Chapter 9 – Meeting

And I will show that nothing can happen more beautiful than death.
Walt Whitman

The annual party for the Union was held in one of the medium sized meeting rooms in the City Hotel that stood on the riverbank in downtown River City. The local had about 250 members but they’d be lucky if half of them showed although the free booze was a draw. Though he wasn’t as social as he once was, Walter was opportunistic and he could imagine a scenario that might work to his advantage, at this gathering, so he planned on attending. He had finished his workout at the YMCA, just across the river from the hotel, and had driven the few blocks over and parked on the street; it was after hours so he didn’t need to put any coins in the meter. He was dressed in business casual and felt comfortable and relaxed after his workout. As he got out of his car and rounded the back-end of his Honda and stepped up on the sidewalk, a dole of Rock Doves, startled, flew up. He stepped around the bird shit, passed by a couple of spindly elm trees the city had planted along the roadside, and made his way under the theatre-like overhang, chose a glass door from among the many hinged between the cement columns, walked through that door and across the tiled lobby of the hotel to the elevator.

On the wall near the elevators, there was a black sign with removable white letters that read, “ATS Gathering – Wolverine Room – 9th FL,” but he already knew where he was headed. Standing at the elevators, he saw that the lights showed that one was already at his floor and the other one was at the third floor. He was the only one standing in line and, being a little late, he pushed the button immediately, thinking that the door on the left would open but it didn’t. He had to wait for the one on the right to make its way down and for that door to open, which it did, and he rode up in the elevator alone, taking the time to be present with his breathing. When the compartment stopped and the gentle bell toned, he stepped out, turned left and walked to the men’s room to piss and wash his face. As he left the restroom and walked down the carpeted hall back past the elevators, the one that appeared to have been stuck on the first floor arrived, it’s door opened, and one of the Union Stewards and Julie stepped out, looking a little disheveled and embarrassed.

“Hey,” Walter said to them, nodding as he walked by, thinking, “Get it where and when you can.”

“Brown carpet, brown pattern, light brown walls,” he thought, “I’m in a brown hotel in a brown town.”

He walked down the hall and into the conference room, lovers bringing up the rear.

He was just in time to catch the last words of the Union President Lee’s speech, proclaiming how successful they’d been this year, in negotiations with management, and how important the union was; how everyone was getting their monies worth for the dues they had to pay. There was a smattering of applause, mostly from the union diehards and drivers who’d been there over twenty years; the ones who really benefited from the structure of the contract. Walter applauded, too.

“Lets’ eat!” ordered Lee. The food was served buffet style with people lining up, grabbing plates, napkins and utensils as they reached the start of the spread, and the usual socializing began. Walter chitchatted mildly, mostly smiled and remained friendly- looking but reserved, the way most of the bus operators normally saw him. The food was common hotel fare but tasty: Canapés, shrimp, veggie and chicken wraps, simple sushi, bruschetta, tenderloin, dim sum, oysters, and a variety of cheeses. Walter hadn’t seen the catering menu but he expected the union had gone all out as evidenced by the quantity and variety. In his life, he remained thankful for small gifts and for the selection of non-face food choices on this occasion, he was grateful. There was a drifting to tables, informally influenced by cliques: Loud groups here, quiet groups there, Christians here, anarchists there. Walter sought out Marti, who’d been one of his primary instructors during training, and placed his plate of food beside hers.

“How’s that catnip doing?” he asked her.

Months before, he had brought her a planting separated from the crop at Mara’s house.

“My cats love you even if they don’t know you,” came her reply.

There seemed to be no darkness inside Marti’s heart; the drivers called her Mama Duck, ‘cause she always had a string of trainees waddling behind her. During his driver’s training, she had told him, “There’s a lot of love at the River,” in reference to the affairs that often caused divorces and resultant new pairings, and the drama. He’d see her around the garage in various states of being hugged and she’d explained that she came from a family conditioned not to hug and to never express love and was just now being reconditioned by these hugs. Walter had given her a smile, then, but never a hug.

“I was driving down Division last night,” Marti said, “and got slowed to a stop by traffic and some guy started beating on the door, wanting to get onboard.”

“Were you at a bus stop?” someone asked.

“No, and it was getting dark. I yelled at him and told him I couldn’t pick him up there,” she said.

“So?” Walter asked.

“The traffic cleared and I pulled away and a minute later I heard gun shots,” she said, a guilty smile on her face.

Everyone at the table just shook their head; you could tell they were seeing themselves in her place.

Most of the union members hung around to take advantage of the free booze and the chance to see people they usually didn’t get to see in their comings and goings on the job. Rumor had it that some of the drivers, in attendance without their chaperones, had rented a room a few floors down in order to see even more of their opposite sex friends.

