volume and reverberates off the stone buildings. It's an intrusion that loosens the mind from previous thoughts. Indignant seagulls flap away toward the water.
“We have noise restrictions in California.” Connor had a noisy Harley in college and loved it. “Can't you make a complaint?”
Before the cobbler can answer, the Harley flashes by, twin headlights, a blur of candy orange, Stinger wheels, Tommy Gun pipes, lots of chrome, a growl like a brontosaurus. It's a snapshot shooting past the window. The plate glass shivers.
Then everything gets faster yet: the roar of a second motor rises above the roar of the Harley, a woman screams, a squeal of rubber to make Connor brace himself. Next comes a packed combination of noises: a collision of metal against metal, a wrenching shriek, glass breaking, the crunch and clatter of hundreds of little bits scattered across the pavement; a window shatters, and hidden within the variations of smash is the sound of a speeding biker striking an immovable object.
Connor hurries to the sidewalk. A large green dump truck has backed out of an alley and across Bank Street, ramming a parked BMW 300-something, shoving it over the curb into the now demolished display window of a music store. The guy on the Harley has hit the side of the dump truck.
But it's worse than that. The truck's dump box rides high on the axles, and the lower part of the Harleyâwheels, V-twin engine, transmission, chrome pipesâhas passed beneath, while the top part of the Harleyâtwin headlights, handlebars, gas tank, and half of the bikerâhas not. They've been separated. The rider has been ripped in two, so his bloody torso lies in the street, while under the truck at the end of a red smear are the legs, one with a boot, one not. The head has been detached from the neck and has vanished. Connor turns away so as not to lose his breakfast.
Blood and body fragments paint the nearby cars and windows of shops. The street is a mess of color. The truck has continued to roar; then the driver cuts the engine and climbs from his cab, his face creased with astonishment. A young man in a formerly white shirt stands across the street from Connor with blood streaming from his shoulder. It's a little after ten o'clock. Connor smells gasoline mixed with the smell of the river at low tide. For a nanosecond the scene is without movement or sound, except for someone retching.
Then, as if a lever were yanked, all becomes noise and action. People cry out. A young woman in shorts covers her face with her hands. If Connor were closer, he'd see spots of blood on her white legs. Some people hurry away; others run toward the wreckage with eye-popping avidity. There's a rush of randomness and instability that people try to reduce to order. Another young woman spits into a handkerchief and dabs at red spots on her blouse. A man in a blue business suit sits on the sidewalk with his legs outstretched, cleaning his glasses with his necktie. Cars honk as drivers are forced to stop farther back at Firehouse Square and have as yet to realize the reason for the delay. Soon comes the sound of sirens. Seagulls circle.
Connor stands twenty feet from the accident. He stares not at the truck or the biker's multiple bloody fragments but at a black leather Harley cap by the edge of the curb. He stoops to pick it up, half expecting to find the top part of a skull. But there's nothing, a few sweat marks, a few black hairs, and grease from whatever stuff the dead man put on his scalp. Oh, yes, the Harley cap has a red satin lining and on the lining is written a name in black ink:
A pair of broken aviator sunglasses lie in the gutter. Closer to the truck lies the torn black sleeve of a leather jacket in the midst of broken glass and pieces of metal. A hand extends from the cuff; silver rings embellish the fingers and thumb, one with a blue stone, another showing a skull. Connor again turns his head to avoid being sick and looks into the faces of twenty men and women gaping past him, their features magnified by disbelief.
Connor's sensory receptors are on serious overload as the street grabs his attention, but the strain creates a fog, and he has to half close his eyes in order to see. Now he shakes his head to free it of bloody images. He wants to get into his car and leave, but the street is jammed with cars and there'll be no freeing his Mini-Cooper until these are cleared. Just beyond the square is fire headquarters, a two-story brick building with two large bays. Out of one pokes the red nose of a hook and ladder truck. This is where the fire marshal has his office, but because of the traffic jam, the firemen won't go anyplace unless they walk.
People try to direct traffic, waving their hands to urge drivers to back up to Tilley Street, but some drivers have left their cars and have run forward to see the drama. People raise smartphones to take pictures. A police car half on the sidewalk makes earsplitting horn blasts as it pushes past the cars. For Connor the noise comes from inside his head: it's his brain's response to the awfulness. He tucks the Harley cap under his arm, meaning to keep it as visual proof of what he'd rather forget, and leans against the cobbler's window. The door is open, and the cobbler is down by the smashed Harley, staring at something unpleasant near his feet. Connor retrieves his Bruno Maglis from the cobbler's counter and makes his way between the jammed cars to lock the shoes in his Mini-Cooper.
This would be the moment to use our cherry picker again, but how much can be said? Once we've reached a point beyond belief, words are unreliable. “I can't believe this is happening!” At least a dozen people say this. ClichÃ©s soothe at such times; they link the horrific to the banal and make it tolerable. A few seagulls peck at bits of bloody tissue. Connor still hasn't seen the biker's head, which is just as well. It's been smashed to fragments, or on a rooftop, or is bobbing down the river.
ow we come to a difficult introduction. Standing across the street by the crushed BMW is an elderly, homeless man who has a tail. No, no, he doesn't really have a tail, but he is certain he woke this morning with a tail, a long, gray, scabrous tail without fur. Perhaps the fur has fallen out; perhaps it never had fur in the first place. This is something he can't recall. Right now the tail is no more than a sinuous dark shadow, but the man's hands have begun to shake, and the more they shake, the sooner his tail will reappear, unless he gets a drink first.
The previous evening, in the bushes beneath the Interstate 95 bridge, he had blended a fifth of Everclear with five packets of grape jam snitched from a Greek diner. This reduced the alcohol proof from 190 to about 187, which he still saw as potent. He chose grape because he meant to make something winelike. Perhaps he had succeededâhe can't remember, because he blacked out almost immediately. This, to his mind, is a good thing. Erasure is what he's after, the more the better.
The man's name is Fidget, but it isn't his real name. It's just what he's called. As for last names, he's had a bunch of them. Nor is he sure of his age, though he knows he's over sixty, but that's been true for a while, so maybe he's seventy by now. He wears a Red Sox cap, a torn raincoat that once was beige, pants of an uncertain dark color, and muddy sneakers. In place of laces, he uses twine. His gray hair is currently short, and if his cap were removed, we'd see that it has a ragged look. A girl under the bridge cut it in exchange for three cigarettes. And Fidget is thin enough that his body seems to vanish beneath his raincoat, as if the coat were draped over a parking meter. His long face is gray, unshaven, and somewhat disarranged from years of violent readjustments. The middle of his nose, for instance, makes a distinct curve to the left, something like a question mark. His eyes resemble those of a pug dog: dark brown and protruding. It's not an ugly face, though it's seen a lot of use.