My name is Mike Stokes. People around these parts of Pennsylvaina know I didn’t get no college education. But I don’t have to be smart to know me a pretty girl when I see one. I did, round about eight months ago. Boy-oh, did I ever. See, I was riding up Rt. 76 with my brother-in-law, Tommy -- we call him Tom-Bob, on account of him bobbin’ off to sleep when he gets to drinking -- me and Tom-Bob was riding with a bed full of iron, some we scrapped, some we salvaged. Didn’t matter none how we got it. See we don’t work for no man. And it just so happen that our daddies, they was trained in the fine art of fence-raising. Not some hop-scotch construction site fencing, neither. No sir. This here’s some old-country iron-working. We’ll melt it, forge it, weld it right in place. All on-site and all for the best price-per-foot. You better believe it.
Tom-Bob and I, we do what we always done, riding up and down Rt. 76, knocking on rich people’s doors, and offering them our goods and services. I even got a fine laminated look-book for them to pick out styles like a goddamn diner menu. You want that iron straight as an arrow, or all loopy and artistic-like? Tom-Bob and I can do it custom for ya. Anyway, we find this clunker of a white mansion, looks like the one the president lives in. And it’s just sitting out there in horse country, couple of trees lining the driveway. I took one look at it, told Tommy to pump the brakes, hold the phone, that looks like a house that could use a fence!
We was eating our burritos in the parking lot -- this was a couple hours before, now -- and Tom-Bob and I got to talking, like we usually do. This and that. But I’d been meaning to ask him a question since my Momma passed, which was last winter, so you’re not confused. When she passed, I was all alone. I wasn’t gonna get married, not after what happened with Karly sleepin’ around on me. Everybody thought I was a fool, yes they did. The only thing keepin’ me around was Tom-Bob, and he’d be the first to admit -- he didn’t even like me that much. Everybody around here thought I wasn’t worth shit. But they were wrong, which is really what this whole mess is about.
“Tommy?” I said, cause he didn’t like the nickname none. I says, “Tommy? What do you say we finish up the day, take what we got, and just drive on down out to Atlantic City, buy a boat, and sail the world. How’s that sound? Just get the hell outta Pennsylvania, get the hell outta the grip of this shit-for-nothing job, cause it’s getting tighter and tighter each day.”
Tom-Bob laughed, spit a little of his burrito down his shirt, which made him laugh some more, wiped his face, and said: “Mikey, that’s just about the dumbest shit I’ve heard from your mouth. And you say a lot of dumb shit.”
“I’m serious, man.”
“No -- you’re not.” He laughed some more. “Who said you even knew how to drive a boat?”
“It ain’t that hard, man. You just... go straight. With no roads, and whatnot.”
Tom-Bob crumpled up his burrito wrapper, started the truck up, and didn’t pay me no mind till I pointed out that house, and told him to hold the phone.
The bulky man who answered the door of the white house had a big stain on his shirt. It was the first thing I noticed. Like, spaghetti sauce, or something. And I thought -- man lives in the lap of luxury. First thing I’d do, be change my shirt.
“Why hello, sir.” I started out my usual pitch, the one I heard my daddy run through thousands of times as a kid. You can see it right away. Either they get that look like they’re about to slam the door in your face (and a lot of times they do), or they cross their arms, settle in, and wait to hear ya out. Raymond Junger (’cept he pronounced it Younger, with a Y) stood there, heard me out, and smiled. He was a large man. Not fat really -- just large. Myself, I’m considered on the skinnier, shorter side. Ray Junger was like Goliath. I don’t know if I counted as a David, but you could say we was about to do battle, even if I didn’t know it at the time.
Turns out Ray’d just built this monstrosity of a home only last year. He’d been hearing quotes from contractors come way out from Patterson, but none had met his price. Me and Tom-Bob? Hell, we blew those other quotes right out of the water. I flipped out my laminated menu book and he picked one out right then and there. “Gothic.” Turns out, that was the first one I ever learned how to do, so I know’d he was gonna like it.
Didn’t lay eyes on her till we set up the kiln a couple of days later. They had them three cars parked in the circular driveway. A Benzie, a Rolly, and his squat little Porshee I seen him pull up in. Tom-Bob and I saw her come out the front door, dressed in a tight little pair of jump-rope shorts, with her earbuds dangling, boppin’ to her own tune. Thing was, she didn’t pay Tom-Bob no mind, on account of the thin wistle he let out like a man admiring his own handy work. Nope. She looked straight at me. Looked me up and down, she did. Now, I ain’t been blessed with no James Dean looks or nothing, but I got that spark just as fast as she did. You know the feeling. The spark that lights the fire.
