Inside Sam Lerner
Sam couldn't stop staring at the clerk's ears. The holes in the kid's lobes were big enough to accommodate corks, and indeed, they did. The laconic young man had also pushed the limits of self-expression by having himself tattooed like a road map. Sam was sure that if he looked at the kid's body art long enough he'd find an arrow and the words YOU ARE HERE.
"Cash only," the clerk drawled, flicking his studded tongue over his crooked lower lip.
Sam winced. He was wondering if he had made a wrong turn on his way south to New Orleans and was still stuck in Los Angeles. After he tossed down the money for the two six-packs, he hustled out of the road stop off old Route 434. While yanking the tab off a brew, he analyzed the differences he'd discovered since he pulled into St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana, under a tarp of heat and dust.
He had taken a detour to the old abandoned family home, but to his surprise, the house had vanished. Gone was the home where Sam had learned to piss and hit his mark, where he had hidden Willie Mays trading cards behind the baseboards, and where he had set his room on fire while distilling homemade brew at the age of ten. The place had been leveled, with nothing more than a weed headstone left in memory of his earliest years.
Sam kicked a rock out of his pathway and wondered how Dorothy would have felt if she had returned to Kansas to discover nothing but a parking lot. Some things are just not supposed to change, he groused to himself.
Sam plopped down on an overstuffed chair outside the road stop, slung one booted foot over its tattered arm, and chugged until he had to stop for breath. He knew it was time to push on across Lake Ponchartrain to the Big Easy, but not without dulling a few painful memories first.
He was just popping another Dixie when he saw a police car pull off the highway onto the dirt turnaround outside the road stop. The unforgiving June sun was high in the sky, obliterating his view of the driver. But it didn't matter: a cop was a cop.
Avoiding the cop’s direct gaze, Sam pretended to adjust his pant leg while pulling a jack knife out of one stained boot. After flicking the knife open, he made a half-hearted attempt to scrape the coating of caked mud off his heel. He kept his eyes averted and his keen ears alert while the heavy footsteps approached. Sweat retreated down his neck into his chest hairs. When the tips of the officer's black shoes stopped just short of his own, he became very still, resigning himself to an unwelcome encounter. Sam Lerner was in no mood to be civil.
"You're not drinkin' and drivin,' are ya?" the deep voice drawled at him.
"Do I look like I’m driving?" Sam continued to work his boot as if it were a complicated physics problem. As he kept his head down, he expertly sized up the cop by the length of his shoes. Sam had learned avoidance of confrontation early in life. It was later in his mercurial life that he had learned to relish it. Today, he knew he could go either way. Get the fuck out of my face, his silent voice warned his unwelcome guest.
"That your Shelby Cobra parked there?"
"Yes it is. Is there a problem, officer?"
"Only if you continue to dissect that boot without passin' me a beer. It's hotter than a whorehouse pussy out here."
Sam breathed in the dust and resigned himself to the fact that there was no way to avoid being pleasant. Not this time. Not this cop. He mustered up about as much congeniality as he had been able to find in recent days. "Sit your fat ass down, shitbag," he growled, popping another brew.
"Sam, my man, that's no way to talk to an esteemed officer of the law," the cop laughed, "especially an old pal."
"Depends on who's doin' the esteemin', Duval. Figured I'd run into you sooner or later. ‘Was hopin' for later. I’m not in the mood for cordiality, but I guess I’ve got no choice. How the hell you been all these years?" he asked offering a handshake.
"Better than you, I take it.” Duval clutched Sam's hand in one large bear claw while he placed his other hand on Sam's shoulder.
"Yep, 'imagine so. But it’s good to be back. Congratulations, Duval, I hear you bought yourself Captain's rank, complete with matching decoder ring. No offense of course."
"No offense taken. And you look like shit, Sammy boy--offense intended.”
"That's part of your charm, Duval." Sam allowed the words to drift from his mouth like smoke rings.
Duval shot him a cheesy grin. "Aw, you’re still good-looking – a goddamn pussy magnet, you sonuvabitch. You been out knockin' around the old burg?" He dragged over an old rocker while waiting for an answer.
As Sam waited for him to sit, he marveled at how the lug still lowered himself into a chair as if he were about to take a crap. Leon Duval was huge, even sitting. Four decades had passed since they had met as kids, and almost two since they had last seen each other; and Duval was still big, still soft, and still grinning.
"Sorry I'm crabby, buddy. I haven't slept much the past week," Sam offered as a way of explaining his unkempt appearance and lack of civility. He smiled back out of force of habit. "After driving from Los Angeles, I took a detour out to the old homestead, which I discovered was history. I guess nothing stays the same.”
"Pisser, huh? There was a fire out there a while back, but the St. Tammany Fire Department just jacked-off while the old shacks burned. I think they figured there was nothing worth endangering themselves for. Prob'ly right. That place never had much to offer us, Sammy."
"Perhaps. So what are you doing this far out of your jurisdiction?" Sam aimed a finger gun at the New Orleans Police Department seal on Duval's car and pulled the trigger.
"I knew you were coming, pal. I've kept track of you over the years. Everybody down here read about you being head dick in that case where that famous rapper got the death sentence. Hell, I even saw you on the tube--you're a frickin' hero!"
"Tell that to the rapper's homeboys."
"Yeah, I bet they'd like a piece of you. Anyway, I've got a friend in L.A.P.D. who said you'd gone and bailed out of LaLa land and were headin' this way. I’ve been keeping tabs since I heard you stopped by Fred’s Lounge in Mamou for a little Cajun music on the way into town. That car is easy to spot. If I’d known sooner, I would have joined you. I wanted to give you a proper welcome home, one old teammate to another."
