Here are some of my favorite short stories:
“The Smart Guys Marching Society,” “Patron Saint” and the following…
The old man blinked awake, roused from his nap by the drone of the bush plane overhead. He glanced up, just catching its locust’s-wing shadow as it skimmed the edge of the jungle, banking toward the south. More tourists, he thought sourly, on their way to the ruins at Palenque or Bonampak.
He managed to sit up straighter in the cane chair, and with outstretched fingers grasped the slippery railing, pulling himself closer. He gasped once, from the effort, and peered expectantly down at the lake.
There she was, waist deep in the water, waving up at the disappearing plane. Her long brown hair fanned her shoulders in wet ringlets.
She turned suddenly, wholly naked, and he saw the swell of her breasts as she bent to slip below the surface. She swam with graceful, even strokes, moving through the haze that hung over the water, until she vanished amid the drooping foliage at the far edge of the shore.
The old man sighed gratefully, chin resting on the rail. A sudden rain had come up, misty and warm, and behind it a gentle gust that blew through the open spaces of the veranda. Across the lake, through the haze, the breadnut trees shimmered like ghosts.
The estate, originally built by a Belgian merchant at the turn of the century, lay deep in the jungle’s marrow, the shallow lake long since reclaimed by riotous vegetation. Even now there was just one dirt access road, the nearest village a hard half-day’s journey away. Since coming here nearly ten years ago, the man had done nothing to disturb the somber dignity of the great house, the heavy stillness of the foliage embracing it.
It was perfect, his life here. For him, and for her…
Then he remembered, and his face grew pale as chalk. The violation she’d endured, the horrible pain–
And yet, ironically, it was because of this outrage, this sin, that the girl was finally back in his life, here at his side, after the long years of estrangement.
Here, where he’d gone into hiding after being hounded by the Feds; here, where in seclusion his legendary status as the Boss of Bosses had only grown among the crime families on the East Coast; here, where he’d at last found the isolation in which he could prepare his soul for its Final Destination.
But not before he’d performed one last task. Not before he’d extended his hand one last time into the affairs of men. Not before one last, and most important, judgment had been rendered…
“Carlos!” The old don’s voice rattled in his throat. He felt numb, half-asleep; embalmed by age and illness. He pushed up from the chair with his elbows, bony points in the loose-fitting white suit. Everything ached, pinched, conspired.
“Carlos!” he called again, squinting down the length of the verandah. “Where the hell are you?”
The soft padding of sandaled feet, an urgent whisper of motion, made him turn his head. Carlos stood just beyond him on the tiled floor, hands in the pockets of his crisp valet’s uniform, head tilted quizzically. He smiled.
“Good afternoon, sir,” he said.
The old don let out a long breath. “Where have you been?”
“The radio room. We’ve heard from San Cristobal.”
“Everything’s arranged.” Carlos took a sheaf of faxes from his pocket, handed them over one at a time.
The old man studied them carefully, for a full five minutes. He could almost feel the young Indian’s impatience. Good, he thought. These new ones were impudent, impulsive. They knew too much of the outside world and precious little of the traditions of their own.
He glanced up at Carlos. A pity, really. He had the proper features, the mahogany-dark skin tones, but the eyes were wrong. The old man could read the ambition in them, the greed. It seemed inconceivable that Carlos, like the other Lacandon Indians in Chiapas, was a direct descendant of the Mayans.
“Well…?” Carlos failed to keep the irritation out of his voice. Behind him, on the other side of the lake, a chicle tree shook as a howler monkey scrambled atop it, shrieking up at the continuing rain.
“I’m satisfied,” the old man said at last, handing the faxes back to him. He swiveled in his chair, gazing past Carlos toward the lake below. “That’s all.”
Carlos stayed where he was, slowly folding the sheaf of papers and slipping them back in his pocket. He turned at the railing, looked with the old man into the mists of shore-line.
“I said you could leave now, Carlos.”
Carlos nodded, but didn’t stir. “I’ve seen her before, sir…”
The old man didn’t take his eyes from the lake, the rain pock-marking the glistening surface. Any moment now she would come gliding through the water, from the other side of the lake. She liked the rain, this golden girl, this pride of his seed…His daughter liked the rain.