Later that day, she brought us out a cooler filled with bottled water. Just sauntered on out, dragging the thing on its rolly-wheels. It’s when I learnt her name. Tracy. Tracy Junger (Younger). She smiled as she popped open that cooler and handed me a bottle. Some of the, uh, wetness -- ran right down her arm and dripped off the tip of her elbow. I swear I saw it in slow motion, and I just about died.
Working with wrought iron is like a fine art. Tom-Bob says they got some machines’ll tamp out the styles you like in Philadelphia, but I know the only way to truly go about doing it right is with my mitts. So, July the fifteenth, according to my books, me and Tom-Bob set up our kiln and anvil, right there on the Junger’s property, and there we planned to stay until Labor Day. Seven weeks to get that iron up and looking fine, all 900 feet of it. And damn if we didn’t pick the hottest spell the county had seen in some ten years! Man, it was so hot, we’d just about strip down to our skivvies if we could -- professionally speaking. We got ourselves a Mr. Bob porto-John as well, so we didn’t have to track mud and cement through their fine house. But that thing was like a shit-box of stench and fumes, like the Devil heself open up a doorway he’s standing down there hollerin’ “Come on down ya two shit for brains! The water’s fine!” With that kiln running on high, it must’ve been at least a hundred and fifty degrees downwind.
And Tracy, she’d make it a point every day to bring us a fresh cooler of water, like she was growing the bottles on a tree in there. We was about, I’d say two weeks into the job when Tom-Bob come down with the runs -- blamed it on the heat -- and he took his trips to the porto-John on the regular, every half-hour. By the time two o’clock comes around, he’s looking all pale and dehydrated. We done drunk all the water already. So I made it my business to go and knock on that door. That’s really where all the trouble started. Yes, sir. Right then and there.
Tracy answered, glowin’ in the afternoon sun. She wasn’t wearing much, and I could see those skinny legs of hers were as slick as ice. She had a pen in her ear.
“Can I help you?” She asked, like we was completely new to her, like we was first meeting. She had a way about it.
“It’s mighty hot out here, Missus Junger,” I says. And like that, she turns her body to the side, and swings her arm -- for Tom-Bob and I to step right in. She closed the door behind us and that cool-as-hell A/C starts running over my greasy skin like heaven on earth.
“...and we could sure use us some more of that water. If you got some to spare.”
Tracy smiled, and said: “Why of course I do. And don’t ever hesitate to ask!” She even touched me on the arm for a moment, got her fingers all dirty with the kiln dust on my skin. There’s a moment between us...
But Tom-Bob gets that bent-over look, his face all slack. I know what’s shakin’ in his bowels, but she sure don’t.
“Missus Junger, I hate to ask this, but do you think I could use your wash room?” Looked like a down-right shit emergency over in Tommy Land to me, but he was kind enough to keep it together. Tracy shifted her weight, didn’t seem to think too much of it (even with the Mr. Bob outside) and directed Tom down the hall, past the kitchen, and to the left. Tommy didn’t think two seconds before taking off away from us, practically undoing his coveralls as he did.
Tracy, she looked at me and smiled, now that we were all alone.
“Mike, right?” She actually extended her hand, on account of the fact that we hadn’t been properly introduced. I shook it, firm at first, like my Pa always taught me. But when I looked into her bright green eyes, I loosened it up. I didn’t want to hurt her any. “I’m Tracy. None of this Missus Junger. That makes me feel old.” I nodded, and my throat caught for some reason. Tracy removed the pen from her ear and clicked it absentmindedly. She looked the way Tom-Bob went. “Seems like your friend might be a while. Would you come and have a look at something for me?” She smiled again when I didn’t say nothing, just gulped and nodded my stupid head. “Only -- take your boots off first.”
If I’da known she was gonna take me back into the master bedroom, I probably wouldn’t have accepted. The house was cool and quiet, but Tom-Bob coulda hollered for my name at any moment. Hell, Ray, the damn master of the house, he coulda walked in, hollering for his wife as I was doing the most carnal of things to--
But that all came a little later. To begin, Tracy showed me into the bedroom for professional reasons only. Lookin’ back on it, she was real crafty in the way she went about doin’ what she did to me. And let’s not split hairs about that...
