James D. McCallister

author of the Edgewater Chronicles

MANSION OF HIGH GHOSTS: The First Chapter

Here’s the first chapter of the increasingly fabled MoHG. I dunno, this seems like good stuff. Eventually, inevitably, this book will find its way to publication.


MANSION OF HIGH GHOSTS

Part One: A MAN IN THE GRIP OF A THEORY

“It’s easy to get buried in the past.” —Neil Young

1.

A brilliant light, flashing behind the aviators hiding Devin Rucker’s amber slits from the glare of the beer signs: Not so much a flashbulb or lightning strike, rather a glinting reflection of high midday sunlight off a surface of polished chrome. The image, coming accompanied as always by a disharmonious roar, a black-throated screech, an enormous out-of-tune instrument blown from on high: thus, the signal of his descent into intoxicated, abject despair. This condition loomed with nigh inevitability, but this a precursor to blessed unconsciousness; or perhaps into wretched sobriety, as opposite of intention as could be reckoned.

Wisdom gleaned from inside a clever microbrew bottle cap he found on the balcony of his second-story pad, the cap crushed and flat and ruined, yet believing itself a sweet, crispy little complimentary fortune cookie:

Moments only pass to make room for more moments!

Trembling, Devin, trying to place the bottle cap between his thumb and forefinger to snap it out into the aether like a tiny, jagged Frisbee, the way he and his friends in college used to do in the dorm, or at one of the joints they frequented in the bar ghetto next to Southeastern University. He ended up dropping the cap three times. Cussed. Gave up. Kicked it across the dirty, scuffed flooring.

You think you’re better than me. A threat. “Don’t ya.”

The bottle cap, lying still and silent.

“Stand up, you faker. Stand up to me. For once.”

Nope.

Devin Rucker’s moment: His Commerce City, Colorado apartment, once fresh and clean but now a pigsty, any semblance of stewardship long abandoned to forces of decay, entropy: Garbage piled in the corners, food rotting in the refrigerator, décor designed with the eye of a distillery rep—the sheer volume of empty liquor vessels, Devin thinking, lending an almost aesthetic quality to the accumulation, a preponderance of objects d’art representing the entirety of one man’s life. Of many men’s lives, they who’d done the distilling and the bottling and labeling and QCing and shipping and delivering and displaying and selling, and bless their hearts and pointed little heads, every one of them, for all they did.

For Devin.

For everyone.

Amen.

To Devin, a drunk’s drunk, a pro—they called him Ruck, or his friends did, anyway—the bottles weren’t trash, but rather trophies suitable for display in any All-American high school lobby: records of achievement, though for outstanding effort in his own peculiar, dyspeptic field of athleticism. This, no mere trash pile. Grad students would one day sift this find for clues to the essential nature of his philosophy.

The space, musty and shuttered, smelling as though a decomposing body stashed within; Devin, wondering if he might have killed someone and shoved her body under the floorboards. Perhaps, if choosing to stay the night, hearing in his tortured dreams a beating heart. Someone else’s story, thinks he.

A line of black ants, swarming, having a field day with a sack of dry cat food that lay wounded and bleeding stale kibble onto the yellowed vinyl of the cheap and dirty and cracked kitchen flooring. That Devin had thrown against the wall and left lying there, split open. For a year, now. Longer.

From somewhere in the apartment complex came the thumping of a hip-hop tune copping the hook from ‘Love is Alive,’ an old 70s pop number remembered from listening to rock radio with his sister Creedence. The beat, boring into Devin’s brain. Stoking his rage.

Pounding his palm against the wall. A hoarse shout. “Turn that mess down, you bunch of Mexican nitwits.”

The bass-beat thumping on, undeterred; Devin, spinning around in the living room of his mausoleum, considering options. Pacing. Trapped.

Making again for the outside world. Relieved, as always, to shut the door behind him. It didn’t close properly—a big crack down the middle where he’d tried to break it down one night when he’d misplaced his keys on the walk from the parking lot up the steps.