“I even talked to her once,” Carlos was saying, matter-of-factly. “She was coming out of the water, and I called to her…”
The old don leaned back, long thin fingers clutching the chair-arms. He looked up at Carlos as though for the first time.
“If you speak to her again,” he said evenly, “I will have you killed. Slowly.”
For a few moments, there was only the sound of the rain in the trees, spraying the clapboards of the house, dripping from the gutters to the ancient tiles.
Then there was a hurried slap of footsteps on the wet floor, as Carlos sped down the veranda and vanished into the house…
The old don sat forward, hands folded on his lap. He scanned the mists below. Waiting.
And thought about the plans he’d made, the lengths to which he had gone. The privilege of wealth, and obsession. He allowed himself a grave smile. It would all be over soon. For himself and the girl. The gulf between them would close, and things would be as they should.
They would be father and daughter once more.
The old man let his head drop, his shoulders hunched against a sudden chill behind the rain. He told himself he could afford to close his eyes, to rest for a few minutes. Just a few minutes, before her return to his sight.
While in the trees above, unnoticed by the old man, the howler monkey flitted from branch to branch, looking for something, anything, on which to feed.
Father Thomas Hobart looked down at his hands gripping the hoe, its wooden handle as coarse as shaved stone, and as hard. But he held it fiercely, digging its gray metal scoop into the earth. Scraping the dirt. Doing the day’s work.
All around were the sounds of other tools at work, the labored breathing of the men using them. There were only eight, not counting himself, but after all this time Hobart could only put a few names and faces together.
Not that it mattered, he reminded himself. They were all the same. All the same. Broken men, failed vocations. Doing the penance of the fields. Working in the afternoon sun, sweating into their ludicrous sandals or sneakers, tending the gardens like medieval monks. Striving for their grace, he thought murkily, or at least a semblance of their ruthless piety.
He looked up at last, to see Vincent leaning on his hoe, wiping his nose with a handkerchief. Vincent was the closest thing to a friend Hobart had in the place. He gave Hobart a nod.
Hobart nodded back, straightening. He held the hoe with two hands overhead, like a barbell, and stretched. The sweat, mixed with grime, came down his forearms. The pale whiteness that had once circled his wrist, from his watch-band, was now as tanned as the rest of his arm.
The watch had been a gift from a parishioner, many years before. He remembered giving it to the Abbot when he first came here. He smiled grimly. He’d always suspected the son-of-a-bitch sold it to help buy the new wine press.
Hobart stood over a row of tomatoes, allowing himself another moment’s rest. Above, the sun was pulling new colors out of the Mediterranean sky. It was just spring, but a hot one, and already he’d caught the scent of early blossoms.
And it was then, just then, that Father Hobart realized he had no idea what day it was.
He shook his head, tried to clear his thoughts. There were still many furrows to be cut, new seeds to be planted.
Bending to work again, he felt suddenly dizzy. The heat, probably. Or lack of sleep. His head throbbed, and instinctively–an instinct reborn a thousand times–he felt near the top of his skull with anxious fingers, felt for the still-tender surgical scars, where the bullet had gone in…
It was later, and Hobart had worked his way over to the stone wall that ran along the east face. Ivy sprouted, mixed with spurts of hastily-applied cement. Beyond, in the high Apennine valley, the trees were a thick tangle of greens and browns, as unkempt as a drunk’s beard, and about as spiritual.
Hobart leaned against the wall, yawning. Vincent whistled over at him suddenly, making him glance up. Vincent tossed his hoe into the dirt, looked about at the others with comic-opera scorn, and gave Hobart the universal sign for jerking off.
Hobart smiled. Speaking during daylight hours was forbidden, but Vincent always managed to get his feelings across. The little man looked up at the sun, shook his head, then strode purposefully across the field toward the main house. His broken sandal strap, unmended for days, flapped softly in the dirt.
Hobart didn’t follow. He simply stood where he was at the wall, hoe held upright against his shoulder, like a guard on duty.
One by one, the other men made their way back to the house. But Hobart stayed where he was, almost motionless, concentrating on the rivulets of sweat now drying on his cheeks.
The idea, he told himself, was not to go crazy. To find something to focus on, and stay focused. It was the only way to endure the ceaseless work, the silent monotony. It was the only path that led to forgetting.
He’d only been here for a number of months, but already he felt part of the place, caught up in its numbing sameness. A stone among a field of stones.
