A Terry Salz Mystery
By Margo Pierce Dorksen
Published by iPublish.com
November 2001; 0-759-55033-6; 372 pages
I want to tell you a story. It's about friends, hard work, good love, bad love, and murder. My name's Terry Saltz. I'm a carpenter. I like to build stuff. I like the smell of sawdust. Put me up in the air walking a beam with my hammer in my hand and my tool belt riding low, I'm a happy, happy man.
I'm a physical guy. I'm a long-haired, flannel-shirted, ass-stomping, ponytailed, swivel-hipped, Pink Floyd rocking carpenter. I don't claim to be a writer. So getting this story on paper isn't gonna be the easiest thing I've ever done. But I'm thinking, how hard can it be? If I just rock back and fire, like you and me were sitting at my kitchen table, having a cup of coffee, shooting the breeze, maybe that'll get the job done.
It started like this. A while ago I hit a rough patch. I guess some of that story will come out as we go along, but for now I'll just say that I let some things pile up on me and I musta been feeling the stress or whatever. I found myself in a bar one night and I got way out of hand. In one bad night, I threw away everything I'd made of myself in twenty-six years.
I got stoned and drunk, trashed the place, hit a guy or two or three, got arrested, pled guilty, and went to jail. Besides the jail time, I got a big ol' fine (the judge was kind enough to spread it out into convenient monthly payments for about the rest of my fucking life), about a million hours of community service, and a shitload of probation.
While I was in jail, I lost my job, my wife, all but one of my friends, my truck, my mobile home, and everything else I'd managed to accumulate in twenty-six hard-working years on this earth.
Those were some dark days. I felt like I'd fallen down a bottomless well. Sure, I can look back now and realize that getting myself in all that trouble turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me. Because of my one-man riot, I started over and ended up with about the best life I ever could have hoped for. But at the time, I thought it was pretty much all over for me.
There I was, no longer a married, mobile-home-owning, truck-driving, fat wallet-carrying, hearty-partying, friend-having union carpenter, but a busted, divorced, unemployed loser. Sitting in jail. The future looked like an ugly brick wall.
Danny Gillespie was about the only one of my friends who didn't turn his back on me during my trouble. Ol' Danny, he visited me in jail, kept a straight face while he listened to all my trials and tribulations, and eventually asked me what I was going to do when I got out. I said I had no idea. He said he'd be happy to have me move in with him. I said that was really decent of him and I would think it over.
I had lived with my wife, Marylou, the party of the first part, hereinafter referred to as the Bitch, in the southernmost tip of Grand County, northeastern Ohio. But the courthouse and, therefore, my probation officer, were in Spencer, in the northern part of the county. And Danny lived in Spencer. So I thought about it for a while and decided moving in with Danny was a good idea.
I wasn't going to have wheels for a while until I got back on my feet, but if I was living with Danny I would be within walking distance of my probation officer. Another plus was that I would be at the other end of the county from the Bitch. So I called him and said if his offer was still good, I'd take him up on it. He said great.
On the day I got released, Danny took off from work, drove all the way down to what was now the Bitch's trailer, and picked up my hand tools and clothes, which she had left in a heap in the carport, probably somewhere in the vicinity of what was now her truck. Then he picked me up at jail and we drove to his apartment, which was the attic of an unrestored century home two blocks off Spencer's town square. I moved into his extra bedroom. It was old, tiny, and grim compared to my ex-trailer, but at that point I was just happy to be with a friend and have a roof over my head.
Once we got my stuff carried up to his apartment, Danny opened his refrigerator door, pulled out a six-pack, and brought it into his living room. He flopped his lanky, beat-up frame down onto the worst-looking piece-of-shit sofa I ever saw, which I couldn't even tell what color it was supposed to be, pulled a can loose, popped the top, and made to hand the other five cans to me.
I shook my head. "Nope. I'm done with that shit for a while."
He looked at me funny, then he pulled his bowl out of his vest pocket and started loading it up. He looked up at me with his shaggy strawberry blond eyebrows raised.
I wanted to help him burn it. I wanted that beer, too. It was a hot day for early June, and his attic apartment was stifling, and I was having the first day of the rest of my life. But I shook my head.
"Done with that, too," I said.
I went into the bathroom, which I couldn't even stand up straight in it, since it was crammed against the sloping attic roof, and splashed cold water in my face. Then, carefully ducking my head to get through the low door frame, I went into what was now my bedroom and stood there looking at my boxes and bags of hand tools and clothes lined up along one wall. Twenty-six years, and that was all I had to show for it. Nice.