The closed door, reassuring; this home no refuge from anything.

#

Jim, his buddy the bartender at Chubby’s, on the other side of I-70 next to a pyramid-like Marriott hotel, waving as Devin entered. Jim, a softheaded idiot, but one who cared; who knew how to pour. On the satellite radio—Jim liked oldschool authentic country, which they featured on one of the four or five channels devoted to the genre—Devin heard good old Loretta Lynn singing about ‘Somebody Somewhere,’ a plaintive mournful song full of longing and loss and syrupy soothing steel guitar, like his father would have listened to, all of which reminded Devin of being back home in South Carolina, and as such, made him annoyed enough to bite a nickel in half.

Grumbling, wincing, clutching his right side and settling onto the stool at the corner—his spot, near the cigarette machine—Devin, sparking a smoke and calling out to a couple of the neighborhood guys shooting a money game of pool. Other late night Saturday drunks, sitting hunched over and nursing lonely libations. A familiar and comforting scene.

Jim, noting that Devin clutched his side. Asking if he’d been injured.

“These barbecue ribs is a bit tender.” Devin, probing and pressing under his armpit. “A wee might.”

“Damn. What happened this time?”

Leaning over, shaggy hair hanging down; a rail, a wraith, beak shot through with spider veins, nail-bitten fingers. Aviators perched, hiding the eyes. Always. “This cooze took a notion to go and kick me.”

Kick you?”

Dismissive, waving a hand. “Oh, t’wasn’t nothing . . . I passed out, see, and this party girl figures to roll me, right? But foiled, I says—damn if I didn’t wake up and catch her rifling my jacket, and to say the least I took a right square share of umbrage at this behavior, hence made a fuss, and who could blame me.”

“She blamed you?”

“Yep. Made it all into my fault, somehow. Like I forced her to try and roll me. Right?”

“So . . . she tried to do what, now?”

Devin, thinking: I’m-a gonna be the one to kick somebody next. “Problem was, I was still drunk as hell, and she had a weight advantage, and, well: punched me in the mouth and knocked me onto my ass and then took and kicked the shit out of me with one of them, what ya call them spikes they wear?”

Jim, shaking his head, clueless. “I dunno. High heels?”

Devin, scowling and dissatisfied. “The colloquial term for them sexy slides they wear.”

Jim, confounded. “That who wears?”

Devin, knowing one had to be patient with Jimbo. “Skanks like the one that tried to roll me. Duh.”

“Come-fuck-me’s.” Darla chimed in, a dumpy gal who sat playing the bar top trivia for hours on end, sipping highballs and getting fatter. “Great god almighty—you two’s dumb as posts.”

“Madam, I resemble that remark.” Busting out laughing, nyuck nyuck. Devin, a real Carolina character. That’s what they called him around these parts. A real shitkicker from back east. A drunk one. “Anyhoo, needless to say, I lost that round. Hung onto my wallet, at least.”

“She a decent lay?”

“Christ, Jim—don’t remember that part too good.”

More troubled than amused, the barkeep said, “Ruck, man, you ought to get that checked out. See a doctor. Get taped up. Ribs? That shit’s gonna hurt for weeks.”

Devin, looking at Jim, his bartender as much as any bartender could be, in that regard a BFF, but no less offended. “Fiddlesticks, beau. There ain’t nothing wrong with me that a double JD rocks and a pack of Reds won’t cure.”

“Want me to pour it on top?”

Devin, discovering a half-consumed cocktail in front of him, not even realizing that he’d already been served his first round. Nodding ‘yeah.’

Jim, gurgling the liquor right up to the rim of the glass, the colorful bar-light glimmering on the surface.

Devin, able to lift the tumbler in his shaking paws to sip and skim off the top layer of whiskey, but barely. He wanted the juice in his body so bad he’d have snorted it through straws, if that’s what Jim required. A big slurping slug of the drink, the nectar hitting his stomach, hot-cold, pleasure-pain; splish-splash.

