Preach on, brother?
The East Hampton Canal Authority by Jimmy Callaway
Harry set down the sledgehammer and block of foam rubber. “What’s the matter with you, egghead?”
“I’m caught!” Babe said, “C’mon, fellas, get me outta this thing.”
Harry glowered at him from under his straight black bangs. “How’d you get into it if it doesn’t fit?”
Babe said, “I didn’t have any trouble putting it on.”
“When was that?”
“1991,” Babe said, “I remember because it was the same number backwards and forwards.”
“Just like your I.Q.,” Harry said and tugged at the sweater. “Christ, if you ate at Sonic any more often, they’d give you a key to the executive washroom. Hey, porcupine!” he said to Louis, “Gimme a hand here.”
Louis held his hands out. “Which one?”
“Am I gonna have trouble with you, too?” Harry said and smacked him across the face. “C’mon, we ain’t got all night.”
Harry turned Babe around to face him, and then bent him forward with a knock to the back of the head. Harry tugged up from the bottom of the sweater, and Babe’s T-shirt popped out of his pants. His white, white belly hung low like an udder.
“Oh, sweet Jesus,” Louis said, “I’m suddenly hungry for cottage cheese, and I also suddenly want to kill myself.”
“C’mon, fellas,” Babe whined, “Help me out.”
“All right, hold it now,” Harry said and placed the sole of his shoe on Babe’s thigh. While Louis held Babe at the hips, Harry yanked the sweater over Babe’s head.
“Well, that’s half the battle,” Harry said.
“I thought knowing was half the battle,” Louis said.
“And you wouldn’t know shit from Shinola.”
Louis frowned. “I don’t think I’d even know Shinola from Shinola.”
“Which is exactly why we lost our shoe-shining gig, ‘cause of you.”
“Hey, fellas!” Babe hollered from under his sweater.
“Will you keep it down?” Harry stage-whispered, “You want every cop in the city up here?”
“Fellas,” Babe said, “I’m smotherin’ under here!” He began sobbing.
“Oh, for the love of...hey, useless, go bring me the tools,” Harry said.
“What tools?” Louis said.
“The same tools we’ve been using for the last ten years!”
“Oh, those tools.” Louis brought over the big toolbox and set it down, quickly and directly onto Harry’s foot.
“You motherfucker! Whaddaya tryin’ to do, cripple me?” Harry smacked him in the face again.
Babe’s sweater pasted itself to his lips with each desperate gasp. “C’mon, fellas! Everything is going black!”
“This is no time to get racist!” Harry dug into the toolbox and produced a big pair of scissors. “Hey, numbnuts,” he said, “I’ll hold the sweater, you cut it off him.”
“Shame to ruin a perfectly good sweater,” Louis said, “Suppose we just cut his head off instead.”
“Are you crazy? I just had these things sharpened, you want me to dull ‘em up again? C’mon, let’s go.” Harry held the sweater up, while Louis, in a marijuana fog, cut it very slowly. As Babe’s head emerged from the poly-cotton death-trap, he sucked greedily at the fresh air, his eyes crossing with delight.
“Thanks, fellas!” he said. Louis cut the sleeves off at the wrist, and Babe looked down at the material covering his hands. “Oh, mittens!” he cried.
Harry smacked him upside his bald head. “Mittens. You and your fuckin’ around up here, you’re gonna get all three of us pinched. Now look, the loot’s right on the other side of the hole in the wall here. The picture we want is right to the left of the right-hand wall.”
“Right,” Louis and Babe said.
“Left!” Harry said.
“That’s right!” Babe said.
“I know that’s right!” Harry said and stomped on Babe’s right foot.
“Ahh! Son of a bitch, that smarts!” Babe said.
“Right?” Harry said.
“Will you guys keep it down?” Louis said, “Man, you guys are wound up tight tonight.” He put his pipe to his lips and flicked his Bic.
Before Louis could get more than one puff, Harry smacked it out of his hands. The little ceramic pipe bounced to the floor.
“Hey!” Louis said, trying to keep the smoke in his lungs, “That’s my favorite pipe!”
Harry grabbed him by his frizzy hair. “C’mere, you. How many times I gotta tell ya: no getting high on the job!”
“But Harry,” Louis said and exhaled, “You were the one told me to bring the pipe!”
“That’s right, and it’s strictly for my personal use. You guys think glaucoma cures itself?”
“Actually,” Babe said, “studies have shown--”
Harry socked him in the gut, and then when Babe doubled over, Harry popped him in the forehead with his fist. “Shaddap. Now, c’mon, you assholes.”