Since there was no bed, I spread out the ratty extra blanket Danny had set on the floor in there, stretched out on it, and took a nap. His floor was only a little harder than the bunk I'd been sleeping on in jail.
We went over to Burger King for dinner. Of course, Danny had to pay for mine. I told him I was sorry for being such a wreck and I'd get my act together as fast as I could. He said for me to take my time, he was happy to spot me as long as I needed him to. I loved the guy so much when he said that, I felt my throat knot up. That's how low I was.
Danny's a big guy, just a little shorter than me, and freckled. Most days he wears his strawberry blond hair in a ponytail like me. He's a roofer, same age as me, and has a girl here and there he can call when he feels like it. He's pretty happy with himself, and by the time I moved in with him, he was pretty set in his ways. He likes to start off every working morning with a shower and then breakfast at Brewster's.
Danny likes Brewster's. It's a hometown restaurant, bacon-smelling, holes-in-the-burgundy-vinyl kind of place. It sits at one end of a long strip mall, looking out across a big parking lot at another strip mall. Most of the waitresses know most of the regulars by name, and the menu never changes.
It's a big, wide-open room with windows all across the front, so the retired and unemployed, who like to sit in there drinking coffee and trading conspiracy theories all day, can monitor the comings and goings in the parking lot, which also serves the grocery store, the hardware store, the hair salon, the bank, the drugstore, and a bunch of other little shops and businesses.
There's a line of booths down each wall, a double row of booths down the middle, a lunch counter in back, and tables down each side of the center booths. You can smoke in there, and talk loud, and hit on the waitresses, and nobody cares. If you're having an interesting conversation, people at other tables feel entitled to jump in with comments of their own.
That first morning, I got up and threw on a pair of jeans while Danny took his shower. While he was still in the bathroom, he yelled for me to come on to Brewster's with him and get some breakfast, what else did I have to do? So I pulled on a flannel shirt and tagged along. I hated that he had to pay for my number four, but he said bullshit, I would have done the same for him, and that was true, I would have.
That's how the first week or so went. Every morning we would go over to Brewster's and get breakfast, then he would go off to his roofing job, and I would walk back to the house and spend the day reading the want ads or staring at Danny's little TV, cursing myself for being such a loser asshole that I had lost everything I had, including my employability. Or so I thought.
The walk home from Brewster's took me past Carlo's, a busy little pizza place down in the opposite corner of the same shopping center as Brewster's. Every day I would look at all the little green Carlo's Hyundais that their drivers deliver pizzas in parked in the back lot, and I would look at the big sign in the window that said, HELP WANTED. DRIVERS. WAITRESSES.
Of course, at eight in the morning, eight-thirty if I had another cup of coffee after Danny left for work and sat a while longer trying to guess the waitresses' bra sizes, Carlo's isn't open yet. But a week or so after I was out of jail-it was a Tuesday-I walked up to the courthouse for my scheduled heart-to-heart with my probation officer, but she was out sick and they said I should come back the following Tuesday at ten A.M.
Afterward I couldn't stand the thought of going back to the house, so I went for an all-day walk. I sat at a picnic table up on the town square for a long time, watching the traffic and watching the happy lawyers and miserable defendants going in and out of the court house. In the middle of the afternoon I found myself walking past Carlo's. I more or less wandered inside before I had even thought about what I was doing.
The woman at the front counter was about my age, maybe a few years older. She was kind of plain but still attractive, slender, with short brown hair and smart green eyes. She was busy telling a guy to run up to the Thriftway for a bag of onions, then a phone rang and she took an order for two large pizzas. I stood there long enough to see that she was large and in charge, so I might as well tell her my worst news right up front, because she would do what she was going to do no matter what kind of bullshit I tried to lay on her.
When she looked at me and smiled, signaling me to state my business, I said, "I'd like to apply for a job as a driver but I just got out of jail."
She blinked and looked me over for a minute, a wise-ass smile beginning to form on her face, then she said, "How's your driving record?"
"Perfect," I said, and I remember being surprised to realize that in all the garbage heap of my life I did have one perfect thing. My driving record. I stood a little straighter. No, I didn't.
She said, "Do you have a car?"
I said, "No. I'd have to drive one of those little Korean pieces of shit you have parked in the back." Then I smiled at her and said, "Heh."
She nodded and thought about me for a minute, then she said, "How do you take your coffee?"
A few minutes later we were lighting cigarettes, sitting in a booth across from each other with coffee cups in front of us. She said her name was Barb Pannio. Then she asked me what I was in jail for. I told her. She nodded and asked what I did for a living before I went to jail. I told her.