The sun was going down. There was a slight wind now, and he could feel its welcome touch on his face and arms. He wanted suddenly to stand out there forever, until all the shadows came.
But the dinner bell was ringing. There, at the door of the dining hall, stood the Abbot, his robes rustling in the breeze.
Father Hobart pushed away from the wall reluctantly, carrying his hoe toward the main house. As he did every evening, at this exact time, he’d place it against the shed wall with the other tools. As he did every evening, he’d come in the side entrance to the house and shower in the common facilities.
It was the sameness, the inescapable sameness, that was supposed to do it, rub your prickly demons into smooth dead stones. Stones in a field of stones.
He had to trust in that, he knew. It was the only sure path to forgetting. And perhaps, one day, forgiveness.
He left the hoe standing with its brothers on the shed wall, and headed over to the house.
Carlos switched off the radio, then leaned back in his chair, taking a last grateful drag on his cigarette. That’s it, he thought. The final transmission.
He rose, stretched, rubbed his neck. He glanced around the small, cramped radio room and sighed. At least it was cooler after midnight, when he stole down with a bottle of tequila and listened to rock music from the pirate station up north.
On his way back to the house, along the unlit mud path, he decided to wait until morning to give his last report. The old man had gone to sleep soon after dinner, and it didn”t seem wise to disturb him.
Carlos lit another cigarette, stood smoking it just beyond the east porch. From this vantage point, he could make out the two guards trudging along the perimeter. When one of them looked in his direction, Carlos waved. The guard moved on.
Carlos shook his head. Such a place. He was glad the old man’s ill health forced him to spend so much time in his bed. Ever since the other day on the veranda, their contact had been reduced to curt exchanges of information, orders given and received.
Not that it had been exactly warm and familiar before that. Five years of near-slavish service, five years of the crazy old gringo’s insults and threats. Five long years, and now…He glanced up at the moon, floating like a pearl in oil over the mists of the rain forest. The clouds were heavy and somber, and even the sacred monkeys hid from his eyes and kept their voices still.
Five long years.
It was better not to think about it too much, he told himself. Still–he let the cigarette drop to the earth, and stepped on it.
He went quietly through the main corridor of the dark house, guiding himself as much by memory as by the pale glow of the lamps in their niches. The faces of martyred saints looked down from their portraits on the high walls, and his careful footsteps on the polished floors sounded to him like the rhythmic throbbing of a sleeping heart.
He paused in a doorway. Though he knew himself to be a modern man, he also felt that, during the shank of the night when even the macaws outside the window were silent, the house revealed itself to be a living thing, its silence merely the mute echo of its spirit at rest.
Idiot, he thought bitterly. Still the village Indian boy, frightened by the white man’s patriarchal wealth.
Beyond, in the dimness, stood the massive dining table, the four-hundred-year-old centerpiece of the room. Its wide mahogany grain meandered across its surface like dry riverbeds, shining dully in the moonlight. Carlos frowned uneasily. It was here that they ate dinner every night, the old man and that spooky daughter of his, sitting at either end of the long table and saying practically nothing.
So they’re both crazy, he thought, suddenly anxious to get on with his business. By the time he’d reached the end of the hall, and headed down the steps toward the cellar, he was even chuckling dryly to himself, so confident he was that he’d left the last of his foolish indios fears behind.
Besides, he’d had an idea.
It had been so easy…
The girl, standing at the leaded-glass window, watched the mist outside begin to rise. A pale light filtered the trees. The rain had finally ebbed.
Still, the humidity made the thick robe she’d worn from the lake cling like a shroud. She turned away from the window and shrugged it off.
Roberta crossed the bedroom–she thought of it now as her room–and pulled a simple print dress from the walk-in closet. So easy…
She tossed her thick brown hair, still wet from her regular morning’s swim. Pushing it back from her face, she headed briskly for the door, without a glance at the floor-length mirror.
As always, she walked more slowly once in the common halls, slowly and deliberately, as if encircled by heavy chains that only she could see.
Standing at the door to the library, she caught sight of Carlos. Spying on her, as usual. He quickly looked away, made a show of wiping a speck of dust from a brass wall lamp.