All three of them went for the hole at once, knocking their heads together. Harry grabbed Louis by the hair and pulled him back. He grabbed at Babe’s hair too, but only brushed his fingertips on Babe’s stubbly scalp. Babe chuckled. Harry chuckled back and then smacked him in the face.
Harry climbed through the hole, sending plaster dust and brick shards in his wake, like a burrowing gopher. In the next room, he blinked his eyes in the lower light. The gallery was one very large room, split into smaller areas by a number of partitions. A lone frame hung on each partition. Harry looked to his right and saw a pair of photos of some pregnant broad, naked to the waist. Left of there, across the aisle, was the photo they were looking for. Harry clapped his hands together and rubbed them greedily.
Louis lifted his foot to the rim of the hole and gripped the edges with his hands. As he pushed himself through, time seemed to slow, his perceptions seemed to sharpen. He could feel each plaster crumb on his fingertips, each splinter, the tickly edges of insulation. The cool, bottled scent of air conditioning and floor wax brushed his sinuses. As he pushed through, the air in the gallery took on new meaning: dark, heavy, filled with promise.
Man, was he fuckin’ way baked.
Babe grunted against the edges of the hole but wriggled his way through. Harry held a finger to his lips and pointed at the ground. Several pencil-beams of red light crisscrossed the gallery, about an inch from the floor. They tip-toed over five or six to the photo they were there for.
“Louis, gimme some light,” Harry said.
Louis flicked his Bic again. The photo shimmered in the lighter’s orange glow: a black-and-white shot of a woman’s nude mid-section. The woman’s thighs and stomach were muscular, lean. A black scorpion the size of a man’s hand nestled in the thatch of pubic hair.
Harry turned to Babe and patted him excitedly on the top of his head. “Oh, boy! The buyer I know will take this off our hands for two hundred grand!”
“Wow,” Babe said, “How much is that in dollars?”
“You muttonhead, that is dollars! Two hundred thousand of ‘em!”
“Wow,” Babe said, “How much do you think he’ll take off for the fire damage?”
“What? What fire damage?” Harry turned to Louis. “What’s he talking about?”
Harry shrugged back.
They both turned back to the photo. It was now engulfed in flames.
“You fucking moron!” Harry screamed. He jumped back from the fire and broke the laser’s stream behind him. A searing klaxon filled the room.
“Remind me to murder you guys later!” Harry said. All three of them ran back to the hole. The partitions began to go up in flames like flash-paper dominoes. The glass frames began to shatter in the heat, raining shards and pebbles onto the floor. As Harry wriggled through the hole, flames closed in on the three of them.
“Hey, Harry!” Babe said, “Hurry up, we’re charbroiling in here!”
Harry pulled himself through, then reached back and pulled Louis in by the hair. Louis landed face-first on the floor.
“Hey, my pipe!” he said, cheerily picking it up from where it lay by his nose. He examined it for cracks, ran his fingertips over the image of a spread-eagled woman carved into the bowl. “Ah, my favorite.”
Meanwhile, Babe had gotten stuck halfway through the hole. “Hey, Harry! Gimme a hand here!”
“Oh, for...all right, ready?” He took Babe by the arms. “Heave—ho! Heave—ho!”
“Jesus Christ! You’re rippin’ my arms out!”
“Well, for fuck’s sake, suck in your gut!”
Babe looked down. “But my mouth won’t reach that far!”
“Oh, it won’t, huh?” Harry grabbed Babe’s lips and yanked.
Babe hollered as his lips were stretched and as the flames began to cook his generous posterior. A particularly long orange finger poked him right in the asshole, and Babe launched himself through the hole and began rolling on the floor.
“Get up here, you!” Harry said and pulled him up by his shirtfront. He smacked Babe in the face with both open palms and then again with the backs of his hands. “I oughtta tear your tonsils out!”
“But Harry, I didn’t do nothin’!”
“You coulda stopped him before he flambéed our fuckin’ meal ticket! And you,” he said, turning to Louis and snatching his pipe away. Louis didn’t even seem to notice, just stood there trembling, staring straight ahead. “What’s the matter with you?” Harry said, “You seen a ghost?”
“W-w-w-worse,” Louis said and pointed.
The cop stood there, tapping his baton into his palm. His name tag read, “Officer Scabbard.”
“Uh,” Harry said, “Um, tell me, Officer: do you have glaucoma?”