I also told her how I'd been fired as a result of my troubles, filed on for divorce, and fucked in every possible orifice. Figuratively speaking! Don't think I got made into an Alice in jail or anything like that. I'm plenty big enough to take care of myself, and anyway, it was just little ol' Grand County Jail, with a basketball court and red geraniums by the front doors. I said as much to her. She laughed. Then she pushed an application across the table to me.
She said, "That line where it asks if you've ever been convicted of a felony, just write no."
I raised my eyebrows at her.
She laughed. "Nobody but me would check," she said. "How soon can you start?"
"Now?" I said, smiling. Because I was joking, showing that I was gung-ho. I expected her to say, like, Monday will be soon enough, or something.
But she looked at her watch. By then it was two-thirty, three. She said, "Okay, good. We'll get you trained. There's not much to it. By the time we get busy with the dinner rush you'll be ready to take deliveries. Okay?"
I shrugged. "Sure. Why not?" She said, "How late can you work tonight?"
I shrugged again, thinking how funny that was. Like I had anything else to do. "Until the place closes?" After we finished our coffee, Barb walked me down the hall that led off the back end of the dining room, a few steps along that and then to the left, to the waitress station.
She said, "Beverages are free. Grab yourself a Styrofoam cup and put your name on it so nobody throws it away. Make one cup last all shift."
I drew myself a Coke, then followed her through the hall, past the office, around past the bathrooms, and into the back room where all the food prep and dough making and stuff was done.
It was pretty obvious to me that the first person she introduced me to was the ass-kicker who rode the vintage Harley I'd noticed sitting in the back parking lot. My first sight of him, he was standing there leaning against the work counter, smoking a cigarette and watching a big blob of pizza dough being badly mistreated in a huge metal bowl by what looked like an outboard motor blade.
Barb told me, "Terry, this is Greg Bellini. We call him Bump."
He was scary looking, lounging there in his black Carlo's shirt. This is Bump: He's tall, at least six-and-a-half feet tall, has very long blond hair tied with a black leather strap in a wild hit-or-miss ponytail, and wears a mustache but no beard. His pythons bulge like, well, pythons, and there isn't an ounce of fat on his body. If you stood him up next to any NFL linebacker you'd have to say, hmm, even match. His face looks like it was carved out of oak with a chain saw.
I was deeply impressed with my first sight of Bump Bellini.
Barb said, "Bump, this is Terry Saltz. He's gonna be a night driver. Show him how to wedge potatoes while you wait for those deliveries to come up, okay?" She turned and started out of the room without waiting for him to nod, then turned back. "Get him started and then I need to talk to you in the office."
"Yup," Bump said. But he didn't move until he had finished his cigarette. When he'd smoked it down to the filter, he slowly raised himself out of his leaning position, slowly walked into the back hallway that led to the back door, and slowly ground it out in an ashtray on one of the shelves that lined the hallway wall.
The wall opposite the shelves was metal, with a big metal door in the middle. He pulled open the door, went inside, and came back out a few seconds later in a frosty cloud carrying a twenty-five pound bag of Idahos. He carried it over to a bank of big industrial-sized stainless steel sinks, emptied it out into one of them, and turned on the cold water. He picked up a potato, rinsed it, turned around to the counter behind him, stood it up in a big wall-mounted tool that worked sort of like a drill press, positioned a tub under it, jerked down the handle, and voila! The blade shat out six or seven instamatic potato wedges.
"Knock yourself out," he said. "There's more tubs up there." He jerked his thumb at the shelves above the sinks and walked out of the back room the way I had come in. I watched him go. He went into the office and closed the door behind him.
So I got to work on the potato wedges. You might be thinking it was gofer work, and I was insulted to have to do it. How far the mighty carpenter had fallen, something like that? Naw. I was on somebody's time clock again. And I was interested. I had never stopped to wonder how potato wedges get that way, and it was fun slamming that blade down through the potatoes and watching the wedges squirt out the bottom. I watched the dwindling pile of potatoes with concern and hoped Bump would carry out another bag for me to do.
After a while a guy came walking into the back room from the back door. He stopped by the utility sink and stared at me. I glanced at him and went back to work. But he kept on standing there staring at me, so I looked over again and smiled.
He was a short, strange-looking dude. I made him to be mid-fifties. He was mostly bald, with just a ratty little fringe of gray hair running in a line around the back of his head. He stood there duck-toed with his wilted athletic socks sagging down over black high tops, baggy black shorts hanging down over skinny, trout-white legs, and a fanny pack strapped tightly around his waist.