That’s Carlos, she thought. Always making a show. Like last night, at dinner, whisking her emptied wine glass onto his tray, wearing those ridiculous white gloves the old man insisted on when Carlos served dinner. How he must despise the old man…how he must despise us…
Yet she couldn’t help but notice his good looks, the erotic promise in his banked rage. Roberta smiled. Maybe…
But such thoughts would have to wait. For now.
She went into the library, closing the huge double doors behind her. Hundreds of leather-bound books loomed over her like dark angels from high, shadowed shelves. Roberta went to her usual table by the bay window. She sat in the overstuffed chair, sunlight splintered into dusty streams by the thick blinds.
Finally, she pulled an old book down from a shelf, and began idly flipping the pages. So easy…
Of course, she’d hated the old man for as long as she could remember. Despite the family’s wealth, the mansion in upstate New York, the trips to Europe when she was young, the gifts.
But how he’d mistreated her mother. Beat her, and humiliated her in front of his cronies, the other family bosses. Those large and dangerous men who always seemed to be in their house. And he’d cheated on her, openly, with “actresses” and “models.”
Roberta had felt his hand, the sting of his belt, all her young life. Even at the party for her First Holy Communion, when he’d caught her eavesdropping on a whispered conversation with that Congressman. She hadn’t understood a word, not one word, but he’d slapped her anyway, repeatedly, her tears staining her brand new white Communion dress…
He was a tyrant at home, as well as a monster in life. Even in private school in Switzerland, she’d read in the papers about the attempts by the U.S. Attorney to bring him to trial. One time they thought they had a case, the court date was set–but the witness soon “disappeared.”
How she’d hated growing up in that house. Hated seeing her mother wither before her time. And she’d been such a beauty when she’d married the old man; Roberta had seen the pictures.
The only fatherly presence in her life, and the only solace for her mother, had been the parish priest. He knew how they suffered, and hovered about as much as possible–drinking tea in the afternoons with her mother, taking them both to the parish Carnival, and the Christmas pageant. He was always so attentive, so kind…
A sound behind her made her start. The maid, Maria, had just come in to clean. Roberta, willing herself not to turn, could just see her out of the corner of her eye.
Maria, head bent, muttered a quick apology and exited. Roberta guessed the maid’s thoughts. Poor sad girl. Sits all day with the dead books, turning pages…
Just as Roberta had pitied her own mother, who’d grown old and ill in the don’s house. More and more, Roberta stayed away, finally choosing to live and go to college in Paris.
Until that day the overseas call came, and she flew back to sit at her mother’s bedside, as she lay dying. The old man had fled the country years before, hours ahead of a Grand Jury indictment. It was just the two of them now.
“Should I send for Father Tom?” Roberta had asked, clasping her mother’s hand.
But the dying woman had shaken her head. No, there wasn’t time. Besides, there was something she needed to tell Roberta. Something she must know…
How hard it had been, watching her mother die. But harder still hearing her last words. Because, in those final moments, Roberta’s world turned upside-down.
Thomas…Father Hobart…he was her real father. Her mother and Hobart had had an affair, many years before. He was a new priest, torn by desires he couldn’t control; she a dangerous man’s lonely young wife.
Then, when her mother had become pregnant, they knew they had to end. Never suspecting, the old don thought the baby was his. A miracle from God, a child in his advancing years…
Even now, six months after laying her mother to rest, Roberta could feel the pain that had engulfed her. All those years, the priest as a kind of uncle, a refuge… nothing but a lie.
How could he have denied her like that? Let her grow up believing she was the daughter of that man, that monster…”
After the funeral, she’d confronted Hobart, lashed out at him. No matter how he begged, how much he castigated himself for his weakness, she wouldn’t forgive him. He was weeping piteously as she slammed the door on her way out.
It wasn’t until she’d returned to school in France the following week that she learned of his failed suicide attempt. The bullet he’d tried to put in his brain. The gun in a trembling hand.
Of course, the Diocese had no choice but to remove him from the parish. On the advice of his superiors, he was sent on retreat to a monastery overseas.
Leaving Roberta with two fathers, she thought bitterly, and yet with none.
It was then that something darkened within her, that her soul turned. Her pain cauterized into rage, and then a desire for revenge. When she’d catch sight of herself in the mirror, it was only her eyes she’d see, and how they”d hardened into marble chips.