“More drama,” he said to those gathered around the table.

“The real drama takes place in the warehouse,” someone said before the others sitting at the table shushed him.

“No, he should know, too,” the person continued.

“Know what?” Walter asked.

“It’s just a rumor,” Marti said.

“It’s not; it’s true,” the original speaker said, “Certain elements, shall we say, of the union have diverted funds from the garage project and bought one of the old warehouses across the train tracks from the garage. They’ve refurbished it and that’s where they plan their deeds and have their own little soirees, so there’s no need for them to rent a room here.”

“Food for thought,” thought Walter.

Walter finished his solid nourishment and started migrating around the room, angling for the exit. He saw Julie across the room where she was giving a hug to another Bus Operator, another one of the Union Stewards, not the one from the elevator. She was in the company of several female and male drivers but she saw him and they gave each other a wave. She was the only one who seemed to take notice of him so Walter waited until she was no longer looking in his direction and then exited the conference room and walked down the hall. What he didn’t know was that Julie had seen him leave and she had assumed just what he thought anyone seeing him leave would assume.

“If anyone saw me leave,” he thought, “they’ll either assume I’ve left to use the restroom or that I’ve left the building.”

He walked past the elevators, keeping near the right hand side of the hall and then, after taking a quick glance behind to make certain no-one was watching, he turned the corner to the right and made his way out to the balcony that ran half way around the building on the ninth floor. Julie had excused herself from the group she was with, and walked out in the hallway too late to see which way Walter had turned but fast enough to see that none of the floor lights of the elevator were lit up. She assumed Walter was in the restroom and walked down the hall and to the left and into the ladies’ room to freshen up, making certain she was quick. Finished, she stood outside waiting for Walter to come out of the men’s room. She remained waiting just long enough to be puzzled that he hadn’t come out, before heading back to the party. “Nice view,” Walter thought to himself, standing on the balcony with the river below and the tree covered hills rolling away behind it, the sun just starting to set and, unusual for River City, a pretty light purple sky presented itself in the background.

Slightly below, he could see a flight of Tree Swallows doing their aerial acrobatics as they gathered their food. After a few minutes, he saw one of the stewards, who had been in the garage during the killing, start out of the door from the meeting room. Walter quickly stepped back behind the structure of the building and out of sight before the steward looked in his direction. From the nearby expressway, he could hear the sounds of the traffic passing by. A minute later, after making sure everything seemed safe, the steward stepped back inside the building, there was some conversation just inside the door that Walter couldn’t make out, and then Lee walked out, set his drink glass on the flat railing of the balcony, and reached in his pocket for a cigar and his matches. While he was cutting, then lighting his cigar, Walter walked slowly towards him, looking a little drunk but friendly. Walter could hear the match pull across the cement supporting the railing and then heard the phosphorous and potassium chlorate ignite. Lee saw Walter coming and got a cocky look on his face, tossed the match to the deck, took a long draw on his cigar then held it away from his mouth with his left hand. Lee was a big man, just over six feet and weighing two-fifty or two-sixty, muscle going to fat but he was still strong and with that strength came a big ego. Walter put out his right hand and, when he was just close enough to Lee for a handshake, he seemed to stumble or trip and he fell forward and into Lee, pushing him away from the railing and back towards the door. Lee, from his years of playing football and generally pushing people around, instinctively reversed direction and pushed back against Walter. Walter used the momentum of Lee’s push-back, grabbed the lapels of Lee’s jacket, pivoted on his feet, pushed first his hip then his butt into Lee’s waste, pulling Lee up and over on Walter’s bent back and then further, over the railing. For Lee, time may have slowed down or stopped but for Walter, it passed as it always did. There was a gap between the steel railing and the low, cement wall that held it and, as Lee passed by this gap, his eyes looked into Walters.

Walter saw some chewing gum stuck to the bottom of the railing, and the light blue color of Lee’s eyes, and thought, “Hmmm, I never noticed that before.”

In the background, some of the birds in flight were talking rapidly, maybe saying in their own way what they’d just seen. The puff of a breeze swirled across the deck but did nothing to disturb the space where Lee had last stood. To his credit, Lee never dropped his cigar as he lashed out so strongly with his free hand that he broke his little finger on the railing while grabbing for something to save him, and then he fell, like the sack of shit he was, 100 feet to the rocks and water of the river below.

Walter felt a small twinge in his back and thought, “Damn, I hope I didn’t throw my back out.”