He stood there, blank faced, like it was taking him that long to process that there was a guy he didn't know wedging potatoes. I waited for him to say something, or even to develop an expression of some kind on his wide, pasty face, but when he didn't, I went back to the wedger.
After a few minutes, I saw peripheral movement, and realized the guy was walking toward me. He came up close beside me, so that his ear was touching my arm, and said into my armpit, "Th-th-the Tacos d-didn't tear up any l-l-lettuce last n-n-night."
"Huh?" I had to lean forward and duck my head to get a look at his face. He looked indignant. He set his mouth into a schoolteacher frown and waited for my outraged reaction. But I had no idea what he was talking about.
I said, "Tacos?"
"N-n-night waitresses!" He gave me a look of exaspera-tion, like he thought I was the one who was weird, and walked away. In the elbow of the front hallway, he met up with Bump coming back from the office. He got up close to Bump, just as he had done to me, and said something quietly into Bump's armpit, jerking his thumb back at me as he talked.
Bump listened for thirty seconds or so, then gave a loud hoot and said, "Get the fuck away from me, Flute." Flute disappeared around the corner, heading toward the dining room, and Bump came on back.
By that time, I had a couple tubs of wedges done. When I glanced at him, Bump gave me a friendly smile, like he had just now met me. He said, "So you've been away at County, huh?"
What had happened, obviously, was Barb had called him into the office to tell him about me. Well, good. It saved me from having to explain myself again. And now he was smiling at me.
He said, "I know a guy who's in County now. Louie. You know Louie? Is he jonesin'?"
I laughed. "You know Louie? Yeah, he's jonesin', all right. That poor dumb fuck."
Everybody in the jail knew Louie. He was a seriously deranged skinny little pothead burnout who couldn't seem to do anything right. I had never been able to make up my mind whether he was really stupid or just had colossally bad judgment.
Not to get too sidetracked from the story I'm trying to tell here, but Louie was in jail this latest time because he had robbed an all-night gas station right there in Spencer just as a cop pulled into the parking lot. He got caught trying to run away across a field. See, he had decided it would be better if he did the job on foot, and then he wouldn't have to worry that his car would be recognized. But trying to get away in a hurry had put him in kind of a bind because he was on crutches at the time. He had a broken leg.
Bump got busy filling the finished potato wedge tubs with water, putting lids on them and carrying them into the walk-in cooler that was behind that metal door in the back hall, getting down more empty tubs, and so on.
Pretty soon we were done wedging. We went into the back hall to smoke and wait for the deliveries to be ready.
I said, "What'd you call that other guy? Flute? What's his deal?"
Bump laughed. "He's the other day driver. He's harmless. Pay no attention."
"I couldn't understand what he was trying to tell me. He was all upset, talking about Tacos or something."
Bump snorted. "That's what he calls the night waitresses. The Tacos. He's always gossiping, going off about something. Today it's because the lardass Tacos didn't do their closing work last night."
A few minutes later, while we were still loitering in the back hall, a very good-looking girl came back to get something out of the walk-in. She had tucked her sand-colored hair up under her black Carlo's baseball cap, which she was wearing backwards, but little blond curls had worked their way out here and there around the edges. And even though her black Carlo's shirt wasn't tucked in that day, I could tell at a glance that she had a great body.
Bump introduced me and told me her name was Lauren King, but to call her Jackson. She smiled and nodded, then she turned around and pulled the metal door open. "Nice ass," Bump said, and she said, "Fuck off." The tone of voice they used was the same as they would have used to say, "How ya doing?" "Fine."
This was when I realized that working at Carlo's was going to be a lot different from being a carpenter. I'd been a carpenter since I was fifteen and my brother brought me into his crew as a gofer. There generally aren't any girls around the job when you're a carpenter.
Jackson came back out of the cooler carrying a tub of grated provolone cheese and hurried around to the front. A few minutes later a female voice from the front yelled, "Driver!" I followed Bump out to the little green Hyundai that was parked just outside the back door.
There are no front passenger seats in Carlo's delivery cars. They take them out so drivers can stack deliveries on the floor where the front seat used to be. I climbed into the backseat on the passenger side, since Bump had the driver's seat pushed back as far as it would go for legroom and also had the seatback laid down about halfway for headroom. From outside the car, it looked like he was driving from the backseat, which he practically was.
While we rode around to the front of the store, he started explaining things. "Remind me to show you where the car logs are when we get back in. You have to write down your starting and ending mileage. You full-time?"
I shrugged and nodded.
He said, "Full-timers get three Carlo's shirts and one baseball cap. Plus a fanny pack like this to put the money in. Park in back, pick up in front."
