posted on Saturday, January 07, 2012, 8:42:12 AM | fractalbob
I was home alone when Johnny Stompanato showed up. I knew there was trouble when Fractal Dog slipped past me and hid under the couch. Johnny doesn’t knock, he just pops in. And then he thinks it’s hilarious when you scream and throw things into the air. The thing I threw into the air was a bike wrench, which came down on my toes. Johnny waited ’til I finished cussing and hopping around in my bike shorts.
“Put some pants on and come with me,” he said.
I checked the back seat as I got into Johnny’s black Escalade. Empty, spotless and protected by a neatly arranged drop cloth. The dash was dust-free as though the car had just been detailed. Inside smelled like dry cleaning fluid.
We drove up 11th Street to I-45. I hadn’t asked where we were going, but by the time we hung a right at Veterans, I’d figured it out. “Walker County Hardware was a lot closer,” I said as Johnny parked in the lot at Home Depot. “And the service is a hell of a lot better.”
“People remember you at Walker County Hardware,” Johnny said. “They remember what you bought.”
We went in Home Depot. Johnny picked out a shovel, he paid for it, we left. We got back in the Escalade after Johnny had carefully positioned the shovel on the drop cloth, and we took off again, this time out Highway 190.
“OK, where to now?” I said.
“Errand,” Johnny said. “For the Man.”
“What do you need me for?”
“Just shut up and enjoy the ride.”
At first it worked, this Tough Guy Theater. I was rattled. But as we traveled wordlessly south by southeast and the minutes ticked by, I got pissed. I had this beautiful balmy winter morning planned before Johnny Stomp apparated into my home like a dark wizard. I wasn’t Johnny’s boy, his employee, his subject. He had no right to hijack me like this.
Then Johnny broke the silence.
“Your father says you’ve developed an unnatural interest in city government as of late,” Johnny said.
“Really? I don’t know why he’d say that,” I said and explained that I had joined my father’s existing ritual — watching televised City Council meetings with a Scotch or two. And this new season was shaping up to be just as good as the last one, thanks to a new character, Ronald Allen.
Johnny rolled his eyes, his hairy hands gripping the steering wheel. “I told them that was a bad idea, but do they listen?”
“Dad said Patricia Allen finally got what she’s always wanted and now the City is going to be in as good a shape as the County.”
I was hoping to lighten things up, but Johnny stiffened. “You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about, and neither does your old man.”
That shut me up for the moment as the tall pines of the National Forest filled the view. We turned off of Highway 190 to take a little road past modest homes where children played outdoors with new Christmas toys.
At the end of the road, we pulled into a rutted clearing, a natural gas drilling field. And it had only recently been cleaned up — maybe a month before City elections — but not before the children of the neighborhood had ridden their bikes through the oily, carcinogenic sludge.
“So they were fracking out here?” I said.
“What did you just say to me?”
“Hydraulic fracturing,” I said. “Shooting water into the rock to break it up, which releases the gas. The only trouble is, it contaminates the soil and groundwater with benzene.”
“How the fuck should I know?” Johnny said. “I look like a chemist to you?”
“So what are we doing here?”
“You stay in the car and play with your little pequod,” he said and opened the back door to retrieve the shovel, “while I do what I gotta do.”
Johnny broke ground with the shovel as the wind ruffled the pines and the cooling engine clicked. I checked the road behind us, almost expecting to see coming a couple of matching Escalades bearing a few Stompanato associates. But as it turned out, this was a little job, not a big one. Johnny produced a specimen cup, squatted gingerly to scoop up some of the overturned dirt and then dropped the cup into a plastic bag.
He got back in the Escalade and we drove away.
“For that you needed a new shovel?” I said.
“I needed a clean one. Mine has something on it you can’t get off,” he said.
“Fine,” I said. “I’ve got things to do. Can you drop me off?”
“Who you working for?” he said.
“Nobody right now. That’s why I’m going to _______ on Friday. I think I got a gig.”
“You working for Lanny Ray?”
“You working for someone at The Item? Or Rich Heiland maybe?”
“No,” I said.
“Tell me it’s not George Russell.”
“I’m not working for George Russell.”
“Then what the fuck?” Johnny said. “You thinking of making a run for office yourself?”
“What’s this about?” I said, blood rushing to my head because I already knew.
“Your mother found something you left on her computer — ”
“It wasn’t me! I just downloaded it,” I said, “from the Internet. Somebody else wrote it. I don’t — ”
“You shit-for-brains,” Johnny said. He smiled, showing his teeth. Then he laughed. “And now you’re busted.”
I was sweating, wringing my hands, my pequod having shrunk to nothing. “Shit, they found my blogs? Did they read them? Did you read them?”
“If you hate Huntsville so much, you little fag, why not just get the fuck out?” Johnny said. “Pack up your snow skis and your fancy racing bike and go the fuck back to Brooklyn.”
“I don’t hate Huntsville.” But Johnny only clucked his tongue. There was a finality to his demeanor that confirmed my worst fears. “So what are you going to do?”
“No, what are you going to do?” he said.
But I didn’t know the right answer. Pay him off? Leave town? It couldn’t be as simple as pulling down the blog and hanging up the raincoat and the fedora.
“You think these Lanny Ray people like you? You’re as big a joke to them as you are to me. If they find out who you are, they’ll drop you like a bad check. George Russell’s hatred of your people has been hard-wired into his DNA, and you’d think it’d be vice versa, for fuck’s sake.”
Johnny took a side road and pulled onto the shoulder so he could look me in the face. “Not another word from you online, not on My Face or Tweeps. Nothing. Say it. And then this is over, we move on, no one will be the wiser.”
I thought of my virtual friends and online comrades who had been nothing but kind to me and supportive of my blog.
“You’re not going to say shit to anyone, Stompanato. We both know it. You’re not going to embarrass my parents.”
Johnny raised an eyebrow, surprised by my insolence. “Once it gets out — and it will — you might pick up a couple of drinking buddies,” Johnny said. “But they’ll tear your parents apart. Both factions. For sport.”
My face fell, and he knew he had me. It made him sigh with whatever small exertion it had been to wrangle me in. “What the fuck were you thinking?” he said as we pulled back onto the road.
“This is my town, too. I was born here and when I die, I’ll go to Oakwood Cemetery to lie with everyone else,” I said.
“So blood is thicker than politics,” Johnny said.
“Yes, you Trinity County toad.”
Johnny chuckled, and it sounded like a cold diesel engine trying to turn over. “You just keep telling yourself that, bright boy.”