Before Lee’s body hit hard stone and mud and spread the water wide, Walter stood up, sent some healing thoughts to his lower spine, and checked his hands and face for possible cuts or scratches, looked over his clothes for possible tears or missing buttons, checked the floor around him for anything that might point to him and then, finding nothing, he walked at an even pace back around the balcony to the door he’d come out of and back into the conference room that was filled with happy voices. He sidled up to the bar and ordered himself a Cola. It took another few minutes for the steward to feel like Lee should have returned. When he went out the door and onto the balcony, he saw the drink glass standing on the railing and a burnt wooden match on the floor; there was still a lingering smell of Cuban tobacco in the air, so he figured Lee must have taken a walk around the building. The steward went back inside but, less than a minute later, he got an uneasy feeling, waved for the others who Walter had seen that early morning in the garage, and together they slid back out the door and began their search. It took them another ten minutes to look over the railing, see the mess below and, with a snap or a crack like lightning, the loud shouts began and the aura of fear began at the balcony and rushed through the door and oozed into the conference room, shading everything with a pallor of muddied red and dark muddied blue. Within a half hour the police, ambulance, and fire personnel began to show up and start to sort things out. People had been leaving the party but Walter made certain that he stayed until the police locked the place down. He wanted to be interviewed and photographed, if they were efficient, to document his lack of incriminating evidence. If the police or Lee’s goons ever figured out that this had been a killing, rather than an accident or suicide, they’d start with the people seen leaving just after Lee went missing. From where he stood, he saw Julie being interviewed by a police officer, then glance in his direction with a confused look on her face, as if she’d just thought of something, and then leave. Walter figured she was upset, as a normal person would be, at the death of anyone.

That same policeman walked over and interviewed Walter, asking the predictable questions, “Did you see anything?” “Did you hear anything?” “Do you have any ideas about what happened?” “Did the deceased appear to be drunk?”

The cop took his contact information and asked him to leave. Walter rode the elevator down alone, as he had coming up, walked towards his car and stepped off the curb. He was rounding the car, to get in, but stopped to watch and listen as those same two doves landed on the sidewalk and started with their soft cooing notes. At that moment, Walter didn’t have an issue with anyone. The man who’d made the mistake of threatening him had been taken care of and that was good enough for him.

“It was indicated, Jed,” Walter thought to himself as he sat in his car and drove towards home and Mara. It was fairly late when he got home. As he pulled into the driveway, his car lights caught sight of Shakti, the gray and white feline, lying on the pavement that was, probably, stilling holding the day’s heat. She lay still as he drove slowly in and parked next to her, making sure he was a safe distance away.

He got out, taking his gym bag with him, shut the car door, punched the lock button on his key-fob and said, to Shakti, “Hey Little Girl. What’cha doin?”

She just looked at him.

“You should move when a car comes in. You could get hurt.”

He gave her a head rub and then unlocked and passed through the front door to the breezeway, locking it behind him. He made sure that the back breezeway door was locked, that the door to the garage was locked and then let himself in to the house through the kitchen door, locking that one behind him as well. Mara usually took the pills, that helped her sleep, an hour or so before she wanted to crash and he thought she might still be up, watching DVD’s or something interesting on television but she wasn’t. Sometimes the booze and other pills she’d taken during the day hastened the onset of her dreams. The house was generally dark; just a couple of nightlights on in the hallways, and the door to her room was shut. He kept the lights off, liking the darkness, and took off his shoes and outer clothes and put them away in the closet in his writing room and then went downstairs to the bathroom in the basement, took his underclothes and socks off and dropped them in his hamper, and took a shower. As smoothly as it had gone, it had still been a long time since he’d done anything like what he’d done today, and it had proved stressful. The hot water felt good. He washed the day from his skin and, thinking of Mara and how it used to be, and then Jade and how it could be, he touched himself until he grew hard and then came and, with that, let the stress go. He stepped from the stall and chose one towel from the many he kept hanging on the walls in that room, and dried his body.

He brushed and flossed, applied some lotion, and then took a leak, “Left a pee,” his mind said.

He headed back upstairs, slipped into a pair of chonies that had been a gift from Mara, and took a silent walk around the inside of the house, stopping, standing at each window, peering into the darkness. This was his ritual. At these times, he usually thought of nothing, remained open to what might be. When he was finished, he walked down the hall, opened her bedroom door, and could make out her outline in the glow of her earth clock. She was on her right side in the fetal position and he could hear her deep sleep breathing, not a snore, but a sound that he knew as a good one.

He thought, “She walked right up to the edge of the Void and started drinking,” and then, “We’ll both sleep good tonight.”
And they did, and he dreamed, and the rain began to fall again.

– Be Still –

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