The Man in Black came on the radio, ‘Can’t Go That Way.’ Devin, thinking he could and would. Through an acid belch: “Phew. Now there’s a double if I ever seen one. Bless your heart, sir.”

The ball game on the muted high-mounted TV set had ended, and the news came on. An alleged drunk driver had plowed into a van load of people on their way to church. A six year-old girl dead and the rest of the victims critical, offending driver included.

“See there, now? That’s why Chubby’s keeps that list of cab companies taped over there,” pointing to a laminated card taped next to the wall-mounted pay phone, an old one they’d kept at Chubby’s as decoration rather than as functional telephone. “Have your fun, drink your fill, but arrive alive. That’s what I say.”

Devin, noting how his bottle-boy spun it all so positive. Made him want to puke.

Subject change: “Where you gonna be, beau? When the shit comes down?”

“What shit?”

The shit.”

Jim ground his gears. Devin saw the hairs stand up on the barkeep’s forearm. “Oh—like the end times? Home protecting my family. If I can get to them.”

“Goody for you. As for me, who ain’t got no fambly to speak of, you’d think I’d sign up and go fight the good fight. But I ain’t going to be out there fighting no fights—that much I know. And I’ll tell you why: way I see it? When the revolution comes, or whatever it is? They’re gonna need good people like me—tough hardcase motherfuckers, who know how to take a drink, take a punch, whatever—to send in on the second or maybe third wave.”

“Second or third wave? Like, at the beach?”

“Har-har. Can’t throw everything you got at ’em right out of the gate. So, yeah. Me, I’m a-gonna hang back. See how it all shakes out.”

“Sounds pretty smart! Really, though . . . I don’t know what I’m gonna do.” Jim, troubled. “Depending on what kind of end-times it is.”

“Can’t never be prepared for everything.”

“Heard that. But I was a Boy Scout, so . . .”

“Bless your heart, Jim—me, too. ‘Be prepared’ is what I’m all about, brotherman.”

His stomach, burning and sloshing, yet swilling and bullshitting with Jim and the other drunks all the way up to witching hour. Devin, bitching and moaning at last call, cussing up a storm.

“I know you’re gonna be in here counting down and sweeping and shit! Let me drink a couple more, ya stingy old goat.”

Steadfast. Pointing to the door.

“Make me.”

Jim, escorting a recalcitrant Devin outside by his upper arm. “Like this?”

“All right, you simple-minded fuck.”

“You okay to drive?”

“Shit yeah.” Devin, simmering, on the verge of punching out Jim’s damn dimwitted lights. “Don’t let that bullshit on the TV earlier make your nuts draw up, boy. I’m right as anyone.”

“I’m calling a cab.”

“Da-fuck you are.”

“Got to.”

“Wait, wait, look here.” Devin, patient, calm and now impossibly, lucidly sober. “Jimbo, this is me. It’s Ruck. I don’t live but four goddurn blocks on the other side of the slab,” gesturing in the general direction of his apartment complex. Indeed, only a half mile away, but a rough, dusty slog on foot: Commerce City, a place of industry and warehouses and the endless infinitude of the prairie to the east.

To the west? The Rockies. The mountains. Through which Devin could not bring himself to drive. This crappy suburb of Denver, as far as he’d made it from his Carolina home. Got here one day and stopped.

Why?

The roads. The roads in this part of the country? So flat and straight. A motherscratcher could see his ass for miles in every direction. Could see what was coming. That all ended once you got past the big city, though. Devin, thinking that those bad boy peaks, and the bigger ones farther west, made them old Carolina hills back home seem puny indeed.

“Boy, I’m fine as wine. Oh—ha ha. Bad choice of words, there.”

“Ruck. C’mon.”

Devin, a supplicant, holding out his claws. “Steady as rocks. Relax, pal.”

Jim, sighing. “You got yourself a hollow leg, Ruck. It’s one for the books!”

“Oh, I got something, all right. Got myself a theory.”

Jim, expectant, waiting for the punchline.

