Monday, July 14, 2008
A Cold Night's Sleep excerpt from Rough Cut: Vincent Diamond Collected by Vincent Diamond
A Cold Night’s Sleep is from the collection of stories, Rough Cut: Vincent Diamond Collected, by Vincent Diamond. These stories, “set in the Florida tourists don’t see, from the cheap motels of Tampa to the steamy small towns of central Florida, take us into the kind of lives not usually documented in fiction. These are men who know what it’s like to betray a lover—and to trust one," says author and editor, Neil Plakcy about the collection. In “A Cold Night’s Sleep,” an injured ex-con stumbles into Sandy Richter’s isolated cabin, and Sandy’s emotions and desires spark into a dangerous flame.
Rough Cut: Vincent Diamond Collected
Publisher: Lethe Press (May 1, 2008)
He’d taught himself to work left handed after the accident, and his sketches of herons, osprey, and hawks filled one wall of the cabin. He worked in pencil and chalk, and used the fused pinky and ring fingers of his right hand to shade, the sound of his scarred flesh loud against the paper. It was as close to relaxed as Sandy Richter ever got.
When the huge boom shook the little A-frame, it rattled the glasses on the shelves. Sandy grabbed his binoculars and headed for the observation balcony. Even in a blasting Florida thunderstorm, a lightning strike could start a fire, and any fire beyond a controlled burn wasn’t something he wanted to face. In the gray of the mid-afternoon, Sandy saw lashing rain, the oak trees swaying in the wind, clumps of Spanish moss ripped down from their branches. No smoke, no flames.
The lights flickered, and by the time Sandy got downstairs, the power was out completely. He made a quick check of the radio set; its battery would let him call the district office in Ocala if he needed to, but he wasn’t concerned. This early in January, on a Tuesday, no campers were booked into the small state park he rangered, and with the storm, he didn’t expect any drive-ups.
A deep, bass rumble of thunder echoed over the landscape. Then a hard whump of sound, more than thunder. Lightning cracked close by, so close that Marty, the little tuxedo cat he’d adopted a few months back, jumped from his napping spot on the sofa and scuttled under the bed.
“You big wussy. It’s just a thunderstorm!”
Marty offered no defense.
Sandy hauled in two days’ worth of logs and placed them with care in the firebox. Once it was drafting correctly, he set the fire screen in place and hooked it on both sides.
Just being careful.
He had the cabin door open to the wide porch. The breeze was cool as the thunderstorm moved away, and the cold front’s rains soaked into the earth. Sandy went back to his sketches, and Marty came out and settled on the desk.
Sandy was just thinking about some hot chocolate when Marty suddenly sat up, whiskers forward, ears high.
Three loud thumps from the porch. A tall man slammed across the deck and skidded to a stop outside Sandy’s front door.
He turned and faced the weather, hands wiping water off his bare skull. Sandy saw a fresh bruise on his left temple as pink-tinted water ran down his neck, blood from a bad cut over his eye. Mud dripped from his clothes.
Sandy rose in silence; his paper drifted to the floor, un-noticed.
His cop instincts pinged at him; even after two years away from the PD, he still assessed everyone like he had to write a field report later on. The stats came easily enough: mixed race or Hispanic, age thirty, six-foot-three, two hundred thirty pounds, heavy build, bald. The other man still faced away from him, and Sandy stood outside of kicking distance when he spoke. “Turn around.”
The man’s broad shoulders went rigid, his muscles tightening in his tank top. Sandy noticed the combat boots on his feet, the fatigues tucked into them. And that build came from hours on a weight bench—hours that only a prisoner had. Sandy smelled the rain and sweat that sluiced down his body.
The other man faced him slowly. They looked at each other, alert.
A brief grimace of a smile from the stranger. He held out one beefy hand. “Mitchell B.Tanner. And you?”
Sandy didn’t shake hands anymore so he just nodded. He saw Tanner glance down at his right hand. “That boom I heard, that was you?” Sandy asked.
“That storm came quick and to tell ya the truth—” he wiped some blood from his face and shrugged, “—I was dozing. I was out for a while after I hit. Listen, I’m sorry but I nailed one of your trees by the entrance sign. If can use your phone to call a wrecker, I’ll be on my way.”
“Sorry, but the phones are out, along with the power. It might be morning before they’re back online.”
”Well… Can I hang here until this rain quits?”
Another quick scan. Despite the hard edge to him, Sandy knew this man was no danger; he was just anxious to be on his way. The predatory body language and cold glint in his eyes would have frightened most other people but Sandy knew the type. After fourteen years on the force, he didn’t frighten easily himself.
“Sure, you stay here until the weather clears.” Sandy stopped, uncertain. What should he do next? Offer hospitality, yes, that was it. “How about some coffee or hot tea?”
Tanner smiled again, this time sincere. One of his upper canine teeth was markedly crooked, as if someone had punched him. “Yes, please, tea would be just great.”
Sandy turned away.
“Hey, wait. What’s your name, man?” Tanner stood with his left hand outstretched. A prison tattoo was inked in blue-black around his wrist, imperfect barbed wire. And that body— someone inside had that much time to spend in a weight room.
Must be on his way out of Raiford. Serious time, then.
Sandy shook his hand carefully. A lot of strength in the other’s grip but no flashy show of it. Tanner’s hand was cold.
Sandy had Tanner clean off his face at the kitchen sink, then looked at the cut over Tanner’s left eye.