I said to myself, fanny pack? and thought I might have a serious problem with wearing a fanny pack. But as I followed him inside, watching the thing ride on his hip, I decided, okay, it's sorta like a tool belt.
I watched him pick up the three deliveries that were stacked on the counter, followed him back to the car, climbed in, and watched him restack the deliveries in the order he was going to need them.
Once we were out of the big parking lot, he said, "I'll warn you right now, people in this town love narcing on Carlo's drivers. If anyone sees you do anything-hell, they don't even need a reason. They're gonna call and complain."
"Course, when someone does call, the managers just fuck with 'em. But they keep track of who's getting called about. If they get a couple of calls on you, they'll talk to you." I said, "The managers fuck with 'em?"
He said, "Yeah. Like last week, this real old dude called about me."
He chuckled. "I was heading out on a run, along the front of the shopping center, heading down toward Brewster's. I saw him come out of the hardware store." He flipped on his turn signal and started to brake.
"You gotta watch out for people coming out of those stores. Sometimes they'll come off the curb without looking.
Anyway, I saw him come out of the hardware store and I knew he was gonna walk right out in front of me. He did, and then he looked and saw me coming, and jumped back on the curb shaking his fist. Like it was my fault he walked right out in front of me. It made me laugh."
"You shouldn'ta laughed. Probably made him mad."
"No shit. By the time I got in from the run, he'd called Barb and given her an earful. Barb goes, 'I'm sorry you were annoyed, sir. I hate to fire him, 'cause he's my best driver, and he's raising those three little kids all by himself since his poor wife died, but that's company policy. He'll be terminated.'"
He chuckled warmly. "They say shit like that. Then the same person usually doesn't call back again."
I said, "You don't have three little kids."
He snorted. "Fuck no!" He pulled up to a red light, stopped, and looked back at me.
"I do all the minor maintenance on the cars. I got a rule. Don't abuse the cars. The managers may go easy on the drivers, but I don't. I can tell when a car's been abused, and I only have to check the log to see who did it. I get irate when someone abuses a car."
He lit a cigarette and was taking his first draw on it when the light turned green. He said, "Not allowed to smoke in the cars."
I nodded and tapped out a cigarette from my pack.
He said, "When these cars were delivered, they took all the radios out and put 'em on the shelves in the office. Yeah, right. Like we're really gonna be in one of these cars all day or all night without a radio! As soon as they were gone, me and Gruf put 'em all back in. Gruf's the night manager now. You'll meet him later."
He said, "I scare the housewives the first time they see me. Like this delivery coming up? She's a first-timer. They'll be scared of you, too. So you gotta be smiling when they open the door, then right away you gotta say something friendly. Usually they tip pretty good after that, because they're so relieved you're not gonna kill 'em or something."
"They tip?" I hadn't realized yet that I was going to be getting tips.
Bump looked around at me. "Fuck yeah. That's where you make your money!"
We drove a few blocks and then he turned into the driveway of a big new colonial. He was right. The woman who opened the door got wide-eyed when she saw us standing there like two scruffy miscreants.
But we smiled, and Bump said quickly, "Hi. We're from Carlo's. I'm Bump, this is Terry. Dude, your yard looks great! Who's your landscaper?"
"I...ah...," she stammered. I saw that the hand holding the wallet was a little unsteady.
He started pulling the pizza box out of the stay-warm bag. "What're those little blue flowers? I gotta get some of those for my yard."
She took the box from him and set it on a table by the door. "They're, uh, Lobelia. They're pretty, aren't they?"
He looked at the ticket. "It's ten ninety-nine," he said as she opened the wallet.
She pulled out a ten and a five and handed them to him. He said, "Ya want change?"
She shook her head. "No. No, keep it." He said, "Lobelia, huh? Gotta get me some of those. Hey, thanks a lot. Have a nice day."
We climbed back into the car. "You called her 'dude,'" I said. "Huh?" he said, backing out by looking in the side mirror.
"You called her 'dude,'" I repeated. He said, "Did I? Huh."Copyright © 2001 by Margo Pierce Dorksen
Reprinted with permission.
Meet Terry Saltz. He just got out of jail, and has to get used to having no wife, no home, no job, and no truck. It's a bad country song until he gets a job delivering pizzas and things start looking up. At least it seems that way, until one of his new coworkers is murdered.
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Margo Pierce Dorksen was born in Columbia, Missouri, currently lives in Northeastern Ohio, and has lived in Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, Texas, and Michigan. Dorksen has worked as a proofreader, editor, pizza driver, tile cutter, and carpenter.