"Is that right?" Sam cocked his head to study Duval.
"Yup, I'm proud of you, buddy. I hear you were one of the Jeffersons up there in the land of fruits and nuts.”
"Jefferson.” At Sam's blank stare, Duval tapped one toe and began to sing, "'Movin' on up, to the East side...'"
"Oh," Sam groaned, "George Jefferson. For chrissake, you watch too many re-runs."
Duval shrugged. "Guess so. My wife Linny left me," he then announced in a complete non sequitur. "Not because of the TV thing, though."
"Sorry to hear that."
"Yeah. Anyway, I wanted to say welcome."
"Thanks. Can I go now?” Sam flicked his knife closed, shoved it back into his boot, and stood up to leave.
"Still Mr. Charming, I see." Duval stopped Sam with one bear paw while grabbing a Dixie with the other. "Thanks, I’m sure ya don't mind if I help myself, seein' as how I'm off-duty. You gonna shack up at Maire's Gentlemen's Club when you hit the Quarter?"
"I thought about it."
"Well, stay out of trouble."
"Yes, sir, Officer, sir," Sam responded dutifully.
"You okay to drive? I'm told that you and the booze wagon have a sporadic relationship."
"That's describes all my relationships. And tell your L.A. copper friend he talks too much."
"I asked him about you outta concern, you know."
Sam looked at Duval's contrite face and felt guilty for snarling. Then he felt pissed for feeling guilty. Duval was always getting him all jammed up. "Thanks for your concern, but I'm in a holding pattern of a few brews a day now.”
"Yeah, I don't blame ya. I heard about your wife dying and all. Terrible thing. I'm really sorry, buddy."
"That makes two of us.” Sam threw the six-packs into the back of the Shelby and jumped in. Beatrice, his Golden Retriever, opened one eye long enough to make sure it was him. After she yawned, she went back to sleep. "You're a helluva security system, Beatrice," Sam muttered.
"Sweet pup," Duval said, checking out the car as he leaned in the driver's window. "And the old Shelby is lookin' mighty sweet herself. Glad to see you still have her."
"Yeah, at least this girl won't die on me.” His words were sharper than he intended. “You know--good engine and all," he quickly added, forcing his feelings back down into the emotional box he kept wedged in his chest.
Duval reached out to shake Sam's hand. "Well, welcome home. And don't get into any trouble over at Maire's. I'd hate to arrest a Los Angeles cop in an escort establishment. I hear you guys are lethal."
"Ex-cop," Sam corrected him as he fired up the Shelby, "but I'm still lethal.” He grabbed a beer from the back, propped it between his knees, and pulled the tab. Then Sam stepped on the gas, enjoying both the surge of power and the numbing effects of the alcohol as he screeched down the highway to New Orleans, completely unaware that he was heading into an abyss far worse than the one he had left behind.
Sam drove at an easy pace, allowing the lull of the Shelby engine to ease his agitation. He had purchased the car after saving enough money working summers and after school with Leon Duval at St. Tammany's mortuary, which had proven to be good preparation for their future careers. Perhaps it had been more than coincidence that both Sam and Duval had become homicide detectives, for both had long ago learned to disassociate themselves from the macabre parade of deads they administered to on a daily basis.
After college, Duval made a somewhat dubious name for himself in the New Orleans Police Department while Sam headed for Los Angeles with dreams of fishing, surfing, and sun-tanned blondes. Instead Sam encountered race riots, quakes, and graft. Nonetheless he made it to the top of the detective pile, gathering a fistful of commendations along the way. Sam was one of the best L.A.P.D. had to offer, and he put his job ahead of all else in his life, until he met Kira.
Sam instinctively shoved his wife's image from his memory. It was still too painful to imagine her smile. After nine years of a great marriage, she was now gone. Just like that--gone forever. Now California was dead to him, too.
Only one week had passed since he had finally decided to bail out of L.A. and not look back...not that he could see too straight these days anyway. Since Kira's death, he had discovered that inebriation was quite underrated as a form of therapy.
Sam gave the Shelby a bit more gas just to feel her respond--an assurance to himself that something still could. Over the years he had brought the car back to cherry condition. He knew it was time to do the same for himself.
Maybe tomorrow, he silently thought as he watched Beatrice muster up the energy to climb into the front seat to beg for a sip of Dixie. "Easy girl," Sam cautioned, "I'll need to see some I.D."
He was never sure if his conversations with his dog were for her benefit or his. Either way, his own voice helped fill the void Kira's death had left in his life.
Beatrice licked his hand, belched, then hung her head out the window. "Couldn't have said it better myself, girl," Sam grinned.
As Sam appraised the scenery, he recalled how St. Tammany had been another ending. And he was tired of endings. The house he had once lived in had been nothing more than a four room clapboard bungalow, but he and his father and Mammy Jem had lived there until he was a teen. It was home, as much as any place had ever been. Now the house was a memory, just like the old man, whose gin-marinated corpse lay in a crypt somewhere near the French Quarter. Jem had not written to him for two years, her old eyes a bit too thick with cataracts to relish correspondence.
Ah, Jem...she was someone Sam could smell if he put his mind to it--sweat mixed with exotic spices, rum, and wood smoke. Her strong Creole hands had consoled him as a boy, stroking his head until he could allow himself to fall asleep.