“This isn’t too bad. Just keep it clean and covered for a couple of days.” Sandy had to work to concentrate on the wound itself, not Tanner’s broad shoulders or bull neck. He dabbed some Neosporin on Tanner’s dark skin and slicked down a bandage left over from kid’s summer camp; it had Darth Maul on it. He grinned. “You go out in public with a Star Wars band-aid on then you’re the bravest man on earth.”
Tanner grinned back. “Thanks, man. At least it stopped bleeding.”
He ate two servings of Sandy’s chicken and yellow rice dinner—reheated carefully over a propane burner out on the porch. Sandy had to smile.
“What’s so funny?” Tanner’s voice was deep, melodious.
“I can’t believe anyone being enthused about my cooking.”
Tanner shook his head and patted his belly. “Oh, man, this tastes great. You don’t know some of the shit I’ve had to eat in the past. Thanks. Really.”
“You’re welcome.” As Sandy said the words, he saw Tanner’s body shudder with cold. He looked more closely and noticed the tremor in the other’s hands and the pallor of his face. “You’re still cold. The water heater probably still has some hottish water. Why don’t you grab a shower, and I’ll find some sweats for you. Sorry ‘bout the bathroom door but I live here alone so I never bothered to fix it.”
Sandy led him through the bedroom area—the cabin was really one space, so it wasn’t a true room—and over to the bathroom. Sandy found him a clean washrag and a towel.
“Thanks, man, I am fuckin’ freezing.” Tanner tugged off his wet clothing with the casual aplomb of a man used to locker rooms and barracks.
The sight of Tanner grasped Sandy by the throat, as if it were a beast. He stepped back into the shadows for a moment, his gaze moving over Tanner’s body, fine as a sculpture in a museum.
The fire sent flickering light into the bathroom and bathed the other man in a golden glow. Sandy could see that Tanner’s caramel colored skin was evenly toned. He had extraordinary musculature, ripples of toned flesh on his belly, a deep chest, thick thighs balanced by the V of his broad shoulders. His penis hung low over his testicles, its flesh darker than the rest of him. He had curly black hair on his chest, legs and belly and it looked coarse. Thick eyebrows framed his heavy-featured face and balanced his full lips.
He is beautiful.
The thought un-nerved Sandy; he pushed it down, out of mind. What a waste of time to even think that way, now. But beneath his shirt, his belly warmed. That he had not even touched himself in over a year didn’t come to his conscious mind, but his body knew.
“These clothes will have to do,” he said as he placed them on the bathroom shelf. He could see Tanner’s outline behind the flimsy white shower curtain, and he made himself leave the room.
He went back to his sketch pad but only listened to the water from the bathroom, trying hard not to think about it running down Tanner’s body or Tanner’s hands and mouth on him. A few minutes later, Sandy rose to close the cabin’s front door against the now-cold night air.
Tanner stepped out of the steamy bathroom, his skin glinting with moisture. Sandy’s too-small T-shirt clung to his chest and the sweatpants band ended just below his calves. He grinned down at himself. “Whaddya think the guys from Queer Eye would say about this?”
“I think they’d cite you for a number of fashion violations.”
The other man’s eyes glowed at him in the dim light of the cabin, sending sparks of silvery tremors into him.
Stop it. You’re imagining things.
Sandy moved to the fireplace and prodded it carefully into bright flame once more. He squatted back on his haunches. He heard Tanner sigh loudly.
“Sorry if this is too forward or offends you, but man, I gotta ask. What happened to your hand?”
Sandy tugged his right shirt sleeve down; even in summer, he wore long sleeves. He bent his head low, fighting for control of his voice before he replied. He didn’t face Tanner. “We were executing a search warrant at a drug house and I threw a flashbang that ignited some painting supplies. The house was old, all wood, and it went up in about twelve minutes.”
“You were a cop?”
“Yeah, ‘til two years ago.”
“Not exactly. I was certified as partially disabled but they offered me desk duty and I said no.”
“How did you get burned?”
“I told you. The house went up.”
“So…. Why didn’t you just leave the house?”
Sandy swung around to look at Tanner, ready to snap at him; the anger was so easy—still. But the other man’s face wasn’t hostile, merely curious, and his brown eyes were soft.
How strange that it felt safe to tell the truth to this stranger when he hadn’t been able to tell the department psychologist or his parents. Or even Gil.
“There were kids in the house.”
“And you tried to get them out?”
“I was responsible. The fire was my fault.”
Lieutenant Walker swearing at him, pulling at his gear. “Get the fuck out! Get out! Get out!” The thunk of his team’s footfalls as they tore down the stairs. The smoke, rancid and awful, chemical smoke when the paint thinner blew and the cheap plastic paneling began to melt off the walls around him.
The children screaming.
“There were three kids upstairs. I had to get them out.”
Tanner sat down on the floor, his back against the sofa. “What did you do?”
Sandy rubbed his face with both hands, hating the paper-y sound that his scars made on his skin. His throat was dry. “I got the little girls out the bathroom window. They were older, they could take the drop. But the boy was only about three, I couldn’t risk it and I couldn’t fit through the window myself ….”
“And I grabbed him and just ran for it. Down the stairs, through the flames. The bottom half of the stairs were already gone but I couldn’t see it in the smoke and I fell. When I hit and rolled, he slipped away from me, and I couldn’t find him. He was screaming, and I couldn’t find him. The fire had me by then, it was on my arm, snapping at me like a rabid dog, and I tried to find him. I tried.”
Sandy’s gaze swung back to the flames behind the fire screen.
I couldn’t find him. So help me, I tried.
He bent over and pressed his forehead to the warm bricks.
When he felt Tanner’s hand on his back, he surprised himself. He didn’t jerk away, he just lay there. He couldn’t find the energy to push himself up.