She and Ray had some ornamental iron over their fireplace, kinda like a crown on top. It was all twisted and really beautiful, but as soon as she led me past the well-made bed and across the carpet where there was this little sitting area -- I could see that the craftsmanship was just no good. Maybe they got it tamped out from one of those machines in Philly. In any case, the whole piece would have to be reforged from scratch, that much I could tell her. She said Mister Junger was all pissed of because he thought he’d gotten a good deal on it, and she wanted to surprise him with the one I was gonna make for her. That word, surprise, it made me get a funny feeling, kinda like what people call butterflies. I don’t think they feel like that, cause butterflies are nice, but that’s what people call ‘em anyway. She’d even pay me extra. “Like overtime,” she said, with her hands on her hips. Only, I don’t punch a card, so practically all my time is “over time.” I didn’t say that to Tracy, I just thought it in my own quiet little way. “So, it’s just between you and me?” That damn smile, like it was one of a kind. I nodded. Then she led me outta the bed room because Tom-Bob was hollerin’ for us like a lost little puppy.
Well, turns out Tommy come down with much more than just the runs later that week. Full blown bug, is what I’d call it. I didn’t mind going down to the Junger site without him, especially since I didn’t want Tommy knowin’ about the little side project Tracy had assigned me. So, while we wasn’t working in the strictest sense of the word -- I was. “Over time.” By that point, I’d played out every possible scenario in my head, every way it could go. I’d finish up that piece, and ask to be let in so I could install it, and really make sure everything was perfect. She’d be in shorts and a halter -- no bra, nipples all hard. And she’d lead me back, I’d start to make my measurements, but she’d stop me, and we’d just do what us animals were meant to do. She’d take me in her mouth when I was done, and I’d scream her name into the empty halls of that giant house.
I fired up that kiln and it was a scorcher, so I took off my shirt while I worked. Must have sweat a whole swimming pool, hammering at that wrought -- and damn if I didn’t see her peering at me through the drapes.
Mister was out golfing, I seen him leave in the Porschee... So after I took my lunch, I went up and donged that bell. But when Tracy answered the door in dumpy old sweat pants, hair all oily, her face slack like I seen in one of those sad movies -- hell, I just wanted to turn around and drive right on outta there. She looked like she might’ve just gotten word that her Momma had died, cause I know what that feels like. You know I’d built that moment up in my head to a point where it had to be just about perfect to live up. But she saw me holding the piece of wrought by my side, and her mood seemed to cheer up, if only one notch.
I asked her if it was a no-good time, but she insisted, and my god it was hot out there, I must be thirsty. I smiled and she led me inside, where I actually hung the thing and took the old one for scrap. She sat on the edge of the bed and watched me, asking me this or that about how I learned to do what I did. And I told her, like I told you. When I was done, I asked where I could wash my hands, so she showed me to the bathroom -- her bathroom. His was separate, I guess. It had all these dainty little bottles on the counter, filled with perfumes and lotions. And a jar where she kept her Q-tips. Yeah, they got their own jar.
As I’m washing my hands, I can see her in the mirror, coming closer to me. It was a completely silent thing, although I guess the water was running the whole time. But she came up right next to me -- and she turns off the sink. I still had soap on my hands, so I look up, playful... but what I saw in her eyes wasn’t playful. She wa’ant scared of her husband coming home, she wasn’t scared of anything. I could tell. This was something she needed, what we were about to do.
“It takes a strong man to do that to the metal.” I didn’t say nothing to this, because frankly it sounded like it also come from one of those movies. But what she said next, that I did respond to: “You hammer it, you twist it, right? I’ve been watching you, from that window--” and I could see that the bathroom did indeed overlook where we set up our kiln. And when I turn back, she says: “I want you to do to me... what you did to that metal.”
And I says, “I sure can.”
She asked me to be firm, and firmer still when it wasn’t enough. We mussed in those little bottles on her counter, and one of them smashed on the marble, stunk up the room with flowers. But she didn’t mind none, so I didn’t complain. I drug down those sweatpants and gave it to her right there, like all hot and in the moment, as they say. It only lasted a few minutes, and it was in fact her that shouted to the empty hallways. I told Tracy that I was about to finish, and she just kept screaming for me to not stop, so I finished in her, which was what I thought she wanted.
It wasn’t until after, when she pulled off her pants to change, did I see the bruises all up and down her legs.
And just like that, we was makin’ it a regular thing. I’d make some excuse to go on inside (when Ray was out, only when Ray was out) and we’d make it quick. Tom-Bob told me he caught on around the 4th or 5th time, and he confronted me right there in the truck after we’d finished for the day.
“You outta your mind to be fuckin’ a woman like that? Let alone if her hubby find out, the things he gonna do to you. But you go down this route, ain't nothing good gonna come from it except you commin' a few times.
“Say what you gonna say.”
Tom-Bob -- he just shook his head as we came to a stop at the off-ramp to Virgil. He starts laughing to himself. “Shit, boy,” he says. “That’s just what you want, ain’t it?” And again I didn’t say nothing. But that’s what happens when you spend pretty much every waking moment with a person. You get to know them, and they get to knowing you.