Soon, she found herself unable to look into mirrors.
As a plan began to grow, like a cancer, in her mind…
At the end of the semester, she took a plane back to the States. There was a man she had to see.
His name was Alphonse Tonelli, but in certain circles he was known as “the Hammer.” The old don’s most trusted lieutenant, fanatic in his loyalty, familiar to her since she was a little girl. Standing with the other large and dangerous men who attended the old man, yet standing apart. Huge and silent, with hooded eyes, he’d occupy a quiet corner of the kitchen or the dining room, slowly sipping a beer. Listening. Watching.
Roberta was terrified of him, especially when he smiled at her.
“Hey, little girl,” he’d say in that flat, grave voice, before bowing to the old man and heading out the side door. Often, the next day, the news would arrive that another enemy of her father’s had been found dead. Brutally bludgeoned, with a claw hammer.
It was strange to see him now, years later; older, coarser somehow. As though time had thickened him, weathered him like any other monument from the past. The hooded eyes, blinking in the afternoon sun, regarded her warily.
Roberta sat opposite him on the screened-in porch of his old tract house in New Jersey. Pungent smells of garlic and onion wafted in from the kitchen.
She argued her case before him, tearfully, beseeching him. She wanted to reconcile with her father, she explained. While there was still time. The Prodigal Daughter, returning.
“You’re the only one who knows where he is,” she went on. “You’ve got to tell me…please…so I can go to him…”
Tonelli cared nothing for the girl, of course. His loyalty–his devotion–was to the old man. Years of faithful service, bathed in blood. Yet those glory days were all gone now. Things had changed so much. There was no place anymore for the likes of him, for the Hammer…
He shifted uneasily in his chair. No, he cared nothing for her…But think of the old man’s joy, his happiness at the girl’s return. How his last days might be brightened. Tonelli could not deny him this.
He told her where the old man was.
Then she was standing, dusted by the journey, faded like a drying leaf, at the old man’s door. His eyes shone. Mother of God, could it be? The prodigal, returned…
But she seemed crushed, bruised. So young and beautiful, yet so sad. When she spoke, her words came out slowly, haltingly… like a code he couldn’t break.
The old man sat across from her in the evenings at the dining table, the fetid jungle air thick as a blanket about the great house. Why was she so guarded, afraid?
Then one night, not so long after her arrival, she told him about Hobart, the priest. Not that he’d had an affair with her mother, nor that he’d been her actual biological father.
No, she told the old man that the priest had done something else, something far, far worse…
And the old man’s eyes had turned to marble chips, points hard and deep in his wrinkled face.
Ironic, she’d thought, recognizing what she saw there. Not his flesh, not his blood, and yet how like him I am.
On another night, not too long after, alone in his room on the other side of the world, Thomas Hobart woke up in a cold sweat. He found himself clutching his stomach, the pain doubling him into a fetal crouch. He tried to form words, to call out. He was choking on his own bile.
Hobart managed to roll off the bed and start crawling toward the door. But with every second his strength was fading, and with it his will. What was happening?
His head was spinning. Then it came to him, with a supernal clarity. The old man…he knows…he knows…
The door was opening, a hushed sigh in the blackness. There, in a flicker of moonlight, a figure coming toward him…
Hobart, gasping, brought his eyes up, squinted against the darkness.
A face, looming over him. So familiar, so–
Hobart collapsed to the floor. Struggling to stay conscious, he caught a glimpse of something in the half-light, an image that seemed to explode in his brain–
A sandal with a broken strap.
Then he was on his back, the room swirling around him, shapes moving in and out of focus. Then there was the upraised hand, the gleam of a knife-blade. He couldn’t move, couldn’t–
It became unspeakable.
The old don was resting now, in his bed, Roberta sitting at his side. It was almost time for his pills, she thought, taking the vial from the side-table drawer and pouring a glass of water from the pitcher. In the past week, she’d begun assuming more and more of the nursing duties Carlos usually performed.
She put her cool hand on the old man’s forehead. The skin was hot, clammy. He’d been looking worse these last few days, weaker, spending most of his time in bed.
How strange, she thought as she wiped the spittle from his chin as he half-dozed. Just like I did with Mother, I’m sitting at his death-bed, waiting…
He stirred, peered up at her with watery eyes. His thin lips formed an ugly, satisfied smile. He seemed… peaceful. God, how she hated him.