“I’ll ’splain it another time.”

But in his car, a battered, nearly twenty years young VW Jetta, Devin, finding himself shaking, sick and scared—knowing that the pussified barkeep would give him grief about driving, Devin, he’d held off a bit tonight. Hadn’t had his fill. Now, not only late, but also Sunday—no liquor stores open, and none to be for a ghastly and unimaginable thirty or more hours. As far as Sunday liquor sales went, Colorado—a long-ass way from his bible belt homeland—had turned out to be no better than South Carolina.

A crock.

Terror. At not having another drink. At not knowing why he was still here. Or why he’d come in the first place, years ago. It’d been ‘away,’ he supposed. Him and Prudy, on the lam.

Prudy. Now it was only him.

Better this way.

#

Back at the apartment complex—cracked stucco, ugly ochre paint job now faded to a xanthous, dull cast, the units boxy and crude and functional and cheap, especially when compared to the newer nicer condos farther up the hillside, which were the absolute jewel of Commerce City—Devin, climbing two flights of exterior wrought-iron stairs with a pair of reluctant stumblebum legs that threatened to give out by the first landing. But trudging upward.

Inside, he squinted out a grimy window at his most decent view of the night-lit Denver skyline to the east, and he remembered, yea, oh, did he remember how he’d found his way here: A good spot, this, a prime vantage point from which to debate the conundrums and vagaries of existence; the skyscrapers, Devin thinking, like his own accusatory fingers pointed ever upwards into the violet void. The flatlands beyond suggesting infinitude and mystery; all very symbolic.

He might have been an English major, once, if memory served. Which it didn’t.

It had better not, anyway.

Devin, flipping on the light in the wrecked and disastrous kitchen, liquor bottles and beer cans stacked and gathered in slick black yard-trash bags. Devin, diverting his eyes from the plastic mat upon which his dearest Prudy had eaten her food; her water dish sat in its spot outside the kitchen, never moved since the time of her passing.

Time.

Time passing, yes, but wounds yet to heal: The sight of the dish, to be avoided.

But the disposal of said cat’s food dish not possible, the thought of doing so causing Devin’s thin breath to vanish with a wheeze, and a wellspring of revulsion to gurgle up from his wasted gullet like landfill methane. Screaming through his teeth. Not crying anymore, no matter what. These days he’d been getting so drunk he’d pass out before getting to the crying phase. These days had turned into years, when he allowed himself to admit this horrid truth.

Years. Only a couple since the cat died. Near as he could reckon.

Devin, desperate, snatching up bottles from the glass forest that stood upon the counters. He managed to forage backwash out of four or five, dribbling each remnant into a tumbler until managing a finger or so of diluted, variety alcohols and fermenting saliva. A decent hint of a smidgen of a taste of whiskey to splash back into his parched throat.

Drinking, slurping. Bemoaning the now empty glass.

Trembling.

The dusty food dish.

Prudy.

A long night ahead, now, lying on his rank mattress, wishing he’d gotten to That Place: drunk enough to get the spins, and finally unconsciousness. But instead, nowhere close to passing out, what he lived for.

Devin, preparing to sweat it out. Maybe he’d go ahead and detox. Had to happen one day.

Didn’t it?

Maybe he’d grown fairy wings and flutter around like a big, drunken redneck butterfly, too.

Devin, knowing that none of his choices sat well, lay twitching and nauseated in his sour bed for who knew how long. Then, he sprang up on his skinny chicken legs, pulled clothes back onto his wasted, bony frame, and went out driving around and searching for a bar, any bar, that might still open. Carefully. Driving real carefully. No way was he going to be responsible for getting anyone killed. Not unless it was himself. Which wouldn’t be an accident at all. Now would it.


Ready to meet Devin’s co-protagonist? Click here to continue with Chapter 2.

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About dmac

James D. McCallister is a South Carolina author of novels, short stories, and creative nonfiction. His latest novel Let the Glory Pass Away releases in January 2017.

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