Tom-Bob got a great big smile on his face and started laughing. "Shit, man, you gonna tell me how she was in bed, or what?"
I laughed right back and told him we ain't actually done it in the bed yet.
We was about a week and a half to finishing the job, and I got real down on myself. I knew what was gonna happen after that. I’d move on with Tommy to some other site, then winter’d come along, and I wouldn’t have a good excuse to see Tracy no more. And I liked spending all the time with her I could, even if it had to be quick. We had gotten to knowing one another, oh for surely.
For instance, she done told me all about big bad Ray Junger and how he liked to beat on her. She was sure he only did it to make her humiliated, that he didn’t even really like to cause the pain -- well that was part of it, but she said he mostly liked what it did to her when he wasn’t hitting on Tracy. He’d hold her down and strike her in places he know’d her clothing would hide. Winter time it was the legs and arms, with the pants and long-sleeves. Come summer, he’d move in tighter to the body, striking the ribs and whatnot. I seen the bruises, big yellow and black ones across the middle of her back like you’ve never seen.
So the best I could do is try to just hold her after we made it. Sometimes she’d cry, sometimes just lie still. But one time she looked up at me, and she smirked.
“You know why he’s having you build that fence, dontcha?” I shook my head, because I really didn’t know. “To keep me in here. Always.”
That night, as I was four beers in, it kinda hit me like a lightning bolt, the thought that Ray was keepin’ her prisoner in there, and that I was building his cage for him. That, and the fact that Tom-Bob knew that all I wanted to do was get the hell outta Pennsylvania, or America, or Earth. We all kinda trapped, then, ain’t we?
It was on one of the last few days of the job, and we hadn’t made it in a few days because Ray’d been around a lot more than he had before, that she invited me in and told me what she’d been planning. That’s when she asked me to help her kill Ray, and run off with her and all his money.
She said that Ray had stashed somewhere around fifty million, after he’d gotten off the hook with the Feds. And she even showed me a copy of the bank statement! She was carryin’ the damn thing in her robe all day, she said. She begged and pleaded with me, but I just stood up and started putting my pants back on. Because that was not where I thought this whole thing was ever headed, let me tell you. I told her -- bold-faced -- a big, fat, no.
And when she tried to pull the string about knowing I wanted outta this shit hole just as much as she wanted out of her marraige, well that just about set me off. I didn’t like how she said it, and maybe it was the tears, and I just felt like she was graspin’ at straws. But underneath everything, I kinda knew she was aiming straight. Looking back on it, I probably shoulda never even told her how I felt about anything. But she had my heart in her hand, man. In the damn palm.
That day, however, I did walk out of the bedroom leaving her with a “no” answer. And I’m glad I did, too, because as I walked out the front door, here comes Ray Junger driving down the cobblestone, listening to Jazz or some shit cause I could hear it from outside the car. My heart practically flopped outta my mouth as he slowed down and looked me right in the eyes from behind those sunglasses. I could feel it. But, damn, he’d been close to finding us out. Imagine that?
Tom-Bob gave me his usual hard time about it when I came back, grumbling about how it wasn’t fair that I was the one who got to wet his dipper. That next day was a Friday. ‘Swhen I saw Tracy poke her head out for just a second when the Fed-Ex truck came. And I see’d that black eye he’d given her. She was quick about it. But I see’d the importance of that black eye now. Ray had seen me coming outta his home, and he got so furious with the implications of that, he didn’t care if Tracy walked all over town with a big sign on her face, sayin’ “I’ll never do it again.”
And also how it was all my fault to begin with.
That Saturday was Krystal and Vinny’s wedding, and it was a big, black hole of drunk. I needed to just shut it down, anyway. So I drove on out to the lake, where they had it all set up with the stage, and I waited through the damn poems and speeches, while the mommas cried and the rest of the men all waited for the drinking to begin. I just let it all take hold of me, and by the time Tommy shows up, I’m fuckin’ hammered. When he handed me his flask, I done puked in the bushes at the sight of it, told him I felt better, and chugged what was left inside. He clapped me on the back and then I told him I wanted to go get in a fight, so me and Tom-Bob, we picked ourselves a fight. It was a good one, too, because it was the groom’s brother, so at some point it became an out and out brawl between six or seven men. I held my own, Tommy said, but in the end I woke up with the sun in my eye on the grass, missing a tooth. Luckily it wasn’t one of the front ones. I’m not vain or nothing, but not many people take a man seriously without his front tooth in.
Tommy and I got waffles and coffee to nurse our hangovers. And that’s when I told him what’s been going on. I had to tell someone, and Tommy was pretty much all there was. And you know what he says to me? “Let me help,” he says.
END PART 1.