Maria, the maid, stood at the end of the bed, making a sign of the cross. Then she went back to straightening up the room. Roberta shook her head. Christ.
Suddenly, Carlos was standing behind her, having slipped so silently up to the bed that she hadn’t even heard him.
“Sir,” he said to the old man, as if she weren’t even there.
“Carlos…I didn’t call for you,” the old man said, voice cracking. “I have my daughter now…my own blood, not some worthless–” His body jerked, as he coughed violently.
Carlos leaned forward, his shoulder just touching Roberta’s. He stared into the old don’s face.
“I have news,” he said. “It is done.”
The old man blinked, twice, then strained to push himself up on his elbows. He turned to Roberta.
“Did you hear that, Roberta?” His arms trembled with the effort of supporting him. “It is as I promised. Your tormentor is dead. Your honor is returned.”
“Then I am yours again,” she said, resting her forehead against his shoulder. Her arms went around his skeletal frame, easing him back down on the sheets. “I am yours.”
“It is the blood,” the old man said. “And, blood to blood, all that I have will be yours. I will inform the other families, I will make it known that–” He broke into a hacking cough again.
Instinctively, Roberta took a pill from the vial. “Carlos!” she snapped. “Help me.”
Carlos bent and helped calm the old man, as Roberta placed a pill on his tongue and offered the water glass. The old man gulped it, gasping. He lay back on the bed.
Suddenly, he cried out, hands twisting the sheets.
Roberta grasped his arm. “What is it?”
The old man’s eyes bore into hers. “You–you ….” His words were choked, pain-wracked.
She looked up at the impassive, silent Carlos, then back at the old man.
He mouthed more words. No sound came out. She felt the life leave his body, felt it slip away under her clutching fingers.
The old man was dead.
Maria, from across the room, screamed. As she came slowly toward the bed, Carlos whispered urgently to her in Spanish. She stared, wide-eyed, then bolted out of the room.
But Roberta hardly noticed. She’d leaned down to hear the old man’s heart, listen for any tell-tale rattle of breath. It’s over. He’s dead. Face hidden from Carlos, she permitted herself a brief smile.
Then, contorting her face into grief, she looked up at Carlos. To her shock, the young man was smiling. He was also holding a revolver, leveled at her.
She sat up in her chair, found her voice. “What the hell are you doing?”
“The old man was poisoned,” he said calmly. “Killed by his own daughter, who’s always hated him. So that all that he had would be hers.”
“But I didn’t–”
“I know, you stupid bitch.” His smile faded. “I did. With the arsenic in that pill you just gave him. I switched them earlier, and made sure Maria was here at his regular pill-time. As a witness. Or should I say, another witness, in addition to myself.”
All she could do was stare at him.
“Don’t tell me you’re sorry he’s dead,” Carlos went on. “That you haven’t been waiting like a vulture for this day to come. You think I didn’t see you for what you are? Don’t insult me!”
He looked past her at the old man, lying motionless on the bed. “Did you think I would accept nothing after my years of servitude to that…that thing?”
Carlos turned back to her, fingers tightening on the gun. “Since you arrived, I saw his hopes rise…that you would tend to him in his last days. I saw that I should have nothing…”
Finally, Roberta spoke, her own voice oddly calm. “Will you call the local police now? Is that it?”
“You mean, what passes for the law in this place?” He gave a hollow chuckle. “No, I had a better idea. A few days ago I contacted some people in the States…” He nodded toward the old man. “His people. Told them my suspicions about you. I have been promised a great reward.”
Carlos nodded again, enjoying this. “One of them flew down here just yesterday. I’ve already told Maria to send someone to the village to bring him.” He leaned back against a large bureau, watching her carefully. “We’ll just wait here, together. I believe it’s someone you know.”
Later, when Tonelli’s heavy tread in the doorway made her turn, she was struck not so much by his size, and the labored movements of his body as he lurched toward her, but by those hooded eyes. How they were even more cold, more dead, than she’d remembered.
“Hey, little girl,” said the Hammer.
And in the trees above the great house, that same howler monkey flitted from branch to branch, looking for something, anything, on which to feed.
Written by Dennis Palumbo and reprinted from The Strand magazine, summer 2007 issue.